At age 6 in small-town Columbia, La., A.J. Haynes learned her first important life lesson through music, which she immediately took to heart: “Don’t shun the spotlight, bask in it,” her late mother, a former professional singer in Japan, instructed her when she was assigned challenging choir solos in the local Baptist church.
There was no balking. “She’d say, ‘You’re going to do this,’ and you’d do it,” says Haynes, a gale-force belter of black and Filipino ancestry who appears with her soulful Shreveport combo Seratones in The City this week, backing the new sophomore album “Power.”
The wisdom just kept on coming.
Around the same time, Haynes’ grandmother expanded on that education away from the chapel. Haynes says, “My grandma would give me $5 to sing at family functions or any outside gatherings of people. I’d be off playing, but she’d yell, ‘A.J.! Come up here and sing to the people!’ But she taught me that it’s an exchange, and that I should never sing for free. And even at church, make sure you at least get a good meal out of it.”
Haynes wanted to pass on such pivotal knowledge. So she wound up becoming a teacher herself, settling in to oversee a high school American Literature class — by all accounts, one of the most fun on campus for its year and a half duration. She didn’t hide the fact that she was putting a band together. She included music inside what she saw as a staid curriculum: “I’d take a Puritanical story like ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and pair it with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy For the Devil,’” she says. “The next day, the kids were all walking around, going ‘whoo-ooo’ like Mick Jagger. And I thought, ‘I don’t care what else happens. I f——- won one today.’”
While she and her bandmates are a diverse crew — they look like they could be workers who punch clocks at day jobs and assemble nightly in bars to play the punk-infused R&B that they’ve always loved — they have upped their game on “Power.” On the new recording, they toy with other genres, even retro New Wave, under the crafty production of Cage the Elephant guitarist Bradley Shultz.
Yet only Haynes’ face is on the cover of the CD. Haynes, a guitarist who also performs solo, is currently writing an essay on the meaning of soul.
She says, “Just because you can sing well doesn’t mean you have it. It’s based on history, paying homage to that, and the amount of commitment you bring. And I’ll take an artist like Julie London any day.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $13 to $15
Contact: (415) 375-3370, www.eventbrite.com