It's easily one of the standouts of the Auckland Arts Festival. Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo, Annie Crummer and Esther Stephens singing the songs of Aretha Franklin accompanied by the swinging styles of the Auckland Jazz Orchestra.

Hot damn.

But, the one person most excited to see Respect is actually performing it.

""I'm about as excited to see the show as I am to be in the show," Stephens says, her enthusiasm obvious and genuine. "Because of how phenomenal Bella, Aaradhna and Annie are. I personally cannot wait to see what they do with that material. It's certainly going to be a powerful evening of singing that's for sure."


When we speak the group rehearsals hadn't yet begun, although everyone had been preparing and working on their solo efforts.

One of the neat things about the show, Stephens says, is that as well as the classic Aretha tunes, each vocalist will also perform a couple of songs from their own repertoire.
"It allows us to bring a little bit of ourselves to the evening," she says.

Stephens' own journey with Franklin began when she was 19 and studying at Jazz school. After friends found out she was a singer they asked if she'd be interested in joining their Motown and soul band, Motor City Family Funk.

"I got involved with that and started performing all this Motown material and really enjoyed learning all of those songs from that era."

Those songs. Stone cold classics all. I Say a Little Prayer, Think, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Son of a Preacher Man and, of course, Respect.

Taking on Franklin's catalogue is a big ask, a daunting challenge. She wasn't known as the Queen of Soul for nothing. But, I say, no pressure...

"Just a little bit!" she laughs.

"Aretha is one of the greatest vocalists we've ever seen. She has an absolutely incomparable range and her energy and her passion... it's really exciting to be able to pay tribute to that and an exciting opportunity to put a fresh spin on some classic tunes."


This is what she's most excited about. Taking those iconic songs and interpreting them and channelling them through her own stories and experience to put her own stamp on them.

'It's not an Aretha covers act, we're not going to be dressing up like her or trying to be her. It's really paying tribute to her in our own unique way," she says. "That also really helps take the pressure off."

Who: Esther Stephens
What: Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo, Annie Crummer and Esther Stephens interpret the great Aretha Franklin songbook in Respect strong>When: Wed, Thurs, Friday, 22-25 March