By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published May 16, 2022 at 12:01 PM

Black Is Beautiful is a series of interviews with interesting, intelligent and immersed-in-their-passion local African American women.

Recently, Chauntee Ross relocated to Nashville after living in Milwaukee for her entire life. She and her sister, Monique, are taking their unique blend of strings and voices to the next level with their band SistaStrings.

After performing around the world – including an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" – SistaStrings is currently preparing to tour with Brandi Carlile this summer, which includes a stop at Fiserv Forum on Aug. 5.

OnMilwaukee got to chat with Ross about the important stuff in life: family and music.

OnMilwaukee: Were you born and raised in Milwaukee?

Chanutee Ross: Yes! I was born and raised on the North Side of Milwaukee. 53218 stand up!

Where did you go to school?

I was homeschooled until the seventh grade and then I went to a small private school, Heritage Christian. My favorite part of my education coming up was definitely spending every Saturday at UWM’s music school. My music school, String Academy of Wisconsin, was housed on campus.

I was there until I was 17 studying with the amazing Katie Brooks until I began studying with Almita Vamos in Chicago at The Academy at Music Institute of Chicago. 

When did you get your first violin?

I got my first violin when I was three years old. I remember it was Christmastime and there were tons of kids and presents. We had some cousins living with us at the time, I believe. Getting my violin is one of my earliest memories. I can never forget the excitement I felt that Christmas morning when I touched that tiny violin!

Did you play any other instruments as a kid?

I went through phases where I wanted to learn new instruments. My memory is vague here but I believe I played flute for the State Federation. If you scored “superior” four years in I row you got a trophy and I wanted that trophy. It’s currently sitting in my Nashville studio.

Let's see ... I also played drums throughout middle school and some of high school. But really I’m a string player at heart. I’m a violinist but I also play viola. I picked up viola one summer in middle school because I got a call that I would get a full scholarship if I played viola instead of violin. I remember taking my older sister Rickena’s viola and playing it and falling in love with the deep richness of the sound. I spent a lot of time in college playing viola in chamber groups and I teach it as well. In fact, I just did a session where I stacked two violin parts and a viola part. I love my shoulder strings!

Did you grow up in a musical family?

I’ve always been surrounded by music. My Dad used to have a singing group with his brothers back in the '60s and my maternal grandmother was an opera singer and organ player. Family gatherings consisted of the most fun choir practices you could ever think of. Pretty much it was music for me from the start.

I grew up playing in a string quartet with my three older sisters. Monique is two years older than myself and then there’s my sister Sharice who played violin and our oldest sister Rickena who played viola. We called ourselves “Sisters of PraiZe.” We played some pretty cool gigs. I remember a lot of nursing homes and even juvenile detention centers we would go and play. We even got to open for gospel legend Fred Hammond when he came to Milwaukee. Our mom managed us and I learned a lot! Our quartet kept dwindling down as my sisters went off to college and started families until it was just Monique and me. We didn’t officially start SistaStrings until we both were back in Milwaukee after college and discovered the amazing local music scene Milwaukee has. 

What's it like being in a band with your sister?

Being in a band with my sister is great. She’s my best friend and we’ve done most things together since we were children. I’m spoiled, I get to do what I love with one of the closest people to me. We have our moments – don’t get me wrong – but there’s nothing like knowing you can always trust your business partner. We can never break up!

Is Milwaukee a good place for local musicians?

Any place is a “good place” to be a musician. I don’t really like this question if I’m being honest. Is Milwaukee a place with amazing community support? Are there plenty of performance opportunities for artists? Is Milwaukee a place musicians can hone their craft and find their sound? Is Milwaukee a place to collaborate with other artists? The answer to these questions is yes.

However I feel like there isn’t much industry in Milwaukee which is why a lot of artists leave at a certain point. For me, I wanted to be closer to my parents who moved from the childhood home I was raised in 2019. I also wanted to make a huge change after the shut down was over. The beauty about that incredibly difficult time was I had to completely rely on myself and my community. I taught virtual lessons, did virtual concerts, made educational videos and the list goes on. Milwaukee made me who I am today.

What is something you don't like about Milwaukee?

It’s the gun violence for me. I lost my brother-in-law to gun violence a few years ago. My sister’s husband and my nephew's father. I lost a friend and one of the most supportive, joyful ladies I know a few months ago at a spot I’ve frequented many times as a Milwaukee resident. I’ve seen first hand the devastation and loss; how a life with so much potential can be snatched away in the name of stupidity. It’s not OK and I would love to see our community step up and protect each other. I don’t know what the solution to this is but there’s a heaviness I can’t shake about this. We have to do better. 

Currently, you are doing session work in Nashville. How is that going?

I’m learning so much in this season. I’m really proud of all of the session work I’ve been doing outside of SistaStrings. Being part of a string community is something that didn’t happen for me in Milwaukee. Nashville has a super unique situation where musicians are super supportive, amazing at their jobs and just really good people. I’m really proud of my village and how quickly I’m learning to be a solid session player. It’s so important as an independent artist to be versatile so adding this skill to my bag of tricks is awesome.

Also, as I'm writing this, I'm in the airport headed to Toronto to play the Juno Awards with my big sister Allison Russell! I'm proud of the women I’m surrounded by. I just spent a week working with all women musicians and artists at a woman-owned studio (shout out MOXE) and a woman engineer, Ebonie Smith.

We’re collaborating and creating some of the most moving art I’ve ever been a part of and it’s so organic and original. SistaStrings got in the studio and we’ve started the long process of making an album and even the rough drafts have us more excited than ever to get these songs out into the world.

What's happening in the near future?

Everything! SistaStrings is touring with Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell this summer! We’re playing bucket list venues and I’m so excited for it all.

During all of the travels, we are still writing and recording our own project and collaborating with various artists as we love to do. The sky is the limit to where we’re going next.

Anything else you'd like to say?

Just know that I love and miss y’all and Milwaukee will always be home. Support your local artists! And for my fellow Milwaukee artists: TOUR! We may not have the industry here, but we can make the city of Milwaukee ring in everyone’s ears so they have to take us seriously. Make connections, leave home and come back stronger.

And finally, SistaStrings will be back in Milwaukee August 5 playing with Brandi Carlile at the Fiserv Forum. We may or may not be playing a SistaStrings set earlier that week as well. Keep your eyes open.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.