AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
How do you approach standards in the American songbook to make them unique to your singing style?
So many of the songs in the Great American Songbook have been done by instrumentalists so much that I believe the lyrics have, in many cases, gotten overlooked or taken for granted. Many singers will approach a tune in the same style and tempo as an instrumentalist, without giving any consideration to the lyrics or what the story is. So, first and foremost, I approach a song by asking myself what the lyricist might have been thinking about when they wrote the lyrics? Are the lyrics sincere or tongue-in-cheek and playful? Are they wry, bitter, wistful, heartbroken, stoic…? What is the story of the song? What is the story behind the song? And, finally, if I took away the music and just looked at the lyrics, which lines or phrases jump out at me the most? Which word carries the most emotional punch in each line? And which line carries the emotional punch of the entire song? This often informs me how to approach the song. I also allow my musical sensibility (shaped over the decades by listening to and singing almost every genre of music) free rein and trust it implicitly.
When you were last in Pittsburgh you did a project with Imani Winds on Josephine Baker. Do you have similar collaborations in the works?
For the most part, collaborations are not second-nature to me. I’m so focused on my way of hearing, visualizing and doing things that it is very hard for me to share my ideas with others, with the understanding that they may be able to veto them! lol! I have done a show called Two Skirts and A Shirt, where I asked two other singers to join me (Allan Harris and Carla Cook). But I wrote and arranged all the music, suggested the between-song banter, etc! I was open to some suggestions, but I definitely knew what I wanted to do.
HOWEVER...when someone wants to hire me to do one of their shows, I LOVE THAT because the onus of trying to make it perfect is off my shoulders, girl. All that’s necessary is for me to sing what I am told, when I am told, and how I am told – and I can do that all day, every day, no problem! Having said the foregoing, there are a couple of projects that have been brewing in the back of mind for a couple of years that I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into them in the near future – without collaborating! J
When/what was the genesis for SLAM and has it met your expectations?
Wow. Funny you should ask that because I have been second guessing my whole approach to SLAM workshops. The genesis came about from so many singers approaching me after a gig and asking the same question: “How are you able to sing so freely without seeming self-conscious or nervous? You just seem to let it all out, not holding anything back!” I’d follow up these comments by asking them questions of my own, the main one of which was, “What’s keeping you from singing the way you say you want to sing?” That’s when I discovered how many *issues* singers have! Good Grief!! It’s appalling how so many emotional things can get in a singer’s way of singing with joy. But I guess that’s to be expected when one’s entire body is one’s instrument! So I started writing these essays about each one of those issues and giving my take on it, and referring to it when asked to do a Master Class. Since I’ve had no formal training in voice or technique, I’ve never felt truly qualified to do these workshops – I don’t know enough to tell a singer why their vocal technique needs improvement. For myself, my own instinct seems to take over and naturally teach me what’s working and what’s not.
What does your dream recording project look like?
All of my recording experiences have been shaped by how much money and time can be spent on the project. In my head, I may have written a song that I believe requires an orchestra, or several different drummers/percussionists or a choir…or Bonnie Raitt playing and singing. But having limited funds prohibits pursuing this dream. I mean, I’ve read of really famous pop stars spending MONTHS recording a project! Which is just unbelievable and inconceivable from my perspective and experience. It’s always been that we have 3-4 days – at the most! – to record the project.
So…my dream recording project would be where money and time were no object; where I could get the best production, the best sound and take as long as I like in getting everything just so…with Bonnie Raitt.