One of my very first musical purchases was a copy (on vinyl, no less!) of the Manhattan Transfer’s eponymous debut album. I was a teenager in the wilds of Wasilla, Alaska then, and a fledgling singer. When the Manhattan Transfer came to Anchorage to do a concert, I was front and center, astonished that so much music—so much joy—could come from four voices.
Post-recording session, 2007. (L to R: Yaron Gershovsky, Kevin Osborne, Lincoln Briney, Laurel Massé, me, Janis Siegel)
So you see, I’d been a big fan of Janis Siegel’s for quite some time when my phone rang one afternoon in 2007. It was Janis herself (!) calling to hire me for a recording project (!!). If I had to choose the exact moment in which I felt I’d really and truly arrived in New York City, it would be when I received that phone call.
Since then, I’ve gotten to know Janis as a person as well as a musician, and I’ve become an even bigger fan of hers. In addition to being a Grammy-winning vocalist and arranger, she’s an incredible cook, a great writer, and a very generous human being.
Thank you, Janis, for your kindness and inspiration.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My early inspirations were Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Motown music and Laura Nyro. Music gave me the most joy, expression, and connection. I naturally gravitated towards singing, writing, playing my guitar and traveling, whereas the academic life I was expected to pursue did not hold the same passion. I left nursing school/college at age 18 to pursue my muse.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Singing harmony has been the most natural thing for me. I’ve been doing it since I’m a girl, without any training. My challenges have been sight reading, writing counterpoint, learning to sing less, and learning how to protect my voice from the rigors of the road, aging, and illness.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I would be an emergency room nurse or a surgical nurse. I have always been fascinated with medicine and originally went to school to pursue a career in nursing. I think I would enjoy and thrive on the challenges presented in these kind of traumatic/react-in-the-moment situations. Ultimately, I enjoy healing.
Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Fred Hersch – piano, Boris Koslov – bass, Steve Gadd – drums, Nguyen Le – guitar, Romero Lubambo – guitar, Tivon Pennicott – tenor sax, Luisito Quintero – percussion
My dream band of the past: Art Tatum – piano, Ray Brown – bass, Gene Krupa – drums, Cannonball Adderley – alto sax, Michael Brecker – soprano and tenor sax, Clifford Brown – trumpet
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Food breeds loyalty.
What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
During the past two years I’ve been learning some songs in different languages…Spanish, Greek, French and currently, Portuguese. I also am obsessed with different kinds of rhythmic structures from different musical cultures. Right now in steady rotation: Nando Lauria, Sara Tavares, Monika Borzym, Robert Glasper, Janelle Monae, Santi Ibarretxe, Taylor Eigsti, Snarky Puppy, Bach…
One or all of these are true:
1. I have a morbid fascination with skin diseases.
2. I used to collect sea shells and dreamed of being a marine biologist.
3. My great uncle Chick was a Catskill comedian and my grandmother was a hat model who spoke Italian.
4. I once stayed several days at the Hell’s Angels car graveyard retreat in Reseda, California with the vice president of the Oakland Angels, Mexican Eddie.
Janis has some upcoming summer shows with the Manhattan Transfer, following her recent solo tour of the Philippines and Australia, which garnered rave reviews. You can keep up with Janis’ solo performance schedule on her website or visit the Manhattan Transfer website for their tour dates.