Spotlight On…Kat Edmonson

Kat Edmonson inhabits a unique musical world. She hails from Texas, has headlined Austin City Limits, and she’s performed extensively with Lyle Lovett, but you’d be wrong to pigeonhole her as a country singer. Come to think of it, you’d be wrong to pigeonhole Kat at all.

The songs she writes nimbly genre-hop, encompassing mid-century pop, bossa nova, and jazz. She’s covered Brian Wilson, the Cardigans, and the Cure, but she’s equally comfortable in the realm of jazz standards (dig her swinging “Mountain Greenery” in Woody Allen’s latest film, Café Society). In fact, the first time I heard Kat in person was with the EarRegulars at Winter Jazzfest last year. Her rendition of “The Very Thought of You” was earnestly sweet, but not cloying, thanks to her keenly intelligent interpretation. The audience, myself included, was spellbound.

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The gals of DUCHESS in the studio with Kat.

Imagine, then, my delight when Kat contacted DUCHESS to sing some backgrounds on her upcoming release for Sony Masterworks. Amy, Melissa, and I had such a great time with Kat in the studio that we invited her to be our special guest for our upcoming variety hour at Jazz Standard next week…and she accepted! So, if you haven’t done so already, get your tickets now for what promises to be a hilarious, happy, swinging night of music and laughs on Wednesday, November 30.

And, to tide you over until then, here’s Kat’s Spotlight On… interview. Thank you, Kat! See you next week!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I identified myself as a singer as early as I can remember. As a child, I would sit and watch Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on the screen and I knew that one day I would be up there with them. It never occurred to me until much later that I wouldn’t actually get to work beside them but the spirit of what they did lives on in my heart.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Writing songs has been most natural for me. I never stopped to consider what it took to write a song or the right way to write a song until I became an adult. I started as a child in a primitive way by sounding out my feelings through melody and words that seemed to ring true. It was almost as though I was pulling the music out of the air. It’s perhaps more painstaking of a process now but only because I am much more exacting in the way I write. I can’t settle for anything less than the truth. Otherwise, I have no way to gauge whether my work is good or not.

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Kat singing in Woody Allen’s “Café Society.”

I never thought I’d feel this way but accepting the sound of my voice has become the most challenging thing. I always loved my voice until fairly recently when people began to criticize it harshly in articles and reviews. After that, I began dreading hearing myself and singing in front of audiences became excruciating for me at times. It’s been a very difficult process but I am working through it and I’ve learned about myself in the process. I’ve learned how to love this voice no matter what other people think of it. My voice is my voice and I don’t need anyone’s permission to sing. And I have no choice but to sing. It’s what I’m called to do.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
Often times, I will hear a song and think, “boy, I wish I had written that” and that makes me want to sing it.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I would be an actor. Incidentally, I am currently in acting school at The William Esper Studio in Manhattan and I love it. I’m also learning how to tap dance which is some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I think screen-writing could be cool. I could also see myself being a food-writer because I love reading about food so much! When I was a kid, I wanted to be a jingle-writer but that’s not such a big profession these days. I think it would be fun to write greeting cards!

kat_edmonson_2609679bWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be yourself. I’d heard that so many different times in my life when I didn’t know what it meant. I know now. It means be yourself at all costs. Be yourself when the people who support you the most don’t understand what you are doing. Be yourself when YOU don’t even understand what you are doing. Follow that calling in your heart even if you can barely hear it amidst all the other noise and be yourself. It’s always the way to go.

Fun fact:
I have a predilection for old people and the sort things they like. I’m talking about elderly people and the kinds of activities, interests, and places that most of my peers consider boring and has-been. And nothing bores me more than trends. If I see a whole bunch of people going in one direction, my natural reaction is to go the other way, probably even in spite of myself! I just love exploring and discovering things on my own. At heart, I’m a quirky old lady and happily so.

October: Looking back, looking ahead

We are exactly three weeks away from Thanksgiving, and this year, my plans look a little different than in Novembers past: on Thanksgiving morning, I will be lacing up my running shoes and joining my friend R. in Prospect Park for a 5-mile Turkey Trot.

In early October, I began using a running app that, despite its horrible name, has been a really effective tool for gradually building speed and endurance. As an added bonus, the app comes with DJ-curated running playlists, including a whole lot of 90s hip-hop, which means I may occasionally be spotted lip-syncing to FELLOW BROOKLYNITE Biggie Smalls as I jog through Brooklyn Bridge Park.

New shoes, autumn leaves...Turkey Trot T-minus 3 weeks & counting!

New shoes, autumn leaves…Turkey Trot T-minus 3 weeks & counting!

Last month, I also had the delight and honor of performing with the great saxophonist, Harry Allen, for two sold-out nights at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center).  Talk about a dream gig: singing to a packed house with a swinging, supportive band against the panoramic backdrop of Columbus Circle and Central Park. I’m grateful for every gig I have, but those evenings with Harry at Dizzy’s were truly special.

Singing and swinging with Harry Allen & friends. Photo by Ivana Falconi Allen.

Singing and swinging with Harry Allen & friends. Photo by Ivana Falconi Allen.

Looking ahead, the DUCHESS gals and I have a couple of really exciting shows on the horizon. We’ll be at the Jazz Standard here in NYC on 11/29 and 11/30, joined by special guests Christian McBride and Kat Edmonson. We’re reviving the “variety hour” concept, inspired by Rat Pack-era shows from years ago, and we cannot wait to sing, laugh, and make merry with our friends and fans.

Finally, Tuesday, November 8 is just a handful of days away. Come on, America. Let’s appeal to what Lincoln himself called the “better angels of our nature” and not elect a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, KKK-endorsed (!) narcissistic liar to the highest office in the land.

In October, I…
Blogged about: Traveling through Italy with my mom. Singer-friend Nicky Schrire. DUCHESS turning 3.

Read: Old journals. I’ve been doing a little excavating of my past for a writing project I’ve got in mind. Good heavens, if there is anything more humbling than reading one’s own terrible poetry, penned in one’s lovelorn early 20s, I don’t know what it is. Hilarious and mortifying.

Watched: The Search for General Tso. An informative, fun, and unexpectedly moving film about searching for the origins of a quintessential Chinese-American dish. Trumbo. Bryan Cranston is fantastic as blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, although I wish they’d given the always-excellent Diane Lane, who plays Trumbo’s wife, a little more to do. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Because it’s a Halloween classic (can you believe it’s 50 years old!?).

Listened to: The Land of Desire. This well-researched, conversational podcast exploring the history of France is fun and educational. Worth a listen.

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Patriotic pumpkins, seen in Brooklyn Heights. Friends, please VOTE!!! #ImWithHer

Spotlight On…Nicky Schrire

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

Singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire completed her Masters of Music at Manhattan School of Music, which is how she came to be in New York City, and how I came to meet her. I heard Nicky sing for the first time at one of Amy Cervini’s duet nights at the 55 bar, and was charmed by “Penguin Dance,” a song the two of them co-wrote.

Nicky released her debut recording, Freedom Flight, in 2012, establishing herself as a unique presence in the ever-shifting landscape of vocal jazz. She’s recorded Bob Dylan and Beatles covers, Great American Songbook standards, and a great deal of original music, which seamlessly fuses folk, pop, and jazz sensibilities to create a sound uniquely her own.

Nicky left the Big Apple and spent some time in London before returning to Capetown, South Africa, where she currently makes her home. She and I share a birthday (August 22, along with Dorothy Parker, in case you’re curious) and a deep and abiding love of ice cream, as evidenced by her gorgeous Instagram feed. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life in music, Nicky!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve always just loved music. It sounds rather too simplified, but it’s been part of the fabric of my life since childhood. Music was played in the house, we watched musicals both live and on the television, we listened to music in the car going to and from school, we sang songs for fun. I never discussed with my parents whether or not I should study music post-high school. I’m lucky they were supportive and they felt it as natural a progression as I did.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The decision to study music, both at the undergraduate and post graduate level, didn’t really require decision. So knowing the next course of action to develop as a musician has always come naturally to me. That streak of luck lasted up until I finished graduate school. Navigating the jazz industry after school and figuring out where I fit in has been very challenging.

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Photo: Shervin Lainez

As far as musicianship goes, I’ve always had a fairly good ear and musicality so that has helped me out when learning new repertoire or absorbing new vocal techniques. It has been difficult to really figure out what I want to say, musically speaking, through songwriting, arranging, repertoire choice and stylistic choices. Jazz is a genre that is hybridising and changing as I type this. It should make it easier to feel one has carte blanche to create whatever version of “jazz” one desires, but in fact it makes it more challenging because the musicians and the audiences and the powers-that-be who curate performance opportunities aren’t all on the same page.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song? The lyrical component of a song is very important to me. If I can’t relate to the story being told, I won’t sing the song, in all likelihood. Even if I’m crazy about the melody or the harmonic content or the general atmosphere of a song, I know it will be challenging to delier the lyrics honestly so I’ll forego singing that song. I also tend to favour more obscure tunes over oft-sung songs.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I love food and small businesses that celebrate local suppliers and seasonal, local ingredients. So I’d try to be involved in a profession that aligned me with that industry. I love the sense of community in jazz and I sense that exists in the food community too, where business owners know one another and there’s a great pride in what they do.

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best piece of advice I’ve read came from Amy Poehler’s autobiography. She wrote, “Good for you. Not for me.” I love that. It helps us to acknowledge someone else’s path and then swiftly move on.

Chris Rosenberg spoke of life being a pie when I was at Manhattan School of Music. I always think of this analogy. It makes you realise that music or career are incredibly important, but they’re only one slice of the pie. Sometimes that will be the bigger slice, and at other times it’ll be smaller. This visual idea taught me to constantly question how satisfying and rich my entire “life pie” was. I found, very often, that the entire pie was career-focused and it wasn’t very satisfying because it came at the cost of family, friends, and really enjoying life.

Fun fact:
People are often surprised to learn that I was a saxophonist (tenor, soprano and baritone) for about eleven years. The saxophone introduced me to jazz and I played in big bands and did corporate gigs well into my undergraduate degree (I was as a saxophone major for the first year). I also played in the on-stage orchestra for a Cape Town production of Fosse, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. I lied about being able to double on the bass clarinet and had to both find one to rent and learn how to play it in a week or so. I don’t recommend this modus operandi to anyone! I also learnt the harp for a year while at junior school.

September: Looking back, looking ahead

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La Serenissima…

We have veered so sharply into misty, cool autumn over the past couple of days, it scarcely seems possible that, a scant two weeks ago, I was picking sun-warmed tomatoes from Domenico’s garden for an al fresco lunch in Italy. And yet…

Last month, my mother and I spent over two weeks traveling in Italy. We began with six days in Venice, then spent a week in Tuscany (Lucca, followed by Siena), before heading back up north to Merate, where I spent my foreign exchange, to visit my host families and friends.

Since I was seventeen, my mother and I have lived thousands of miles apart, so we relished the chance to walk through Italian days together, enjoying unencumbered hours in the most beautiful of places. We ate gelato and pasta, laughed ourselves silly on multiple occasions, and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the piazze, churches, and people we encountered every day.

Italy is infinite and immediate. Sleek modernity exists casually, effortlessly, beside (and often, within) centuries-old art, architecture, and traditions. By the end of our stay, I was speaking and thinking and dreaming in Italian again. When it was time to bid Italy and my beloved host families farewell, I wept, as I always do.

One afternoon, in Venice’s sun-dappled Campo Santa Margherita, I sipped an Aperol spritz and wrote the following passage in my journal:

When one is partnered–and, perhaps, especially when one is happily so—traveling to a beloved, familiar (and yet mysterious) place is the closest we ever come to falling in love again. Heady infatuation, “getting-to-know-you” growing pains, the frustrations of familiarity and rediscovery of forgotten joys…travel is not only about one’s relationship to a place, it’s about one’s relationship to oneself.

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Piazza del Campo under moody Siena skies.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about several new projects: the new Duchess CD is slated for an early 2017 release, and a recording I made with drummer Charles Ruggiero is entering post-production in the coming weeks. My dear friend and musical partner Ehud Asherie and I are also making plans to head into the studio later this fall.

And, in the meantime, autumn in New York is here! Autumnal cooking, the donning of thick sweaters, and crisp October air all make me very happy.

In September, I…
Blogged about: July & August. Loving NYC. How We Spent Our Summer Vacation (DUCHESS blog).

Read: Fodor’s travel guides, mostly. And a lot of maps. And my 21-year-old Italian/English dictionary.

Watched: The first presidential debate. Listen, I know that Hillary Clinton may not be everyone’s ideal candidate (although I am, and have long been, a Hillary supporter). But if you watched that debate and were anything less than horrified by Trump’s staggering lack of knowledge and preparation (to say nothing of his visible contempt for Hillary Clinton, moderator Lester Holt, and the American public), I can only say this to you: Donald Trump is a racist, misogynist, and narcissist. He is wildly unfit for the presidency, and his value system runs counter to every principle upon which the United States of America were founded. You can support Hillary Clinton’s campaign HERE.

Listened to: The musical lilts and cadences of the Italian language. Even in my sleep, words and phrases I thought I’d forgotten filled my dreams and found their way into my speech the next day.

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Lucca’s medieval walls at sunset.

 

I still love New York

Sometimes it seems like New York City is on its way to becoming (or, depending on whom you ask, is already) a tiny island filled with nothing but banks and Duane Reade stores. A number of my friends have recently moved west, having decided that New York is “over,” and L.A. is now the place to be.

I get it. I know that living in New York City is not for everyone. But if a hipster is somebody who loves something before it’s cool enough to capture the fancy of the general public, I suppose I, then, am the opposite. I love New York City as much today as ever, even though lots of people seem to have decided it’s not cool anymore.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be in Tuscany, on a long-anticipated vacation with my mother. When it comes time to depart Italy, I know I’ll be terribly sad to leave la dolce vita, but there will be solace in knowing that autumn in New York awaits.

Brooklyn Bridge will be filled with tourists and locals, strolling in the still-warm September sun. The greatest musicians in the world will be performing at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village every night. The leaves will be starting to turn in Central Park. And, as I walk briskly through Manhattan’s “canyons of steel,” with every footfall, my heart will beat, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.” 

I love New York, today and every day.

July and August: Looking back, looking ahead

I can’t believe we’re on the cusp of Labor Day weekend. I know that, technically, fall doesn’t begin for a few more weeks, but there’s a perceptible shift that happens once August comes to a close, when the pace of life increases and boots and sweaters start appearing in shop windows. I’m always a little sad to see summer go, but am also amazed at how much fun got packed into July and August, from swinging gigs to weekend getaways.

A few months ago, I was anticipating a fairly quiet summer, gig-wise, but the calendar filled up with some familiar and new collaborations, all of which were hugely rewarding. Duchess had one gig this summer, in which we performed three mini-sets at the Triad (we were shooting video, so we did a “girl group” tribute, a holiday show, and a salute to the Rat Pack) before bidding each other adieu for the summer. The wonderful drummer Jerome Jennings invited me to sing with his band at a swing dance in Brownsville, presented by the NYPD and Jazz at Lincoln Center in an effort to strengthen and improve relationships between the community and police force. It was a very special evening, and I felt honored to be a part of it.

I joined singer-songwriter Marcus Goldhaber for a few duets one evening at the Friars Club, and returned to my beloved Mezzrow with my equally dear Ehud Asherie, where we played some new tunes for a packed house. It’s always exciting to forge new musical friendships, and over the past couple of months, I’ve had the immense good fortune to do a number of gigs with guitarist Greg Ruggiero and pianist Michael Kanan.

Summer Gigs Collage

Summer gigs! Top photo (Mezzrow) by Jeff Evans, Duchess photo by Fran Kaufman.

Interspersed amidst all this music have been a few heavenly weekend getaways. Both the Fourth of July holiday and my birthday were spent lakeside in Connecticut, where fireworks and barbecues were enjoyed to the fullest. A quick but lovely jaunt to Philadelphia for my mother-in-law’s birthday made for an evening of delicious food and belly laughs. And my husband and I spent last weekend in Montauk, where we indulged daily in sunshine, beach time, and lobster dinners.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

A few scenes from July 4th in Connecticut.

Montauk moments.

Montauk moments.

Yes, this summer has been a dream. And the fun isn’t over! As I type, my mother is sitting in my living room, and in just a few days, we’ll be winging our way to Italy for a couple of weeks. I’m feeling the crunch of deadlines and last-minute trip preparations now, but soon we’ll be strolling the narrow alleys of Venice and eating gelato in Lucca. I cannot wait. But first…tomorrow (yes, tomorrow) will find me in the recording studio, making a new CD in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero, featuring pianist Jeremy Manasia and bassist Neal Miner. Stay tuned!

In July and August, I…
Blogged about: June. Singer-friend Vanessa Perea. Authenticity.

Read: Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau. Time travel, musicians, and true love. A fun read. Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl. I love Reichl’s memoirs and food writing, so was excited to read this novel, which turned out to be a good beach read. The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land, by Ferenc Maté. Well-written, funny, and the perfect book to read, pre-Italian holiday.

Watched: The Night Of. A gripping and incredibly well-acted HBO mini-series. I am not alone in my frustration with a central female character’s arc, but this show had me on the edge of my seat. Café Society. You know I generally love Woody Allen movies, and I was delighted to see some NYC musician friends onscreen, but I found this film uninspired. Weiner. A fascinating and infuriating documentary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Good heavens, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell! Summertime. Katherine Hepburn and romance in 1950s-era Venice! The Olympics! Mostly women’s gymnastics.

Listened to: Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, Um Interpreta e Outro. Ehud hipped me to this beautiful, pre-bossa nova recording with a pair of Brazil’s most iconic composers. Ruben Blades and Willie Colon, Siembra. Blades is seriously one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard; I cannot get enough of this record. rené marie, The Sound of Red. rené is a generous, open-hearted artist, and it’s wonderful to see her star on the rise. Check out her NPR Tiny Desk concert!

Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.

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Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.