New York City-born, Croatia-raised vocalist Thana Alexa is formidable. In addition to being a wonderful singer, with flawless intonation and improvisational skills on par with the finest jazz instrumentalists, she’s a highly accomplished composer and arranger. Her debut album, Ode to Heroes, was released on Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village in 2014, and jazz great Joe Locke had this to say: “Technically superior, artistically engaged and emotionally awake, [Thana] shows us that she has the ability to connect head and heart. The results are a gift to us all.”
Thana’s had an extremely busy touring schedule in recent months, performing with her band and in collaboration with her husband, Grammy-winning drummer Antonio Sanchez. She graciously shared her perspective and insights for my ongoing “Spotlight On…” series here at Ad Alta Voce. Thank you, Thana!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Music has been a huge part of my life ever since I picked up the violin at four years old. My mother always loved classical music and my father loved jazz, blues, soul and funk. I grew up listening to everything from Mozart to Bob Marley to Earth Wind & Fire to Louis Armstrong to Pat Metheny. Although my parents were very supportive of my violin playing and singing, I never saw music as a career option, since everyone in my family always had “real jobs.”
When I started college, I decided to major in psychology and minor in music, still thinking that music would always be a prominent hobby in my life. After a year of college, where I began contemplating my future, I realized that there was a huge emotional and spiritual hole in my life—almost as if I wasn’t being honest with myself. It became very clear to me that music WAS the only option that would fulfill me and ensure my happiness a human being. I would say that entertaining the thought of NOT doing what I truly loved in life motivated me more than anything [else] to pursue music.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
As with most singers, I think that listening and using my ears has come very naturally to me. Because singers are not usually taught in the same way that instrumentalists are, we are forced to rely on our ears a lot. That has opened the door to lots of things for me that I’ve worked hard to master, like sight reading, learning parts very fast, memorizing, being able to harmonize and hear interesting things within a chord, etc.
Because of the fact that I love to solo, I’ve had to teach myself how to learn like an instrumentalist and apply it to my voice. In doing so, I’ve found that experiencing the power of silence and space in soloing is extremely difficult. Silence is terrifying, but it’s within the space you leave that sometimes the most beautiful music is born.
How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
The repertoire I sing varies depending on the gig I’m doing. If I’m performing with my band, then I sing my own original music. If I’m performing for an event that requires me to sing standards, then I choose the standards that speak to me, make me feel good, and make me believe in what I’m singing.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Because I got a degree in psychology and put a lot of emphasis on the study of music and psychology, I would probably do some form of music or creative therapy to help people with physical illnesses, mental disorders, etc.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you make a mistake…MEAN IT!” (Bernard Purdie)
I have a weird snort/cough thing that I do to get rid of phlegm during recording sessions and before gigs. Gross! [Ed. note: I’m pretty sure every single singer reading this can relate to this one!]