Spotlight On…Emily Braden

Emily Braden sounds like herself when she sings, and no one else. Her improvisations are freewheeling and exuberant. Her interpretations of jazz standards and original songs (whether self-penned or entrusted to her by another composer) are laced with R&B inflections and joyfully suffused with her irresistible sense of groove. Emily is apt to juxtapose a Gershwin tune with a hit by Whitney Houston and throw in a whistle solo for good measure, and because all of those things are authentically Emily, they’ll all add up to happy-making, expertly rendered music.

I became aware of Emily Braden’s singing in recent years because, well, her name comes up a lot on the scene. She’s hugely in demand here in New York City, from her performances with Misha Piatigorsky’s Sketchy Orkestra to her late-night collaborations at SMOKE to (my personal favorite) Double Bass Double Voice, an unusual trio project comprising Emily, fellow vocalist Nancy Harms, and bassist Steve Whipple. Emily is a busy woman. She’s also a kindhearted, warm soul, and I am grateful to her for sharing her insights here on my blog. Thank you, Emily!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
I’ll be disciplined here despite my mind saying “But what about — and  — and —?!”  

Like many singers, I will always return to the sheer joy, vocal mastery, and excellence that is Ella Fitzgerald. Before I ever thought to be a professional singer myself, I emulated her every inflection, attempted each line and memorized entire solos within the walls of my bedroom. It was through Ella’s music that I first found my own voice.

In addition to her artistry, I have profound respect for her as a large black woman artist who lived in a racist, sexist, size-ist society and still managed to create some of the most stunning art known to humankind. She embodied delight and had such a pure connection to the creative source. As a young fat white girl myself who did not “fit” easily in a culture obsessed with thinness and Eurocentric “beauty” standards, I gained a sense of my own worth and empowerment through experiencing Ella’s undeniable talent in videos and recordings early on. Seeing her onstage allowed me to picture myself there, as well. I still use her as an example and a reminder when I feel discouraged. To this day, her laughter is one of my very favorite sounds.

Top contenders: Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae. How can one choose?!

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Does attempting to sing while playing beginner-level guitar count?! That’s what I’ve really been up to lately. It’s forcing me to focus on the fundamentals once again—namely rhythm, phrasing and intonation. I’m blown away by how practicing a new instrument is taking my understanding of the music to a whole new level.

Quite honestly, I am just beginning to prioritize practicing again. For the past eight years living here in New York, my focus has primarily been on staying afloat financially and making a name for myself by performing as often as possible. A lot of my training (and practicing) has happened while on stage. I’m now just shy of the two-year mark of quitting my job and am returning to fundamentals. The priority is always shifting––something from a voice lesson here, a folder of new exercises there. [Last] summer, a piano player I was working with in Bangkok gave me a bunch of altered scales to practice to add another layer of color and depth to my solos. That’s been very useful to me.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Mostly I would offer my support and encourage the younger me to simply create, create, create. Live fearlessly. Be kind to people, regardless of who they are and whether or not you perceive that they can do anything for you. If you come up against a barrier or a block, do your best to understand where it’s really coming from and push back up against it.

I would also try to impart that singing is about so much more than just singing.  Making music equal parts self-discovery and service to others. You learn so much about yourself and the world through through music.

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
Still working on that one for sure! I can’t say I’m completely successful at this but I try to make time for things that are not music-related in order to avoid burnout. I try to respect my need for downtime. When I do relax, I relax intensely and remind myself that doing so will allow me to work more effectively when I throw myself back into the current.

Having a side gig for [my] first seven years in NYC while performing regularly was a great exercise in time management, structuring a day, and self-discipline. I learned so much about the importance of staying organized, returning emails and phone calls, working efficiently. Having a small window to get it all done during those years made me value the time I have now.

Fun fact:
I have a Masters degree in Latin America Studies and speak fluent Spanish (surprising NYC cabbies since 2007)!  I  can speak (and sing!) with my mouth closed and I whistle like a mutha’. I love to whistle. Solos and fancy tricks and everything!

Emily’s been singing on the other side of the world, performing nightly for audiences in Bangkok, but she’s back in town for a handful of great shows in the next couple of weeks, including an early set at 55 bar on October 5. Head over there to welcome Emily back to New York City, and let yourself be delighted by her singing.

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