Spotlight On…Andrea Wolper

Vocalist Andrea Wolper is a fellow Brooklynite. We met through mutual singer friends a couple of years ago, and I was immediately drawn to her warmth and keen intelligence; she and I spent a lovely afternoon last spring walking and talking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In addition to her singing and teaching, Andrea is also a curator, activist, journalist and poet, a fearless improviser, the past president of International Women in Jazz, and a black belt in Shotokan Karate. All this to say, I have no idea how she found the time to do this interview for my little corner of the internet, but I sure am glad she did!

Andrea’s thoughtful responses to these Spotlight On… questions hold a lot of wisdom, as well as evidence that she and I both love the Oxford comma. In particular, I find her remarks about building on one’s strengths and making peace with one’s limitations very timely and powerful.

Thank you so much, Andrea (and I’ll join you in a stationery store any time)!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
It started with my mom, who had been a semi-professional singer before she got married. I have a picture by my desk of us singing “Sonny Boy” together when I was about five, and I was always singing, making up songs, putting on little shows. Skipping ahead a few years, I started as an actor, took an overlapping side road as a freelance writer/author, and eventually added music back into my life just because I really missed singing. I didn’t have a plan at that point; I didn’t know that music would become my primary professional focus. I just wanted to sing. So I took some steps and found myself on a path, and at some point I realized it felt like MY path.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Just singing is what came most naturally. Learning what to do with that, and always trying to be braver, freer, more honestly myself is a lifelong process that’s challenging and exhilarating. Learning music theory as an adult (who didn’t go to music school) certainly has been challenging. Identifying and building on my strengths and making peace with my limitations has been a challenge, but that balance shifts over time. And even after all these years I find the business aspects of being a professional musician extremely, sometimes excruciatingly, difficult.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I often have a strong yes or no reaction to songs. But I’ve learned to keep an open mind because there are two songs in my repertoire that I reflexively, vehemently rejected when they were suggested to me. They’re actually great songs; I just had to find my way into them, and when I did, they ended up being favorites. I always want to feel an emotional connection to a song, to bring something genuine and personal to it. And I want songs to make sense in the context of what I’m doing. I’m also a songwriter, and a couple of my own aren’t good fits for me, even though they’re decent songs; and some feel right for certain gigs, but not for others. I’m lucky that I get some sideman work, and singing music written or chosen by other people is a whole other thing. Or is it?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
There’s a Cole Porter song, “Which?” that touches me. It goes, “Which is the right life, The simple or the night life?…Should I read Euripides or continue with The Graphic? Hear the murmur of the breeze or the roaring of the traffic?” I want to experience everything.

I’m like a kid who says, “I want to be an astronaut, a teacher, and a movie star,” only I’ll say a doctor, an investigative journalist, and a dancer, and a human rights lawyer, and a shop owner…and a movie star!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Just keep working.” I moved to New York to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse. One day I went to ballet class in tears over some silly drama. The teacher, Mrs. Cole, floated by me and very quietly said those three words. They may not sound like much, but they held a world of meaning. I shifted my focus away from how upset I was and onto pliés, and everything changed. It was a powerful moment.

When I started out doing gigs, I used to worry when someone in the audience asked me to do a song I didn’t know, or told me I reminded them of a singer I didn’t relate to. The guitarist Michael Howell told me it wasn’t so much about that song or that singer: “They like you, and they’re trying to connect with you.” Again, simple words of wisdom that helped me a lot. Oh, he also told me, “When you’re writing your charts, make the chord symbols big enough that the musicians can see them.” That was some good advice!

Fun fact:
I get excited in stationery stores. I earned a black belt in Shotokan Karate. And I am very serious about coffee.

Andrea is performing a concert dedicated to her late mentor, pianist/improviser/teacher Connie Crothers, at the Renee Weiler Concert Hall (Greenwich Music House) on Saturday, June 3 at 7:15pm. There is no cover and it promises to be a beautiful and moving evening of music. Don’t miss it–more details can be found HERE.