Spotlight On…Roseanna Vitro

Photo credit: Devon Cass

I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Roseanna Vitro in person a couple of times, but I’ve been aware of her as a singer, writer, and teacher for a long time. A Grammy-nominated vocalist, Roseanna has performed and taught all over the world. Her projects are ambitious and eclectic: among her many endeavors are tributes to her Southern roots (she hails from Arkansas and began singing jazz in Texas), as well as the songbooks of Clare Fisher, Randy Newman, Ray Charles and Charlie Parker.

I’m moved by the openness and generosity of Roseanna’s answers to the Spotlight On… questions. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from this interview. Thank you, Roseanna!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I knew I would be a singer since the age of four. My mother, Ruby Mae, is ninety years young and still singing. Her sisters and brothers were all gospel singers. My mother is my inspiration. I sing about everything; it’s in my DNA. Music comforts my soul.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
It was always natural to sing in every possible situation and style of music. When I was young I sang in school programs, competitions, madrigal groups, classical All-State choirs in German, Italian, Latin, and French, theater repertoire, southern gospel and rock ‘n’ roll bands, and folk music. I was solid in my direction. The challenges were “looking the part” and discipline combined with focus. My wild and passionate personality did not lend itself to sitting in a practice room alone with my metronome and scales.

Photo credit: Paul Wickliffe

It has been most challenging to understand I must practice a vocalese solo, like “Moody’s Mood for Love,” much longer than some other singers who are blessed with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. I wanted to conquer every style and sing it as well as the masters. But as you grow up you begin to recognize the types of songs, lyrics and melodies that flow the most naturally out of your voice. The recognition of my shortcomings has not stopped me from choosing difficult melodies plus singing with and listening to the greatest instrumentalists. I take vocal technique lessons every month in my efforts to deal with an aging voice as well.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I was always hungry to learn songs that spoke to my heart first, then intellect, and always [with] a rhythm that moved me. The songs you choose say to the world “who you are.” I learned the popular songs and repertoire I needed to become a club date/party singer in my early 20s, once I was adopted by jazz musicians in Texas.

I can feel it to my toes when I’m singing a truth. Some songs you simply have to sing; you have no choice. Songs like “So Many Stars,” “You Are There,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Certas Canções,” “Long As You’re Livin’,” “Happy Madness,” “Waltz for Debbie,” “But Beautiful.” I think of repertoire as a collection of songs that fulfill my personal mandate for happiness: A) songs that speak to your heart, B) songs that make a statement about life, C) songs that are silly and fun, D) songs with deep grooves…they just feel good.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have chosen another profession. I have discovered I can blend into a corporate atmosphere if I have to. I learned I am a good teacher for over-sensitive, talented singers who don’t fit the cookie cutter model. I love gathering vast amounts of information for singers and sharing in our community. I totally dig producing vocal projects at this stage because I love other singers. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing, “Voices in Jazz” for Jazztimes.com, interviewing famous and not famous singers. It’s always about singing and enjoying your life, helping others, and my best gig is being a mother. But, there isn’t another profession for me.

Photo credit: Janis Wilkins

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I’ve received much advice in my long career. I’ve made major mistakes which cause me to wince even now. I think the most important advice I needed to digest and still work on is keeping my mouth closed when I’m nervous or anxious. Just sing, don’t talk.

Fun fact:
This isn’t actually a fun fact. I think the “nervous” factor is a quirk. I guess being “silly” would be my fun quirk in response to nerves. It’s taken me years of looking back to understand how fear or deep feelings like: “I’m good, I know I have something special to offer” versus “I’ll never be good enough” affect your mistakes.

The wisdom is: Music is a business, and business has no feelings. It’s just business. Enjoy your music, don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t let your success rely on the big power brokers in our business. If you’re happy, you are a success.

Roseanna will be performing at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, NY on August 5. For those of us in NYC, mark your calendars for August 12, when she’s bringing “Bossas and Ballads on a Summer Night” to Jazz at Kitano!

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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.

Spotlight On…Gabrielle Stravelli

dsc_7444Warm. Witty. Expressive. Open. Wise. You could apply any—or all—of those adjectives to Gabrielle Stravelli, and you’d be right. She is a good time gal with a whip-smart intellect and a big heart. Gabrielle sings with an effortlessness that belies her musical precision and finely honed vocal technique.

In short, I’m a fan.

I was delighted when she asked me to be a guest on her podcast, Big Modern Music, last year. We had a blast getting to know each other and talking at length about repertoire, song interpretation, and making one’s way as an artist in New York City (you can listen to the full episode HERE).

When she’s not hosting her podcast or traveling throughout the world on US State Department tours for American Music Abroad, Gabrielle is making beautiful music. And Tuesday night, December 13, she’ll be taking the stage at SubCulture to celebrate the release of her new album, Dream Ago. (Rumor has it that DUCHESS will be joining her for a tune!)

To tide you over until then, here’s Gabrielle’s delightful interview for the Spotlight On… series. Thank you, Gabrielle!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have to give my parents credit for encouraging me to pursue a life in music—despite the fact they are not musicians, nor is there a single musician in my family besides me! I have loved singing and music as long as I can remember, and I was fortunate that they recognized and supported that. My parents were real music lovers and played a lot of music from many different genres in the house growing up. I think that was a big influence on my musical taste; I’m pretty adventurous and don’t really consider any kind of music “off-limits” for exploration.

gabrielle047In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
What a great question! I think I’ve always felt comfortable being “fluid” in performance, by which I mean that I never mind if things are played a bit differently or if a player wants to do something spontaneous. I’ve never needed things to be the same each time; even when I was a kid I liked to roll with changes and react to the music in the moment.

The most challenging thing for me has been developing confidence on stage. I’m not shy but I am quite private and being on stage felt so vulnerable for such a long time—in my early days I think I would try to hide while I was on stage, which just doesn’t work. I had to learn to give myself permission to “take [the] stage” and to be comfortable projecting that feeling of “I believe in what I’m doing and you should, too!”

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I’m always asking musicians for song suggestions and I’m so grateful when someone really gives me something out of left field. I also worked in a record store for several years, which opened me up to so much stuff I might never have discovered. Like so many singers, the lyric is probably the biggest factor. You can reharmonize a simple song, but it’s pretty hard to take a song with a vapid lyric and make it work. However, if I really like a song and it’s super short or there’s not too much meat to it, I’ve gotten comfortable writing extra lyrics so that there’s a little more to the song.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I’d love to say that I’d go into engineering or quantum physics, but the truth is that if I didn’t sing, I’d do something in fashion. I love color and pattern and I have always loved clothes—in high school I was the weirdo wearing vintage sailor outfits or items that I would find at a thrift store and deconstruct. I really do believe that clothing is always costume and that what people choose to wear is such a powerful statement of how they want the world to see them.

10959981_919499088083616_9101897692445801490_oWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
“Compare and despair.” Someone I know is a career/life coach and this little tidbit really stuck with me. There’s an element of competition in what we do—that’s unavoidable—but I think that in some ways, social media has exacerbated the issue of being able to look at every aspect of someone else’s career or life and say, “Why isn’t that meeeeee?!” And you’ve really got to remember that comparing never leads anywhere good and it’s also pointless. The truth is you can’t be that person. And they also can’t be you. There’s room for everyone.

Fun fact:
I played french horn for years as a kid. #bandgeek
I’m also really an early bird. I’ve forced myself onto the vampire/musician schedule of late nights out of necessity, but I actually love to get up in the morning and enjoy that time of day when I feel New York hasn’t completely woken up yet.

Gabrielle will be celebrating the release of her new CD, Dream Ago, at SubCulture on Tuesday night—tickets are available HERE. Come! A full listing of her upcoming performances can be found on her website.

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.

kat

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.