May: Looking back, looking ahead

Ebbs and flows—of money, of employment, of time—are hallmarks of the freelance life, and I’ve loved the busy-ness of the past six months. Singing has taken me from a film set to Italy to the Caribbean to Canada, as well on short jaunts to the Midwest, South Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hamptons (and a vacation took me to Mexico for some much-needed R&R). When not on the road, I’ve been onstage or in the recording studio. Yes, 2017 has been fast-paced and action-packed thus far, and I’ve been having a great time going with the flow of busy-ness.

But…(you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) when one’s energies are directed outwardly for too long, it’s absolutely essential to replenish the well, which is exactly what I was able to do in May. Last month, I hung out with friends, ran a 5K, visited the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums, saw a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, went out to hear some great live jazz, and I even saw an opera. It feels so good to be a tourist at home, gleaning inspiration from New York’s endlessly vibrant art and culture.

Shakespeare in the Park; stopping to smell the roses at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt museum.

Of course, May hasn’t been all leisure. With the help of the nice folks over at Squarespace, I built a shiny new website, which has been on my to-do list for quite a while. And I’m currently doing a lot of preparation and outreach in anticipation of—drum roll, please—the Anzic Records release of THE LATE SET, my new album with pianist Ehud Asherie, due out in October!

The new homepage over at hilarygardner.com!

Looking ahead, I’ve got a few great gigs on the horizon (including an exciting show with Duchess for Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 28), and I’m really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a whole list of fun summer plans for the months ahead, including a Circle Line cruise, picnics in the park, beach days, beer gardens, and baseball. Summer’s here. Let’s party.

In May, I…
Blogged about: April. The Song Is You (a remembrance of Josh Wolff). Singer-friend Andrea Wolper.

Read: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. A well-written, enjoyable read about a woman who, had she been born in a different time, might have been remembered as so much more than a famous writer’s tragic wife. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’ve felt a strong inclination toward doing more writing, and this book was just the push I needed to get started.

Watched: Der Rosenkavalier, Lincoln Center HD. A big-screen version of Strauss’ gorgeous opera, with Renée Fleming in her last performance as the Marschallin. Exquisite. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Park. This production was way too heavy-handed with the Trump metaphors (we get it, a megalomaniacal narcissist is running our country and imperiling our democracy), but Corey Stoll is always fantastic.

[UPDATE: In the wake of Delta Airlines, Bank of America, and American Express pulling their support from the Public Theater, I would like to add that I support the Public Theater without hesitation or reservation. Part of what art is meant to do—indeed, perhaps its most important function of all—is to, however provocatively, interpret and portray complex issues that pertain to the here and now. For crying out loud, the whole point of Julius Caesar is that democracy is fragile and can be undone, even destroyed, by violence.]

Listened to: Double Bass Double Voice (Emily Braden, Nancy Harms, Steve Whipple). I saw this trio’s CD release show at the Zinc Bar and was completely blown away by their song selections (everything from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder to traditional spirituals to Billy Joel), inventive arrangements, playfulness, freedom, and communication.

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Always listen to the bass player, or: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Truth has a way of showing up in funny places. Some people get flashes of insight in the shower. For me, a lightning bolt of awareness struck somewhere between the best man’s toast and the fish course at a wedding gig a few years ago. I was talking to my friend Paul, the bass player. He was listening patiently to my anxieties about where–or if–I belonged in the New York music scene.

Photo by Gerald Slota

Photo by Gerald Slota

See, I had just finished a long-belated classical voice degree, and while I loved the discipline and power of classical singing, I knew that a career in opera wasn’t for me. When it came to jazz, I loved to experiment with rhythm and phrasing, but since I wasn’t musically or aesthetically inclined toward scat singing, I didn’t feel like a true-blue jazz singer, either.

“Maybe I should just scrap classical and jazz and go audition for Broadway musicals,” I said to Paul. But I wasn’t in love with musical theatre and, while I didn’t think of myself as a high-flying improviser, I knew that doing the exact same show the exact same way every night would make the jazz part of my heart wither.

Wasilla121So what was I supposed to do? Feverishly throw myself into opera and will myself to love it? Memorize Coltrane and Bird solos and be a hard-core jazzer? I really didn’t see myself taking tap classes in hopes of landing on the Great White Way. Was there a place for me in New York’s musical community, or would I have to pack it all in and go back to Wasilla? (Okay, you’re right; I never planned on going back to Alaska.)

ideaPaul listened patiently and then gave me some of the most powerful advice of my life: “Hilary, find the thing that you do. Find the thing that’s yours, no matter how small a niche it might be. And then get good at it. Work your ass off and get so good at it that, whenever somebody is looking for that specific thing, there’s only one person they can call, and that’s you. If you do that, you’ll never stop working.”

If we’d been in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared above my head. I’d had it completely backwards! I’d been making myself crazy trying to fit into my idea of what a classical singer or a jazz singer “should” be. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I had no idea what I wanted to sing.

weillCoverYou know how this ends: once I stopped second-guessing my eclectic influences and started celebrating the things that made me, well, me, the phone started ringing. I found myself immersed in a jazz-based cabaret project called West 73rd that incorporated elements of classical, jazz and theatre. We made a The Kurt Weill Project - A Song About ForeverCD, got representation, and began performing in some wonderful New York venues, such as Feinstein’s and the Metropolitan Room. More big band work materialized, and most shocking of all, I started hearing from people who wanted to take lessons with me.

Look, I still play weddings. I still work part-time at a restaurant. I teach lessons occasionally and keep a constant eye on my checkbook. Singing for your supper means a lot of hustling, whether you’re in New York or Nebraska. But thanks to Paul’s sage counsel, I’m no longer riddled with anxiety about what kind of singer to be. I just sing and give thanks for the chance to be myself.

A wee rant (and a glowing endorsement).

It’s no secret that I come from a classical voice background.  Growing up, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline and Carmen McRae were my first singers, but I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska (cue the obligatory Sarah Palin questions.  For the record, I didn’t/don’t know her and don’t care to).  To say there wasn’t exactly a flourishing jazz community in Wasilla is akin to saying it got a little chilly come December.

So classical study it was.  I logged countless hours in children’s choir, private voice lessons and competitions, and was even a soloist with the Anchorage Opera.  I went to college to study classical voice and was completely miserable.  One day my voice teacher said to me, “You can make it to any jazz show that comes to town; why won’t you get yourself to the opera once in a while?!”  The light came on, and I moved away from classical and toward jazz for the better part of ten years.

The road not taken...

The road not taken...

I resumed serious classical study when I moved to New York City, mostly because I had suffered a vocal injury and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I also resumed classical singing because I wanted to finish my college degree, which had been hanging over my head for a long time.  I did finish the voice degree and had the chance to sing the lead in a Monteverdi opera and the soprano solo in a Vaughan Williams piece (backed by 80-voice choir and full orchestra).  

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

By the time I muscled my way through my senior recital, it was abundantly clear to me that a career in opera just wasn’t for me.  

My reasons for not pursuing a classical voice career are myriad and will probably show up in a future posting, so the question arises: if I knew at 18 years old that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, why did I keep circling back again and again to study classical voice?  

Simple: I’m a technique junkie.  I love the mechanics of how the voice works.  I love the way that a simple adjustment to the breath or vowel can transform a phrase.  I am endlessly fascinated by all the vocal colors and textures available to a singer when she really knows her instrument and how to use it.  It drives me crazy that, outside of classical music, talking about vocal technique on its own terms almost never happens.

Disclaimer: this is where my wee rant begins.  Contemporary singers these days tend to fall into one of two categories: melismatic, chest-voice-pulled-up-over-the-rafters belting, or a wispy, precious, overly aerated sound that is often characterized as “ethereal” but can more accurately be described as “unsupported.”  I’ll leave the melismatic belters alone for now because, frankly, I don’t really care about the American Idol contenders.

But I’m really sick of listening to this never-ending succession of female singers who sound like little girls, whispering breathy intimations into the mic with absolutely no core, nothing to anchor their sound.  It’s lazy, it’s disingenuous, and–forgive me–it’s really fucking boring. Feather-light, head voice-dominated cooing is a fabulous color to have on your vocal palette, but if it’s the foundation of your sound, there’s nowhere to go!  

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that everyone needs to go study opera (shudder).  But how about singing with some backbone, ladies? (Caveat: there are singers who actually have ethereal, airy voices, and they inhabit their voices beautifully, with presence and resonance. Those aren’t the singers I’m referring to, here.)

Anyway, with all that in mind, here’s my glowing endorsement: Lizz Wright, you are doing some serious 360-degree singing.

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

 Your rich, velvety contralto is never forced or pushed, but your singing is full-bodied, supported and opulent.  In addition to your impeccable musicianship (time concept, songwriting, song selection) you clearly care about juicy, inhabited, connected singing.  So thank you.  A thousand times, thank you.