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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Spotlight On…Megan Hook

It’s a bit disconcerting, really, to find myself saying things like, “I’ve known so-and-so for almost twenty years,” and still be talking about my adulthood. But here goes: I’ve known Megan Hook for almost twenty years. We met in the fall of 2000 at Seattle’s Café Campagne, where we were both working as servers. We became friends, sharing chocolate chip cookies from the bakery across the street in the Pike Place Market and talking about our respective paths as classically-trained singers with musically omnivorous appetites.

Megan eventually moved to Los Angeles and I moved to New York City, but we’ve kept in touch over the years. Megan works regularly as a songwriter and performing musician, singing operatic roles, debuting new music, and leading her band, The Bright Forever. She is also a sought-after educator: in addition to her private voice studio, Megan teaches mindfulness to K-12 students as well as to incarcerated populations.

Last summer, Megan and I met for a drink in Fort Greene, Brooklyn when she was visiting New York. We reminisced a little bit about those misty Seattle days and dug right into the deep stuff, marveling at life’s surprises, heartbreaks, and astonishing speed. That’s the thing about a friend like Megan; we always pick up right where we left off. I’m so thankful to her for sharing her wit and wisdom here on Ad Alta Voce. Thank you, Megan!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Eek! There are so many influences: songwriters, singers, bands, lyricists. As far as songwriters go, I adore Bruce Springsteen, [Bob] Dylan, Abbey Lincoln, the great American Songbook guys, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead (for their wash of guitars and magic), Gillian Welch (for the stories she tells). For singers, I love the great ladies of jazz: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves…I like a singer whose voice you recognize in an instant. I also love a great rock and roll voice, like Van Morrison. And don’t tell anyone, but Liam Gallagher’s voice shoots up my spine every time I hear it; he’s just so brash, unapologetic, and rock-and-roll. Bono, Mark Kozelek, Robert Plant, Feist, Goldfrapp, and, of course, The Beatles are still unparalleled in my mind. Even after all these years, and on every front: songwriters, vision, singing.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
I always warm-up before diving into songs. [I’ve] been singing the same warm-up forever, and yet new ones do sneak in. It’s good to keep it fresh. It amazes me that I never get bored singing the same warm-ups. I just think singing is so bottomless, in the sense of what there is to explore: timbre, resonance, placement, vibrato, no vibrato, whisper, shout, beauty, and non-beauty, if that’s the way to say it.

After singing opera for so long, I found it very freeing to not always focus on beauty. I’m inspired by singers like Nina Simone or Janis Joplin, who used the voice to express much more than just beauty. I find it very freeing and very real to explore the range of sounds my voice can make beyond a technical idea of what it should be. I do sing with the guitar and piano a lot when working on/writing songs and accompanying myself, but it is also good to work with recorded tracks when making a record, to isolate the singing. I am working on a new EP right now and I am currently doing a lot of practicing/rehearsing with the track I’ve already laid down. I also sing a cappella a lot when prepping material; I don’t really know a song completely until I can sing it a cappella.

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?
I would have told myself to have more fun! Oh dear god, I took everything so seriously. I never realized how much of a marathon it is, not a sprint. And the world you live in—inside your head—creating stress, expectations, deadlines, metrics, can wear you down, or at least it wore me down until I found a better way to do it.

Right now I feel pretty focused on just making the music I want to hear and telling the stories I want to tell, and letting the chips fall where they may. I’ve become less and less “outwardly” success-oriented and more and more “inwardly” success-oriented. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it feels more meaningful to me. [Ed. note: I’m right there with you, my friend, and it is SO. FREEING.]

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?
That’s a great question. I feel like I am always tweaking my system regarding all of this. It’s a work in progress. I’ve used the “Getting Things Done” method for years and it is a good one (book and method by David Allen). Right now I am focusing on doing (at least) one thing a day to move the record(s) forward. My mixing engineer, Jeff Jackson, has a tagline on his emails: “Music First.” For some reason, that really spoke to me the first time I saw it. Sadly, I realized how music definitely isn’t first for me many days when I am busy with so many other things. I am working on changing that.

I do find it intense to be promoting the new EP, recording the next one, working on writing new songs, teaching a ton to pay the bills, and also going into the studio to actually record. It’s like all of these things take a different skill set, and I’m constantly working on it all, simultaneously. Lately I’ve been making some music videos, too, because in the singer/songwriter/band world I’m in, that’s one way to get the music out. But talk about taking on a whole other art form: film, in order to promote the music. It’s a lot.

Finding good people to collaborate with helps a lot. At the same time, at the end of the day, I know I need to have the vision and momentum that is driving everything. That can feel exhilarating on good days and completely overwhelming on bad days.

Fun fact:
Hmmm, a guess a funny quirk is that I love children’s books. I have a beautiful collection and I am always on the lookout for a new gem. “The Want Monster” is a beautiful book by Chelo Manchego, whom I recently and unexpectedly met. Los Angeles is cool that way. I also love “We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio. I also have a longtime meditation and mindfulness practice (over 20 years) that keeps me (mostly) sane.

Megan is currently documenting 100 days of her creative life over on her Instagram page. And you can listen to her band, The Bright Forever, here