A Conversation with Colbie Caillat
Mike Ragogna: Colbie, I wanted to ask you about your video for “Try.” It’s a very strong statement. How did it come together?
Colbie Caillat: We have a lyric video and a real music video, which we shot just the other day, and when I wrote the song it was all about how, personally, I felt like people around me in the industry and, unintentionally, my record label, was hoping I could be a different-looking–a little sexier, showing more or showing less, if you know what I mean. And that’s what inspired the song, and then when I was trying to find out how to do the video I was talking to my boyfriend Justin, and I said, “I think it should be me in my bathroom, with tons of makeup on, and then I take it off.” We just kept unraveling it from there. I kind of wanted to do a time lapse of the whole process getting done–the hair, the makeup, the nails–from start to finish, and just completely baring all; it was really difficult for the video, because I started out with zero hair and makeup done; not even a blemish or a zit was touched up. And I had to do a bunch of performance shots like that in tons of bright light and with HD cameras right in my face; it was terrifying! Terrifying because you know everyone’s going to be looking at all those imperfections that could have been fixed up. And then as the video progresses, we put more and more makeup on, and then it’s going to be in reverse, a lot of the scenes, and by end of the video, I’m in full-on hair and makeup, have hair extensions. Then they show me taking the hair extensions out. And it was the same for the nine other women in the video.
I’m so happy that they’re in this video because they’re so real and honest, and a lot of them are crying during the performance shots; it’s so beautiful. We have a redhead with freckles, we have an older dark-skinned woman, an older grey-haired woman, a younger blonde and blue-eyed girl, a girl with short brown hair and tattoos; we really went across the board and everyone can relate. That’s where I went with the actual music video. For the lyric video I wanted to have everyone send selfies, because right now selfies are so out of control; everyone does the duck face, and they make sure they have the best angle on the way they take their pictures of themselves. So I asked my fans and some of my celebrity friends if they would be brave enough to send me a picture and put it out to the public of them looking “au natural.” You’d be surprised how difficult that was for me to get those pictures of everyone. Even if they said yes, they’d still have some bit of makeup on, or they’d put a filter on the lens if they wanted to look cooler, or they’d use that app Facetoons if they wanted to cover up a zit, or they wanted to wait until their blemishes went away. It was so extreme that no one could just let it be as it is. And that’s really my whole point of the song is that we all have it–we all get a zit every once in a while, we all fluctuate on weight, and we know everyone’s going to go grey at some point, so why are we so badly trying to hide it from each other?
MR: You not only had a terrific statement with the official video, but by having and using the selfies with the lyric video, you created a social experiment involving youth and beauty in the culture.
CC: Well, thank you. I’m excited for it to come out, and I hope people are inspired by it.
MR: Look at the people on the video–Sheryl Crow, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Kelly Osbourne, Sara Bareilles… In the end of this, did you feel like you’ve represented a concept pretty fully with this and you’re kind of proud of it?
CC: Oh, I’m so proud, and I’m so proud of everyone who’s helped me with this. It’s stemmed from so many little ideas of every single one of us–the people I wrote the song with, and Babyface producing it so simply; he didn’t want to put drums or any big production on it. We didn’t put any harmonies on the song. We wanted to keep it bare, like the meaning. And my label for believing in the song and wanting me to go out there full force with it. And I’m so proud that they helped me get it this far. My boyfriend had a lot to do with all the little ideas, too. It was so fun. One of the things I was worried about was, “Do I have to start doing all TV performances with no makeup on?” We kind of came up to the conclusion that it’s not about forever being natural only, but it’s about allowing yourself the possibilities, when you want to and when you feel comfortable, and not feeling like always have to alter yourself.
MR: You’re doing something else progressive with your Gypsy Heart EP, which is basically side “A” of your new album. Do you like vinyl?
CC: I love vinyl. My parents raised us listening to that, with the importance of how music sounds, and the quality and everything. So yes, I have a record player and I love listening to it. But I also love convenience; I love immediately downloading a song onto my cell phone and playing it while I’m on my treadmill. I think that having both options is amazing. For when you want that actual listening experience where you sit on your couch in front of those speakers and play the record, and you have to sit there the whole time because it’s going to stop after the fifth song; and I like to be able to play songs in my car on my iPod.
MR: Your dad ended up producing some of the great vinyl records–he was one of the explorers in pushing the sound on vinyl, obviously with Fleetwood Mac and others. So you grew up listening to him pushing the limit and using vinyl as his best medium.
CC: Absolutely, and he encouraged me to do that with my own records. I never would have thought to make a vinyl version of my CDs, so my dad was the one who strongly suggested it and fought for it. It’s expensive to make those, and they’re not purchased that often, so it’s gamble to do that. What I wanted to with putting this EP out is give these first five songs a chance for people to hear them intently, because our attention spans are very short nowadays, especially with work and people having kids and taking them to school and whatever they do. You can only listen to a few songs and then you kind of forget to listen to the rest of the record. There was so much work that was put into this record, so I hope that people get to hear it all.
MR: How did you get all the stars that appeared with you on the video? Did you put the word out, or are they all personal friends of yours?
CC: All the celebrities in the video I texted and asked if they wouldn’t mind being a part of it. And a couple of the people my label reached out to, like Kelly Osbourne and maybe Sheryl Crow, though I knew her from touring. The rest were just girls I knew, and my friends and family, and then all of my fans. I love seeing them in this weird video; it’s so cool that they sent all those pictures, and I can’t wait for you to see it.
MR: How was it working with Babyface?
CC: It was incredible. He’s really my favorite producer and I’ve worked with so many. He can record any genre that you want. I did five songs with him for this record, and one is folk, one is a little folk/pop, another one’s completely pop/R&B, and they’re all so different from each other, and the quality of songs, like how they’re recorded–when my dad talked about the sound quality of Rumors, he put so much work and effort into it–and I just had the best time working with him; and I’ll admit it was very intimidating, because it’s Babyface, you know. So the first session I had with him, I was very nervous and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Every time we worked together afterwards, it became a really fun thing, and especially with “Try”; Babyface was the one that inspired me to write that song. Instead of me just venting to him about what I was going through with my label and how I was feeling, he told me to write about it. That’s really what they were requesting. So I owe him everything for that, because he paved the way and showed me how to be brave.
MR: You worked with David Hodges on this project, as well as Jason Reeves, an Iowa boy. Jason Reeves is one of the best-kept secrets. How did that happen?
CC: Believe me, I have no idea, but he’s working on a new record. He and his wife are a duo, and they have a record coming out soon that’s incredible. So you’re going to hear that. But I wanted to work with Jason–I worked with him on every single record–he’s on about half the record, and a couple of the Babyface tracks. He wrote “Try” with me as well.
photo credit: Kurt Iswarienko
MR: “Bubbly” was how you broke into music. Looking back at that period versus now, how do you think you’ve grown creatively?
CC: I’ve learned to experiment a lot more and know that it’s okay to try new things. With my first record, I didn’t even know I was recording a record; I was recording songs every day that Jason, Mikal Blue and I wrote together. It was summertime, we had nothing to do so we were recording songs every day for fun. Then it became the demo which became the record, and that was that. I talk to Michael now, and he’ll say, “Oh, you’re doing so many different vocal things; I wish you would have let me have you stretch your voice when you were younger,” but I was too scared, and write about things I was too scared to say at that point, because I was 20. But the older you get, the more comfortable in your skin you are, and you have more experiences to write about. Also I have new connections; I can write with all these amazing, brilliant writers and producers, and that to me is incredible because they’ve helped me get this far.
MR: It feels like you’re empowering yourself in a really positive way through your experiences, maybe in a way you hadn’t earlier.
CC: Thank you, and it is. Honestly it’s day by day like, “Oh yeah, you seriously don’t have to try that hard,” and the next day, “Oh yeah, it’s okay, that picture you’re going to post is completely fine–it’s real, it’s what you took.” It’s little things that I’m teaching myself to stop being so vain about.
MR: Yeah. Another major highlight for your career is Jason Mraz. Your duet with him was another spike; the Grammy for that, and just the experience of the reaction to it must have been career/creative/life-changing for you, right?
CC: Yeah it was. He’s amazing, and I was a huge fan of his for years. I’d practice singing harmonies to his records, and he’s an incredible vocalist, so I learned a lot from him. And when my manager told me that Jason Mraz wants to call me, I was just amazed. He said he had a song started and he wanted me to help him finish writing it. I’m so grateful for that experience, not only because he’s an incredible artist and a really amazing human being, but we got to perform that song around the world together–in Asia, Portugal, Brazil, Hawaii, all over the US–and that my first Grammy ever was with him, I’m just so grateful for that.
MR: You have something in common with him in that you’re both very socially minded in terms of causes, and you especially with animals–Humane Society, the ASPCA and Farm Sanctuary. How strongly do you get involved in that, and how much time do you devote to those kinds of endeavors?
CC: I would personally like to do more. I want to be hands-on with them; like the Humane Society, ASPCA and Farm Sanctuary go on raids and they rescue these animals, and I would love to do that. You have to go through a training course to be able to do that, so I hope eventually that I’ll be able to, because I think that personally being able to rescue these animals would be the most rewarding, but I also have to remember that me being able to speak about all these causes on shows or on national television also helps raise awareness. I’m doing my part as much as I can, but I would like to be doing more.
MR: I’ve recently been exposed to the concept of a CAFO [confined animal feeding operation] for the first time in my life; It’s now very hard for me to eat meat. It’s amazing–if someone knew all the facts, I bet it would make a vegetarian out of them in a second.
CC: That’s what it did to me, and that’s the thing is that most people really don’t know what really goes on. They think they’re happy cows living in a field, or happy chickens. The thing that’s difficult for me is that most of my friends don’t even want me to tell them; they don’t want to stop eating meat; they’re ignorant in the way of not wanting to know the information so they don’t have to change their ways. And that’s upsetting to me a little bit, because obviously, meat was great, and I miss it at times, but it’s the sacrifice for the way these animals should be treated. So that’s so great that you’ve become aware of these issues. It’s step by step, too.
MR: On another note, Colbie, what advice do you have for new artists?
CC: To follow your gut, and make music or whatever art form you do, make something you’re proud of and excited to perform to promote every single day of your life, because that’s really what it becomes. So make sure it’s you, and that you really love it and believe it.
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
A Conversation with Diane Schuur
Mike Ragogna: So you just did an interview with Jazz Is. How did that go?
Diane Schuur: Oh it’s fine, it was okay. I hope I didn’t speak out of turn!
MR: [laughs] Well, I’m imagining you talked about I Remember You.
DS: Of course!
MR: So…I Remember You: With Love To Stan And Frank?
DS: Well, my manager Mary Ann Topper and I came up with this concept, she knew that I had collaborated with Stan Getz several times on different projects and knew about doing Frank Sinatra’s benefit in 1988 and all that stuff. We just came up with a thing about, let’s do a concept record which touches upon the fact that they both recorded all of these songs that we did on the record, plus it touches upon my own life as far as things that were happening at the time, love gained and love lost and so on. I just figured it would be a real cool thing to do.
MR: Let’s go over some of these songs. All of them are real classics. Some of these songs must have memories attached for you, do you have any particular childhood memories with these songs?
DS: “I Remember You” I really have an attached memory because my grandmother got me a vinyl copy of the album What A Difference A Day Makes by Dinah Washington and on one side “I Remember You” was the first track and she also did the first verse. I just always remembered that. I heard her version long before I heard Frank Sinatra’s version of it.
MR: She must have been one of your inspirations, wasn’t she?
DS: Yeah, absolutely.
MR: And there are songs like “Nice ‘N’ Easy.”
DS: “Nice ‘N’ Easy” I remember listening to listening to on my way home from this school that I went to, the State School For The Blind in Vancouver, Washington. It was about a two hundred mile drive and one of the songs I remember listening to–I remember listening to lots of songs on the way, because we had AM radio in those days–so “Nice ‘N’ Easy” was one of those songs, along with “El Paso,” that song by Marty Robbins, I remember that one so well. [laughs]
MR: There’s your next project!
DS: [laughs] Yeah, right!
MR: Jazz Variations On Marty Robbins And Other Cowboy Songs. I’m sorry, go on.
DS: That’s okay, I don’t mind laughing a little bit!
MR: Okay, Stan Getz. In our society we think of “Girl From Ipanema” and things like that, but I think about how he and a handful of other artists taught America about latin jazz, and Frank Sinatra’s a whole other banana, but how influential was Stan’s latin jazz in your formation of your flavor of jazz?
DS: Well, it was important to some extent because I loved Brasil ’66, it was very much an influence, I loved it.
MR: And with Sinatra, did you ever have any sort of crush on Frank Sinatra or any of the Rat Pack’s machismo?
DS: No. Not really. When I was a kid I wasn’t really exposed to that as much, all I knew was that I loved Frank Sinatra’s music and I loved Sammy Davis Junior’s music, too.
MR: What do you think about how they might have consciously or unconsciouly influenced your choice of material over the years?
DS: I do think it influenced my choice of material though, absolutely, no doubt.
MR: Of all of these songs on the new project, were there any that you just couldn’t wait to do?
DS: In this project? “Here’s To That Rainy Day” was one of them, “Didn’t We” was another one, but they all represented something very special to me and very magical.
MR: Cool. How do you feel about jazz these days? Where is it going?
DS: I don’t know where it’s going! To be perfectly honest I think the thing that’s going to keep jazz alive is going to be the live touring. As far as recordinga nd everything, that’s what ‘s going to keep it alive, too, because of the fact that even after I’m gone my music will still live on, which is really cool. I love jazz, I love to do it, it’s such a powerful art form, and of course people overseas still love it, I do a lot of work overseas.
MR: That seems to be the life of a jazz artists these days, it’s more global than just hoping to play the Blue Note every once in a while.
MR: You have a couple of Grammys, many nominations, a catalog that’s pretty endless. You have a lot of albums out there.
DS: I do, I think this is number twenty four.
MR: That’s amazing! How do you look at that? I’m sure you’re not keeping track, but how does it feel to have recorded twenty four albums in your career?
DS: Oh I keep track. [laughs] We’re gonna get a lot of chuckles from that one.
MR: And well you should.
DS: I don’t mean it in an egotistical way, I just mean that I have a photographic memory. In fact, this album release thing that we’re doing at B.B. King’s in New York, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at the website, but it’s the first album launch celebration that I’ve had since 2006 when Live In London came out, that was eight years ago.
MR: Which I imagine seems like yesterday.
DS: Yeah, in some ways it does. It’s such a trip. It was just a small get together for this release of Live In London which came out–I can tell you the exact date–Tuesday, June 6th 2006. 6-6-06, that’s when Live In London came out. And we did the Blue Note that night, the sixth through the eleventh, and on the tenth we went to Carnegie Hall and did this stamp event for Judy Garland, it was her birthday and I performed for that and met Dick Cavett and other people. That kind of stands out in my memory. The tune that I did was “Mean To Me.”
MR: Twenty-four albums later, do you feel like you’ve gotten this jazz thing out of your system? On to your cowboy album.
DS: Well, I did a country album in 2011.
MR: That’s right and I interviewed you for it.
DS: Oh right! Wow, has it been that long? The album came out on the seventh of June 2011.
MR: Look at that! We have an anniversary!
MR: This is a themed project, do you have any other themed projects you want to get to, other than the Marty Robbins thing?
DS: [laughs] No, I’m not going to do that but what I would like to do, especially because she’s still alive, is a tribute to Nancy Wilson. That’s the next project I want to do.
MR: Oh, beautiful. Are you friends with her?
DS: Yeah, we’re very dear friends.
MR: Are there any people whose new projects you just have to get when they come out?
DS: I remember on some of my own projects when they’d be released my former husband Rocket and I would go to Tower Records and look for the CD.
MR: For those who have been in the music business or who cared about collecting records or tapes or CDs over the years, it’s such a blow to the lifestyle to not be able to run to the nearest store and pick up the CD.
DS: Yeah, I don’t get CDs anymore much. I’ve gotten so many and it’s just as easy to download it from iTunes. My albums are on iTunes now, this album’s going to be on iTunes, too. Mikey, I predict within the next five to ten years CDs will be a thing of the past.
MR: Yeah, I don’t even know if that’s sad or not, but the CD as a musical delivery system has been the longest-running format of all.
DS: People still play vinyl records. I collect the vinyl of albums myself.
MR: And it’s nice when people put new projects out on vinyl, it’s a nice exploration of the music.
DS: The Gathering was on vinyl, too.
MR: Right on. What advice do you have for new artists?
DS: My advice, and I guess it would be unsolicited advice [laughs]
MR: I’m soliciting it! I think that’s the best setup I’ve ever heard, other than “I don’t give advice, but…”
DS: [laughs] I would say don’t lose the vision, keep the dream, whatever the dream and aspiration and desire are. Follow the muse and try not to get discouraged, because it’s pretty competetive out there. Everything now is so specialized. Listen to lots of different music, if you’re into jazz, listen to classical. I do a lot. Keep on keeping on and don’t give up.
MR: Do you find that listening to the other kinds of music opens your mind creatively to ideas you might not have had otherwise?
DS: I think so.
MR: It’s almost a shame because as music education goes away from schools, it’s almost like you’re depriving somebody of an essential education. I think it’s not good to allow just talk radio to teach kids what music is.
DS: Yeah, exactly.
MR: I think the way we grew up with music benefitted us.
DS: Oh, it did, absolutely!
MR: All right, I’m off my high horse. What is the future for Diane Schuur?
DS: Touring, basically. Promoting this record. You can look on the website, it’ll tell you exactly where we’re going as far as the June tour. Basically just touring and keeping it alive.
MR: And collecting the songs for the cowboy collection, right?
DS: That’s right! [laughs]
MR: Is there anything we left out?
DS: I can’t really think of anything except that tunes like “The Second Time Around,” and “For Once In My Life” I’ll probably live into. They’ll probably come to fruition in my life.
MR: You’ve probably had that experience already with some of the other songs, too.
DS: Oh yeah! When I met my huband I was singing “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon” and we left on a cruise from New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon.
MR: So in a way music becomes your script.
DS: Very much so.
MR: And I’m imagining that also plays into your choice of songs, projecting where you’d like to go with a lot of this.
DS: Yeah! Exactly, that’s exactly the way it’s been for all of my life. A friend of mine said, “Deedles, enjoy your freedom, it won’t last.” I’m not through falling in love, in fact like that song by Tammy Wynette says, “I’ll just keep on falling in love ’til I get it right.”
MR: That’s beautiful. That’s a great way to look at music and your life. Profound yet simple.
DS: Sometimes profound is very simple.
MR: That is gorgeous. Every time I talk to you I love it, you’re so inspiring and so energetic, it’s just fun.
DS: Oh, it’s fun for me too, I really mean that.
MR: All the best. I hope the next script that comes along is even more immense and intense for you.
DS: I think it will be. I think this album, the launch of it, everything gets in alignment and comes together in exactly the way it’s supposed to. It’s kind of like Occam’s Razor.
MR: I love the Occam’s Razor reference. I’m such a sci-fi geek.
DS: Well I’m a sci-fi geekette.
MR: Thanks again Diane.
DS: Thank you my dear!
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Morgan James
Mike Ragogna: Morgan, how did your latest album Hunter come into being? At what point did you decide you wanted to do a solo project?
Morgan James: I did four original companies on Broadway, so basically I was on Broadway for about five years straight, and all along I was singing on my nights off with various bands; I was kind of forming what was to become my band. And I didn’t really know what I was doing as I was trying to find my sound, but I knew ultimately I wanted a solo project. When I was signed to Epic two years ago, basically Hunter has been in the works the entire time, I’ve been writing it for about a year and a half, I’ve been trying out the material in front of live audiences, which was a really great way to find out what worked and what didn’t work, and L.A. Reid and Doug Morris at Epic and Sony really kind of gave me the opportunity and the time and space to find my sound. I would bring in music, I would try out music; the cream rises to the top and we eventually discovered the songs that were going to make the record.
MR: So you over-wrote and over-recorded, as most artists do these days.
MJ: absolutely. We over-wrote for sure; we tried out lots of different songs, and if you’d asked me eight months ago what I thought would make it, it was probably a different selection of songs, but the right songs come together, and you look at them and you know that’s the only combination there could have been. The production of many of them started to come together. The song that I wrote with Robert Glasper was the very last song we wrote and added to the record, and it seems fitting that it’s the last song on the record; it really ties everything together.
MR: Nice. What about the theme of this record? What was going on in your personal life that lent to the overarching theme?
MJ: Being a songwriter is a new title for me; I look up to songwriters, I put them on a pedestal, and for a long time it hard for me to even describe myself as a writer, because I think of myself as a singer first. I’m blessed with these great collaborators who’ve come into my life, and they all, pretty much to a person, said, “No, you’re a writer, you have to call yourself a writer. Dig deep into your journal and to your diary and to your heart and be honest, truthful and courageous.” You have to have a lot of courage to be a writer. So digging into some of these things, all these songs come from my life and from my personal experience and I think the overwhelming theme of the record would be catharsis; there’s a lot of raw material, a lot of passion, that’s coming out of this album. There’s also a lot of love, but all of that has come clearing, and I think that I tried to really trim away the fat.
MR: When you were coming up with the finished album, your debut album, what did it feel like? This was sort of the culmination of everything, wasn’t it?
MJ: It’s so funny because everyone in the music industry always jokes that it take your whole life to come up with your first record, and then of course everybody expects your second record a year later and you say to yourself, “Well I’ve only had a year for the next record.” I’ve had my whole life to make this record, and it is a culmination of everything. I’ve also been given a gift in that L.A. Reid and Doug Morris and everybody involved in this record have allowed me a lot of creative freedom. I got to have creative control and that’s so in a first, or in any, record, for an artist. So I’m very thankful for that, and as a result I’m so proud of the record. And like you said, it is a culmination of a lot of things. I have some multiple personality stuff going on on the record. For instance, I sing all my own backup, and every single song has multiple choirs, and within those choirs are all these different personalities. In fact, when I’m in the studio, I name all these different voices. I think being in the studio with me is like being in an asylum.
MR: But then again, why is that so different from what you’d do on Broadway? With the roles that you’ve had on Broadway, I imagine you’d end up adopting various aspects of your personality.
MJ: Oh completely, and it’s interesting because on Broadway, you do the same thing every night, which is part of what makes it such a great training ground, but when I would do the same show eight days a week, which I admire so much because the ability to do the same thing eight days a week with the same level of quality is just a completely high art. However, when Monday would come, I would want to do everything differently, and I’d want every other aspect of my personality to come out. A lot of times people ask me how I keep my voice in shape, and I keep my voice in shape by singing every single frickin’ day. You just become a marathon runner, and nothing trains you like a Broadway schedule.
MR: Were there any revelations when you were recording the material?
MJ: I had so many of those kinds of moments. There were songs that started out in different keys and different tempos with completely different styles, and all the sudden we’d get in the studio, and we made a lot of revelations and discoveries when we were recording, and especially when we were mixing. “The Sweetest Sound” in particular has 32 instrumental tracks and 35 vocal tracks, and trying to put that into a space that can be heard by ears is pretty remarkable. So when we starting mixing and mastering, all the sudden all these different palettes of paint became a painting that was viewable. It’s a pretty remarkable experience. And I learned so much about making a record because of course until you make one, you have no idea how to make one. I knew how to make a Broadway show–I’ve seen that come to fruition several times over–but this was such a learning experience for me, and it’s pretty much been my full time eating/sleeping/breathing for the past eight months. I’d love for every artist to be able to be this vested in a project. I feel like I’ve had a baby, basically is what I’m saying.
MR: What do you think as far as performing live versus recording? Is it equal parts joy for you?
MJ: For me they’re equal parts; they’re completely different; performing live is going to be part of my life forever. It’s what I’m going to probably spend the majority of my life doing. Now recording, you spend a concentrated period of time obsessing over the minutia and the detail and the perfecting. When you perform live, you have your one shot; you can’t go back and fix anything, and there is something so visceral and passionate. I feel like I just close my eyes and channel and I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I think that performing live is what I’m meant to do with my life. They’re so different. I try to capture aspects of the record, but I understand that everyone in a given audience is there to have a live experience, a one-night-only experience. I never do the same thing twice, I never sing the same set twice. I love them both so much, but when you think about an artist’s career, even if somebody does ten or twelve albums over the course of their life, that’s still only however many days recording. When you think about a live experience, you may spend 200 days a year singing live and sharing those experiences with audiences. They’re two completely different arts.
MR: Do you have some favorite “one-shot-in-time” memories as far as performances go?
MJ: Absolutely. There are moments performing that change the course of your life, and sometimes you know it at the time and think, “Wow, my life’s about to change,” even if it doesn’t change for anybody else. And there are moments where you look back and say, “Wow, I had no idea that that was so influencial.” For instance, the night that Berry Gordy showed up at one of my gigs down at Rockwood. I didn’t know that that was going to change the course of my life. He showed up; maybe there were 40 other people in the audience; and it was a rag-tag gig, it wasn’t even some shiny gig that I did. And it stuck out in his mind and he made it a point to make sure I got a record deal. A year ago Stephen Holden came to one of my gigs, and I remember there were 30 people in the audience, and again I tried out an entire set of new material, and he wrote an article singling me out. Those moments that somebody singles you out are very special, but you can’t really predict them. There are times that you feel like you nailed it, and then there are gigs that you don’t, and those are the gigs that you have to learn how to be a better version of the band, of yourself. You can’t hit out of the park every time.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MJ: I think that there are so many artists that come up through the music business that want to be famous, and that want someone else to have the answers for them. I think we’re a generation of people that think they’re owed fame. It’s so hard to be a working singer and a working artist. I think if you have a vision of what you know you’re supposed to do with your life, and what you’re supposed to say to the world, you have to hold onto it and not compromise. I don’t believe in compromise. I believe it can either be your opinion, or it can be my opinion. Your vision or my vision, but it cannot be a combination of both because a combination of vision means mediocrity. I have an unyielding view of what it is to make something happen. If it’s going to be someone else’s vision, it needs to be theirs all the way. Even when you’re a young artist and you don’t have a support system yet, you still need to hold onto that shred of what you know to be true, and for people who want to just get famous, I don’t know how to advise on that because that’s never really been my goal. But I do know one other thing, you can’t stop learning. You can’t ignore everybody that came before you, you can’t stop taking lessons and rehearsing, because that’s the only thing that’s going to hold us to the memory of “Back in the day” or it will be gone forever.
MR: I think a lot of people don’t go there because it’s like “Oh, do your own thing because that’s what genius is all about.” Some people seem to like to jettison the basics, but my feeling is even Einstein had to learn a little math before he was able to come up with his theories.
MJ: Well of course, and Picasso, before he could make the genius things he made, he could still paint a stilllife. I’m old-school, I come from a classical music degree and studying jazz and blues and the roots of all of it, so I’m never going to come before anybody and say, “Well what I do is different from every single other person.” No, what I do is my own version of everything I learned, and I’ll never be a person that shuns everything that came before me. I’m still in voice lessons today. If anyone comes and criticizes anything I do, it can’t hurt me because I’ve already thought of it myself. I think for young kids, it’s harder to practice, to work, than it is to just try the easy route.
MR: Beautifully said. How often do you think of calling it a day and going back to Idaho?
MJ: [laughs] I could use a little vacation to Idaho right about now. I haven’t been back in a long time; I moved from Idaho to California when I was about twelve. I lived in California for a few years and then I moved here. I hardly ever get to go back to Idaho. All my relatives back there are so supportive and they think that my life is so strange, what I do, but they’re so supportive and loving. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a little vacation in Sun Valley.
MR: [laughs] Thanks, Morgan, I appreciate the time.
MJ: Thank you so much for speaking to me today!
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
Mike Ragogna: Wendy, between Nectar and Coca-Cola, which is your “beverage” of choice these days?
Wendy Colonna: Ha! Well, Nectar of course. In some places it’s considered the drink of the gods, ya know? Can’t beat that.
But being asked to write a song for a Coca-Cola commercial was a really cool opportunity to “do” songwriting differently. One thing about their messaging I resonate with is the understanding that we humans want to be connected. Their message is positive and all about bringing people together over a shared experience–in their case it’s having a soda together.
MR: How did the Coke placement occur and do you even drink Coca Cola and if not, will you now?
WC: I have worked off and on over the years with the licensing company, Music Dealers who also works with Coca-Cola. MD shared the animation for the commercial with me and a few other artists and asked us to submit a custom “demo” for the commercial that could be broken down into :30 and :60 spots. I was in California at the time and had a 1 hour window to knock it out before preparing to fly back to TX. I watched the piece, and immediately connected with the message of love being the connecting element between people. With my uke, I wrote a song about the most important thing in life is experiencing love. They loved it and we refined it from there. After the commercial came out, there were so many requests for a single. One day in the studio and now we’re releasing the single this coming week on iTunes. This here is an example of the new frontier of music in the digital age!
RE: Drinking Coke… I live in Texas; it gets hot here. Period. A couple of times a year, I totally enjoy an iced cold Mexican Coca Cola from a glass bottle with a taco.
MR: So you’re album Nectar is getting a lot of kudos from various publications. What do you make of that?
WC: I’m incredibly grateful that Nectar’s had the opportunity to find a home in so many hearts, especially those of critics who are overwhelmed with a plethora of music to talk about, praise and sometimes tear apart. The stars have truly aligned for Nectar and it’s been joyful to be on this journey. This project spans such a wide range of emotions, lessons, and inspirations for me, straight from the heart. The songs come from a vulnerable space and I’m overjoyed that fans and critics are really resonating with them. I’m totally honored to hear from people around the world about how my music is like a salve for their hearts and souls. Our experience is a human experience. It’s messy and yet we all have the same longing to be seen and loved in our hearts and in our cores, although our lives may look quite different, right? I’m so glad so many folks are really resonating with these parts of Nectar.
MR: When Starbucks added the Nectar track to their in-store playlist–and of course the implication is that many thousands will definitely hear the track–what was your reaction when you were told and have you ever heard it played in one of the stores yet?
WC: I was shocked and excited. I was with my cousin in rural Louisiana when the email came requesting tracks from Nectar. I had canceled some tour dates to spend time with my family after my grandfather’s passing so we were grieving and reminiscing on our childhoods. Then came the joyous news. It was surreal. This was new for me. And what a sweet song to choose to play first! I think people are connecting to the joyful simplicity of the ukuklele. It brings us back to the basics of how beautiful 4 strings and a few simple chords can sound. The day it started playing, a fan who works in Starbucks messaged me before I was even awake. Since then I’ve heard from several people, but no, I haven’t heard it yet.
MR: Take us on a tour of Nectar, how it was recorded and how the songs were written.
WC: It’s funny to think that a year ago this week we laid down the final tracks for this album. It feels like a lifetime of journeys have already happened since that last vocal harmony was laid down. . .
I had a really rough patch back in 2010 while touring my album “We Are One.” While on tour, somewhere in the Southwest, I got really sick with a strange fungal lung infection. We didn’t know what it was exactly until many months later, but it really took me to my knees. I ended up touring for over six months with this horrific cough and my immune system crashed as a result of pushing myself so hard with no time to heal. I was dependent on touring for income, so I couldn’t seem to find time to get off the road to get better. After a few trips to hospitals and losing most of my quality of life, I decided to get off the road, heal up and re-group. I knew I had gifts to give, but in that condition, my ability to just simply show up for life was diminishing. Nectar was born after a couple of years off the road. I learned so much about surrender, not being in charge and more importantly the difference between being willful and willing. Getting sick on the road was, in retrospect, one of best things that ever happened to me. There were countless lessons in healing, showing up, staying awake, trusting intuition, being of service, letting go. The songwriting for the album was a part of the healing process. I found joy in my life, in the simple things like swimming in my favorite Barton Springs (which inspired “The Water’s Fine”), cooking a nutritious meal, taking a hike with friends. The songs came quickly and joyfully with all of the pain and redemption. One of the greatest inspirations in my life, Alice Walker, once wrote “Hard times require furious dancing.” And furious dancing, I surely did do a lot of to birth this project.
I wanted this album to be full of vulnerable, intimate songs that weren’t afraid of the dark. I wanted them to reflect the messy human stuff of life and ultimately, I wanted there to be room to honor and see the beauty in the scars we collect over time. . .
In January of 2013 I started collaborating with Mark Addison, a dear friend and gifted writer who is also one of my favorite Austin producers. We did some editing/co-writing together. There was tremendous trust. We were both in complete service to the tunes and the magic that flowed was apparent each day we worked together. When we went into the studio in March of last year, we worked with a really talented group of musicians.
We took brought together musicians who in many cases hadn’t worked together before and most of the tunes were completely new to them and we collaborated with fresh and very present minds. We tracked 8 songs in 3 days and recorded the final 3 over the next few months. It was really magical. Everyone felt it. Pretty cool.
MR: Got any favorites of the batch, like when you were finished, you couldn’t believe you had created it?
WC: I left for 3 months on the road the day after we finished tracking. When I was in the 2nd week of touring, Mark sent me a mix of “Bring Me Water.” I was driving across the TX panhandle and started to cry in my car, it was so beautiful and so close to my heart. This is probably my favorite song of the album. After I heard the mix I thought to myself “I could die and feel ok with my life.” Sounds morbid, but really it was more like a really peaceful and grateful space.
MR: Who has influenced you musically over the years?
WC: As a child, thanks to my folks, I had a great folk-revival record collection. I played piano and sang in choirs as a kid. I loved musicals and hair bands, oldies stations and Billy Joel. Then there were the years of being doused in punk rock and obsessively collecting the crooner films and LP’s of the golden era of Hollywood and big band swing. I obsessed over Bad Religion’s brilliant writing and Sinatra’s drunken melodic masterpieces. I had some girlfriends who would humor me and sing harmonies on everything from Concrete Blonde to Sesame Street to Simon & Garfunkel with me in junior high and high school. In college I listened to Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark every single afternoon. For the greater part of my early 20’s I obsessed over the archived Alan & John Lomax recordings from the fields, prisons and churches of rural America. In my later 20’s I wrapped myself in Marvin Gaye, Etta James & Sam Cooke. Since I’ve been in Austin, it’s also been wonderful to enjoy all the amazing artists that live and perform here. Lately I’ve been soothed by Gregory Alan Isakov, sparked by Jason Isbell and am constantly amazed by Jackson Browne. Not musically, but in terms of life and seeing the beauty in myself, Alice Walker has been a source of courage and inspiration to me for decades, now.
MR: Do you prefer recording over live or vice-versa?
WC: I love it all. Each part is equally challenging and rewarding in its own way.
MR: How are you building your fan base?
WC: In this age, there are so many ways to build a fan base. I think that when the music resonates with people, they become loyal fans. Whether they hear about it online, through friends or at a show, read about it in a magazine or hear it on the radio. It will be interesting to see what happens with this commercial.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
WC: The three things that I’ve used as measuring sticks since I got sick are these: Do your best. Trust your gut. Have no attachment to outcome. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. It’s a rough road, there are no “right” ways to “make it” and we have to build so much courage and resiliency in order to just stay afloat through the rough waters. I would also tell them It’s not about the ego, it’s about being a steward of music. We have an opportunity to use one of the most powerful tools of human culture… It’s beautiful and scary, magical and heavy.
MR: In a perfect world or scenario, what will Wendy Colonna be doing this time next year?
WC: I’d like to be wrapping another album and playing some great theaters and festivals. I’d also love to be writing for various projects, shows, films, other artists, commercials and my own releases. I’d like a little piece of land and a deeper sense of “home” with a garden and a beehive. I’d also love to be better at piano by then. I’d also like to be leading groups, mentoring/coaching younger artists.
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