"Really good blues artists write and perform from the heart. They tell stories about the human condition, often presenting complex and deep issues with startling simplicity."
Willa Vincitore: Better Days of Music
Singer/songwriter Willa Vincitore (formerly McCarthy) has been building a fan base across the Hudson Valley for nearly two decades. While her songwriting is an eclectic mix of blues, soul, rock, funk and (occasionally) pop, there’s one thing that ties it all together—that voice. Before launching her own band, she was an original member of the award-winning Chris O'Leary Band (O’Leary was a longtime member of the late Levon Helm’s Barn Burners band before launching his project).
Willa contributed vocals to O'Leary's debut CD, Mr. Used to Be (which garnered the 2011 Blues Blast Magazine “Best New Artist” Award), his sophomore release, Waiting for the Phone to Ring and fourth CD, Gonna Die Trying. They’ve performed together on stages around the country from the NY State Blues Festival, to the Midway Tavern in Indiana, to Memphis (at the 2011 BMAs), and Chicago (at Buddy Guy’s Legends for the BBMAs). When asked about Willa, O’Leary has said, “she’s my favorite person in the whole world to sing with.” If you’ve been among those who witnessed them performing together, you know what incredibly dynamic energy looks, feels and sounds like and you won’t be disappointed by what she’s achieved stepping out on her own. Willa’s long-awaited debut album, Better Days, was released in 2017 and showcases both her songwriting skill and vocal range.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues people and what does the blues mean to you?
Really good blues artists write and perform from the heart. They tell stories about the human condition, often presenting complex and deep issues with startling simplicity. What “blues people” have taught me, whether they are local and unknown or iconic and famous, is that you cannot imitate when you play the blues. It has to be the real deal or it’s no deal. To me, this is the essence of the blues. I’m a realist and this form is as real as it gets.
How do you describe Willa Vincitore sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
My sound is an eclectic mix of contemporary blues, soul, funk, rock and singer-songwriter styles. I’m not a traditional blues artist. While I’m not intentionally trying to be bold or brassy, that does seem to be what comes out when I open my mouth. I’m not timid, let’s put it that way. I’m not sure I have a particular philosophy—I just like good music and don’t enjoy listening to or performing music that doesn’t move me in some way. Good music needs to be honest. I’m definitely drawn to music that feels genuine, rather than manufactured.
How has the Blues and Rock culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
If you’re a student of the blues, you know where it originated (the oppression of and systemic racism towards black Americans). So to some degree, that’s always in the background for me and that’s something I learned by studying the genre and the artists who created and evolved it into a much more expansive form. This music has always shaken me to my core, so I suppose it’s no surprise that when my own life experiences were deeply emotional, this form resonated most deeply with me. I am always wrestling, however, with the notion of cultural appropriation, which is why I am very conscious about acknowledging the form’s roots and being respectful to pay tribute to the artists who lived those experiences. The journey has given me wonderful opportunities to meet and create music with some very exceptional musicians and human beings.
"My sound is an eclectic mix of contemporary blues, soul, funk, rock and singer-songwriter styles. I’m not a traditional blues artist. While I’m not intentionally trying to be bold or brassy, that does seem to be what comes out when I open my mouth. I’m not timid, let’s put it that way." (Photo by Margaret Stahl)
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
If you’re talking about famous acquaintances, I don’t really have any, but if you’re asking about the musicians that have been the most instrumental in mentoring and shaping me, I’d have to say Chris Vitarello and Andy Follette. Andy is largely responsible for launching the local blues scene in New York’s Hudson Valley. He created a jam space that incubated numerous artists that have subsequently gone out into the world to make great music on an international scale. He took me under his wing when I was first getting started and really taught me an appreciation for studying the form and understanding its roots. Chris is one of the best musicians I know and also one of the most humble. He has quietly encouraged me to feel confident about what I’m doing and contributed great material to my CD. The best advice I ever got was from Petey Hop, who also played on the CD. He told me to follow my gut in the midst of multiple opinions about the direction the CD was heading and not make decisions based on concern about what others would think. It was great advice.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
I really enjoyed the way some of the songs evolved in the studio. I wrote all of the material over many years, but when you get a group of talented and creative musicians together, everyone begins to make the music his own and brings new ideas to the table. As an example, Love Looks Good on Me began as a funk tune, but when we were in the studio, Lee (the drummer and co-producer) noted that we didn’t have a shuffle on the record. So we took a stab and then it naturally flowed into a gospel ending. It became a much more joyful tune (it was more sultry when it was funky). I wrote the song after unexpectedly finding love again later in life, so the new feel really enhanced the song and we’ve never looked back. It made sense to go gospel at the end, not just because it worked musically, but because I could think of no more fitting and joyful tribute to love than the joy exuded through gospel music. It was a blast. The other tune that evolved, but in the other direction, was Demons. That tune started out with the full band, but kept devolving into a bad copy of the Thrill is Gone, which is not what I wanted nor what I wrote. I wasn’t going to put it on the album at all. On a whim, I told Chris Vitarello to bring his steel guitar and when we were between tunes, I suggested we strip it way down and record Demons with just the two of us. The engineer asked me if I wanted to mic Chris’ foot (we totally should have done that), but I was anxious to just cut it and move on, so I said no. I really was thinking it would be a throw away scratch recording for future reference. We ran through it once while Dave was setting levels and then cut it in one take while facing each other in an open studio (no booth). It was really powerful, so we decided to keep it. That was fun and I’m glad we did it.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I’m not sure I’ve been at this long enough to claim that I miss anything about the past! For the future, I suppose I hope that there will continue to be an audience for this music and that we can work together as a community to grow that audience. I’m grateful to you, other bloggers and fans for keeping this music alive and giving artists like me the opportunity to make it and get it out into the world. We really appreciate it.
"If you’re a student of the blues, you know where it originated (the oppression of and systemic racism towards black Americans). So to some degree, that’s always in the background for me and that’s something I learned by studying the genre and the artists who created and evolved it into a much more expansive form."
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I wish it was possible for artists to make a living. Unless you’re a mega-machine artist churning out pop tunes and being packaged and backed by a huge label and promoter with tons of cash and being played on corporate radio, it’s very difficult. The music business does have some talented artists, but I wish there were more of a middle ground where live music could flourish and musicians creating music like this could make careers without such difficulty. Most of my friends who do this full time live hand to mouth. Those of us with families or who don’t enjoy the starving artist lifestyle have day jobs or spouses with day jobs so we can live comfortably. That makes it difficult to tour, which is something I’d love to do in the future.
What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?
This genre certainly has many more men than women who are touring and working at it full time. There are incredibly talented women making their mark though. Shemekia Copeland, Susan Tedeschi, Janiva Magness. Bonnie Raitt and more. When I was coming up through the local jams, there were only a couple of us and that’s still very much the case. The guys were always very supportive of me though. Very rarely did I meet someone that treated me as though I didn’t belong. Once I found my own voice and really began to put myself out there, I found that crowds really seem to dig it as well. As a number of reviewers have pointed out, I’m kind of difficult to ignore. That’s not an act, it’s just who I am.
If we look beyond the blues, however, my feeling about the status of women in music changes drastically. I find the pop music scene has become so misogynistic that I have a hard time listening. The lyrics really piss me off. They’re so degrading. It’s one thing to be playful, but some of this stuff is just plain ugly. It bothers me that young women have become immune to it and even sing along, and that young female artists degrade themselves the same as their male counterparts do. Don’t get me started. My daughter would tell you I rant about it all the time.
"I’m not sure I’ve been at this long enough to claim that I miss anything about the past! For the future, I suppose I hope that there will continue to be an audience for this music and that we can work together as a community to grow that audience."
What is the impact of Blues/Rock and Jazz on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
This genre still tackles issues—most of the music is about the human condition in one form or another, but as I said earlier, I’m very conscious about cultural appropriation and think (to some degree) that many black artists moved away from this form decades ago to Hip Hop and Rap as a place where they express their pain, anger, resistance and political stances on various issues. And white artists have moved into that territory as well. So in some ways, I feel that the origins of the blues have moved on to other forms and the younger audience has moved with them. Things feel pretty explosive on a global scale in general. There’s a lot of anger and racism and it’s very disturbing. The blues, rock and soul, for me, are genres where you can still experience great joy and pain and it’s accessible across all ages, races, sexes, etc. I’m sure other artists feel differently, but I don’t see the blues and rock in its present form as being on the forefront of social movements and political change as it once was. That territory is now owned by Hip Hop and Rap (among young folks).
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
Oh man. Just one place? Paris. May of 1968 for the recording of Aretha Franklin’s first live album. Why? Well, duh! It was amazing and I would love to have been there having the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up while she took that crowd for the ride of a lifetime.
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