Q&A with singer/songwriter Willa Vincitore - blues, soul, and rock, there’s one thing that ties it all together-that voice.

"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: Good Choices of Music

A newly minted NY State Blues Hall of Fame inductee (August, 2018), Singer/songwriter Willa Vincitore 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. Willa’s debut CD, Better Days, was released in early 2017 and was critically acclaimed by reviewers around the globe. The Blues and Roots Music Report listed it as one of the Top 50 Contemporary Blues releases of 2017. Her sophomore release, Choices, (2018) continues to showcase her eclectic songwriting, digging deeper lyrically and rejecting classification in any one genre. Many influences can be heard here, ranging from ‘70s and ‘80s pop, rock and R&B, to Americana, blues and even gospel tones. Unlike Better Days, which was entirely original material, Willa chose to cover one tune on this release, paying homage to Annie Lennox with her funky cover of Money Can’t Buy It.

She spent the early part of her stage career backing Chris O’Leary (Levon Helm's Barn Burners) as an original member of his band, but she’s been performing on her own with a collection of extraordinary musicians since 2013. The Company of “Willa and Company,” which rotates and changes based on each individual performance’s spin, can be stripped bare or piled high. Check out her shows to experience the versatility and range. Company musicians have included Chris Vitarello, Petey Hop, and Karl Allweier on guitar; Doug Abramson, Brandon Morrison, and Karl Allweier on bass; Scott Milici, Pete Levin, Jeremy Baum, and Will Bryant on keys/Hammond; Lee Falco, Roger LaRochelle, Chris Kaiser, and Gary Schwartz on drums; and killer horn sections featuring Chris DiFrancesco, Ron Knittle, Jim Osborn, and Joe Meo.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

In the mid 1990's, a colleague told me about a local blues jam where another colleague regularly sat in on electric guitar. I was seeking a performance outlet and was stunned to find such a high-level of talent literally down the block. Perhaps it's the Hudson Valley's proximity to Woodstock and NYC, but these players were and are the real deal, and I was fortunate that they took me under their wing and schooled me accordingly (I was very green).

I come from creative stock. My mother is a retired professional actress (stage/film/television). My father is a serious audio-file who directed plays and tinkered with classical guitar and piano for fun. My brother has had a long and successful career as a production manager, lighting designer and stagehand for theater and dance companies. Everyone sang in my house and my parents came of age in the late '50s and early '60s, so their musical influences were all over the map from show tunes and beebop to Sinatra and the folk rock of their 20s and 30s (Simon and Garfunkle, Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow). As such, I suppose I've always been surrounded by divas and developed into a bit of a performer. But while the rest of my family was drawn to theater and dance, I was geeking out in choir and music theory, auditioning for every solo possible, writing cheesy '80s pop tunes, playing non-stop piano (badly, I might add), and listening non-stop to Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and Bonnie Raitt tapes on my WalkMan. It's a million miles from where I am now, but my initial vocal training was classical and my first and only stage performance in NYC was at Carnegie Hall with the New York Oratorio Society when I was 18. I skipped out of that lane after two concerts. Wasn't my thing. I found my thing at a blues jam in the Hudson Valley 15 years later. Who knew?

"Stay positive. Do what you want to do without compromise (well, maybe a little--but don't lose sight of your authentic self)." (Willa Vincitore on stage / Kirk Hansen'Black Kat Blues Photography)

How do you describe your new album's songbook and sound? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share?

Thematically, it's about how we all deal with the ways in which life can hit you like a bus and then back up to finish the job. We all have Choices. Everyone has stories. Everyone. Most people have faced heartbreak, death, disappointment, and tragedy of one variety or another. How we deal with it--that's what I was interested in exploring. Choose to be angry, sad, bitter, or pick up the pieces and get the hell on with it? I'll have cake, please. It's also about coming to terms with the fact that I don't actually care much (anymore) about what people think. Lol. I mean, I care, but I'm not going to jump through flaming hoops to be anything or anyone other than who and what I am.

The studio experience on my first record, Better Days, was amazing, but I have to admit that I had even more fun this time around. I was worried, frankly, because while my songwriting is rooted in soul and blues influences, I am also a complete sucker for a good rock/pop tune and I think I wrote more of those for this record than for my first. At first, I was concerned that my band mates were going to roll their eyes a bit, but everyone got seriously into it and did great work. Karl Allweier blew my mind with his guitar work on this record and I was laughing out loud when Brandon (who engineered and co-produced the record) completely embraced and dove full speed ahead (reverb and all) into the '70s and '80s vibes we sunk into. Total blast.

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." 

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 previous 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.

"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."

What characterize the sound of New York's Blues Scene? What touched (emotionally) you from the local circuits?

I can't speak to the NYC blues scene, but the force is strong up here in the Hudson Valley. I've recently been touched to see all the new talent coming out and stretching their wings. Lots of young folks embracing this music, which is a good sign and makes me happy. There was a time when the crowd was predominantly 50+ year olds, but I'm seeing younger folks turning out and it's a good thing.

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Both. Authentic Beatnicks lived it when it was happening (that was my parent's generation). They consumed the literary and artistic movement as well as (in some cases) being part of it. Fifty years after the Summer of Love, I think we're seeing a new generation that's embracing that way of thinking and the authentic members of that generation are scratching their heads a bit wondering what the hell happened between then and now that fell apart. But the pendulum swings, so here we are.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry?

Stay positive. Do what you want to do without compromise (well, maybe a little--but don't lose sight of your authentic self). Come to terms with why you do this--it's not financially sustainable for most of us, so there has to be something that makes you put yourself out there, even when you can't/don't make a living at it and you need to do other work to fund it. Keep your ears and your mind open. Explore different sounds and don't be pigeonholed into one genre.

"Authentic Beatnicks lived it when it was happening (that was my parent's generation). They consumed the literary and artistic movement as well as (in some cases) being part of it. Fifty years after the Summer of Love, I think we're seeing a new generation that's embracing that way of thinking and the authentic members of that generation are scratching their heads a bit wondering what the hell happened between then and now that fell apart. But the pendulum swings, so here we are." (Photo by John DaDalt)

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 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.

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.

Willa & Company - Official website

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