Q&A with Soulful blues singer/saxophonist Vanessa Collier - funk, soul, and blues into every powerful performance

"Blues, rock, and soul music is truthful music and is about the good times and the bad times. I want the world to be a fair and equal place for everyone and I live life that way too in song and in daily life."

Vanessa Collier: Earth, Wind & Fire

Soulful blues singer/saxophonist Vanessa Collier's most recent album, titled "Heart On The Line" (2020), includes 11 songs, with 8 originals and 3 covers, James Brown’s Superbad, Randy Newman’s Leave Your Hat On, and a song covered by Bonnie Raitt, written by Maia Sharp and Liz Rose, I Don’t Want Anything To Change. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to meet Vanessa Collier and witness one of her head-turning, fiery, and passionate performances, you should definitely make sure you do. As a master musician and multi-instrumentalist, Vanessa weaves funk, soul, rock, and blues into every powerful performance and she is downright impressive. With soulful vocals, searing saxophone, and witty songwriting, Vanessa is blazing a trail, racking up an arsenal of honors, and has already singled herself out as an artist of distinction and one we would all do well to watch. It’s not simply the accolades she has accumulated so far, although they’ve been many -- three Blues Music Award Nominations (BMAs) for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year (2018) and Horn Player of the Year (2018 and 2017), a Blues Blast Award nomination, the Jamming-est Pro Award bestowed by the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, First Place for lyrics in the International Songwriting Competition, Best of 2014 Blues Breaker on Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Mobile -- it’s the fact that she has accumulated all these honors even while her career is still in its infancy.

(Vanessa Collier / Photo by Beth Vermeer)

A 2013 graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music, she’s toured nationally and internationally, released two critically acclaimed albums (2014’s Heart, Soul & Saxophone and 2017’s Meeting My Shadow), and released her highly anticipated self-produced third album, Honey Up, in July 2018. These days, Collier spends much of her time on the road, performing at some of the most prestigious music festivals in the world. Her talents have taken her to the Blues Music Awards Show where, in the words of the Blues Foundation, Vanessa “blew the doors off the Blues Music Awards!”; Ottawa Blues Festival; on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, where she earned the Jamming-est Pro Award and was a featured artist with Tommy Castro’s Blues Review; Briggs Farm Festival, and the list continues. In 2017, Vanessa was also a featured artist in three major tours across Europe as part of Ruf’s 2017 Blues Caravan. In early 2018, Vanessa was nominated for TWO 2018 Blues Music Awards, the first one for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, which puts her in elite company with artists such as Beth Hart, Samantha Fish, and Shemekia Copeland, and a second nomination for Instrumental – Horn Player of the Year, in company with veteran artists like Trombone Shorty, Al Basile, and Jimmy Carpenter.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Rock and Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues, rock, and soul music has always been about true human emotions, life, the injustices, and the good in life. There are a lot of songs about keeping your head up and persevering through whatever comes your way, but there are also a lot of celebration songs about how good love and life can be. I'm always an optimist in moments of struggle - I believe that things happen for a reason and that everything will work out and that always pulls me through any tough times I've had. I've learned to push the boundaries as many of those artists did before me and I'm continuing my journey with the thought that I will continue to learn and grow and change.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Do you consider the Blues a music genre or a state of mind?

I describe my sound as earthy, grounded, powerful yet gentle with witty lyrics and soulful, heartfelt messages. I think the blues is daily life - it's how we deal with any issues that come up and singing about it all, so I guess in that way, it's a state of mind.

How do you describe new album ‘Heart on the Line’ sound and songbook? Are there any memories from studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Heart on the Line is built around my songs and songwriting and I describe it as a blues/funk/soul/roots music record. I set out to make a record that shows the other side of my songwriting and of my playing. My last record, Honey Up, I felt I wanted to hit you right in the center of your chest and not let up for the whole record. And this time, I wanted to celebrate the saxophone in a different way and show off my vocals in a different way too. I think my favorite song to record was Bloodhound - it was so much fun to record the basics for that one and then layer an extra bass drum, chains in a cast iron pan, and playing around with the background vocals while recording at home on that one. And Laura Chavez's solo is just incredible; it might be my favorite solo of hers on the record. All to paint the picture of the story for the listener and I'm giddy with how it all turned out!

"I hope that my music makes people happy and that it makes them feel connected. I hope that it speaks truth for whomever hears it - it's what I feel music is here to do for us. I want everyone to hear themselves in the stories behind the songs." (Vanessa Collier / Photo by Beth Vermeer)

What touched (emotionally) you from James Brown’s Superbad, Randy Newman’s Leave Your Hat On, and I Don’t Want Anything To Change?

I took a James Brown ensemble class at Berklee with Kenwood Dennard and I just fell in love with funking on one chord, but playing with such intensity that the thing just grooves and build tension until you go to the bridge. I have listened to a fair amount of Lettuce/Soulive and I thought "Superbad" would sound really cool slowed down and intentionally funky. It was super fun to explore all the possibilities with horn parts and background vocals. Funnily enough, it was a voice memo on my phone for a few years before it ever became an arrangement.

I had a soundalike recording project in college and I was introduced to Etta James's version of "Leave Your Hat On". I still turn that record on because it is so hard not to move and feel good with that bass line and the attitude of the horns - it's just a funky song. And I just had a blast arranging the horns and vocals for this one too - really for all 9 songs on the record! I love Bonnie Raitt - I mean, who doesn't? She's always had that ability to sing something in a way that gives me goosebumps and just feels so earthy and connected. I have listened to a lot of her records and I ran across the live record where she does I Don't Want Anything To Change with Norah Jones, who is another one of my favorite artists. I had played this song live on longer sets when I first got started and I really wanted to put it on a record at some point - it just felt like time to do it. It's such a beautiful song about not wanting to let go of someone.

Where does your creative drive come from? How do you want your music and songs to affect people?

My creativity usually comes from seeing the beauty in the world - a walk does tremendous things for me. Looking at how the seasons change and how a particular park will look different in different light throughout the day - it will all give me a great starter line that leads to a song to write. I love object writes where you write for 10 mins about one object based on your five senses and it really makes you see the world through different eyes for the rest of the day.

I hope that my music makes people happy and that it makes them feel connected. I hope that it speaks truth for whomever hears it - it's what I feel music is here to do for us. I want everyone to hear themselves in the stories behind the songs.

"I love how free kids are to dance and be themselves, even to music they aren't accustomed to hearing. They have beautiful spirits and want to express them and I think it's our job to encourage that and keep it alive and well!" (Vanessa Collier, Ladybug Festival 2016 / Photo by KT Jones)

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

I think staying true to who you are is super important, especially as a front person/artist. I feel like for me to love and play music and to make music that connects to people, it has to come from a sincere place. You have to know who you are and how you want to be portrayed in this business, otherwise someone else will take control of that aspect of your career and it may not be what you want. I have been able to stay true to who I am as a person and build a team around me that truly sees and supports my artistic vision.

What would you say characterizes Pennsylvania blues scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits?

I am probably biased because I barely put a toe in the Pennsylvania blues scene before I was immediately pulled in and welcomed. I have met extraordinary people and groups like Mikey Junior, Michael Cloeren, the Billtown Blues Association, Briggs Farm, Mauch Chunk Opera House, and many, many more. There are a ton of fantastic people who are so generous with their hearts and then on top of that, they love supporting live music, the blues, and all the musicians playing this music. I feel extremely lucky.

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

I think the day I started taking lessons with Chris Vadala changed my life. He didn't take on students that weren't in high school and he took me on as a 6th or 7th grader. Chris showed me that it is possible to play music for a living. He toured with Chuck Mangione for twenty plus years, as well as serving as the director of jazz studies at the University of Maryland. He smiled everytime he played his horn in lessons with me and introduced me to Cannonball Adderley. I loved learning classical music, funk, blues, jazz, rock - everything from Chris. The passion and love for the saxophone comes from playing with and learning from him in lessons. I pass on his lessons to my students and I try to pass on the same love of the saxophone and passion to them too.

I feel very lucky to have had a lot of highlights so far: playing in the band behind Willie Nelson and Annie Lenox at my college commencement ceremony, touring with Joe Louis Walker, a few songwriting awards for songs I wrote, seven Blues Music Award nominations, two BMA wins, and last year touring for about 150 tour dates - it's all just a dream come true to do what I love every day.

"I think staying true to who you are is super important, especially as a front person/artist." (Vanessa Collier & Willie Nelson)

What were the reasons that you started yoga/meditation/Qi Gong practice? How does affect your mood and inspiration?

I find that I need to move my body to feel balanced and to stay grounded. My mom and I had studied with a great yoga teacher in Maryland, whose classes we both loved, but when we moved away to Pennsylvania, we could no longer practice with her. Thankfully, they have had to go 100% online and my mom still gets their emails, so we signed up and have been practicing four days a week for most of these six months I've been off the road. It's been incredible to improve my flexibility, strength, balance, and learn more about yoga and its philosophy. I was starting to feel exhausted on the road and tense from the repetitive nature of playing an instrument and yoga helps with all of that. And I find yoga has helped me really recognize my emotions and work through them through the movement of the practice. I hope I can continue the practice when we head back out on the road, whenever that is! Yoga is really the complete package to connect the mind, body, and spirit.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I had a great saxophone teacher through middle school and high school, Chris Vadala, who has been one of my biggest influences. He loves playing saxophone and sharing his love of it - he's such a passionate player with a killer tone. My middle school band director is another one of my most important experiences because he pushed us to be the best we could be always and pushed us by playing challenging music. But, for life experiences, my mom has been the biggest and most important influence. She's taught me how to move about the world staying true to what I believe is right and has been my biggest support throughout my life. The best advice anyone gave me is just to find your way through the tough times and believe that things will turn around - it makes those moments pass much quicker and it allows us to celebrate the little things in life that we overlook sometimes.

"Blues, rock, and soul music has always been about true human emotions, life, the injustices, and the good in life. There are a lot of songs about keeping your head up and persevering through whatever comes your way, but there are also a lot of celebration songs about how good love and life can be."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I've always loved feeling the energy from the crowd when they get into your music - one of my favorite moments was at the North Atlantic Blues Festival and White Mountain Boogie Festivals this past summer, standing at the merch tent for 2-3 hours talking to an endless line of people. They were all so warm and so excited to share their connections to my music with me. Just hearing about the emotions and goosebumps they felt makes me extremely happy and connected.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I loved the messages and stories in the music of the past. I love the innovation of new sounds and ways to record, but the stories and life messages in popular music aren’t steering us to a more welcoming, harmonious, connected place at the moment. So, it's one of the reasons why I write songs about being real and connected. I hope for the future that we'll turn that back around and return to our roots of connection and truth.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think I'd change the politics of it all just so it's a little more fair for artists to get started in the business. The way to book yourself at venues is based on how many patrons you as the artist can draw, but really I think the music community should be more of a support community. The venue should be established as a place where great new acts get discovered and the patrons believe and support the local music community by attending really awesome shows. It would allow great musicians to work with the venues rather than needing 10,000 YouTube views before ever being seen.

What touched (emotionally) you from the "Blues in the Schools" programs and your experience with kids?

I love how free kids are to dance and be themselves, even to music they aren't accustomed to hearing. They have beautiful spirits and want to express them and I think it's our job to encourage that and keep it alive and well!

"I loved the messages and stories in the music of the past. I love the innovation of new sounds and ways to record, but the stories and life messages in popular music aren’t steering us to a more welcoming, harmonious, connected place at the moment." (Vanessa Collier / Photo by Beth Vermeer)

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I think women in some ways have made huge strides in the music industry, but there's also a huge hurdle we have to jump over in order to be respected as musicians. There are a lot of artists (both male and female) that are aware of the inequities and fight against it and I'm encouraged by that. I believe and hope that, at some point in the future, all musicians will be seen and treated as equals.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

For me, I think the impact is huge. The first thing I think of is Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers, that whole Stax era in Memphis. They all sang about what they believed in and tried to make the world a more harmonious place, while calling out the injustices and inequalities. Blues, rock, and soul music is truthful music and is about the good times and the bad times. I want the world to be a fair and equal place for everyone and I live life that way too in song and in daily life. I've written songs like "Cry Out" and "The Fault Line" to carry that tradition forward of singing your heart out about things that matter and about the changes we need to make in society.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I'd love to go back in time to see Freddie King live because he was just an incredible player and performer. He captivates me on videos but I'm sure he would even more so live. He blows me away and I'd love to just experience that.

Vanessa Collier - Home

(Vanessa Collier / Photo by Beth Vermeer)

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