Q&A with Tiffany Pollack, born and raised in New Orleans, where she began singing as soon as she could talk

"Music is such a universal form of expression. People have used music to express heavy emotion for ages. Think about the war cries of ancient tribes to create a sense of being connected with one another so they could operate as one. Music can unite us. In church people sing together to worship as one. Human beings need to feel connected to one another. When people come together in song it is powerful."

Tiffany Pollack: Blues In My Blood

Tiffany Ann Pollack was born and raised in the musical mecca of New Orleans, where she began singing as soon as she could talk. Although never receiving formal training, countless hours of her childhood and teens were spent at her parents’ old 70’s organ and later the out-of-tune piano they bought for her, writing songs by ear and singing very loudly. Her family’s annoyance never discouraged her from sharing the songs in her heart. Tiffany had her first opportunity to perform professionally when neighbor Russell Batiste learned that she could sing and invited her to sing backup with his band Russell Batiste & Friends. After several years, Tiffany formed her own band called Beaucoup Crasseux with some of the members of Russell’s band. In addition, Pollack begin singing in many other bands including Ph Fred’s The Round Pegs and The Consortium of Genius. Beaucoup Crasseux ultimately fizzled, and Pollack entered mortuary school. In the ensuing years, she was married, had children and focused on her mortuary career. After the birth of her third child, Tiffany left the mortuary business to focus on music fulltime. She developed a strong passion for jazz and eventually formed her own jazz band, Tiffany Pollack & Co.            (Tiffany Pollack & Eric Johanson / Photo by Kelsey Coste)

At age 25, Tiffany gained new appreciation of the music in her soul when she was reunited with her biological family. Adopted at birth, the pieces of her musical puzzle became clear. Her mother, Margaret, plays bass and sings in a jazz band. Tiffany’s half-brother makes electronic music. Margaret’s sister, Frances, sings in a jazz band (and is mother of blues artist Eric Johanson).  Frances and Margaret’s brothers are also performers.  Tiffany’s grandfather owned a piano store and played clarinet. Her grandmother was a cellist, pianist and opera singer. Today, Tiffany performs regularly throughout New Orleans singing primarily jazz with The Dapper Dandies and her jazz band Tiffany Pollack & Co, as well as doing session vocals at The Music Shed Recording Studios in New Orleans. Tiffany Pollack, and Eric Johanson (performing courtesy of Whiskey Bayou Records), former lead guitarist for Cyril Neville, have teamed up to bring that winning tactic to the blues and roots world on their new album “Blues In My Blood” (Nola Blue, 2019). Eleven tracks of original and select standards showcase the depth of each one’s talent with a new collaboration that is fresh and natural.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the NOLA music and heritage influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Wow, I’ve honestly never really thought about that. I mean, growing up here, New Orleans music and culture has just always been a part of my daily existence. With the exception of a short stint in Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina, I’ve never lived anywhere else, and with the exception of a couple of Caribbean vacations, I’ve never really left the South Eastern part of the united states. Unlike most of the artists you interview, I have never been on tour. I’ve been a professional singer for over a decade, but only in the clubs of New Orleans and surrounding areas. New Orleans music and heritage have influenced every aspect of my life and the journeys I’ve taken because it is my life and has always been. I literally don’t know any other way to exist.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

My songbook is basically my diary. I have only a small handful of songs that weren’t written from an actual life experience of mine. From a very young age, writing poetry and music have been an emotional outlet for me. For as long as I can remember, there was always something I needed to get off my chest and put down on paper. As soon as I learned to read and write, I was writing poetry, short stories, and songs. I don’t write short stories anymore, but I still write poetry and songs fairly regularly, particularly if I’m going through something difficult. My songs are more often than not songs of sadness, longing, anger, fear, desperation, and sometimes love.  When I’m negatively affected by something that is when I’m most compelled to get rid of that feeling by processing it on paper and then releasing it by singing. I was a pretty tortured soul from the beginning. I don’t really know why. I had lovely parents, and a pretty great childhood but even through all the joys of childhood I always had this kind of cloud looming over me. I don’t know how a kid could be born with depression but sometimes I feel like I was. It is this ever-present darkness that drives me to create though. I feel better when I write something that I’m proud of. Like a little bit of that always-looming weight has been lifted.                  (Tiffany Pollack & Eric Johanson / Photo by Kelsey Coste)

"I would have to say that New Orleans music is a state of mind. It can’t be pegged down into one genre, because New Orleans is a melting pot of cultures: Spanish, French, African, Haitian etc. New Orleans music draws from all of these influences to become what it is."

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

I have to say that meeting Ph Fred one Monday night at the Banks Street Bar in Mid City New Orleans, was the single most important experience of my music career. We always joke about how I almost didn’t give him my number because I thought he was just another “creepy old dude” trying to hit on me. Fred has had me sing back-up vocals and a little bit of lead on a countless number of his albums. I joined the Round Pegs in 2007. Among the many valuable musical connections, I’ve made working with Fred, the most important of them was my introduction to Jack Miele while recording at Fudge Studios doing back-up vocals for Fred on a children’s album he was recording. Jack eventually started calling me to do session vocals at the Music Shed, which is where “Blues In My Blood” was recorded. Jack introduced me to Sallie Bengtson and that was how I got my record deal. Jack Miele changed my life. I could say that most of the best advice, recently has been from Jack and Sallie, and that is mostly true, but one piece of personal advice that really stands out came from my dear friend and soul sister Jane Albright. She said, “Stop being so resistant to letting people help you.” My friend Lewis D’Aubin, who is an AV genius (and who I also met through Ph Fred) was offering to help me make a music video for “Blues In My Blood” for practically nothing and I was turning him down because he is such a dear friend and has done, seriously, so many things for me in the past. I couldn’t possibly ask him to help me on this. Well, after taking Jane’s advice, I accepted Lewis’s offer of help and let him film and edit the music video.  It came out exactly as I envisioned it.. From now on, I’m not going to turn down help from my friends because of some self-inflicted sense of debt I feel afterwards. There are people in my life that love and care about me and I should let them help when they offer instead of being so damn stubborn.

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

Once a month, Josh Wexler, my piano player from my jazz band Tiffany Pollack and Co., and I do a piano night at a club on St. Claude called Siberia. We usually bring in a bass player or drums so it’s a trio gig.  Generally, there aren’t many people in the club, but we still like it. These gigs are so intimate, and we really get to stretch out and explore. We play stuff from all of my favorite genres: jazz, blues, country, and “schmaltzy Broadway tunes” as well as original stuff. Anyway, the last time we played there I was singing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince song. I really get into this song when I sing it.  It really touches something deeply personal within me. While I was singing it, I became completely immersed in the words and got a little emotional.  Tears started running down my face.  When I finished the song and sort of “came to,” the audience, which was pretty large for our usual Siberia crowd, was completely silent for a moment.  Then, everyone started shouting and applauding profusely and I noticed that they were all drying their eyes too! They had been crying with me! I thought, “wow, they felt it too.” We shared that moment together. I’ll never forget that feeling of being completely connected to that whole club through that song.

"My songbook is basically my diary. I have only a small handful of songs that weren’t written from an actual life experience of mine. From a very young age, writing poetry and music have been an emotional outlet for me. For as long as I can remember, there was always something I needed to get off my chest and put down on paper. As soon as I learned to read and write, I was writing poetry, short stories, and songs." (Tiffany Pollack & Eric Johanson / Photo by Kelsey Coste)

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

UMMMM can I say everything?!? Honestly, I stopped listening to the radio years ago, with the exception of WWOZ of course. I am so out of the loop with modern music. I think that most of the popular stuff out now is void of true musicianship. Lyrically most of the stuff I hear makes me feel either nothing, or annoyed. I feel like more musicians are manufactured these days than discovered. When I’m looking for something “new” I look to the past to find an artist I’ve yet discovered rather than looking at what is going on today.  When people ask me who my favorite new artist is, I say, “well two years ago I discovered Anita O’Day and Chet Baker and they pretty much changed my life”. That response gets me lots of perplexed looks. The last “new” artist that really impressed me was Amy Winehouse. She was authentic. That’s what is missing from today’s music. Authenticity. That is also my biggest fear that music will continue to become more manufactured rather than organic. I hope that what I’ve been seeing in the jazz clubs of New Orleans will infect the world. Every year, I see more and more young people moving to the city in search of true jazz and blues. Some of these 20-year-old cats from the mid-west have taught me a thing or two about my own culture! They’re out there living on a farm somewhere studying New Orleans music that I sometimes take for granted! Then they grow up and move out here and end up on Royal St., and Frenchman St. playing for change and living in poverty just to be a part of this amazing microcosm of music we live in. It’s beautiful, and I don’t know if it’s happening like this anywhere else, but I wish It would.

Do you consider the NOLA music a specific music or do you think it’s a state of mind? What touched (emotionally) you from? 

I would have to say that New Orleans music is a state of mind. It can’t be pegged down into one genre, because New Orleans is a melting pot of cultures: Spanish, French, African, Haitian etc. New Orleans music draws from all of these influences to become what it is.

"Well, in my personal experience I think woman are pretty equal at this point in the music industry. I mean, the record label I’m signed to is owned and operated by a woman. I can’t remember a time that I felt like a lesser being among any of the people I’ve encountered in the music industry. Maybe I’m just lucky? The mortuary business on the other hand…that is definitely still a ‘”Man’s World” (at least it is in Louisiana)."

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

I would love for it to be easier to make a sustainable living playing music. Really, it’s tough out there. The struggle is real! I am fortunate that in recent years my husband, Andrew Jackson Pollack, has become a very successful artist so he is able to make sure that our family has a roof over our head and food on the table. If it weren’t for him, I’d be back at the funeral home embalming, making funeral arrangements picking up dead bodies all day and night, and a few singing gigs in between.  That is what I did for years before I started doing music full time. I went to mortuary school because I needed some kind of degree to make money and I figured I could stomach being a mortician (I know, that’s weird and that is a long discussion for another time) better than all the other soul-sucking retail and service industry jobs I held all my life. There are obviously exceptions to every rule but if I’m speaking from my own personal experience, which in comparison to most is very limited, all of my musician friends either have a day job or go out at 3am to Royal Street to hold a spot to busk when the street closes to traffic at 11am, then busk all day, and usually play a couple gigs that evening. It takes all of this effort to just barely scrape by financially, especially when you’re just getting started. And in the summer when it’s too hot for tourists, the friends who don’t have day jobs hop in a van and tour the country playing clubs all over to survive the summer months. It’s not a glamourous life, but it’s what has to be done to be able to do what we love. Musicians, like morticians, doctors, teachers, etc., perform a valuable public service. We create music. Music has been a vital mode of expression for human beings since the dawn of our existence. Don’t you think that someone who creates something so vital should be able to make a decent living doing so? I do. I definitely would not have wasted all that time working my ass off doing a bunch of jobs that I hated if I thought there was a chance, I could feed my kids making music. Just sayin.

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

Well, in my personal experience I think woman are pretty equal at this point in the music industry. I mean, the record label I’m signed to is owned and operated by a woman. I can’t remember a time that I felt like a lesser being among any of the people I’ve encountered in the music industry. Maybe I’m just lucky? The mortuary business on the other hand…that is definitely still a ‘”Man’s World” (at least it is in Louisiana).

What is the impact of New Orleans music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?         (Tiffany Pollack & Eric Johanson / Photo by Kelsey Coste)

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is Hurricane Katrina. Pretty much every musician that I know that lived through it, including myself, has written a song about it. When the world is crumbling around you, people are inspired to create. Music is such a universal form of expression. People have used music to express heavy emotion for ages. Think about the war cries of ancient tribes to create a sense of being connected with one another so they could operate as one. Music can unite us. In church people sing together to worship as one. Human beings need to feel connected to one another. When people come together in song it is powerful.                                             

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, this is a tough one because I’ve thought a lot about this my whole life. I’ve always felt like I was born in the wrong era. People always told me I had an “old soul”. It would be really hard for me to only go back for a day because I really wanna go back for a lifetime. I’d love to have been born around 1918 and live through the best of the Jazz and Blues era in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, and still be around for the glorious 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and even some of the 80’s. All of my favorite music and fashion existed in this time. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already lived and died then came back in 1983 pissed off and longing for my last life. Lol.

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