Interview with singer Hope Waits - possesses that rare talent that is born of challenge, pain and heart

"The blues was my mother and my father when I had none. They raised me. They comforted me when I was lost, and they put a fire underneath my feet when I got too down for my own good."

Hope Waits: Don't Wait, The Hope Is Here

Hope Waits possesses that rare talent that is born of challenge, pain and heart. Raised on the banks of Bayou Desaird in Monroe, Louisiana, her story eerily parallels those of many of the great blues and soul singers whose essence she reflects. The 7th of 12 children born to an alcoholic father and a manic depressive mother, Hope and her siblings shared a dark childhood filled with poverty, abuse and neglect.

Sheltered from secular music in her youth, Hope learned to sing in church choirs; while secretly soaking in artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. She quickly learned how to craft a tune out of her difficult upbringing by writing songs underneath her bed; for fear that her mother would hear them. Unable to sing those songs, her passion stayed locked deep inside until leaving home at 15 to live with an older sister in South Carolina. Once away from her oppressive and abusive home life, Hope was able to explore the desire to express herself through song. It was then that she first heard the iconic voice of the woman who quickly became her musical idol – Billie Holiday.

While Hope was beginning to find herself both personally and musically in South Carolina, tragedy struck back home in Louisiana, when her mother was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant, a cold case that remains unsolved. With the loss of her mother, Hope had a moment of revelation that she would not let life pass her by and began to fully pursue her passion. Chance brought her into Los Angeles’ Chessvolt Studios where she met producer Peter Malick (Norah Jones) and his business partner Douglas Grossman. The two immediately recognized the timeless qualities of her voice and brought her in to record her self-titled debut album (2007). Soon after its release, Hope’s music was brought to the attention of Putumayo World Music who included the singer’s take on Jackie Wilson’s “I’ll Be Satisfied” on their Women of Jazz release.  In 2011, Hope’s self-penned song “Fortune Teller” was featured on the compilation Songs Of Love For Japan. All proceeds went to benefit victims of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami disaster. A new previously unreleased song called "Shine" is featured on the 2013 Firework Charity compilation album, a not for profit music based charity that benefits childhood cancer research. Hope is currently working on her second album.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I was an incredibly vulnerable and melancholy kid, and the blues showed me that a) I was not alone in my woes, and b) there was a way to take all those dark, lonely emotions, and basically let go of them, even if just a little, by writing them down and singing about them on stage. I learned a great deal about how to handle life from the blues. When I first heard Billie Holiday sing, her voice, that aching honesty that didn't need to sound like the rest of the music world – and other voices like: Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Ray Charles, Bill Withers, Bonnie Raitt, etc.; it was all these voices that taught me about how to handle my own tragedies in life. The blues was my mother and my father when I had none. They raised me. They comforted me when I was lost, and they put a fire underneath my feet when I got too down for my own good.  In essence, the blues means everything to me.

How do you describe Hope Waits sound and progress? What characterize your music philosophy?

I started writing and singing songs at a very early age, maybe 5-6 years old. I was very serious about the whole thing. And for me, writing was always an equal companion to the sound. Always. It started with the blues, yes, but music came in waves for me, and those waves affected the way I wrote and the way I used my voice as an instrument.

First there was the bluesy, gospel songs of the Baptist churches I started singing in at age 5-6, and at some point soon after, I heard Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and I just went crazy bananas with my desire to expand my voice. These two women were the greatest challenges in the progression of my voice as a musical instrument. Because while they vocally were impossible to achieve, they were that catalyst for that transition I was going to experience from moving out of church music, and into the secular music world. They were the reason I found Billie Holiday and Ray Charles later on, so I have to say they were an integral part of the process for me.  

Another big change came when I was 17 years old, and my sister introduced me to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and she taught me all of Joni’s really cool alternate guitar tunings.  I then started listening to Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and I desperately wanted to be like those women: fiercely independent and completely original.

My sound was changing; I was in the middle of this dichotomy of music styles and emotions that were reflective of the upheaval my life was in: I was moving a thousand miles away from this abusive childhood, and into a place where I was allowed to be self-expressive musically, outside of the church.  As a senior in high school I was a million miles away from my abusive childhood, and now I was dead set on being an indie folk singer/songwriter. It was an incredibly cathartic stage in my progress as a musician. I began to recognize all these other emotions beyond the melancholy blues I grew up living. I was no longer just sad and vulnerable. I was angry and vengeful, and I needed to express those emotions through my music. I found a way to do that through processing what these women were writing and singing about. This wasn’t just a change in sound, it was a progression into these intensely raw, and insanely intelligent writing and vocal styles. I specifically can remember Fiona’s “Sleep to Dream” on Tidal, and Ani’s “Willing to Fight” from Puddle Dive, as songs that just changed everything for me. It was incredibly empowering. And even though these artists don’t fit into the blues category, I could hear the bones of the blues inside these songs in certain places. So, ultimately, this dichotomy between my roots as a gospel, bluesy singer, and my newfound connection to this powerful singer/songwriter style, ended up meshing together and forming a sort of bluesy singer/songwriter sound. I guess this is what essentially characterizes my music philosophy: the meshing together of genres that allows me to express more than a singular emotion through my songwriting and my singing.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

After people read about my childhood, they always ask which songs are about “that stuff”, assuming what me and my siblings went through would be enough to write a few albums, but the truth is, I haven’t been ready to write about those things yet. I always joke with my sisters that it would be easier to write a book about our childhood than it would be to write about it to music. Adding the melody just takes those things to a whole new level of vulnerability. So instead I brave through covers like “House of the Rising Sun”, “Jackson” by Lucinda Williams, “Jolene” by Ray Lamontagne, and “Orphan Girl” by Gillian Welch. These all seem to fit the bill pretty well when it comes to expressing my life experiences through song.  I have written one song about my dad, “Bayou Desaird” (not yet recorded) and one song about my mom, “The Ballad of Judith Anne” (on my album) but both are more autobiographical of their lives, not mine.

To be as cliché as possible, the experiences in my life that have triggered ideas for songs most frequently would have to be those concerning love: lost love, broken love, unrequited love, happy love, etc. Love is a powerful emotion, and it is the easiest thing to write about for me, as I tend to feel it with all my might. So when it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, it’s just really, really sad and depressing. I would say there is one specific relationship and ultimate break up that probably ended with a volume of about twenty songs. Maybe 7-8 of which have ever been played on stage or recorded.  The rest are mine to keep, for now.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Jazz and Blues are the foundation on which the rest of music has been created. They are classic and timeless art forms. We would not have rock, pop, country, hip-hop or soul without them. And I think people are beginning to understand this more and more every day. When Beyoncé sang “At Last” at the USA Presidential Inauguration Ball, all the 12-year-old girls ran out and looked up that song. Now a whole new generation knows about Etta James.

Jazz and Blues are the pulse of modern music. There is a 7-year-old Norwegian girl, Angelina Jordan, who has become famous for her haunting performances of Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” on the Norwegian version of the TV show The Voice. A seven-year-old girl is getting millions of hits on YouTube, and is stunning the music world by singing Jazz and Blues songs that were written almost 90 years ago. That is simply mind-blowing, and a testament to the timeless qualities of this sound.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

There was a festival I did in North Carolina while on tour once. It was in this fantastic performing arts venue, and was packed with about 2,000 people. I’d never performed in front of so many people, so I was beyond nervous. As I walked on stage and began singing, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany me, the audience was so quite you could literally hear a pin drop, and then it ended with this huge roar of applause; it was beyond surreal. I remember thinking moments after leaving the stage that it must have been a dream, but then I watch and listened to the video a few weeks later – it really happened! There is something so special about the reverent silence of an audience.  It’s a very rare occurrence. There is always some kind of clatter of a bar glass, or whispered chatting. It’s something you learn to accept and embrace with humility in this business, but performing to that perfectly quiet room of 2,000 people will always feel like a highlight of my career. Big smile.

There was also a smaller show that same tour, where I was going to be performing a real gig in front of some close family members for the very first time. That show was so memorable because I felt more nervous than I did playing in front of those 2,000 people a few days before. It was a room of maybe 50 people. I had been ending each gig of that tour with “House of the Rising Sun”, but with my sister in the audience, I didn’t think I could pull it off. That song is just so autobiographical for me; it cuts right down to my core. I knew my sister would know that song would be about us as soon as she heard me singing it, so it was scary, but I decided to do it. There are a few hard-hitting lines that I knew I had to close my eyes really tight to get through, and I was mentally preparing myself before I got to them, repeating over and over in my head (“Don’t look up, don’t look at her, don’t do it, or you’re going to cry. Don’t cry, you can’t cry. You’re a professional, damn it.”) Well, the line came up, “My father, he was a gamblin’ man, way down, in New Orleans” (a line that is true of our father, who past away a few years back). I don’t know what possessed me, but I opened my eyes just as I sang those words, and all I could see, eight rows back, was my sister’s eyes, already full of tears, her mouth in a frown, and her shoulders just trembling. I lost it. My voice began to tremble, and it took all I had to get through that verse. I’d never been so vulnerable, yet so connected to the music, in all my life. I knew not just anybody would get it, but my sister did, and that was so memorable, and so special.

Just a few other memorable shows that meant a lot: Performing “Strange Fruit” at the Jeff Buckley Tribute Night here in Los Angeles, where his mother was the special guest, was incredibly emotional and intense; memorable on so many levels. Opening a small show in Philadelphia for Season 1 winner of The Voice, Javier Colon, someone I completely admire and adore, was such a treat. And finally, being invited to record a live session of ten of my songs at the Sirius XM unbelievably beautiful recording studio in Washington D.C. was a true highlight of my career. Those songs are being played on the B.B. King’s Bluesville station, and I think one or two others as well. That entire experience still makes me smile to this day. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting Keb’ Mo’ was an incredible experience for me. I told him I had writer’s block, and that I just felt like there was nothing left. I asked him if he ever had it, and if so, what did he do to get past it? He gave me the best advice, he basically said something like, “Of course I get it, everybody does, but writer’s block just means somebody turned off the faucet.” He said, “Do you have stuff in your life to write about?” I said yes, and he replied, “Well, you have everything you need to write about all there inside you, just waiting to get out, just like that water waiting to flow into a glass, but if you don’t turn the faucet back on, nothing is gonna come out. Sometimes it’s tricky because it got turned off at the valve, so you have to dig deep underneath (deep into your psyche), and turn that flow valve back on, and then stand back up to the top of the sink and turn that knob, and there you go; just visualize this and it will happen.” It was such great advice, and so poetically stated.  I remember those words every time I feel “stuck” when I’m writing.

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

I miss the organic composition of music. I can appreciate that music can be created with technology, but how far that technology goes is what worries me. When an artist is developed, packaged, and presented to the world with this catchy, fun song that everybody loves (even me); I can never quite get it out of my head that the vocals are so blatantly auto-tuned, compressed, polished and pieced together like a puzzle, that in reality, that person could never sing that song and it sound pleasing to the ear. My hope for the future of music is that we might use fewer things to cover up the imperfections, and allow those things to just be present on a recording. To me, it’s the little imperfections that sometimes make a song uniquely its own.

What does it mean to be a woman in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues & Jazz?

Well, that’s a loaded question! Many layers could be peeled back to answer that one. Betty Jean Newsome, Brown’s then girlfriend and co-writer, said she wrote it from her own observation of the relationships between the sexes of the time; and my interpretation of this is that she wrote this song as a sort of validation for women of the time; as it seemed, from her eyes, that men were getting all the credit for all these great accomplishments.  It was a reminder that none of that would be possible without a great woman by her man’s side. Hmmm.

For me, this song still carries a message of validation for women, just maybe in the same way it was meant to validate women back in 1966. Women have gained enormous validation for the amazing things they have done in their own right since this song was written, yet we still don’t always receive equal recognition, or equal pay, for the same types of accomplishments. A perfect example of this would be in answering the second part of this question: “What is the status of women in Blues & Jazz?” From my perspective, women are regaining a presence in the Blues & Jazz world. There was a long, silent period for women in these worlds. That's why I always felt like kind of an outsider growing up singing with this raspy, lower register that was a bit lazy on the beat. Early on, before I heard Billie or even modern singers like Fiona Apple, I don’t think I remember any names of any female singers who were in the Blues and Jazz world. I can’t remember if it was Billie or Bonnie that I heard first, I think it was Bonnie – that was the first time that I felt the presence of blues music in a female performer as validated and popular, not just in my mind, but in the rest of the world. She won Grammys for that CD, Nick of Time! There are also women like Mavis Staples and Janiva Magness that are revered in the blues world. Then there are women like Melody Gardot and Madeline Peyroux, who have both become rock stars within the jazz world. I think also because blues and jazz are so embraced and loved throughout Europe, South America, and many parts of Asia, the status of women in Blues & Jazz music will hopefully only continue to grow and flourish.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

My three little nieces showcasing their singing and dancing skills through little video clips my sisters send me are what make me laugh constantly these days. Three of my sisters each have a 3-year-old daughter, and they are all obsessed with the songs from the Disney movie Frozen. In particular (I won’t say which one) but one of my nieces is completely obsessed with singing. She most definitely inherited the musical gene in the family. She has started recorded herself on my sister’s phone, singing songs that she makes up as she goes along. It’s quite entertaining, and one or two of these videos have left me rolling on the floor in hysterical laughter. It’s amazing to me that a 3-year-old can go on for 15-20 minutes, singing non-stop about all the things happening in her little world.

Lately, I’ve been really touched by the camaraderie I’ve seen happening between artists within the music community. Typically, whether it’s on the road, or playing the circuit at home (this is especially true of Los Angeles), there is a history of disconnect; a superficial layer of connectivity between all of us, as we individually strive to flourish in this business. We all have respect for one another, but we aren’t always “there” for each other in the ways that I think musicians should be. Recently, however, I’ve begun to notice a shift away from this disconnect. More and more artists are collaborating together, going out to see each others’ shows, spreading the word about each others’ shows, and overall just starting to understand how we are all in this together, instead of looking at each other as some kind of threat to each others’ potential success. I love that this is happening, and that I feel surrounded by this type of new togetherness. I recently did a showcase in which the other 3 performers knew each other well, and I was the outsider. I thought it was going to be so uncomfortable, and awkward, especially during that “after the show” mingling that happens. I was so happy to be proved wrong. Not only was a touched and inspired by such amazing singers and songwriters, at the end of the night, we shared stories of being on the road, the stories behind our songs and struggles, and basically just talked about life itself. By the end of the night, I felt so at home, and so wonderfully connected and inspired. It was very touching.

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I think you have to take a philosophical approach to this one, because many people interpret the blues differently. I don’t know that the blues can be singularly defined, and within the blues world, there are many, many genres. Some people say the only blues is Chicago blues. Some people say the only real blues is Delta blues. Then you have people talk about Boogie-woogie blues and Electric blues. The list goes on. In order to really answer this question whole-heartedly, you really have to ask what “real blues” means in the first place. One might technically define the blues based on the blues chord progression of I, IV and V; but if that were the case, any one of the above types of blues, along with a dozen other styles, could be defined as “real blues” so then we are left back at the beginning.

From my standpoint, using the example of one of the earliest styles of blues, the Delta blues; I would say that as far as the existence of real blues today is concerned; it is most certainly alive and well. The legendary Little Freddie King is still out there keeping the music alive. You can also see artists like Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi who both play that signature delta blues slide guitar, along with their amazing bluesy vocals, are both examples of real Delta blues existing within the world of music today. And those are just the well-known artists. There are countless working musicians who live in the Delta region where I’m from, playing it, and keeping delta blues alive.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Folk music?

Without going into a novel on this one, I think I kind of talked about this in an earlier question, when I talked about how blues and jazz were the foundation of all music today, and how artist today still represent blues and jazz within the bones of their songs in some way or another most of the time.  

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

Hands down, no question, I would wanna go back in time to spend a whole day with my mother. My mom was murdered when I was only 20-years-old, and much of who she was and where she came from was kept hidden from us (for example, we didn’t know her parents were Belarusian immigrants until after she died). I feel as though that day she died, it was like a whole library of books got burned in a fire. Everything she ever meant to tell me, everything I never got the chance to ask – all of it is gone forever.

And since there are no other people alive today that she grew up with to find out even just a little bit of what still haunts me about her life, I would want to spend an entire day with her, maybe in a coffee shop on a really comfy couch, sipping hot tea with honey (that was her favorite, and now mine too. just having this open mother/daughter dialogue, where she held no secrets about her past, and where I could ask anything I wanted, and she would happily give me the answers I’ve been seeking. There is so much I don’t know about her; I know so very little about her parents, grandparents, or the life experiences she went through as a child and young adult, etc. There is just so much missing information about her, and her entire lineage, that knowing more, I think, would somehow fill this empty feeling I carry with me every day about who my mother was; which essentially defines, in part, who I am. Does that make sense? 

Hope Waits - official website

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