May 20, 2024

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Interview with Stephanie Sellars: I look at everything I create as a story: Video

Jazz Interview with jazz vocalist Stephanie Sellars. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Stephanie Sellars: – I was born and raised in New Jersey only forty minutes from New York City. The pinnacle moment for me as a child was when I saw my first Broadway musical Annie at age five. I was blown away by kids singing and dancing on stage. It was like going back and forward in time at once. At that moment, I knew I wanted to perform. I think the fact that Annie is set in the 1930s sparked my obsession with that time period of music, particularly jazz, which I started listening to as a teenager.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SS: – Since I started singing in school and church choirs, my voice started out more classical. I had some classical training as well, which influenced my sound and range. But my favorite singers and musicians have been in jazz and pop / rock, so that has had a strong influence on my voice. In my twenties, my voice started to gravitate toward the lower register and a cabaret teacher taught me the importance of the lyric. I realized I had to undo a lot of my classical vocal training in order to become a better singer. Magically, most of my vocal hang-ups went away when I started to focus on the meaning and emotion of a song through the words, instead of producing a technically beautiful sound. If I had to compare my sound to another singer or singers, I would say I should’ve been born in the 1930s… I used to audition for musical theater, and I think part of my problem was I didn’t sound like everyone else.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SS: – I vocalize most days, usually in the shower for the acoustics. As for rhythm, dancing helps me a lot with that. I dance swing and salsa which are all about rhythm. I also work regularly with Jonathan Hart Makwaia, who has a very unique approach to the voice, centered in freedom of the body.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

SS: – I don’t think influences are a bad thing, as long as I’m not imitating another singer. Sometimes I do an embellishment that is Ella Fitzgerald-like or a talky breathy thing like Marlene Dietrich, but in the end my voice is always my own.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: <Girl Who Loves>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

SS: – I always wanted to record a full-length jazz album. It took me many years to arrive at the point of doing it because I have another career in film. Ironically, it was film that brought me to Girl Who Loves. I made a feature film Lust Life Love and co-wrote the song “Girl Who Loves” with one of the film’s composers, Jay Lifton. I really enjoyed working at Pulse Music studio when we recorded the score which had a lot of jazz influence. Last summer, I had a bit of a break from filmmaking so it felt like the right time to finally record an album in the same studio. What I love most about this album is working with such incredible musicians Tadataka Unno, James Cammack, Brian Fishler and vocalist Tony Middleton on two duets. We had a lot of fun improvising in the studio, a lot of which ended up in the final tracks. Right now I’m working on getting more gigs and building a fan base. I’m also planning to record a Holiday album in summer 2020.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

SS: – You have to approach each song with discipline to understand the melody, rhythm, and lyric so the technique is there… that’s the intellect. But if you have an intellectually perfect song without soul, it doesn’t move people. Once you master the intellect, you have to let it go and let the soul take over.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

SS: – If what people want is to hear and see artists be their most authentic selves through music, then yes.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

SS: – At my album release show, I was going to a duet with Tony. He didn’t make it though because he was sick, so I decided to channel Tony while singing “Hey There”. I impersonated him to the best of my ability and went back and forth between my voice and his. The audience loved it.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SS: – The reason why jazz standards are still being recorded today is because they have a timeless, universal appeal. As for attracting young people, I think re-interpreting and re-inventing these old songs is key… like my version of “I Want to Be Bad.” This song written in the 1920s is forgotten, but I brought it into the 21st century with a different arrangement and modern interpretation.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SS: – That’s a loaded question! I believe in karma. I think everyone has a purpose and life is a process of discovering that purpose and once it is discovered, we have a responsibility to fulfill it.

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

SS: – More gender equality and representation, especially for women instrumentalists in jazz.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SS: – I always listen to classic jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Sammy Davis Jr… beyond that, I recently discovered Kat Edmonson. And I’ve been listening to Goldfrapp a lot lately.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

SS: – Be your most authentic and sexy self.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

SS: – Since it’s 2020… I would love to go back to the 1920s and experience the freedom and wildness of that decade. In a lot of ways we have more freedom now, but there’s something bold about the 1920s that can never be replicated.

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

SS: – Here is my best answer: The beauty of any work of art is how it speaks to truth that resonates with the audience. I look at everything I create as a story. Girl Who Loves is the story of a girl who loves jazz, and her musical journey through love. These songs all speak some kind of truth to me.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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