First of all congratulations on your marriage! I think it’s so important for singer’s to have lives outside of their music as it really gives them more perspective on the things that matter. Do you agree?
Thank-you! I am a very happy “Sadie Sadie married lady.” For myself, I don’t know if it’s so much having a life outside of music, because being dedicated and invested in your art is never a bad thing, but I absolutely think it’s vital for human beings to have a life “outside of” themselves. And it doesn’t have to be a life of wild intrigue and excitement, although I love travel and adventure, but having your eyes open to the world and events and other people and their lives and their stories… I think as the priviledged Western World and especially as artists we can very easily become too self-centered, and I think we can get stuck in our thought habits without ever stopping to consider, “Is there any new information I could have gleaned about life that would change my outlook and opinions?” I am always stunned when I encounter deliberate closed-mindedness; I cannot imagine living my life without a constant attitude of exploration and discovery. And that includes sometimes “discovering” that I was wrong in my past assumptions!
My husband helps my live “outside” myself by helping me work through my foibles of second-guessing myself and my ever-present achilles heel of, “If I can’t do it perfectly the first time, I’m not going to try at all!” He is always encouraging me to try, and praising my efforts no matter how insignificant I feel they are. I’m very blessed to have such a strong supporter by my side! And of course, every day is an adventure. He introduces me to new music, experiences, and opinions that I would not have discovered on my own.
What inspired you to begin your classical training and how old were you?
Who else? Charlotte Church. Just kidding… sortof… Apparently I displayed enough fondness for singing as a child that my parents let me join a children’s choir (The Columbian Youth Choir in Wamego, KS) when I was ten. I had begun playing piano when I was five, so the music bug was already in my system. I learned some excellent singing basics in choir that allowed me to make a sort of “party trick” of imitating some of the music I was listening to at the time, which included Charlotte, as well as Sandi Patty. It was a laugh for me, because I could mimic the sounds and it made the “grown ups” pay attention and applaud me. Always looking for the spotlight, apparently! Well, I guess things snowballed and I started taking voice lessons when I was twelve, although I didn’t have a proper teacher until I was fourteen — mostly sweet ladies who could read music, you know.
Classical music became my “counter rebellion,” especially as a young person who was homeschooled, lived in the country, and didn’t have access to the usual venues of teenage exploration. My few friends obviously thought I was nuts for not listening to Britney Spears, but I liked being the perverse (and yes, snobbish!) one who retorted, “Oh yea? Well you don’t even listen to opera, but I can sing it!” (Ah, youthful boasts…) Because I grew up with more adults as my peers than young people my own age, it also gave me a sense of connection. I was already into the music of an older generation — Bing Crosby was my first music crush — so classical music and opera was just another notch in my belt of “grown up” things that I felt set me apart and made me a Special Someone. I liked getting pats on the head for being an “old soul.” Obviously, with age, the novelty wears off, and you wake up one morning and realize, “Oh. I can’t get by on precocious talent any more — it’s strictly hard work from here on out!”
You’ve always had a fondness for the standards and opera. Do you think it’s important for musicians to be open to other genres of music?
I think it’s important for EVERYONE to be open to other genres of music! I’m severely irritated when I begin to discuss a certain artist or another and the reaction of the person I’m speaking to is, “Never heard of them!” and they cut me off. Please at least say, “I’m not familiar with that artist, would you tell me more about them?” Listening to a variety of genres can teach you a lot about culture and history; it’s not just about the technique and theory, it’s about how music affects people’s lives, and knowing that can in turn make you a better musician. For myself, I belive it brings a vital well-roundedness and intelligence to creation and performance. What I learn from the emotion of Judy Garland I can apply to the delivery of an aria, and what I learn from the technique of Leontyne Price I can apply to letting my voice be heard over an amplified rock band without screaming myself hoarse. Also, being well versed in a variety of music and music history prevents you from looking really dumb to an audience that may be more informed. There are young artists who declare they are doing something “for the first time!” and that’s not the case at all. If they would have done their research they would see it had been done in the 1940s, and again in the 60s, etc.
You played Fanny Brice in a production of ‘Funny Girl’. What was it like to prepare for a role that one of your idols had originated?
It was comforting, in a way. I felt like I stepped into the role knowing 90% of it, and that was the best way for me to make my foray into performing a lead role. I had great cast mates so I wasn’t too terrified about not “living up to” Barbra Streisand’s standard, although the dancing did throw me for a loop! I don’t think I went one night without stepping on my leading man’s feet. But the biggest aid to me was that I connected so much with the character of Fanny Brice, which is the reason I loved the musical so much in the first place. Now, of course, only a year later I can already see so much depth and complexity I wish I would have brought to the character, but that fundamental idea of a stage-struck kid who just wants to be in the spotlight (sound familiar?) and who is always cracking jokes to hide her self-doubt, to the point where she starts believing her own facade and misplacing her values, resonated so deeply with me that I almost didn’t feel like I was acting. I just had to sink back into the character. She was right there, waiting for me.
Which do you think you prefer concerts or musicals/operas?
I think I prefer concerts — because as I mentioned earlier, I’m not such a great actress. I’m just a great big ham! Fanny Brice was a dream role to play, and one of the reasons I love singing showtunes is because it’s fun to put on the mask of another character for a minute or two, but in general I think I prefer just singing and being on stage with my friends. All of that learning lines and choreography business is pretty indimidating!
Was there a moment when you realized you needed to go beyond classical to fully express what was going on in your life?
Looking back — at least from this point in my life — I’m almost not sure how I got so “stuck” on classical in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it! I’m just not sure how it happened. As I’ve said, I think the whole thing sortof snowballed out of misplaced vanity and a youthful desire to stand out. I could make my voice sound big and “angelic” and people liked it so I kept doing it. But I was already in love with Judy Garland when I was fourteen, so I think simultaneously I’ve always been trying to get to a place where people took me seriously singing those songs. It was really a matter of waiting for my voice to mature from a girl’s into a woman’s, and the same for my emotional maturity and ability to sell the song.
I was always trying to write my own songs — oh, I should burn those early notebooks! — but never really satisfied with anything. I suppose the willingness to identify myself as a Songwriter came gradually, along with the rest of the girl-to-woman process. I tried to study music as a part time college student and daily became more frustrated with the whole college system. I was out in the world, meeting people, travelling, adventuring, losing people from my life… Finally gaining a little more depth than my life had held thus far. It just… happened. Suddenly I had to sing it all.
How did you begin writing original music? And what inspires you to write now?
Oops, I got ahead of myself with this question! I have always loved to write, and I spent hours at my piano inventing melodies, but it was and still is a struggle to create something I feel is “as good as it can be.” In other words, I’m a Perfectionist Artist, and that’s the worst combination. I thwart myself from both sides; I often fear beginning a song because I won’t be able to accurately convey the vague concept I have in mind, but I also get “stuck” on a detail and don’t like to make changes to a song I’ve deemed finished, even though that change would be for the better!
I tend to be a very literal writer, and am more at home in prose. I have an active imagination, but it doesn’t lend itself to verbal flights of fancy. So I’m trying to open my mind and realize that there aren’t rules, and I don’t have to limit myself to certain subjects or even styles of lyric writing. Hotel Gypsies has fun just writing about our daily lives; I don’t know how many little “Ode to Whiskey” ditties we’ve jokingly started writing…! Fundamentally, I think strong emotion is what tends to ignite my creative spark; I have a lot of angry songs, but also a lot of sappy happy newlywed songs. Either way, my default is definitely not to write from a detached point of view.
A specific thing that has been inspiring me recently is feminism. And in the losest sense, to me that means celebrating and uplifting women, and not being content to accept the limits that have been placed on women throughout society and history.
Finally, I would say that I am inspired by the non-musical arts — a story, painting, photo, film, even architecture can create a “scenario” in my imagination that I want to write about. Sometimes it’s just a gorgeous day and my heart wants to sing. (And I’m not afraid to be cheesy, apparently.)
How would you describe your sound?
Which sound? I still love singing showtunes and ballads and jazz — but I don’t think I could ever be considered a true jazz singer. I sound too “trained,” I’ve been told, which has been a source of frustration for me but I am reconciling myself to being a semi-legit (a la Barbara Cook) pop standards vocalist.
In my own “solo” music, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m inspired by lots of lovely lady songwriters. Jennifer Knapp and Sarah Slean have always been favorites and recently I’ve developed a music-crush on Fiona Apple. But I think you can hear some of the “drama” of theatre or opera in my compositions. They are very… complex, so I’ve been told! Too many chords, when four would do just fine.
Hotel Gypsies’ official description is “plainsbilly sophisticate & hobo folk noir.” I think our one official press write-up compared us to the Oh Brother Where Are Thou? Soundtrack. But we don’t insist on being stuck in one genre. We have an assortment of instruments from guitar to banjo to accordion, we do silly stuff, we do old-timey church stuff where I break out the “big guns,” vocally speaking, we do Muppet songs and murder ballads and sappy love-song originals (I can’t tell you how much fun it is to sing a love song to my husband on stage!).
Right now the rock band I’m playing in calls ourself ECHOPOD, and we are drums, bass, and keyboard. I’m not sure how I would describe us! My first band, Lithus, drew comparisons to Nightwish and Evanescence, and I suppose that’s still there simply in the “classical girl vocals” element. We’ve decided our genre is “synth rock;” I use a TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch on almost every song and we rework a lot of familiar concepts into unexpected combinations. This is the band I write a lot of my “angry feminist” songs for. Stay tuned, I guess!
You got involved with a rock band! What was that like coming from your classical/choral background? And did you learn anything you think classical musicians could pick up on?
Being a clasically trained singer is what got me invited to join the band, actually. The bass player of Lithus was a friend from college, and it was his mom that brought my name up when she knew the guys were looking for a “soprano girl singer.” It wasn’t such a switch-up as a singer, since they wanted me to do what I’d always done, but it was definitely not the way I was used to creating music… and it was very loud! Ear protection isn’t just for old folks! I don’t know that I learned anything pertaining to “playing rock music as a classical musician” aside from — you’re not invincible, don’t hurt yourself! But it was and still is a challenge for me to create music in a “jam” mentality where you just throw stuff out there, almost like an idea vomiting session, and you’re willing to have ideas thrown away or shredded apart and put back together… That’s very foreign for me; I much prefer to hole up and create something by myself and only bring it to the table when it’s “complete.” So I guess my advice would be: loosen up, trust the people you’re playing with (hopefully they are your friends already), and remember that unlike classical music where you have a “perfect” final product that has specific instructions on how to perfectly reproduce a performance, original music created in a group is always in a state of flux, both in writing and performance.
Here’s a little triva for the readers: I ended up marrying the drummer of that rock band I joined. So — there’s the moral of the story for you. Trying new things may lead to even greater adventures than you imagined!
Popular music audiences are generally less rigid than classical audiences. Is this something you enjoy while performing your new music?
I hadn’t really thought about it before, but yes, having a more informal audience is definitely fun. Of course, there’s something thrilling about holding a formal audience spellbound, but you never know when that rapt silence might just be boredom, and the applause may just be polite, not genuine. Hotel Gypsies performs at a local open mic about once a month, and when that crowd applauds and whistles you know they mean it! We played at a church ice cream social last month and got the folks singing along with our closing song, “I’ll Fly Away.” Goosebump inducing! However, I will say this: For goodness’ sake, don’t clap along if you can’t keep the rhythm or even find the offbeat. Thank you!
What artists inspire you to experiment?
Well, there are several artists I admire whose sound I am tempted to try to emulate (I’m smitten with a lot of old swampy-swing jazz and French jazz manouche right now), but as far as inspiring me to be completely experimental on my own… Fiona Apple, as I mentioned. Her most recent album is very minimal: almost solely piano, drums, and voice, but you’d never think so because it has such a big sound! My husband’s favorite band is They Might Be Giants and they are great to listen to because they really do break all of the rules — it goes to show you don’t have to write a big sweeping Diane Warren ballad every time. Write what you want! Have fun with it! Joseph Arthur is a prolific songwriter whose flow-of-thought writing style, almost like Jack Kerouac, I admire very much.
This is ironically coming full circle, but Charlotte Church’s new material — her EPs “One” and “Two” so far — is some of the most fantastic new music I’ve heard in a long time. The vocal effects she uses are a lot like what I do with my VoiceLive. Definitely inspirational stuff there.
As someone who dabbles in popular genres, while still keeping your foot in classical, what do you think of 21st century classical music and the crossover phenomena?
21st century classical music is… incredible. I follow a lot of modern art song and choral composers on Twitter and Facebook, and it’s thrilling to me to see them posting about, “Working on a new piece! Rehearsing a new piece! Debut performance of a new piece…!” It’s like watching history being made, and of course in the melting pot that is music, 21st century classical is drawing from the wealth of everything that preceded it, both in classical and popular genres.
As far as the “classical crossover” genre itself goes, I think it has a lot of potential and I’m always excited when I see a talented new artist arrive on the scene with innovative and original ideas. Obviously, I myself enjoy singing the “easy listening” standards and showtunes that are a mainstay of the classical crossover repertoire. However, I think the genre is somewhat… how shall I say it… inbred? And unfortunately there are NOT a lot of new ideas being generated; just the next pretty young novelty singing the same songs and following in the exact footsteps of those who came before, because it made money for the guys at the top. I get easily frustrated with formulaic music. While there’s nothing wrong with using a pop star marketing approach to lure people into their first classical vocal experience, and I applaud the concept of “making classical music accessible,” I fear that people are simply stopping there and becoming lazy listeners. To be fair, though, I think today’s music industry can lead to lazy listeners in any genre. Also, the older I get the less enchanted I am with the child star phenomenon… and that’s all I’m going to say about that!
Vocally, how do you change your voice to adapt to different styles?
You know something… I really don’t. Others may have different methods that work for them, but the biggest “secret” of all, to me, was finally realizing that trying to deliberately adapt my voice to a myriad of styles was actually very straining. These days, I try to just open my mouth and produce a healthy and natural sound. I am Chantelle, and this is how I sing. Of course, it may vary song-by-song… this song is sassy and gets a little bit of a snarl, this song is more delicate so I use more of a thin head voice, this song is a free for all and so I just sing and belt it out there… Using the VoiceLive Touch while singing with ECHOPOD has been a great help because I can get all sorts of effects: reverb, echo, layers, harmony , and even special effects like a megaphone, all without having to push my voice beyond its capability.
I will say the one exception is that if I’m doing a legit classical performance, like when I was the soprano soloist in PDQ Bach’s “The Seasonings” with the Flint Hills Masterworks Chorale this past spring, I go back to my full, properly-trained classical voice. No “pop” inflections sneaking in there!
What are some of your musical goals?
Lately, my goal has simply been to “not give up.” Sometimes the monotony of a day job can drain my creative motivation, and it often seems like there isn’t an audience for the type of music I want to create. Thankfully, my life partner is also my music partner, and he is very good at motivating me (sometimes that means dragging me along!) to keep working day by day by day.
Short term, writing songs is high on the list — solo, Hotel Gypsies, and ECHOPOD — as well as playing live gigs whenever we get a chance. Hotel Gypsies in particular is not ashamed to bust out the ukulele and kazzoo just at any ol’ backyard barbeque!
I would like to keep recording and releasing EPs of my original songs, like I did with “The Mad ones vol I.” I also have some ideas for a couple full-length concept albums of standards and showtunes, but we’ll see. Recording someone else’s music is more expensive than recording your own!
In a long term, big dream sort of scale, I would like to develop a sort of cabaret one-woman concert type show combining some of my favorite genres (standards, 1970s “Laurel Canyon” material, maybe some of my own originals) to perform with a pianist in the local area, and maybe someday it could develop into a larger-scale concert involving an orchestra, or a big band, on some more renowed stages. I’d love to perform at Carnegie Hall, at least once!
A couple big “bucket list” items that come to mind are: To be a guest on Prairie Home Companion, and to someday, somewhere, somehow be part of a performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. It is my all-time favorite piece of music!