Erin McDougald Interview

By: Jenifer Dravillas

CMG: I really enjoyed the diverse range of songs on your CD, from traditional jazz standards to your own compositions to lesser known jazz tunes to even a jazz treatment on a familiar rock song. How did you go about choosing the songs for your CD?

EM: As a musician, I of course seek out music that is both interesting melodically and lyrically to sing. As a producer, in terms of an album, I am of the opinion that a “theme” greatly contributes to the artistry of the collection of music being presented. Some people feel one should always just present their best or most challenging tunes and call it a day.

I love weaving the lyrical content into the overall “story” a recording conveys. With MEETING PLACE, the entire album was based off of the title track, which was initially written as a poem. I wanted to interpret tunes that referenced places: be it where one begins and where one ends in an emotional journey, the story of a night owl, a rendezvous …obviously, all songs are essentially stories of meeting places. I decided to choose songs that I both loved to sing and ones I felt I had a fresh perspective on, some, being my first attempts at singing (such as “Sweet Child O’ Mine”).

CMG: Overall, how would you describe your new CD, “The Meeting Place?” And how does it differ from your previous CD, “The Auburn Collection” and your first one, “Blue Prelude?”

EM: “The Meeting Place” is by far the most advanced recording, technically speaking; it experiments with unusual time signatures (such as 7/4) and stretches out far more than my previous two albums did as far as the complexity of the arrangements and the depth of the improvisation or solos exhibited.

“The Auburn Collection” (2003 on Blujazz records), my sophomore album, was a very successful album, relatively speaking. It did quite well on the national radio circuit because it appealed to the commercial sense of “vocal jazz” due to the straight ahead swing and, I think, great line up of songs (not to mention some terrific musicians).

It too presents remotely known tunes, such as “Where Flamingos Fly” and “Forgetful”, “Sure As You’re Born” etc. I’m very pleased with that album, but the growth in three years is also noticeable (hopefully). “Blue Prelude” (2000), my first attempt, is a piano-vocal duo disk which primarily focuses on ballads– it would be considered a “torchy” album more than anything else. I was just getting my feet wet in the deep waters of jazz at this point and it really barely resembles what has transpired since, yet, I am still singing the tunes displayed on that recording… just doing so a bit differently these days.

CMG: I was impressed by how tight your band is. Tell me about the musicians you worked with on this album. Do you work with them in live performances and how was it different working with them in a studio setting?

EM: Clark Sommers, the bass player, has been with me the longest; we’ve worked together, I’d say, almost 5 years at this point. It was his request that I start incorporating pianist Dan Cray and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte on some of my steady gigs. The three of them had been a working unit for sometime already.

It has been a very good experience, musically, to be involved in such a collaborative group; we all have something to say in our style and approach to jazz and I feel that we blend incredibly well in that sense. Our live music is always interesting because we tend to stretch out and delve into spontaneity as the vibe of an audience influences us. The studio situation was intense, and I’ll leave it at that!

CMG: Tell us a bit about saxophonist Geof Bradfield? How did you meet? What did he bring to your CD project?

EM: Geof was literally introduced to me on the day of recording. He had worked with Cray somewhat and came highly recommended as some of my arrangements called for extra instrumentation, namely a saxophone or flute.

He is an outstanding artist and musician! Our arrangements were anything but simple and, most were head charts (not written out); he went through them a couple times, and we had our takes with him right away. I think his contribution on “Meeting Place” is supremely innovative and his sensitivity on “Lullaby of the Leaves” is beautiful. We’ve worked together since, always a pleasurable experience from my perspective.

CMG: I understand your grandfather was the inspiration for the song “The Meeting Place,” as well as being an influence in introducing you to jazz. What was it about his love of jazz that stuck a chord with you? (pun intended!)

EM: My father’s father was the only grandparent I had known as all others passed away before I was born. He eventually lived with us and certainly had an integral part in shaping my formative years until his death in 2001. I have been singing, I think, since I emerged from the womb, but it was he who persistently exposed me to the importance of “real music” as he called it.

Jazz. The standards. It was always evident to my family that I would pursue music (having been in formal training since an early age and an all-around lime-light hog), but, it was not until I moved to Chicago for college that I really got bitten by the jazz bug. There were more clubs featuring jazz a few years ago and in my homesickness for my grandfather, I sought out the scene and “decided” I would be a jazz singer. (Ha!!) It took up residence in my heart; as the years progressed, his dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prompted my monthly visits home to Ohio.

I would sing him the standards that both jolted his lucid state and brought him happiness in knowledge that I ditched my dreams of pop-stardom. ;) It was exciting to see such joy and pride take him over and it means everything to me that I could have that special connection with my Grandfather until the end… through music… Music and my Grampa…the two things I loved most in life.

CMG: Your title track “The Meeting Place” has very poignant and sentimental lyrics. Did you consider arranging it as a ballad?

EM: The words to “Meeting Place” certainly construe the sentiment of loss and melancholy. It was initially considered as a droning, free-time arrangement. The melody was always in my mind (which is generally the last thing I compose). But once I had the melody, I had always heard this 6/8 pattern and then a return to the 4/4…

Dan helped me find the pulse of the music through his chord construction and it became a very edgy, modern piece. It seems to be a good metaphor for the way our dreams come to us, though… The song is really about being “visited” by my Grandfather in my re-occurring dreams of him and the reoccurring sense of loss each time the dream ends.

Dreams are rarely streamlined or predictable. The song is challenging both rhythmically and melodically, but, so too was the loss of him in my life. The arrangement, the *construction* of “Meeting Place” conveys both the intensity of the dream and the volatility of emotions behind the psychology of death. Again, I must always add “HOPEFULLY”.

CMG: Talk about your overall process for arranging a tune? And for example, how did you arrange “Lullaby of the Leaves”? This is my favorite song on your CD.

EM: There isn’t really a conscious “process”, for me, in arranging. Most everything I do is a result of organic experimentation and rarely do I have written “arrangements” for such things, though, I do have lead sheets on some. “Lullaby of the Leaves” happens to be one of my favorites on the album as well! I love singing it.

This was a struggle to convince Dan to want to play it on my gigs in the beginning… he kind of dismissed it as a “throw away” standard. In a rehearsal, though, I asked him to play it as a fast swing, then we did it as a samba, then we slowed it down and did it as this moody rumba. I always knew I wanted to swing the bridge, the slow swing just sounded very natural at that point.

He ended up loving it too. And there you have it. I decided just before going into the studio that I wanted flute (I was fought on this too), but, I’m SOOOOOO happy we did; I think the flute makes the song all the more haunting and I bet, if you ask the trio, they’d all agree on that point now, too. Sometimes, it’s like buying a dress: what looks bland or unflattering on the rack, may end up being the surprise keeper that fits your body the best. So, I guess it’s good to try things you may initially not be open to – great things can result from it.

CMG: I also really enjoyed the earthy “Sing Me the Blues.” How did you go about writing this song?

EM: I penned the lyrics to “Sing Me the Blues”, one morning (ok, who am I kidding, AFTERNOON), when sitting in bed. If I recall, I had endured a particularly rough gig the night before and most likely was caught up in a cynical frame of mind. The tune really exposes the less-than-glamorous side of a musician’s life (or lifeSTYLE).

The melody came quickly to mind once the words were in front of me and I found myself humming it under my breath for weeks until I decided to bite the bullet and try to start singing my own music. Truth be told, though, I rarely perform it live. I’m not sure why, so many people have commented on how much they dig it… A sassy side, you know… it tends to get attention and even empathy. It’s a fun song.

CMG: What made you decide to put “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Laura” together?

EM: It was my hope to do something in free-time and it was my hope, ven moreso to meld the familiar tunes “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as well as “Laura”. Both songs, from a lyrical standpoint tell an interesting and poetic, if not ethereal story. Adjoining them musically was the challenge, specifically, trying to get a song from the 70’s to complement a song from the 40’s without sounding hokey or lounge-lizzardish.

Greg Wyser-Pratte was brilliant in his instincts to transition from “The First Time…” where he played openly and thunderously into his approach for “Laura” –with that Coltrane sense of balladry– sticks instead of brushes. Dan in his bottomless well of creativity honed in on the dark hues of the otherwise simplistic chords for “The First Time” and Clark did some superb interplay on bass, incorporating the bow.

We wanted to “arrive” to “Laura” as if the sun had just come out after a storm and I think it worked. Yet, we kept the darkness of that “haunted” feel throughout (I didn’t want it sounding too “pretty”, it’s been done, it needed some fog and weathered sentimentality). My mother always fancied Roberta Flack’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and my dad loves “Laura”, so it ended up being a little homage to the composers, jazz innovators and my parents.

CMG: Tell us how you decided to approach the very familiar jazz standards you recorded (such as “No Moon at All,” “Thou Swell,” “Spring is Here”) and make sure they had your own personal stamp on them?

EM: “Thou Swell”, “No Moon at All” and “Spring is Here” are all technically standards, and yet, they are ones not necessarily done to death. I rarely hear any of them sung nor played, nor recorded anymore and wanted to do something palpable but outside of the box with each of them.

“Slow Boat to China” was my biggest challenge on the CD, not, oddly enough, because of the insanely fast tempo, but, rather, the trading sequence with Greg on drums at the top of the song… “Thou Swell” was set at an interesting tempo as well, though in 4/4, it wasn’t blistering fast, but it was at a pace that pushed the envelope in terms of phrasing; truly a bop mentality.

“No Moon at All” derived inspiration from Brad Mehldau and the classical “Moonlight Sonata”. “Spring Is Here” with the time signature trading from 5/4 to 4/4 as an Afro-Cuban flared rendition was a lot of fun. I was given QUITE A BIT of guff from the guys when I told them I wanted to do this heavy-hearted, Bill Evans’-associated ballad as a fast, 5/4 samba. It took some adjusting to, on all our parts, but I think the outcome is truly unique and allows the song’s over-the-top maudlin lyrics to be re-evaluated and considered as sarcasm towards an unsuccessful run at love. Geof Bradfield sounds amazing on this track.

CMG: Tell us about your musical training? Do you read music? Do you play any instruments?

EM: Formal training began with voice lessons around age 11; I was reared on Celtic folk mostly, as well as a lot of focus on what would be termed “art songs”. In high school I studied with a cabaret singer and vocal coach who taught me the Musical Theatre songbook basically and helped me expand my vocal range and interpretation of songs, which was beneficial in auditions for college.

By college, I was studying classical voice, musical theatre and eventually vocal jazz at Columbia College Chicago, where I graduated with a performance arts degree. I was a student and mentored by the late William Russo who taught me more about how to “react” to music than a theory class ever taught me about relating to it.

My lack of theory skills are deprecated by some and serve as a poor reflection of my otherwise in depth training; written theory just never felt cohesive with my intuition for music… I don’t play an instrument, my ears are my guide. Understanding the language of music, jazz in particular, is very important, understanding the theory (and it goes quite deep in some circles), is beneficial but not something I can claim to know well enough to say I’m fluent. I know the language, I know the basics, but my greatest growth in jazz comes not from schooled education, but live-interaction and the interplay of really using the ears to develop the chops.

CMG: Do you see yourself as a jazz singer, a cabaret performer, or both?

EM: For some reason, there is a modus operandi of how singers are identified: a singer either operates as a “cabaret” performer or a “jazz singer” and each category tends to impose stigmas of the other. Cabaret can be defined in two mediums: the first, which I believe was the original understanding, is that a cabaret singer is one who sings in a small venue, an “intimate” performer.

Then it slowly morphed into the definition of a singer who belts out show tunes or novelty numbers. I certainly got started in Chicago as a cabaret singer, by both definitions. But jazz is a rhythmic treatment of music- whatever the genre entails, it is an elusive but distinct concept of improvisation, phrasing and rhythm.

I am by choice and dedication an authentic jazz singer, it’s all I commit myself to… interpretation, the history and the progression of it; I’m immersed in it’s multi-tiered institution of possibilities. But often jazz is presented in intimate clubs… How many jazz singers or jazz combos –or even jazz orchestras, for that matter, headline the United Center? Musically, I’m jazz, but venue-wise, I would be considered an intimate performer… I perform in rooms that hold 65 people and concert-venues that have 2500 seats; my style hopefully always exudes a sense of intimacy and spontaneity, though.

CMG: How do you feel about and approach scat singing?

EM: It’s hard for me to comment on this topic and I don’t know if ‘m even qualified as I certainly don’t see myself as a scat singer. I happen to think much of it is over-inflated and under-par –if the standard be set at it’s height by singers such as Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan or Mel Torme. Do I scat on occasion? Maybe I’d call it more vocal-ease, but, yes, I do, sparingly.

CMG: Who are some of your musical influences? Who inspires you?

EM: There are so many to name! …Since we’re talking singing, let’s stick with the singers, though… Anita O’Day is truly a hero of mine; I was crushed she died on Thanksgiving as I had hoped to meet her for a concert date my promoter was working on. Anita could turn a phrase like no one else on earth and everything she did had this genuine mark about it; her voice was not “beautiful” but her sense of rhythm and her articulation of pitch and phrasing, regardless of the velocity of tempo, was beyond incredible.

Ella Fitzgerald, of course, is another influence and inspiration– she must have been born on a swing set, everything she did just swings like the breeze. Sarah Vaughan was so innovative with her scatting and her harmonic ear, Carmen McRae, another favorite of mine, is a master of phrasing and finding the loop hole of a standard– she makes you LISTEN to the words in a new way.

Irene Kral is wonderful for her repertoire and her dry delivery of everything… she’s straight ahead, but never boring. It’s fun to get a recording of one song and as many artists’ interpretations of that song and then re-interpret all of them together. This “borrowing” turns an ingenue into a seasoned veteran very fast, I think… It’s the secret to discovering one’s true, inner voice and style– emerging from outside influences and finding yourself contributes to their efforts in reckless abandon.

CMG: How do you describe the experience of making a living in Chicago as a jazz vocalist? And how would you describe the “jazz scene” in general in Chicago? In your opinion, how has it changed since you arrived here?

EM: Moving to Chicago was the best move I ever made; I love this city and I love the diversity of musical influences that are rooted and thriving here. The jazz scene is in trouble only because there seems to be more supply than demand when it comes to musicians versus the amount of clubs available to play in, thus forcing so many cats into taking “jobbing gigs” where the closest they come to playing jazz is doing two standards at the start of a wedding reception.

I think there is a starving community of listeners who are salivating for more opportunities to hear and see live jazz (especially when one considers the INCREASE of jazz studies in colleges and the rise of jazz majors). But, people are afraid to risk the financing of it, it seems as though the era of the discotheque has re-surfaced and DJ’s are paid three times more than a live-quintet.

No offense, but, there is something wrong with that mentality. Sequencing pre-recorded CD’s or programmed computer tracks versus people creating something live and tangible? No comparison. Yet, musicians are underpaid and under-appreciated often nonetheless …because society as a whole tends to gravitate towards that which is spoon fed to them.

If jazz were marketed and supported by the record labels the way rap or pop is, we’d be living in a different world. So, it’s our responsibility, really, to educate people as much as entertain them when we do get the opportunity to perform live. Club owners often don’t know the difference between jazz and folk (thank you Norah Jones), they only count on the cash flow to follow the artists through the door.

Jazz musicians need to step up and realize we must cultivate our own following because it’s the only way to preserve the gigs, the music and the interest. Investing in a website and emails is a pretty efficient way to do so. Chicago has a wealth of history for jazz but it has fallen to the wayside in its support for it.

Meanwhile, there are people wanting to hear it and cats needing to play with only five or six options of clubs to choose from at this point. The business gets more cut throat as resources dwindle –and WBEZ has done nothing but harm by discontinuing their jazz programs! It only further insinuates the lack of interest, therefore discourages potential clubs from implementing jazz. I don’t know how else to remedy the problem except do my best when I’m on stage and do my best to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and ever-sought-out ‘hip’-factor of jazz and all it has to offer the listener.

CMG: I understand you have an affinity for the roaring Twenties. Why is that and are there any jazz vocalists or musicians from the Twenties who you feel particularly connected to?

EM: More than anything else, I am romanced by the insurgence of freedom that is associated with this era. Women got saucy and music got less boxy and fashion was through the roof, creatively speaking. I’m a ghost of another time, I’m sure of it! People used to always comment on my short hair and my affinity for vintage style, and somewhere along the lines I was called a flapper girl.

I started to embrace it and embody that mentality: the free-spirited aura of what the Roaring Twenties were all about –and all that evolved because of that risk-taking era. The Thirties and Forties, though, is where jazz started to be bred– those would be the decades I’d start identifying with singers. I’m *in* my roaring twenties myself and I must say, despite my old-soul, I love it!

CMG: Do you already have plans to record your next CD? Anything about it you can share here?

EM: It’s an arduous task to produce and record a CD, anyone whose done it can attest to this, but, the artist in me cannot escape the daydreams for the next ten albums!!! Yes, I have many ideas for the next project, but it first takes a person willing to back it financially. It would be nice if I could arrange the next album as a tribute to some of my influences, most notably, Anita O’Day. So many of the songs I foresee recording next are tunes I know through her vast recording career– most of which are outlandishly unusual or obscure. This may not be until the end of the year, if not later, though. I have no real time frame or commitment in mind as of yet.

CMG: If people want to come hear you live, where are you performing?

EM: Every Tuesday I sing at a cozy, sexy spot called Swirl Wine Bar (111 West Hubbard Street, in Chicago) with guitarist Kyle Ashe. He is so gifted; a sensitive ear towards what is being created in the moment and just a SWINGING sense of time. It’s a very intimate, relaxed venue (it offers a delicious menu, we love it!)… It’s a great chance to sit up close and hear me in a duo-setting; it’s been years since I’ve paired down from my usual quartet or quintet presentation.

The starkness of the guitar and voice allows us to approach jazz in a different way– it’s both challenging and rewarding. Every Thursday night I perform in a trio setting at the renowned Green Dolphin Street (2200 North Ashland Avenue, in Chicago). I love this venue! Depending on the week, we may be in the main stage room (which holds a couple hundred people) or the front lounge. What a beautiful club.

We’ve been bringing in a lot of business and the people who make up the audience are so wonderfully appreciative of the music. I highly encourage people to check out both venues this month. I freelance on the other nights of the week and can be heard singing a few numbers a night with Bill Porter’s Orchestra every Wednesday at his long-standing gig at Green Dolphin on Wednesday nights.

He’s a great mentor and what a musician! I’ve learned a lot from him and adore him both professionally and personally. If people are interested in finding where I am or in hiring us for an event, I can be reached via my website at www.flappergirlsings.com. We do a lot of concerts from major corporations’ events to house parties…People really seem to like it which has helped to build the loyal following we have now; and we love to provide them not just with great jazz, but a unique presentation of it every time.

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Erin McDougald Biography

Erin McDougald is a jazz singer and performer based in Chicago, Illinois. Her well-respected and gifted jazz musicians are responsible for some of the finest music currently being performed in Chicago and abroad.

For those who know her, her name is synonymous with a plethora of images–contradictory and succinct, she is: artistic and dramatic, sultry and sullen, frantic and coy, dreamy and ambitious, ostentatious and introverted–Erin McDougald is all things entertaining! For those who do not yet know her, well, you quickly understand, once you catch a glimpse that her heart is on her sleeve and always filled with a song to match her mood. This is your introduction to a singer with heart and soul.

For more information about Erin McDougald, please visit her official website at: http://www.flappergirlsings.com/