“I think the saxophone in particular is very close to the human voice,” says Vanessa Collier. “It’s just as expressive to me.”
In the guitar-centric world of contemporary blues, Collier finds her muse in the “voice” of the saxophone. The instrument compensated for her introverted nature as a child and now in her late 20s complements her emotion-charged vocals on three CDs released in the last five years.
“Once you find your dexterity on the horn, you can really emotionally do a lot. “I had a teacher, Chris Vadala, who actually just passed away a couple of days ago who was my main mentor, and one of the things he taught me was how expressive the sax could be.”
In her late twenties, Collier is young at heart but mature in wisdom, a rare combination in blues and one that translates into original music that ignores the “rules” of a genre that sometimes gets confined in a box. She gives new blues music the kind of passion rarely found. Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had it, and she’s covered each of these legacy artists on record and in concert with style and passion.
“I’ve also come from that, being expressive with the few notes and chords you have with 12-bar blues. I’ve always been encouraged to express whatever emotions come out both by my teachers and by my parents, and I think it helps in delivering a song. You can be a little bit freer.”
As a youngster, Collier was introverted and found the saxophone to be a substitute for her tongue-tied voice. “I’m very introverted when I’m offstage. It’s always been that way. Starting in the fourth grade I just played. I wasn’t like a loud kid. I wasn’t a trouble maker, and I didn’t really step out in class and ask a lot of questions or talk a lot. And as soon as I found the horn, it was my voice, and I feel like that’s carried through, and somewhere along the way I found the vocals, too.”
She credits her mom for inspiring her to find her place in the world starting as a very young child. “I was very fortunate to grow up with a very strong mom who taught me so much and guided me through while allowing me to be myself. We were super poor when I was much younger, but I don’t have any recollection of that because she’s got such a great spirit, and I’ve always felt rich in that.
“Everybody has their struggles, but I haven’t worried about where my next meal is coming from or if I’ll be able to pay for my education or anything like that, but I’ve always had that in the back of my head. I can do whatever I want to in a way. I don’t think it’s been 100% easy as everybody in their life has challenges in their life to come up, but it’s definitely not been a hard one in any way.”
Her influences include such disparate artists as Herbie Hancock, John Legend, Norah Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Roy Hargrove, but she chooses blues as her medium of expression, not to exorcise troubles. Rather, she sees it as freeing.
“The blues has always spoken to me, and again it’s one of those things I’m constantly learning more about. (I was in) sixth grade jazz band 6:30 in the morning, and we’d start with a 12-bar blues, and it was the most freeing experience I ever felt.
“I mean I played through a lot of jazz changes and some funk rock stuff, and still there’s something about 12-bar blues, playing a standard blues form in any genre even New Orleans like eight-bar stuff. It’s just – I don’t know. There’s something about it. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but it brings me such joy, and I realize I have a lot of influences outside of blues, and I’m still constantly digging through, trying to find the roots of this music and make it breathe into my own stuff. Expression-wise, I don’t think there’s anything else.”
Vanessa graduated from Berklee College of Music, itself unusual in that the majority of blues artists who enter the school use it as jumping off point in making connections with musicians and starting their performing career without ever taking home a diploma. Perhaps more unusual is that her degree is a dual degree in performance and music production, and engineering.
While still in school she spent a year and a half touring with Joe Louis Walker.
As if that weren’t challenging enough, she worked her way through school.
“My parents paid part of the first year, and then I got student loans to pay the rest. I was also a resident assistant in the dorms for three of my four years in college which paid for 70% of my housing and my meals. I just paid my student loans off actually which was a nice feeling, but I was fortunate that they did pay for some of my education.”
I asked her what her reason was for sticking it out, and in retrospect is she glad she did?
“I kept learning new things, especially in the music production field. I felt like I came to it with very little knowledge, and you basically get time in a studio to mess around with (years) learning on your own, but also (I met) a lot of good really talented engineers, producers, mixers and that was a huge part of it for me, and then a couple speakers introduced me to a couple of things sound-wise. I enjoyed my time. I enjoy learning a lot, and so it opened a lot of doors It kept me thinking and kept me interested in furthering my education, and I learned a lot even more outside of Berklee than in. But it spawned that kind of interest in just getting better and getting knowledge and understanding from every possible angle.”
Her former professors Mark Wessel and Rich Mendelson handled engineering and mix respectively on her latest album Honey Up. The CD spent nine weeks on the Billboard Blues Album Charts Top 15, three months on the Living Blues Charts at #10 and #23 and is getting airplay on Sirius XM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville satellite radio.
“I’ve co-produced all three records. The first and the third I’ve solely produced, but my engineering professor and my mix teacher both worked on them.”
Was it hard for her after she’d learned all those skills from her instructors to let somebody else put the salt in the gumbo? “I love the sound of a great record, but I know a lot of people do that better than me. So, the engineering side is like super easy. If it sounds right in the studio, and I know somebody who’s really going to treat it well and put it in a great space for the mix, then it’s really easy for me to let go.
“It’s just finding those people that you work really, really well with that you trust, that you kinda hear things in the same way. I let go and trust that a person has the skills way beyond what I can. I can pretty much feel that in the conversation, so I like working with people that are better at those things ’cause I can learn.”
Working with professionals she believes are better at their chosen function than she is and giving back more than they expect is important to her.
“I think that if I play with musicians that push me, then the music gets better, and I get better, and I hear differently, and that goes for everything that I do, and I’ve learned to just find somebody who is open enough to teach me or show me in some way, then I’ve been made a better musician over and over in situations like that.”
Ten years out of high school, Collier enjoys working through the Blues Foundation with Blues in Schools projects helping young people find the passion and love for music that she discovered as still a child.
“I just did one in Buffalo when we were there last weekend. I worked with the high school with three different student groups. I actually got to play with them. Sometimes it’s just me talking to a lot of students, but this time we actually got to be interactive and play together. I just remember so much being in that position of a high school student or an eighth-grade student and trying to figure out things. At that point, eighth, ninth, tenth grade I really wanted to be a saxophonist, but at that point still I wanted to be in the WBA playing basketball.
“So, I just remember I had these two big passions, and I wasn’t sure which way to necessarily go, and I really didn’t feel any pressure from my family to figure it out. It’s kinda like you’ll figure it out if you want to do both. Even my teacher was the same way. He was not pushing me to do one or the other and allowed me to choose my own path. I just think it’s so important right now that even if they don’t know what it is, that they’re super passionate about what they want to do. I think its super important that they see and hear people doing what they love.
“It’s very easy to fall into the backup plan and I think that’s something musicians kind of tend not to do. In general, you’re living a very spontaneous life. So, it’s all about passion, and it’s all about following that little voice inside of you. Otherwise, you really can’t be an artist if you don’t know that voice inside you, and I talk to a lot of students.
“It’s amazing how many questions I got. One, because I mentioned I was introverted, and a lot of the kids were like, ‘Well, I’m introverted, too. How did you get over that?’ I was like, ‘I didn’t get over it. I just found a way to navigate and find my own thing to be myself, and then I could do my job better.’ So, there were just a lot of questions on that. Again, choosing a path and going forward, but I always emphasize the passion.
“So, honestly, it enlivens me to see people at their age go into dancing, singing, sports. One guy was really into bowling. So, whatever it is, cool. This is your time to figure it out. I just feel a very kindred spirit with anyone who is (troubled) or they’ve figured it out, or they think they’ve figured it out. They all kind of go through this thinking. We’ve figured it out.
“I’ve started to really enjoy doing this because it’s another connection to another generation. I’m 10 years out of high school, so I feel very connected, and I hope they will take something from me coming in and just the hard work I’ve put in to get where I’m going. Hopefully, they see that, and I just think it’s a great program not only to keep the blues alive and in their ears, but also connected to the modern day music and where the roots of that came from. We forget our history. So, it’s important to throw that reel out there and show them, show everybody – and me included. Keep learning from the past. It’s how you don’t repeat it, racially, musically. It’s how you keep moving forward, how you take the right step forward.”’
Her first CD Heart Soul & Saxophone (2014)and her latest, Honey Up, are both independent releases, on her Phenix Fire label and Meeting My Shadow (2017) is on Ruf Records. She sees advantages to both depending on the situation.
“I think the easiest way to learn is just to get in there and do it and make mistakes. So, either way, right now I’m going the indie route because that feels right for me at this particular moment. I think it depends on the artists. And it was funny reading Bruce Iglauer’s book (Bitten By The Blues) because he likes to have a hand in it. He likes to have control over what the end product is gonna sound like (vs. what’s) in my head when I start, when I write the tune, and it’s my job to rehearse the band and the engineer to keep the sound right and working with the producer. He gets the right feel for the record.
“I tremendously appreciate what this record (for Ruf Records) did for me, but in terms of business, it didn’t make a lot of sense (to be) in the indie world when you can basically hire the same publicity team and put out a great record and basically work your tail off, and hopefully you’ll have enough talent to sell it and kind of go from there, and you don’t give up the publishing and the rights, and your control. I think with the record company there are gives and takes, but as long as that is even and fair, it’s a good deal. I just think I’ve taken enough business classes at Berklee and know how to sell a record and how to make one from both sides of the glass.”
She plays both sides of the field on creating concept albums vs. a collection of songs.
“My first album was more a collection of songs. It was songs that I loved, songs that I wrote in songwriting classes at Berklee, and I just wanted them to be full-fledged songs and songs that I liked, so I didn’t write (Billie Holiday’s) “God Bless The Child,” (but) I wanted to put it on the record.
“My second record was definitely a concept record. I was going through a very difficult moment, and it was me going through all that pain. It was a little bit heavier record that way, and lyrically it was kind of visceral if you listen to the lyrics, and then with this third one I wanted it to be mostly original and have it be upbeat. And I think my goal with each one is to be better at communicating with the musicians and getting what’s in my head out on the record ’cause you can hear it in a certain way, and then you just kinda pass it along to the musicians around you, and they just kinda help create what’s in your head and help bring it to life.
“So, yeah, now I think of records more as a whole concept. It should have a unifying theme, whatever that is. But that’s how I’ve kinda gone forward. But again, writing more original story songs and keeping that part of the blues tradition alive is very important to me and kinda keeping this music with realness and truth and a commentary on the time.”
Vanessa Collier’s original music is eclectic enough that she could easily slip into a genre that’s more popular than blues, but it isn’t about that for her.
“Choosing a path and going forward, I always emphasize the passion. You gotta go for something. If it doesn’t work out, there’s plenty of jobs out there you can make money at. But that’s not the goal. Success is not how much money you’ve just made. It’s (about) you doing what you love. Are you happy doing what you’re doing? That’s the biggest thing.
“There may be people that don’t want to help you, but if then you push past your uncertainty and just take a leap, you’ll land somewhere. It may not be initially where you want it to be, but just go for it anyway.”
For more info on Vanessa, please visit her website at www.vanessacollier.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.