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interview: elizabeth!

I first listened to elizabeth!‘s fresh mix of jazz and pop about three weeks ago thanks to our friends over at FeelingAnxious, and immediately, I was taken with her unique, catchy and refreshing sound — a jazz vocalist and a trombonist in a world of pop stars and rockers really makes her mark. elizabeth!‘s new album Brainchildren comes out on November 1, 2011 on Canopy Jazz and I highly recommend seeking it out to listen. Yesterday I interviewed her and would like to share the highlights with you lovely Lip readers.

Do you prefer playing an instrument or singing more?
It depends on the situation. In my own band, I tend to sing more than I play. When I am performing it’s usually singing and playing trombone. If I am playing with a big band, I am more likely to be playing trombone. I like to sing because it’s a mode of expression, with the lyrics. I like them both, they kind of inform each other. I sing a little bit more like a trombone player, I play trombone a little bit more like a singer. It’s great.

Who are your major influences?
On the jazz front, Chet Baker and Nat King Cole are very direct, they choose what they do very carefully and I appreciate that. Ella Fitzgerald is my be all and end all for jazz singers, the infectious joy in her voice. I grew up listening to a lot of pop, so Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Quincy Jones totally came from a jazz background. There’s such a lineage from blues to jazz to R’n'B to soul. When I am listening to music on the radio and there’s some sort of improvisation or element of jazz in the song, that’s the kinda moment that gets recorded that we strive for live. I also love late 80s and early 90s R’n'B, that’s something in there that’s bubbling to get out at some point. I don’t think I’d be rapping any time soon, but slow jams, ya never know.

Do you feel that being a female in the music industry, and really jazz specifically, limits you in any way? I.e., is it mainly men, and does that matter?
I was at a rehearsal this morning that was eight men and me, and that’s pretty typical. It’s not always the case, but I think that there are a lot of people in the jazz industry who paved the way for it to be normal for me to be at that rehearsal. I hope I do that. Sometimes I get singled out for being a woman in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way, I think it swings both ways. I want it to see it’s acceptable for a woman to be playing a trombone. I have an opinion and I am going to express it; it’s kinda cool that you can do whatever you want, that you can decide what you want. I’m the director of the Governor’s Institute of the Arts, in Vermont, so every summer I get to work with 120 high school students. right now it’s heavily female, but right now we’re hoping to even that out. It’s really great to be a role model for those younger women, and it’s harder to find those role models–how much internet research do you do to find your hero? If I can provide something, I am psyched to do it. I grew up thinking I could do whatever I wanted and here I am, here doing whatever I want.

What prompted your switch from neuroscience to music? Do you see similarities between the two?
I studied neuroscience in psychology. I still am interested in science but don’t do too much with it anymore. I studied language learning and decision making and those processes are human, frontal lobe, complex processes. Nobody really understands them, 50 years from now it’ll be like ‘I can’t believe that’s what we thought in 2011′. Because I am a human, I am able to make those decisions and complicated thoughts and keep track of a lot of things at the same time – melody, lyric, audience giving energy back. Another similarity is they each take a lot of study. You have to really want to do it. I enjoyed studying neuroscience, but I realized it wasn’t my passion. I realized that I liked to communicate–and music is my way to do that. Sort of at the end of college, I realized that, that my passion was music and wanted to give it everything I had.

I see that Brainchildren was inspired by travel across the world. Where’s your favorite place to visit? To play? To live? Where do you want to go?
One of songs off Brainchildren, ‘Santiago Sunrise’, was inspired by Chile while I was on tour with Michael Bolton. It’s more European than I was expecting. Another song that ends the album was written about Memphis, it’s a really fun dixieland thing. I’ve traveled all around Europe and South America and the US and Canada. I went to Prince Edward Island, just for pleasure, and it was so beautiful. When you travel around the world or country or city, you see that people are the same as each other. There’s so much that going on in the world, and right here, I sort of take this perspective that the more I meet people around the world, the more I see we’re looking for the same things. Basic human needs, family, wishing better for the next generation than for ones previous. It’s just fun to make those connections. I went to Russia last winter to this jazz festival, and it was amazing because we were cultural ambassadors there, representing Vermont in Russia. We got to have improvised music in a country where there is a lot of classical music without improvisation. Just laughing and sharing a meal, Russia does not seem like a far away place for me anymore. I just feel a connection there, and I hope people feel that there for me too. There are still so many places I want to go. I am hoping I could go to Asia sometime — a couple trips to China that almost happened but didn’t, China, Japan and Korea. Top of my list, pretty exotic. I enjoy traveling longer. I enjoy the adventure, that’s the best part of freelance, someone calls up and you just go. I’ve been fortunate to play in Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York. I like that, but I like to play most in a couple-hundred seat theater or somewhere with tables — I want to feel like for the next couple hours that we’re a temporary community. A space with thousands of seats is not like that. I like playing outside as well. It’s just fun and just feels great. Especially on trombone, singing in a beautiful hall with perfect acoustics is such a pleasure and playing outside is the best.

How do you feel about the internet’s in role in exposing and promoting your music?
Using the internet as a way to put my music out there, I think my first instinct is to say I am moving towards that because everyday there is some kind of new way of interacting, and I know that my children will take for granted things that haven’t even happened yet. I feel like it would be irresponsible to not connect with people through the internet. When Myspace and then Facebook came around, it was cool to meet people across the world. It’s great if someone can hear about me and then hear me because they click on a link, that’s amazing. I don’t have to drive around and hand out CDs. My second response is that it’s no substitute for live music. But then again, I started teaching lessons via Skype. It’s second-best though. Maybe the technology will get so good that live music will get more real, but I don’t think it’ll ever feel that you’ll feel like you’re in the same room. I grew up doing a lot of things that were live, my dad’s gigs and concerts and plays, and to see someone creating something in front of you is so powerful. Right now I don’t have a television, I’m in the phase where I am really engaged in the physical world. I draw a lot of inspiration for songwriting from connecting with the physical world.

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