Friday, February 10, 2017

In Conversation with singer - Stacey Kay!

It was the summer of 2010 when a message arrived on Facebook from a gentleman who knew my work with singers and had come across a recent graduate from Sheridan College in the music theatre performance program he thought I should have a look and listen to. At the time, he was semi-managing and borrowing her voice for his original songs.

Everybody needs someone champion their abilities and push out beyond the breakfast table.

A video existed of the young singer on YouTube and a couple of comedy skits. First up – the music video – the May 2, 2008, Sheridan College Awards show. Surrounded by percussion, acoustic guitars, 23-year-old Stacey Kay sounds off on a Tom Waits song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” The video quality is of the time – blurred and low-res - you can barely see her face. But then the voice comes into play. What a set of pipes – perfect pitch, big emotion absent affectation and senseless embellishment. A full, rich soulful tone. A voice that could ring up Broadway or command the radio airwaves. And what stage presence!.

I replayed, and replayed and searched around for more videos. I then convinced her acting manager to put us in contact with each other. Facebook is deep in marauding predators and one understands that a formal introduction is mandatory. Stacey responded and invited me down to Kensington Market to a performance of her with a comedy/vocal troupe. Damn, was she ever stellar! One of a kind.

I have never wanted to manage an artist, that being a skill I prefer to dodge – so I invited Stacey to sing background on a single I was producing with Jane Bunnett & the Afro-Cuban Blues Project, “War on Poverty.” Shakura S’Aida had already laid down a testifying lead vocal and I figured the best way to introduce Stacey was to include her in the background vocals. Honestly, this could have gone either way. Both singers were on equal footing! Shakura, being the kind of person who welcomes and promotes young talent, made this a comfortable fit.

Eventually, Stacey came aboard with the Rockit 88 Band – played a few dates – even Canada’s Walk of Fame and recorded a single, then in the first year of Rhythm Express. Throughout, I kept Slaight Music appraised of this talented young woman and they signed her.

Stacey has big dreams. Early on, she’d confide in me that appearing on SNL was her goal or to simply meet Martin Short – which she eventually did. She also worked day and night driving a van loaded with promotion items to keep her dream on course. We’d both scour YouTube for the most outrageous laughs. Then comes the big question. What to do with Stacey Kay?

Stacey is Bette Midler wrapped in Etta James. She’s got big soul pipes and a polished theatrical stage presence. She can rap, she can belt, she can ballad, she can reinvent a song - she can! Eva Cassidy could sing anything; Stacey falls in the same category.

The past few years she’s been driving her a cappella group Eh440 all over North America and having a blast. Kay reserves ample time covering current pop hits a capella, and posting videos. Since 2010, the volume of video work is remarkable. Kay understands the medium and toys with it judiciously. The new single is called “Never Stop Lovin’ You.”

Rather than include a video of her making, I’ve chosen a special night at the Orbit Room, October 2011. Gary Slaight coaxed me into a CD release party behind my piano, bass and drum trio side, Five Aces. Somewhere during second set he insists Stacey and John Finley get up and sing together. That’s Jon and Lee & The Checkmates' legendary John Finley. The impromptu performance is pure magic. Everything I imagined of her potential was there to witness.

Stacey’s back home for a breather and I posed a few questions. Here’s that conversation.

What was the first song you ever sang?
“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King. It was also the first song I sang in a singing competition and won first place! My mom and dad tell me that it was after that day that they knew this might be a serious career for me.

Was there anyone you saw on stage you wanted to emulate?
Growing up in the '90s, I always loved the Spice Girls - they sang, danced, wore crazy clothes, they acted in their own movie, they had a really cool “show” that wasn't just about the singing. They all had different personalities, different stage clothes; they were five different characters. It was at that point when I realized, 'I am a character in real life, why not do it on stage too?' I was obsessed with watching their every move. I knew one day I would be on stage, just like those five girls.

Did you have early formal training?
Yes, a little. I was trained in Cambridge, Ontario, on-and-off with various singing teachers and dance teachers! They mainly taught me how to warm up, etc. Much later I found out (at the age of 18) that I had nodules on my vocal chords… because I was singing and speaking improperly throughout my childhood. I had to take a year off from singing to heal. To all the children out there learning how to sing properly? Training and practice are very important if you want to become awesome - but you need to constantly check in and see if you are receiving the proper training and your voice feels okay. It’s so hard to know! My parents knew I needed singing lessons, but how were we to know I was singing improperly?

How did you come to combine singing, theatrics with getting comfortable on stage?
My parents made me practice all the time. My dad is a counselor and we talked a lot about our feelings growing up - this truly helped because we also talked about confidence and individuality. At an early age, my parents put me in singing competitions (country music singing competitions, actually)! These were in front of huge audiences with a live band - and I did these competitions every year starting at nine years old. These competitions are truly the beginning of why I am so confident on stage. I had to learn how to perform with a band. I was all by myself up there and had to sing my heart out! From that point on, I also became a member of the local theatre in Cambridge (Galt Little Theatre) and acted in many plays. These opportunities combined are the beginning of the person I needed to be, coming on stage.

You’re incredibly outgoing. Do you ever get any flack for this?
I am lucky that I am outgoing because not everyone is. Being outgoing also makes me fearless on stage. But most outgoing people also have very strong-minded opinions. Which I think is amazing! But sometimes you can also take it too far. Example: I have something to say about everything even when it has nothing to do with me! Sometimes in certain situations, I need to learn to just… shut up! There are pros and cons to being outgoing - but  99% of the time, it has been a positive thing in my life.

Your time at Sheridan College. What were those years like?
Sheridan is an amazing but scary place. Coming from the city of Cambridge, there weren't many performers who were going to pursue a career professionally in the entertainment business. I remember the first day walking into class, hearing people warm up, watching people stretch a leg over their head, listening to a room filled with intelligent people speak: I realized from that moment it was going to be harder than I thought. If I wanted to keep up with all the amazing talent in this school, I was going to have to work my butt off. I did exactly that - but it meant I didn't get a lot of sleep and didn’t have much of a life outside of school. We had 22 classes a week, six days a week. When were we supposed to do homework? That’s why no one slept. They have since changed the program to four years instead of three years (phew)!

There was also an interesting dynamic between students and teachers. Some teachers didn’t like me, didn't like that I wanted to sing like Christina Aguilera and rap like Missy Elliott! They thought I was a joke and I wasn’t pristine enough for the program. They were trying to change me, and I had to make the decision to fight for the person I am. Teachers are not always right, and sometimes you only realize that after you’ve graduated. The Music Theatre Performance Program not only taught me about music, dance, and theatre, it taught me about life and how to deal with high-stress situations. It taught me how to deal with other human beings. I feel like I can do anything after graduating that course. Although I have made it sound like the hardest, scariest place to be, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue a career in music or theatre…. because the real world is harder and scarier!

What was your first performance after graduation?
I was really lucky and got a part in a play at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto - an amazing professional theatre people would die to be a part of. I had no idea how awesome it was until someone got mad at me for not knowing. It’s not like I was being unappreciative in any way. I had no idea the people I was working with were Stratford actors, award-winning playwrights (Morris Panych), and how much of an honour it was to be a part of this theatre. I just didn’t know how big of a deal it was at the time! At the same time, I was singing and writing my own music and trying to figure out where I “fit” in the music scene in Toronto. My friend Lili Connor put on a show in Kensington Market and asked me to sing in it. It was that show where I met Bill King (the awesome guy writing this article) and he showed me a whole other bigger, (and slightly scarier) world in the music industry! (Thanks Bill!)

Have you always been fully confident of your career choice?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Not everyone can say that, but yes. This is what I have to do! I am a performer, I was born a performer and I will die a performer. Have I been confident in every single choice I’ve made within this career? Absolutely not. It’s tough to know the right and wrong thing to do… but I try to mix up “the feeling in my gut” with a little common sense, and so far, that has worked out for me.

You worked a series of odd jobs while staying focused on your career. Would you recommend all aspiring artists find outside work?
Yes! This career is awesome, but most of the time you don’t make a lot of money. There are certain gigs where I’ve made tons of money, but then an opportunity doesn’t come up like that again for a while and you can’t live life just waiting for those big paycheques. It’s a very inconsistent career - and I had to accept that.

When I was first starting out, I was a server at many restaurants. I did promotional work and handed out free samples on the side of the road while driving a big van shaped like a Hershey’s chocolate bar. Crazy jobs that put money in my bank account. This money paid for my photo-shoots, the songs I recorded, the videos I made, the equipment I needed. These things helped me get to the point I am at today! This life is not for everyone - I have accepted that there is always going to be an “unknown” with my job. BUT I would rather that, than do a stable job I don’t love, just to make money. I would be so unhappy.

You distance yourself from distractions and stay focused on your career. How have you been able to say no in an industry littered with mishaps and big loss? 
You mean distractions… like alcohol and drugs for example? Well lucky (and sort of unlucky) for me I have a slight allergy to alcohol. I get red and itchy and I lose my voice immediately. If I take a sip it sounds like I have strep throat. I don’t drink at all. But I will also be the first and last person on the dance floor - so it’s not like I ever needed it to have fun! This has forced me to be confident in every situation. This career is filled with that kind of life - drinking at parties, drugs in the bathroom, getting high before shows - it’s never been the Stacey Kay way. I want to point out that I’m not against any of it at all, it’s just not the right thing for me specifically. I should figure out how to be myself, and be my confident self as this is happening around me.

When are you the most satisfied?
I recently had a satisfying night: I did a show and my boyfriend (my bass player), my best friends (other bandmates) were with me on stage. My boyfriend and I made up a dance to do to one of my songs and everyone in the audience went crazy because they’ve never seen him dance! (He’s awesome by the way). My whole family was there, and then I got to hang out with my family after and laugh, talk about the show, and analyze the night. It’s very satisfying for me to analyze things. I am very close with my family and don’t get to see them all the time because of my career choice. When I get to do all these things at once? Very satisfying.

You are signed to Slaight Music. How has the experience been?
Slaight Music is a company who funds artists, and I have been with them for a long time now. They are really great people and have introduced me to awesome people in this industry. They have invested long-term in my career and partnered me with great producers and songwriters. They genuinely care for their artists!

You embrace social media. What’s the upside for you? The downside?
I’m going to be brutally honest. I hate social media so much - I think it is the thing in the future that is going to ruin relationships. But it is part of my job. One thing with this industry is that you have to constantly change with the times, and if you don’t you get lost in a pile of musicians who want the same thing as you. I have to post pictures and videos and hope that I get likes and views - because that has turned into the 2017 way of measuring success. Facebook is a crazy thing, though. Facebook is now highly competitive with YouTube, because Facebook wants to be the most popular place to watch videos. They hide posts with YouTube videos in them or a post that even mentions YouTube! (I’ve done many tests). This has changed a lot for me. A video I would usually get 50K views for is now being hidden and no one can see it. But that’s a change I’m trying to get used to and I will figure it out :) Okay okay, I’m being a Debbie Downer.

The more positive side to social media is that I love making videos with my bandmates. I love singing music, I love that I can share what I’ve done with people all over the world! But I must know when I post videos; for every two amazing comments, there is going to be a very rude one. Once again - a test of confidence, and it’s the hardest one of all. People forget that there is actually a real person reading, 'You’re fat, you sing bad,' on the other end. But, Beyoncé gets those same comments and she is freaking amazing! I always think about Beyoncé when I get mean comments. I also was lucky enough to have a video go viral when I rapped in a Walgreens in South Carolina! (Comment from Debbie Downer: a guy stole the video and called it “Mum raps at Walgreens,” didn't put my name on it, and he has collectively over 35M views on the video.) Still cool though :)

EH440 – how did this come about?
Eh440 is my a cappella band! Young Stacey didn't ever think that she would be singing a cappella in a band that pays her bills! Those country music singing competitions I spoke of earlier? I met Janet Turner there. She was my biggest competition, but we were also friends because she is the nicest person of all time. Years later, I get this phone call asking if I would be interested in joining this a cappella band. I thought to myself, 'a cappella is lame' and imagined myself singing doo wop in a barber shop. But I never turn down any adventure! I met with Janet, Joe Oliva (bass singer), Mike Celia (a singer/songwriter from Toronto, who also didn't know anything about a cappella) and Luke Stapleton, aka, “The Human Record,” who is a beat-boxer. Once I heard beat-boxing in real life, my mind was blown. This sounded amazing to me, and they said, 'sing whatever you want, rap, riff, be yourself' and I knew that this would be something great. Joe said they were looking for 'five voices that didn’t have any earthly business being together.' They wanted the opposite sound of a typical a cappella band. We have been in a band together for five years now and travel the world. We are constantly on tour and it’s so much fun. Eh440 is also very respectful of my solo career, so I can do both things!

What are your long-term goals? Is there someone’s career you’d most like to channel?
Long term goals are: keep performing. I used to think, 'I’m going to be famous one day' and that was my goal as a teen. But that goal has changed. I’m okay with not being famous if I keep doing what I am doing. I want to mash up the career of Martin Short, Tony Robbins and Beyoncé. Ha! Sounds crazy, right?! Let me explain. I love the kind of concerts that Beyoncé puts on; full production, dancing, singing, videos, and lights. She is the boss and knows what she wants and I love that. Martin Short was on Saturday Night Live (my dream), and he had a one-man show called, Fame Becomes Me (but with a full cast - hilarious right)?! Lastly, I also do motivational speaking at high schools around Canada and the US, and speak about positive body image, staying confident and working hard. This would be something that I think I could make a business/career out of after I stop touring with Eh440 and my solo band. Right now? I keep pushing forward, and keep working as hard as I can to do what I do and be the best that I can be. I want to do everything! 

You participated in America’s Got Talent. Good? Weird?
Good and weird. It was a reality TV show. So yes, they made me fake cry. Yes, they tried to get me to argue with other contestants. Yes, they edited the show in a different way, than it actually happened. But how cool is it that I got to be on national television? I got to sing for Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and one of the original people who inspired me at a young age: Mel B from the Spice Girls. They also said, how many people are in your band? I told them nine. That’s a huge band. But I got to bring every single one of my friends and band mates to perform on stage with me, and my sister and Janet sang backups for me! Why not, right?

There is no doubt you have great pipes. How do you preserve and protect?
Not drinking alcohol “reallllly” helps. But also, because I sing so much, it’s like I am working out my voice at a gym every day. I can sing higher and lower than I ever have before. I can sing for two hours straight and not be tired. Having good sound onstage is also important to me because then you are not straining your voice. Technology and in-ear monitors really help. Warming up is also important. When I don’t warm up, I can’t sing for as long. I can’t hit notes as easily and I can’t rap as fast! If I don’t do certain mouth exercises before a show, I would never be able to rap as fast as I do. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Case Against La La Land

I’ve verbally slapped myself more than a few times trying to coax an emotion anywhere near the excitement academy members lustfully oozed awarding the motion picture La La Land a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations. “La La” is being touted a great musical – a breakthrough homage to musicals past and blueprint for future adventures.

Going in, I was willing to let the hype carry me as far as dignity would allow. I’m the guy who bought the score book for West Side Story and sits in front of the piano and marvels while flipping page to page at the notes scattered before me. How the hell did Leonard Bernstein come up with these glorious melodies, spectacular transitions, the orchestrations, and out-worldly harmonies? This is a page turner up there with the greatest novels ever written.

Late summer I caught Woody Allen’s Café Society. Reviews were all over the place from hate to love. Allen deserves our respect – at least that of musicians. Woodman plays honest with the music. Café Society is set in 1930s Hollywood and stays true to the moment with classic’s such as “Manhattan, My Romance, This Can’t Be Love, Mountain Greenery”, perfectly situated underneath the sumptuous visuals. For a film that received little fanfare and less publicity, it’s still pulled in $43,700,000 at the box office so far.

My partner and I fought for a clear view of the giant screen at the Varsity Cinema and fixed eyeballs straight ahead. “Bam” – the big opening – a lavish dance number in, around and on cars. Yes! This is grand. Wait! What the hell is going on with the song? I’m hearing this shallow vacuous non-stick sing-a-long that could have been borrowed from a mid-1970s Saturday Night Live skit. Remember the one with the Andy Williams like sweater kids, bopping to a white rhythm? Or at least one invested in humor much like those Lawrence Welk bip-alongs. Loved the title, “Another Day of Sun.” O.K. – move on. Here comes the story.

Jazz boy meets coffee shop girl. Jazz boy thinks about the big jazz jam; coffee shop girl wants to get into film. Jazz boy suffers for his art so he repeatedly plays this insipid whole tone piano riff as if this chunk of nothingness needs mastered. Where’s “All That Jazz?” I’m ready and willing.

Boy lands gig in super-club. Christmas time – Christmas music. Boy wants to blow some far-out jazz. Owner demands he play from a restricted list. O.K. Let me digress a bit. I’ve played at least fifty-five Christmas seasons and jazz-upped the songs. Never have I been fired for freshening the music up with a jazzy embellishment or harmonic rewrite. In fact, that’s when people drop by the piano and give you that –Wow! sign and the owner says thanks, “Great night!” Maybe west coast Christmas gigs in La La Land are quite different than the social parties we on the east coast are privy.
Composer Justin Hurwitz crafted the score for La La Land and last year’s other celebrated music film, Whiplash – another fairy tale of teacher abuses student to greatness. Bullshit!

I have greater animosity towards Whiplash than I do for La La Land. “La La” doesn’t reside in an institution of greater learning.  And nobody’s getting slapped around or demeaned – it’s just good old jazz suffering. I think?

As a film La La Land is fun. A diversion from day to day brain sucking Trumpettes. It’s sweet, likeable and a must needed reprieve from the dullness of work. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast and benefit from a finely tuned and witty script. That said – I gave the film a second and third try. Second visit lasted ten minutes; the third – 44 minutes. Couldn’t do it. One thing kept nagging at me – the fucking music! Beyond tolerating.

I’m neither here nor there with musicals – usually middle ground. I loved the musical Chicago – the songs were out of my love zone but I could sing them and got their choreographic purpose and occasionally perform with aspiring and celebrated vocalists. Serious craft!

I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set in 1900 in the Montmarte Quarter of Paris – the grand old cabaret house. I loved it so much it was a first stop when visiting Paris, a couple years back. Even the academy bought in, awarding it eight Oscar nominations back in 2001.

Golden Globes! This is when I hid in my imaginary mind shelter. No – say it ain’t so! Word leaks in - “La La” captures Best Original Score and Best Original song for Hurwitz.

I can get past the score thing even though I’ve heard grand music coming from Moonlight and other nominees. And let’s not forget Toronto’s own – Michael Danna’s Oscar win for Best Original Score from Life of Pi in 2013. Sheer brilliance!

But “Best Original Song”, this is where I push my damper pedal to the floor. “City of Stars “had me pulling my ears and lips off in the cinema. It was if the melody was produce-clichés run through a Veg-O-Matic - then formalized by a thought computer. How do you make something from nothing? You don’t. You just pretend it’s something. From the song’s introduction to film’s end that galling melody poked at me like an implement of Inquisition torture.

Movies are made to entertain and carry us beyond the normal and help us temporarily escape. My partner hates war movies and anything that has to do with Nazi’s. I appreciate. Anyone who has spent their life as a working musician has entertained every tone, chord, melody, score, chart, recording the ears could handle. We are somewhat sensitive to bland. Shitty? Bring it on. Never bland. The greatest crime of all.

Until recently I’ve lived mostly alone with my impressions of “La La” until I came across a musician’s forum on Facebook. Not an ordinary gathering of bar band musicians or weekend hopefuls – but the crème of the industry. In parting, here are a few of their thoughts. The names have been withheld to protect the not-so-innocent and that potential film composing gig.

“Watching all the nominations for the SAG awards I was transported by Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Lion, I had a great time watching Hidden Figures and Girl On A Train....but when it came to La La Land - I was embarrassed - it seemed like a high school.”

“Horrible songs. Well, you can't have anything.”
“The "jazz" was very white and west coast, totally lacking in soul or character or edge.”
“I totally agree, La La is an insult to singers, dancers, songwriters, and arrangers.
“Couldn´t agree more. His "jazz theme" was a joke.”
“The word, according to Zappa is, "Sears" - are those real musical songs or are they Sears songs? i agree. They were shallow and plastic; nothing memorable.”
“Totally agree. It's like when people ask me if I liked the movie Whiplash. FAKE!!!!!!!!”
“That's the best description of those songs I've heard yet. "Pretend Songs." Although I greatly appreciate everything that went into that movie, you can't really compare those particular songs to an actual, bona fide songwriter's songs. Just my personal opinion; so no haters please. I'm thrilled they made a movie that employed so many musicians & dancers.”
“Cruise ship quality. Typical of Broadway musicals. Trite clichéd lyrics.”

“Exactly. Nothing melodically memorable, nothing harmonically logical or interesting and absolutely nothing lyrically to say. (I nudged the woman next to me and said I would tell my 8th graders to try a new angle, find a catchy melody.....something ...”