I spoke to Audrey Silver, who is an extremely talented jazz singer from New York, about how she transitioned from business into music. We spoke about her musical influences as well as her current album and her upcoming album.
Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photo courtesy of Audrey Silver.
Carly Kutsup: I was reading your bio and I noticed that you went to Brown University and then Columbia University for business. What made the transition from being in business to going into music?
Audrey Silver: If you’d ever asked me what I want to do at any point in my life, what I truly wanted to do, I would have said be a singer, but I didn’t grow up in a family of musicians and it just didn’t seem like a real career option. I did a lot of singing in college. I studied music growing up, but I didn’t really give it a shot until after my son was born. I was staying home with him and loving being with him. I was really grateful that I was able to stay with him, but also feeling like blowing my brains out after a while and so I thought “All right. You know let’s see what I can do to sort of stimulate myself.” So, I went and looked for a class at the local Y and they were having a jazz ensemble class. They were auditioning for a singer and that was the beginning of the end. I went to the class, auditioned, and they took me as a singer. I did it for several years every single semester and the guy that ran the class was really a super talented jazz pianist whose father is one of the all-time great jazz guitar players. He grew up with all the legends at his house all the time. So, when he told me after I’ve been doing it for a few years “So are you gonna do this or not? You’re already better than half the people out there. What do you think?” I was like “If he says I can do it, then I can do it.”
CK: You’re speaking of John Rainey?
CK: I was reading about that. That he was one of the people who motivated you to get you to finally do this. Would you say that having a great teacher specifically in music or entertainment is a lot of the foundation to actually pursuing it is a career?
AS: I think it depends on the person. Some people are incredibly confident, and they really believe that they can do what they can do. I think having a great teacher makes you better at your craft no matter what, but I think I’m someone who needed to have someone tell me that I could do it, someone whose opinion I really trusted. There were a lot of people that said to me said “Oh, you know you’re such a great singer. You should be out there singing,” but I didn’t take anything seriously until he said it to me.
CK: I read that you said that one of your key obstacles along the way has been a struggle with clinical depression. I know a lot of artists can relate to this and say they use music and art to get through that depression. Would you say the same for yourself?
AS: Oh absolutely! There’s nothing better than enabling me to focus outside of myself than working, writing a song or practicing. I find that my energy level is just so much higher if I’m doing a lot of performing. It makes getting out of bed much easier every day knowing there’s this thing that I do that I believe in that I care about that is in process.
CK: Going back to the business aspect. I see that you did take business positions at CBS Masterworks and Chesky Records. Would you say that has helped you with navigating the business side of the music industry?
AS: I wouldn’t say a great deal. I feel like I understood the basics about what kind of materials that I needed to have to create a presence that I could then give to the press, but a lot of what I did was working with already established musicians who had labels behind them so it’s a different kind of structure. I actually feel like I learned a lot more in advertising. After business school, I worked in advertising and I learned a lot more in advertising about at least how to promote yourself. I understood the importance of repetition. That was extraordinary to me. Just looking at how the quality is important, but more how often we’re consumers seeing them. It’s just the repeated exposure makes such a difference being top of line for people.
CK: Would you say that social media has made that exposure drastically easier?
AS: Easier and harder. Earlier on probably easier. Now harder because it’s such a crowded place. There aren’t the kinds of niches for doing advertising. With magazine advertising you knew what demographic you were going after and you knew you could pick a medium that would fit that demographic and it wouldn’t be filled with advertising that wasn’t necessarily relevant to the people that were reading it. It was a less crowded field and it was a more targeted field. I don’t feel like social media has quite gotten there.
CK: If you had control over that how would you change social media for musicians and artists to make them be represented better and to get more of that focus?
AS: Wow! That’s a really good question. I think I have to spend more time thinking about that.
CK: I completely understand. I feel like with social media there’s both ends of the sword. I’ve noticed that the people and companies who spend more on the marketing on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms they do more recognition, but not necessarily better.
AS: Right. Somehow, it’s not focused enough and you think that given that there are targeting options for all of those that it would be better, but it’s not. It doesn’t seem to work out that way.
CK: So, I see that you did a different version of the King and I’s “Getting to Know You” and that you wanted to do more of a stalker version of it. What was the inspiration of turning it into more of a creepy, stalker version?
AS: Well, someone asked me to sing it with them on a radio program and I thought to myself “You know, it feels a little corny, but sure why not”, so I did it. Then afterwards I thought “That was so corny. Wouldn’t it be great if it could be really edgy.” I just thought about how you could reinterpret the lyrics. Like ‘getting to know you’ is very sweet and benign but how would it be if was actually threatening, crossing inappropriate boundaries getting to know you. So, I came up wit the idea and then I went to the guy that did all the arrangements for that album and I said, “Listen this is what I want to do. I want to do a minor, creepy version of it” and he just loved the idea and I loved what he did with it. He just went with it.
CK: As I was listening to your version of it, I thought “Wow! This is very different. This is actually creepy” and I could kind of see it as the theme for that Netflix show You.
AS: Oh I haven’t seen it.
CK: It would be a great fit for that show. I absolutely think the original is very sweet song, but like you said it can be twisted to really cross boundaries.
AS: I actually, this is just a hypothesis and I haven’t thought about it all, but as we’re speaking I think it could be that the sweetest songs are the ones that have the greatest capacity for being twisted.
CK: In your recent album you credit musical influences such as Annie Lennox and Bill Evans. What is it that you like about them?
AS: Annie Lennox, her voice. I don’t have a voice anything like hers, but the presence of her voice and the rawness and the edginess of it of her music while it’s still incredibly melodic is something that I love. It would be hard to figure out exactly where those things show up, but I’m positive that she’s shown up in some of my arranging and certainly in my songwriting, but I listen to her enough to know that she’s there. Then Bill Evans is absolutely in my improvising and it’s also with my song choices. When I listen to him, I often fall in love with the way that he interprets something, the way that he is feeling it and suddenly I have this whole new connection to a song.
CK: I noticed that you said that you feel different about songwriting now. That now it’s more of an emotional point than a verbal story. When did you notice that change or that shift being made?
AS: I don’t know if you’ve done any alternative questing in terms of dealing with depression, but I have, and one of the directions I’ve gone in is I’ve studied with that Native American medicine woman for now over 10 years. She is a huge believer in the healing properties of music and as I’ve thought about it, I thought about the fact that it’s your own personal energy that is reaching out to people and so that absolutely transcends the story that you’re telling. It’s a feeling. It’s a conscious of giving. When you’re doing it, it’s a consciousness of healing so while I think that the lyrics and the stories are also are still vital, I think the combination is the most effective.
CK: I see that you mentioned the Native American woman. Would you say she was the inspiration for learning the Native American flute or was there something else?
AS: She sort of was. I was at her house once and a friend of hers who is also a healer, and also Native American, showed up with his flute in his hand. I’d never met him before. He looked at me and he said “I was walking out of the house and my ancestors spoke to me and said that I needed to bring this with me and give it to you. I had no idea why. I was really annoyed and I didn’t feel like giving it away, but you’re the one who is supposed to have it.” So, I was like “OK that supposed to happen I better start playing it.”
CK: That’s really interesting. A few years ago, I went to Sedona with my family and I learned more about how we connect with nature and the healing properties of music. We did a session with a Native American flute player and it was just it was so relaxing. It really does transcend you to a totally different headspace and was a very healing method of music. Would you say that you try to incorporate that into your arrangements?
AS: I don’t really. I mean at this point I’m not really thinking about making specific sounds that are for healing purposes. When I’m writing music I try and be as clear channel as I can be so that whatever lyrics I get, whatever music is suggested by the lyrics coming from it, from the universe, with an idea towards it being a force of healing, but I don’t necessarily think about creating sound specifically for healing.
CK: How easy is it for you to either take a song that’s already arranged, and people know very well and to change it up so that it sounds completely different?
AS: Sometimes it’s easier. I do like doing that if I feel like it’s called for. I just recorded a new album and it’s songs from the musical Oklahoma. First, I always loved the musical. When I was 10 years old my parents asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said I want my friends to come over and I want to watch Oklahoma so they had my friends come over and projected it the wall and they all sat on the stairs and watched it. I did a lot of research into the show and into the history of Oklahoma before I before I started working on it and the book that Oklahoma is based on is called Green Griddle Lilac and is written by this guy who grew up in Oklahoma just after the land rush and his mother was part Cherokee and within the story there is constant references to Native Americans. They always refer to the fact that they are living in Indian territory, which is what it was at the time and the show itself is completely and literally whitewashed. There is not a single Native American mentioned about, not a character, nothing. That whole territory belonged to the Native Americans and a part of what happened is the Native Americans fought on the side of the confederacy so the US government after the Civil War were really pissed off and felt like giving the land to people who they felt really needed land and so in 1888/1889 they lined everyone up on the border of Oklahoma and they shot off a gun and people just went as fast as they could with flags and they put a flag down and staked their claim. It didn’t matter whether there were Native Americans there already or not.
So I started doing the songs from Oklahoma I didn’t feel that I could do it without in some way acknowledging the presence of the Native Americans. The person who did the arranging on it, I talked to him about what I wanted to do and I said I think one of the ways to do it would be to bring the Native American flute into the an arrangement. So it sort of starts with the Native American flute and then there’s just some chords with piano, guitar and then he starts a groove, but the groove is a very classic Native American traditional beat and then some of the rhythms and some of the harmonies are also pulling from Native American traditional music. So, it’s a very different sounding Oklahoma than anyone has ever heard. It drew specifically from what the intent was in at this desire to say OK you know yes it’s this beautiful place that people feel connected to. They know they love the land, but there’s another presence there and that needs to be intermingled with whatever is going. That’s an example of how that would come about.
CK: I grew up listening Peter Gabriel’s Salisbury Hill. I loved your arrangement. How did that come about?
AS: I certainly have listened to it lots of times, but I haven’t listened to it in years and I was in the car with my son. My son is 24 and he listens to a lot of stuff I don’t really like, but he also listens to a tons of 70s music and 80s music and so he was playing stuff from his phone and Salisbury Hill came up and I was like “I love this song” and I stated listening to the lyrics and I thought “Oh my gosh these lyrics are extraordinary.” Having studied with someone who is Native American and you come up this hill and see the city light and an eagle flies out of the night, it has a message for you. I was like “OK I need to know more about this” so I spent a lot of time reading the lyrics and trying to figure out what it was he was saying. There are a lot of different interpretations of it, but to me it like it felt like the universe had spoken to him and said, “You know you have to do your own thing. You have to not follow other people’s paths.” When Peter Gabriel talks about it he says that it was about his decision to leave Genesis and which I think makes sense, but I also think it was a much broader decision and wasn’t just about “Ok I’m leaving this band.” That it was about that I have this other path to go on and people may not understand it but I you know I thought this information and I really need to honor it.
CK: Are there was any songs that you would love to cover but have yet to do?
AS: I thought about a bunch the other day, but I can’t remember what it was. There is nothing in particular right now. But it’s funny, I was listening to The Beatles and their song Cecilia. That’s a possibility. I happen to love that group. I’d love the rhythm of that song. It is just so amazing and even if I don’t end up covering that tune, I might do something with that rhythm.
CK: Yes, the Beatles were very experimental with their sound. Is that something that you would like to explore?
AS: It’s incredible what they do. I’m a little more sort of like everything that I do happens in the moment in the studio. I just love the sound of the instruments and I think between the beauty of the instruments and the incredible ability of the people that I play with, their ability to improvise ideas and come up with ideas in the moment to me is all you could ask for so at this point I’m not really that interested in doing anything really innovative production wise.
CK: Would you say that the flow between a musician and a singer is extremely important to a track?
AS: Absolutely. To track, to a performance. For me, working with someone who is first of all listening and who has wonderful ideas it’s like you’re constantly feeding off of one another and responding to one another. It’s part of the joy of this specific genre of music.
CK: I’ve seen that you have piano, trumpet, bass, drum, and guitar on your albums. Are there any other instruments that you would like to add to any future albums?
AS: Oklahoma has less. There’s no drums; there’s no bass. It’s piano, guitar and then there are some songs that have a string quartet on them so that would be an instrument that I would like to add and have added. There are also a couple of tracks that have piano, guitar, bass clarinet and percussion. I’m open to things.
CK: Do you think that growing up and living in New York City has had any influence on your career?
AS: Oh, it has to have. I listen to a lot of music growing up. I grew up going to the symphony, going to the orchestra, going to the opera, going to hear Broadway shows so the idea of a culture of music was very much something I was exposed to and liked being part of. There is a tremendous amount of extraordinarily talented musicians here.