Erin Dickins: In Her Own Voice
“ Kids are getting their programs cut in school, yet we know that involvement in the arts, the performing arts in particular, is transformational to kids. ”
Several musical lifetimes ago, Dickins was a founding member of The Manhattan Transfer and appears on their first album, Jukin' (Capitol, 1971). While she has remained close with Tim Hauser, another ManTran founding member, Dickins has since performed and recorded with artists in an impressive range of styles, from James Brown to Leonard Cohen, from Jaco Pastorius to Bette Midler, and too many others to mention. Not even Dickins remembers them all. "Drummer Ed Shockley used to call me 'everybody's everything' because that is what is required of a studio singer," Dickins recalls. "Being whatever personality that they were looking for that day."
It was not until she began to work on her own debut that Dickins began to recognize and understand the sound of her own voice. Nice Girls encapsulates all that Dickins loves about singing by featuring a varied program of standards ("'Tain't What You Do"), originals ("Long Ago and Far Away"), a show tune ("Loads of Love" from Richard Rodgers' No Strings) and a French torch song ("Je Cherche Un Homme"), all under the cover of Dickins' animating take on "Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast," a hit for Julie London. "It reminds me of Jukin' in that it's a little bit eclectic musically," she explains. "It's got pop feels, some more obscure older tunes, it's not just straight jazz standards."
Dickins put her first solo album together with pianist/arranger Jesse Frederick, who produced it in his own studio with instrumental support from pianist Rob Mounsey with bassists Francois Moutin and David Finck, and drummer Ray Marchica, who also kept time on Barbra Streisand's recent One Night Only (Live) (2010, Sony), recorded at the Village Vanguard.
AllAboutJazz: You were on Jukin', the first Manhattan Transfer record in 1971. When was the last time you heard that album, and what does it remind you of now?
Erin Dickins: I actually heard it last week (late October 2011). I like that record. It's held up for me. It's on my iPad and in a couple of my playlists. I especially like some of the early jazz vocalizations that we did. It was really our first foray into that kind of harmony.
It reminds me of a lot of things. It reminds me of my youth and of how free that time was. We recorded anything we felt like, something that I've never done since. Anything we wanted to try, we tried. Some of it worked, and some of it didn't, but what an extraordinary time of exploration for all of us. It reminds me also of those people. I'm still in contact with Tim Hauser regularly, and with Gene Pistilli, and Marty Nelson from time to time. We recently lost Pat Rosalia; sadly, she died about two months ago. But I think of her a lot when I listen to that and hear how much fun we had and how close we were, and think of how those friendships have endured.
On a whole other note, it reminds me of what corporate greed is doing to our countrynot only our economy, but to our souls. We just recently found out, not from Capitol Records but surreptitiously, that they are planning on releasing Jukin' again. Only they've never paid us a dime of royalties for the first five times they released it. We figure that if they want to release it again, they've probably done all right. I've written, Tim's written, Gene's written, and they just ignore us. We've sent certified letters from attorneys, and they just ignore us. It's a little bittersweet having that hang over it because we really love that album. All of us do. In fact, Tim recently wrote a piece on Pat that I published in my blog, and one of the things he said was how proud he was of the work that we did on that first record.
AAJ: Your biography includes a pretty wide-ranging list of performance and recording credits, and we'd like to ask for quick reflections in three completely different directions. What did you do, and what was it like to work, with James Brown, Leonard Cohen, and Talking Heads?
ED: After I left the ManTran, I became a Manhattan studio singer when it was extremely busy, which explains the diversity of the work that I was doing. We were a small group of singers, maybe twenty, and we'd go from studio to studio singing for huge stars. We might do an American Airlines commercial in the morning, then have lunch, and then go sing for Roberta Flack or Leonard or somebody like that. Then we'd stay up all night in the studio, when it was cheapor freeand work on our own stuff.
It was a pretty heady time. We were all un-phased by itI only had awe afterwards. While you're in the middle of it, it's normal. Talking Heads, I loved working on Little Creatures (Sire, 1985). My only regret is that David Byrne wasn't in the studio. I really wanted to meet him.
AAJ: Part of the reason for asking is because that album was sort of the beginning of the end of that band. Did any of that tension or hostility meet you in the studio?
ED: Not one bit. They were extraordinarily professional. Tina (Weymouth) was producing that particular session.
AAJ: Do you remember what songs you appear on?
ED: I was on "Stay Up Late" and I think I'm on "Television Man"you know, I've listened to the album so much that I now no longer remember. They did two sessions with professional, New York background singers, and the one that you can really hear my voice on is "Road to Nowhere." The beginning, in the top part: "Well, we know where we're going...." You can hear my voice so clearly on that, and I love that, as does my husband Tony, who plays it for everybody. Tina knew exactly what she wanted, and it made it a very tension-free session, but David was not in the studio. Maybe that's why it was tension-free. I equate working with her like an actor working with a great director: It makes your job very easy. I remember, in between takes on the first date we did, we were discussing (singer) Ellen Bernstein's balsamic vinegar, raspberry, and walnut oil salad dressing. No one was going, "Oh, my God! We're singing for Talking Heads!" That happened about ten years later.
James Brown was very different. James was someone with whom I simply worked on a session. It was later in his career and I think he'd gone through a couple of arrests and he was certainly a little worse for the wear. Not vocally, but he almost seemed kind of absent emotionally. I felt no connection with him. He was blank. He wasn't reachable. I don't know why that was. He was very happy with the background vocals, so I don't think it was anything like that. He used them; damned if I can remember which album it was.
I was the vocal contractor. I hired a good friend of mine, Gail Kantor, a fantastic singerkinda straight, a little more cabaret, not so much an R&B singer but so good that she's an asset on any session. I also had been working with Janis Ian, who was a friend. We had done stuff on a project of hers when she said that she wished she was doing more studio work but no one ever called her because they thought she wouldn't do it. So I called Janis Ian. It was kind of an odd bunch, really, to do a James Brown thing, but she was fantastic. As I recall, she sang the bottom part and she was earthy and funky. She's such a good musician that I wasn't worried about her molting into whatever was called for.
Like most of these sessions, it was a one off: You went in, you met James, you worked up an arrangement for him, you sang it, and you went home. Sometimes people will say to me that they loved me on this, that, or the other, and I have no recollection of doing it. Which proves that I really was around in the seventies, right?
AAJ: And the poet laureate of Canada, Leonard Cohen?
ED: Leonard is extraordinary. I don't think you could even begin to touch who he is; he's so complicated and powerful. I toured with him extensively, in the States and in Europe. I had the great pleasure of doing the backgrounds for New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974). That was produced by John Lissauer, who was also musical director for our tours and wrote the arrangements. He did another record for Leonard that I also sang on; I forget the name of it but it had "Hallelujah" on it, which was amazing, too [Various Positions (Columbia, 1985)].
Leonard is dark, and he can appear sinister, but he plays like a child. He never discusses his artistry. He's a great theorist. He likes to explore thought. And he's so commanding onstage. I remember in Berlin, girls were screaming like it was a Beatles concert, throwing flowers at his feet, and he was so composed and gracious, such the elder statesman. He was forty at the time, which is not so "elder," but he was like a grandfather figure. He's got such an old soul and I think he is almost amused by the darkness he has.
But he also is hilariously funny, in completely unexpected ways. He would do stunts on airplanes that today would get us thrown into jail. Onstage, we would do a set, then take a short break, then he would come back out and do three or four solo songs, which were usually pretty poignant and heavy"Famous Blue Raincoat" and stuff like thatand then the band would come back out. One time, he insisted that, when we came back out after his solo set, we all crawl back out. We thought it was pretty funny. The audience was baffled.
Another time onstage in Barcelona, he held a bunch of hotel keys in his hand as he began to introduce the band. He'd say we're all staying at such and such a hotel, and this is Johnny Miller on bass and that Johnny Miller is in room 358, and then chuck the hotel key into the audience. We didn't know that they weren't really our keys, but imagine being a twenty year-old girl singer at that moment.
Leonard probably played the biggest role in shaping me as an artist. He taught me about authenticity. He taught me the difference between being a singer and being an artist, and caring about art, caring about authenticity in your voice, and caring about being real, and valuing and honoring that by not selling yourself short. He is a huge mentor to me. Not that he ever said a word about it.
AAJ: Who is in your current band? How did you meet and how long have you been performing with Rob Mounsey, for example?
ED: I have two words for you: Face Book. Rob is an old friend of mine. I worked with him in studios in the 1970s. He was the hot young arranger, so we've known each other for years. We reconnected on Facebook. After I decided that I wanted to record, I wasn't really making progress locally, so I made some ridiculous comment to him on Facebook and then said, "Why don't you play on my new CD?" He messaged me right away, "I would love to. Who do you want to work with? Why don't you come up and we'll put it together? We'll do it." What a gentleman he is, and a singer's dream. There are so few pianists with such great talent, who listen so perfectly and become one with you so quickly. He's extraordinary.
Rob's suggestions for my rhythm section were spot on. Of course, I knew of David Finck, who's played with just about everybodycrazy good. I did not know Ray Marchica, who is now my favorite drummer. He is right up there with Chris Parker. Ray is just made for me. And I had a great surprise: We did a couple of dates with a bassist who I did not know, François Moutin. He is fantastic, so melodic. That boy can swing.
I first decided to make a CD because my great friend and producer Jesse Frederick had moved home to the East Coast and had a wonderful studio. I said that I kind of feel like recording, and he said, "Come on overI'll produce it," which was a great gift to me. So we tracked and sweetened with Rob in New Yorkand also Nick Vincent in LAand cut vocals and mixed at Jesse's studio.
AAJ: How satisfying has it been to release your solo debut about forty years after your first recording experience?
ED: When you say "forty years," I kind of think that maybe you're talking about my parents or something. It's so surreal that I almost don't even connect with it. An old friend, the great drummer Ed Shockley, used to call me "everybody's everything" because that is what is required of a studio singer. Being whatever personality that they were looking for that day. So I spent many years really not expressing my musical voicenot knowing what that voice was, but knowing that I had one, from all the things I had learned from Leonard. So "satisfied" maybe isn't quite the wordmaybe "relieved," maybe "grateful," to be expressing "me."
Jesse has known me since we were teenagers, has sung with me, and knows my voice inside and out. He didn't let me do a lot of takes. He wanted mehe didn't want "studio me." He wanted honesty. The feeling of connecting with my authentic self, and then listening to the playback and saying, "Wow, that's what this sounds like," was very cool.
AAJ: Nice Girls runs a nice maturation of emotions, beginning with the doe-eyed naiveté of "I Just Found Out About Love" but moving through some pretty mature themes and moments, such as "Long Ago And Far Away." Did the songs suggest kind of a theme when you looked them over in total or programmed them in order?
ED: I did the sequencing and I think I did have in the back of my mind going down a path. I didn't see that the dots necessarily connected directly to each other, but I didn't want to get into the heavier stuff until later on, that's for sure.
More than anything, I choose songs that choose me. We demoed about thirty songs, all of them great. There are a zillion great songs. But I'm not a standards singer. I'm not only a jazz singer. I like a lot of genres. What is consistent in my song choices is that the lyric has to move me profoundly, and I really am a sucker for a great feel, especially a great swing feel. So these were the twelve that I fell in love with. I've felt all those feelings and I am all those girls when I'm singing those feelings. So it's consistent for me, and it reminds me of Jukin' in that it's a little bit eclectic musically. It's got pop feels, some more obscure older tunes; it's not just straight jazz standards. That's about as much of a theme as I had in mind.
AAJ: "Long Ago and Far Away" is just so beautifully, almost timelessly, sad. Could you explain a little bit about recording this tune?
ED: It took me weeks before I could sing all the way through that song without crying. Lyrics make me cry often and I had to practice and practice that song in order to make it through. It almost didn't make the CD. It's an original composition by Jesse and he thought that it was too sad. "We've got a good groove going here, everybody's feeling the love," he said, "and now you're going to bring them down." But I don't think it's sad. The reason it makes me cry is because I see my own past in that lyric. I feel as if I was that person. I feel that regret for not being kinder. I feel like I hope that I have achieved some of the growth that Jesse has, as he was writing about his own youth.
When we're young, we have a lot to learn about grace. You see kids being cruel. You see teenagers being cruel. You see twenty-somethings so full of themselves and not really knowing what's going on around them and how they're hurting other people. I don't think the song is sad because such great hope is expressed in the fact that Jesse got ithe made the change. He learned to cry and feel, and that kind of gives you hope that the rest of us can make changes. I find it to be a look at the past with great hope for the future. And some regret. And some melancholy.
AAJ: Could you explain your remake of the Julie London hit "Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast" and why it's the title track?
ED: It wasn't going to be the title track. But one day I was thinking about my mom, who's long gone, while we were listening to rough mixes. And it came into my head: She used to say, "Nice girls don't kiss on the first date. Girls from nice families don't speak that way. Nice girls would never..." I thought, "Well, if anything was ever custom-made for me..." My mother would be very, very pleased to hear me talk about what nice girls do. Plus, it's just sexy and wonderful. It's a fantastic song, really, when you think about it.
I like the double entendre at the end. Does that mean that she's a nice girl who did stay, or that she's not a nice girl, or...you're kind of left wondering about it. I love to sing this song live because the audience always chuckles when they hear "Nice girls don't stay for breakfast" at the beginning, then they have to wait all the way through the story to get the hook. It's so fun because I see people become as delighted as I was the first time I heard that line.
AAJ: What inspired the cover of "Tain't What You Do"?
ED: The feel. That's the other part of the equation of Erin the singer. That tune swings so hard. It's just so outstanding. That's a Trummy Young song, written with Sy Oliver, and it's cocky and it's swinging and it's happy and it's a mood that I love to be in. When I first heard Francois play it in the studio, it was all I could do to get the notes out. I was beside myself. I don't think I've ever heard a feel I like better.
I'm not a fancy singer, I'm not a note-y singer, I'm a singer who likes to feel in the pocket. I like to tell the story and deliver the lyric. Something like "Tain't" is probably not one of the all-time great compositions, but it has its place in my heart.
AAJ: There's a lot of clever wordplay on Nice Girls, even from such titles as "Stayin' Is the Only Way to Go" and "Walkin' with Your Barefeet On." What do you like to read and do you like to write?
ED: I do write, not as frequently as I would like. But I'm a decent writer, and I have a blog that I think is expressive and fun. While I'm not all that clever, I like the craft of writing and I think that I'm not bad at it. You're a fool to think you're any good at if you don't work at it hard, because a craft is a craft. You don't get to be a great writer by not writing. I do enjoy the hell out of it.
I also don't read as much as I would like. I tend to get completely engrossed in books and not go to sleep until they're finished, so that's why I don't pick them up too oftenit gets in the way of everything, including music. But one of my all-time favorite authors will come as no surprise to you: James Thurber. He's so fantastic. I'm a big fan of his short stories. Maybe my favorite one is the one called "Which." It's about grammar. Oh my god, it's funny and so clever. I've read excerpts from, "Is Sex Really Necessary?" Hilarious. I love him.
I'll tell you something funny about Thurber. My mom lived in New York and was not only a press agent but a dancera "Rockette" at Radio City Music Hall. She knew James Thurber and they used to hang out at this bar called Madden's Steak House in the Upper East Side. Thurber had a glass eyehe lost an eye as a kid in an accidentand she told me that he had a special glass eye that he only wore on holidays and it had an American flag on it. He would walk into the bar with his American flag eyeball. Isn't that fantastic?
AAJ: What singers have inspired and continue to inspire you?
ED: So many. I like so many genres of music. I really like rock 'n' roll. I'm crazy about Sting, crazy about Dr. John and Randy Newman. What Sting can do with 5/4 and 7/4 to make you feel it, and his lyrics, and his voice. I am also a huge fan of Eva Cassidy.
When I was growing up, my dad was a wonderful amateur musician who played the guitar, piano and banjo. We had a record player when I was young but the only recordings we had were Broadway shows. I remember my favorite was Wish You Were Here, a musical by Arthur Kober and Josh Logan. Not a very well-known show, but I loved it. My poor parents: When I like something, I play it a thousand times. I can't hear it enough times.
Then when I got to be ten or twelve, we got a little Victrola that played 45s and the first record my mother came home with was something called "A Little Bit of Soap." I don't remember the band, but it was a hit for a minute. One year for Christmas while I was still a teenager, she got me Barbra Streisand's third album, which had "People" on it and also "Bewitched." I used to go into our garage, which had a lot of natural echo, and sing those songs; meanwhile, I'd go into my bedroom and be listening to folk music like Dave Van Ronk singing about cocaine running all around your brain ("Cocaine Blues"), which my mom was not happy about.
Singing, to me, wasn't just about the beautiful voice, it was about the emotion. Joni Mitchell captured me very early, as did Judy Collins. As did Bob Dylan. Those aren't necessarily singer's singers. In terms of jazz singers, Billie Holiday has always moved me greatly. Boy, you wanna talk authenticthere's no show biz in her; it's all about the song. Tony Bennett influenced me a lot, and the great pianist Bill Evans has influenced me especially when he played with Tony Bennett. When I heard that, it changed my approach to jazz ballads forever. That marriage is extraordinary. Together Again (Concord, 1976) is astounding. I listen to it all the time.
I loved Astrud Gilberto, quite young. I love the texture of her voice and her subtlety. I never listened to just plain standards a lot. Like, I didn't listen to a lot of Peggy Lee. I listened to Ella Fitzgerald more because she was kind of loose and she'd scat with Louis Armstrong and could really swing. And I cannot forget Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Jon Hendricks is still doing it.
AAJ: Your voice sounds very much suited to "My Foolish Heart" from Tony Bennett's work with Bill Evans.
ED: It's beautiful. I'll tell you what I do off that album and I'm going to record it for my next album: "We'll Be Together Again." It was written by Carl Fischer, who took it to Frankie Layne who wrote lyrics to it.
From left: Tim Hauser, Erin Dickens
AAJ: When it's just you and you're all alone and blue, what two or three songs do you sing to yourself?
ED: My first, immediate response is that I don't want to sing, I just want my dog! It's not so much that I sing to myself. I'll say that again: I really don't. But misery loves company, and so when I'm down, I pick some heart-wrenchers. Jackson Browne has a song called "All Good Things (Got to Come to an End)." That Jackson Browne album I'm Alive (Elektra, 1993), which also has "Too Many Angels," was recorded right after he broke up with Daryl Hannah, and it was the most self-indulgent, bummed-out album, but that's up there. The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans (1975, Fantasy) album. Another song that I really love and which comes into my mind a lot is a Gershwin tune called "But Not For Me." There's something about the way that the melody rubs against the changes that is wrenching.
AAJ: Getting back to Joni Mitchell, do you have a favorite record or timeframe of hers?
ED: I do have a favorite record and it's not what you think it will be. You're going to have to help me with the title of it. It's the one that has "Car on a Hill" and "Help Me" on it [Court & Spark (Asylum, 1974)]. She's an amazing, amazing musician.
AAJ: What did you think of her orchestral record, Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000)?
ED: When you asked me that question about my CD having a themenow, Joni, talk about a theme, from young love to lost love! I thought you were headed there when you asked that question because Both Sides Now is one of the best themed albums I've ever heard. Her song selection is just fantastic and the arrangements are perfection. A lot of people don't like it because her voice is so shot, but I think it's a masterful recording.
AAJ: Would you tell us about the performing arts summer program you founded, SummerFame?
ED: SummerFame is a program that came out of a partnership with a great friend, Alex Handy. For about nine years, he and I produced great big musical comedy revuesand when I say "great big," I mean 200+ in the cast and crewevery year, to benefit Habitat for Humanity in my little hometown in Maryland. After the last one, we had cumulatively raised enough money to build three houses. There are no words for the feeling that one gets from doing something as passionate as music, what I love most, and seeing it help my community.
We wanted to do something ongoing in our community around the arts. At that time, there were many cutbacks in music and art programs in schools, so we started an organization called the Community Alliance for the Performing Arts. Our plan was to benefit theatre and to keep theatre alive: One of the biggest problems that Broadway has is wondering how they're going to get butts in the seats in the future because we are not engendering a passion for theatre in young people. If you don't inspire the next generation, the art form is no longer supported.
Kids are getting their programs cut in school, yet we know that involvement in the arts, the performing arts in particular, is transformational to kids: It raises test scores, raises confidence, helps them with coping and teamwork skills, and teaches anti-bullying techniques. It is the best thing that you can do for kids.
At SummerFame, we immerse kids grades K-12 in all three disciplinessinging, dancing, and actingand now also in film. We teach them behind the camera and in front of the camera arts and stage craft. They learn costume design and makeup, lighting and stage management. One fun thing we did was, in order to get our younger kids into Shakespeare, we asked them take a verse and put it to popular music that they liked. One of the most successful ones took a few verses and wrote a hip-hop tune for the verses. When we asked the kids to read these verses the first time through, they didn't understand the dialogue; but after we broke it down and they put it to music they liked, they understood it. They wanted to do more Shakespeare.
We work with these kids for a few weeks and they present recitals. Then we have a theatre company that takes these kids and gives them roles whenever possible: Some of the kids work backstage or get involved in other productions or workshops with local community theatres.
I stepped down several years ago, and they've now rolled our program into another children's program with the Avalon Foundation, a very active foundation in the area. SummerFame still exists today, and it's fantastic. I'm proud of it, and when you see the changes in the kids...one year, there was a girl who came in overweight, had no friends, wouldn't talk to anybody, sat in the corner and ate her lunch alone, refused to dance, and didn't want to sing. She was terrified. By the end of her two weeks, she had made a ton of friends and was a lead dancer in a number from Grease, right up front. I was so happy for her it made me cry. Her life had changed.
AAJ: Have you finalized any dates for Europe and/or China in 2012?
ED: China's been a tough nut to crack. We talk and talk and negotiate and we've made great progress, but nothing is inked yet. Sadly, my first booking in Bangkok was cancelled. They've been experiencing such extraordinary floods; there are probably between three and four hundred thousand homeless people, the water is ten feet deep in some areas of Bangkok, and a lot of industry has been lost. It's very sad.
We've been invited to Canadian Music Week in March 2012 as one of the first jazz artists they've ever had; they're adding jazz to the program this year. We're attending the Jazz Ahead conference in Bremen, Germany in April, and we're booking dates in Germany, Austria, and Benelux around that. I am also developing a new project for European festival dates with an old friend who's a fabulous rock guitarist, Elliott Randallyou probably know his work with Steely Dan. Our collaboration is called, "Rock Me to the End of Jazz," based, of course, on Leonard Cohen's great song "Dance Me to the End of Love." Elliot and I are taking jazz tunes in my style and moving them out of the genre into a new soundscape. I have a live recording of "We'll Be Together Again" which I sent over to Elliott. It's with pianist Stefan Scaggiari, an extraordinary musician who will hopefully play all these tour dates with me. Right now, while we're talking, Elliott is mixing his soundscape guitar on top of that jazz tune, just taking it straight out of its box. We're having so much fun. We also have some originals, some which Jesse has written, that we're going to start working on soon. We're planning to do a bunch of dates together in 2012.
Since we couldn't go to Bangkok this December, I have been invited instead to an October 2012 conference called Bangkok: City of Jazz. I've been asked to serve as panelist and Stef Scaggiari and I have also been asked to do jazz outreach programs in Bangkok for Thai children on behalf of the American embassy. We are booking some Asian festivals as well. There is so much going on right now...some Spain dates, a South African thing and possibly some dates in Australia. I am very grateful and really excited about everything that's coming my way.
AAJ: What else is happening in your career and your life?
ED: I've started studying again. I found a remarkable voice teacher who insisted that the best way she could help me, before she even got near my voice, was to make me a better pianist. No more hunting and peckinggood piano playing. So then voice and piano led me to discover the Alexander technique, a practice that one does for balance and coordination and posture, a "being centered" kind of a thing. It's especially beneficial for musicians. I can't tell you what this does to your brain. I feel like a college studentit's like I'm taking three courses!
AAJ: Okay, so why don't nice girls stay for breakfast?
ED: You know, there's an old musicians' joke from the 1970s: What's the first thing a chick singer does in the morning? She puts her clothes on and goes home. I think that there are plenty of nice girls who are staying for breakfast, I really do, but maybe we just don't want our moms to know.
Erin Dickins, Nice Girls (Champagne Records, 2010)
Talking Heads, Little Creatures (Sire, 1985)
Bette Midler, Songs for the New Depression (Atlantic, 1976)
Leonard Cohen, New Skin for Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974)
Manhattan Transfer, Jukin' (Capitol, 1971)
All Photos: Courtesy of Erin Dickins