Erin Dickins: In Her Own Voice

Chris M. Slawecki By

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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 was a long time coming, but for singer Erin Dickins, recording her debut solo album Nice Girls (Champagne Records, 2010) proved well worth the wait.

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 country—not 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 cheap—or free—and work on our own stuff.

It was a pretty heady time. We were all un-phased by it—I 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 singer—kinda 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 that—and 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 everybody—crazy 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 over—I'll produce it," which was a great gift to me. So we tracked and sweetened with Rob in New York—and also Nick Vincent in LA—and cut vocals and mixed at Jesse's studio.
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