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Erin Dickins: In Her Own Voice

Chris M. Slawecki By

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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 voice—not 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 word—maybe "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 me—he 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 it—he 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 often—it 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 dancer—a "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 eye—he lost an eye as a kid in an accident—and 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 authentic—there'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.
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