Faith Gibson: Shooting for the Big Moon

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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Jazz is the most personal and most pliable form of music I know.
Faith GibsonJazz vocalists have struggled through the years to make room for their contributions to the art of improvisation that appear effortless. Their voices are their instrument, an instrument that has to compete with tenor saxophones, drum kits or trumpets; an instrument whose strength rests in the necessity humanity has to communicate with others.

To Faith Gibson, vocal jazz has been a gift that life and time laid at her door step a few years ago, transforming her into a new, more confident and brilliantly delicate vocalist; whose voice became the instrument she chose to utilize to communicate to the world around her.

This Pennsylvania native moved to Germany 25 years ago, created a family and in the middle of a very busy life, searched for the kind of music she could sing for others. Jazz was the answer, and Gibson released her first studio album in 2004, You don't know me (Juke Joint, 2004). That was the beginning of a fabulous adventure that has taken her to several different stages in Europe, and has allowed her to record a second, much awaited, album in Berlin in April, 2009, to be released in June.

Big Moon(Capricopia, 2009) is a compilation of songs following the tradition of The Great American Songbook and its ever-enchanting romanticism, melancholy and always hopeful yearning for love. Songs by Christopher Morse, David Gill, Emmanuel Hérault, Duke Ellington and Gibson herself, fill this album with the kind of beauty that can only be expected from those who understand what music is all about. And Gibson tenderly gathers their words and cradles them in her fragile voice, as if singing was nothing but a natural breathing exercise to her.

All about Jazz: Who is Faith Gibson, as a jazz vocalist?

Faith Gibson: She's still a youngster; the kind of kid who's thirsting for knowledge and experience and can't wait to go to school every day and learn something new.

AAJ: And as a woman?

FG: The woman is a late bloomer in her 40s in the process of turning her life inside out.

AAJ: And as a songwriter?

FG: Maybe you could say the songwriter is a self-involved teenager, trying to express herself.

AAJ: Tell us about your writing process.

FG: First of all, the songs I write are for me and about me although I do hope other people will take my songs and sing them. I see myself mainly as a lyricist, since I've been writing all my life and the written word means a lot to me. And yet, most of the time when I write a song, the words come to me along with a melody. For example, the verse of "What Women Want" began as a conversation in my head, but a sung conversation.

AAJ: What is the main difference between your first album, You don't know me and Big Moon?

FG: I think the main difference is that You don't know me was a very spontaneous project, while for Big Moon I let the ideas develop slowly, wrote and compiled the songs over the course of a year and also the music was actually arranged and rehearsed before recording. The songs with the trio on You don't know me were rehearsed and recorded in one evening in a home studio and many are first (or only) takes. For Big Moon, we rehearsed two days and recorded two days in one of the finest studios in Germany.

Faith GibsonAAJ: What can you say about Big Moon that you would never want us to know?

FG: Lots. Like, one of the best songs on the album was one I really hesitated doing. Like, I was in tears the evening after the first day in the studio. But, now I've told you those things without the whys and wherefores and still have plenty of things I won't tell.

AAJ: Tell us about the recording of Big Moon in Berlin.

FG: I stayed in a little apartment in Berlin and got on the tram every morning to go to rehearsals or the studio and it was a lovely time because spring was just arriving. I arrived in town with my shawl and gloves and was able to shed them and my coat by the time the week was over. The sun shone every day, too.

The studio is spread out over an entire floor of a beautiful old building. The rooms are all connected by double glass doors or windows and there is lots of natural light coming in the big windows in each room. And across the hall is a very cozy, big kitchen for relaxing in. After two days recording and then the mixing sessions with wonderful and skilled Rainer Robben—who made me feel very much at ease—I felt quite at home.

As for the actual recording, once I got over the jitters and almost got used to closing myself into the vocal booth, it was great fun. Not that I'm claustrophobic, but being behind glass and communicating with some of the band via mirrors and the microphone is something I'm not used to. The first day was also a little tough because we recorded about 10 songs!

AAJ: Tell us about the musicians.

FG: Needless to say, they are the best. Wolfgang Koehler was recommended to me a few years ago by the jazz singer Silvia Droste when I told her I had been performing in Berlin but hadn't found my ideal band. So, I've worked with him and with Lars Guehlcke, the bassist, before. Wolfgang is professor of jazz piano at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in Berlin and, of course, very well-known throughout Germany as a pianist, arranger and composer, having played with many groups—including his own formation with saxophonist Allan Praskin—big bands, etc., and recording many CDs as a leader and sideman. But, besides his prodigious abilities and talent, what impresses me about him is his generosity, modesty, his willingness to work with me (a songwriter who can't write chords) and the great care he took in every detail.

I let him put the rest of the band together—Lars, Felix, Jo and Gregoire are people he's worked with countless times before—and that was a good idea. Absolute professionals, highly talented and experienced, who have made their mark on the jazz world and it was a huge privilege for me to get to know them and I really look forward to working more with them—and they say they're looking forward to it, too.

AAJ: What's music to Faith Gibson?

FG: Oh, wow. It's what's always running through my head; it's more than I can put into words. It's always been there, even when all else has failed me.

AAJ: What is jazz to you?

FG: I have sung so many other styles of music in my life: hymns and gospel, choral music, folk music, pop music, songs from musicals and opera. I never chose jazz, it chose me—and it took its time about it. I didn't have to learn to sing jazz; any workshops or lessons I took only confirmed that the jazz singer had been slumbering inside of me all along. Jazz is the most personal and most pliable form of music I know. I came from everything before it and everything after it comes from it, too, and it is still going strong because it allows a musician to make any song her own song.

Faith Gibson

AAJ: Tell us about Christopher Morse.

FG: I met Chris on MySpace, which is one of the platforms he uses as a songwriter to seek out singers and musicians to offer his material to. That was about two years ago and today he is my best friend—and I and my kids actually visited him and his wife in Brooklyn last year.

What drew me first were his lyrics. They were the kind I've always admired and hoped to write: witty, sometimes poignant, and sometimes ironic in the tradition of the best writers of our American Songbook. And, the words and the melody work together so well.

Through him, I also befriended the other songwriters on this album, although I already knew Sophie. I really wanted to sing a few of these songs and one of my own, so I got together with a wonderful pianist named Henning Wolter last year and we recorded some duets and I posted them on my MySpace page. The huge positive response I got to those tunes encouraged me to make the album.

Big Moon is, I have to say, almost as much Chris' album as it is mine and not only because four-and-a-half of the songs on it are his. He has done so much for me as a songwriter and he has accompanied me and helped me through the entire process. He also shows a lot of trust in me to let me be the first to showcase his work.

AAJ: Tell us about the songs you wrote for this album.

FG: "No Time for the Blues" is first whole song (words and music) I ever wrote and bewails the life of a modern-day working mother; a life which allows us little time to really sit down in that rocking chair and wallow in our blues. Also, since I am an optimist, one simple thing of beauty can lift my spirits.

I didn't have a melody for "Between the Lines," so asked Chris to see what he could do with it. He said the string of metaphors in the first stanza just knocked him out. He found them strong, vivid and true and that he had to find a melody that was worthy of them. I think he did.

The next is "What Women Want" and although it is a song that "came to me" almost fully formed, I hesitated to include it on the album, thinking people might consider the sentiment old-fashioned or even whiney. But so many of my (female) friends adore it and find it is still true today and expresses how they feel: here it is, ladies.

The immediate impetus for writing "Be a Man, Baby" was spending time with a friend who may or may not have been romantically interested in me, but always talked about himself and never really listened to what I had to say. That squelched any interest I might otherwise have had in him.

AAJ: And the ones you didn't.

FG: "Scratch It" is one of Chris's kitchen sink songs...he says some of his best ideas come to him while washing the dishes. He also told me that Judy Holliday said the theme line in a movie he saw when he was a kid. The song is really about supporting the person you love no matter what they need to do.

"Diamond Edge" is one of the songs that first drew me to Chris's music, but I found its sarcasm might not suit me. But, don't we all feel like this sometimes? It's not necessarily an anti-love song, it's an anti-gushing-about-love song. True love, really living a life together, is more about flu shots and rubber gloves than it is about moonbeams.

I sent my brother the final mix of "Big Moon" and he claims it's his theme song. Chris says the song is about the hardest part of love: not finding someone who loves you but finding a way to open up and let yourself love and be loved. He told me he spent hours trying to find the right adjective for the moon: every type of moon had already been used in a song. In a fit of frustration, he yelled, "Aw get outta here, ya big moon!" Kaboom!

Chris told me it took him 25 years to write "That's Right, It Was You," from his breakup with his first wife in 1974 until an evening talking to a friend about her breakup in 1999, when the words "that's right, it was you" came to him. The song isn't about getting dumped, it's about grief. No matter how you lose someone, you just can't convince yourself that the person who means so much to you isn't going to be there anymore.

Dave Gill is a successful jazz songwriter in the UK and his songs have been sung by greats there like Liane Carroll. He's also a jazz singer himself and a professor of linguistics. "I Think Somebody Loves Me" may be the first song ever that doesn't say "I feel good" but the grammatically correct "I feel well"! Or did Dave need that to rhyme with "the world can go to hell"? I think both.

He and I both attended the Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops in Scotland, though sadly not at the same time, so we both know Sophie Bancroft, who teaches at those workshops and gives private lessons in addition to being a highly successful singer-songwriter. One day he put a demo of Sophie Bancroft singing their "Too Darn Blue" on his page and I flipped. I agree with Chris who told me: "I love it. The melody is just as sinewy and bluesy and original as it can be, and the lyric is packed with memorable turns of phrase "the up-you songs," "the blue of the name in your fading tattoo," and lots more. The moment I heard it, I envied Dave and Sophie for having written it.

Chris actually discovered "Darling," the song by Emmanuel Hérault, on MySpace and pointed it out to me. I do not speak French very well, but it is simply one of the most beautiful songs I ever heard, both mournful and joyful.

I heard Patti Austin sing "Love You Madly" with the Lewis Cowdrey at their concert of Ellington songs in Cologne in December and I fell in love with it immediately. Why haven't more people recorded it? I first heard "Reaching for the Moon" last year when I heard it sung by Holly Cole. Now, how could Irving Berlin have known in 1930 how I would be feeling on a night in June in 2008? That is why we call them standards: they are timeless and universal.

AAJ: Tell us about the beginnings of Faith Gibson on stage.

FG: Faith Gibson, the jazz singer, or Faith Gibson, ever? As a kid I sang in school choruses and church choirs and in high school and college in smaller ensembles, too, but being given a solo always made me so frightened that I simply never, ever considered a solo singing career except in my daydreams. My shyness held me back in many things and many ways all my life, and it took me about 40 years to recognize that letting it hold me back meant losing out on a lot of enjoyment in life. So, I consciously not only began singing, but also reaching out and opening up to people in every aspect of my life. The results are always surprising...and always good.

So, the first time I sang on stage was at my own birthday party. Four of my girlfriends and I got together and put together a little program of pop songs that we performed over backing tracks and I sang a couple of karaoke solos, with my knees shaking and my insides wobbling although the audience was my friends. In the meantime I've learned it's easier to sing in front of strangers than friends.

After that, three of us decided to keep on singing together and formed a pop and swing trio called Lipstick and I stayed with them for six years. I took to the stage surprisingly easily, and singing jazz gives me no stage fright at all. I'm too involved in the song and the interaction with the band to feel self-conscious!

Faith GibsonAAJ: Jazz and Germany: your life, your past, your present.

FG: Jazz and Germany is not one of my favorite topics. There is a lively jazz scene here, certainly, but becoming a jazz singer is not the best step to take if you live in Germany, since vocal jazz is hardly recognized or appreciated.

I've lived here a very long time and have a family, so it will not be easy to pack up and leave, and it will take a few years before I do, but I do plan to return to the United States and am already taking steps to make it happen. I can't wait.

There—I just told you about my future and ignored the past and present. Typical.

AAJ: What are your vocal influences?

FG: The voices I listened to as a child and young person, before discovering jazz: Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand—her first four albums, especially, which I was introduced to 15 years after they were made; Ray Charles, Fred Astaire, Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Heart, Annie Lennox, Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones ...I know I'm going to really regret the ones I forgot to list.

Jazz voices, which I found one after another: Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Holly Cole, Anita O'Day, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Cassandra Wilson, Patricia Barber and I meet more every week.

AAJ: What dreams do you have, musically?

FG: Lately, I've been dreaming of helping one of my best friends put out a CD that she recorded in New York six years ago, but could not afford to produce. After bringing out my own, however, I can't afford it at the moment either. But, it's a true shame—this CD is being kept from the world.

AAJ: What about a wish?

FG: I'd like to meet Dave Gill and sing a couple duets with him.

AAJ: A fear or two?

FG: "Or two?" They're countless. How about heights, meeting strangers, and making wrong impressions for starters?

AAJ: What's the best song you have ever heard?

FG: I'm sorry but that is simply impossible or I'd have to spend months going over every song I ever heard in my life. But, one of the best songs I ever heard and one I'd like to sing soon is "Blues in the Night" by Harold Arlen. Why? It just bowls me over, like most of his songs do.

AAJ: What would you say is the worst kind of song for you to sing?

FG: Any song that I cannot improvise [on]. Jazz has made me lose my desire to ever sing anything the same way over and over again.

AAJ: What's the most complicated song for you to sing?

FG: I was asked to sing "Windmills of your Mind" for a friend's birthday last December and I found it complicated because of the long, long lyrics. In the end, I had to hold them in front of me, which really detracted from the experience. For the same reason, I also don't think I'll ever sing "Waters of March" although I love it!

AAJ: A little bit about your first album, You don't know me. How did you pick the songs?

FG: "Honeysuckle Rose" was one that J.P. Weber and I first played when we got together and had a lot of fun with. "Moondance" was also one of J.P.'s favorites. "You don't know me" has always been one of my favorite songs and a sort of theme of my life, growing up as one of those shy girls who never dared tell the boys she adored how she felt.

Someone long ago gave me an old and much scratched Kingston Trio LP where I first heard "Scotch and Soda" and I had always wanted to sing it. Both "Don't Like Goodbyes," and "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" are Harold Arlen songs that I first heard on Barbra Streisand's The Second Barbra Streisand Album (Columbia, 1963) and People (Columbia, 1964) albums when I was about 15. During a visit home in 2003, I heard "Undun" on the radio. Whenever I'm in the States, I hear these many almost-forgotten songs that were once part of my life on the radio while driving and get very excited because they aren't played much in Europe.

J.P. suggested that I write a song for the CD. I had never written a song before, just lots of poems and poetry is certainly not the same thing as song lyrics. But, I had recently read an anthology edited by Billy Collins called "Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry," where I read Dana Gioia's "Alley Cat Love Song." It was a masterfully simple, poignant, yet humorous rhyme that was just asking to be put to music. The melody I came up with is very simple; most of the magic comes from Ralph Haspel's bass groove.

AAJ: What's the best way to describe your music?

FG: Ask someone else, please.

Faith Gibson

AAJ: What's the best thing that's ever happened to you, musically speaking?

FG: My very first experience singing a jazz song in the accompaniment of only a bassist in a former church in Glasgow. It's the first day of my first jazz workshop and our little group is sent to work with the sublime bassist (and wonderful man) Ronnie Rae. It is really not easy to sing along with only the bass if you are used to a certain version of your song that you play over and over in your head with full accompaniment. And watching the other singers take their turns with this kind and gentle man was somewhat frightening because I could observe what they were going through. But then I got up and handed him the lead sheet for "Ill Wind" and he began playing and it was easy and absolutely sublime. Just a voice and the bass, unplugged, reverberating in this Gothic structure: it was the most beautiful musical experience I've ever had and showed me that this is what I want to do: sing jazz.

AAJ: Who's "Blossom McKinney"? Tell me about Live365 "Blossom's Vocal Jazz Radio."

FG: Blossom McKinney is my alter-ego and is a brunette, not introverted and not frightened of speaking on the radio. I'm not exactly sure how I thought up the name, but "Blossom" is not really a play on Blossom Dearie, but signifies the blossoming I've been going through the past few years as a person.

A few broadcasters on Live365 contacted me and played some of my songs on their stations. Internet radio was new to me, but when I saw the many stations on Live365, I started searching for one I'd like to listen to. I found lots of great jazz stations and especially liked Elliot Meadow's "Jazz Moods Plus," not only because of his choice of music but because he moderates the program and introduces the songs. But, I couldn't find a station that plays either only vocal jazz or the vocal jazz that I love the best.

I'm a little "techie" sometimes, so the idea of making my own station grabbed hold right away, considering I have a huge collection of vocal jazz CDs. Originally, I had hoped to target other jazz vocalists with the station—I mean as listeners—but I think most of my many, many listeners are not singers themselves. I had no idea at the start that I would end up promoting so many relatively unknown singers, but I love being able to do it.

AAJ: I have to ask you about the hidden track "Let me Sing." I know you really do not want to talk about it, but it is such a beautiful song. What's the story behind it?

FG: Some people say to me, "You should be singing in a candlelit, romantic bar." Trumpeter Ack Van Rooyen asked "Why aren't you in Carnegie Hall?" "Let Me Sing!" speaks pretty much for itself. In the frustration of trying to find gigs, any singer will want to cry out, "just give me a chance!" Yet, the theme didn't quite seem to fit into the theme running through the rest of the songs on the CD, so it's added for anyone who forgets to turn their player off.

Let me sing! I am here to entertain you.

Let me sing! It's what I was born to do.

I don't care much for fame

But, you won't forget my name

All I ask is that you let me sing!

Selected Discography

Faith Gibson, Big Moon (Capricopia, 2009)
Faith Gibson, You don't know me (Juke Joint, 2004)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Faith Gibson

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