Home » Jazz News » Interview: Angela Verbrugge

Interview News

Interview: Angela Verbrugge


Sign in to view read count
Canadian singer Angela Verbrugge recently released her second studio album, Love for Connoisseurs (Gut String). I loved one of her video clips, read how hard she's been working and decided to interview her by email. Her new album is so beautiful and original. All 12 songs feature her lyrics to new or existing jazz compositions by modern-day composers. Her vision is to create a new vocal jazz repertoire by collaborating with composers who write innovative, catchy melodies in the style of the classic jazz standards. Want a clip to get you in the mood? Here's Angela singing This Is Manhattan, from her new album (see below).

What a refreshing idea. While Ella, Frank, Bing, Peggy and other legacy artists from the 1940s and '50s remain important, why keep recording the same old songs when you can create your own using new jazz melodies. I've been begging singers to kick the dusty songbook habit for years in JazzWax posts. Now it's happening, especially in Canada, as Angela relates in our conversation.

Most remarkable are the hurdles Angela has had to overcome and how hard she has worked. She's on a mission to expand the songbook with songs like the ones on her new album. She hopes they'll become enduring, modern additions to the songbook repertoire and that other vocalists and instrumentalists will want to perform and record them. I'm for that! Want more video clips by Angela?

Here's my e-conversation with Angela:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up and what did your parents do for a living when you were little?

Angela Verbrugge: I grew up just outside of Kingston in Ontario, Canada. My mother taught first grade at my elementary school. She also played piano and accompanied school concerts and primary-grade music classes. My dad enjoys music but doesn’t make music. He worked in different computer-related jobs, including college level teaching.

JW: When did you start studying music?

AV: As a child, I took classical piano and then theory lessons that continued to a fairly high level. Those lesson served as high school credits and allowed me to graduate a year early. But my theory studies didn’t include jazz theory, and there was minimal ear training. I found various songbooks with piano music at relatives' homes and at music stores. I played them as a hobby, sight-reading the parts. I was limited to singing along in the notated range, since I didn’t know how to transpose. I didn’t have much in the way of jazz records growing up. My parents only had a handful of Nat King Cole albums. I took a few guitar lessons and started playing trombone in sixth grade, which allowed me to play written-out arrangements in different high-school big bands. The band became my social scene, and we competed at festivals in Canada and in the U.S.

JW: How did your singing voice emerge and evolve?

AV: In school, I sang in the choir and auditioned for musicals in elementary school. But I wasn’t a natural. I had a very small range before I worked on developing my voice. As a result, I didn’t get the parts I wanted. I took some classical voice lessons but didn’t find them helpful. Despite my vocal challenges, I was enthusiastic and landed roles singing in local touring children’s theater, in student productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and in the chorus of productions at a local theater. I also joined productions at Theatre 5, under dynamo Valerie Robertson and her husband, Gordon. And I watched musicals on TV, like The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz and Annie and began renting old movie musicals on VHS tapes. By 16, I was in the chorus of a production of Anything Goes and fall in love with Cole Porter. I also fell in love with a fellow cast member whose best friend was a jazz singer.

JW: Did that best friend turn you on to jazz?

AV: Yes. My boyfriend’s best friend was Andy Poole, one of the top jazz singers in Kingston. He also worked as a bartender where I got a job working as a waitress. He had a regular gig at a local joint called The Shot that was frequented by university students. Even though I wasn’t the legal drinking age, I would slip in with the band to hear them. I started buying CDs that Andy recommended, and I befriended his band members, who were in their 70s. I trailed along to their gigs and talked about the songs I loved. They were the first musicians I met who shared my love for the American songbook and jazz standards. They were all amazing ear players. It astounded me that they were able to improvise without sheet music. At one point, Andy invited me to sing a duet with him. I bombed. I was blind with nerves, it was a bad key, and I didn’t have the knowledge or skills yet. [Photo above of Angela Verbrugge by Karolina Turek]

JW: So what happened?

AV: I gave up on the idea of singing with a band and decided to pursue acting. I moved to Toronto to attend theater school when I was 17. It had its ups and downs, but the best part was the big Toronto Reference Library, where I accessed recordings and endless shelves of music from old musicals to play in the practice rooms. I would also take the lead when our theater school productions required music research. Through newspaper music listings, I found my way to jazz events in Toronto and heard artists such as Dave Young and Pat LaBarbara.

JW: So acting was your default. You clearly still loved singing more, yes?

AV: Being an acting student, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my passion. My music theater teacher at college chided me for selecting songs like The Trolley Song to sing in class and implored me to sing something from Rent, or at least songs by Sondheim. At the time, I had no interest. I found a CD store in Yorkville and purchased the Ella songbooks, Ella compilations, and collections by singers from the 1940s and ‘50s.

JW: I read in your bio that you had three brushes with death. What happened?

AV: After I moved to Vancouver to pursue acting in 1999, I was driving home one night on the winding coastal highway that connects the city with Whistler, where I lived. It was a steep mountainside suburb. Back then, it was still a curvy, narrow road with a steep mountain up on one side and a drop-off to the ocean on the other without a shoulder. Suddenly, a pickup truck coming toward me a little fast crossed the center line on a hairpin S-curve. I tried to veer toward the steep mountain side to give the truck more space, but I would have crashed into the rocks if I kept going. So I pulled out, over-correcting, and he hit the front passenger side rather than my driver’s side. The pickup truck’s driver had a bloody nose. My car’s airbag inflated and the car crumpled. I broke both my legs and fractured my sacrum. They had to cut off the back door of the car to get me out.

JW: My god. Did you return to acting?

AV: My acting career ended, since I was broken, broke and had a limp. This was 1999 and the Internet was taking off. I was a good writer and had computer skills, so I was able to get employment in corporate communications, marketing and eventually business development. I moved to Vancouver and met my husband, Magnus.

JW: What happened next?

AV: My husband and I traveled to Belize for a holiday. On an atoll far off the coast, the little sailboat we were on hit a reef and sank. We were in a remote part of the ocean without life jackets. Not smart, I know. Miraculously, a diving boat tour happened by, and I used my white shirt to wave it over.

JW: My goodness. And there was another brush?

AV: Yes. After I had three kids—ages 4, 3 and 1—I was diagnosed with cervical cancer that had been missed by the usual tests. It was very serious, and I had to fight for my life with every means possible: Chemo, radiation surgery, naturopathic, therapy and energetic treatments. Some of the group workshops I attended for cancer patients called upon us to eliminate negativity, to listen to our inner voice and live our dreams. There was no question which dream I had been suppressing: I needed to sing jazz.

JW: While battling cancer and caring for three kids?

AV: Despite my exhaustion from the cancer treatments and three challenging toddlers, I set to work finding teachers and mentors in Vancouver through adult jazz camps. I started out by preparing one song a month that I could sing at a jam session. My kids had challenges from what our family had been through with my cancer, and they resisted school and babysitters. My husband also worked long hours as a lawyer.

JW: What did you do?

AV: I managed to start getting booked for small gigs and various bandstand opportunities where I could gain experience.

JW: When did you start writing songs—the words and music?

AV: In 2016, I went to a camp in Vermont to study with vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. There I met Cameron Brown and Ray Gallon, who invited me to New York to make my first record, The Night We Couldn't Say Good Night, which was released in 2019. Putting that on the calendar was incredibly inspiring and intimidating. Cameron invited Anthony Pinciotti to make it a quartet. I worked with Vancouver multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Miles Black to prepare the arrangements. Between some of my jazz singing mentors and Miles, they encouraged me to write something for the record.

JW: What did you think?

AV: I was taken aback, as I felt there were so many wonderful songs to sing. What could I possibly contribute? I always hated poetry in high school, but I found I had an ear for the cadence of standards and for what made a strong lyric. Miles taught me notation software, and I ordered tons of books about jazz theory. I also heard Ray Gallon perform That’s the Question, which inspired me to write the words to two choruses using excuses for being late. The song became I’m Running Late. My song, The Night We Couldn’t Say Good Night was next. It became the title song and now it’s in French on the second. A Brazilian vocalist-guitarist has translated my words into Portuguese, so I hope to record the song with him as time and budget allows.

JW: Where do you live now with your family?

AV: When Vancouver real estate went crazy, we made the difficult decision to sell our place and move to a less expensive city. We made that sacrifice to reduce some of our financial pressure. This allowed my husband to spend more time parenting and give us more energy to pursue our passions. We now live in Victoria, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Magnus reduced his schedule by consulting and becoming the primary homemaker. He also organizes and guides cycling trips, which is his passion. These changes have allowed me flexibility for recording and touring when I can apply for grants to support that work.

JW: Who have been your big influences?

AV: Blossom Dearie for sure. And it was a big moment for me to hear Diana Krall live when she toured her tribute to Nat Cole through Kingston. I began by listening to singers like Ella, Bing, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Anita O’Day, Helen Merrill, Ernestine Anderson, Julie London, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Susannah McCorkle, Lorez Alexandria, Della Reese and June Christy.

JW: And today?

AV: I listen to current singers with great albums, including Karrin Allyson, Roberta Gambarini, Lucy Yegazarian, Champian Fulton, Becky Kilgore, Samara Joy, Yaala Ballin, Nicki Parrott, Kat Gang, Erik Leuthäuser, Dave Tull, Naama Gheber. I’ll give you a list of my favorite current albums by my favorite Canadian signers in a minute.

JW: Is the American songbook worn out?

AV: No, but many choices are tired. Being a songbook nerd, I have a big concern that the various real book collections have become static by including songs with outdated lyrics. Meanwhile, there are great songs being written today by jazz musicians all over the world. It reminds me of mushroom hunting. You can find beautiful edible mushrooms, but you have to hunt for them. I lean toward songs with strong melodies and classic chord structure. I would love to see the community of living jazz musicians start performing each other’s work, and for vocalists to evolve the repertoire.

JW: OK, I'm ready for you five favorite vocal albums by other Canadian artists. What are they?

AV: I feel we need to shine a spotlight on living artists who are working hard to compete for placements on radio, movies and playlists with the legacy crooners. Here are five I admire and JazzWax readers should check out:
  • Caity Gyorgy—Now Pronouncing (La Researve).
  • Emilie-Claire Barlow—Live in Tokyo (Empress Music).
  • Sophie Milman—Sophie Milman (Linus).
  • Melissa Stylianou—No Regrets (Anzic).
  • Diana Panton—To Brazil With Love (SRG-ILS).
Other names to check out who have some great jazz recordings include Laura Crema, Karin Plato, Jennifer Scott, Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Susannah Adams, Leora Cashe, Alex Pangman and Holly Cole. And watch for the upcoming album from Jeremy Wong.

JW: What’s coming next from you?

AV: Good question. Right now, I’m excited about Love for Connoisseurs and sharing that music. I am reaching out to radio and press, and finding ways to get it heard. I would like to see other vocalists performing the songs the various composers and I have collaborated on. I would like to create more repertoire like this. I toured the project to Istanbul, London, Germany and across Canada in the last 12 months. The U.S. is so close, but the States makes it difficult for Canadian artists to cross the border perform. Canada allows U.S. artists in very easily, so I would love to see this policy change. There are expensive U.S. visas that require considerable advance planning with a list of gig confirmations. To make it worthwhile financially, it’s better to plan a full tour. I’m busy juggling family, recording, gigs and earning income to support my music, but coming to the U.S. is definitely a goal.       

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

Post a comment


Jazz News


Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.