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Interview: Deb Rasmussen on 'Unspoken'

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Deb Rasmussen
Deb Rasmussen is a singer from Calgary, Alberta, whose day job is in agricultural economics. But her occupation is hardly the stuff of milking cows and feeding chickens. This is big-league stuff. When I reached out to her initially, Deb was on her way to Mongolia to help the country maximize the potential of its land for food and clothing. So how does someone with this background switch gears and turn to jazz singing. As you'll soon learn, these two disciplines have much in common.

I love Deb's new album, Unspoken. She has a warm, enveloping voice, a smart sense of swing, and she's a solid songwriter. The songs on her album are mostly originals, with well-chosen standards sandwiched in between: Front Porch, You Smile, Just My Little Love Song, It Never Entered My Mind, Unspoken, Swept Away, Darn That Dream, I Hear a Rhapsody, Fly Away, In Your Own Sweet Way, Peace, Like a River and My Best to You. And her trio—Jon Day on piano, Jeremy Coates on bass and Robin Tufts on drums—is terrific.

Recently, I caught up with Deb for an e-mail interview:

JazzWax: What was it like growing up on a farm in the Danish community of Dalum, Alberta, in Western Canada?

Deb Rasmussen: My dad’s parents came to Canada in 1920 from Denmark via the U.S. and my mother’s grandparents came from Iceland in the late 1880s. Country life up there was isolated, especially before I got my driver's license and the arrival of the Internet. I loved all the animals and the connection to nature in Dalum. Nature is still my peaceful place, whether it’s my garden or a long hike in the mountains. Growing up, I had lots of chores—some fun, some not so fun. They instilled in me a good sense of self-discipline that has served me well. Cold? You bet! But the crystal blue winter sky took the edge off and still does.

JW: Were your parents musical?

DR: Both of my parents had lovely voices and enjoyed singing, and my extended family sang together at gatherings. My dad didn’t play a musical instrument, but my mom played a bit of piano. They listened often to the local radio station for news, weather and farming information, so there was a lot of country music in the house during the day. In the evening, the radio often switched over to classical. My parents’ tastes in music were quite broad but leaned more toward classical and big band music.

JW: When did you start singing and did you take piano lessons?

DR: I guess I’ve always sung. I have memories of harmonizing with a friend in the back row of Sunday school when I was young. This is how I learned all the songs from The Sound of Music and turned our living room into a concert hall to sing them to my family. Mom made sure we all took piano lessons, so I went through the Royal Conservatory program. I was in choirs from a young age and through high school, but I never thought of myself as singer, even though I always had a yearning to be a torch singer. I played flute in the school band program and thought that was the route I would take.

JW: What happened?

DR: I fully intended to go into a university music program, but when I took my first agriculture economics course, I was hooked. Agricultural economics is a branch of economics that applies economic theory to optimize the production and distribution of food and fiber products. I was intrigued with the thought of how a livelihood rooted in nature and land stewardship might also provide a decent living. I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in agriculture economics. Believe it or not, I think my parents might have been more comfortable with me studying toward a music degree. There weren’t many women in agriculture programs when I went through the programs. I was turning gender expectations upside down in our family and community. But my parents were always supportive and grew to like the idea.

JW: When did you start singing professionally?

DR: You know that empty feeling when you’re missing something critical in life? That’s how I felt about music. As much as I loved my day job, there was a hunger in my soul that desperately needed to be fed. After my husband and I broke up in 1998, I got into a jazz vocal workshop here in Calgary. That was it for me, and I’ve been working on my music ever since. It took about four years before I did my first gig—a shared show that I did with my best friend, another jazz singer.

JW: Tell me about your new album, Unspoken. What was your thematic vision for the release?

DR: I’m so glad you liked the material. The vision wasn’t clear at the outset. I wanted to do something that would be my authentic voice. Then I realized that my most authentic voice is in the music I write myself. As I started assembling possible songs for the album, the connecting line emerged around all the parts of love we don’t acknowledge enough but need to if we want resolution, like admitting “I’m frustrated,” “I’m lost,” “I’m tempted,” “I’m hurting,” “I see your pain and I care.” That’s where the connecting theme of Unspoken came from.

JW: Great trio, yes?

DR: I can’t say enough good things about Jon, Jeremy and Robin. They’re all from Calgary—lucky us! I’ve played with drummer Robin Tufts since I started gigging. We’ve gone to Mongolia twice together with my previous Northern Lights Quartet and did a collaboration with the Mongolian traditional trio Altai Khangai. Robin’s the most sensitive and soulful drummer I know. He really makes the drums sing with a unique voice. [Photo above, from left, of Jeremy Coates, Jon Day, Deb Rasmussen and Robin Tufts]

JW: Jeremy Coates?

DR: An amazing bassist who’s a first-call players in western Canada and is frequently on tour. We’ve played together occasionally over the years for different shows and demos. I have always loved his soloing for its beautiful melodic approach.

JW: And Jon Day? 

DR: He did most of the arrangements on the album. He is the newest musical relationship for me. We first played a tune together at a jam maybe four or five years ago. Jon suggested afterward that we play together. That chance came in January 2019, when we did a trio show. It was for that show that he did the arrangement of My Best to You. When I started working on this album and looking for arrangements, I thought of how perfectly he’d captured my concept for that song. I’m so glad I made the call. Working with these three has been a truly rewarding experience for me. I watched in rehearsal how they approached my music, with care and attention to detail to bring out the very best in it. I was deeply honored by that and immensely grateful.

JW: How does the songwriting process start for you?

DR: The most important thing for me is to simply make space to work. Simple, but often the most difficult thing in our world, where being busy is prized. On an ideal day, I get up, walk the dog and then settle into the music room with a fresh cup of coffee. I literally let my hands fall on the piano keyboard to whatever combination of notes my fingers find. From there, I start to explore. I might come up with a single motif to work on later or I might end up writing an entire melody. I usually capture those ideas on my Zoom mic, scratch out a rudimentary chart and return to it later. [Photo above of Deb Rasmussen]

JW: And the words and music?

DR: That can take several different paths. When I travel for work, I often spend a lot of time alone on planes and during my time off. In that solitude, lyric ideas, phrases and whole songs might come. I don’t have a portable keyboard with me when I travel, except maybe my Zoom mic or phone. Most of the lyrics for Swept Away came to me during a break between sets of a jazz show I attended in Australia. I typed them into my phone and then got back to them a couple of years later at the piano and worked the melody. I’ve had other songs and music come to me at the same time while driving. Peace, Like a River tumbled out—music and lyrics—in the course of a day. There have been times when I’ve had the melody and nearly all the lyrics, save a line that percolates for months before it finally pops out, in the middle of an airport.

JW: Was Unspoken a pandemic album?

DR: It was. The lockdowns forced the space on me. During days of being home, I pulled out all my fragments of melodies and lyrics and started working through them. Then, new ones started to come as well. For those, it was wonderful to be home with all my tools to write, listen and revise until I was happy with a song.

JW: How do you balance your day job with your gigs?

DR: That can be tricky. For years, I’ve traveled four months or more for work. working on community development and poverty-alleviation projects in Asia, Africa and South America. It seems that the work trips get planned about three months in advance and the gigs are about the same. So, it’s a process of nailing down the travel commitments and then trying to get gigs booked at home in the spaces that remain. When I’m home, work and gigs are easy to balance. It’s the travel that makes it all complicated.

JW: Is there a link between the agricultural economics and your singing?

DR: I definitely feel my connection to the land come out in my music. The prairies are vast and open, and that’s the feel I really love in music. But there’s another strong connection between my work and music. My overseas work is in international development, mostly related to agriculture. These are big multiyear projects that involve coperation and coordination between interdisciplinary teams from different countries. There are all sorts of cross-cultural and technical issues to deal with. I find there’s a strong connection between jazz and successfully managing these projects. With a project, you have a set of results you’re expected to achieve, a team of people to work with and some resources to throw into the mix. With jazz, you get a lead sheet, an ensemble of players and some instruments and gear. What makes them both work is respect, listening, dialogue and co-creation. [Photo above of Deb Rasmussen]

JW: Who have you been most influenced by in terms of jazz singers?

DR: Nancy King, Abbey Lincoln and Tierney Sutton. Nancy King for her amazing improvisation and ability to sing a ballad that goes straight to your soul. Abbey Lincoln for her poetic lyrics and her straightforward story telling. Tierney Sutton for the great arrangements that she and her band have put together over decades of playing together. Music is absolutely moving to the center for me. I had cut back my work hours just before the pandemic hit. Now, even that small commitment is feeling too big. I still love the travel and the work, but I’d be happy to make space for someone younger and take on a smaller, mentoring role for myself. My mom did a needlework for me: “For everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” I hung it in my music room as a reminder to never quit. It took me a long time to get here, but I feel like this is finally my time for music.

JazzWax clips: Here's Deb's song You Smile...



Here's It Never Entered My Mind...



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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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