Inspiration usually comes by surprise. Jazz vocalist Nicole Henry can tell us all about it. Sometimes we know there is a certain direction we want to go, but can't figure out what the road looks like. And for a brief, terrifying and always meaningful minute of our lives, we stand in a crossroad to nowhere, wondering what will come next. And that is when it happens. Inspiration comes rushing in, like a blurry shade of blue passing you by. If you are paying attention, something will happen within the limits of your very soul. And that road will be as clear as a Sunday morning. Jazz is Henry's road; the Great American Songbook that blurry shade of blue.
Something about the lyrics captivated her, and she has been perfecting the art of mesmerizing audiences all around the world with words written by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, James Van Heusen and George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin for several years now. The Very Thought of You (Banister Records, 2008) is her third studio album, where she has also given room to contemporary songwriters, like upstate New York native K.J. Denhert ("I Found You"), and James Bryan McCollum, with whom she co-wrote "All That I Can See."
A firm believer in the importance of musical and artistic education in schools as the foundation for a better world, her dreams refuse to slam their brakes at the first sign of success and recognition. She wants to give back to the community. Singing is the vehicle she is using to reach those around her and share some of the magic she believes music in general, and jazz in particular, can bring to peoples' lives.
Henry is a vocalist of beautiful sensitivity and solid phrasing, the kind of artist that wants to give every song a new approach and make it hers. Whether it is a breathtaking ballad or a swing-filled tune, she dresses up for the occasion every time, and gives her very best. Just the way the great ones did before her.
A jazz artist from head to toes.
All About Jazz : You have evolved as an artist within the past few years. How do you feel about your career today?
Nicole Henry: I am a very blessed jazz vocalist and singer who has been enjoying being on the road and having an opportunity to become a part of so many people's lives so many days of the week. And right now I am someone who is looking forward to making a statement with her album and who is working on her fourth album already. Right now I am researching music, researching songwriters, researching different styles of production, and working with different instruments. With the last album I had two songs that had some percussion; with the next album, I will think of maybe adding some horns, guitar, maybe more keys, but first of all it all starts with finding the songs and trying to come up with a concept for the album. You can start with the concept first, and then you can go with the songs, and then develop that concept. Right now I am at the beginning stages, and once I make some decisions I can move forward in one strong direction.
I do think an album can be developed either way though, the concept doesn't always have to come first. I think sometimes you can tell yourself, "Well, I have a good feeling about this concept," usually because you already have a couple of songs in mind. But you can also go the other way, you can find yourself with three or four songs on your mind, and then you can come up with a concept that holds them all together. It's like writing. You come up with a theme, and sometimes the theme comes up to you.
AAJ: Where would you like to be tomorrow?
NH: I want to be an artist that provides inspiration for people. And I want to be somebody that gives back to the community. So I am looking forward to becoming more successful with my music to the levels that I can also become influential in the community with issues like public education, and art education in schools. There are so many things we can do to make the world a better place, and I think art is a good way to start. I do want to give back a lot more to our youth in our communities, with art programs and making sure that people are more exposed to it.
Art, music, teaches us how to feel, outside of just words on a paper. It is just another type of learning and understanding. You have to let the mind exercise in different ways, and they are missing out by not offering art education in schools. It will be a shame in fifteen years from now when we realize that most kids can't appreciate art, because they were not exposed to it. Who will play the instruments, if nobody is being taught to play? Fortunately is not a hopeless situation, but it does need to improve, and it needs to change. This is one of my main concerns.
AAJ: How did your story begin?
NH: I grew up in a household where my mother would play piano. We had a beautiful piano, and my Mom would play it on the weekends. She played classical music. So I grew up watching her playing that music. We listened to pop, and R&B and all that good stuff too, but I really didn't listen to much jazz standards until, I'd say 2002, after college.
My Mom did encourage me to play an instrument, so I played cello for six years, in middle school and high school, and I sang in school choirs and church choirs. So I was always singing, and I loved singing, and I loved performing, but I didn't think that I was going to grow up to become an artist. I mainly thought I was maybe going to try to become an actress, but I really didn't know how, so when I went to college I studied Architecture for two years, and then after realizing a little bit more about what I wanted to do I changed my major to Advertising and Theater, and I graduated with a degree in Communications and Advertising with a double major in Theater.
And then after school I sang a little bit here and there. After college, I recorded a few songs for a friend of mine, and I sang on some shows for a few years. By 1998 I was working for the Recording Academy in Miami Beach, for the people that do the Grammy Awards, that have satellite offices in different cities. I was the Project Coordinator. So I was learning about the industry while singing on the weekends. I knew I wanted to pursue a music career and the opportunity came to me in 2000. Somebody invited me to go on the road with a blues band out of Detroit, Michigan, as a backup singer. That was Robert Bradley's Backwater Surprise. It was fun, on the tour bus for six weeks, traveling all over the country. Then I came back and I gave my two week notice at the Recording Academy, and I quit.
In Miami Beach I did some commercial work, for about eight national commercials, while singing locally as well. And then, by 2002, I heard some jazz standards with the vocals, for the first time. I had never heard this music before. One of my main concerns after I quit my job for about two years, was trying to figure out what genre of music I wanted to sing and I was actually doing a duo with a guitarist, but I couldn't really find a style of music that was exactly what I wanted. Then I heard jazz, and it really felt perfect for me, because I was looking for a classic style of music with great lyrics. I wasn't trying to come up with a new vibe or a new sound per se. There was a lot of Neo Soul back then, and people kept asking me if that was what I was going to do. I just wanted some good classic music, kind of straight-ahead pop, but adult pop, you know? And when I heard jazz that was it for me. It just became a great tool to communicate with. That classic approach that jazz has is what I want to use to create music for myself.
AAJ: The Great American Songbook.
NH: I view the Great American songbook as great story telling, great love songs. I like it because the wording and the use of the language is so classic. The language of the '30s, '40s and '50s is so proper, and it has so many beautiful and poetic ways of how to say "I love you." I just love that "classicness" of the Great American Songbook. And then, when it comes to the melodies and chords changes and things like that...there's a lot of brilliant things going on in that music. I am not saying that that doesn't happen in today's music. But the classics are just amazing. When I say "classic," I mean it in a very respectful way. I mean class, elegance, a sense of respect for oneself and for the people that are listening to the music. So that's what it means to me. And to me, I have had so much fun representing these songs! I like the fact that I can try to bring a new life to it, another perspective. There is no point in doing a song that has been done before the same exact way that it was already done. In vocal jazz I find the freedom to express myself.
I would say that The Very Thought of You is a romantic album. Fun, but also serious. It is an album about love.
AAJ: And how did you decide you wanted to record these 12 songs?
NH: Well, I started recording the songs for this album actually in 2006, two years before it was released. The first ones were "Almost Like Being in Love," and "At Last." I was so busy touring and performing that I took advantage of that, but it took me away from recording. So I didn't really come back to recording again until 2007, when I finished the album. Some of the songs ("Almost Like Being in Love, "At Last" and "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart") were songs that I had done on stage a lot, and I had a certain way of performing them, the band had a certain way of doing them, a certain energy, and the songs came to production with certain arrangements, the way we were doing them live.
I was going to call the album "Almost Like Being in Love" as the theme. I was going through something at the time, almost like being in love, dating somebody, back and forth, so that was the theme that I had playing in my mind. And one day on stage we did that song as a ballad. So I was just going through the motions of what love is like. Then I came across "Waters of March" and it is such a fun approach. I wanted to do K.J. Denhert's "I Found You," too . And "Make It Last" was a song that I learned from Betty Carter. And finally the album was called The very thought of you.
AAJ: You co-wrote "All That I Can See" with James Brian McCollum. Is there a songwriter in you as well?
NH: I don't write every day, I really need to get back to that practice again. They say that a writer is supposed to write every day, even if it is something meaningless. I need to be able to hear myself think to write, and for that I almost have to get away for a few days. I need to reconnect with myself with some quiet time, so that I can write.
AAJ: As an American artist, tell me about your feelings on Michael Jackson.
NH: I was having a meeting with one of my consultants, we were talking about the next album and some music, and somebody called, "Did you hear, Michael Jackson died." I was, like, "What? No, no, somebody bring him back, this doesn't make sense!." [sigh] It's hard to even think about it. I know it's true, that he is gone, but it doesn't make any sense. It does feel like he is going to come back, and it is the first time I have this kind of relationship with death. You are left with the feeling that he is going to come back, with a video, or something, because it just doesn't make any sense, that somebody like him would die like that, and it is a shame the way they have been going on and on about it. And the level of deterioration he had got into, and what people could have done for him, and why they didn't do something for him. Why there wasn't any intervention. It just doesn't seem right.
NH: It is fascinating to me how important music is to people in Europe; that is what amazes me the most. I think we take music for granted in the United States. I feel like I am adding to peoples' lives when I perform in Europe. They listen differently, they know the music, they get it a little differently. They really get jazz. They have a different perspective. They have studied it. I am also amazed by the history of the whole continent, how old buildings are; so beautiful. There is a certain appreciation for education there. Europe is something elseI can't wait to go to Africa, too. The history of Africa is breathtaking.
Nicole Henry, The Very Thought of You (Banister Records 2008)
Nicole Henry, The Nearness of You (Banister Records 2004)
Nicole Henry, Teach Me Tonight (Banister Records 2002)