The chart-topping vocalist opens up about musical childhood and singing in the car
Catherine Russell was born with music in her genes. Her father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time collaborator and her mother was a Juilliard-educated member of the storied International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female band in the U.S.
Growing up in New York City, Russell has always associated music with “fun.” She was David Bowie’s go-to vocalist and has performed and/or shared the stage with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash, to name just a few. She launched her solo career 15 years ago and has been soaring ever since, recording seven albums as bandleader, including Grammy-nominated Harlem on My Mind for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Her rich, hypnotizing vocals landed her a Grammy for her work on the soundtrack of the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire, and a number of her emotional interpretations of tunes dating from the 1920s to today have topped the Billboard charts. Before her much-anticipated local debut on Aug. 15, Russell took a few moments to answer some questions with Vail Jazz.
1. Vail Jazz: What specific characteristics do you believe you inherited from your mother and father?
Catherine Russell: Both my parents were leaders. They were both very organized and cared very much about their personal appearance. They always looked good. They knew how to take care of business as well as music. Whatever they did, they did 100 percent. My mother, Carline Ray, taught me about being punctual, prepared and confident. My father, Luis Russell, made recordings that were always fun to listen to, and I model my recordings after his.
2. VJ: As a child, how did you fall in love with music?
CR: I listened to my dad’s recordings, which were always fun to hear, because the musicians sounded like they were having fun. We had a radio in the kitchen, so every morning my mother and I listened to the “Make-Believe Ballroom,” where I heard everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong … all the hits of that time. The first year I remember what I heard was 1959, and Bobby Darin comes to mind. We listened to jazz station WLIB, where I first heard Herbie Hancock. We also listened to a lot of classical music and opera on the radio, because my mother knew a lot about both. So I fell in love with Ravel and Bach, as well as the wonderful German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
3. VJ: What are your earliest memories of singing and playing instruments?
CR: I used to harmonize to the national anthem when we sang it in school at the start of the day. And I used to figure songs out by ear and play them simply on the piano at home. We had several instruments in the house, including my grandfather’s violin and mandolin, so later on, I started fooling around on his mandolin, playing simple songs with a few chords.
4. VJ: Your interpretations of classics and standards are so rife with emotion. How do you go about selecting tunes?
CR: First, I need to be able to sing every lyric. Does the tune speak personally to me, so I can live through it every time I sing it? Nice chord changes will draw me to a tune. If it’s a blues tune with just a few chord changes, will it be fun to sing and play for the band? I like tunes that swing and ballads that ask questions about life, old blues from the 1920s as well as R&B from the 1940s and 50s.
5. VJ: What have been some of the most memorable moments sharing the stage with artists like Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper?
CR: Well first of all, it’s inspiring just to be on stage with iconic musicians. I can’t believe I get to do that time after time … no pun intended. Every night when David Bowie would sing “Ziggy Stardust,” I was transported, because the songs on the Ziggy Stardust album were some of my favorites as a teenager.
6. VJ: How do you hone the versatility of your vocal chords? Do you sing in the shower? The car?
CR: I have two voice teachers and I combine some of their exercises for my warm-up. The voice changes every day according to how much sleep I’ve gotten, whether I’ve traveled, etc., so I have certain exercises I do all the time and others that are specific to whatever may need more work from day to day. Sometimes I sing in the car … usually if I’m traveling and that’s the only place I have to warm up. When I get to sing in concert halls, the dressing rooms are made for musicians to practice. If we are in a club with no separate dressing room, then I’ll find a place away from everyone else to do a final warm-up before the show. Mostly I’m vocalizing in hotel rooms …my poor neighbors! I try to practice in the mid-afternoon when people may be out for the day.
7. VJ: What have been your most rewarding moments during or after a performance?
CR: Well I have to say, performers like applause. Applause means that the audience is having a good time, so that makes us feel good. I like to see people smiling during songs. Sometimes a few couples will get up and dance to a swing song. After a show when I meet people, I like meeting younger people who might be hearing the songs – and the artists’ names who originally recorded them – for the first time. I also like meeting older people who have memories attached to the songs that they share with me. I’m grateful that with all the ways people have to spend their days or evenings, they would choose to come to hear us.
Aug. 15: Vail Jazz @ Vail Square with Catherine Russell
Catherine Russell performs with Mark Shane on piano, Matt Munisteri on guitar and Tal Rohen on bass at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here.