"There is so much going on here. There is Latin Jazz, Avant Garde and Be Bop," contemporary Jazz vocalist Brenda Earle says of the New York City music scene. It all seems so distant from her days as a teenager wearing combat boots, black nail polish and listening to punk rock music while growing up in the central Canada city of Sarnia.
Earle who moved to New York City slightly more than three years ago says, "I already had an established career in Toronto (Canada). For four or five years after I graduated I was hanging out in Toronto. I was making a pretty good living playing gigs over there and I was one of the (artists) people would check out in Toronto. Then I uprooted myself (and moved) to New York City. I became a very small fish in a very big pond. I had to figure out how to support myself while doing music and also how to stand out while becoming established was a big double edged sword. It is definitely not for everybody. It is definitely a struggle but it has been worth it for me."
Although she may still be considered an emerging artist Brenda Earle had drawn rave reviews from the press with the Washington Post referring to "her finesse as a vocalist", The Press in New Zealand compares her music to a mixture of Frank Sinatra and Suzanne Vega and Canada's largest newspaper the Toronto Star giving her high marks as a pianist.
With the release of her third CD Happening Earle seems poised to take the next big step in letting the Jazz world know that she is ready to join the likes of world recognized Canadian talents Diana Krall, Marc Antoine and Oscar Petersen.
The fact that Earle pursued a career in music did not come as a surprise to those closest to her including her father who raised her as a single parent due to the death of Earle's mother. "When I was sixteen I thought, 'hey I can really do this.' At one point when I asked my dad what he thought about me doing music he said, 'Well what else would you do? Of course that makes sense.' He said, 'that is all you think about. You are at the school from seven in the morning until seven at night doing all the music stuff that is available."
She continues saying, "During most of my childhood I considered going into writing or journalism. I won a couple of poetry contests when I was younger. When I started to play music it seemed like an obvious fit for me. I was a bandleader in high school. I conducted the school chamber choir."
She has always been attracted to Jazz because it gives her the ability to improvise and in her words feel more "free". "For me it felt so much freer to be playing jazz because I could improvise and I could express myself in a different way." Earle says her rebellious nature made it difficult for her to merely follow the notes on a page. She adds, "I wanted to improvise and compose music. I wanted to do my own crazy arrangements of things. In that sense it (Jazz) was a better fit for me than playing classical music."
"On this CD (Happening) there are some more modern readings of old standards. "I'm Old Fashioned" is a different kind of reading where I reconstructed the song a little bit. I added and embellished a lot of stuff. There is a Police tune on there where it is all mixed metre and it has been transformed from the original. I am always doing that sort of thing where I am taking a tune and doing something with it that makes it feel more personal to me."
She describes her title track from the CD Happening as, "a crunchy piano tune. It was a song written about pure joy, being happy and being excited and feeling you are in the right place."
"October Rains" is based on my mother's death and is from the point of view of my father. It is very intense. It talks about how the passing of time heals. It is the idea of walking through an empty house and sensing smells and hearing sounds. At a certain point with the passing of years the pain goes away but there is always the feeling that person is still there."
"My mother passed away when we were very young. My dad managed to be very loving, nurturing and supporting to what my brother and I have chosen for our lives. He didn't have expectations of me because I was a woman. He fought for me to be treated like the guys. He wanted me to be successful. We have had these really great conversations over the years. "Somebody Else's Eyes" came out of our conversation concerning watching the people around us and seeing that these people start believing the lies that they tell themselves." Not to be misconstrued as a judgmental statement Earle includes herself in those observations, "We tell ourselves these lies and we start to believe them. The conversation (and the song) is about if you could only stop lying to yourself and get what it is that you really want from life. It is about being true to yourself and if you are able to do that you will able to be true to someone else. I put the song in the context of finding love," she says.
In response to my query about how her 1998 EP Her Main Claim To Fame compares to her later works I Take Requests and Happening Brenda tells me, "The thing that I have always been going for is to try and create something organic and really honest. Her Main Claim To Fame was just a five song EP and on it there is boogie woogie, swing, a standard, an Elvis Costello tune and there is an original piece on it. Even back then there was diversity. Over the years I have honed in on a more consistent sound but I think the thing I have always tried to do is be honest and say 'This is the music I want to make. This is what I am hearing. This is what I am feeling. I haven't tried to keep to an agenda of one particular sound."
Between 2000 and 2003 this blonde haired beauty worked for nineteen months as a musician and singer aboard cruise ships. She says of the experience, "I was going out there with the mindset of being a pretty strict Jazz musician where art has integrity and it has to swing and be very jazzy. It has to be rooted in that tradition however I had no choice but to submit to the environment. The environment was people wanted to request songs. They wanted to hear Billy Joel and Elton John. I had to learn how to play that kind of music. While I was doing that I discovered there is a lot more to music than the 32 bar and the swinging Cole Porter thing. That was a huge musical influence on me because once I started living within pop music and songs by the Beatles or Earth Wind and Fire I started to hear different sounds. I started to explore that musically." The experience led to the release of I Take Requests. The same year she also released the Jazz CD All She Needs.
Brenda Earle has never been one to shy away from making statements with her music and the cover of her CD All She Needs also made a statement. Whereas Her Main Claim To Fame and Happening present that girl next door look the cover of All She Needs presents a very tasteful but sexier Earle. "On All She Needs I worked with a wonderful photographer from Toronto and after listening to the record she wanted to capture an essence of something more seductive. It has an old fashioned look to it because it is sepia tone black and white. She had me in a fur coat, cocktail dress and vampy makeup," Brenda says.
Brenda Earle is a name you should remember and whose music you should check out because we are going to be listening to her music for many years. She is a gifted composer, talented vocalist and superb pianist. One gets the impression that the CD Happening really only gives us a foretaste of what is yet to come.