Who Is Michelle Carr?
Acclaimed songstress Michelle Carr was raised in a musically rich and diverse environment, harmonizing with her family around the fireplace in Alta Loma, California; Singing in her high school’s choir, musical productions and performing every season with the community theater. Her love of music is boundless, embracing artists as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and her mentor Nancy Wilson for inspiration. Michelle Carr earned degrees from both California State Polytechnic University and The Juilliard School in New York City where she studied classical voice. She also studied jazz piano with Johnny “Hammond” Smith and was a member of his vocal jazz ensemble and worked with Jazz Trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Contemporary Jazz band Hiroshima and bassist Christian McBride’s funk band Escape Route. Years of classical training and a keen understanding of musical composition, arranging and vocal technique have provided her with the foundation to create a style that embodies classical, Jazz, Pop, R&B and Folk, which she has done with passion, emotion and technical precision.
UBM: Greetings Michelle Carr! And thank you for speaking with Urbanbuzzmag.com. Jazz, R&B, Folk, Pop, Broadway – all those things and more are embodied/embraced by the Song Stylist. A distinction which stayed with me since I first heard one of your mentors, the Legendary Nancy Wilson use the phrase to answer questions regarding her genre-transcending recording career. Would say that Song Stylist is an apt description of your musical methodology?
MC: Song Stylist – I think when I am singing other people’s compositions, definitely song stylist. But having lived with Nancy Wilson; I did not come out of her body, but she is like my second Mom and we speak every day, so it’s not for me to assume that title when she truly is a song stylist. But, yes, when I’m writing or singing other people’s compositions, I would say song conversationalist, song stylist; And coming from both sides of my family, I listened to a lot of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and that kind of Pop/folk music, as well as Michelle Columbie, Motown, Diana Ross – so I had a mix of inspirations. And when I write with musicians I can play some things they’ve never heard.
UBM: Growing up in a rich musical era of R&B, Motown & Pop, were you also influenced by the many television variety shows? where artists with Top 40 radio hits, also performed songs from the latest Broadway shows, Movie soundtracks, and pop standards?
MC: I’ve done that. You know Broadway can be very funny. I remember going on auditions where they didn’t expect you to do everything and were often surprised I have a classical music background and have been trained vocally. One of the shows I did was FANGS directed by Tony Award Winner Diane Paulus; it also aired on BET NYC-LA. The music was very challenging and at first, they could not find anyone that could handle it. They called my agent and I went to one of the last scheduled auditions. They needed an actress who’s: African American, an Opera Singer, able to sing Jazz, to dance, and look beautiful. I know that sounds “How easy” but it’s not easy. Because when you have to move from Opera to Jazz, and sing both equally as well – that’s a tall order, so I wasn’t surprised that they hadn’t found anyone for the role. When they saw Julliard on my resume they assumed I would be completely classical but when I started with something operatic and then walked downstage and sang Good Morning Heartache, – I got the job on-the-spot.
About 5 years ago, the president of Juilliard spoke with me about starting a non-classical voice program, maybe for theater or jazz. The trajectory of music has changed. And it’s no longer about training people to do only one thing. And when you sing Opera for too long, you may not have the option of going back because your voice is so big. It took me 3 years to get mine back down to where I could I do other things with it.
UBM: I remember hearing Kathleen Battle say, that when she was growing up, people would declare that she had such a nice voice and that she should have lessons, get training and her mother would say “If it’s such a nice voice, why do you need to train it? Why do we need to train her out of it?”
MC: So you can keep it.
UBM: Exactly. Formal training’s essential to the world of opera, but it’s also imperative to retain what’s natural, to keep the essence of you.
MC: As an undergraduate I was one of those girls that said I’m never going to use this. Why am I doing Chopin? Why am I studying music theory?” And now, I’m so grateful for the training. I write my own charts, I can transpose anything and I can play the piano. You know, it bothers me when singers think they’re not musicians. At Julliard they use to say “well, we’re musicians and you’re singers.” And I would say “We’re musicians too, we just don’t have to carry our instruments in a box.” If you’re really a musician, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing an instrument or if you’re using your voice.
UBM: I know you have an extensive background in theater, including Hal Prince’s SHOWBOAT, a Lincoln Center workshop of CARMEN JONES and many more. Has musical theatre informed your work, or vice versa? Do you think of yourself as a singer first?
MC: Yes, singer-actor, absolutely. It would take a great director and a great acting coach to get me in a Shakespearean role because that’s for people who know their craft, as I know music. I wouldn’t put a rock singer in a Puccini Opera. It’s the same thing, so yes – I’m a singer first, though I’m very good at acting and I also danced for 11 years.
UBM: Excellent! That’s something that’s often overlooked, all arts work together, and there’s a through-line of creative expression within dance, drama and definitely, music.
MC: Absolutely. Everything can be so separate. We keep Jazz over here and Classical over here and R&B over there – but to me, it’s all music and I’m never genre-specific. I don’t care if it’s Country, Soul, Jazz – to me it’s either good or it’s bad.
UBM: Good music is good music.
MC: Joni Mitchell – I love her album BLUE. I revere Patti LaBelle, and of course – Nancy Wilson; Barbra Streisand actually and Diana Ross.
UBM: And these entertainment legends that you’ve named are all magnificent and all so distinctive – that you know who’s singing from the very first note. If you tune into today’s hit parade, it seems and sounds like many contemporary recording artists are interchangeable.
MC: It’s not focused on ability now, though it would be great if it were. If you listen to a Motown record or let’s say Patti Labelle’s If Only You Knew, the way she starts softly and we know that Patti can blow the roof off the place. If she wants to blast she can but she’s a musician, she’s a smart singer – she starts soft and at the end she’s wailing and your ears are like Wow! But if someone sings at one level all the time, you stop listening. I like smart musicians and singers have forgotten to sing like musicians. When you’re holding a note crescendo or decrescendo, do something with it – but don’t just hold the note out. The composer wrote it that way for a reason.
When the great Leontyne Price came to Juilliard to do a master class, she said: You know, you’ve got to invest in technique because I’m telling you the big house, even though it’s only across the street; she was referring to The Met and we were in the Juilliard Theater, which is huge; Honey there is a big difference between this house and the Big House and I’m telling you, technique is for those days you ain’t feeling so good. You should already know how to sing! You should turn yourself on with your own voice; And I thought, that is so great. Especially as black people, it’s ingrained in our culture that we know how to sing but how we shortchange ourselves, is that we don’t go and develop it, shine it, polish it.
In the days of Nancy Wilson or Sarah Vaughan, the record companies (and/or management) did it. They groomed you, told you what to say, what to wear. Even now, there is no more I’m just a Broadway singer. For me, there is no I’m just a jazz singer. I teach, I write, I own my record label – everything I do is musical. I’m a professional musician on every single level.
And living with Nancy Wilson was invaluable, like being with a living encyclopedia. One of the best things she ever told me was when I moved in; she said let’s get something straight. In this house, a performance isn’t a big deal, so relax. If I have a concert tomorrow, I’ll stop talking at about 5pm until 3pm the next day, to warm myself up for sound check and I think those are good habits but I also want to be able to jump out of bed and go Geez, I’m running late, I better get down to sound check and not make it so precious because we’re already sensitive enough as artists. So, I don’t want to give in to that. Another great thing – number 2 of the 3 best things she ever told me was – Do not ever make anyone wait more than 5 minutes for you. And 3 – Wear your talent as your underwear, not your coat. Meaning, you don’t have to walk around showing off, posturing about what you can do. Be humble and when it’s time to do your thing, do your thing. To hear things like that from someone who’s really done it and who doesn’t give people a hard time or attitude. Reinforces that it’s about the music. And anyone who isn’t about the music, has to go.
UBM: Who are some of your current favorite artists, Jazz or otherwise?
MC: Some of the more contemporary artists I love and listen to may not be considered mainstream. Ani DiFranco, Rachelle Ferrell, Phyllis Hyman who we lost. And Tuck and Patti! They’re wonderful and they’re friends of mine. They didn’t even have a record deal for a while. And we’re sitting around listening to what? …That kind of thing bothers me. I think we need to start a music revolution. Be the change that we want to see in the world.
UBM: Michelle, are you already planning your next recording project?
MC: I have material ready but I’m still focused on my collaboration with guitarist Mark Whitfield called MUTUAL MODULATIONS. It was a wonderfully effortless experience. We wrote that record (10 songs), recorded it and mastered it – all in about 5 months. The project was released about a year and a half ago and just missed the Grammy submission deadline last year but this year I got a ballot saying we were eligible for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Traditional R&B Performance. They’re huge categories but how wonderful.
UBM: And the Mutual Modulations CD, the collaboration with Mark Whitfield, is on your label Saltbox Records, correct?
MC: Yes. And while I don’t yet know what the next release will be, I do know that I’ll use my same musicians. I think when you use your core musicians, it has an element that is all you. No matter what the style is, if they know how to play – they know how to play.
UBM: Great! This has been an excellent conversation. In closing, do you have a motto/mantra you follow in your life? Something that gives you direction & helps you stay on-purpose?
MC: First thing is that I’m very connected to God. I have my grandmother to thank for that. We went to church every Sunday and we sang in the choir. I also pray, all the time. I stopped trying to figure out everything– I know that if it’s for me, God will figure it out. I meditate 20 minutes in the morning and again at night. I guess what keeps me grounded is just being in the moment, telling the truth always and living the best I possibly can and being grateful because honestly, to make a living as a musician, I feel that is such a privilege in itself. Not the prizes and accolades that may or may not go along with that. I love it and I have do it; I’m not happy doing anything else. And so, if you really love it, you’re not attached to getting money for it or fame or attention. I just genuinely love music.
UBM: Michelle Carr, it’s been pure-joy speaking with you and I’m sure the readers will feel the same, that we’ve just had a delightful conversation with a friend – A really talented, informed friend.
MC: Thank you so much.
UBM: And thank you for being a real Key Player speaking with Urbanbuzzmag.com.