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INTERVIEWS VANESSA VAN SPALL
TAKE THE LONG WAY HOMESinger-songwriter VANESSA VAN SPALL didn't simply happen upon music. It was something that was always with her. At the age of 16, VAN SPALL recorded a demo that actually ended up in the right hands. A deal was in the works, but life had otehr plans for VANESSA. You see, the deal was never signed. This was no mere oversight by an administrative assistant at some record company. VANESSA simply walked away. "I think was a lot of things; fear of success and fear of failure, and a fear of confronting your dream." says VAN SPALL. "It's like you set this goal for yourself and then suddenly, the possibility of failure is right in front of you. Maybe, I wasn't ready to face that yet at that age. I also kind of felt that my life was pulling me in other directions as well."
VANESSA VAN SPALL TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HER CD COTTON-POLY BLEND
THE FEAR OF FAILURE
AND NOT HAVING REGRETS
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
Not being the person to get lost in regrets, VANESSA threw herself into marriage, college, and a string of careers (including database management and substitute teaching) that all lead back to her questioning if such paths were ever going to make her happy. Eventually, she met up with pianist/keyboardist IAN HISERT and started singing and composing again. Along the way, they recruited ERIC GOLUB on viola and cello, DEREK YERGLER on bass, and ATMA ANUR on drums to round out the sound. "The four of us have a distinctive contribution that makes it really unique." says VAN SPALL " I view all four of us as non-replaceable."
Her curiously titled CD COTTON-POLY BLEND is a provocative listen. In an age where the right wing-waged Culture War has divided the country socially and politically, VAN SPALL sings of humility, redemption, and praise so honestly and hauntingly,the listener can actually believe that the woman is singing about the real thing and not trying to sway anyone at the ballot box. "I am a Christian and I write from my perspective but I don't try to make the music be one thing or another." says VAN SPALL. "I personally not aiming to sing in churches alot and I'm not aiming for a Christian audience. I'm just open to whoever likes it. If I tried to make it not sound religious that would be contrived and if I tried to go the other route that wuold be contrived and annoying."
The material on COTTON-POLY BLEND eases back and forth seamlessly from electronic to acoustic, to earthbound to spiritual. No matter what end of the political/religious spectrum you are on, COTTON-POLY BLEND has that thing that all of the great pop albums great - substance. Save a space for this CD somewhere in between CAROLE KING's TAPESTRY and ANNIE LENNOX's DIVA.
VANESSA VAN SPALL spoke with ROCKWIRED over the phone. Here is how it went.
After looking at your website, it looks as if you guys are hitting the internet radio route with a vengeance.
Yes. We're really excited because we've now also hired a regular radio promoter and he's been doing well for us also.
What the first single?
The first single is SAVE ME, which is at the end of the CD.
I'm surprised that that one is the single.
Really? I guess we were surprised to or else we wouldn't have made it track eleven on the CD. The midwest is a different world than what we're on in the coast. What song would you have picked?
PALM OF YOUR HAND.
Thanks. It doesn't mean that it won't be a single somewher down the line.
COTTON-POLY BLEND isn't your first CD, is it?
It's not my first CD ever in life, but it is with this band. It's a CD that I'm 100% proud of. I did do some prior CDs and they did limited runs and they were good, because just having the experience was awesome, and one of them was a CD that my dad and I actually did together. It was a great experience for us. We had a rough patch in our relationship and that was sort of the "getting back together" type of experience. COTTON-POLY BLEND is the first CD that I'm ready to put out there for a mass audience.
Is it safe to assume that VANESSA VAN SPALL is more of a group effort as opposed to a solo artist?
It's totally safe to assume that. We couldn't think of a band name and we sat on it for a year and a half . Four of us couldn't agree, six of us couldn't agree and finally after playing out under the name VANESSA VAN SPALL for so long we got advise not to change it becuase we would have to start all over again with people not knowing who we were. I kind of felt like I was standing in this band then got pushed out to the front. It appears to be about me but the four of us are really tight. It's definitely more like ALISON KRAUSE AND UNION STATION as opposed to SHANIA TWAIN who just assembles musicians when she needs them.
So your saying it's not a machine.
No, it's not. The four of us have a distinctive contribution that makes it really unique. I view all four of us as non- replaceable.
You grew up in a house full of music.
Yes. My dad is very musical. It's funny, through the internet where I'm running into all of these people witht he last name VAN SPALL in England and Holland and they are all musicians or they are in the music business. Very bizarre.
In you bio, your father is described as being a music minister. Forgive me my ignorance and my Episcopal upbringing, but what does that mean?
A music pastor. I grew up in more in the Pentecostal Churches - the crazy Churches. Evangelical Churches. The music in those Churches tends to be modern. My dad had some choirs but then gradually through the years it was like rock bands playing in church. That's the musical background that lead me into music.
Like TORI AMOS.
Yeah, I've heard that.
So when you started performing at the age of five, you performed for church audiences.
Yeah. Church and a little bit in school.
In the second grade, you won a songwriters competition? What was the song?
The song was called SPACE AGE ELEPHANT. It was a purely a piano piece.
I was about to ask what a second grader had to write about.
Yeah, no lyrics on that one.
Growing up, what artists had an influence over you?
I would say BONNIE RAITT and also SINEAD O'CONNOR. SINEAD O'CONNOR is huge. She's an influence because there is no disconnect between what she's singing and whats going on in her heart. That emotional tie to SINEAD O'CONNOR just had an emotional influence on me. I still strive to be that raw and that honest. BONNIE RAITT, I just love her music. Her career is just the ideal career because she's had so much control over what she does. Those are two that come to mind immediately.
After hearing the CD, I would've thought ANNIE LENNOX would've been an influence.
Definitely. Her DIVA album and her MEDUSA album both got played to death.
You recorded a demo at the age of 16, which fell into the right hands. A deal was in the works and you walked away and did all of the things that a parent wants their children to do; go to college and get married. Yet, you walked away from music. What happened?
I think I got scared of the whole thing.
I think was a lot of things; fear of success and fear of failure, and a fear of confronting your dream. It's like you set this goal for yourself and then suddenly, the possibility of failure is right in front of you. Maybe, I wasn't ready to face that yet at that age. I also kind fo felt that my life was pulling me in other directions as well. In the end, I don't regret that. I think it kind of made me who I am and it gave me a pretty broad breadth of experience in terms of life. It's just interesting how things work out. Now, musically, I think I have a lot more opportunity, just in terms of the internet. There are so many more musicians that are able to make a living doing what they are doing than there were about ten years ago where you had to be signed to a label and get roped into what they wanted you to do creatively. The industry has changed alot and maybe it was good that I didn't start out then. You can't live with regrets.
With that demo, what sort of sound were you going for?
It really wasn't that different. By the time a I recorded that demo, BONNIE RAITT's LUCK OF THE DRAW came out and I was in love with that album. She's kind of folky and - I don't know. Do you think she could almost border on country.
I'd say more roots rock than country.
The style of that demo was more in that vein.
What brought you back to wanting to make music again?
I tried a whole bunch of other avenues, and even though I had mild interest in the other career choices, they just were not fulfilling.
What were some of these other career choices?
I worked in offices, I've done database work, and substitute teaching.
What was that like?
It was so hard. Substitute teaching in the public schools definitely toughened me up.
Elementary school and one time as a friend I did junior high.
Other than jobs scaring you away, was there anyone going "Come on Vanessa, you need to get back into music".
There was a band that asked me to be their singer, so that helped. I played with them for a while.
Was that SANCTUARY?
Yes. Are they in the bio?
They're hardly mentioned, which made it hard trying to find things out about you.
Yeah, I really don't want to advertise the two CD's I did in terms of sale. They were good in terms of experience. The CD I did with SANCTUARY quality wise turned out really well, but when I listened to it, I realised that I had a long way to go as a songwriter.
You wrote for them as well?
I did sing and we had three or four writers in that band so there was never a lack of material. It was actually a really good creative environment but in the end it just came down to the fact that creatively, we were going in different directions.
What kind of band was it?
I was the second to the youngest, so there were like two of us who were fairly young, in our twenties and everyone else was in their forties and fifties. So, there was this interesting age gap. The sound was like STEELY DAN meets U2. It was definitely an older sound.
Then there was a band called TESSERACT.
TESSERACT was the original formation of IAN HISERT and I. We were a duo. The CD we recorded was the one I had originally started recording with my Dad. It was kind of like my Dad and I started it and then IAN came in and contributed some material.
What was the rift between you and your father?
In a nutshell, it started when I was married at nineteen and he wasn't happy about the person that I was marrying.
We weren't totally estranged but there was definitely something there. Towards the end of that marriage was when I worked on this project with my dad and it was very healing for us.
How did you and IAN HISERT meet and decide that the two of you had this musical connection?
We met working at accounts payable at GAP CORPORATE. He was playing for a cover band at the time and they were looking for a lead singer. He was asking one of my co-workers if she was interested and she refered him to me. I never auditioned for this cover band but that was how we found out that we were both musical. We'd see each other in the office and everyday and found that we had a lot of other things in common. We're actually partners in music as well as in life.
I could tell. Have you ever collaborated with anyone as a songwriter before?
I have in the sense that they've written music and I've written lyrics. I've never actually tried to sit in a room with someone and do something entirely from scratch.
Is it easier on your own or with someone else in terms of songwriting?
It depends on the other person. If there is a chemistry, you feed off of it. The flip side is that if you don't have a chemistry, It's kind of like being in a conversation that you have a lot in common with versus a conversation with a person where there is no common ground and you want to go get a beverage.
What are you trying to say VANESSA?
Unlike our conversation right now.
Between you and IAN, how does the process work?
It's definitely gone both ways. A lot of the songs, he's come up with the music and I'll feel inspired by it and other times, I've come up with lyrics and we'll sit down together. Ussually, if I come up with lyrics, I have a melody that goes with them, but not always and then we'll put some music behind it. Since the CD release, I've been so busy with the promotion and playing out, and I need to get back into the songwriting. It's the soul of the process for me.
COTTON-POLY BLEND - What does the title mean?
It's a reference to fact that there is a pretty big range of music. For example, PALM OF YOUR HAND has this super organic sound, very unplugged and spontaneuos, versus I COULDN'T CRY which is very synthy and has a very electronic thing going on. It refers to the musical aspects of the CD.
As a songwriter, how much does Christianity have over the music? Would you consider COTTON-POLY BLEND to be a Christian recording or a secular one?
I am a Christian and I write from my perspective but I don't try to make the music be one thing or another. I personally not aiming to sing in churches alot and I'm not aiming for a Christian audience. I'm just open to whoever likes it. If I tried to make it not sound religious that would be contrived and if I tried to go the other route that wuold be contrived and annoying.
Do you think being labeled Christian would positively or negatively effect how th emusic is listened to?
My experience has been in terms of getting a lot of people listening to it, it is definitely negative. It tough because songs like NOT SORRY really rub Christians the wrong way. One of my relatives heard it and she's really sweet but somewhat conservative. After she heard that song, she called my mom and she's like 'Is everything okay with VANESSA?' My goal is not to pull people one way or another. This my experience and this is what has happened. I really don't know what's going to happen. I've had people tell me that if you're writing to a secular audience, they don't want to hear about God or the J-word, but as an artist, I just can't filter. I have to write what I feel. That's a tough question. I think about it alot. I wonder if I've blacked us out of certain markets because I've said the workd God. I can't be an artist and think about the market side of it at the same time.
I'm going to name some songs from the CD and I'd like for you to talk about them. PALM OF YOUR HAND.
That song was definitely a love song about me and God. For people who can't relate to that, I just tell them that it's a love song between two people that have loved each other for a really long time. If you listen to the song and have lived a little you know that you just don't find that with people. It's not humanly possibly. Going through my divorce was a total crisis of faith for me. In the second verse where it says, 'Your still writing on the sand where I'm standing my accusers can't be found' , It's like my relationship with the Lord has outlasted even me doing things that He wouldn't like. I can't try to go for a Christian market and I can't try not to. He's got his mark on me and I can't take that away.
FOLLOW ME is about a point in my life where I was trying to figure out whether I should pursue my dreams or not. Should I let this thing go, or should I go after it?
It's very much related to the divorce I went through. One day I found this key to a bike chain. My ex-husband and I bought these bikes one day. When your going through a divorce you're just trying to clear away all of the memories and just get rid of stuff. I was just trying to undo it by getting rid of stuff and I came upon this object that brought back this flood of memories. What I realized was that I was trying to love him all of this time and he wouldn't let me. I tried to help him but he couldn't be helped. I just came to realize that some people need more than what can be found in a marriage or a relationship.
Have you heard of a book called THE HIDING PLACE?
I don't think so.
That inspired the song. In the book, the writer is very close to her sister. These two sisters and their father are hiding Jews during World War II in Holland. Eventually, they get found out and the two sisters are sent to a concentration camp. While they're in the camp, the sister has all of these visions and dreams of what they can do after they get out. The sister dies while they're still at the camp, so she never gets to see all of these dreams come true but the writer carries them out when she is set free. The story is actaully about the moment when the one sister realizes that the other has passed on. I'm very close to my sister in real life, so I could totally relate.
This band of yours is an interesting group of musicians. Who are they and what do you think each of them sort of brings to the table?
IAN HISERT is the other driving force of this band. He co-writes with me and I feel that betweeen the two of us, he is the young spirit, and I'm the old spirit and between the two of us, we're able to come to the middle ground. He is a pianist and a keyboard player. He's not a jazz musician but he kind of leans in that direction. He improvises solos on the fly that are just amazing. He's written alot fo the music that we do. ERIC GOLUB is our viola player and we like to refer to him as our secret weapon. He's just super-talented and is definitely from a jazz background. I've never heard anything quite like him because it's not quite fiddle like a country player and it's definitely not classical. It is jazz viola. He brings talent and a definite unique sound. DEREK YERGLER is our bass player and above everything else, he has a real sensitivity to the music. On the CD, ATMA ANUR played drums and he also produced it. He's brilliant in many ways. We learned so much from working with him. He's actaully in England now. He did a lot of arrranging as well as producing. He's just a phenomenal musician and he's just got this energy level that eclipses the four of us put tohether.
How long did it take to record the CD?
From start to finish interms of pre record at home all the way up until the end, I would say nine months.
As long as it takes for a human to come together. Interesting.
What in you opinion makes a good album.
Strong songwriting, great performances and good arrangements.
Why is COTTON-POLY BLEND a good album?
Ah hah! Saved the hard one for last!
I'll say, because it's from the heart. Everyone contributed pieces of their soul on this one. They didn't just come into the studio, lay it down and leave. I also think that the variety of it lends to it's strength.