Love Me Like a Man
Love Me Like a Man
A Q&A with Vanessa Collier
By Geoff Gehman
Vanessa Collier pays, and plays, it forward. Her saxophone playing has some of the bluesiness of Cannonball Adderley, her first sax hero. Her singing has some of the ballsiness of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose song “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air” is in her wheelhouse. She lets the musicians in her band share the spotlight, a lesson in good dynamics she absorbed from singing guitarist Joe Louis Walker, her former band boss.
For 100-percent proof just click on the YouTube video of Collier’s 110-proof performance of Chris Smithers’ “Love Me Like a Man,” one of Bonnie Raitt’s calling cards. Singing and saxing last year at Don Odells Legends, a renowned studio/club in Palmer, Mass., she growls, grinds, wiggles, shadowboxes, blasts, blares, come-hithers, testifies, and sashays into the crowd to sit between and serenade two women. The hot- and cool-mama tour de force ends up as a 13-minute rock, jazz and blues “Bolero.”
On Jan. 11 Collier will bring her robust, raucous self to the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which she’s enjoyed as a band leader and a Joe Louis Walker backer. She and her three musical partners will put a hurting on the likes of “Whiskey and Women,” “Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime” and “Sweatin’ Like a Pig, Singin’ Like an Angel,” the latter the opening track on her third and latest album, last year’s “Honey Up” (Phenix Fire), which she named after a term for brown nosing. Below, in a conversation from her home in Chadds Ford, she discusses.giving private sax lessons to repay a pivotal horn teacher, writing a song to honor a late, great musical friend and other acts of generational generosity.
Q: Can you remember the first song that you couldn’t forget, that slayed and flayed you? Joe Walker told me that the Drifters’ “I Count the Tears” was the first tune that turned him upside down and inside out.
A: The first song I remember really digging into was LeAnn Rimes’ “One Way Ticket [Because I Can].” I also liked her “How Do I Live?” I just loved her voice. That’s where I was at that time. That’s what you get when you’re really young and that’s what the radio is playing in Texas.
Q: Who was the first saxophonist who rocked your world, who made you want to play the sax seriously?
A: Cannonball Adderley for sure. I discovered him through my teacher at the time, Chris Vadala, who played for Chuck Mangione for 20 years, who played with Aretha Franklin, who is on first call as a woodwind player around the country. Chris recommended a couple of records and my mom and I went out and bought them. I particularly loved Cannonball’s “Phenix,” the last record he made before he died. I loved his playing, which was bold and bluesy. That’s what caught me.
Q: Who turned you onto Sister Rosetta Tharpe, another venerable stalwart and a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee? Why did you record her “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air” for your second album “Meeting My Shadow”?
A: I discovered her through the Wood Brothers. I discovered them in college. heard them three nights in a row at the Sunshine Music Festival in Florida and they were amazing. Their version of “Up Above My Head” is different than the one I put on my record, although I do their version live. I began digging into her repertoire and I discovered there was such a great spirit in her music. There was gospel and the roots of blues and the roots of rock ’n’ roll, too. It amazes me that she played guitar when it wasn’t pretty standard for women and she just kicked butt. She kind of paved the way for everybody. I had to dig into her out of respect.
Q: Your song “Bad News Bears” was a finalist in the John Lennon composing competition. You wrote it to honor Max Cowan, a fellow saxophonist and high-school friend in Maryland. Why was he special enough to merit a musical memorial?
A: Max was absolutely crazy, in an absolutely good way. I remember one year he told me he was going to Halloween dressed as a girl. He walked up to my house and my mom was waiting at the door and after he left she said: “Who was that girl? She looked so familiar.” I told her: “Mom, that was no girl, that was Max.”
That was so Max, so light and so fun. He made you laugh no matter how you felt; he could get rid of your bad mood with a hug. He had such a good heart. I remember I missed a calculus class because I had torn my ACL [playing basketball] and I was rehabbing. Max would spend an hour and a half on the phone with me explaining what I had missed. He helped me keep up with the class and survive.
Our friendship actually began in fourth grade, when we began playing sax together. He passed in 2008, after the summer before my junior year. I know he had an enlarged heart but I don’t actually know how he died. He was Jewish, so there was no autopsy. His parents have been very involved in my career. They’ve supported all my records and I’ve performed at house concerts at their community center. They invite 80 to 100 people and everybody brings a meal and I get to play and hang out with people I knew in high school.
I wrote “Bad News Bears” to spread Max’s generous spirit. The title is a phrase he said when something was off: “Well, that was ‘Bad News Bears’.” I’m so giving today because he gave me so much.
Q: How did you get hooked up with Joe Louis Walker and what did he teach you during your one and a half years in his band? I interviewed him before his 2016 gig at Mauch Chunk and found him to be remarkably generous. He had very fond memories of playing with [renowned blues guitarist] Mike Bloomfield and he had kind words for America’s “mixed-up element,” the “collective soul” that appreciates Muhammad Ali, Pete Seeger and other against-the-grainers.
A: My time with Joe started in 2012, the summer before my senior year [at the Berklee College of Music]. He came to play at Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia, when it was mostly a blues club, and my friend who was playing drums with him told me: “You should probably bring your horn: Joe loves to bring people up onstage to play with him.” I prepared by looking through Joe Louis Walker records on the Internet and I discovered “Oh, I love this guy: this is my bag.” So I went to Warmdaddy’s with my horn and I was introduced to him during the break and he asked: “Are you coming up?” I got up there and jammed with him and at the end of the first song I’m getting ready to leave the stage. I figured it’s one and done; don’t overstay your welcome. And Joe goes: “Wait–where you goin’?” And he kept me up there for the rest of the night. And then he said: “Do you want to go on tour?”
I spent the next year and half in the classroom, being an RA, and touring with Joe as a horn player, a percussionist and a backup singer. It was because of Joe that I went to Turkey for a month; I can’t thank him enough for that experience. I don’t know how I slept, but I learned a ton. At first I kind of sat back in Joe’s band because being on the road was completely new to me. One of the most valuable lessons came from someone who told me that when you’re onstage with Joe he wants you to go for it; as long as you have something to say, he’ll let you say it. It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake; as long as you have something to say, he’ll let you solo for four choruses.
That philosophy, that practice, molded me as a band leader. You have to allow the musicians around you to speak the way they speak; letting them speak and have their moment in the spotlight only makes the show better. And that comes from Joe. He taught me a lot about being a good leader and a good follower. He also taught me a lot about the music business. It’s not all roses out there. It’s work, running your own small business. You have to be on your game. You have to be on time; Joe’s a stickler for that.
Joe is still helpful in my career. He’ll send me emails every now and then saying, “Hey, I see you’re doing great things.” He’s still encouraging, from the sidelines.
Q: What’s the meaning of “Honey Up,” the title of your newest album, and what did you do on “Honey Up” that you didn’t do on your previous record, “Meeting My Shadow”?
A: “Meeting My Shadow” was a little darker and heavier. I wanted “Honey Up” to be more playful, more inviting, more danceable and more fun. I came across the phrase “honey up” because I love to look up words. I love the English language; I love a lot of languages. I looked it up in a thesaurus and discovered it basically means brown nosing, honeying up to somebody to get ahead. I had never heard it used even though I’m from the South and that’s where you would expect to hear it. I decided I wanted to write a song with “honey up”: in a way it’s my comment on the music industry, the idea that you don’t get anywhere without sucking up to somebody. I don’t believe in that. It might get me to the next level of success, but it’s not my thing. I like to achieve everything on my own and just have my fun.
Q: You are such a live wire onstage: free; focused; tuned into the music, the band and the crowd. Is there anything about performing live that gets you nervous?
A: I get nervous pretty much before every show; that doesn’t go away. I really am an introvert, which surprises people because I’m so extroverted onstage. Talking to an audience was so scary when I I started; I was really awkward from time to time. I’ve become much more comfortable but it still scares me when there are fewer than 10 people in the crowd. You really need 15 or the jokes will fall flat [laughs].
I have made so many mistakes onstage. But I’ve come to realize that most people don’t realize they’re mistakes–or, if they do, they just consider them special moments. At the end of the day everything will be just fine: nobody dies.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: I’m always trying to improve myself as a band leader. I read an article on Janis Ian’s Web site where she points out that nobody ever learns how to be a boss. You grow up having a boss you either hate or love but no one teaches you how you to form a team, how you should treat your teammates, how to progress as a team. I’m always trying to connect with my musicians on the highest level, not only musically but personally I always think you can connect with people better and listen better, myself included. I’m just trying to be a great person.
Q: Did you have a recent revelation that’s made making music—singing, playing instruments, writing, recording, bossing—easier and more rewarding?
A: I realized I was singing too loud because the band was too loud. I recently began taking lessons with a voice teacher, who is getting these new methods into my brain. I’m learning that I don’t need to power through, that I should be staying a bit more in control. Improving my technique, varying up the textures, has allowed me to sing longer and stronger. We recently played 12 nights in a row, two to three hours a night, and I was still able to maintain my vocal health and power.
Q: So, Vanessa, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I would like to hike a lot of, if not all, the AT—the Appalachian Trail. I would also like to have a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. Those two things have stayed with me for a long time. And I’d like to have lots of German shepherds [to join Jessie, her 12-plus-year-old, and Cocoa, a one-year-old she shepherds because she’s too “crazy” for her 10-year-old sister].
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: To expand my social activism. I’ve been reading this book “Evicted,” which is about the housing industry rising up and leaving so many people out of the loop and out in the cold. I wish more people had a place to feel grounded.
Q: You’ve been teaching sax privately since 2005, when you were a middle schooler. That’s a very long time for such a busy singer, instrumentalist, songwriter and band leader. Who inspired you to be such a committed educator?
A: Chris Vadala, my first saxophone teacher. He took me on as a sixth or seventh grader; I was lucky because he doesn’t take many people at the middle-school or high-school level. I studied with him through college, even a year past college. He inspired me as a musician who had toured around the world, who was on call around the country as a woodwind artist, and yet he was still teaching; he still loved sharing his considerable knowledge [Note: Vadala teaches saxophone and directs jazz studies at the University of Maryland].
I was in the eighth grade when I was asked to teach an incoming sixth grader who heard me at a jazz concert and said: I want to have her! [laughs] He was my student for a good four years, until I left for college. I didn’t teach during college but I returned to teaching when I came back to Maryland. I wanted to give back to the community that was so rich in musicians, that gave so much to me, that made me feel so rich. I used to teach 30 or so students but now I’ve cut back to more like 22. Teaching keeps me fresh as a musician and ingrained in what’s new. It’s also a steady source of income; you don’t make enough money touring.
Vanessa Collier: The Scoop
She was an elementary schooler when she was first entranced by the sound of a saxophone, which she heard during an episode of the sitcom “Two of a Kind,” which starred Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen.
She co-captained her high-school basketball team. Her favorite moves were the step-back shot and the hesitation, which referees often called a turnover. “I used to complain to the refs ‘But the guys do it [and get away with it]’ but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
She earned Berklee College degrees in performance and music production & engineering. During her graduation ceremony she played in a band that accompanied honorary-degree recipients Carole King, Annie Lennox and Willie Nelson. Tunes she performed that day include “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Locomotion” and “Walking on Broken Glass.”
She’s a regular at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival, on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise and in the Blues in Schools program sponsored by the Blues Foundation.
She received 2018 Blues Music Award nominations for female artist and horn player.
When she needs an IV of saxophone inspiration, she listens to Maceo Parker cook up James Brown’s titanic grooves. His memorably creative solo at the end of “Cold Sweat” “really blows my mind; that’s it for me.”
A passionate cook, she still dreams of fulfilling a childhood goal to own a restaurant.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He agrees with Vanessa Collier that running a band is usually much easier than running a restaurant. He can be reached at email@example.com.