In a city with so many jazz singers, Carrie Wicks somehow manages to stand out. Seattle's Wicks doesn't do a whole lot of gigs or albums. But what she does is concentrated and sure, a heady mix of unorthodox, intelligently chosen covers and deeply wrought originals - wrapped in an unlikely package of quiet solitude. That is, until she steps up to the microphone.
As equal a songwriter as she is a musician's singer, Wicks quietly presents a style all her own, always carefree with some dark, somber material, not an easy feat. She's no flash in the pan diva. Instead, she slowly sneaks up on you, a best friend you never knew could pull stuff out like that.
Or, as Wicks references in the song she wrote with writing partner, bassist Ken Nottingham, "The Bottom Of Your Heart," from her new album Maybe: "Take a trip to the bottom of your heart, travel lightly darling, travel smart, it may be stormy, it may be dark, in the bottom of your heart... Dig in deeper, keep on pushing through, it might just welcome you."
The second song off Maybe perhaps best describes the dichotomy of her carefree approach to serious matters. At once a straight-ahead bass-and-piano jazz feast for instrumentalists, the Bob Dorough/Fran Landesman cover "Small Day Tomorrow" really blesses Wicks' penchant for building moments in barely imperceptible (except to her) fragments.
Her last album, Barely There, came out three years ago, full of straight-ahead jazz type standards and ready-made original classics done in a non-standard manner.
She's back with Maybe, which dropped last Friday, and her core recording band, pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson, and drummer Byron Vannoy, with 11 wonderfully surprising breaths of fresh air. The new record is another stunner. Wicks, Anschell, Johnson, and Vannoy host the Maybe CD Release Celebration on October 29, 7:30 p.m., at Tula's downtown ($10 cover).
Earlier today, Carrie Wicks talked more about Maybe and what took her so long in an exclusive AXS interview.
AXS: A new album, your third - finally! What took so long [laughs]?
Carrie Wicks: Well, it takes a while to compose new original songs and to feel comfortable with them, and then by the time we felt "ready" to record, we had to wait another eight months to get into the studio of choice. (There was a rhino in the way.)
AXS: What's behind your new album title, Maybe? Your last album, released in 2012, was called, Barely There. You seem to have a thing for interesting titles.
CW: The one original song on our first album became the title track: "I'll Get Around to It." I had given Ken (Nottingham, co-producer/composer) that sentence to start the composition of our first-ever song. So for the second album, we used the title to the next song we composed, "Barely There," which was based on a poem I had written. So I chose "Maybe" as the title track for this third CD, because I thought it was funny in a subtle way in keeping with the lineage of our album titles and in offering various readings for the audience. But it also speaks to the special blend that Aria (Prame) and I have when we sing together (she helped compose that tune, which became a duet), and there has been talk of us making a duet album in the future, so some foreshadowing, maybe.
AXS: And the album photos in Maybe are also so you, capturing the intelligence and wonder behind an everywoman's first impression. It kind of says that there's more to you than meets the eye, especially in the way you approach the music. How do you approach the music?
CW: I need to feel the lyrics; the song needs to speak to me or, rather, I need to be able to speak/sing the song from my experience. I can't sing something that doesn't mean anything to me; I mean, I will try out songs from the jazz canon for fun when practicing/playing with Nick (Allison, jazz pianist and new co-composer), but if I can't feel it in that moment, I probably won't perform it. Then I like to make my own rhythmic and melodic way through the song, even if it is a standard, by playing off what my ears hear in the moment of the music.
AXS: What did you want to say in this new album, Maybe, and did you feel you accomplished everything you set out to?
CW: Ken and I wanted this to be a somber, more meditative album, because that mood is in my wheelhouse. My mom just wrote that it sounds "very pensive and very pretty," so maybe we got close.
I was hoping for an easier time through the recording process, and that happened, so now I feel like I could maybe do another one, after I fall into a windfall.
AXS: The musicians on Maybe are some of the best sidemen in the NW. But what did they individually and collectively do for you here?
CW: I am always honored to play and record with Bill (Anschell) and Jeff (Johnson) and Byron (Vannoy); they are good people, as well as extraordinary musicians who help me take the music to another level. I chose them early on for the first record (2009/'10) and have enjoyed working with them since. We don't get to play often enough, but when we do get together, I share my charts with them and they give good feedback during rehearsals. I just let them play and work their magic as I try to keep up with my ears open.
Bill's fingers move like hummingbirds over the keys and he has an exquisite sense of rhythm that keeps me on my toes, while Jeff swings, smiling like a Buddha, and Byron plays with the most sensitive ears of a drummer ever.
AXS: Tell me more about Maybe. What were some of your favorite moments in the recording studio? Which songs stood out?
CW: Well, Ken and I were thinking that maybe "Ghost Of A Perfect Flame" wasn't all that; we had decided after the second album that perhaps two or three songs could have been tossed, and we had pondered not including "Ghost" on this CD. But John Bishop (of Origin Records) reordered the songs at the last minute with this as the first tune, which lends it a different aura. The artists are too close to the material to know for certain about the worth of any of the art.
"It Could Happen To You" was the last tune we recorded that full day in the studio (out of 14 songs, each in one or two takes), so after a slog of slow, mellow tunes, I threw this somewhat more up-tempo tune at them and we just had fun with it; I was barely hanging on. We decided to keep the little laugh at the end, because originally, this was going to be the last tune on the CD. [It's #4.]
I think my favorite songs on the album are "Watercolor Rhyme," which was a poem I wrote speaking to the ongoing argument Ken and I have about whether songs need to rhyme, "Solitude" in that quiet moment with just Bill and me, and "The Bottom Of Your Heart," which was our first Bushwick Book Club inspiration.
AXS: Was Tula's — given the redevelopment controversy — a no-brainer in terms of venue for your October 29th CD release show? What's in store for those in attendance, will there be balloons and special wines?
CW: Luckily, Mack Waldron, who owns Tula's, still believes in me and he still books the shows there, and for what I do, listening environments work best. It seems the latest news (as of Oct. 12) reports that Tula's may stick around for a while, because the building it's in is a city landmark.
Funny you ask about the wine, because for my first CD release, we had pondered making lilac wine in honor of the song on that album. We could make sweets that Han Hidalgo of the Netherlands created, inspired by the "Ruse of Roussillon": Brownies with Figs and Almonds and a Glass of Banyuls, but I doubt I'll get around to it.
A treat at this CD release party will be the special guest, my friend Aria, who will sing some songs with me. I will try out a couple new Bushwick songs with the band and mess with some standards in the third set.
AXS: What happens after the CD release (when is the official date, btw), a mini-NW tour?
CW: Maybe, the album, released officially on October 16. The party is October 29 at Tula's at 7:30 p.m. in Belltown.
I've never done a mini-tour, but friends have suggested I play in Portland or Port Townsend, and some national radio DJs have suggested I might be welcome to visit if ever in town. House concerts might be a way of the future for someone like me. But who knows, maybe ...
AXS: The words you use in communicating who you are in past album liner notes, as well as your website, screams writer. You also proofread and edit for a living. How does your way with words play into your way around jazz music?
CW: I wouldn't consider myself much of a writer; I am more an editor nowadays. But I do love creating things like this interview exchange and poem/songs. I used to think I was a poet back in the day. I believe writing is good for the soul.
Four of the original tunes on this CD were initiated by Ken, and then I edited them for me to be able to sing them. The chords are by Ken (or Nick), the melody is by me, and we pass the lyrics back and forth. Ken studies songwriters/writing and he knows a lot about Americana music; he considers jazz to be under that umbrella (and he studied jazz bass at Cornish). Co-composer/practice buddy Nick is also an editor, so we like to play with words too.
AXS: More importantly, your voice is different from anyone else's with shades of past artists — Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, No Deal's Melanie De Biasio — who also made originality the first commodity. It kind of wants to go against the melody and into off-topic conversation. How would you describe your singing style?
CW: Wow: I've never heard Melanie De Biasio. Thanks for sending me to her site to watch her 45-minute video; she's got a mesmerizing, quiet yet dramatic style. Slowcore like Low with improvisational jazz and a bit of the Doors backing her: I'm all over that concept. Would love to see her live; would need to fly to Belgium, then.
I think I am trying to slow down everything in this frantic world in my singing. I want it to be mellow and warm-sounding, yet still swing, drawing the listener inside and hoping it's a meaningful place, a relaxed place with space for both melancholy and a shade of joy.
AXS: If you could, what would you change about your life? More gigs? Fame, fortune? The life of Cécile McLorin Salvant, Tierney Sutton, a Kardashian?
CW: I would like to play more with wonderful musicians to become more comfortable with that and to learn more, if it would bring something meaningful to others in the right place and time. David Byrne mentions in his book on music how it's all about the venue, and I don't know what the future is for our local jazz venues. Or where I belong in that gigging context. Nevertheless, I want to keep collaborating with the songwriting. And I will continue to enjoy finding those quiet moments of being free in the music with gratitude.
AXS: Finally, what does jazz bring to your life that nothing else can? What would you do if you couldn't sing?
CW: Jazz for me is what I get to do for fun after sitting all day copyediting and proofreading; it's a more creative focus and outlet. If I am in a sad mood, singing helps to gently bring me out of that space just by the sheer joy of breathing deeply and being given the room to express something from deep within. It grounds me and lets me soar at the same time too. I love that feeling of getting lost in the music, of being heard, of listening deeply, of taking it to a different place. I wouldn't want to give it up ever; I believe it's how some folks stay forever young.