The summer after ninth grade I went off to music camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, leaving my parents and our suburban haven in Ellicott City, Maryland, for two entire weeks. Situated on a quiet shore of the beautiful Georgian Bay, surrounded by woods, and away from city lights, camp was paradise to a thirteen-year old. Eager to meet other kids, I looked forward to days filled with violin lessons, quartet rehearsals, and ample free time. Friendships would be forged, crushes would be had, and entire violin concertos would be learned-at least, this is what I hoped for my first solo trip outside of the US. I felt grown up and independent-surprisingly not too differently from how I feel today, almost two decades later.
Looking back on this summer, I marvel at my confidence and clairvoyance. Early one morning the mesmerizing sounds of a piano drew me down a wooded path to a practice cabin. I peeked inside and made eye contact with the girl seated at the piano bench; from that moment until the end of camp, we were inseparable (and she is still one my best friends today). My tender teenage emotions attached themselves to my first “serious” crush, a violinist whose performance of Bach’s G-Minor Solo Violin Sonata made my eyes water and love-sick heart ache. (I wrote this poor young boy heartfelt letters weekly for a good half year after camp ended.) I had discovered that music was powerful, and profoundly so. Through the act of listening, I could tap into the emotions that drove Beethoven to craft his late string quartets, the intensity of which merited a lifetime of experience beyond my understanding-but not my deep appreciation. Music connected me to people from the past and present-those who appreciated music’s fulfilling and often-addictive qualities.
Since those idyllic two weeks in Canada, music has been a driving constant in my life. I studied violin in college and graduate school, and have built a life that includes teaching and performing on my instrument. So when I find myself on the audience side of the stage, waiting for the performer to enter, I secretly hope that the thirteen-year-old me will be reaffirmed and inspired, moved by the sounds of the artist, and ready to fall in love again.
These days I’m finding inspirational live performances-in the classical music realm as well as in the more popular genres-given by up-and-coming musicians on the cusp of their careers. Still developing their sound brand and fan base, these artists take creative risks on stage, often performing in lesser-known venues.
Lea Grant, a San Francisco–based vocal artist, came to my attention when my good friend Alanna invited me to a show in which she was singing back-up vocals. It turns out that she was friends with Lea back in college, and the two of them recently reconnected and started collaborating musically.
On the date of the performance, I arrived at the Lost Church at 7:35 pm, five minutes after the start time listed on the promotional postcard. I would have been there five minutes early, but the Lost Church, a residential house turned performance venue, lived up to its name and eluded my finding it until after having passed it twice. Luckily and unluckily for me, the show didn’t actually start until after 8:30 pm.
But it was well worth the wait. Lea, originally from Los Angeles, performed a stylistically varied set, including mainly original compositions and one Joni Mitchell cover, “Down to You.” Lea’s original compositions are part jazz, part folk-rock, with hints of Regina Spektor and Tori Amos. Her crystal clear voice, however, is completely her own, the product of natural talent honed by years of operatic training.
Sitting in a master class at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, I heard Marilyn Horne, the world-famous mezzo-soprano, say the following to a student on stage: “You were given the gift of your voice. You had nothing to do with that. Be thankful. And use it well.” In other words, training can only take a singer so far. Not every soprano has the lyrical quality and range required of the role of Susannah in Marriage of Figaro. But Lea does, and she is investing this gift into her own compositions.
Her lyrics are metaphorically expressive. In one of the saddest songs performed that night (“Life Vest” ), she compares the turbulence of a doomed love to crashing waves:
I recklessly unzipped my chest, pulled all the contents out of my life vest.
I was hoping you might be impressed, or at least take what you loved and then sew up my breast.
If perhaps a little nursery rhyme-ish, the imagery is stark and the words are palpable. Set to music, the story comes to life. I could hear the grating sounds of the zipper opening and feel the torn cloth of the vest between my fingers. And in this song, my thirteen-year-old self stirred in acknowledgement, or perhaps communion. Falling in love or falling because of love-it’s the same experience, just in different moods.
Lea closed the evening with an unaccompanied Irish folk tune, “She Moved Through the Fair.” (For all the other pieces in the set Lea also played piano.) More than any of the other songs, this one showcased her voice and breath control. Tremulous ornaments, wistful in character and placed meticulously on held notes, elicited sensations of hair raising on the back of my neck.
I approached Lea after the show to express my congratulations. Petite and dark-haired, she was all smiles, full of post-performance energy, and not quite fully present. Her eyes were slightly unfocused, indicating that she was still in transition, making her emotional way back down to non-performance mode. The innocence and vulnerability of her state filled me with nostalgia. My thoughts turned to a summer long ago, when melodies could lead me to wooded places, best friends, and first loves.
Today melodies still lead me to people. After the show I interviewed Lea Grant, the opera singer turned singer-songwriter. I was curious to know more about her classical background and how she transitioned from singing other people’s songs to singing her own.
Untapped Cities: Who or what has been the biggest artistic influence in your life? Why has this impacted your growth as an artist?
LG: My dad. He was a film composer throughout my childhood, and his studio was directly beneath my bedroom. Every day and night I could hear his music, and I’m sure that my aesthetic taste reflects that. You know, the things we hear, see, smell, taste as children often provide us comfort as adults. I’m sure that I unconsciously recreate sound textures for this reason. Also, my dad is an incredibly resilient, creative person. He’s patient, supportive and unrelenting (when it comes to his creative projects). I admire him a lot. And then there’s Joni Mitchell. Her music and lyrics are gorgeous in equal measure. Julia Cameron has also been a huge influence in my life. I have done The Artist’s Way about three times and found it to be really helpful in defining my artistic goals and in plotting the course while taking good care of myself.
Untapped Cities: What is one of your favorite classical works and why?
LG: At the very end of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) the Count asks the Countess to forgive him. That part of the opera makes my heart feel like molten honey every time I hear it. I know it isn’t interesting as an ex-opera singer to pick Mozart, but that particular section melts me. I’m not one of those musicians who is constantly analyzing while listening. It is my blessing and curse to just enjoy music as I hear it. I have to make a concerted effort to analyze what is going on and why it works so well. Another favorite-this one for the lovely melody-Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin” from his set Reincarnations.
Untapped Cities: Why and how did you decide to transition from classical performance to writing and performing your own works? Have you always been writing your own material?
LG: Opera was a fantastic exercise for me. I’m very methodical and am one of those who would happily spend half of my practice time doing technical exercises, warm-ups. So, in that sense, opera was a rewarding challenge for me-but that is not how my soul sings. Not up on a high C in somebody else’s style.
I always wanted to sing my own material, but no I haven’t always been writing songs. I started writing songs consistently in 2007-quite late, really. A couple of things catalyzed that transition. As I said, I did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It helped me to clarify what my true artistic/life goals were and urged me to start marching on that path. Also, I had one of those conversations that really sticks with you. I was talking with my boyfriend at the time in 2005 about my frustrations and revelations in operatic singing. He told me he thought that I was wasting my talent on opera. Of course this made me furious, but the next day I sat down with my guitar and promised myself I would not get up until I had a song. I wrote a song that day, and I count that as the beginning. Also, to clarify, I do still sing chorally, with International Orange Chorale of SF.
Untapped Cities: How is preparing for a vocal recital different from preparing for a show at Lost Church?
LG: There’s a lot more laughter at rehearsals, and I don’t have to buy a new gown. Seriously though, at this point, they are actually quite similar. The main difference is that I don’t have to memorize someone else’s music, and of course, I am playing the piano. The pendulum is swinging back now that I have let my performance practice become sufficiently sloppy. I used to be too precise with my technique and diction. Now I am allowing myself to be more meticulous in rehearsals”¦because I have a clearer understanding of what the song wants and am willing to take my time with it. I also enjoy indirect practicing, [for example with piano, playing] Scott Joplin and a Beethoven sonata in preparation for the show at Lost Church. I often warm up my voice before a show by singing “Voi Che Sapete” or Debussy’s “Nuit de Etoiles.”
Untapped Cities: In the actual performance (still comparing the recital versus the show), is your brain working the same way for both scenarios, meaning are you focusing on the same elements? Can you describe the similarities and/or the differences?
LG: Great question. Mostly, yes. I am thinking about vocal technique (breathe, really speak the vowels)-but less than I would be in a classical recital. I am listening to the other musicians and trying to play in the groove with them. I have to do this as a pianist more than as a singer. As a singer, I follow my muse, who is constantly throwing ideas at me for little embellishments, improvisations and rhythmic interplay. It’s kind of like juggling while your mirror image is throwing bananas at you and stealing your bean bags. Thankfully, I am increasingly able to implement these ideas. This is something that I absolutely never had to do as a classical singer. I think a lot of classically trained musicians struggle with fear around improvisation because we are required to spend so much time perfecting our performance of extremely challenging music. Very little time is spent just exploring the sounds you can make with the instrument. For me personally, as long as I was singing opera, I was too afraid of judgment to let myself improvise.
Untapped Cities: When you aren’t thinking about or making music, what would you most likely be thinking about or doing?
LG: I am a perfect specimen of a Bay-Area 20-something, at least according to OkStupid and Craigslist housing posts. I garden, hike, meditate, occasionally practice yoga, cook amazing vegetarian food and bake vegan cookies. As far as what I am thinking about, I’m most likely to be reviewing my recent actions and making the switch from bludgeoning myself to telling myself I did ok, planning future actions, or reminding myself that the present moment is pretty f*ing sweet.
Untapped Cities: What musical artists are you currently listening to?
LG: I’m kind of ruled by Saturn in this department. I’m slow to catch up, and I love the tried and true classics. I only recently got into the Beach Boys! This week I have been reconnecting with Brad Mehldau and The Beatles. [In terms of] new stuff, I am really into this one Dr. Dog song right now called “Army of Ancients.”
Untapped Cities: Tell me more about your upcoming album.
LG: I’ve recently become quite infatuated with catchy music and you will definitely hear that in the new album, along with my inextricable lust for rich harmonies. We played most of the songs on the album at Lost Church, but there are a few others in the works that I’m really excited about! Thematically, the album is about the challenge of letting go the structures that we create for ourselves. They once served us, now they don’t, but something in us tends to still hang on. Many of the songs are also about the relationship between personal integrity and obligations/responsibilities to others. Cities of Snow is slated to be a full-length, ten-song album. We’ll be launching the kickstarter fundraiser within the next month and hope to get into the studio in the early spring 2012 [to record].
Lea Grant’s next show in San Francisco will take place on Monday, December 12th, at the Hotel Utah Open Mic. For more information, visit Lea’s website.