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Vanessa Collier

Community is a word frequently used recently, but the blues community seems to truly define the meaning. More specifically, Singer/Songwriter/Instrumentalist Vanessa Collier has added additional significance to the blues community with her extraordinary, creative talents that are strongly apparent on her fourth studio album Heart on the Line. This Berklee College of Music grad of 2013 immediately displayed her amazing abilities in 2014, when she released her first studio album Heart, Soul & Saxophone. She continued her professional growth with her second LP Meeting My Shadow released in 2017 and third, Honey Up released in 2018. She has worked and shared stages with many legendary blues artists which allowed her to rack up some amazing experiences that she revealed, catching up with her just after her latest LP release, as well as some insight of her new music and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: This is your fourth studio record Heart on the Line? Tell me about the record. Is there a theme? What inspired it?

Vanessa Collier: I mainly wanted to write a record that was based around songwriting and just some really good stories and kind of show off that element of my writing, playing, singing, all of that kind of more of a softer approach, I think. I was following it up from Honey Up which is my third record. Honey up was very like, I was going for in your face and doesn’t let up kind of thing, and I think with this one, I wanted to oppose it and show the other side of the playing. Something that I love about the saxophone is that it can do both, you know. It can be super powerful and, in your face, but it can also be really sweet and reserved, and this record is more the later. So, it’s just a bunch of songs from how I had been feeling and people that I knew the last, I don’t know like year or two years, something like that. Just a bunch of stories (she chuckled).

SFL Music: Personal experiences and stuff like that?

Collier: Yeah, exactly.

SFL Music: Who would you say were your influences?

Collier: I always listen to a ton of Bonnie Raitt. One of the songs in here “I Don’t Want Anything to Change,” she didn’t write it, it’s written by three Nashville songwriters (Maia Sharp, Liz Rose and Stephanie Chapman), but she covered it with Norah Jones, and I heard the recording. It’s like off of a live disc, and I just love that record, but everything else? Let’s see, I’m listening to a lot of The Wood Brothers, not sure if you’re familiar, but they’re like a really cool kind of acoustic, Americana, sort of a band, but scaled down, three-piece band and everybody sings with lots of harmonies. So, it’s one of where it came from for me, and then there’s always like funk and delta blues and all that. I grew up listening to country music so, a lot of that, it’s just part of my heartbeat.

SFL Music: You have some guests on the new album Heart on the Line?

Collier: Yeah, I had a couple of people switch out on the bass. So, C.C. Ellis is the main touring guy. He’s been awesome. He’s now in Nashville, but we’re recent Berklee College of Music grads, so he’s awesome on the road. Of course, he’s the main guy on the record, and then another guy who’s been out there for a minute and I’ve seen him play with (The) Welch Ledbetter Connection and you know, host of other bands as well, now Albert Cummings, and I just think he’s a fantastic bass player and that’s Scot Sutherland, He’s just got this like honky thing, he’s just awesome. Then for the title track on Heart on the Line, it’s a New Orleans kind of party song, and I think there are guys all over that can play New Orleans that aren’t from New Orleans, but I wanted to get Cornell Williams who plays with Jon Cleary to play on that track and thankfully when I reached out, never having met him, he was like, yeah of course, yeah. So, he recorded for that one and then the track just kind of like jumped off the page when he put his part on.

SFL Music: What inspired you to become a musician. I read on your webpage that you started playing the saxophone at age nine?

Collier: Yeah, I started kind of as soon as you could with the fourth-grade band. Initially what caught me was I was watching a T.V. show after school and it was like a sitcom, and on one of the episodes the dad pulls out a tenor saxophone and from that moment, I was like, what is that instrument? I have to play it! I love the sound! So, I begged my mom for quite a few months and thankfully she caved and we rented one and you know, I’ve just had a whole host of other people. The main one being Chris Vadala who was my mentor and teacher for seven years. He played with Chuck Mangione for twenty plus years. It was just like oh, you can do this as a career? That’s really cool! So, he started me on that path of teaching and playing like live as a career.

SFL Music: That is cool! So, you grew up in Maryland?

Collier: Yeah. So, I was born in Texas, but we moved when I was like seven or eight, and then I grew up in the Columbia, Maryland area for the next eleven years, and that’s where I started saxophone and finished high school and first year of college.

SFL Music: Do you think that growing up in that area and starting music had any influence on your playing?

Collier: Oh yeah, I mean, I think I was one; very, very lucky that our music department and music arts program was flourishing, so you know, it was not abnormal to go rent a saxophone and go take private lessons and do all these extra band things where I know in a lot of parts of the country, that’s not a given. Not a given that you have jazz band during the day. So, that really imprinted on me, and then of course, there’s like so many styles of music. Go-go, I was actually introduced to which is like a DC thing. It’s through a different tune, but I don’t know, there’s just so much connection and this richness through D.C, Philly, like sort of the east coast sound.

SFL Music: One thing Jay (Skolnick, SFL Music Publisher) told me is that audiences love it when you tell stories about your mom and your family onstage? How did that come about?

Collier: Well, my second record (Meeting My Shadow), I wrote this song “Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime” and I wrote it for my mom. It’s sort of you know, you definitely stand up for what you believe in kind of thing. You’re so kind, and this is what inspired me. My mom’s always kind and warm hearted and just the most generous person to every single person that she meets, but she also has to stand up for something, for herself or for somebody else that’s just being treated unfairly, and so that’s sort of where the story came from is talking about that. You know, I’m two parts sugar, one part lime. Sorry, I got three dogs. They’re all feisty today.

SFL Music: no problem, I have a dog too. That’s cute!

Collier: Ok (she laughed), so you know.

SFL Music: Yes, I sure do. So, that story is tied into the song?

Collier: Yeah, and it also mentions her apple pie which I think is like the world’s best, (she chuckled). Got it all in there.

SFL Music: Is that something that you like to do as well? Bake?

Collier: Oh Yeah. Actually, through quarantine I joined the masses and I’ve been making sour dough bread like every week. I’ve been cooking as well. The upside of being home so much is being able to cook and bake.

SFL Music: That’s great! Where there any songs on the new record that are similar to “Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime” about your mom or anyone in particular?

Collier: Yeah, I think “So Who’s in Power” is a song that reminds me of her. “What Makes You Beautiful” is another one. “What Makes You Beautiful” is a song I wrote for my three younger sisters. They’re thirteen, eleven, and eight. You know, the oldest is at that middle school age where nobody really is super kind to each other. You know what I mean? It’s kind of like, I know people might be rude and whatever, but you’re beautiful, inside and out. I just think that’s an important message for anyone at that age to hear. I had my mom tell me that at that age.

SFL Music: That’s a great inspiration. You have several accolades. You have won two BMA awards (Blues Music Awards) for Horn Player of the Year 2019 and 2020 and a few others. There was an award that you won on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.

Collier: Yeah. They give away this Jammingest Pro (Award).

SFL Music: What was that like. Were you prepared or did you have any idea?

Collier: As far as the BMA’s go, I had been nominated the last three years and I’m just super thankful. The first one, I was really surprised to be honored as a horn player, and then to win it the second and the third time I was up for it. This past year I was fully not expecting to win it. I was up against Trombone Shorty. I was just like oh, for sure. He’s amazing! He’s one of my favorite live shows. Then Blues Contemporary Female, I was up against Shemekia (Copeland) I think both years, and just some really powerhouse people, and it always takes me by surprise. It’s nice to be nominated and I take it at that, but to win the last two has been like, I haven’t really gotten my head around it.

SFL Music: Congratulations! That’s wonderful.

Collier: Thank you.

SFL Music: You’re welcome. You toured with Joe Louis Walker. What was that like? He sort of influenced you to go out on your own, correct?

Collier: Oh yeah. One hundred percent. I was very lucky. He came through Philly and I had a friend playing drums with him at the time and he was like, you should come. Joe loves to bring, especially the younger generation, the under cap coming up. So, bring your horn and we’ll see what happens. I’ll introduce you. I met Joe on a break and he was like, ok, you brought your horn, right? I was like of course, yeah. So, that was the beginning of the break, and half an hour passed and he’s passing me to go back up onstage and I’m kind of like smiling, just waiting to be called, and he’s like, you coming? I was like, well, yeah sure. Grabbed my horn and got up there for the first tune. Figured one tune and I was like, oh thanks for letting me sit in, and I go to head out and he’s like. where are you going? What’ch ya doing? Stay up here. So, I ended up playing the whole second set with him, and he’s throwing solos my way and what not, and afterwards he’s was like, hey, do you want to go on the road? I was going into my senior year of college and I was like, absolutely! There’s no question for me. I didn’t care where it was. Didn’t ask about pay. It was just like, yeah sure. So, it turned into about a year and a half of touring with Joe all up and down the east coast, and a month-long tour in Turkey which was really awesome! Still, I think one of the best tours I’ve been on. I think he’s really special because he allows you to kind of like find your way. Find your voice, and he gives you all the choruses that you want to solo on for you to say what you need to say. It’s not two choruses and done, which I think is more of a rare thing for someone of Joe’s stature, and then when I was ready to put out my record, he was very supportive. He was just like, yeah, I know you need to be out here not just playing horn, but you need to be singing, writing your stuff, and thankfully, he’s just been a big support over the years. I really appreciate his mentorship.

SFL Music: That’s wonderful. You’ve also played with Buddy Guy? How was that experience?

Collier: Yeah. It was on one of the cruises. He had brought up Marcus King and Kingfish and Mr. Sipp and I was just kind of like, cool! This is fun! (she laughed). Not really sure of the moment, you know? I think It’s one of those things that flies by before you realize it’s happening. You know what I mean? So, it’s very cool to trade licks with him. I think I surprised him a little bit with, I can seem very, very quiet. I have a sort of unassuming way, but I also don’t when I have the saxophone in my mouth. So, I think I caught him off guard.

SFL Music: That was the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise?

Collier: Yeah. I think that was the second one I was on.

SFL Music: What are those like? Being on the cruise and playing.

Collier: That was the second time I was on there and I was basically without my band, so I was just on there to kind of like sit in with people, and actually the second time I think I was on with Tommy, Tommy Castro’s Review. I find that the blues community is alive and well on those things. There’s so many people that just stay up until five, six in the morning, and that’s what I was doing at that time. I was trying to catch as many shows, and then there was a late-night jam until five or six and I was out most of the time until four or five and just enjoying playing and connecting with people. What I think is so unique about the blues cruise is that, as an artist, you’re on your own tour. So, if you happen to get on a festival with a group, then great if you get to see those groups sometimes, but what’s cool about the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise is that you play four shows and you have some off days, so pretty much catch everybody that you never get to see while you’re on tour. That’s what I love about it. It’s just connecting with the musicians and also just getting to see people that you normally can’t see ‘cause your touring.

SFL Music: Is there anyone you’d say is very inspirational to you?

Collier: Oh, I mean, tons of people. I love The Nick Moss Band. What they do is super traditional Chicago straight up the middle kind of great stuff. I love Jon Cleary. Jon Cleary’s been on one solo piano wise. Kingfish was cool to see. Marcus King is really cool to see. Just some of the younger generation coming up. Jontavious (Willis). Of course, Buddy Guy and Tommy Castro, he’s been incredibly kind to me. Danielle Nicole, like she so killin’. she such a powerhouse on bass and vocals. There’s so many people, (she chuckled).

SFL Music: Are there any videos that are going to be released with the new record?

Collier: So, I had planned to do that. I think we’re going to get back on track with that at some point. I had planned to do at least two, possibly three, and basically what I think I’m going to do is, I’ve been doing these live stream shows from home of just me. So, I’ll lay down guitar, lay down piano and then overlay saxophone and often times the vocal is done with the guitar or the piano, but I did one for “Heart on the Line” where I kind of did some percussion and all that kind of stuff. So, I may release that one as a sort of an at home music video.

SFL Music: Oh, that’s a great idea! Something the fans can look forward to. They can get that information from your website (vanessacollier.com)?

Collier: Yeah exactly. I’m big into Instagram, so any of that.

SFL Music: There’s another story when you were on tour, an airline lost one of your prize guitars, but a music company stepped in and gave you a similar one to play at your show?

Collier: Yeah absolutely. Yeah. I was traveling overseas and there was some confusion as to whether I should have grabbed the guitar from the gate and taken it to the connecting flight, but it was not relayed to me. So, it would come back up, so they took it, and I was just like, oh, ok cool, and then I arrived in I think Switzerland was where we were going and I didn’t see a guitar, and I didn’t see a guitar, and I was like (whispered) Oh no. So anyway, it ended up that it never made the flight and it ended up staying in London, I think. So, I was like, oh no, and nobody could find it either. I called for a couple of hours and I got no answers, like I have no idea where it is. Then my mom actually hopped on for me and she was just like for three or four more hours. Somehow, she, as she usually does, she finagled it and she found somebody that knew how to help me find it. So, it just ended up being flown home, but we were flying back to play Tampa Bay Blues Fest and basically Seven C Music, I will always remember them. There was this guy that was like, hey, I have a replica, will this work for you? It has pick up on it. It will sound good. He took it to Seven C Music. They changed the strings on it, polished it up, made it look great, sound great. So, I had it for the Tampa Bay. That’s what the blues community is. They come together when you need ‘em.

SFL Music: Do you think that makes that genre stand out from others? I get the impression that it’s a close, working together community, similar to other genre’s, but it seems especially so in blues?

Collier: Yeah totally. I think that’s something that’s unique that you don’t find in any other genre that I’ve experienced really, is that everyone’s trying to build everybody else up, you know? I think the fans here just want the truth. That’s what I think blues really does for everybody. It’s not trying to gloss over everything. It’s just how I feel and it’s real and there’s no like faking it, you know? So, I think the community is very much built around that where they just want to see people do well. I know that people drive couple thousand miles across the country to go to some of these blues festivals every year. For twenty years running. I think there’s just such devotion to the music and to its continuing, and even if it’s an offshoot, they’re like into it. They just want to see the soul and the truth of the music survive.

SFL Music: There’s a lot of unique rewards too. I didn’t know about Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Mobile and you won Best of 2014 Blues Breaker.

Collier: It came out of nowhere. I was just like wait, what? I had no idea this thing existed and I didn’t know Dan Aykroyd would ever get a copy of my record, but that’s super cool.

SFL Music: How did that happen?

Collier: I really don’t know. I have no idea, but I’m very happy that it did.

SFL Music: Is there any advice you’d have for up and coming blues musicians?

Collier: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really difficult at first. If you know that you’re like made for this, it can be difficult at times because it just takes a while to break in. That’s true if you moved to a music city. It’s true of anything. You have to kind of like earn your time, right? But, I think if you have the passion for it and if you’re willing to put in some work yourself, you don’t need a label, you don’t need anybody else to work hard minus your team. I have a great team built around me, but I mean, you can do it. I’ve done everything pretty much DIY and I’ll continue it that way. So, I hope that more musicians are going to do it that way and see that there’s so many other options besides the traditional one.

SFL Music: Is there anything else you want fans to know? I know tours are on hold.

Collier: I’m basically doing a couple duo shows in the Pennsylvania, Delaware area where its settled, but other than that you know, the records out and I’m just hoping people will get out there and listen to it and love it because I love this record. I’m very proud of it. I just want as many people to hear it and hopefully connect with the stories if possible.

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