Vanisha Gould has a lot to share but never all at once: she lets the moment set the mood. The New York-based singer and songwriter has been a fixture at uptown venues and downtown clubs for the past several years, leading different bands. Through frank delivery and subtle-gestured phrasing, she shares stories teeming with empathy, humor and self-reflection. This week at The Jazz Gallery, Vanisha brings her own interpretation of existing works alongside trio mates Chris McCarthy, Tyrone Allen and Adam Arruda.
The Jazz Gallery: You view yourself as a storyteller, and I think so much of your original music really reflects that identity. You have a way of lyric writing around these melodious compositions with this wonderful meaty arc. Can you share a little bit about your process for composing and how it’s maybe evolved over the years?
Vanisha Gould: It’s easier to do than to explain because for me, it’s so fluid. When I compose, I usually do melody and lyrics first. But it’s really just walking down the street, walking home from a bar. If I can retain the idea when I get home, then I just build on it from there and see where the story takes me. But it’s never “sit down and write.” It just unfolds, based on rhyming, even melody. I’m not a piano player. My power is that when I’m away from a piano, I’m not restricted by all this knowledge of chords and how a song “should” be. But then I can see how I can change it in some way when I’m just dealing with the melody. From there, once the melody and lyrics are down and I got it in a voice memo, I can sit down at the piano and painstakingly try and find the chord changes for it. But it’s a very fluid process in terms of finding the actual story.
Walking down the street, you could see a person getting out of the car, hugging another person goodbye, and that’s a story, if you find the melody to it. Are they hugging goodbye? Did they break up? Is that a family member? How long will they not see each other?
TJG: That explains a lot about how natural your compositions feel. You really have an empathetic curiosity about other people.
VG: It’s just observing and then making up your own stories about what you’re observing. I will say that as natural as the songs may sound to you, it’s few and far between. The gaps in between, the writers block in between is so large. I only write three to four tunes a year. I certainly don’t force it. I’m not someone who sits down and says, “I’m gonna write a song today.” When it does come naturally, it’s awesome. But then, in between, it’s like, “Oh, well, I guess I’m singing this song indefinitely.”
TJG: Are you content with that process or is it something you wish were different?
VG: I wish it were different. I wish I had that work ethic. There are some people who say, “I’m gonna write a tune a day. I’m gonna write a tune a week.” And not all of them will be good, but the whole point is completion—to make a promise to yourself and complete it. I don’t do that. I wish I had that urge [laughs]. But I am content when a song comes out: “Okay, well, dig. That’s a completed song. And it’s new. And I finished it.” I wish I had that spirit but that’s not me. So I guess I am content with it.
TJG: I think anyone who goes out regularly to the clubs in New York likely has heard your distinctive swinging trio and quartet sound that often features your originals as well as standard repertoire, but so much of your music reflects this stunning, expansive orchestration. You do create your own arrangements, so I was wondering, are you also developing your voice as an orchestrator these days?
VG: I wish. I don’t have the knowledge yet. I know how bass, drums and piano work [laughs]. I know I can write out a complete tune with the changes over the slash chords and that those three instruments will know exactly what to do. So that’s what I deal with. But I do have a band of bass, guitar and violin. And my bass player Dan Pappalardo, I consider him a great arranger. During our rehearsals, I’ll bring in a skeleton chart but, again, just the changes and slash chords, and he’ll be the one to stop the music and say, “Okay, what are the dynamics of this line?” or “Let’s think of the lyrics here,” or “Maybe the bass should be out, and I’ll come back on this part…” So my arranging is very much band-oriented. Collaboration.
I’m open for ideas because I only know melody, lyrics and the chord changes. That’s the complete tune until an added idea shows up from the band. There’s one tune I have called “Now That You’re Here” and during one rehearsal, there’s a line the bass player played in unison with me. That was like five years ago. Ever since… forever, on this line, no matter who’s playing, I say play that bass line in unison with me. If someone comes up with an idea that I love, I’m like “Fuck yeah. I’ll keep it. That’s mine.”