Celia couldn’t come to the phone last week. She was onstage at Madison Square Garden, singing back-up vocals for Enrique Iglesias. You might have seen her on tour with Pink, or Melody Gardot, Julia Fordham, or any number of lesser-known artists and bands. But Celia is more than the “wind beneath the wings” of super-stars, she’s an accomplished original artist in her own right. And ask anyone: to know her is to love her! I’ve know her for over 10 years and our weekly calls include news, gossip, obsessions and confessions. Though I was tempted to editorialize some of the text below, and spice it up with extra facts and gossip, I think you’ll find that her own words are more than enough to hold your attention. Here are 13 questions for my friend, Celia Chavez:
1) List your favorite gear for recording and gigging. Are you devoted to any particular items, and why?
For live performance, my guitar of choice is Ruby, my cherry red Epiphone Riviera. With Ruby I use either a ZT lunchbox amp or my Fender Pro Jr. I’ve recently been dirtying up my sound slightly with a Blues Driver pedal, and adding some delays with a Line 6 Echo Park pedal, which has lots of cool options for washiness and slaps etc., but I keep it pretty simple. I also just got a beautiful flame top parlor-size guitar, an Ami model with a great sounding cedar top made by Art & Lutherie, a Canadian subsidiary of Godin – and I LOVE my parlor girl. She fits easily in an airplane overhead compartment and she’s already been with me on tour to London and Malta. I had an LR Baggs Element undersaddle pickup installed and it sounds great plugged in. I also have a nylon string guitar, an 1970’s era Hohner Contessa, that acoustically I love. She sounds great mic’d but unfortunately doesn’t sound as great plugged in.
I am also in love with my Cordoba tenor ukulele, which I like to utilize more like a tiny four-string classical than the usual strummy uke style. Still learning my way around that little guy.
In the studio, I am not picky about gear (except for Ruby) as I have found that producers/engineers have different gear, mikes, guitars and plug-ins that they know how to get good sound out of. I am no engineer, and sometimes I may have an idea of some specific sounds I’d like to try, or the producer might, and we work with what we have handy. I kind of like that in-the-moment approach. My idea of a recording is that it’s a musical snapshot of your creative state at any given time, anyhow.
2) What is your preferred method of warming up before you perform?
To be honest (students please move on to the next question!), I don’t have a super-disciplined regimen for warming up. I feel my way around my voice throughout the day, every day, humming, doing easy singing with best placement, running a slidey note up and down my range, and doing mild breathing exercises just anytime during the day. I will say that I think it’s good to experiment with your range outside of your comfort zone – on both the high and low ends of your range, and at different volume levels – every day. Also, I’ll test out different tones to sing a phrase or a song – once darker, then more nasally, again in full voice then introduce more breath in the tone. And singing with overexaggerated enunciation, extending the holds on vowels and using consonants as sonic launch pads to focus placement and tone. Everyone’s voice is different, but for me, if I move my voice around every day, I’m fine with some simple lip trills, scales, breathing exercises and test runs of any challenging sections as warmup on performance day.
Often times I am learning tunes – either my own, or covers, or another artist’s – and simply being mindful of your placement, vowel/consonant formation and breath as you’re woodshedding – maybe even changing keys to test out how the same song sounds in different parts of your voice – can be good daily warmup.
3) What are the three songs that you want to be remembered for writing or performing?
My song “Flood”, my arrangement of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” and whenever I sing something by AC/DC or Led Zeppelin on a lark.
4) Anything to say about how your race, class, sexuality, and gender affects the music you make or the way you make it?
You know earlier this year, Rita Moreno was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by SAG. When I was a little girl and I saw West Side Story for the first time – nothing against Natalie Wood, who performed beautifully – but if it weren’t for Marni Nixon’s voice and a pile of bronzer, she would not have been able to carry that role. And to a little brown girl like me, Rita Moreno was a revelation. Earthy, powerful, sexy, funny, and a triple threat actor-singer-dancer — she stole the damn movie and displayed a range in both her acting and singing that few performers of any ethnicity could match. I thought to myself, “I wanna be HER when I grow up.”
I’m not exactly sure how my ethnicity impacts my music. I’m full-on Filipina, both parents, and my music is currently rock/americana singer-songwriter. My musical training was classical with a little jazz, and I sang a lot of choral music in church and school. I’m a working class girl who was lucky to have a good education on scholarship and a lifelong affinity for reading. I hope my songs are intelligent yet grounded as a result. You tell me!
As far as gender, I know that it makes me concerned about ageism, which is why I will take live/touring singing gigs as long as I can and as long as my face and body hold out, but I’m anticipating a shift towards more writing for other artists or for film & TV, and working on my own artist career. It has been fun to discover I am actually a decent co-writer and I enjoy the challenge of assignment writing and also singing in character that’s not necessarily my own artist voice. This coming year will see the release of a series of EP’s – extended play recordings of maybe 5 or 6 songs each – to just get my backlog of songs out into the world and getting heard, I hope.
5) What advice would you give someone who is about to perform onstage for the very first time?
6) What would you say to someone who has been making music for 20 years and never found an audience for it?
I wrote a blog post a few years back comparing life as a working musician to being a gambling addict. That’s how it feels to me much of the time – I am always super grateful for the work I get, and the fans that find me somehow from all over the world. I’ve been really lucky – but there’s always that bug in my brain that makes me brace for involuntary unpaid time off between projects, or, as an artist, that sense that your work is falling on deaf ears, like seeds on the sidewalk.
I think I’m lucky to have been given a peek at rock stardom from the sidelines. There is a reason people become major artists with number one hits (besides strong financial backing from somewhere) – the major artists I’ve sung with are driven like mofos. They hire coaches to help with whatever skills are weak, they write and write and record a lot, they seek out skilled and compatible collaborators, they take care of their health and fitness and finances, and they project a public persona that has mass appeal. They also definitely sacrifice some years of their personal life to establishing their career. They never stop working and striving for growth.
These artists in your question who are still going after 20 years even with the lack of an audience – I would ask them what originally motivated them to choose this path, and are they still motivated by that now even after years of struggle?
If they want to make their living as a performing songwriter, the real truth is that for the most part you do have to work really, really hard and it can take a long time as you hone your craft and style. So you had better love it. And maybe you need to be open to changing the way you write, if your goal is for your songs to be more accessible to a greater audience. Some artists don’t find their fans until they’re past 40 – Sharon Jones didn’t break until she was around 50, I believe – and by the time I put in my time in P!nk’s band, she had been working at it 15 years or more. These artists write and perform regularly, they put in the hard work, constantly strive for growth – sometimes while simultaneously raising families and holding down other jobs. Or, working to support another artist’s work, which is what I currently do as a member of a touring band. And then it’s a challenge to maintain your own artist voice when being a musical chameleon is your job.
The reality is everyone can’t “make it” and the lifestyle, even if you do, isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging to your health, your relationships, and your bank account. So you’d better really love what it means to live as a musician/artist, love being that creative soldier, and be able to sustain a fair amount of faith. You have to be willing to adopt a lifestyle based around practice, and that takes time, focus and solitude. Much of this life is tedious, underappreciated, dirty, cheap work for a looooong time. And a ton of it is luck. Some people just win over the right people who are well connected and positioned to be an effective champion and cheerleader. But if you love the process, feel the big picture, believe in what you’re creating, are not afraid to continually push to be better, are able to find your true, honest voice as an artist – then there will be an audience for you, a segment of the population who connect with your work. You just gotta be prepared to accept that you do not know when it will happen or what size that audience will be. And, with the current state of the industry, it may not fully pay your rent and bills. It’s how it is for everyone, even established artists. However, there are plenty of artists out there touring to reach a moderately sized audience and making a modest career out of playing to small houses full of devoted fans who still buy their music and merch. If you can’t be OK with that then maybe it might just be a matter of realigning your musical goals with who you are now. It’s cool . Everyone changes in 20 years.
You know, you have this gift, this love, this ability to create music from nothing, that you can pass on to those around you, that you can affect at least a few people (that is still no mean feat!) with your music and even pass on the love of creation and performance on to generations that follow you. That’s something wonderful you have that no one can take away from you, something you have until the day you leave this earth.
7) Have you ever thought about giving up music? What changed your mind?
As a livelihood, pretty regularly! Haha. It’s incredibly impractical these days. It is so, so hard to make a living with one’s music now, and every single avenue for music income has been gutted by a glut of free music and the audience’s lack of desire to pay for what we create. What stops me is that the music doesn’t stop in my head. I tried to give it up in the past or ignore it, but the result was a period of crippling depression. Definitely don’t wish to relive that. And, truth be told, I am paid better for my music work than anything else I have ever done. The challenge is just stringing the gigs together tightly enough that the money stays consistent. But that’s the job part.
I am grateful that I can write well with others, that others still seem to want to make music with me, and that I actually enjoy creating music on assignment – or not! I just love making and performing music. I’ll do it forever regardless. Hopefully it will continue to bring in paychecks!
8) What if any figures from childhood who inspired you to make music and why?
My mom, who played piano and sang around the house and had an eclectic record collection. She made piano lessons mandatory but I am ever grateful to her for making sure my brother and I learned that vocabulary and got the notes in our ears. Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Exene Cervenka were all women that were just so beautiful in their confidence and lady swagger, and they made good songs to boot!
Also, Dusty Springfield’s singing style really affected my idea of a powerful vocal delivery and dynamics. She is SO powerful when she undersings. Real feminine strength.
9) What other genres of art do you turn to for inspiration and why?
Literature, film, photography, painting. All these excite a different part of my brain and have inspired songs. I think it’s the different approach to imagery – in words without music, moving images and light… With photography – a captured moment that needed to be plucked out of the stream of time by an expert eye – it’s by nature a concise art form, and I’ve always thought photos are like short stories, poems, or a song for the eye. But what made the artist choose that moment, why is it a keeper out of presumably hundreds of shots? Painting: why those colors, the weight of the stroke…
Part of it is that I can see the full commitment to the finished work. Like when I see a good film, I can’t believe how many people it takes to complete it. The credits roll by and I think wow, that producer, that director, that huge team of animators… They have to creatively commit completely to that two hour bite of suspended reality to shepherd all the cast & crew to the finish line. And somehow it turns out human, beautiful, moving. You don’t see the backlot machinations. Then I think, by comparison, if I can’t finish a good 3 minute song, I’m a weenie and a half! Haha.
But seriously, I’ve based songs on TV and film characters, and characters in books, short stories… One of my earliest songs was about Frank in “Blue Velvet” – and my recent song “Praise My Destroyer” was partly inspired by Sgt. Brody’s experience on “Homeland” in the first season as a tortured and brainwashed soldier.
10) What song or album by another artist do you wish you had written and why?
Beck. Morning Phase. It’s so beautiful, sonically just gorgeous, dynamic and organic… it just transports me, and the arc of the album feels like a two-sided vinyl record to me.
12) Name one song or album that is a guilty pleasure?
Song: “I Just Wanna Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb.
Album: “This Is Darin” by Bobby Darin. Super cheesy, but he is soooo dreamy.
13) What is the best record to have sex to?
Actually, none! I start analyzing the arrangement, writing and performance…distracting! I would much rather be focused on my partner during that time and enjoying the experience. That said, Led Zeppelin II side 1 is pretty hot, and “Thank You” seems to kick in at just the right moment if you’re lucky. Know what I mean?!