Mavis “Swan” Poole: Singing Between the Borders
Interview with the jazz vocalist who performs with Soul Cycle
Shannon J. Effinger: Tell us about your background and what led you to become a vocalist?
Mavis “Swan” Poole: I don’t have the standard story. I wasn’t a singer that knew I could sing for a long time. I sang for years in a choir as a background singer. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who told me that I actually had a nice voice and that Sunday, they called me to the front of the church and made me sing in front of everyone. The reaction is what kind of showed me that is probably what I should pursue.
So you have a background in gospel music?
Oh yes, born and raised in singing in the church. That was pretty much what I did and I eventually branched out into R&B and other styles of music, added on jazz at 21 as an undergrad. I actually started out for a few years as a psychology major and added on music while I was in school. I got my bachelors in music education and also vocal jazz studies. Not long ago, I graduated from Queens [College] with my masters in vocal jazz performance.
In addition to that, my mother was the biggest influence for me in music. She’s not a professional singer but she just has an amazing voice. I always heard beautiful music in my house with her singing in the kitchen on Sunday mornings. That was a big part of what affected me, or infected me, with music. My father’s also heavily into music. I’ve also been blessed to be in the church where there was always music. That opened me up to want to be a part of it, even as a background singer.
With your background in both the church and your jazz education, does your training give you the freedom to move around within the different genres of music?
Definitely. The good thing about church was that a lot of things were impromptu. So it wasn’t always planned out. Some things you had to “fake it until you make it.” Sometimes you had to sing and you didn’t know it [until] the day before you found out that you had to sing, so always being ready definitely helped. And the training from being in school gave me the technical part and the vocabulary as far as dealing with Bill Lee and others in the jazz world. They both definitely prepared me for going between the borders and working within the different genres.
I first discovered you last summer on Soul Cycle’s fusion album Flipped, where you did this wonderful cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” Your vocals really captured the hauntingly beautiful melody of the song. Did you choose to cover that particular song on the album?
Jesse [Fischer] actually asked me to do that particular song. He sent me the music and what he had in mind with the arrangement of it and I just spent a little time with it. We did a couple of takes in the studio and that was pretty much the birth of it.
You really made the song yours, so much so that it didn’t feel like a cover at all.
I try to treat every song like that. I have to find myself in anything that I’m singing in order for me to let it come out of me. I have to be able to relate to it. Obviously, most Michael Jackson songs are classics anyway, but that particular one was one that I definitely enjoyed singing and had heard for so long. So it was kind of easy to put myself into it because it was a part of what I listened to coming up and part of my music collection.
In addition to the church and your family, who are some of your other musical influences?
The Clark Sisters—definitely love Karen Clark. Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Michael, of course, Ella, Sarah and Mavis Staples, whom I was named after.
We now know that you were named after the great Mavis Staples, but where did the name “Swan” come from?
I was sitting at the computer one day and I was definitely considering a stage name. I have been looking through different things and this Clip Art picture of a swan kept popping up on my computer. I kept closing it out and every time I would close it out, it continued to pop back up. After a while of it frustrating me, I picked up a dictionary and I saw that it was obviously within the bird family. (Laughs) But it also said that Mozart was considered the “swan” of classical music. That kind of caught me, so maybe there’s a reason that this thing kept popping up. And eventually, I just stuck it in the middle and became Mavis “Swan” Poole.
As a vocalist, how do you feel being compared to other jazz/non-jazz vocalists?
I can’t say that it really bothers me. I just know that it wasn’t a thing that I patterned myself after anyone necessarily. I think people may hear [Erykah] Badu in just the timbre, but not in my approach to music or singing. It doesn’t bother me because I’m still who I am and people hear who they hear. I just try to create music that comes from within me the way that I hear it.
Well, there’s definitely a physical resemblance between you and one of my favorite jazz vocalists, the late Abbey Lincoln. Has anyone ever told you that before?
Wow, I have never heard of the physical resemblance. I’m definitely not mad at that because I love me some Abbey! It’s funny because I did a performance in Detroit with Jeff “Tain” Watts, Geri Allen and Nicholas Payton. We did a tribute to Abbey but we didn’t get to do everything that we wanted to do. We really wanted do “Driva’ Man” from the Freedom Now Suite. She was one of those people who struck a nerve with me, but in a very good way—her life, her music. She changed how I looked at music, so I am honored by the comparison.
Are there any musicians that you would like to collaborate with?
A large part of the people that I’d like to work with have already passed away, like I’m especially in love with Coltrane and Nina Simone, I would have loved to just watch her. I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of the people that I’ve wanted to work with. But I know that there’s more out there.
More artists that we probably haven’t even heard from yet.
And to me, some of my true favorite singers are the ones that the world doesn’t know about. I’ve heard homeless people who have blown my mind, just standing outside singing and it brings you to tears. Some of the greatest people I know are names that the world may never know for whatever reason.
Be sure to catch jazz vocalist Mavis “Swan” Pool live on Halloween at Lido’s Italian Restaurant in Harlem as a part of their “Straight Ahead Jazz” series on Mondays. To learn more about Mavis and when she will be playing at a city near you, please visit her website.