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Chris McNulty: Voice of Beauty and Truth

Roseanna Vitro interviews singer about her life, music and instructional book

Cover of Venus in New York album
Cover of Venus in New York album
Chris McNulty

“Back then I think no fear, chutzpah and blind courage got me through …” – Chris McNulty

“Voices in Jazz” returns this month after a two month hiatus due to Hurricane Sandy’s upheaval of the East Coast this past October (2012). I can’t think of another singer more deserving to put my pen back to work than vocal musician and friend, Ms. Chris McNulty.

I met Chris in 1993 when we were thrown together as a part of six singers hired to record: Venus in New York, Big Apple Singers, produced by Carl Allen and Vincent Herring for executive producer, Mr. Tetsuo Hara, Venus Records in Japan. Since that date, I have admired Chris McNulty’s live performances and all of her recorded work. She is an artist who embodies integrity and honesty in her gorgeous sound and natural musicianship. I was also lucky to know her beautiful son, Sam McNulty. Sam’s recent passing left a big empty space in the lives of all who knew and loved Sam and his music.

Chris McNulty has a fantastic new release on Challenge Records titled, The Song That Sings You Here. Chris composed the title track and she has a knack for writing songs you simply can’t stop humming and singing. The new recording features a stellar quintet with her long time accompanists Paul Bollenback, Ugonna Okegwo and joined by the elegance of Marcus Gilmore, Graham Wood, Andrei Kondokov and cameo appearances by Russian tenor sax man, Igor Butman and Britain’s star vocalese singer, Ms. Anita Wardell. I would highly recommend this album to all vocal and instrumental students and jazz lovers who long to hear an exquisite voice with tone and fluid lines that lead you on a creative and fulfilling musical journey.

For more information, visit her website.

Roseanna Vitro: Tell us a bit about your new recording on Challenge Records.

Chris McNulty: The Song That Sings You Here is just hitting radio now and from all reports, it’s doing very well. The writing and production for this project all took place before I lost my son, Sam on July 16th, 2011, specifically the recording, the tune selections, my two compositions “Long Road Home (Song that Sings You Here)” and “Letter to Marta.” Nothing was changed or altered in any way. The title for this recording was chosen in 2010, although it strangely seems like it was conceived after Sam left us. I have no explanation for this, except to say that every song I sing, I sing for him. I sing him here, always.

I wrote “Letter to Marta” when I was just 14 years of age, although I only gave it the title after I made the decision to include it on this recording. It was the very first song I ever wrote and I sang it into memory by hearing it over and over in my head, every night for many weeks, before I went off to sleep. That was the only means I had at the time, just had to do it by rote memory. The song, its lyric and story, along with the events and imagery from that time, must have laid dormant, buried deep in my subconscious for many many decades. One day, I was listening to some music which triggered its re-emergence. That something was the extraordinary voice of Hungarian folk singer, Marta Sebestyian. I dedicated this song to Marta because it was her singing and her melodies that helped summon this song back into existence. The significance of this song to me now is what it speaks of: longevity, the threads that connect the ancient to the present, the inexplicability of how melodies, images, words, float to the surface, sometimes seeming to arrive out of nowhere. I truly believe that by being open to receiving those voices, images, melodies, in whatever form they choose to come in, our story telling will always remain deep and powerful.

The musicians; Paul, Ugonna, Marcus, Igor, Graham and Andrei all played great on this date, they always do. It was one of the quickest sessions I’ve ever done but we had a nice, relaxed time in post production because the financial crisis hit immediately following the date. Hence the long delay in getting it out. I think it’s a step back to earlier recordings, strong and swinging, fairly straight ahead. The recording speaks to my strengths as a vocalist, lots of space to just sing the song, some beautiful ballads and my favorite thing, the long vamp. Loved having Anita join me on “The Lamp is Low.” What a pleasure, she’s a fabulous singer and human being. The originals bring an entirely different element to the proceedings but I think they sit nicely in the mix. I love the groove we got to on “Jitterbug” on the vamp out.

What are your earliest memories of singing and music as a little girl growing up in Australia?

Mostly listening to the radio. My parents always had a turntable but we really didn’t dig much of what they were into. They did have a little bit of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; I loved listening to them, but the rest were pretty awful. I was a teenager in the Sixties so I got hooked on the great R&B artists of that remarkable era such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and all the Motown artists. Aretha, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder stood out from that period. The pop music of the day also really influenced me: Dione Warwick, the Supremes, Burt Bacharach, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Dylan, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Carole King, The Mama’s and the Papa’s, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix (he was my fav). I was eleven years old when The Beatles hit, so I was totally obsessed with them. It was a spectacular time to be alive as far as music was concerned.

I guess I was around fifteen years of age when I first started singing in public. I started off just singing for free for hot chocolate and crumpets. The incentive was there for my friends to encourage me to sing, you dig! After a while, the owners of the cafes would recognize me when I walked in and immediately ask me to sing. After a while, the owners of the cafes would recognize me when I walked in and immediately ask me to sing. I was fairly oblivious to why or how it happened and had not considered singing, as my career choice. Up until then I’d been much more of a writer/story teller. At that time, I’d had no serious music education and no idea why people even liked what they heard. However, there were a couple of things that I knew I had (or perhaps others knew even before me) – “vibe and no fear”.

I auditioned for a band when I was sixteen years old and the rest is history. I started singing local pub gigs and even had a stint performing six nights a week at The Australia Hotel in Melbourne while juggling a day job at the same time. That kind of apprenticeship stood me in good stead a couple of times throughout those rough years. I hit the road at eighteen and spent the following years “earning my road warrior” badge, It was rough and definitely not for the squeamish. I think back then “no fear, chutzpah and blind courage” got me by but that also got turned on its head a few times. Forty-three years or so later, it’s a bit of a miracle that I’ve made it this far, but I’m still here on this journey.

Were there musicians in your family or teachers who nurtured and inspired you to become a singer?

Sadly or strangely none, but that obviously didn’t hinder or stop me. The gene was there, so was the drive and the pursuit. Both my mom and dad could sing. My dad had the warmth and tone, my mom had the groove and the swing; they are now 91 and 84 years old respectively. I recall one music lesson in my entire four years of high school. I had my very first music lesson in the seventh grade. I was thrilled and excited to see a black board with staves and notes written on it. In one period, I was hooked. I got to read and sing rhythm and melody and learn a tiny little song all in ONE lesson. To this day I still remember it made me feel like a million dollars; I skipped all the way home. I felt as though I had discovered some distant planet, some new foreign language. The next week I ran all the way to class only to find a note on the door telling students to go to the library. That was it! I never had another music lesson in my entire childhood.

I’ve told this story often because it is a travesty for any young child not to have access to music and the arts. I don’t know how I’ve managed to learn everything I have. I guess it’s been a mix of sheer willfulness, an adventurous spirit, attitude of “well if they can, so can I” as well as a pure desire to improve and connect the dots that have directed my journey. Raw talent is a gift and it isn’t just handed out to the rich and privileged. The sad reality is that too many kids grow into adulthood without reaching their creative potential, simply through lack of access to the arts/music. I feel incredibly lucky to have managed to carve a path for myself in such a competitive field coming from no music lessons as a child. Radio was all I we had back then but thank God it was great!

I wrote some of my comprehensive vocal jazz manual in response to this issue and I hope to have some components published soon. I’m motivated to help young teenagers find their creative voices and be better prepared to enter music programs at college level. Most of the great musicians I work with began their music education when they were very young but like many singers and musicians from those earlier eras, I learned my craft as a young singer on the bandstand, listening and learning from the musicians who nurtured and respected my talent. I was inspired and motivated to learn as much as I could about my craft. These days most young vocalist/musicians come to the profession by way of college first and then they hit the bandstand. I did it the other way around. Wonderful opportunities still came along, perhaps just in a different order or in a different way to what happens now. I’m very thankful and grateful for the opportunities that propelled me to keep pushing forward. If you have raw talent (and most of us have some kind of talent), nothing should stop you from exploring your expression of it. I think every child should know this truth to the core of their being.

When did you discover jazz music?

I was out on the road in the Seventies and those road days were crazy times. There were so few boundaries, but it wasn’t the music from the United States that spoke to me. It was the rough old road of the Australian outback, interspersed with stints in major cities or days off in beautiful surroundings on farms, rain forests or by the edge of the sea. It felt like work, the living of it, was either an extremely hard slog or simply divine. That was a time when it was always five or six guys and just me, the “chick singer”. I learned to hold my own; I had to. I looked like Orphan Annie; a waif. Skinnier than skinny, with a mop of red curly hair and feckless. I was hanging out more and more with good musicians who were attracted to the aesthetic of great music. I was learning the difference as a singer through the music. There was a large disconnect between what I was singing and the music that really spoke to me. The music that began to attract me more and more was instrumentally based. After the gig, we listened to the likes of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea – recordings like Head Hunter, Manchild, Thrust. George Duke, Flora Purim, Billy Cobham, Marlena Shaw, Patti Austin, George Benson. I came up in a time in Australia where there was a huge amount of gigs and only two forums for listening to music: the radio and the live arena. I worked a vast panorama of really bad to very good gigs. It was an incredible apprenticeship, not that fun sometimes but once on the bandstand, an ideal way to hone one’s skills. In 1976, I discovered a recording by Marlena Shaw, Who Is This Bitch Anyway?. That record had a profound influence on me. It’s weird, occasionally I still perform a song from that album, “Mon Cherie Rosie”. I haven’t been performing it for the entire thirty years, but I find it interesting that I can still find something new to do with that song to this day. It’s become my own little standard (Bernard Ighner is the composer). Marlena was the conduit who led me out of the funk / R&B thing and down the path towards jazz. Within six months of returning to Melbourne, I discovered Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae and many others. I wore the grooves out on a bunch of their recordings: very early Billie Holiday recordings, Sarah’s Live in Japan Volume II, Carmen’s Bitter Sweet and Nancy with Cannonball. Really, could you ask for any better teachers? One of my biggest thrills was being able to tell Carmen McRae that before she passed on.

When I was 22, the great stroke of luck was getting into the studio session scene in Melbourne and then Sydney. The money was great and I met a wealth of wonderful singers. Earning good money in the studio allowed me the freedom to pursue acoustic jazz and standards for the next twelve years. It was the second tier of my career and an immersion which really established my jazz vocal credentials. Being able to explore and play the music and hang with jazz musicians who were really serious and dedicated was the real turning point in my career. I was driven from that time forward to get to New York City.

What are your first memories of living in New York? How did you survive on your own?

By the time I returned to Melbourne around 1975-76, I had gotten the “jazz” bug and the seed was planted. It took me another ten years to make it to New York City, but I was very busy before I left. From ’76 to ’85, I started to find my real voice as a jazz singer through lots of steady work, performing with great Australian musicians, I was able to go on and develop a more unique style. I traveled to NYC in 1985 and then again in 1988, after being awarded a very small international study grant from the Australian Council. It basically paid for our round trip airfares and three months rent. I’d just bought a house in Sydney the year before. For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of stability for myself and my son, Sam, who was just six years old at the time. I have to say I had very mixed feelings when I first received the news of the grant. I knew it would be impossibly difficult to forfeit the grant but I also knew it would be enormously disruptive to pack up and leave this gorgeous little house that I’d just gone through hell and back again to purchase.

NYC won out. We flew to NYC on March 22, 1985, just two days after Sam’s seventh birthday. I can only say that I’ve gone between knowing that it was a great thing for both of us, living in between two worlds, but I also suffer feelings of remorse thinking we stayed here too long. Because I’ve lost my son, it’s difficult to look back and remember all the good times. I know we survived with the help of wonderful friends, hard work and dedication. I’m still in recovery from losing Sam. Even so, I’m still grateful for the journey that we traveled together. I never really wanted to be a single parent in a foreign country. I knew it was going to be very difficult, but I had a jazz musician’s heart and instincts. I ended doing many things that were often soul destroying, just to make sure we had a decent life here in NYC and that Sam was well taken care of. I felt very strongly that if I was going to take him away from such a beautiful country as Australia, from all the things he’d known and loved, I would have to provide a quality of life that equalled what we’d had back home in Australia. Mostly, I think I made it work.

New York in the late Eighties through the mid Nineties was a real different place compared to what it is now, but we both loved it just the same. I can’t say I know how Sam saw it through his eyes as a child and a teenager. He always told me he would have never wanted it any other way, living in both cultures made him who he was. I came to NYC with very little money and knew no one. I stayed against all odds. I saw many musicians come here on much larger grants, only to return with their tails between their legs. They didn’t do well being humbled, having to stand in line. I guess they preferred the comfort of fame in their own country, the luxury of being a big fish in a small sea. Nothing wrong with that choice (much saner in fact!), it just wasn’t mine. I’ve always had strong endurance skills. I learned a long time ago that if you hang in there long enough, the tide always turns for the better. I also learned that good times don’t last forever. Things would always get tough again. That’s life. I guess I learned to take advantage of those good times, reserve as much of the good you gained to get you through the next dip. No one gets a free ride in New York. Being a jazz musician here is not for the faint of heart.

You are well known for your soulful and in-tune, beautiful tone. Have you studied voice technique and do you teach technique?

Thank you Ro, that’s very kind of you to say so. I’m still working on all this and will be till I drop. I think you are also known for those very same qualities. I’ve never studied voice technique per se, however I’ve had a long enough career and learned to refine my own technique. There’s a certain willfulness and concentration involved in striving for perfect pitch, timing, phrasing — it all happens on the breath and I teach that. I don’t have specific exercises for teaching voice technique. I’ve created combinations of exercises which address pitch and breath control through ear training, harmony and improvisation – that’s all in my teaching manual. The exercises are piano based and geared towards developing the vocalist as a complete musician. I’m the kind of teacher who likes to nail three or four disciplines at one time. I can’t get inspired doing exercises for just technique (probably why I’m such a lousy piano player). I had to find a way in which I’m also training the ear and hearing the melodies off of the scales and chords. There are many directions to go in and I’m just trying to keep it concise in one way but also trying to grow a beautiful garden.

Could you briefly tell me a little more about your upcoming vocal jazz manual? Do you know when it will be available?

I’d been thinking for sometime about cataloging and organizing all the knowledge I’d gathered over the decades. In our work as performers, musicians, composers, recording artists, tour bookers, we end up gathering so much material over the years. In late March 2010, as I was driving along a quiet country road, I was hit, head-on at 75 mph by a drunk driver and then ended up in a small lake. While I was in recovery mode, I decided that this was a good time to get that work organized. I decided to connect as many of the dots to help, abet, assist students of vocal jazz and professional vocalists who had a desire to become more complete and independent musicians. I created Sibelius files for every component, accompanied by PDF text docs to explain the work so it could be understood by singers with limited knowledge of theory and who might not be that comfortable reading a lot of information off the stave, simultaneously. This part of the work really suits intermediate to advanced level. It covers all three components: theory, ear training and improvisation, combining chord and scale work by utilizing the use of tetrachords and other musical elements of theory. Students commence the work starting with the core templates – scales and tetrachords, then move onto exercises that encompass a wider range of harmonic movement, still using tetrachords as a basis for getting around the scales. We then go on to working over sets of chord changes from specific songs and then the song. The aim is to give vocalists access to many of the same tools and methodologies that instrumentalists use. This principal works the same way across all twelve keys. Vocalists learn to identify certain chord progressions and which scales or combinations of scales, work over the progressions. The theory is internalized just enough to allow you to recognize chords and shapes. It’s more about training your ear, while still allowing you to hear naturally. Doing the work just grows your ears a little or a lot larger, depending on how much time you’re prepared to put in. More tools = more options, allows you to create a larger landscape. Initially the student would need to reference the template, however after a certain amount of time spent going over the templates, the student would have internalized the sound of the scales, chords and tetrachords, much the same way as you internalize the chord tones and tension tones of a chord when practicing. It’s a combination of training the ear and picture memory. All this chord/scale work is piano based, so it draws the singer to the piano (kicking and screaming if necessary). I’m in the beginning stages of moving towards publishing the first three books, which hopefully will happen some time this summer. I currently give masterclasses covering this work when I’m on tour.

What advice would you give to young singers entering the music business in today’s world market?

Learn your craft, make your profession proud, be brave, take risks, be unique, don’t allow anyone to put you in a box. Break the rules, expand the boundaries, use your imagination, every day. Breathe deeply; everything happens on the breath with our instrument. Study the greats, observe the world around you, draw from the culture you are living in, seek out like-minded people, be engaged in the pursuit, not the prize. Surround yourself with artists who are driven. Be an explorer, travel, jump into the unknown but take care of your body and soul. Spread love and goodness. Occasionally think about the long haul, but not till you get past age of thirty. It’s important to be practical because after a while one needs to think about your earning potential for the long hall. Don’t be afraid to have a look at your weaknesses, your short comings. Develop your strengths but observe the areas of yourself that don’t always hit the mark and cause you problems. Have the courage to accept or work on your limitations, acknowledge them but don’t allow them to limit you. Keep going after your dreams. Consider what is it that sets you apart from the rest.

Being an artist can be a very difficult path. Think about what it means to be an independent, creative artist / musician. However you think of yourself now, it’s certain to change; the journey will alter you. You will hit snags along the way; successes and failures all work to shape your perspective and growth. If you fall or fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back on the bandwagon. When you succeed, always be grateful. It’s a privilege and a gift to live the life of a creative artist / musician. Measure your successes by the happiness it brings you and the people around you.
Please tell everyone a little bit about your upcoming Chamber Orchestra Project with Australian orchestrator, Steve Newcomb. This project honors the life of Sam McNulty (a.k.a. Chap One).

This is a project that Steve and I started talking about two years back and about six months before Sam passed away. When I lost Sam, time stopped for me; the life I knew, who I knew myself to be, joy and happiness came with a large question mark, things changed drastically or simply ended. Whatever I’ve managed to accomplish and complete since that date seems to have happened with some other forces involved, beyond anything that I can explain.

Someone walks with me. I walk down a street, someone is there by my side and I find myself trying to explain what all this feels like to them, I’m here but I’m not here. I’m present in my body but I’m also out of my body. Some part of my spirit left with Sam. It has not died, or ended, it is just with him, where he is. I am with him, then he is with me – and all I know is, it’s not on this physical plane – in this dimension. Yes, my son has died but I live in a state of mind that doesn’t so much acknowledge death as much as focuses on what lies ahead for us, for Sam and I, at least. That’s how I go on.

So, in a weird kind of way, I have no idea how I chose this music, also part of the inexplicable, the unanswerable. I know what I did in practical terms, to find it, but the coming together of it, the thread connecting these elegant songs, the beauty and power of the melodies, the lyrics, all that’s a bit of a mystery. I sifted through thousands of songs that spoke to me strongly, that made sense to me as a way of honoring Sam – not just the sadness, but the joy he brought to me and so many people who knew and loved him.

Steve Newcomb, who arranges for many very well known Australian artists, is completing his PHD at Manhattan School of Music. He’s also head of the music department at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, so he’s a very busy young man. Soon after I made the final decisions on our material, I was extremely fortunate to reconnect with another enormously gifted pianist / arranger, John DiMartino. As soon as I heard John play, I knew he was the missing link and third member of the team. Over the past six weeks, we have created arrangements for twelve songs. Steve created Finale files using many of John’s harmonic ideas and melodic threads and gorgeous motifs. Steve spent two weeks weaving his magic on top of what John had created. We had our first full rehearsal with orchestra and quartet in January. Twelve marvelous musicians and one extraordinary orchestrator will enter the studio to record this magical collaboration of exquisite, musical story telling to honor one of the most special human beings who ever lived, Sam McNulty (aka Chap One). I’m expecting a release date of 2014.

Please check her website for updates.

You can listen and watch Chris live: “One Less Bell to Answer”

About Sam McNulty aka Chap One: Originally Published