On a particularly cold and snowy day in Astoria, New York, we headed to brunch. It was meant to be a lazy Saturday that involved a lot of food and little-to-no thought. The world, however, had different plans. Executed with such precision, it was easy – amidst the din of people loudly sharing stories over mimosas – for a moment to think the music emanating from the corner was a recording. It did not take long though to realize that the strength and soul pouring out from that side of the space was very much alive. We immediately turned around to find the source and discovered Emily Braden.
Braden was born and raised in Idaho, where the women in her family are all music lovers. The artist credits her grandmother especially – who turns 101 next month – with grounding her life in the arts at a young age. Singing, in particular, began to weave into Braden’s world early on, forming an inextricable bond with her being.
After high school, Braden attended a program in Oregon where she was under the tutelage of her first mentor, Dave Barduhn. Subsequently, she met a woman by the name of Louise Rose, who would be her second mentor — in regards to both vocal training and what it is to be an artist. Eventually, the singer made her way to New York City, where she has kept quite busy.
Braden performs a wide array of work with a multitude of groups. From the massive The Sketchy Orchestra to her trio Double Bass Double Voice, from jazz standards to soul tunes, from reimagined pop tracks to Cuban songs — she shines on every occasion. We are proud to introduce Emily Braden as our Spotlight Artist of the month for February.
TCC: Tell me about being a female artist, musician, vocalist in the jazz world, in 2018?
EB: Well, I think there’s a lot of really interesting conversations happening right now. In general, about gender, about sexuality and about the binarity dynamic. The dynamics between men and women, sexual harassment, things like that. I have a lot of things to say about that. First of all, just in general, something about me is that I appreciate that we’re working towards a less binary world. A world that is more open to all genders and sexualities. I think that that is a beautiful thing that’s happening right now. Although, obviously, painful — some of the conversations and things that happen around that. But also, I think it’s exciting to see that the power dynamics are being challenged in a lot the conversations right now. So it’s an interesting time to be a female band leader.
For example, the MeToo sexual harassment movement that’s happening. There’s a group, a private group that now has become a public forum called Women in Jazz Organization, that I’m part of. So there’s lots of little conversations that happen on those pages, between women, about being a woman in jazz: what do you do about sort of being discounted or never being taken seriously. Those old, what do you call them? Tropes, I guess, are still very much in the picture for a lot of women. But they’re being sort of challenged a bit more…
Personally, I think that my femininity, it’s not a traditional femininity. I think that I’m feminine, but in a way, because of having a big body and short hair and possessing some qualities that people like to label as masculine or sort of– In a way, I’ve been lucky to not be as, kind of the target of some of the, as they call it, toxic masculinity. Being sexualized all the time. So just naturally, I feel like I kind of get to straddle this bridge in a way of relating to a lot of my band members in a way that some women who are traditionally, conventionally beautiful and are doing their thing out there have a harder time getting past a barrier. Does that make sense?
Yeah, so in a way, I’m kind of glad that I don’t fit a mold of what you know, that I don’t get the calls because I have big boobs or because– I do have big boobs [laughing]. But I don’t get the calls because of how I look. So what do I get the calls for? It actually is a bit of a blessing in a way to be kind of outside of the ‘classic beauty’ thing. Because I find my relationships with my band members to be really refreshing for the most part. I find really beautiful connections with a lot of the men I know. So I think I’ve been lucky in a way, partly just because of who I am and how I read, so to speak, in the world. But I’m realizing, as I get older, that it still is all over the place even in my world. I’ll be the band leader, and I’m realizing that the guys are talking to each other like I’m not in the room…
And I think that’s a process, and I think that as women, you just keep showing up, just keep saying, “Yeah, no, still here, still doing this thing,” and trying to have those moments of showing people how you want to be related to, how you want to be spoken to, how you want to be treated. I think there’s definitely a guard that we — I’m going to speak for myself — that I learned to put up. You kind of learn early on, don’t be too vulnerable. Don’t be too sexual. Don’t be too flirtatious. Don’t be too comfortable. Don’t be too all of those things, ‘too much’ of what you are. And I suppose it’s like that with many professions for women, and music is no different. And I think that was a sad lesson for me to learn, like, “Oh, I can’t show and just be all of myself” or that’s how I saw it at least early on. I might look at it differently now.
The politics of beauty
TCC: How do you develop as an artist – and as an honest artist – with their own pure voice doing what they do out there, and also protect yourself, and also navigate the professional world?
EB: As far as the on-stage/off-stage thing, I keep going back to beauty because I think women are taught to think about beauty a lot. And to be ‘beautiful’ is a really important thing. And, although I think that I am beautiful and I think that we all are beautiful, because I haven’t fit a certain idea of beauty — thin, and long hair, and the whole thing. Then I got to create something different. So if I don’t fit into that, so what? All of these other things are open to me.
And I look at women like Janelle Monáe, who just by not wearing dresses, just by wearing a suit and sort of introducing the idea of the androgyny. I remember reading an article where she said, “After a certain point, I was doing that, even though I didn’t want to be doing– I was doing that intentionally, politically.” And she was like, “I like to wear all these kind of things.” And she’s sort of broken from that now, but I thought it was really cool. Here’s another idea of how you can be. You don’t have to be the specific things. There are many, many, many ways for you to be.
TCC: Music has always been such a powerful force and voice in every social movement and every political movement. We would love to hear what your stance is or feelings are about music that’s being made, specifically in the scene you are part of. Because jazz, in particular, has such a history…
EB: Totally. It’s the female singer and the men are playing the instruments and that’s sort of the way it is. And the female is singing about love. I think the cool thing about living in New York is I’ve met so many people. I could give you a list of women who are out there doing their thing. Writing complex music, talking about it lyrically, playing drums and bass, and just sort of, again, just sort of slowly shifting a little bit and continuing to show up. There’s always been women in jazz, but I feel like they’re the voice is now especially because some of the platforms we have are more able to be heard and seen. And again, those examples, that visibility is key for the next generation…
One reassuring thing for me is that just my presence, just doing this, is a message in itself. Just being a woman on stage, being a bandleader, being all the things I am. Also being a fat woman on stage. I bring that up because that is an experience that I didn’t use to own. I started to be like, “Yeah, that’s just a little bit.” It’s like, “No, it’s actually really important.” We do not see a lot of fat women who are respected, and who are given platforms. In our culture, it’s very fatphobic.
It’s just the past few years, I’ve started to be really proud of the fact that I can fulfill that role. My body may change. Who knows, right? But I’m proud to be part of a community of people who have been sort of the outside of dominant culture. So when I show up, just by showing up, just by owning it, and just by having a good time and being joyful on stage, that is sort of a correction. It’s putting a certain energy out there and encouraging other women to do that same thing.
So I think that just our presence on some levels is enough. But it’s not.
Music as service
TCC: Right now, when you step on stage, why are you doing it and what are you doing it for?
EB: For me, music is equal parts self-love and healing, and service. Whenever I’m on stage, I take it very seriously. That’s my responsibility, to facilitate an emotional experience for people. So I honor that as being a purpose. I mean, especially when it’s a show. But every time I get on stage, it’s like “Yeah, we have a responsibility to be as honest as we can so that people can feel.” Music and art has always been a part of the human experience that has carried us through the biggest things. And so I feel, just to be part of that, very honored by it.
And at the same time, as much as I’m thinking about that as a service, if addiction didn’t have a negative connotation, I would use that. But it’s so healing. I learn so much every time I do it and it’s cathartic. Even what happens in my brain when I sing. What happens breathing air that way, my body feels better. I feel better. I don’t think there a number of days, I can feel it. I can tell. I think that’s an equal part combination of those things. It’s like what else am I going to do [laughter]?
That’s my happy place. It’s where I feel most comfortable, the least self-conscious, the most useful. Literally as an instrument in life. And part of something deep that’s happening, part of this community that is making a difference.
No genre left unturned
TCC: Let’s talk a little about your sounds and your unique voice. Your website describes you as jazz combined with soul, but there’s something else in there.
EB: Well, I am a child of ’90s R&B, so [laughter] that’s definitely all up in there too. I think that what drew me to jazz and my idea of jazz is sort of the Great Ladies Of Song who improvise. Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday who were using their voice as an instrument. That’s the kind of jazz that really appeals to me. Joe Williams. All the singers. I have to improvise. It’s actually really hard for me [not to]. I can do it. But I have to improvise. If I don’t, I feel like, “Well, what did I do? Why would I even do that?”
I love the energy of instruments and so part of my sound is being able to reach those peaks. That high energy. To be able to talk to, so to speak, the drummer, the bassist. To be part of that conversation and help facilitate that conversation. Leading where the solos go, things like that. But I think that I’ve done straight-ahead gigs, as they call them. Jazz gigs. Just the other night, I did something called an Organ Soul Explosion. And it was soul tunes. It was at a jam so there’s a lot of those voices. And I always kind of come away going, “Nope. That’s not all that I am or that’s not what I am.” And it’s a funny thing to kind of live in the in-between.
But in the past little while, I started to be able to own that as part of my musical identity. It’s like, “We’re doing bluegrass? Alright. Cool. I’m going to get in with some of the harmonies on the bluegrass. I’m going to learn some of the tunes…”
So I’ve always tried to develop my range and my tones so I can do that. So I could have a wider palette. I’m still doing that to this– every day. How can I have more color? How can I have more colors to choose from in the palette? So that’s a personal challenge to me. I think that maybe it’s a bit unique, it’s just like, maybe it’s greedy, I’m just like, “I want to do it all.” I want to be able to do it all. So stretching and taking risks in a live performance is kind of– it’s not kind of, that’s what I do.
TCC: Artists are restless creatures.
Wearing the ‘jazz’ label
EB: Even what you hear, even just on a vocal-type technique level — I always use this example: My mentor — I sang a ballad one time and I was 25 or something — and she said, “You sound great. I can’t wait to hear you when you’re 50.” And at the time, I was like, “What? What do you mean?” A 22-year old singing a ballad can be as pure and touching as an 80-year-old singing a ballad. Everybody brings their own voice to it, but there’s something to be said for how we develop as artists, and how our voice develops, and how our experience changes how we sing…
I think because I learned how to sing through jazz, my relationship with jazz singing, or as being seen as a jazz singer — No one would hesitate to call me that except for myself … So right now, I’m interested in going deeper into– when I improvise over the changes of a jazz standard, getting deeper into those. Sort of a more sophisticated solo. Making sure I’m not just repeating the same ideas. Challenging my phrasing. Like very specific kind of geeky stuff.
It bothers me when people say, like people in pop and R&B and stuff, “Oh yeah, I’m a jazz singer.” Jazz singing is a very specific thing and it’s an art, and it’s a deep, deep, deep art that I have the most respect for, musically speaking. So I don’t wear that label easily. It’s an approach that I have, yes, and I’ve developed myself within that tradition. I don’t know if that’s self-doubt or if that’s just where I’m at. So I’m working on that. Every single performance is like, “Go for this and try to execute it better than you ever have before.” And I never feel like I make it in that department. Which keeps me on my toes, I suppose. But I’m also sort of working on developing a sound that I haven’t explored before. Right now I’m really interested in electronic, percussive indie soul sounds. So I’m looking for people to connect with that I can explore some of those things.
The next chapter for Emily Braden
TCC: So what’s 2018 look like for you?
EB: My priority is recording… I’d say it’s kind of the season for creating new music and getting into my relationship with writing.
TCC: Is there anything else that you want people to know?
EB: I’m extremely excited about getting new music out there. And that I’ll be sharing it on all the platforms and likely doing a crowdfunding campaign. I’m trying to think of ways to do that, that feels creative and good. And also ways that people can be part of this…
I think that music lovers and fans have a huge role that they don’t necessarily recognize in helping this music grow and that we are extremely grateful when people do share the music and turn new people on to it. So I think there’s so many outlets out right now. And again, because the platforms, we have access to more of them. I don’t believe for a second that there’s not a lot of great music being played right now. People are, “Oh, the radio, meh.” And then it’s like, “Well, don’t listen to the radio. There’s a lot of music that you can find all over the place that you’re going to love. You just have to dig for it a little bit.”