Something Else! Interview: Vocalist Heidi McCurdy

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A little more than a month ago I covered a self-released album by a Vancouver, British Columbia-based jazz-pop vocalist by the name of Heidi McCurdy. Heidi’s music is a prime example of the great singing and composing talent out there still unsigned and undiscovered by a record company. Fickle Mind is a fine document of such talent, a document that was nine years in the making.

Heidi brings a unique mixture of neo-soul, folk, jazz, pop and many other influences in smartly written, sassy tunes delivered in a sultry but well controlled singing voice. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Heidi and discovered how she has developed and grown as a professional musician, we discussed some of the other things, aside from her CD, that she’s accomplished along the way.

Tell me how you first got interested in music in general, and into singing and composing in particular.

My family is very musical, I grew up around music. My Dad used to play in bands when I was little and every time we’d get together with my mom’s family we’d sing. My aunt would play piano and we’d sing hymns and things in harmony. Some of my fondest memories growing up involved music, but I was always really scared to sing. I thought that it would be really fun to sing someday but it was the last thing I thought I’d ever do. But when I was 19 I had some friends who were really good musicians, and they sat around and jammed all day and eventually I pushed through my terror of singing in front of people, and I just started jamming with them. From there my first couple of different bands started and evolved into different formations. I started writing with my early bands; Maisha was one and then Yellow Belly. When those were no longer happening I started working at my own writing.

What sort of training did you have along the way?

I didn’t do any training until my early to mid twenties. Then, I started doing voice workshops with Laura Murphy and Rhiannon. Rhiannon is from San Francisco and sings with Bobby McFerrin. She is a really, really great vocalist and improviser. She does a lot of improv workshops that help people to free their voice and be creative with their ideas. I’ve worked with Laurel Murphy in her workshops, too, out here (Vancouver). Then later on when I decided I wanted to teach I started taking some classical lessons as well to learn a bit more about technique. In the last six years I’ve done a lot of research, read a lot of books, and listened to whole bunch of educational CDs and educational videos. I’ve put together my own system of what makes sense for me as far as the technical aspects of singing go.

But I also studied by listening to people, so along the way I would listen really attentively to my favorite artists like India.Arie and Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder. I’d eat that stuff up and listen to an album until the whole thing was practically memorized. So by studying things that you love about what other people do you incorporate them into what you do.

Are there any other significant influences that you have?

I would say Bonnie Raitt; I really like her singing style. I had a dream about her last night so I think she was meant to be included in this conversation (laughs). Bjork is another major influence.

And then there are smaller things along the way, like when I heard Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird” I thought that was such a cool mix of styles and really innovative. I like certain kinds of pop and R&B mixed with a moodier sort of style. Such as the TLC song “No Scrubs”; the lyrics are kind of funny and silly but to have that almost Middle-Eastern melody combined with r&b, that was new idea to me that I really love. It sparks all kinds of ideas in my mind as well.

I can see that in your album where you have world influences, like Irish folk and Middle Eastern. I gather that’s where you got such influences from.

Yes, not always consciously but they get in somehow before they come out. Also, with my early bands, we did a lot of African based music.

You seem comfortable in so many genres…the soul the pop, folk and jazz. What type of music do you feel most comfortable singing?

I really like it when I have the freedom to mix it all up. What’s most fun is singing my own stuff. Most artists feel that way because that’s your baby, that’s what you’ve created, that’s what you’re sending out to the world. When people receive it positively it’s one of the biggest thrills you can have. I love doing jazz as well because there’s so much freedom and you’re expected to mess around with it, whereas when doing something more pop you’re expected to present the song in the way they are familiar with it. But I like to bring the freedom of jazz into the other stuff as well.

Speaking of you own stuff, how do get inspired to sit down to and write your own music? Is it more of a deliberative process or does it just come to you?

No, It’s not deliberate. Ideally, I’d sit down for two hours every day and say “I’m going to write now” but I don’t really do it this way. I sort of wait until it comes. But when I get enough relaxation time, when my brain can just be free and there are not a lot of commitments for the day, that’s when it comes out. Often, on a long drive, I start to get ideas; I’ve had to pull over and jot them down. Then when I get home I’ll run over and record it quickly so I don’t forget.

Also, I started learning how to play guitar about a year ago, just a little bit as well as piano. Often time messing around with these instruments will trigger ideas. With the guitar, as soon as I learned five or six chords, I suddenly started getting new ideas for songs because it’s so much easier writing with an instrument.

Were you writing before just by voice?

Yes, what I’d normally do is sing the harmony parts into a recorder of some kind or maybe play a bass line or piano. But now that I know what the chords are called I can write them down a lot quicker.

That’s amazing that you were able to write such well-formed songs just from singing.

Thanks. I would rely a lot on co writers for the earlier years. It’s great anytime to work with people whose music styles you match with. But nowadays it’s a lot more better for me. There’s a lot more freedom.

I think you have an interesting story for how you came up with the idea for your song “Play My Game”?

(Laughs) Well, I’ve never been much into sports, but once I was dating someone who was really into hockey. In Canada hockey is a big deal for a lot of people. It’s like the national sport, and most men grow up loving it. So I watched my first hockey game with him, and I started thinking about all the different kinds of ways people use game terminology like “games people play”, “the dating game”, “let’s get the ball rolling”, so I stuck all the ones I could think of into a song. And there’s a line in there that’s an actual direct quote from my friend who said “never make a lady wait” (laughs), and I thought that, yeah, people really do have their own sets of rules about what’s ok and what’s not ok and when yours merge with someone else’s, that’s when you hit it off. So I thought it’d be fun to play off of that idea.

Tell me about other performers you’ve had the pleasure of being on stage with and what did you take from your experiences with them?

I played with a band called the Alexander Browne Swing Orchestra for a few years. He’s a local person who does authentic music from the 20’s and 30’s with a big band. That was a neat experience for me to listen to a lot of that old music.

After that I sang with Johnny Ferreira and The Swing Machine for a couple of years and I got to go to Europe with them, which was really fun. Johnny used to play in Colin James’ band. The first time I showed up at a gig for Johnny Ferreira the other female singer in the band (he usually had has a couple of women singing backup parts and take turns doing a few solo songs) . The other singer suggested I be “campy” with Johnny. I thought “What?!” because up until then I was pretty serious and reserved on stage (I still am, but I used to be really hung up about talking to the audience). I was uncomfortable moving around but suddenly I was in a situation where I was forced to do background singer showy dance moves and really perform for this high energy music. It was really fun and a good experience for me to pull out of the shyness a little bit. And of course, going to Europe was amazing.

Where in Europe did you go?

I went to Germany, Switzerland and Budapest (Hungary).

How are the European audiences different than the ones in North America?

They were very enthusiastic and warm and really loved blues music. Johnny Ferreira’s stuff is mostly jump blues and they were so warm and receptive to it. Here (in Vancouver), they tend to be pretty quiet except for clapping between songs, but in Europe they’re hooting and hollering even at the beginning of jazz solos. And they would even sing to us sometimes. There was one day we had a gig, I can’t remember the town but it was a small venue where the walls were made of rock and it felt like being in a cave, which was intriguing and cozy. After a song that I sang the audience started singing “Heidi! Heidi!”, the theme song from the “Heidi” movie. And even though they didn’t know all the words they all sang it together and it was really cool. Those kind of things can happen over there.

Right now, I understand, that your music is being played on a sitcom television series?

They licensed one of my songs, “Play My Game” for an episode. I don’t know when it’s coming up, but it’s sometime during this season. They also got me to sing “These Boots Are Made For Walking” for the opening episode of the show. That was played over a really funny chase scene. I think you can stream it over the website. “Robson Arms” is what the show is called, and it’s on CTV and Comedy Network [this series, starring comedic actor Leslie Neilsen, is currently broadcast only in Canada].

What’s next for you? Do you have another CD planned or anything like that?

Well, I’ve got some of the material ready for a new CD. I’ve been working on some new songs. Funding is an issue. To make a really good album costs quite a bit of money. I’m crossing my fingers and putting away the money from the CDs (current album Fickle Mind) I do sell to help fund the next one. I’m just looking around for opportunities and options for how that could work, and resources that are available. I may piece it together little by little like I did last time. But I don’t want to spend five years making it!

You can learn more about Heidi McCurdy and her music, as well as purchase her CD, at Heidi’s website or on her MySpace space.

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