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Interview with Vocalist Peter Eldridge

Transcribed from a Skype Conversation with Charlie Christenson on June 7th, 2011


Jazz Vocalist Peter Eldridge
© Felix Mayr
Vocalist, song-writer, and composer Peter Eldridge is known for combining jazz, R&B, pop, and Latin styles. Aside from working as a solo artist, Eldridge is a co-founder of the vocal ensemble New York Voices, and he teaches jazz vocals at the Manhattan School of Music. In this interview, which Charlie Christenson transcribed from a Skype conversation he had with Eldridge in June of 2011, the multi-faceted vocalist discusses what it's like to be a musician – from an artistic and business perspective – in the current state of the jazz industry.

  • Charlie Christenson (CC): Could you talk a bit about the genesis of your new album, Mad Heaven (Palmetto, 2011)?

    Peter Eldridge (PE): It grew out of a real passion for Brazilian and Latin music. When I was a kid my parents were playing Jobim, and I remember thinking, “that's pretty cool.” I was introduced to a sophisticated kind of music, and to me that music is kind of the best of all worlds. It's so rich harmonically, it's rich rhythmically, it's beautiful melodically, it's so interesting and so full-bodied, and so full of passion, that it really resonated with me.

    Over the years, performing my own gigs as well as doing tours with the New York Voices, playing with artists that we loved, like Ivan Lins and Paquito D'Rivera, I was exposed and got even deeper and deeper into [Brazilian Music]. And I've always loved artist like Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento.

    So Mad Heaven is my take on that music, given that I've always sat somewhere between loving jazz and loving pop music. Someone said Mad Heaven is like if Joao Gilberto was locked in a room with Steely Dan for a weekend. That's kind of nice hybrid of what's going on with this record.

    It's mostly original tunes, although there are some cover songs. A couple of them were written a number of years ago and they've just kind of been sitting in my catalogue of tunes that never went into albums that producer Ben Whitman and I had done so far. They just didn't quite fit what we were particularly looking for on Fool No More or Decorum. They were a little too much of a left turn compared to everything else that was on the record. So, Mad Heaven was also an opportunity to finally record some of my older tunes that I had always wanted to. They finally found a home.

  • CC: On the singer-songwriter front - a lot of singers (especially in jazz) end up doing primarily covers as opposed to their own songs, and it seems like you have that equation flipped. You seem to do a higher percentage of your own tunes. Do you think it's because you categorize yourself more as a songwriter?

    PE: I love being able to interpret other people's songs. There's something really freeing about that. As much as you want to be so respectful of the other person's tune, the pressures off in a way. Here's this little beautiful piece that's already out there in the universe, and you just get to make your own statement with it - if it's a song that really hits you hard.

    When you're writing your own stuff, there's quite a bit more pressure. You’re making something new, and, hopefully, saying something original. Creating a whole new entity in the world. I think there's a lot more weight surrounding that than doing someone else's songs.

    Ultimately, I think of myself more as a songwriter. That's first and foremost. And that's the expression that feels most comfortable for me. And that's why the mix of original versus non-original tunes is what it is, when it comes to my music.

  • CC: When you're writing a song do you write lyrics or music first?

    PE: There's no real rhyme or reason to it. Lately, I generally do music first. A lot of times it will happen at the same time. My favorite moments are in the car or on the subway and something comes out of the blue. It hits you. And that could just be a melody line or a groove. It could be a lyrical phrase that feels really good. And then a song is grown out of that. One little idea can grow into an entire tune. A lot of times I'll sit down at the piano - I try to just have, I think they call it a “beginner's mind” or something. There's a terrific book, it's called If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. It talks about beginner's mind, a place where you're really focused but there's no pressure there. You're just kind of, for lack of a better word, spewing. And a lot of times that's when the best stuff comes. I don't think that I'm saying anything new, but it's just when it feels like it's just happening and it's spontaneous. That's when it feels organic.

    Usually first ideas are good. A lot of times when I'm writing a tune and I get stuck, this can be anywhere from a week after I started writing it to a year, and it just sits around for a while, I'll go back to that original. I record everything. I always have some sort of a recording device nearby. And I'll go back to that original idea and it's the simplest in the best sense, and the structure of it makes the most sense. It's when you start developing it that you can loose your way and start adding too much information or force the issue. So I usually go back and go "okay, what was the original idea of this?" And then you go, "That's right. I don't need all this. This is all peripheral."

    Lately it's music first with some sort of a core lyric that feels good. I have a friend that made me a series of drum grooves. In the world we're in now you have GarageBand and all that stuff. That's really emancipating for me. When that is there and you can bounce off a groove, that's really inspiring and fun. You don't have to worry about the rhythmic component. Then the piano becomes color, and it gives you one less thing to think about. You're bouncing off what's already there.

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