Vanessa Collier puts her own upbeat, high-energy spin on the blues

Vanessa Collier interview

VANESSA COLLIER

Vanessa Collier’s primary instrument is the saxophone, making her a rarity among blues singer-songwriters.

“I had played piano for a little bit and didn’t really like the teacher so I thought that I didn’t like piano,” she says. “So after six months of playing piano, I quit, and then I saw somebody playing saxophone and really loved the sound of it. It was one of those quick moments where I was like, ‘Whoa what was that?’ So I begged my mom for six or eight months to let me play the sax, and she finally caved one summer, right before fourth grade. I haven’t put it down since, and it’s been 18 or 19 years now.

“The blues side of this came in sixth grade, because that’s when jazz band started, and we would open all of the rehearsals with 12-bar blues and everyone would get a solo, which definitely was the highlight of my day, even though it was like 6:30 in the morning (laughs). So that’s really where it started, and then I branched off into jazz because that’s where the saxophone is most present, and my teacher was Chris Vadala, who played with Chuck Mangione for 20 years — who, of course, was a phenomenal jazz player.

“Then I went to college and found a whole bunch of styles: country, bluegrass, R&B, soul, funk. You name it and I was playing it. Then I started touring with Joe Louis Walker, who is blues, but does rock, gospel, funk and his own bit, and he kind of brought my feet back into the blues.”

Collier was born in Texas and grew up mostly in Maryland, and now lives in the Philadelphia area. She will open for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the Levoy Theatre in Millville, June 1, and will also open for Walter Trout at the Ocean City Music Pier, Aug. 20.

Her latest album, Honey Up, came out in the summer of 2018.

The cover of Vanessa Collier’s 2018 album, “Honey Up.”

“This is my third record and it’s released on my own label,” she said. “I was a little bit nervous about doing that, because my second one was on an independent blues label, but this third one has … done the best so far. Its spent nine weeks on the Billboard Top Blues Albums charts and numerous weeks on Sirius’ Top 15, and just the reception of it has been great. I keep having fans tell me that they are listening to it on road trips from beginning to end and then they’ll restart it. They are telling me that it’s great to have a record that they can listen to from beginning to end, where every song is great. That’s what I was going for, which was a very light, very fun, engaging record with good lyrics and nine of the 10 songs are my originals. The tenth is a fan favorite, a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Love Me Like a Man’ (written by Chris Smither but popularized by Raitt).”

The blues were born from misery and despair in the deltas and fields of the south — an outlet for the oppressed and enslaved. Over the years, the music has morphed into various styles and been performed from different perspectives. Those early blues musicians had scars — lives full of strife — and the lyrics seemingly came naturally.

So what does Collier write about, given her lack of deep scar tissue?

“A lot of stuff,” She says. “Some of it’s social issues, like on my new record I’ve got a song called ‘The Fault Line,’ which is kind of like, ‘Hey, we are standing on this line where the earthquake happens, where the earth tends to split,’ and what I mean by that is that we seem to be going in a more polarized direction. So it’s really difficult to have a conversation with someone if you don’t agree with them, and I think that is a really perilous place to be. I think that at the end of the day, we should be able to listen to each other and find the middle ground and work from there, despite our disagreements, and despite what we each may think about what is right and wrong. So a lot of it is just my hopes for a better world — a better place to be, a nicer place to be, and professing kindness.

“That’s always my thing. (Musicians are) all kind of pacifists and we want the world to be a peaceful place. So that’s some of it. Some of it is about relationship stuff. My first record was very much because my heart was broken … young love, first love, but it still breaks your heart. So my songwriting can come from kind of anywhere. Songs about being on a record label and what that’s like, that’s ‘Honey Up.’ Honestly, that’s that song, and it was kind of like, ‘Yeah, this is not for me.’ ”

A not-so-long-ago jam session on a blues cruise with the great Buddy Guy is counted among her highlights. But who does she claim as influences?

“There’s so many,” she says. “It’d probably be between Bonnie Raitt with her early delta stuff and kind of the mix of New Orleans blues that she threw in there … I think she’s extraordinary, as a singer she’s so evocative and gives me goosebumps every time and then her slide guitar playing to me is awesome … so it’s her and Freddie King. He is a ball of energy, I understand why they call him The Texas Cannonball: monstrous voice, monstrous player, and when I watch his live videos, he’s the one person I wish that I could’ve seen live. I haven’t even thrown B.B. (King) in there and he’s one of my favorites, too, because he fits all the genres —blues and all of its offshoots, too.”

At the Levoy Theatre, she says, “I’m doing a duo set with a guitar player named Laura Chavez and she’s phenomenal. Throw any genre at her and she’s quite comfortable. I like everything to be pretty high energy, so it’s going to be nice because it’s going to be a little more intimate of a set and you’ll actually get to hear the lyrics, which sometimes get lost in a band setting. I’m very excited to share mostly originals, upbeat stuff, and we’re gonna dance and groove and have a good time.”

For more about Collier, visit vanessacollier.com.

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