Songwriting is a very personal experience for an artist. Oftentimes, it exposes the artist’s vulnerabilities to everyone in the room during the recording process. How else can a belter like the late Roy Orbison be able to give people chills up and down their spines when they listen to his recording of "Crying," or feel the wounds in country legend Johnny Cash’s voice when he sang, "Ring of Fire?" Stevie Holland’s voice emotes a similar passionate elegance only with female timbres. Luckily for this savvy jazz singer-songwriter, she married the man who would bear witness to her emotional nudity in the recording studio. If she was going to expose herself to anyone during the recording of her latest album, Before Love Has Gone, it was going to be to her producer, co-collaborator and husband, Gary William Friedman.
She provides, "Gary and I were introduced 10 years ago by our mutual friends, Joanna Simon (Carly’s sister) and Gerald Walker, as potential songwriting collaborators. We formed a great working relationship, and it soon got personal - we married. We’ve partnered on many albums, songwriting projects, theatrical ventures, and it’s always been a challenging and creative experience. His roots are in jazz. He was a sax player with the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble (Burton Greene, Alan Silva) before becoming a successful composer in theater, T.V. and film. I have very strong ideas about what songs I want to record, and how I’d like to approach them, and then Gary shapes the arrangements, and takes the songs to yet another level, utilizing his jazz musician and composer’s instincts."
She shares that the songs selection for the album was personal. "I wanted to record some of my favorite love songs that have been with me for practically my whole life, and to present them with a classic jazz trio sound with occasional sax, or just solo piano, to shape the stories of these songs in the purest and most intimate way possible. Every single song on Before Love Has Gone has a personal history behind it with many memories."
Though many of the songs on the album are standards, two of them, "Before Love Has Gone" and "The Music in Me That Plays," were written by Holland and Friedman. She cites, "Nine times out of ten I’ll write a lyric first, and then lay it on Gary. We truly collaborate on each song, developing the lyric and melody together in a back-and-forth dance. Fortunately, we established the professional working side of our relationship early on, so when our creative heads ‘clash,’ we can pretty much keep focused and disciplined and not let the personal side interfere too much with the process, but it’s not always easy! And we write a lot of love songs, so it’s going to get personal. The great reward is the mutual satisfaction of a completed piece."
Holland and Friedman also relied on two additional producers, Tim Peierls and Todd Barkan, for the recording. Holland explains how all three producers served different roles, "Gary focuses largely on the charts and the musician’s interpretations. This is my second project with Tim Peierls as a co-producer, who not only helps to hold the whole fabric of the project together, but is technically astute, and a musically knowledgeable presence who weighs in on every step of the process. Todd Barkan was a tremendous asset to this project. His ears in the studio are second to none when it comes to approach, honesty, tempos and getting that right groove. Todd really connected with me as a vocalist. As I have a bit of range in my vocal arsenal, he helped me stay true to that vision of intimacy, which enabled me to trust simplicity. I was blessed to have this great group to work with, and there was never a ‘too many cooks’ moment. We found ourselves in a completely harmonious and cooperative collaboration."
Holland’s band which comprises of Martin Bejerano on piano, Edward Perez on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums, also played on the recording. She notes, "I’ve worked with Martin for a few years now, and this is my second album with him. He’s a technically brilliant and gifted player, and has had enormous experience backing artists like Roy Haynes and Russell Malone, which has no doubt helped to shape his great accompanying skills. I met Edward through Martin and we did some live work together, and what can I say another incredibly gifted musician who I knew I wanted to record with. Martin and Edward really helped us to infuse that classic Latino sound for (the track) ‘Carioca.’ We first saw Willie with Kurt Elling at Birdland, and fell in love with his playing. It was a great fluke, timing-wise, to get him on the project, and we’re thrilled we did. All of these guys happen to be the sweetest class-A human beings to work with, as well."
Holland also recruited two guest musicians, saxophonist Ole Mathisen and guitarist Paul Hollenbeck, for the recording. She recalls, "I met Ole Mathisen, a fellow Viking, when I was invited to perform for the King and Queen of Norway at a special event in New York a few years back. Ole was playing with Eivind Opsvik’s band for the event. Maybe it’s the Norse connection, but I’m totally at ease with Ole. He’s a killer sax player with a very peaceful, serene way about him. We decided to add guitar a little later on in the project, and Todd Barkan brought Paul in, and he blew us away. He’s one of these guys who just walks in, gets it, and lays down a brilliant performance, and he listens, very sensitively to the vocals."
She expresses that the recording of Before Love Has Gone was more accessible acoustically compared to her previous record, More Than Words Can Say, although both albums were released on Holland and Friedman’s label, 150 Music, "More Than Words Can Say was a much bigger production, with string orchestra on several tracks. The approach to some of the material was, well, big. I pulled back quite a bit on Before Love Has Gone, and didn’t try to take over the world with my vocals. I think I’ve grown as a vocalist, in the sense that I’ve really learned to trust the less can be more factor. The songwriting skills continue to evolve, hopefully," she intones, "just by living, listening, and disciplining myself to keep writing."
Holland describes about herself, "I’m a born performer, and have always been comfortable on the stage. This may have led to some heavy dramatics in my early days, though. As I continue to evolve as a musician in the world of jazz, I’m finding more of a comfortable middle ground that allows me to be completely in the music, while still communicating the story of the lyric to the audience, and hopefully still entertaining them."
She acknowledges that being a good recording artist and live performer has so many more challenges to it than just being a good singer. "The studio has been a trial and error journey for many years, and one in which I’ve been mostly self-taught in, though certainly listening to advice from producing partners. When it comes to live performances, I’ve pretty much relied on my own instincts as well, but will say that every single performance I get to see by another artist serves as a learning experience in some way."
Stevie Holland can re-trace her steps back to her childhood, when she points to what influenced her to pursue a life as a singer, "My dad was a sax player in several bands (later becoming a commercial artist) and my Uncle Mike was Fred Astaire’s Music Director in the USO, so I was raised on a lot of jazz, swing and big band music. Being the youngest of seven kids, there was plenty of rock and folk music coming out of the household speakers too, and my mother was an opera singer, so I had a multitude of musical influences. But as I entered my ‘adult’ years, the standard songbook became the one that I turned to the most, when not performing original songs."
She reflects about her early musical experiences, "I did a lot of musical theater, from childhood through high school and into college. Musical theater pretty much dried up in New York City by the time I left college, so I started to go the solo route in cabaret rooms and clubs. As I was the ‘entertainer,’ I did go for the occasional shtick I even used a boa, as in feathers, not snake. I’m not sure how this prepared me to become a recording artist, but it was certainly good for a few laughs."
She attended New York University after high school and tells, "I chose New York University because I received a scholarship in drama, and it had an excellent department. I didn’t want to study in the musical theater department, and so I studied classical acting, movement, improvisation and the like, in what was the then-budding "experimental theater wing". One of my favorite professors was Ann Bogart, who is a very much respected director in theater today. I minored in political science."
When you hear Stevie Holland sing, you have to admit that she has a voice that belongs in front of a microphone. Ironically, the photo of Holland, shot by Tom LeGoff which graces the album cover for Before Love Has Gone, shows this. Although Holland reveals that she does not spend all of her days singing. She mentions, "I handle a lot of the business aspects of our record label 150 Music, so that keeps me pretty busy at times. I’ve also worked with vocal students and produced several other singers’ projects. I enjoy hanging and having fun with friends and family. When COMPLETELY away from it all, I simply love nature. I hike all of the time and try to drag Gary up to the top of as many mountains as he’ll allow."
As to what she is looking forward to in the coming year, she answers, "Performing, creating, and watching the current administration leave the White House."
Holding onto the belief that joy will come out of the darkness which is encompassing America, is probably the only ray of hope that is keeping everyone’s head in this country above the water. Luckily, Stevie Holland’s record offers people that gentle hand which lightly grazes under their chins and lifts their faces upward. Just like these standards, which Holland recorded on Before Love Has Gone, did for her during the transitional phases of her life, only this time, it is Holland’s voice that beams with radiance.