What better way to launch our vocalist issue than to feature an in depth interview with Tillery, an inspiring trio of vocalists who have their feet in the jazz world and have come together to make music that authentically expresses themselves. The ladies of Tillery, Rebecca Martin who has been playing music for over two decades in the jazz world as well performing as a singer-songwriter and guitarist, Gretchen Parlato one of the most respected jazz vocalists of our time, and Becca Stevens the youngest of the three who is already a prolific songwriter and guitarist are a powerful team. It is not everyday that you see three jazz vocalists coming together, which makes Tillery a quite refreshing and important group. Grounded in friendship and love, their music exudes compassion and warmth. The Revivalist spoke with Tillery while they were together at Rebecca Martin’s home in Upstate New York. These ladies shared their giggles, infectious energy, and wise words on what it means to be a jazz vocalist today.
You all have a very organic sound that is grounded in friendship, admiration, and love. Can you tell us how Tillery came to fruition?
Gretchen: I met Rebecca and Becca separately and when I met one Rebecca I thought of the other Rebecca. I thought that they should meet and connect because they would be musical friends and lovely human friends too. I separately had a musical relationship and friendship with both of them and I had a musical visit at Rebecca’s house, where we worked on some music and I suggested that she reach out to Becca. So then Rebecca connected with Becca. We eventually had a little hang like we are doing now, where we all came upstate and ate way too much food and drank wine and tea. We sat around a big table and Rebecca brought her guitar out and said, “let’s play something.” So we just worked on some music.
Becca: When we were playing the music we all had this similar feeling that this should last forever, it was an amazing feeling. Then we were listening back to the recording and we felt the same feeling. That was the root of the organic quality, that you are talking about.
It’s so great that all of you have come together, three acclaimed jazz vocalists of our time. Can you talk about how it feels to sing together and why you come together. Because it seems like you feel a lot of joy when you sing together. Why is it important to sing together in general? Because for jazz vocalists it’s not really known for them to come together and sing, it’s more of an individualized thing.
Gretchen: Since I’ve been attributed with connecting everybody, my whole idea with that is that I have so many people that I love and I just want the people that I love to love each other and to know each other. So I thought about the amazing power that would happen if we joined forces, and actually got together and created something even bigger than all of us.
Becca: I don’t think she was even thinking about it on a musical level. I think she was thinking about it on a friend level, like what would happen if these friends of mine came together. Or what kind of explosions would occur. I think it was sort of because of Rebecca that it went in a musical direction. Which tends to be a common role from her, like when we get together she’s always like, “man let’s play something.” We have this amazing vibration together and we take it to the next level when we play music together. So that is something that we try to keep sight of. Instead of getting too business minded about things, we think of music as taking friendship to the next level.
Rebecca: And also right now I’m sort of in the zone so we’ve been together now for the weekend and it really revolves around food, aesthetics, and music. It transcends even the musical parts. Sitting down to make music is as natural as making dinner or eating. From my perspective this is a really unique quality of this generation of musicians. I know for myself coming up in New York these sort of things never happened. Not that we didn’t desire it to happen, but this generation of musicians are so prolific and they are making music with all of their comrades. For myself, it’s what I always hoped for but it wasn’t forthcoming in my decade. It’s not to diminish the desire but there just wasn’t an opportunity. And it might be that musicians today are not vying for some spot with a major recording contract. I mean everybody wants to make music and tour and share their music with audiences but the onus is on music and on being the best that they can be and that’s so nice to be a part of right now.
Gretchen, I read that when you met Becca you found that you two understood and processed music the same way. And sometimes in music education it can be very rigid in terms of how one is supposed to understand it. Can you talk about the way that you processed music and speak about the diverse ways that people can understand sound.
Gretchen: We had our first rehearsal together with Taylor Eigsti’s group. What I was referring to is when we both had charts in front of us for Taylor’s music. Becca and I were very polite with each other, we had met a few times but it was at that stage of friendship when you are very smiley and nice, but we didn’t really know each other on a deeper level. We had these charts in front of us and both being singers, I just noticed in those moments, that we took the same notes. That was maybe one of the first things, and we would laugh at the same things. The way we focused was very similar, it was very eerie and sisterly, like that’s kind of crazy that somebody kind of processes the music in the same way.
Becca: In a way I feel that connection with Taylor and obviously with Rebecca. I remember he wrote these squiggles on the chart and Gretchen looked at the squiggle and pointed at it and she was like “oooohweeoooohh!” and I was like “oh my god! I would do that.”
Rebecca: I’m not like that at all.
Becca: Yes you are!
Rebecca: No I’m not. I’m completely in awe of the way that Gretchen and Becca make music. They have such a beautiful focus and technical ability in music, that’s really exciting to see. It’s all heart.
Gretchen: In your question it’s this balance of having gone to school and learning in kind of textbook way about reading music, sight reading music, and learning it and processing it in a technical sense. But we also have a sense of being singers that learn intuitively and our ears are developed enough that we can just learn something by ear. It shouldn’t be said, but we probably have gotten away with people thinking that we know a lot more technical stuff than we do, because it is intuitive and it is an ear thing, where the ear is more developed and advanced than what we realize we know.
Rebecca: You are in a certain scene that has helped you to develop that.
Gretchen: Yeah, it’s not a bad thing it’s just an interesting thing to see because there are different ways to learn music and to communicate about music. That’s what it was, we communicated about music the same way.
The human voice is so immense and it conveys so much through music and you all convey that collectively and individually in your music, the intensity of the human voice alone. Can you speak about your relationship to your voice and your bodies, because you are invoking sound with your whole body.
Rebecca: My thing is all feel and all heart. When I started writing songs on guitar it was all about trying to find a phrase that inspired a melody and then it was all shapes on the guitar to try to make sense of it and to create parts.
Gretchen: I think that in terms of the connection to your human voice and how you would use it as speaking or singing there is something that a friend of ours said, Jo Lawry, who is a teacher. She said to open and relax your throat to laugh or cry because either one is going to just release something in it’s own way and open everything up. And to me that was profound because it talks about something technical with singing, but it’s relating that to something that is very emotional and human. I think all of us would agree that singing is just an extension of how we would speak something. And then if you follow that it just becomes that something that every human can relate to.
Rebecca: So in that way, I think there is so much depth in any voice and there is an authenticity. What is special about Gretchen and Becca is that there is a such a direct connection to their authentic voices and also a really wonderful technical ability whether or not they feel like they are schooled or not, it’s there. And I think there is a kinship in the music that we are making now and that we are getting into more deeply is the authenticity, which is the spirit of the music and the desire to move and to grow. Which I think keeps us working hard at the instruments that we have and how we compose.
Becca: The voice was the first instrument that I learned, I guess it’s the first instrument that we all learn. My parents are both singers and I came to the guitar later and came back to the voice and I remember having this feeling in high school when I came back to my voice and I thought, “oh what a relief.” The voice is home base. It is one of the only places in my life where I don’t over think things. I remember going through a transition in college, where I thought, it’s sort of like your baby and you have to be okay with the sounds that come out of your mouth because you don’t have complete control over them and when you take complete control over them it stunts the growth of the voice because the voice is always changing and growing. I guess you could say that about any instrument but I feel like since it’s coming out of your body you have less control over what it is, it’s your voice. Whereas when you are developing a voice on another instrument you are developing a voice you have control over with your hands. I have that kind of relationship with the voice where I feel like it’s home and I feel this other being, this life that you can’t really control.
Gretchen: I know you teach yoga and I went to this vocal toning workshop when I was in L.A. and it was kind of like doing these exercises that were similar to chanting, by making a resonate sound with your voice and connecting certain syllables with different Chakras and it was something that they were talking about doing that was spiritually connected and just human to connect that with a certain energy center. I was thinking in a spiritual sense that is really healing to sing. And I also thought about how lucky we are to be singers because we can experience this kind of healing, spiritual, meditative, peaceful state all the time, and that’s really what it feels like. Like what you said Becca, it is something like home. I’m sure with all of us whenever we sing it’s just this sense of clarity and being very focused and centered and everything kind of settles and melts. And that’s how I feel individually when I sing and when I sing with the two of them it’s like this other deeper and higher crazy world emerges, it’s kind of unexplainable.
Rebecca: What Gretchen is saying is making me think about how both Gretchen and Becca remind me to breathe when I’m making sounds, and that as a singer-songwriter who came up coming up in the “jazz” world, even though I came up with great instrumentalists the focus was more on the words and less on the sound. And even with the guitar it’s more of a tool than it is a sounding instrument. So the challenge for me at this point is to breathe and putting that behind the sound as it’s coming through while still maintaining the truth in what it is I am relaying, and interpreting, in the words that I am singing. And then one of the things that Becca talks about a lot is the connection of the lower, middle, and the upper register. And I don’t do it so great yet, but connecting all of those parts of the voice so that there is a seamless sound through the connection of breath and the body, because as much as there is an upper, middle, and lower part of the voice in the throat, beyond the vocal chords, the same is true and I’m learning this, and Gretchen mentioned Jo Lawry, you have the same connection in the body from the throat down to the esophagus and the trachea down to the core to the deepest part of the belly, its the same, it’s mirrored, and if you can connect them seamlessly then you have access to an enormous range in whatever your abilities are. And instead of being all cerebral and trying to reach the audience and being self aware of how you are affecting the people who are there, you are in the core of the sound, which is breath, body, and heart. It’s endless really in how deeply you can go to connect those things. And that’s true for a great group. There is no end the depth of the connection to the music to make something that is powerful. There is no end to the development of sound and communication. If you can go beyond all of this stuff that we are distracted by and get into the core of what you are doing, it’s brilliant, and if we all did that, there’d be so much great music. And that gets to the competitive part of it. It’s all cerebral stuff all the outward, yucky, and noisy stuff that maybe helps us in some way, but at a certain point it’s not a sustainable energy. The outside noisy world, where we want to stay busy and be active and in some sort of “hip” place making music that is “hip” or whatever. At a certain point none of that really helps you to sustain yourself as a life long musician and curious human being. And there is so much work when you reach that point where it is just you.
All of your songs have such delicate and personal stories. Can you tell the stories behind the songs, “Tillery,” “God is in the Details,” and “Magnus.”
Becca: Tillery is the last name of a friend mine named, Kenya Tillery, who passed away from cancer. I had a music-based relationship with her. I also had a sisterhood with her like I do with Gretchen and Rebecca. When she died, I made the promise to myself to figure out some way to give a gift back to her through some sort of music gesture, but I didn’t know quite how I would do it yet, and I kept trying to write a song but it wasn’t working. I had met her because I was recording her record which she never released and I told her mother when she was ready I would go and find the files and make sure that it happened. Years later, it’s a really long story, but the short version of it is that I finally stared getting some headway on this song that I had been writing for two or three years. I had gone through a lot of phases on how I would approach the song and finally I found an approach that I was feeling confident about but I felt like I had only written half the song. I felt like the other half of the song was not in me and not in a bad way, I felt like the lyrics were somewhere else. I had the melody but not the lyrics. So I was in my apartment one day and I had opened up a book that my dad had given me for Christmas. Meanwhile a week or less later I had a rehearsal with these two girls and we were gonna have our first official meeting of getting music together for a gig that we had coming up. So I opened up this poetry book my dad had given me for Christmas and I found a poem that not only fit the meaning of what I had been writing and it also fit the rhythm of the melody that I had written. It seemed like a sign so I finished the song and I brought to the girls and I told them it was called “Tillery” but I didn’t say why. At this point we were going by “Girls Gone Mild” and it was obviously a little bit silly of a name, and we got this gig a month or so later teaching at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and I think it was Rebecca that said , “Maybe we should consider something that can be taken seriously.” And so we threw around all of these different band names and then Rebecca said I can’t tell you why but that word “Tillery” keeps coming to me. And of course that hit me in the heart and it occurred to me that I hadn’t even told them where that word came from, and then when I thought about it, I was like oh this is the perfect thing because it honors her and it is beautiful sounding word. It was also the first song of mine that we ever put together as a group and I wrote the vocal parts with these girls in mind. It all just seemed very serendipitous.
Rebecca: “God is in the Details” is a tune I wrote while I was in Cape Cod for a week. I got a much needed break and I just wrote on my guitar everyday and I was working on the progression there and I think that tune is pretty self explanatory actually. The thing that is mysterious about it and about all the tunes that I write is that there are ultimately messages to me. I always think that they are about somebody but it always turns out in the end that at some point down the road there are words that are exactly what I need to hear. When you write something and everyone wants to sing it and is open to sing it and to come up with parts like that. To me the lyrics are a gift to me, but then the voices on top of that. It’s kind of like I am taking this tumorous supplement but the only way your body can absorb it is with cayenne pepper. I feel like “God is in the Details” was this wonderful tune that I loved and that I’m happy that I have but Becca and Gretchen allowed for the meaning for that tune to really enter into my being, so that’s the story of that tune.
Gretchen: With “Magnus” that’s the song that I wrote based on a lullaby that my then little five-year old, now six-year old wrote, and his name is Magnus. He turned six yesterday. His mom Ashley, we went to high school together. She has a son Magnus and his little brother Thadeus is one-years old and when Ashley was pregnant with Thadeus, Magnus sang a lullaby to his belly. So the lullaby is the chorus of the song “Magnus.” He sang it to me and I loved it and I made a little video recording. And when I was driving home up from my visit I had the melody stuck in my head and I thought I should turn this into something. The original idea was to write a song for my friend Ashley, about how amazing and beautiful she is and how she has created these beautiful boys and about this trio of beautiful people. I made verses around Magnus’ melody and it became the chorus. And when I got home and I made up the bass line and I didn’t think about what the meter would be. I do that a lot by ear and go back and analyze it. It just kind of bloomed from this sea of a melody that a five year old wrote. I think that the beauty of it is that a child wrote and that it is something that we have performed in this setting. We also just performed it at Taylor Eigsti’s wedding. Every time we perform the song it seems that people are moved by it and they ask about it. I love that I can say it’s not even about anything that I did, it’s a five-year old who wrote this melody. It is a good testament to how profound and super deep children are, and we can give them a lot of credit for what they are capable of.
Becca: I have been thinking about something you said and I would like to mention something else. You said that it’s rare for a group of jazz vocalists to come together, and I don’t consider Tillery a jazz band but I do think of each of to be fairly rooted in jazz. Anyway it is very rare to see three jazz singers come together in one band like this and to actively be called a band. I can count on one hand if not half of one hand the times that I have seen something like that. I am including Manhattan Transfer and people that include men in the band, I can’t think of an all women jazz band. And I was thinking about why that would be so rare and how probably the business side of things must play a part in why that’s so rare. Especially for people who already have a career that’s developed where they are answering not only to themselves but also to their career and their team. Which is something that we have dealt with to, but I think thats what makes it work because it is not coming from a business desire it’s coming from a friendship.
You are all accomplished musicians and you are still able to stick to a purity and innocence of Self, how do you maintain this innocence and purity.
Rebecca: This relates back to something that Becca was saying. The musicians who are currently around are just so interested in making music and having fun and being honest, whether it is putting on a wig and experiencing some other part of themselves. There is no fear, just being real and when you come to the table with that openness, that maybe people see as childlike because it’s playful. I don’t remember who said this but there is a quote that says, any part of the life that you lived you can always tap into. I’m 42 so any part of my life I can really access if I want to or I could be just 42. So when you are surrounded by people who are interested in just experiencing whatever part of them is coming up in that moment it’s the most amazing experience, its goosebumps all day long, because you are given the freedom to express whatever part of yourself is coming up.
Becca: The answer is simple. The reason why that comes across on stage is because that is the nature of our friendship and that is how we are when we spend time together. And I think the nature of the relationship you have with the people you are playing with is always going to come through in a performance unless you are pretending.
Gretchen: I always call it the same thing, the soul searching work. If you have tapped into that it’s like you have realized to be all the things you mentioned, completely honest, pure, real, open and vulnerable with people you don’t even have to try anymore. It’s actually the opposite, to try is to put up all those shields and masks. If you actually don’t even try to be anything else than your pure authentic self then it is easy to purely connect with the music and the moment and it is really just art reflecting life. We are probably similar in how we write music and it is just about our own music individually and also just human experiences and emotions and feelings. I always use opposition, the really high and and really down deep.
Becca: I think being natural in your singing is easier to do when you feel supported by the people surrounding you. If you are in a jazz band and no one else is acting by that rule then it is going to be hard to find that natural child like space, but if that’s how we are as friends then it is easier to go there all the time.
Gretchen. That’s true and as long as you bring that yourself other people will too. Usually not right away but once they realize that it makes life more connected, then you just feel a lot more peaceful and more clarity on everything when you get to that level. It is contagious in a good way.
Rebecca: This music is so gentle and that tenderness or gentleness allows for there to be a lot of space for the melody to move about and it’s amazing to me. I think the timing is really right, because everything about what we are taught and what we see is so loud and so larger than life and not authentic but more of a performance. It’s awesome to be a part of something that can be so, it’s not that it’s quiet because it’s very powerful.
Gretchen. It’s a quiet intensity.
Becca: It’s a quiet storm really [laughs].
Rebecca: I think it’s all a great thing for us all to be a part of.
Gretchen: It’s like silence or sitting and meditating it can seem like you are not doing anything you are just sitting there but really everything is happening.
Interview by Tamara Davidson