May 1981, New York City. The night has enough star power to light Manhattan’s skyline. Santana is rocking out at the Savoy. Further downtown, Alberta Hunter headlines the Cookery while Tony Bennett croons center stage at the Bottom Line. A short cab ride away, the Brecker Brothers’ Seventh Avenue South features an artist who’s become a fixture on the scene in recent years, Janice Pendarvis.
Sharing a bill with guitarist John Tropea and P-Funk wizard Bernie Worrell, Pendarvis packs the club for three sets, 10:00PM, 11:30PM, and 1:00AM. The singer-songwriter spellbinds audiences with her blend of original material and choice standards like “Don’t Go to Strangers”. It might be a Tuesday evening but Pendarvis dazzles with Friday night flair.
In the decades since that gig, Pendarvis has traveled untold miles between the world’s most prestigious music venues and recording studios, lodged countless hours singing on network programs like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Seth Meyers, and appeared in several award-winning concert films and documentaries. “My quest has always been to do the best that I can do,” she says. Indeed, an imprint of excellence defines her multi-faceted career as a singer, recording artist, and music business advocate, not to mention her lifelong commitment to social justice and education.
“When Janice started out, she looked to me as a mentor, but ended up being an inspiration to me,” exclaims renowned songwriter Joshie Armstead, an original Ikette and celebrated icon of New York’s session singer community. “She was eager in a sweet way. Janice contracted me for many many sessions. I love Janice more than she knows.” Love is exactly the feeling that Pendarvis engenders among her peers and collaborators. It’s why Roberta Flack insisted that she sing on Feel Like Makin’ Love (1975) and why Philip Glass composed a song cycle specifically with her in mind on Songs from Liquid Days (1986).
As much as her voice has mastered melody and harmony, it’s also been a conduit for sparking discussions within music industry circles. Her salient perspective about Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side”, and how the voices of black female singers have been essential to the success of white male rock acts, opened the Oscar-winning film 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). For years, she’s kept singers’ rights at the forefront of her tireless work with SAG-AFTRA, serving on the organization’s National Board and New York Local Board, as well as the chair of the New York Singers Committee and Vice Chair of the National Singers Committee. As an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music and a member of NYU Steinhardt’s Songwriting Faculty, plus her seminars with the Apollo Theater’s Department of Education and the Recording Academy’s “Grammy in the Schools” program, she’s equipped aspiring vocalists and musicians with tools to navigate an industry whose landscape seems to change by the minute.
Nothing limits Janice Pendarvis onstage, in the studio, or in the class room. If she hasn’t done it, she’ll learn it, and whoever’s standing by her side will be all the better for it. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Pendarvis retraces her journey through music, activism, and education, and reveals the wisdom she’s gained by constantly venturing beyond her comfort zone.
If we were to time travel back to Queens when Janice Gadsden was five-years-old, what would we see?
I was humming along to the jazz records that my mother played. I was obsessed with John Coltrane. I remember being in first grade, asking a group of kids if they had heard of John Coltrane. They were like, “What?” They were talking about all of this other music that I didn’t know about because my parents didn’t play a lot of Top 40 radio. I wanted to know what they were talking about. I remember going home and asking my mother, “Can you play the radio?” That’s how I got into Top 40.
I would listen to the news at a really young age. I knew how to read before I started kindergarten. My mother had taught me how to write poetry, so I was doing that from the time that I was four. She taught me about looking at something and finding an image for it, how to make interesting descriptors and then put them together to make a poem. I loved that so much.
To me, my first art really is poetry. I’ve gotten away from writing because of the music. I’m coming back to it because everything always comes back to writing in some way. For a lot of us, I think that all of these different interests that seem to have no connection to anything actually do have a connection to the places that you end up.
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They do. They’re like building blocks but you don’t see the structure right away. How did you discover that you had a singing voice?
That happened much later. I played music in elementary school. They started you out with those plastic tonettes and then I got a clarinet. The tonette happened during school but the real work with the actual instruments happened in an after school program. We had a music teacher named Mr. Lang. He was just old. His joints and his hands were big and gnarly.
In Mr. Lang’s music class, everybody stood on either side of what was like a lunch room table. You had your music in front of you, flat on the table. Mr. Lang stood at the head of the table. In front of him, he had the music and an assortment of drumsticks. He’d show everybody the fingerings. He would count off and we would start to play whatever the song was. He had patience for a few mistakes but after a point, if he thought that you weren’t doing what he had asked you to do and behaving in a way that meant that you were not stepping up to the plate, he would take one of those drumsticks and, with perfect aim, he would throw it at you and hit you on your hand! They call that child abuse now … but it worked.
I never got hit with a drumstick because I thought, I’m going to do this. Nobody wanted to be called out like that, so people learned how to play their instrument. We learned how to read efficiently as a function of fingering as opposed to what singers do in terms of ear training and being able to look at the music and see the relationships. That was my introduction to music.
I went to Hunter College High School in seventh grade. Back then, it was like an all-girls finishing school. For all of the hoopla about the school being the premier gifted school in the city — they didn’t have money because Hunter is part of the Board of Higher Ed, like a stepchild! [laughs] If you didn’t have the money and couldn’t buy an instrument then you couldn’t play, so I stopped at that point and got involved with my love affair of science and math. I still want to go back and re-take all of my math: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and then calculus! I want to see just how far I can go with calculus because math is like music to me. Some of the equations are beautiful. Some of them are elegant.
I also did a lot of art when I was a kid. I took a bunch of painting and drawing classes outside of school. I was very involved with calligraphy, which is hilarious because I have the worst handwriting. I liked the idea of combining all of it. I even considered applying to college as a biological illustration major.
One of the things that’s always been a dream in the back of my mind is to be able to do something reminiscent of the salons that people used to have during the Harlem Renaissance, where the current people in the arts, with good cheer and goodwill, just get together and talk and exchange ideas. Painters, sculptors, musicians, singers, composers, writers — and thinkers. There’s an art to that, as well, where the way someone thinks is so beautiful that when they put it down on the page, it may be something that you think you know, but you learn it a whole other way just because of the way they wrote it.
Was the essence of the Harlem Renaissance present in any of the artistic communities you were involved with in New York during the 1970s?
I think it was similar but different. Let me rewind first. As a kid, I came up in what I consider to be an activist household. My parents were the only people that I knew who talked to us about being black people. When I was very young, we were properly called “Negroes” or “colored”. That was fine but my parents were like, “Listen, we’re black people. We are descended from people who are from Africa.” My mother talked about my grandmother being a Garveyite. None of the other kids who I knew that were black had a clue about that.
I remember those early Malcolm X interviews from when I would watch the news. This great journalist did this piece on Malcolm about “The Hate That Hate Produced”. I was fascinated watching Malcolm because, as a little kid, he was the first black man who wasn’t apologetic. He was just stating what it was and he had the answer for whatever it was that they said. My parents were not so happy with him. I remember talking to them because they knew that I had been paying attention to everything since I was small. They listened. That changed their minds. They started really paying attention and said, “Well, he has a point here. There is something good here.”
Towards the end of high school at Hunter, I was doing the political thing, organizing black students at Hunter. I was also part of the High School Coalition, which was a coalition of students from different high schools in New York. We actually had an office space. I don’t know who we borrowed that space from, up on Lenox Avenue. We were involved with the political organizations. The period was very similar to what you see with Black Lives Matter. It’s why I have affection for watching them. Young people were very passionate and willing to give their lives to make change.
As young women of color who were in this revered institution of learning, we asked how come there’s nothing about Africa in the world history class? There were things that we wanted to see and of course, initially, no one wanted to hear, and so it got heated. At one point, they shut down the school because I think it freaked them out that we were so organized and we were right. We had meetings with faculty where they agreed to make certain changes in the curriculum.
Let’s fast-forward to 2010. Hunter had become co-ed and moved to another location. There was a black kid who must have been the Valedictorian because he gave the graduation speech. In his speech, he talked about the same issues that we were dealing with. It made the news. The principal resigned.
In the ’60s and ’70s, people had a clear sense that these specific things needed to change. There was more of a certain kind of camaraderie and a certain kind of activism with artistic people: “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Black artists were doing black art. All of that trajectory from the activism coming out of the ’50s through the ’60s, and this realization — “I’m a black person” — was a profound relief for me because folks were finally beginning to catch up to where I had been since I was little.
I would love to see something happen now in terms of artists gathering and thinking about ways that we can serve because, as you know, I’m a big believer in service. I think that that is probably the highest thing you can do — serve others. It’s its own reward. If you do it for its own sake, you get back so much more than you put in because it expands exponentially. For me, it’s that classic analogy — you drop one pebble in the ocean but the ripples go far, far, far. If you live long enough, you get to see the fruits of what that is. I smile when I think about that.
I know you began teaching after college, but what was your undergraduate experience like?
I’d gotten accepted as a biology major everywhere I applied but went to Queens College because it was free. I immediately found out that the racism was going to be too deep in the math and science departments. In order to register for courses in your major, you had to get the approval of your advisor, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, she’s sitting there at the desk, and before I say a word, she looks up at me and says, “Why did you make an appointment with me? Why didn’t you make an appointment with your SEEK advisor?” SEEK was the program that brought in black and Hispanic students. I smiled and looked back at her and thought, “Okay, here we go.” This after just having left all of the drama at Hunter. I said to her, “Because I’m not a SEEK student.” She started stuttering, “Well … let’s do this. We’re going to make another appointment.” She never showed up to any of the other appointments that I made.
I had started calculus where I was the only person of color and, I think, the only woman. It was all white guys and the teacher would never speak to me or even look at me. I thought, “You know what? I just went through six years of this bullshit at Hunter. I’ve been writing since I was four-years-old. I can get a B.A. in English in three years with my eyes closed.” I set about doing that with a vengeance. It was a good decision because I didn’t see myself being able to do well with that kind of hostility.
I was doing a lot of poetry writing. I met Arnold Kemp, who was much older than all of us. He had served time in jail, I think, for armed robbery, had studied while he was in jail, had come out and was an incredible writer at Queens College. It was me, Arnold, and Richard Orange who formed a poetry group. We even had a percussionist, Leon Dash. We were doing what people now call spoken word, in the vein of the Last Poets.
Arnold had a book published. He was working with Orde Coombs, who was a very well-known black editor at the time. Orde had a series of compilations. The first one that Arnold was in was short stories of the young black writers of the time who were doing things. He was going to do a poetry compilation so Arnold said, “Look, you need to be in this book because the work that you do is really good.” Through Arnold, I sent two poems to Orde, and they’re in the book. It’s called We Speak As Liberators: Young Black Poets.
One of the people I wanted to ask you about was the activist Yuri Kochiyama. I would imagine that she was a tremendous influence in your political activism during high school and college. When she passed away, you wrote a wonderful dedication to her.
When I think about it, my heart hurts because I always wished that I could see her again. She was a truly remarkable individual. I never got a chance to see her after those years when I was in high school. We called her Mary back then. The thing about her that was just so remarkable is she really took you in. Here we were, kids of the Movement, and we were involved in all of these different things. She would take time, she would stop whatever she was doing, to sit down and listen to us. Mary was brilliant at making people feel comfortable and valued for their contributions. Because everybody knew about that side of her that was a ferocious fighter for what is right, it was even more meaningful that she took the time to so genuinely acknowledge you.
What’s something that you learned from her that’s stayed with you?
Listening. I try to really listen, especially when I’m teaching. I’ll try to reflect back what it is that the students said, and give them perspective. Longevity gives you the ability, if you’ve been listening, to see different perspectives around an issue. Almost always what I’m trying to do with students, is giving them different ways to look at an issue because very little is black and white.
Do you see anyone in the music industry who embodies the qualities that Mary had?
That’s an interesting question because there are individuals in our music community who pursue different things about the rights of artists, but I can’t think of any one overarching person because there isn’t one overarching organization. We have unions that do some of that work. There are towering figures like the late Ken Howard (SAG-AFTRA president). What an incredible loss. When he came to New York, he wanted to meet with those New York singers he’d been hearing about. There was no person in the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists who ever asked to meet with singers in New York, even during the ’80s. It never happened on my watch. It was unprecedented. He was very much a champion of all the different types of performers that SAG-AFTRA represents.
Where in the timeline did Janice Gadsden become Janice Pendarvis?
That was a process. I reached a point while I was in college where I just couldn’t live under my parents’ roof anymore. I loved them dearly but needed to stretch my wings. I left home, which was cataclysmic because that was not what was in the plan. I moved in with my cousin, Andrew Gadsden (who’s now deceased), who was a musician, and Leon Pendarvis (Pen), who I eventually married.
Andrew used to live with us in Queens. He eventually moved out and became Pen’s roommate. I’d known Pen since I was 13-years-old because all of these musicians used to come by — Pen, Harry Whittaker, and Tinkr Barfield — to see Andrew. That began my odyssey of dealing with the music business.
I started applying my poetry skills to writing lyrics. I had done a little bit of singing in the poetry group in college. “The Creator Has a Master Plan” was very popular at the time, so I was the one that they made sing. That was the only time I’d ever sung. For me, that was more like poetry than singing. Writing lyrics, I started saying, “I gotta sing this stuff to get these words to work.” I started singing little piano-voice demos on cassette or reel-to-reel.
When I would show this stuff to people, the inevitable question was, “Who’s singing?” “Me.” “Oh you should sing.” What really began to push me was that these weren’t just regular people, this was Roberta Flack! She’s saying, “If you don’t come and sing on my session, I’ll never speak to you again!” [laughs] I was terrified because that’s not what I did.
Even before Roberta, Pen was working with Luiz Bonfá. Bonfá had come to New York because he’d wanted to do kind of a fusion-y thing. Bonfá learned that I wrote. Me and our friend McKenzie Willis and Bonfá start writing some songs.
Wow, Janice. Bonfá was one of the composers of Black Orpheus (1959)! That must have been so much fun writing with him.
It was fun. When you’re talking about that community thing from that period, to me, this is it. There were more groups of people exchanging and working together. I guess part of why it doesn’t happen now is because there’s no outlet for it to really go other than a YouTube video. [laughs] To place a song today, you really gotta have a full-blown demo. People sold songs based on piano-voice demos. A lot of people didn’t want to hear a production. They wanted to hear the song. It’s a totally different arena now. It’s not to say that one is better than the other. It’s just very different.
One lends itself to this communal way of working, building a song from a demo, and the other seems to be more about the end result already being there rather than the process.
There’s less collaboration. A lot of times now it’s just one person doing everything, as opposed to different musicians on the instruments. People still do co-write songs but the thing we used to look forward to when we cut a track was seeing what other people were going to bring to it.
Bonfá said, “I want you to sing this song.” The song was called “Always in Love”. At that point, I hadn’t really sung at all. I’m thinking to myself, “This is the legendary Luiz Bonfá who wants you to sing and you know you can’t hold that note! Can we get someone to sing with me?” [laughs] We got Tina Fabrique to sing with me. I didn’t even know that that song had been released. It was released many years later and then it took me forever to find a copy. When I heard it back, I thought, I see what Bonfá heard. I can hear the part where I’m not really holding the note but it didn’t matter. It was the sensibility that I had.
Of your first studio gigs, singing with Roberta Flack must have been huge because she was such an accomplished musician herself. What feelings did you have going into that situation with someone who was so established?
Extreme trepidation. I knew that there was more that I needed to know. There’s something to be said for being thrown into the pool! [laughs] I always advise my students, stop working with people who aren’t as good as you, and stop working with people who are as good as you. Work with people who are better than you. That way you step your game up. That’s what happened to me constantly.
It’s painful at times because people are not nice. At that point, I’d gotten to know a lot of the background singers … and they were mean. I didn’t want to be in the room with them. I’m grateful that that happened because I decided that I wanted to change that in our business. I wanted to make certain that, if I’m there, at least I know that not only am I not going to be mean to the new person, I’m not letting you do it either.
A word of advice to new background singers. No matter how much you studied in school, when you walk into a work situation, you probably didn’t do it the way we’re doing this at the speed that we’re doing this. Don’t come in trying to be the leader because that, to me, is not common courtesy. It has nothing to do with your skill set. You come into a situation that’s new, observe, see what’s happening, see what the interplay is, see how the people who have been doing it do it. Watch as if your life depends on it, because it does.
On Roberta’s Feel Like Makin’ Love (1975) album, you were among some superb singers.
The group that I sang with was Deniece Williams, Patti Austin, Lani Groves, Roberta, and I think Brenda White. That was the group. That was huge. I remember Stevie Wonder came in to the control room. I was like okay, I’m going to sit on the floor in the studio. I’m not going in there where Stevie is! They’re fun memories when I think about them now.
You continued writing songs throughout the ’70s, but got a chance to sing solo when Terumasa Hino recorded a song that you and Pen wrote called “Stay In My Waking Heart”. That’s such a beautiful recording.
It was not as beautiful as the original piano-voice demo. The original piano-voice demo is stunning because it was just me sitting on the floor in my room. Trying to get that kind of intimacy in the studio was not a familiar environment. Background vocal intimacy is something that happens within a group. To find it within yourself as a lead singer and hear it back and be able to just be like you’re sitting in your living room with a microphone on the rug, that’s a special kind of space. I didn’t know how to get back to who that was. I also didn’t know that sometimes you can’t go back to that moment because recordings capture a moment in time that happened and that may never happen like that again. I didn’t have the experience behind me to know, Sing it where you are now because that’s all you ever really have.
What inspired you to write that particular song?
I was talking with somebody on the phone. This person had gone on a Ouija board and “waking heart” came up. Back then, I was writing down every single phrase that sounded like a song. I had this track from Pen. A lot of times I would write to his chords. I sat down at two in the morning and that came out. I loved that lyric.
You recorded it on Terumasa Hino’s City Connection (1979). Was that around the time when you did your first solo gig at Mikell’s?
Mikell’s would have been earlier. Hino said, “I want you to go on tour.” I had never been on a stage before! When you’ve never been on a stage, you just want to do a little something so you know what it feels like. I booked a gig at Mikell’s. I got Sephra Herman, whose father was Sam Herman, the legendary copyist, to help me book the musicians. I had no idea that ev-er-y-bod-y in the business was going to show up to this gig at Mikell’s! You talk about baptism by fire! Some of the people show up out of support, but some of the people show up because they fly in on their brooms so they can talk bad about you later! [laughs] You can feel all of that in the room. It was a packed house. I was terrified. I think I did two nights.
It was like your big coming-out party.
I don’t advise big coming-out parties! Find a small place where you can do something and work your way to it. That Mikell’s gig was hard as hell. What is the saying? “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I was able to then say, alright we’ll do it again. I did it again after that tour of Japan.
If you’re going to do a show, do a show. Throw down! We did shows as opposed to sets, little skits with some of the songs. All of it was original material except for one or two songs. I like doing the original material because I’m a songwriter. That was the interesting thing about when I was doing those live gigs between Mikell’s and Seventh Avenue South — to get a full house with original music! They were great songs and great bands. I still have the flyers. Christian, I went all out! I’d be tired as hell by the time the gig started but I would do all the publicity and the press releases.
Why didn’t a solo album materialize?
Well, here’s the deal. In that period, record companies would come but you know how the business is. The record business is one of the more segregated businesses in the world. People don’t think of it that way but it is, so the black A&R guys would come out and they’d be like, “What do we do with her? She sings R&B, reggae, jazz, and she don’t have big legs.” I’m a teeny tiny person but that wasn’t the R&B look at that time. That would work now.
In the early-’80s, I did record a whole album between Jamaica and New York. Beres Hammond, who later became the biggest star in Jamaica, was one of the background singers on it. There was interest but the guy who funded it wanted way more than what people were offering. The masters are somewhere and I need to find them because the album’s really good.
Actually, knowing you, I would think that a solo album isn’t the be-all and end-all of what you enjoy about music. It’s more about singing with people.
When you’ve worked as a background singer, you’ve worked with a number of stars and you see how limiting that world can be. In the world that I’m in, I can still do all those genres and people will still come out and see it if I decide to do it live. I don’t have to be just a “this or that or the other” genre. I’m not locked in a box. I can do whatever I want to do. For me, that’s my artistry. I’m eclectic.
That’s what I love about the clip of you singing background on “Love TKO” for Deborah Harry when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1981. She’s singing a reggae arrangement of a Teddy Pendergrass song. To me, it’s such an interesting moment in New York history, that constellation of musicians fusing their talents together to create something that a record company wouldn’t know what to do with, yet on live television, in New York, it made perfect sense. [Screens clip] What sort of feelings stir within you when you see these people on the stage together?
I see my family. Blue Lou, Crusher Bennett, Buddy Williams, Leon Pendarvis. I see people that I really love that I’ve known for a long time. They’re superstars at what they do. I see me in a learning stage. Everybody else that I worked with had been singing since they were little. I’d just been singing for a couple of years but other people had been wanting this since they were four-years-old.
There’s another Saturday Night Live appearance I’d like to talk about. It’s from 1986, where you sang “Lightning” with Philip Glass. There’s a comment on YouTube about the studio recording of “Lightning” on Songs from Liquid Days (1986) that says “Janice Pendarvis’ vocals are hypnotically amazing.” That’s a very recent comment so your performance still makes a connection with people.
That’s awesome. It’s humbling because in the moment of doing things, that’s not what you’re thinking about — you’re trying to make it the best that you can make it in that moment.
I had met Philip years before that and he’d asked me to work with him and had given me copies of some of the work he’d done where the singers were all opera singers. He was the darling of that whole SoHo artsy craftsy music set. I am not an opera voice. The critics are going to say, “Who’s this black girl who thinks she can come sing this stuff?” I said, “Philip maybe you can afford to have critics skewer you, but I can’t afford to have them skewer me because I know they’re not going to like hearing me do that.” Plus, when I listened to it, I couldn’t hear any breaths taken. I’m like, “How the hell do they sing this? Nobody ever breathes!” I said, “I don’t want to do that but if you ever let me record the definitive version of something, I’d be happy to work live with you.”
I figured that was the end of it, until the phone rang one day. “Hi, it’s Philip. I wrote this song for you. I’m working on this song cycle. It’s going to be all pop singers except for one classical singer.” We go to the studio and look at the music. I’m thinking, There’s no key signature here. It doesn’t look like it’s in C. “Philip, what key is this?” “Well, if you look at it this way, it’s in this key. If you look at it this way, then it could be this key.” This went on for about 15 or 20 minutes. I said, “Philip never mind. Just play it for me, I’ll look at it. I’ll figure it out.” [laughs] That’s how his mind worked.
I didn’t come from that school where people just don’t write with key signatures. I’m a commercial singer. There’s a key, there’s a count-off. You always know what the key is. We recorded it that day. People seemed to love it. We did a little mini-tour. Everybody who was on the album came out and sang their song. We’d stand in the wings and cheer each other on.
I remember you telling the participants during your Master Class at the Apollo how you’d count bars during “Lightning” to know when you should come in.
Absolutely. I am not going to get lost in the repetition. I’m a bar-counting fool. That’s what happened on Saturday Night Live. I always tell my students, When in doubt, count. Years later, after having lived with “Lightning”, I can hear the pattern now. Back then, I was like, Okay you’re not hearing the pattern. You’re getting lost. Don’t trip. Count!
There’s always a way around a problem and you need to just remain calm and find it. When we were doing the live show for SNL, I was singing and, at some point in the middle of the song, the lyrics just left me! When I think back, I’m wondering, how did I manage to remain calm? At that point, there’s nothing that you can do. I just made up some words loosely based around some of whatever I thought the song said! The lyrics came back and we never missed a beat. [laughs]
Before working with Philip Glass, you worked with Sting on Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985). For a lot of people who were following the Police, that was a big deal because it was his first solo album. How were you brought on to that project? Did you have a sense of the significance behind Sting’s first solo album?
Interesting question. Dolette McDonald and I had worked with Laurie Anderson. Prior to Laurie, she and I had just done a lot of stuff together, so we were kind of a duo. A lot of times, you work with somebody and people in the business get to know the two of you. “Okay, we’ll call them.” It’s a readymade blend. We had a look together. She got the call because she had worked with the Police previously. He had someone else in mind but she said, “I’ve got somebody I think you’ll really like.” He knew Dolette so he knew he could trust her judgment.
Once we started the project, and people started getting wind of the fact that Sting had hired an all-black band, I got a sense of the profound dislocation that a lot of people had with that aspect of it. The significance in the business? I had a sense of that, but wasn’t focused on that. For me, when I take a gig, I take the gig. I’m going to do my damnedest to make my part of it the best that I can possibly make it at that point in time. The significance of it doesn’t really have anything to do with that because it’s not going to make me do any better or worse.
What you just said reminds me of the comment you make in Bring On the Night (1985) when someone asks you if you’re nervous about opening night of the tour and you say, “Only about my high heels …”
… because they hurt like hell! Those shoes were the worst. I kept saying to the stylist, I’m really hard to fit. The day before I had to leave, we were going from Bergdorf’s to Sak’s and everywhere trying to find a pair of shoes that fit my feet. Those shoes were the best we could come up with. For me, I thought, This is Sting’s gig. It’s not my gig. I’m bringing it, on point, because that’s what I’m hired to do. The only thing I’m concerned about with my execution of that is, “Can I walk across the stage?” [laughs]
I find the fact that you and Dolette performed with Laurie Anderson in Home of the Brave (1986) to be so fascinating. I’d love to know more about the experience of working with her.
For her as a performance artist, my understanding at the time was that was the first time she’d worked with a full band, so there were adjustments that she had to make to us as “music” people not being “performance art” people. I remember saying one day, “I understand that for you guys, it’s about the process, but for us it’s about knowing what it is we’re about to play. Where do we find that middle ground? Otherwise, you’re going to have a bunch of really nervous, freaked-out musicians if what it is that we’re playing changes every day. We need to be able to lock into something at some point.”
That gig, for me, was the gig that made me realize, if I can do this, I can do anything, because there was a lot about how we had to approach that music that was very cerebral. It wasn’t always about locking into that emotional piece, it was about knowing, How does this function and what do we need to do?
We were working with tape loops. The loops stopped at odd subdivisions of a bar, so from a musician’s standpoint, it becomes about learning to feel when that weird subdivision is going to happen, to be back at the top of that cycle in the songs that had that. Eventually you learn it, just like anything else. It requires time and practice but also belief that you can do it. After doing three months of the tour, we knew it, so that when we did the movie we were just able to do it for the camera.
Working with Laurie was like a landmark gig for my sense of self because that was a hard gig. We were really outside of what we knew as a musical genre. That was a good thing. That’s why I tell students, “Look, I’m not telling you this as a theory, I’m telling you this from experience. I’ve been so far away from my comfort zone that I wasn’t sure that it existed anymore!” [laughs]
What made you and Dolette a good team? What clicked for you?
I think that at the time we were kindred spirits yet very different. For me, she was the one who had way more live experience than I had. I had very minimal live experience. I kind of stayed near the studio. I was into knowing the music and delving into what the music is. We made this really dynamic, unbeatable kind of duo because we’re both concerned about the thing that was the other’s forte and we were willing to rely on each other’s strengths. I have really fond memories of that.
In both Bring on the Night and Home of the Brave, the chemistry between you two is so palpable. You make us want to be there with you.
And that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.
20 Feet from Stardom is another documentary that featured you prominently. Yours is the first interview clip we see on screen. What facilitated your involvement with that film?
The late, great Greg Clark was the person who called me to do the interview. Lisa Fischer had put him in touch with the producers, as a person who would be great to gather singers. Once I got there, there’s Gil Friesen, who I hadn’t seen since 1985 because of Sting. He was one of the principals of A&M Records and he was also one of the producers of Bring on the Night. It was my reunion with Gil. He was so so enthusiastic. He said, “You need to do public speaking because so much of what it is that you said relates to life, not just to singing or background singing.” When I think about the fact that he died right before the film came out, it kills me because I would have loved for him to have seen what happened.
Describe the impact that the film had on you but also on the larger singers community.
The reason I did the film was because of the larger singers community. Being a singer-activist, I just felt like there was something that I would be able to bring to it that might not be anyone else’s perspective, necessarily. That was the first time, as a community, that we’ve been acknowledged for our work, which is a stunning omission considering decades and decades and decades of incredible background vocals that have transformed hit after hit after hit after hit. A lot of it, to me, is sexist. Not all background singers are women but many of us are. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does Sidemen Awards that go to instrumentalists. I don’t think there’s ever been an award that went to a single background vocalist for their work in background vocals.
What I hope is that it’s just the beginning because you cannot ever tell all the story of any group of people in one film. There are people who are sad that they were left out, but do you want a 40-hour film? For what the film is, it was a fabulous entrée into our world. It made people concerned. It made people think about us. That’s the first step.
I was thrilled the night it won “Best Documentary Feature” at the Oscars. It was so great to experience that and to see everyone who had an interest in the film, or was part of the film or part of the community, participate in that celebration. I’m so glad that you were able to bring your point of view.
That point of view is important. They didn’t know anything about “Walk on the Wild Side”. Nobody ever wants to talk about what the lyric says (“and the colored girls say …”) but that’s the stuff that we need to talk about because there are so many different ways to look at that type of thing. Having the discussions and going in and out of comfort zones is how we get past the nonsense. I just think it’s really important having that talk. I’m glad they chose to take that concept from what it was that I was saying and use that to open the film. It can be viewed as controversial, if you look at it one way. Someone had to say something about it because we have this power.
You teach a lot of college students at Berklee, NYU Steinhardt, and also through your private instruction. What does that age range have to know now that they didn’t fifteen years ago?
There’s a lot that doesn’t exist that did exist when I was coming up. In the years that I was doing Mikell’s, I started out doing three sets. Then I got fancy and eventually did two shows but you’re there all night. Now, there’s somebody every 45 minutes, it seems. You don’t get a chance to learn from the repetition. If I was at Mikell’s two nights, it’s just me. I had to hold that club for two nights. Even if they knew that I was going to do another show that was going to be the same, I gotta make them want to see it again. People will stay and more people will come in. That’s how you get standing room. That creates a buzz. It’s hard to do that now.
When you do one show, you get this false sense of security. One show? Please, you’re just getting started! The thing that I remember about doing three sets is that the third set is when the learning really takes place, when you’re way tired and you can’t fight it. You got to find that energy. You surrender to it, a magic that you don’t know is even there.
For those who were not around at Mikell’s, are we going to see a Janice Pendarvis concert in the near future?
Yes, I don’t know when, though. In a perfect world, I could go some place small, work on something, and then bring it back. I want to do something that’s consistent with my mission in life. I’m working on completing this project to offer an online course for people to learn how to sing, people who are not singers and don’t have any plan to be singers. I just want people to reclaim that human birthright of singing. That’s something that I look forward to doing in the very near future because I see that as something that helps people. I’ve helped the singers community but now I’m thinking about the wider community, how I, as an artistic person, can use what it is I have to help lots of people.