Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Divine Harmony: An Interview with Vocal Powerhouse Janice Pendarvis

Whether touring with Sting or appearing on Saturday Night Live with Debbie Harry, Eddie Murphy, Philip Glass, and Vanessa Williams, Janice Pendarvis is the secret sauce in any vocal blend.

Janice Pendarvis has always been fueled by the power of singing. “For me, it’s just this incredible, untapped reservoir of love and spirituality, and positivity,” she says. Indeed, Pendarvis is fearless in exploring the full range of her voice. It’s a quality that sparked her first recording gig with Roberta Flack on Feel Like Makin’ Love (1975) and has since guided her through a prolific career as a session singer, vocal contractor, and music professor. Whether recording and touring with Sting, writing and singing for Taj Mahal and reggae legend Max Romeo or even performing in Saturday Night Live skits opposite Eddie Murphy and Tim Meadows, she’s the secret sauce in any vocal blend.

Though she’s occasionally written and fronted songs for other artists, most notably trumpet master Terumasa Hino, and staged solo shows in New York, Pendarvis has seldom sought the spotlight for herself. “I never was focused on a big difference between singing lead or singing background,” she says. “For me, it’s just all singing. At the time that I was seeing the session business in New York, there was a lot of background vocal work, so I focused on that. Now I still did lead singing, but I wanted to be a working singer because I was mesmerized by what that was.”

Pendarvis was among several other working singers whose stories anchored Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The film re-introduced Pendarvis to movie audiences and music fans who might have recognized her from Sting’s Bring on the Night (1985) or Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave (1986) concert films. Her candid insights gave Neville’s film a certain gravitas that extended beyond notes and melodies. She’s a formidable presence in the studio, not only as a vocalist and an arbiter of professionalism but also as a champion of singers who are just entering the business.

Pendarvis has also been lauded for the impact she’s made in higher education, plus her work as a labor leader who’s served many years as a singer representative on the boards of SAG, AFTRA, and SAG-AFTRA. She’s currently Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music and Adjunct Professor of Vocal Performance and Songwriting programs at NYU Steinhardt. Her work with young vocalists stems from a larger passion for connecting people to the power and potential of their own voice. “There’s just something so divine about singing and learning to accept the sound of your voice because that’s the sound that God gives you to communicate with others,” she says. “You should be intimately familiar with that sound and you should learn to love that sound so that when you use your voice to speak to people, they’ll feel that love. I have people say to me, ‘I can’t sing. I’m a terrible singer’. I’ll say, ‘Just humor me.’ I’ll work with them.

“Everybody who can make sound can sing. You may not be able to hold the pitch, but that’s not the point. The thing that I always say is when you go to a church, and the church is full, and everybody stands to sing that hymn, it sounds glorious. You’ll hear little fragments of notes that are out of tune, but they add to the magnificence of the sound and that, to me, is what singing is about. It’s about feeling that oneness with other human beings. It connects us — one voice, one world, one humanity. That’s why I’m here and that’s why I teach voice.”

From teaching aspiring singers to harmonizing with music legends, Pendarvis is the consummate vocalist. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, she recalls highlights from her multi-faceted life on stage and in the studio, including the most challenging gig of her career, and shares what she’s learned from a lifetime of activism.

We’ve come through a period of great loss and change. One thing you said to me on Inauguration Day back in January 2017 that has always stuck with me is “Choose love over fear”. How did you cultivate that philosophy?

I remember a really long time ago, my sister shared with me something that she had been saying to some people to help them process certain situations, which is “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” That led me to really start thinking about this whole issue of how fear-based so many of our actions are, especially in this United States culture. If you’re not going to proceed based on fear, which I think is something that we should never really do unless we’re in mortal danger, what emotion do you proceed from? Love. It’s the greatest of emotions. It’s what we sing songs about. We don’t write a lot of songs about celebrating fear.

Observing what’s happened during this pandemic, so much of people’s reactions to the pandemic have been fear-based. People are, of course, afraid of getting sick, they’re afraid of dying, but they’re also afraid of changing, even though the situation changed drastically: a once-in-a-century pandemic changes a lot of things — that’s how a pandemic tends to roll. In that moment, people who proceeded based on love wore a mask, for themselves but also for other people, the people that they love in their lives, just out of respect for your neighbor. Those who follow the Christian faith talk about Jesus and his love for others. If you want to think in terms of “I’m going to live my life the way Jesus did” then you’d wear a mask, okay? You’d go get a vaccine. You’d choose love over fear.

Choosing love over fear is my way to live. I’m not always successful, because I’m human, but that’s what I’m always trying to strive for, with other people, with other beings, whether it’s a dog or cat or the two little teeny tiny spiders that were inside the celery that I took out of the refrigerator. [laughs] I just felt sorry for them because I knew the celery had been in that refrigerator for a week. So I took them outside and let them out. It makes you feel better if nothing else. I recommend it.

It really is my daily thing. A lot of times we will choose to love everybody else but ourselves. I think that most people need to start to love themselves more. That’s what the whole mantra about self-care is about, but it’s not just how you eat, or how you exercise, or how many steps you take during the day, it’s how you think about yourself.

In terms of your career, how have you applied the idea of choosing love over fear?

As a person who teaches voice, the joke that I always pull with my students is when I hear them say, “Oh, I can’t do this … my voice is terrible”, I’ll just quietly say, “Would you stop being mean to my student? You’re really saying these awful things about my student. I don’t let anybody be mean to my students. I need you to be nicer to yourself.” And then they get it.

I think the meanness you see from a lot of people is because people are really mean to themselves. They don’t love themselves. They don’t feel good about themselves. The only thing that makes them feel something of any type is that fear-based anger. They’re like the Grinch — their hearts have gotten small.

Choose love over fear. Professionally, I do it in teaching. I do it when I’m working with other people. I make it my business to always be nice to singers I don’t know, even if I’m not particularly in love with how they do whatever it is they do. I just think it’s an important thing because it says a lot about who you are, first and foremost. To me, it always comes back to you. You can be nice to other people if you feel loving about yourself. A lot of times singers are mean to new singers. People know don’t be mean to the new singer if I’m on the job because I’ll say something to you. Be nice to the new singer.

I know when Lisa Fischer first started doing sessions in the ’80s …

Yes! [laughs] She was talking about that the other night.

… you really helped shepherd Lisa through some of those toxic attitudes that some singers have towards the new singer on the block.

She was really excited to be there. She was so happy to be on the job. When you haven’t done those kind of jobs, you don’t know all the etiquette, you don’t know what to do with the mic, the headphones, and the whole thing. I’m okay with that because I was the new kid on the block once and I know what it felt like to be really excited and, for me, really nervous because I had seen how mean singers were before I got in that room! [laughs] I thought, Okay, let me talk to her. Let me be nice to Lisa so she doesn’t feel like this is a horrible, bad experience because I think that’s scarring for people. It was for me for a long time. We just shouldn’t do that. Why? What do we get from it? Not much. There’s nothing you can do with that.

Let’s go back to your first recording session. How did you get the gig to sing on Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love album?

Oh my God! I went to visit Roberta this week and we talked about that. She got so tickled. Roberta used to come to the house when Mr. Pendarvis and I lived on West End Avenue because he was working with her. One day she came by and she said, “You know, I have a session that’s coming up. I would like for you to sing on it.” Before I could respond, she said, “And if you don’t come to the session, I will never speak to you again!” That moment stays with me because if she hadn’t said that … she already knew when she said it that I was going to say, “No, Roberta. I can’t do it. I can’t come to the session. I can’t sing. I don’t know anything.” When she said “I will never speak to you again”, I was like [exhales] okay.

I come to the session and I am terrified because I’ve never done this with the folks that really do this. When I walked in, the singers on the session were Roberta, Patti Austin, Lani Groves, Deniece Williams, and me, and I’m like “Okay, let me just stand over here” [laughs] but the session went well. I remember at the end of the session, Stevie [Wonder] had come by to visit so they all went into the control room. Okay, I’m going to sit here in the studio in the corner and just watch them hang out with Stevie. [laughs]

It’s a really good memory. To have that be the first big session that I ever did with the best of the best of the best? Awesome! I learned so much in just that one session. My job was to pay attention and try to do whatever it is that they did. It was an intense learning experience and that continued — Roberta said, “Okay I’ve got another session”. [laughs] That time, I said, “Okay, I’ll come.” That’s a hell of a way to begin. You’re just thrown in with the best of the best. Sink or swim. That’s why I say “be nice to the new singer” because you never know. I could have done that session and then disappeared from the scene, but I’m still standing.

Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

When I interviewed Nona Hendryx, she talked about how Grace Jones is a singular artist. Similarly, what do you think distinguishes Roberta Flack as a singer, songwriter, producer, and musician?

Roberta’s impeccable on so many levels. She’s impeccable as a pianist. She’s impeccable as an overall musician. Diva got that perfect pitch! She hears everything. She can pick out a voice or an instrument and say whatever it is she needs to say. As a vocalist, she’s absolutely sublime. There’s no one really like her. She’s impeccable as a person. One of the things that I don’t think she gets enough credit for is there are so very many people in this business that she has mentored that she has brought through — or dragged through like she had to do with me. When she sees somebody that she believes has any kind of talent, not just musical, you can have talent in business and she’ll say, “I want you to do such and such for me”. Her heart is open in that way. She’s like the mentor to the musical universe. She has a foundation that is about music education. That’s where her spirit still is, which I just love. There aren’t many people like that.

Describe the transition from doing one-off sessions here and there to then becoming a working vocalist who is being contracted and also contracting other vocalists for sessions.

What was interesting for me was that because I was married to the great Leon Pendarvis, I was in the center of the mix. He’s one of the great first-call New York keyboard players as well as an arranger/composer/producer, so I knew all of the characters, so to speak. I did a lot of the business with him, so a lot of times I would call the instrumentalists and call the singers, so some of that I was accustomed to doing before I was actually one of the people that was doing it as a performer.

That, for me, was kind of like a natural transition because I like the organization of all of that. I love when everything just runs smoothly, whether it’s smoothly according to plan or by divine intervention because, as you well know, in this business sometimes the way you plan a thing is not the way it happens. I have learned to love rolling with whatever it is to make it be what God and the universe clearly intended because we are not in control! [laughs]

In your career as a songwriter, one of the songs that I know has a lot of meaning for you is a song that Taj Mahal recorded called “Lowdown Showdown”. Why does that song stand out for you all of these years later?

When you’re a songwriter, there are some songs that … there’s just something about the way they’re constructed that you just love. Writing a song as a woman that’s from a guy’s perspective that he was able to take and sing the hell out of — he sings the hell out of the song — I was like, I did it! [laughs] I love the rhyme scheme and it’s fun. In today’s world, it might be a little bit misogynistic, but guess what y’all? A girl wrote it, so it ain’t! [laughs]