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.

How would you describe what you and Vanessa had to do in that sketch?

[sings] “Hey, Kwanzaa Timmy, what cha wanna give me? If you wanna sex us, better bring your Lexus.” [laughs] It was hilarious.

The other part that was really funny that no one will ever know, unless I tell them, which I’m going to do now: I had grabbed a dress that I fit in perfectly before my son was born. I hadn’t worn it since he was born. When I got to SNL, I was like, Oh my God! I can’t get it zipped all the way up! Vanessa also had a dress that zipped up almost, but not quite. The crew was like, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not shooting you guys from the back. Just don’t turn around.” [laughs] When you see the skit, now you know!

These kinds of things happen in our business so often. I remember doing a Letterman show when I was pregnant and when they called me, I was like, “Guys, I’d love to do it, but I’m really pregnant. Do you really want a really pregnant background singer?” They were like, “Look, don’t worry about it. Come and do the job. We just won’t shoot you from the side.” I had a dress that was A-line, short, cute, with heels, face beat, but the way they shot it, you’ll never know that that’s a really pregnant lady. [laughs]

I love that about our business, the fact that not just the performers, but also the crew people … we all get it. We all understand that most of us are under tremendous stress when we’re going through these situations. “Hey, just come down today. We want you to do a skit with Vanessa Williams.” I was accustomed to doing that, so it didn’t phase me, but the level of focus that you have to have to be able to pull that off and make it look like you’ve been doing this for years, it’s a lot. It’s not to be taken for granted.

The stress and strain on the people who are supporting us in a crew, they’re on the line as well as we are because if one little thing goes wrong — “How come there was no light on the soloist?” — you can’t have that happen. I have a deep and profound respect for my brothers and sisters that do that crew work because we cannot do what we do without them. I am just in awe, absolute awe, of what it is that they do, how much it is that they do, how fast they get it done with no sleep, no food, just constantly moving when you’re in a road situation. My hat is off to them. And that is why I fully support IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] crew people in their fight for a humane contract. If you haven’t read @ia_stories on Instagram, check it out….

I’d love to revisit the tours you and Dolette McDonald did with Sting and Laurie Anderson, which were both captured on film. In Sting’s Bring on the Night documentary, there’s a moment where you talk about how his music is both cerebral and visceral …

[laughs] That has been following me ever since ’85 when that came out! “You’re the cerebral and visceral girl!”

What was it about Sting’s music at that time that evoked those two ideas?

I’m gonna go off on a tangent, if you don’t mind. When I knew that we were going to do those interviews for Bring on the Night, I sat down, and I thought, Okay, I want to be really prepared for this. I wrote down all the questions that I thought that I might be asked and then I sat down and wrote down all the answers to all the questions that I thought that I might be asked because I wanted to make certain that when the movie came out, that I would like the person that I saw that was me. I kept thinking to myself, 20 years from now when I see this movie, am I gonna like who it is that I see? I’m happy to report: yes! [laughs] It required this intensive preparation, so I really sat down and thought about what is it that you want to say about how you feel about this music?

“Cerebral” and “visceral” really, for me, encapsulate what Sting’s music was about for me at that point in time. Like I said in the movie, his music gives you something to think about and something to feel. Music, for me, is deeply visceral. It is in the body, it is of the spirit. You feel it in your body and soul. Sting and I are former English teachers. I see it in how his mind is always working on that cerebral mental level when it comes to the words, the lyrics, the metaphors, how he writes, and it’s part of why he’s become known as one of the greatest songwriters. There’s a part of the cerebral vibe that it’s in the music, as well, and there’s a part of the visceral vibe that is in those words because there’s some profound emotion in those words. To me, that encompasses everything, the two poles that I saw in what it is that he was doing at that time.

Over the years, in the different experiences you’ve had working with Sting, what’s impressed you about his relationship to vocalists, specifically?

When we were doing that first tour, he was very much open to what Dolette and I had to say about our part of the vocal piece. I remember there was one day the three of us were working on something. He said, “I think that’s great.” We were like, “Well actually not …” We were explaining to him that, for us, as people who were working primarily as background singers, there’s a certain level of blending and nuance to blending that we needed and we weren’t there yet.

I remember saying that there’s an aspect of what he was doing with the two of us that was different than what he was accustomed to doing when he was working with the Police. It’s a guy band. That’s a whole different vibe than working with two female background singers who blend down to the finest iota. That is how we were trained. We were saying to him, “There are places where our vowels don’t match yours because you’re British and we’re from the States and we haven’t learned how to pronounce certain things the way you pronounce certain things”, little nuances like that that he wasn’t thinking about. He listened and then we worked on those things and got a really great tight blend, which is one of the hallmarks of what that was all about.

Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

When we spoke a few years ago, you said that working with Laurie Anderson was a landmark gig for your sense of self because that was a hard gig. I love that the tour was documented in her Home of the Brave (1986) film. How did you actually get the gig, first of all, and then how did it help you grow?

I’m pretty sure the gig came through Dolette. My recollection is that this was the first time that Laurie had worked with a full band. Her approach to doing music was as a performance artist, not necessarily from the standpoint of gigging musicians like we all were. We had about a month to rehearse and, every day, most of what we did changed. You have those moments about two-and-a-half weeks in where you’re saying, “What are we doing here? Is it this way or is it like this?” As a band, we start unraveling because we were starting to get nervous.

We did a dress show at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with no audience and then we were scheduled to do the first show in Toronto. At a point, I remember us asking, “We are almost done with this rehearsal process and we’re still not sure of a lot of what it is that we’re supposed to be doing.”

How could I forget this: we were working to a tape loop that stopped at these really odd subdivisions of a bar. There’s no music that I’ve ever done in my life where you stop in some weird non-music subdivision of a bar and then it starts all over again. We’re saying to Laurie and the person who was doing the management, “What are we doing?” [laughs] They were saying, “For us, it’s about the process”. I remember saying, “Okay, that’s great. It’s about the process for you, but for us it’s about the notes, plain and simple. What notes are we playing?” [laughs] This is the kind of discussion that never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined I would be having in any kind of music situation.

We keep going. We come to some kind of meeting of the minds. We do the dress show at BAM. We go to Toronto for the first show of the tour. That night, there were all of these different sections of the show that nobody had ever told us had actually existed! [laughs] These were things that Laurie did by herself that didn’t require us, but we didn’t know they were about to happen. God bless the crew. They’re trying to make certain that we heard the tape loop but we can’t hear it because we’ve never done it before and the volume was too low. I remember at one point, the guys in the band were saying, “Janice! Where are we?” “I don’t know where we are.” Now, they’re getting mad at me. “You always know where we are. Just tell us!” Oh my God, it just felt like the world was ending. [laughs] At one point I remember thinking, I think I need to quit because nothing is going right.

Christian, the show ends. The audience jumps up, they leap up, a standing ovation. People are yelling and screaming. We’re standing there like, What just happened? Part of what we couldn’t factor in was that behind us and above us was a huge screen the width of the stage where a lot of Laurie’s artwork and animation was going on. All this different stuff was happening that we couldn’t see, in addition to the skit things that she was doing by herself.

Eventually, we got used to the tape loops and we were just on it. After doing that show for three months, we ended up in Japan, and then later we did a filmed version of it [Home of the Brave]. I recently watched most of the film on YouTube and I was stunned. It’s brilliant. We killed it! It’s awesome. I love seeing it and thinking about what a panic it caused for all of us, initially, but that’s what growth is about — you rise to the occasion. I’ve always said, getting through that gig made me realize if you got through that, you can do anything. Don’t worry about it. Just roll with it.