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.

What is one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

Well, that definitely was one of them! [laughs] You’ve stumped me. That’s rare … My spirit is saying, it’s balancing things that happened in your life that you have no control over. When me and Pen split up, it was devastating going through that and it just really threw me for a loop, but life continues. You still got to work. You still got to show up.

Going through the process of breaking up while you gotta do the gigs, that was hard. That was a long relationship and long relationships generally don’t just end like [snaps fingers] Okay, I’m good now. I’m fine. It doesn’t generally work like that. It happens over a continuum and that to me is a hell of a challenge. It’s a challenge for most of the people that I see, that have to go through that, and it’s not just that. I think about when each of my parents died — still gotta pay the rent — and at the points that they died, I had a child that I had to look after and that I also had to shepherd through this period of loss because me losing my parents was him losing his grandparents that he loved and adored.

Most of the challenges that I experience in terms of the business, it’s the business. The business is a challenge, which is why my dear dear students who I love, I have to say a prayer for them sometimes. “Oh Lord, look after this one …” When this one who’s so sensitive and takes everything to heart gets in the business, they’re in for a rude awakening. What’s that song? “It takes a fool to learn that love don’t love nobody.” I mean, that’s a different way of looking at love but it’s the same way with our business: they love you when everything is grand and you got the hit record but then sometimes folks don’t want to hear from you. The business can be really cruel, but for me, it still comes back to you and how you love yourself within the midst of all of that.

For me, especially at this point in my life, my focus is on “Why are you here Janice Pendarvis? What are you here to do?” I’m very clear about what I’m here to do. I’m here to help people learn about how magnificent singing is whether you’re the singer or the listener, but I’m really interested in getting people who are not singers to sing.

So many people have a fear of singing but, this is another full-circle moment, what would you do if you were not afraid? You would sing, the way you sing by yourself in the house, in the kitchen when you’re cooking and nobody else is in the house, in the shower. Singing for me is a human birthright. It’s something that people do in all cultures all over the planet for millennia, as long as we have been humans. People chant, they sing, they sing in western system, they sing in quarter tones. All human beings do it. Why? Because it’s a form of communication and it’s a form of healing.

I love teaching people who are great singers. I love teaching people who are not great singers because something changes in all of them, especially the ones who are not great singers when they start to relax and breathe. Go to a meditation class, they’re gonna teach you the same kind of breathing that you use when you sing.

Janice Pendarvis
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

20 Feet from Stardom (2013) featured you and several other well-renowned background vocalists. As much as you’ve established a strong profile in that realm, did you ever have a desire to be up front?

I just wanted to sing period. I never felt and still don’t feel that singing background is any less of a thing than singing lead. I teach at Berklee College of Music and NYU Steinhardt. At Berklee, I’ve taught a lot of background vocal classes focusing on live performance. At NYU Steinhardt, I teach a background vocal recording class. Everybody pops into those two classes thinking, Yeah I can sing. When we get to the second week of the class, they’re like, Oh … this is really hard. [laughs] I’ve been doing it long enough so that I know they’re going to hit the wall, they’re going to reach a point halfway through where they feel like “I can’t sing” and I’ll say to them, “Listen, it’s not that you can’t sing, but you’re starting to realize that singing background is not what you thought it was. It requires a rather intense level of skill to get the level of precision that I am asking you to execute. I’m teaching you because I want you to be able to do this as a job, which means that I’ve got to teach you an intense level of execution.”

Think about all the times you have seen the GRAMMY’s and you’ve seen a group of lead singers, stars, who are trying to sing background, or whatever it is that they’re doing as a group, and it sounds really bad. We are often hired to be on those types of shows where there are multiple leads so that we cover those background parts even if they’re trying to sing them, so they can put us up in the mix because that’s not what those lead singers generally do. I know a lot of people who sing lead, they look down — “Oh anybody can sing background”. I’m here to tell you that ain’t true because I’ve sung with some of y’all and I love y’all but some of y’all really can’t do it well because you haven’t done it. Like anything else, every different discipline has its parameters, the things that you need to know and need to have developed the physical ability to execute.

For me, they’re just different sides of the same coin. The person who exemplifies that is Luther [Vandross]. People always say, “Oh my God! The background on his records!” He knew what it was, so he knew what to ask people to do because he was an impeccable background singer and an impeccable lead singer. Luther was and is forever more a singer’s singer.

I’m good wherever you put me in terms of that. I know what my niche is as a lead singer, I know what my niche is as a background singer. I’m happy in either place.

Coming full circle from my question about Inauguration Day 2017, Janice, I’d love to touch on your activism for a moment. I know you grew up in an activist household and then you became a student activist at Hunter College High School. What elements of Black Lives Matter correlate to your own experience as an activist?

I look at each generation as having its own mission. The mission is always larger than each generation can fulfill, so a baton is always passed from one generation to the next. I hope that there are a number of young people who hear me say that because I know a lot of young people currently get really frustrated about what they feel previous generations didn’t do and my question to them is, “Do you think that your generation will accomplish fixing everything?” No generation has ever fixed the world, but each generation has done their best to fix as much as they could and then pass the baton and hopefully the lessons that they learned to the next generation if the next generation will listen.

I love what Black Lives Matter is about in terms of them deciding to take a decentralized model, to start with. I think that that was good initially, but now they’re finding out that you still need structure if you’re going to get scale. You can do the decentralized thing here, but to scale up and make things bigger, you got to look back to some of the other models that people have used. What I hope they will do is use the wisdom of the people that created some of those models who can tell them what some of the problems were with those models, so that they don’t fall into the same traps because having to reinvent the wheel is not a good strategy for generational survival.

My generation … we’re the generation that didn’t want to hear it. We said nonsense like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. We took our clothes off on stage in Hair. We fought and died in Vietnam. We wore our hair different. We did wild stuff. We got high. We did all kinds of stuff that made previous generations say, “What? Have they lost their minds?” We wore Afros. We were into the new science of ecology. We explored non-western religion and spirituality. We wanted to save the planet. We walked around talking about “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” We protested and died at Kent State University and Jackson State College. We brought what growth and change that we could bring. Now it’s somebody else’s turn. I just hope they remember that the people who came before still have wisdom that they need.

I remember being very stressed out and talking to Mrs. Callender, the wife of Eugene Callender, who was a guidance counselor at Hunter College High School. Because of my role as President of the Black Society and the school closing for a few days as a result of our demands, I was considered the ringleader and the bad guy. She was from the generation before me, but I needed to hear what she had to say that day, that gave me the fuel to be able to be okay. She did something unprecedented. She said to me, “You know what? Go home. You don’t need to be here today. Just go home. Chill out. Come back and fight another day.” It was a blessing from somebody before me. I listened.

Part of why I’ve been successful in this business is because I listened to the people who came before me so I avoided a lot of the pitfalls. From a standpoint of activism, and from the standpoint of African Americans and activism, from where I sit at least, we need to think in terms of this unbroken chain with our ancestry, which means all the generations, seen and unseen, and tap into that wisdom because that is what has gotten us to where we are. Sankofa! There’s a song that they sing in church that I always go back to, “We have come this far by faith leanin’ on the Lord”. Let me just leave it there.

Janice Pendarvis
Christian John Wikane with Janice Pendarvis / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media