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BWW Interview: Vanessa Collier Shines with Self-Released CD, HONEY UP!

The first impression one might have of Vanessa Collier is one of energy, which moves forward and fast. My chance to sit down with her for a few minutes before her set at the recent Reading Blues Festival did not disappoint.

I'd first seen Collier at the last Pennsylvania Blues Festival in 2016, and I saw her again in Lancaster, PA, not long after. While her prowess as a vocalist, sax player and guitarist were all of note, I saw the full package come to life just a few weeks ago.

Touring on the strength of Honey Up!, her self-released CD, Collier moves beyond just standard blues, to incorporate more of her varied influences. "That record has done very, very well," Collier notes, "and when we tour, it seems like we're starting to fill the house, get some fans, and get some followers, really."BWW Interview: Vanessa Collier Shines with Self-Released CD, HONEY UP!

With some two hundred shows completed for 2019, Collier says of the response for the album, "I'm super-thrilled. There's so much support for this record. I have a great team promoting it. It feels like quite a few rises, and then we kinda level out, and we rise again. Sold a lot of records this year, we've been to Switzerland four times this year, Spain for the first time, the west coast for the first time this past year, so it feels like people are discovering the music."

The face of the blues is also changing, not only in those who are playing it, but the audience, as well. "I think in certain places it does change," Collier says, "(we're) starting to get some of the younger generation in, and appreciating what we're doing, which is awesome."

Collier also notes the response she's received from fans abroad. "I have felt incredibly welcomed when I go over there. Most people still don't expect someone my size to come out and play the saxophone the way that I do, so I think I catch some people off guard, and that's cool," Collier adds with a laugh. "But I think overseas it's not a part of their history, and for some reason, it makes them really appreciate it. They love all of that early stuff that I guess we have in our music, it's part of our DNA, but we don't always realize that Ray Charles and all that came from gospel and came from people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, that blossomed off into rock. I don't think not everyone in America knows that history."

The Dallas native grew up with a household, where the musical choices were eclectic. "We listened to a lot of country because that was on the radio. Kenny Chesney was big in our house, Glen Campbell, the older stuff as well; we listened to Aretha Franklin, you know all the powerhouse women, Etta James, I'm sure Bonnie Raitt was in there. We also listened to eighties rock, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett.

"I started playing saxophone when I was nine," Collier explains, "and I loved every aspect of it. I heard it on a TV show and was immediately drawn in by the sound. And I was like, 'Mom, I have to play this instrument, I have to,' and I begged her for six or eight months. She finally caved, and I just took to it naturally, and my band teachers were telling my mom (I didn't know this at the time), 'oh, hey you should get her some private lessons, she's got this musical thing going on.'"

BWW Interview: Vanessa Collier Shines with Self-Released CD, HONEY UP!
Vanessa Collier (photo by the author)

Then came sixth grade, and a band instructor who led jazz band rehearsals, "like, 6:30 in the morning," Collier says, "I'm a night owl, so that was tough, but to get me up and play a 12-bar blues in the morning, it was the highlight of my day."

Collier carried on into jazz and funk in college. Eventually, she and bluesman Joe Louis Walker crossed paths. "I toured with him for about a year and a half, and it was like, 'oh yeah! I forgot about this 12-bar blues thing.' Any sort of blues, anything rootsy like that, it can be an offshoot of blues, and I love that."

That led to a question of whether Collier feels she is helping redefine the blues? "To me, it doesn't, "she replies, "that's never really mattered to me. I've listened to a lot; therefore, a lot's going to come out, if it's just a true expression of me. I think everyone has their own voice, and I just happened to find what works for me. I like writing different styles of song, and it's very important to me. There's a lot of people that made the saxophone important in this music, and I think it should take center stage a little bit more. I love what Jimmy Carpenter's doing at the moment, 'cause it's like, that's what we're doing, we're trying to bring the saxophone into the main voice again."

The youth movement in blues has taken up a lot of forms. On the night of her performance, Collier shared the stage with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, a phenom who has made the traditional side of the music his own, but with his own twists. When asked if Collier felt any pressure, she says, "I wildly appreciate it and take it to heart a little bit, that it is a sign of being embraced in this world, in this blues community. At the same time, you know, my work in my head is not finished. I'm still gonna keep striving; this music is about truth, and it's talking about where we're at, and it's always been about that. I'm trying not to let it go to my head; I want to remain humble and as much myself as I am now."

Going without a label means taking the DIY track, which Collier acknowledges, but seems perfectly fine with it. "It's generally wearing many, many hats," she admits. "I do my own social media, getting your distribution and marketing, I have a great team for that. What I find is special about doing it yourself is those people want to work for you. It' never been easier to do so much on your own."

Collier plans to return to the studio in January for what will mostly be original material, with a planned release by the summer. For now, Collier is taking her music, and all that goes with it, in stride. "I feel like getting here, performing, and meeting people it's become one of my favorite parts of this job," Collier stresses. "I cherish it, 'cause it's about 10% of what I get to do. So, when I get out here and get to play, 'Why not have fun?' In general, if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right."

(Masthead photo by Jim Hartzell)

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