Vanisha Gould has a lot to share but never all at once: she lets the moment set the mood. The New York-based singer and songwriter has been a fixture at uptown venues and downtown clubs for the past several years, leading different bands. Through frank delivery and subtle-gestured phrasing, she shares stories teeming with empathy, humor and self-reflection. This week at The Jazz Gallery, Vanisha brings her own interpretation of existing works alongside trio mates Chris McCarthy, Tyrone Allen and Adam Arruda.
The Jazz Gallery: You view yourself as a storyteller, and I think so much of your original music really reflects that identity. You have a way of lyric writing around these melodious compositions with this wonderful meaty arc. Can you share a little bit about your process for composing and how it’s maybe evolved over the years?
Vanisha Gould: It’s easier to do than to explain because for me, it’s so fluid. When I compose, I usually do melody and lyrics first. But it’s really just walking down the street, walking home from a bar. If I can retain the idea when I get home, then I just build on it from there and see where the story takes me. But it’s never “sit down and write.” It just unfolds, based on rhyming, even melody. I’m not a piano player. My power is that when I’m away from a piano, I’m not restricted by all this knowledge of chords and how a song “should” be. But then I can see how I can change it in some way when I’m just dealing with the melody. From there, once the melody and lyrics are down and I got it in a voice memo, I can sit down at the piano and painstakingly try and find the chord changes for it. But it’s a very fluid process in terms of finding the actual story.
Walking down the street, you could see a person getting out of the car, hugging another person goodbye, and that’s a story, if you find the melody to it. Are they hugging goodbye? Did they break up? Is that a family member? How long will they not see each other?
TJG: That explains a lot about how natural your compositions feel. You really have an empathetic curiosity about other people.
VG: It’s just observing and then making up your own stories about what you’re observing. I will say that as natural as the songs may sound to you, it’s few and far between. The gaps in between, the writers block in between is so large. I only write three to four tunes a year. I certainly don’t force it. I’m not someone who sits down and says, “I’m gonna write a song today.” When it does come naturally, it’s awesome. But then, in between, it’s like, “Oh, well, I guess I’m singing this song indefinitely.”
TJG: Are you content with that process or is it something you wish were different?
VG: I wish it were different. I wish I had that work ethic. There are some people who say, “I’m gonna write a tune a day. I’m gonna write a tune a week.” And not all of them will be good, but the whole point is completion—to make a promise to yourself and complete it. I don’t do that. I wish I had that urge [laughs]. But I am content when a song comes out: “Okay, well, dig. That’s a completed song. And it’s new. And I finished it.” I wish I had that spirit but that’s not me. So I guess I am content with it.
TJG: I think anyone who goes out regularly to the clubs in New York likely has heard your distinctive swinging trio and quartet sound that often features your originals as well as standard repertoire, but so much of your music reflects this stunning, expansive orchestration. You do create your own arrangements, so I was wondering, are you also developing your voice as an orchestrator these days?
VG: I wish. I don’t have the knowledge yet. I know how bass, drums and piano work [laughs]. I know I can write out a complete tune with the changes over the slash chords and that those three instruments will know exactly what to do. So that’s what I deal with. But I do have a band of bass, guitar and violin. And my bass player Dan Pappalardo, I consider him a great arranger. During our rehearsals, I’ll bring in a skeleton chart but, again, just the changes and slash chords, and he’ll be the one to stop the music and say, “Okay, what are the dynamics of this line?” or “Let’s think of the lyrics here,” or “Maybe the bass should be out, and I’ll come back on this part…” So my arranging is very much band-oriented. Collaboration.
I’m open for ideas because I only know melody, lyrics and the chord changes. That’s the complete tune until an added idea shows up from the band. There’s one tune I have called “Now That You’re Here” and during one rehearsal, there’s a line the bass player played in unison with me. That was like five years ago. Ever since… forever, on this line, no matter who’s playing, I say play that bass line in unison with me. If someone comes up with an idea that I love, I’m like “Fuck yeah. I’ll keep it. That’s mine.”
TJG: I’m glad you brought up that band. I love how you and Ludovica sound together. What have you found most compelling—for you as a vocalist and as a composer—about collaborating with her and other kinds of instrumental textures?
VG: I don’t even remember the moment I met her. It must have been a session. But the added element of violin—I have an upcoming album which she’s on with cello—I really love working with non-traditional instruments in the jazz universe [laughs]. They can work by ear, and I’m not writing out a violin line [laughs]. I’m like, play what you hear. And [Ludovica] has a great ear, a beautiful sound, too. And my whole vibe is, this is jazz—shit, play what you hear! Those are the changes. See what works. What’s great with her is she’s very complementary to my tone because I’m obviously low voiced—tenor, low alto. She’s very tasty with singing around me. I have two bands: my straight-ahead band and my more jazzy/folky band with “Donovan’s Dream.” And we’ve built a rapport. It feels good. It’s nice to find your people.
TJG: Something else I believe listeners find inviting and captivating about your music is its vulnerability and certain self-disclosure. Is it challenging composing with these intimate thoughts and experiences in mind, or is it maybe cathartic—or both?
VG: I find it kind of cathartic. It’s stories. The freedom of creating such a story that makes a lot of people come to me and ask, “Where did that story come from?” Once I have that out there, then I can create any story I want. Some of them are true and some of them are not. Some relate to my life and some of them don’t. I love leaving it up to the audience to guess. Some of the stories I come up with are better suited to a 150-page screenplay, which I have delved into. I just love creating a different universe where you have complete control over the ending of the story. Putting an entire universe into a tune that maybe has a solo or two, it’s fun.
TJG: Your lyrics are so smart and sometimes devastating, and also sometimes really funny and charming. I think the very first original of yours I ever heard you perform was “Cute Boy.” How do you feel your lyric writing has developed since you came to New York in 2015?
VG: I think now, and even with the full jazz group with Ludovica, those stories have become a little more autobiographical, a little more related to what I’ve experienced. That’s what I would say. As I’m writing more, I’m being inspired by what happens to me on a day to day basis or what’s on my mind, and trying to put it into words that are either very poetic or very literal. There’s a tune I have called “Storyteller” that’s basically a woman who’s the other woman—and that’s not my story. So it goes in and out of that. I guess it’s been consistently me being inspired by different things and seeing where the lyrics take me in the writing process.
TJG: What do you hope listeners will bring with them to your set at the Gallery?
VG: Openness and curiosity. I’m planning a suite based on Scripture. I did another suite just before Covid based on the Song of Songs and I wanna do the same thing but a different book in the Bible. What was great about that is I didn’t have to use my words—they were already written. And the Bible is pretty poetic. You can interpret it in any way you like. So I’m like, dig. I can figure out how to shape it into a tune that’s enjoyable but also very true to what I hold as important. So yeah, openness and curiosity [laughs].
The Vanisha Gould Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, July 31, 2021. The band features Ms. Gould on vocals, Chris McCarthy on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass and Adam Arruda on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.S.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.