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"I saw Shawn Colvin back in 1990, I was blown away. I said, 'This is where it can all come together.' Thats where I thought that maybe Ive come from some moderate jazz stylings, but I still have certain lyrical folk sensibilities. She just made toast of me, and anything that I would have thought of as being typically folk."Vance Gilbert
Vance Gilbert is one of the most gregarious, effusive performers you will see in any field. His powerful voice, dazzling guitar and buoyant personality fills rooms and festival spaces alike. An accomplished songwriter, he is as comfortable writing a song that will make you laugh as he is writing one that will make you think and feel. It was a pleasure to spend some time on the phone with Vance shortly before the release of his third Philo album, Shaking Off Gravity.
You are from Philadelphia originally. What was your childhood like?
Music-wise what was spinning on the turntable were the pop tunes of the day, but my parents always had some Dinah Washington or Ray Charles or somebody like that on the stereo. My brother was mostly into the Motown based kind of thing. I was pretty much a happy go lucky kid, I liked to build little model airplanes and such, and I was really into ants and bugs. I thought I was going to be a biologist [laughs].
How did you get to Boston?
I graduated college in 1979, and I had a bunch of friends who were coming up here and I saw some people playing music on street-corners here. And I said, "Man, thats got to be it!"
So you wanted to busk like everybody else.
I wanted to starve like everybody else and be a Boston, acoustic, working guy.
What were you playing at that point in time?
A lot of people might not remember it, Patty Larkin remembers it for sure, but when I first came to Boston, the Nameless Coffee House, and The Idler were the only two places that I played. I had my little handful of songs and I was just trying to open for people. I got pretty steeped in jazz coming from college, then I became this cocktail, acoustic jazz thing.
You were a lounge lizard!?
I sure was and proud of it! Its a musical tradition. Amongst the thirty percent of "My Way" and stuff I had to play, I learned a lot of jazz standards, like Duke Ellington stuff, and Alec Wilder, and all these great songwriters... Jimmy Webb, and stuff like that. The "J" word is the kiss of death when it comes to folk music in a lot of ways.
Its stretching borders, but I dont see a problem with stretching borders.
Most people dont, but every once in a while people will turn their nose up at what I do because it is not folk, it is too jazzy. But I just find it curious that it is OK to sound jazzy or be jazzy if youre Patty Larkin, or Martin Sexton or Dee Carstenson...its cool to be jazzy.
Joni Mitchell did the same thing twenty years ago and she had a following because she was that way.
But sometimes I find that it is an odd little streak of heresy that I immediately get termed as this neo-jazz singer in doing what I am doing. People look at a black singer who might bend some notes as definitively jazzy where they might look at a white folk singer that did that and say, "Oh, wow, thats a different twist of the genre."
You do blend lots of things, though. You do an a cappella song on each of your CDs, and you do bend and slide and use your voice as an instrument.
Exactly. But if you call it jazz you have to call everybody jazzy. I stand by that, only because you look at other people who have played around with chord structure, for instance David Wilcox, no one would ever call him jazzy. Yet you listen to the way he sings Chet Bakers Swan Song, or something like that, and he is right out of the mold of Chet Baker and all kinds of jazz singers.
If people are putting you in their mind in the same box as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Miles Davis, I wouldnt complain.
Well, I would complain, lets fight. Im ready to fight about this, Ill tell you why. Im sitting around not complaining and being happy about it and everybody else is playing certain festivals. Hey, Im getting a lots of work now, theres no getting around it, and Im finally making it. Ive gone from completely unknown to relatively obscure and I think that is a great thing, but sometimes I scratch my head as to what they were hearing when they called me jazzy and then dismiss me, and its happened! Whereas for someone else right parallel to what Im doing, that wasnt the case. Its too bad, its the basis of "Good Cup Of Coffee."
How did you get into the folk thing? Ive read about you being influenced by the "J" performers, and Shawn Colvin.
Those two things are almost mutually exclusive. The "J" thing, people still laugh about it and there is a real amount of truth to it, but when I saw Shawn Colvin back in 1990, I was blown away. I said, "This is where it can all come together." Thats where I thought that maybe Ive come from some moderate jazz stylings, but I still have certain lyrical folk sensibilities. She just made toast of me, and anything that I would have thought of as being typically folk.
Just to make it clear to everyone, who are these "J" people?
I remember as a kid, turning on a certain station and hearing Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, John Denver, James Taylorthese were all white folks whose name began with "J" and they all played guitar. In my little shielded dare I say racist upbringing, only because I didnt know any better, that was music that I didnt want to have anything to do with. You know, if I couldnt finger-pop and dance to it, if it wasnt funky in one form or another, then it didnt exist to me. I sort of had to back into my whole discovery of the acoustic music thing. I had to discover the English language in a lot of ways, to discover how poetry tasted as it came out, and discover how to get away from moon, June, lyrics that you put around a funky kind of groove. I had to work my way around to writing the kind of music that so early in my adolescence I had disparaged. There are standout things that I remember hearing as a kid that were definitively the type of rock music that a black kid normally wouldnt listen to, but I steadfastly was blown away by. One of them was "Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles, which just stuck with me. "Penny Lane" was incredible to me. Something that just resurfaced recently like an old memory, Phil Ochs "The Pleasures Of The Harbor" used to blow me away when I was a kid. I would be glued to the stereo listening to that. So there was this odd sensibility that existed that I was ignoring, because I didnt have an outlet for it. Lo and behold, along comes this Shawn Colvin character, after I had been trying to write little pop groove tunes all along and BOOM. That was the turnaround. Ive had a reviewer say to me that he cant possibly understand how anything Shawn Colvin would do would be at all seminal to what Im about. Shes kind of plaintiff, and Im sort of gregarious and brash, but thats not even the point. Its what she did with the guitar and vocals and lyrics all at once, and it was just exactly where I wanted to be. That was the touchstone right there.
In terms of technical aspects, voice and guitar, who are the people who helped you to go where you are now?
Wow... Id have to say once I got to college, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were both great influences. It was middle career James Taylor, In The Pocket and Gorilla that brought me into the fold. I then worked my way back to Flying Machine, One Man Dog and all the other previous ones that were really golden. Joni Mitchells Miles of Aisles stayed on my turntable, never left it! Then there was the pop jazz stuff of Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin and Keith Jarrett. I used to stack this stuff on the turntable along with Stevie Wonders Songs In The Key Of Life.
Are there favorite moments youve had playing with another musician?
On the new album, the guitar player on "Taking It All To Tennessee," Everett Pendleton just sat right in front of me and I played the song for him a couple of times on the tape deck. Then we set up the recording equipment and I just sort of sat there while he played it. He just looked me in the face and played all that stuff, it was like he was reacting to how I was feeling as the song was going by, and he totally blew me away! But there it is, hes singing it right back at me, through this Jimi Hendrixesque, Eric Claptonesque, Ernie Isleyesque, guitar solo, which is the highlight of the album for me. He captured all of it and me on his solo.
What stimulates a song to pop out of Vance?
Nowadays there has to be some kind of story-line running around in my head. Then Ill sit back and play with catch phrases and grooves, and sort of inflict the story-line upon them and vice versa. Then Ill workshop for a couple of days and put something together, put it to bed for a couple of days and then pick it up again.
You have a unique ability to pick up on essences. In "Dear Amelia," for example, you distill things into such a clarity.
One of the things that I am trying to do is write a little less clear and leave a little bit more up to the listener. I think that people who are pros at that are Shawn Colvin and Jonatha Brooke.
Uh oh! Gilbert goes allegory!
Its cool though! Its thought provoking. Im trying to avoid a certain amount of blatancy.
Fleeting images are nice.
Oh, they are. They take repeated listenings to catch, and there is some pretty exciting stuff going on when you approach a song like that. Jonatha has an incredible knack for that. Jonatha will almost tell a story, with allegory and metaphors thrown around and sometimes you dont know what she is talking about. When you do pick up what she is talking about you wonder how someone could possibly replaced how blatant the story might have been with stuff as mellifluous as she has given you. Im in awe of that.
Do you have favorite festivals and venues?
Falcon Ridge is pretty awesome, almost a little too intense, too close. Rocky Mountain Folk Festival is amazing that way. South of Boston there is a new place, the Black And White Theater in Middleboro. I went there and played sick and put on a great show, because the place was very supportive.
If I say the word home to you, what goes through your mind?
Two thingswhere I am right now, which is an apartment, and where eventually I want to be, which is a house somewhere, a one-family kind of thing, somewhere where I could take charges to all four walls and level the place and not have to worry what the neighbors think. I really want to own a home one day.
Is there a significant other?
Yeah, my girlfriend and I have been thinking of the same thing. Well see what happens. We are both older, one of us has been married already. Theres quite a bit of mental work involved with that. Theres a lot of askance looking at what one means to the other, and whats this all going to mean in the final analysis.
Arent relationships interesting things!
Theyre a pain in the ass!
I hear X-Files in the background.
Always! Ive seen this one before. Im actually getting caught up on all of them. They finally allowed our cable network to have the F/X channel. Id gone three years without seeing but one X-Files on a Sunday night, and Im finally getting caught up. If I could get my music to be as consistently whatever it is the way X-Files is...
Enquiring minds want to know... Do you have gills? How do you maintain a note for so long without taking a breath?
Thats a trade secret! All I can say to that is to pick up a copy of Bobby McFerrins Spontaneous Invention, and listen to the tune "Blackbird."
There are a cappella groups out there that just amaze me that the sounds are coming out of a human. The Bobs are so strange!
[Laughs] Arent they magnificent! I toured with them. Theyre so fun, and they are the nicest freaking people on the planet!
Do you have themes you are drawn to in writing your songs?
I dont know. There are a lot of themes that I like, like pain. Cliff Eberhardt put it great. The reason that pain shows up a lot in songwriting much more often that joy, and Im paraphrasing, he said joy is a yipee and a great adulation for something and it is very momentary whereas pain is something you drag around with you. It takes so many forms and it manages to manifest itself so prevalently that theres just plenty of it to go around.
Several of your songs comment on your experience as a black man in a basically white genre. I usually dont think of you in terms of being a particular race until you bring it up in a song like "Country Western Rap."
Do you know how many people it pisses off when I remind them of that. Its calming to me. They get mad at me because I reminded them of the fact that theres something different. Whereas my job in a lot of ways is to remind people that theres people out there that look at me different. People really end up killing the messenger, which is unfortunate.
Tragic figures seem to figure prominently in your work. "Dear Amelia" features a tragic hero.
"Dear Amelia" is a tragedy for us. We see her as a loss, but I think I paint that song as her having found a certain amount of truth.
She is like an angel flying up.
Or flying down. I had a friend of mine write me a piece of poetry about a pilot, flying in an airplane, and realizes he was going to crash in a residential area. And you know what he did before he hit? He flicked off all of the electrical switches. Which minimized the possibility of the plane going up in flames. So this individual had made some kind of peace and really left us struggling. Whereas they were going to have a flash of light and be gone.
How do you choose a song to cover?
I have to be very comfortable with it. I have to feel like I am breathing something new into it, that hasnt been done before.
You take "Lying Eyes" into a very different place.
Thats what I have been told. There are those who may even argue that it wasnt particularly successful, but thats OK.
At least you tried.
And thats one of the goals of doing one of those songs, to do the William Shatner thing to it. Im taking that stuff where no person has taken it before.
Tell me a little about the people who have done session work with you. You had Jonatha Brooke and Tuck and Patti on Edgewise. They were pretty impressive.
They were, and they really worked for those songs. Who I really wanted to do a shadow vocal on "If These Teardrops Had Wings" was Shawn Colvin and I had the tapes all sent her. She was getting married just three days later when we sent her the tape so she couldnt do it.
Anything else you want to tell me?
I know that people want to get to know me a little bit better, but I think there is stuff musically that should remain a little bit anonymous, even if there was a Charlene, Im not going to say any time too soon who it might be. A lot of times when I write something, Ill write something from the point of view that this might not be my reality, but Im sure it is somebodys or Ive heard a story before and Im going to personalize it. I get away from that adage that says you should never write about something you have not personally experienced. If we were to write about only that which we went through I think that there would be about three love songs, three break-up songs and a lot of songs about brushing my teeth and washing and scratching.
Where would you go personally if you could do anything you wanted?
I would not tour with the prevalence that I do now. Id go out for about a week twice a year. Unfortunately, I dont have much of a work ethic. Id stay home, build models...