Before NYC-based singer/actor Julie Benko took top honors in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, this past February, she’d already completed two Broadway contracts, two national tours, and several regional shows. In a recent phone call from her TheatreWorks Silicon Valley gig in California, Julie gave me the backstory on her winning performance and some news about her debut jazz CD, set to launch this fall.
Five Music Minutes (5MM): I learned a lot about how to apply vocal technique consistently across genres by listening to you perform in the competition.
JB: Coming from musical theater, flexibility across genres is a muscle that I have to keep in good shape. If you’re auditioning for Les Miz, you have to have a different vocal quality than if you’re auditioning for Grease or Spring Awakening. Sometimes in auditions you find that you’re using three or four different vocal styles in the same day.
5MM: How did you prepare for the many different styles in which you had to perform in the competition?
JB: The way I [prepared for] doing all of those switches was by listening to songs in the tradition of those genres and trying to sound as authentic as possible to what I heard. One of the main ways to accomplish that as a singer is to adjust your vibrato. It’s jarring if you are going to sing a jazz tune with the same vibrato that you’d bring to an opera. Your vibrato changes even within jazz traditions. What you can get away with singing in a crooner style like Rosemary Clooney or in a hot jazz style is different from what you can get away with in a contemporary bebop or post-bop style. Musical theater has a specific kind of vibrato, too, and in most pop genres you’re going to almost entirely eliminate your vibrato. When you’re in folk, in a kind of Joni Mitchell place, you can add it back in. So it’s really specific within subgenres, how much vibrato you’re going to use, when you’re going to use it, if you’re going to use it just as a shape at the end of a phrase or if you’re going to take it out completely. After that you can think about color and thickening or lightening your sound and deciding how much breathiness you want to use, and so forth.
5MM: What in your musical training has given you so much knowledge about how to approach the many different vocal styles that are out there?
JB: When I was 13, I started studying with Bill Hall in Westport, Connecticut, near where I grew up. I don’t know that he gave me a specific technique so much as he kept me out of bad habits. For instance, I came in at the beginning trying to emulate the vibrato that I had heard on albums. He said, “Don’t try to make it happen, it will happen on its own.” Then about six months later, it did, just by singing constantly and learning how to breathe correctly. But I didn’t have one teacher who gave me a specified singing pedagogy, so I was able to learn many styles of singing from various people who came from distinct musical worlds and had contrasting perspectives. There are still plenty of styles that totally escape me, though, and ways in which certain singers use their voices that are mind-boggling to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever learn, for example, how a punk singer makes that sound healthfully and consistently. And yet some do.
5MM: You made some great song choices for the competition. The pianist Hirsch/singer Winstone tune that you chose for the quarterfinal round was a very unusual choice—Norma Winstone is not a mainstream jazz singer—you have to go looking for her to find her.
JB: My boyfriend Jason Yeager is a jazz pianist, and he studied at New England Conservatory with Fred Hersch. [Jason and I] have been working on my album together—he’s been coproducing it. He wrote all of the arrangements and plays piano on the album as well. So he’s introduced me to a lot in the jazz world, including Fred. Fred loves that song, “A Wish,” and he plays it at a lot of his gigs. The first time I heard him play it at the Village Vanguard, after the show I said to him, “That song is incredible. It’s so beautiful.” And he said, “You know there are lyrics….” And he sent me the sheet music with the lyrics. So that’s how I came to that song.
5MM: How did you make your other selections?
JB: Actually, five of the nine songs I performed in the competition are songs that I’m doing on my album, and that includes “A Wish.” But I realized during the competition that all of my three repertoire choices for the quarterfinal round featured the low part of my range and lived in a jazz place. I had “I Love Paris,” the Cole Porter tune, and then “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers which I re-imagined as a jazz burner, and “A Wish.” I am a soprano, but I wasn’t showing them any range in my voice or musical styling. So I moved “A Wish” up by a major third and asked Anastasia [Victory, the competition pianist] to interpret the accompaniment in a more classical way so that I could show more musical diversity, which is what that competition is all about.
[Besides the three from my quarterfinals], other songs I performed off my album included my jazz version of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” [from Fiddler on the Roof] for the semifinals and “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” for the finals. I’ve been working on the arrangements for those five songs [from the album] with Jason for a long time. The other four songs that I selected—there was “In Between,” which Judy Garland sang in Love Finds Andy Hardy. I love that vintage Hollywood sound and emulating that. The Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 song “No One Else”—I had auditioned for that [Broadway] show, so I knew and loved the material and was so thrilled at the prospect of performing it live. It’s so different—I don’t think it’s what people think of when they think of musical theater. It’s not corny, it’s not overly sentimental, it’s a really great piece where you can build an environment and make the audience feel that they’re there with you. And also it features that mix-belty vocal color that I hadn’t showcased in any of my other songs.
[The opera song] was the hardest one for me to choose. I was so grateful that Kurt Weill’s “What Good Would the Moon Be” counted as opera. Even though Street Scene is an opera, it’s a light opera. I felt a little more comfortable knowing that the category could extend to musical theater in the way that Porgy & Bess does, even though I wouldn’t call it musical theater.
And then “Twisted,” which I put down as my blues. It was something that I always wanted to learn but I was intimidated by it, so I put it in my third round thinking, “I’ll never get there!”
5MM: And then you did make it into the third round. What was that like?
JB: I don’t know if I told you this at the competition, but I was an alternate. I didn’t get in at first. So I wrote “Twisted” down [on my application], thinking that if I got into the competition I’d learn it really well in advance. But then I didn’t get in until four weeks before, and I thought, “Oh, no—I have to learn this.” So every day for a month before the competition I’d sit at the piano playing all of those notes in “Twisted” because it’s very note-y.
Once I did make it into the third round, I was freaking about “What Good Would The Moon Be.” I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and I mentioned that to some of the girls who sing opera. And they came over and coached me on it [that night]! It was so generous and sweet, and so helpful. Not only that, but I had brought along this long red gown for finals not thinking that I’d ever need to wear it; a button had fallen off and the hem was ripped. I mentioned that, too, and Grace [Field] said “I know how to sew!” and literally sewed it together for me at one o’clock in the morning. The contestants were so supportive. It was a really nice moment.
5MM: Why don’t you tell us more about your album?
JB: We just finished the rough mixes, and now we’re going to start the mixing and mastering process. My hope is that it will come out in September or October. It’s going to have 11 songs on it. Three of them are my own originals, which are written in the tradition of the Great American Songbook. In addition to the five from the competition and the three originals, I’m doing “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “Lonesome Polecat” (which is also from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, just like “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”). And last is “Love for Sale.” Because I come from a musical theater there’s a theatrical element to the album — I do “Love for Sale” as a tango with violin and bandoneón, as well as guitar, bass, and drums. So it sets the scene.
5MM: That sounds fantastic. What is the instrumentation like on the rest of the tunes?
JB: A few of the songs — “I Love Paris” and my original “Tomorrow Is A Day For You” — are inspired by hot jazz, with trumpet, trombone, and clarinet improvising together in a New Orleans style. We do “A Wish” with a trio of just voice, piano, and cello. And the other songs are mostly piano, bass, and drums with a horn feature. We used a clarinet on “Matchmaker” to bring out the klezmer flavor [of that tune].
5MM: What’s it called and how can people buy it?
JB: It’s titled Introducing Julie Benko — because it’s my debut album! It’s been a lot of fun to make all of the little decisions, everything from how I want each song to sound to the album design and artwork, to everything in between. And it’s taken a lot longer than I originally anticipated it would! [When it’s ready], it will be available on CD Baby and Amazon.
5MM: You’re already very successful in musical theater. With the launch of a jazz album, your career could move in a different direction. Will you be following one path over another?
JB: I hope I don’t have to choose. I love doing both. I would love to start doing more jazz gigs and concerts regularly. But I have to work them around my theater schedule, which is always kind of up in the air. If I book a show I may have to cancel a concert, and you don’t want to have to do that. I would love to keep doing both, with each informing the other.
5MM: Just out of curiosity, what appeals to you about these two different types of performing?
JB: One of my favorite things about singing jazz is that I feel like I’m finding my own niche and my own place, whereas with musical theater I have to stay within the parameters of whatever style the theater piece is in. So it’s nice to have a type of music that more and more becomes mine as I do it, that I can identify with as an artist. I do think of myself first and foremost as an actor who sings. If I couldn’t act I would get so depressed. But it’s the same with singing. I love them both, so I want to be able to do them both and make each one help grow the other.
5MM: Can you reveal anything about your appearance with the Savannah Philharmonic in the holiday concert next December?
JB: All I can say is that they may arrange a piece or two for me with the symphony, which is really exciting! I have made some suggestions for songs I’d like to perform, but we’re in the discussion stages of building the repertoire.
Visit Julie’s website to get updates on her performances near you and info about the release of her debut jazz album in fall 2017.
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