Lauren Lee is one of a new breed of singer-songwriters. She has all the bona fides of a traditional jazz singer and pianist, but she needs to do things her own way. As an artist, she gives her imprimatur to cross-cultural experimentation and off-the-beaten-track forms of vocal expression, never straying far from the post-bop mother ship.
Since you released your first album of jazz originals, The Consciousness Test, in 2016, your profile as a singer-songwriter in both the US and Europe has been rising steadily. How would you describe the arc of your development as an artist?
When I first graduated from school [in 2011], I got stuck in the rut of having to do a different job, even though I have a master’s degree in jazz performance. I was terrified of doing [music], so I was always trying to find what the fit was. I liked post-bop, like Eric Dolphy, and late Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, and that was my thing. But I’m a singer and piano player, so how do I translate this to my chosen instrument? I tried doing other stuff—I did big band, free jazz. And living in New York, there are always so many opportunities to do things like that that I never got settled as an artist myself.
Tell us about being an artist-in-residence at the Uncool Festival last fall. Such a great gig.
The Uncool Festival started in the early 2000s in the Italian portion of Switzerland in Poschiavo, which was the place in the Alps where the Sun Ra Arkestra would go hang out in the summer. At the festival they would have new music, free jazz, improvised music—it was a very forward-thinking festival all funded by the Swiss government. After a few years they didn’t have the funding to sustain the festival anymore, but they would invite individual artists come. They usually have different people, mostly in creative jazz, but they also do contemporary and classical music. The deal is that you sit and you create new work and do some concerts. It’s a really cool thing.
How did the residency influence you creatively?
Having the opportunity to be out of the country for six weeks alone gave me a chance to say, “OK, I’m here with no expectations. They’re paying me to stay here and write music. What do I want to write? What kind of music do I want to hear?” This trip made me be authentic in my own voice as a composer for the first time.
How did your compositional voice change?
I listened to a lot of music there that I don’t normally listen to—Scandinavian folk music and different singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen. So while the [new compositions are] definitely in the jazz realm, you can hear some of these other things. On my first album, The Consciousness Test, some of the compositions lean very experimental and others lean more straight ahead. The new material is very different from anything on that album.
Many of the [new] compositions are written so that the piano and the voice have the melody, but in different capacities. I also write things where the voice is a harmony instrument, not necessarily playing the melody. Sometimes the sax has the melody and the voice is doing guide tones or something in the background. More like what you would traditionally hear, with a saxophone playing behind a singer.
Did you also write lyrics or are the compositions wordless?
Some of both. I have a lot of text. Many of the songs that I wrote in Switzerland do have words, but not all of them. Some of them are more textural—I’ve been experimenting with different types of sounds. For example, having things that sound like words but that aren’t, by manipulating the vowels in a way where you go “is she saying a word?” The band Sigur Ros does that, and it’s really fascinating because you can’t tell if they’re singing in a language you’ve never heard or if it’s nonsense and they’re just making stuff up. It becomes a language just for that piece of music.
How does improvisation factor into your new material?
Improv is the key of everything I do, and in these pieces I encourage the band to solo as much as possible. I like doing collective improvs for intros, so the piece will be very sparse, with the sax player doing this and the bass player doing that. What you’re hearing will probably be improvised, and it’ll have nothing to do with the changes or the groove of the piece once we start.
So your improvised music is more structured than free improv, veering toward the experimental? Definitely. But it has elements of both. I don’t know if classifying it as experimental is the right thing. It’s not traditional necessarily, but a lot of the sounds are familiar to people. If you were to insert every vocal jazz thing you’ve ever listened to from the most straight-ahead to the most totally out there, I think this would probably be right in the middle.
What are the lyrics like?
I tell stories about traveling because it’s my favorite thing to do, and traveling and music go very well together. When I was in Switzerland, I was spending a lot of time in the Alps by myself hiking. There were these caverns in the mountains and you could look down inside them. I think that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I was thinking that I have to write music about all of this stuff…and try to capture the excitement of going somewhere you’ve never been before. That can be a physical place or a musical place or anything that is related to a new experience.
How would you characterize your singing?
I’d describe myself as an adventurous singer. I’m really into improvised music in general and imitating horns. I play the piano and sing the same line with my voice, and sometimes I do it in intervals, in thirds or fifths or fourths or whatever. I’m really willing to try anything. I’ll [also do] overtone singing—that’s something I worked on a lot in Switzerland. I’ve been finding ways to incorporate it so that it’s not just this weird effect. The [overtone] sound that I make is so unlike anything you’d hear me do—it’s very guttural, usually around middle C, C sharp, or the D above it, because that’s where I can get the most different colors. Overtone singing isn’t used in free improvisation very much and I wanted to use it in a way that wasn’t a trick.
So you’re bringing some non-jazz ideas into your vocal work.
Along with the wanderlust quality, I’m trying to incorporate a lot of [musical ideas] that have influenced me. I’m a big fan of Bjork and Eivør from the Faroe Islands. I think her singing is really fascinating. There’s a French drummer and singer named Anne Paceo who’s been very cordial to me. I listen to all of these people and think about how I can incorporate some of what they’re doing into what I’m doing. I try to have something that’s not necessarily what you would think of when you think of a jazz vocalist.
Any plans to record soon?
We’ll be recording some of the stuff I wrote [in Switzerland] in August. We’re going to do it, but I don’t know where, and I haven’t decided on the instrumentation yet other than it being the quartet. I may add another horn player or two because I really want to have a lot of lush sounds. I’ll be combining a layer of myself on the recording with some vocal harmony and also with different piano sounds, like acoustic piano and a synth sound on some of the pieces. The plan is to release it in May 2019.
The “we” is your regular quartet. Who are your band mates?
Brad Mulholland on woodwinds, an absolutely fantastic saxophone, clarinet, and flute player. We do a lot of improvised counterpoint together. I’ll have Marcos Valera on bass—a great player too. He travels all over the place and has a wide range of influences as well. We gel together really nicely. I’ll have Andy O’Neill—a super melodic drummer, very intuitive. He does more than just keep time and be like “I gotta hit stuff.” The four of us do a lot of different improvisations, and it’s cool to hear how everybody takes from one another and [uses] whatever is innate to their instrument in a way that is interesting. I’m very excited about the people I have playing with me.