Thursday, July 18, 2013

Chicago musician Sarah Marie Young bringing intoxicating voice to Schubas to celebrate new CD

When esteemed composer and record producer Quincy Jones exclaimed "This girl can sing!" after hearing Chicago jazz and soul singer Sarah Marie Young, he wasn't kidding.

Young,, will perform July 31 at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, in celebration of her debut CD, "Too Many Februaries." Chicago musician Leslie Hunt also is on the bill.

The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $10, available at

I had the chance to talk to Young about the new album and the Chicago music scene.

Q - Your debut album, "Too Many Februaries," will be released this month. What goals did you have for the album and do you think you achieved them? Does the album's title refer to the amount of time put into the album?

My main goal for the album was to record an LP of original songs. I had never recorded a full length album, let alone almost all originals, and I was blessed to be able to do it with great musicians and have access to a great studio as well. 

I also really wanted to start honing in on my sound with this album. So much of my hustling for work in Chicago before recording "Too Many Februaries" consisted of me trying to fit into a genre or style to get the gig, and when presented with the opportunity to make an album, I made a goal in my mind to just sing naturally without thinking about what style that may sound like. 

Being in view of the mountains in Switzerland at Balik Farm Studios definitely helped me achieve that goal!

Q - You were able to make the album after you won the 2011 Shure Montreux Voice Competition as judged by Quincy Jones. What do you think gave you the edge in the competition? Jones said of your performance, "This girl can sing!" How was it hearing those words?

I think the sheer distance traveled from Chicago to Montreux gave me an edge (there were only two of us from the U.S.). Each competitor had to pay for their own travel expenses, which I was able to do so through a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Berne, so I already felt extremely lucky and driven to be able to go. 

I felt fearless, like, "Well, I made it all the way over here, I'm showing out!". I think another part of having an edge was that I was in a European jazz competition, and I was regularly singing jazz with great musicians in Chicago, plus I was in the Monk Competition a year before that with some seriously well informed jazz singers. 

The jazz culture here is so rich and unique to Chicago, and I think I brought that vibe to the competition.    
Q - You grew up singing gospel and are trained in classical music. How did you become interested in jazz music? How would you describe your music?

When I went back to school at Columbia College, I was trying to continue my classical training, but I soon realized that the jazz studies program offered a lot of opportunities to perform - which is what I love to do most, in any genre. 

I knew very little about the art form and fell in love with the connecting and communication that happens particularly in jazz, like all styles of music which have particular attributes that make it that style. There was and still is so much to learn, and I love that! 

I also love the standards. The lyrics and melodies are so meaningful, and then to listen to players give themselves to the music and have the freedom to open up, and then hopefully learn through listening and practice to do that myself is a great feeling. 

I also feel that getting into jazz helped me really appreciate the other styles I like to sing in.

I'd like to think a big part of that sentiment comes through in my music. It is most important to me for the listener to feel something, to connect to the music somehow, be it through emoting the lyrics, or the melody, chord changes, instrumentation or how each musician is interacting with each other. 

So whatever I write, depending on what I am listening to at the time, or maybe what style most of my gigs I have at the time are, usually ends of sounding like that style. "Too Many Februaries" definitely is jazz-influenced, but there is just as much R&B, folk and pop in the tunes too. 

It's hard to pinpoint what it sounds like. And as detrimental as that can be in the music business, I like it that way.

Q - It seems like there is a renewed interest theses days, both locally and nationally, in jazz and soul. Why do you think that this? Are there any bands out there that you especially respect what they are doing?

People want to hear something authentic, something soulful and real. Not to say that other styles besides jazz (which is soul) don't do that, but it's a good place to go to in the midst of super produced mainstream music. 

We all now know you can can put a slick musical product together, package it a specific way, and sell it on a shelf, but I think this renewed interest comes from growing distaste in that shiny product. Life many times is not shiny. 

It's gritty and messy and sad and happy and crazy all at the same time, and any style of soulful, organic music can get that point across. People are on to that…yet as an artist how do I balance my desire to make music my life's work and also make money - sell a product - to live? I could go on and on.

I really respect artists like Janelle Monae, who seems to be making it mainstream and is refreshingly original.

Q - Do you have any favorite places to perform? What other Chicago-area musicians have you enjoyed working with?

I love to perform at M Lounge in the south loop. It's an intimate martini lounge that was one of my first gigs in Chicago. 

I also like playing at Webster's Wine Bar, which also has a cool vibe. Both of those places have really nice and welcoming management/staff, which makes all the difference as a working musician. 

Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s have amazing sound systems and are beautiful venues, so as little as I get to play there, I would have to include those venues as two of my favorites.

As for Chicago area musicians, there are so many. Of course the guys in my band, Stu Mindeman (a co-writer/arranger for many of my tunes), Neal Wehman, and Bryan Doherty, whose band Hood Smoke I sing in, plus the guys on the album - Pat Mulcahy, Makaya McCraven, Tim Fitzgerald, Victor Garcia and Scott Burns. 

I LOVE working with Tom Vaitsas, George Fludas, John Barbush as well as the Hood Smoke guys Rob Clearfield, Mike Caskey and Chris Siebold. Singing with other local vocalists is also the best! 

For singers I've really enjoyed working with Allison Orobia, Leslie Beukelman, Bethany Hamilton, Ashley Stevenson, Chas Kimbrough and Mike Harvey. OK, now I feel like I'm writing liner notes.

Q - Where do you see yourself fitting into the Chicago music scene? What do you think separates the Chicago music scene from other music scenes around the country?

I wish I had a definitive answer. I'd like to see myself branching out of the jazz scene and getting into the local indie scene and the R&B circuit with my original music.

The Chicago music scene is a working one. It's competitive, but it is far more supportive in my opinion, which I think separates it from other music scenes. 

I don't think it's as cut throat as other big city music scenes. I feel like the Chicago scene can be more nurturing than cold because of the other artists on the scene, and as a musician I've met and formed friendships with other musicians but more importantly, down to earth, good people. 

Other musicians in all genre circles here want to check out the music and support it, which is why music in Chicago thrives. Sometimes it doesn't seem like it's thriving, and even when it feels crappy and barren, there is still a sense of camaraderie.

Q - Do you have any dream collaborations? What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Dream collaborations in no particular order (living):
Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Janelle Monae, Robert Plant, Harry Connick, Jr., and Herbie Hancock.

My short term goals are putting on a successful record release show, making sure my car makes it through the summer, and continuing to write music for a new album. I also want to be better at the business side of things and try to make a name for myself on some other Chicago scenes and beyond.  

As for long term goals, it truly depends on how I'm thinking about life. I of course want to be happy and spend quality time with my family and friends, eat healthier etc..

I also want to continue to have a career in music- not just sustain it, but build and grow my career, continue to nurture my art and make something good that allows me to do the former long term goal. 

I'm hesitant to say what that looks like in the long term, but I'm happy to say that right now, things are looking up.