Every Wednesday, WERS presents Wicked Local Wednesday, our program dedicated to bringing you music and interviews with artists in the Boston/New England area. Tune in at 9 pm every Wednesday night to hear songs from these local bands looking to share their music with the world! To learn more about the artists you hear on the program, check here on our WERS Music Blog for weekly Wicked Local Wednesday interviews.
In this interview, jazz vocalist Samantha Fierke talks with staff writer Kira Weaver about how growing up with jazz, who influences them the most, and the process behind their latest album Mirage.
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN (VOCAL) JAZZ GROWING UP?
Samantha Fierke: I think I always had a background appreciation for jazz. It was one of those things I grew up hearing played in my house— my parents would share it with each other then share it with me.
But I think when I entered middle school/high school I started seeing it as an option for classes and it seemed fun. I was always a major band kid, so whenever I saw more opportunities to do more band things, I would. I ended up picking up the tenor sax to be able to play in my school’s big band, and I loved it. And I grew more and more in love with that, while at the same time singing in other groups.
I started to notice overtime I enjoyed it the most if I meshed the two together. There weren’t a lot of opportunities through school to do vocal jazz. There were a lot of opportunities to do vocal and jazz, but not together. I had to find my own ways to do it on my own time at first. Eventually, I started to get pulled into the big band just to sing. That sort of solidified it for me.
YOU MENTIONED YOUR PARENTS SHARING JAZZ MUSIC, ARE THEY MUSICIANS AS WELL?
SF: By hobby, yeah. My mom grew up singing a lot/ Nobody in my family is a jazz musician. But my mom grew up singing everywhere she could, and eventually she just took her career in a different direction because that’s what was expected of her in her family. She always mentions she wishes she had stuck with it more. Regardless, it was still a major part of my upbringing.
WAS THERE ANYONE, MUSICIAN-WISE, [WHO] JUST HEARING THEM PLAYED WHILE GROWING UP, YOU FEEL LIKE [THEY] HAD AN INFLUENCE?
SF: Oh, Absolutely! You know there’s always the classics everyone gets introduced to. Of course being enamored with vocal jazz I was obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but then I started hearing Chet Baker. He sings and plays trumpet, but mostly I think he considered himself a trumpet player more than anything else… A trumpet player that could sing. One thing that really struck me with him was that his voice on both instruments was the same. He had the same sound whether he was singing or playing and that’s something you find with a lot of people that do both. So I started studying, asking, ‘Well okay if he sounds the same on both, what makes that sameness?’ That led me to study his phrasing and tone. I think he really pulled me into studying jazz.
DO YOU PLAY YOUR TENOR SAX ON THE ALBUM?
SF: I do not. I keep thinking of trying to get my chops back cause I haven’t regularly in a very long time. Well, you know, a very long time is a couple years. But I’ve never done it on one of my records. I want to at some point, I think it would be really fun.
DO YOU REMEMBER A SPECIFIC MOMENT — MAYBE WITH THE BIG BAND YOU MENTIONED — GROWING UP, WHERE YOU REALIZED THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED TO PURSUE FURTHER?
SF: Yeah, My high school had this fundraising event called “Sweet Night of Jazz.” It was set up to teach kids in the jazz program what it would be like to be a gigging musician. So we had to learn a lot of material and play for a long time.
The whole event was kind of this big dance hall they would set up. They would have swing dancers from the local college come in and kind of teach other people how to do it. There would be auctions going on in the background. [And] the reason it’s called sweet night is because everyone would bring desserts. So, it was like this big production and we would have to play much longer sets than any other concert I had through the band.
I remember the first time I got to sing with the big band at that event and I had this room in front of me and it wasn’t just a seated audience, staring and watching. It was people conversing and having a great time, and dancing. Seeing somebody dance to your music, that’s so cool. I think that event decided where I was going.
SO I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR NEW ALBUM, MIRAGE—
I SAW WITH THE TRACK “SMILE AGAIN” YOU POSTED ABOUT YOUR WRITING PROCESS, I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD TALK ABOUT WHAT THAT PROCESS WAS LIKE AS A WHOLE.
SF: Oh yeah, I can do that! It’s a little chaotic. This album is kind of— I wouldn't consider [it a] compilation work because it is definitely one cohesive piece everything fits together and they all intertwine. However, as far as writing goes, some of these songs I started writing in middle school. And others I wrote during the process. We started recording some things while I was still writing others.
I just looked back through everything I had written and collected these tunes that completed an image in my life and in my art. So there are definitely pieces that have been scrapbooked together. A lot of going back through old notes and voice memos, finding things that I had forgotten about and reviving them with a newly developed artistry.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR ARTISTRY HAS CHANGED THE MOST SINCE YOUR FIRST EP IN 2018?
SF: What I consider to be the primary difference is that the EP was all standards, which is a fancy way of saying covers in jazz. So I didn’t write any of the material, so because of that, it’s kind of difficult to say how my writing has progressed.
But listening back, I notice how much my voice has changed. Parts of my voice I didn’t even notice. Just the general tone and agility and how well I’m able to portray a feeling through the sound. That’s something that’s really important to me, prioritizing sound over words. The words are just the cherry on top, but being able to find a sound and make it feel a certain way.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT THAT— TRYING TO FIND SPECIFIC SOUNDS?
SF: I think it was all listening. I started listening to as many people as I could and trying to latch onto the differences between each. And I transcribe a lot. I listen to solos and try to recreate them as closely as possible and that includes that exact sound. So even if I have all the right notes and rhythms, I’ll sing it back and think ‘No, something’s off.’ That minute process of going through and trying to redo something until it sounds just right.
TALKING ABOUT THE INTERTWINED-NESS OF THAT WORK, AND HOW IT COMPLETES AN IMAGE. WHAT IS THAT IMAGE?
SF: The closest word I’ve found to describe it — which still feels imperfect as a descriptor — but the word ‘Existential’ comes to mind. This collected work captures this idea of what it’s like to live in a world that is not necessarily comfortable to live in, and finding beauty in that. While also making space to mourn things that you have lost or that are wrong; things that you never had.
That's part of why that title track, “Mirage,” became the name of the album. Because it captures that feeling of having to keep pushing forward through something and having to keep yourself from giving into this image of what could be if you ignored everything else. Of — it’s so difficult to describe with words — this feeling of trying to remember all of the emotions instead of just focusing on the ones that make you more comfortable.
WHAT WAS THE WRITING PROCESS LIKE FOR THE TRACK “MIRAGE” SPECIFICALLY?
SF: That was one of the newest ones I had written.
I remember when I first shared the first bits and pieces I had… I shared it with my mentor and he goes, ‘Start looking at some of your other music. This is gonna be an album.’
I heard that and thought ‘You’re right! This could be an album!’ And everything kind of lept into motion.
It has this really slow lush intro. Originally that’s what I envisioned the entire song to be when I wrote that piece. Though, when I came back later, I heard this hurried sense of urgency pushing through it, and that’s what started the rest of the song. I wrote a melody without anything around it, showed it to my mentor at the time, and as I was showing it I realized it was in a weird time signature. I had not intended it to be, I didn’t set out to make it strange. So then I had to find a groove that fit around that melody, which ended us up with a song in eleven-eight.
Yeah, a lot of it was very emotional—letting thoughts and ideas and emotions pour out of me into this song without trying to think about them and evaluate them. But there was another part that was just fun, you know, nitty gritty theory work. Trying to come up with what I could do in eleven-eight.
I looked into a lot of global jazz, particularly Middle Eastern fusion work. Finding stuff in that key signature or that time signature. Or just finding instrumentation that would seem really cool and just seeing what types of sounds they made. And seeing if I could recreate those sounds with what I had available to me. It kind of just went bit by bit until the form was complete. I ended up with a very strange form that way, but I feel like if I had written it any differently, it would be a completely different song.
WHAT WAS THE RECORDING PROCESS LIKE?
SF: It was a lot. Luckily, we were originally planning on recording at a low priced studio in Kansas city. I recorded most of this in my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, which is smack dab in the middle of Kansas City and Saint Louis.
WHAT DREW YOU TO “COLOR ME” BEING THE LEAD SINGLE, AT THE END OF THE RECORDING PROCESS?
SF: Part of it was that it was done. If you want the honest answer, a couple of the other tunes I had had in mind needed one or two fixes and we didn’t have time to do at the moment. The other part is that it’s one of those tunes I had written years and years and years ago, and was now completely revamped.
In my mind, it’s like an image of growth, for myself. At that point, I didn’t care what anybody else thought of it. Nobody else had heard it freshman year of high school, when I wrote a little melody with three chords.
Also, the groove throughout the whole thing is just so fun. I wanted to introduce that sense of fun.
LAST QUESTIONS... WHO ARE YOUR BIGGEST MUSICAL INSPIRATIONS NOW?
SF: It’s definitely changed over time. I always tell myself I wouldn’t be one of those people that choses an idol, but I accidentally did. I model so much of my work off Gretchen Parlato, who is another jazz vocalist. I use jazz lightly. She is amazing. I study her constantly. I try to see her perform when I can or go to workshops. Just anytime she’s nearby, it’s ‘Gotta go find a way to see this, it will be so worth it.’ And everytime, it is.
WHO ARE YOUR BIGGEST NON-MUSICAL INSPIRATIONS?
SF: I mean if I’m gonna be corny, definitely my mom. Everybody says it’s their mom, but of course mine is the best one. Just in the way she raised me to be so honest, and compassionate, and authentic. I was one of the lucky ones where my parents never doubted my path and always encouraged me to push forward and do what I love. It’s part of what keeps me going when I’m having a hard time remembering why I’m doing what I’m doing. Remembering if these people can believe in me for this amount of time there’s no way I’m doing this wrong.
Samantha Fierke's session already aired on Wicked Local Wednesday, but to hear music from local artists like them, join us every Wednesday at 9 p.m. while we play music from Boston-based artists you won't hear anywhere else.