When Robin Grant released her debut album, the jazz-fueled Good Girl two years ago the world was introduced to a vocalist with a distinctive sonic clarity that is best described as three-dimensional with perfect pitch and range. The songs ran through a series of emotions and scenarios that quickly struck a chord with many as it quickly shot up to number four on the iTunes charts. With a new year upon us Robin and her band, The Standard have returned to the studio to recreate their magic and evolve as well as perform more live shows. She is a very busy gal balancing art, family and a job like the rest of us. A rare true vocal quality in an era of popular music that celebrates sloppy and even off-key performances, Robin Grant and The Standard are an oasis in a talent desert with a voice described as cinematic.
What caused you to catch the bug for music and performing?
Honestly, my mother and father both sang, so I think I caught it in vitro. (laughs) My dad was a professional performer in the country music genre and my mother loved everything from Streisand to Karen Carpenter and so I grew up with all that music in the house. They said when I started singing was the same time I started talking. I actually have recordings of myself when I was maybe 10 months old singing and so it’s something I came about pretty honestly.
You sing in the jazz genre and grew up with a father that country music performer. Did he try to encourage you to sing country as well or allow you to find your own way?
He let me find my own way. I think just like any parent-child relationship you want to do the opposite of what your parents were doing and I was no different. (laughs) Even though I appreciated the music he was listening to – Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash – all of that, I had it bent more to strong vocals and I think my ear was always drawn to those would light up a torch song or impress me with a power ballad. And so I was always drawn to song female voices I could mimic. Where I first started to learn those voices – musical theater and jazz that’s where I found voices that were closer to mine.
You’re a young gal. Did you listen to the radio much growing up or were you more into listening to albums?
My mother and my father were so into music, there was a lot of music around the house. It was mostly albums. So we really didn’t have the radio on that much. It was more she would play Streisand a lot or he would play Johnny Cash a lot or Elvis or stuff like that. I honestly think that also helped influence my songwriting because a lot of his songs during that time were strong. I didn’t exactly grow up in the era musically that I was born into but I was influenced more by the music they were listening to, and a lot of it was older music.
At what point did you feel this was your calling and it wasn’t just a hobby or something like that?
Honestly, from the moment I was born I knew music was all I ever wanted to do. I remember thinking at nine years old that ten would be a good age to make it in the music business. (laughs) I remember literally thinking that and if I auditioned for “Annie” at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre that would be my path. (laughs) Obviously it wasn’t. I was a first-born and my parents – and my dad knowing the allure and also the heartbreak of being a musician encouraged me to go on and get my education, get a job, have a fallback plan and pursue a professional track and make music your hobby. And so I guess that was really what I did because I thought I don’t want to be a starving artist and I did finish college at 20 so I could do music or what I thought I wanted to do at the time. I ended up working in the music industry for a publicity company ironically enough – Myer’s Media. We had a lot of eclectic artists – Bela Fleck, Junior Brown, The Delvantes who were from Hoboken, New Jersey with our most prominent being Alison Krauss. I ended up working in the industry, but it was harder for me being that close to it but not being in it. And so at that point I decided I’m going to move back to Chattanooga, get a real job. So I did that path very successfully for a long time, but as I started raising my children and they started pulling away I was drawn back to my first love, really, which was music. That was when I decided you’re not getting any younger, you have some material amassed, it’s time to do an album.
Being a publicist after being an artist first was there some weird feeling like, “I could do that” or “I should be doing that”. What was going through your mind during that era?
Well for me personally, it was very interesting. I was like a junior publicist. I was not working directly with the artist. I would be there with the person over me. Alison Krauss was profusely private and didn’t really enjoy the publicity part, so she was a difficult person really to do publicity for because she didn’t like the public part of the job. That was interesting to me because I love all aspects of it. I’m really a people person and I know a lot of artists are not and are introverted. But for me I feel I’m a bit on an introvert/extrovert. I do enjoy people, but I do enjoy my alone time too. That’s when I’m introspective in writing the songs. From that perspective I think it taught me if you’re going to go into this you’re going to have to appreciate all aspects of the job and you have to be willing to do all aspects of the job. That is what’s required of you – not just I’m going to sing these songs and write them and enjoy my art. You have to be willing to meet the people, do interviews, get up at four in the morning and do whatever’s called on radio or television even though you might not be feeling it. And if you don’t want to do that you don’t need to pursue this because it’s more than just one thing.
You’re not only a singer, you write as well. Where did the writing come? Did you feel you needed to write your own material? What exactly brought it about?
Honestly, I started writing songs when I was singing them when I was little. I remember just making up nothing and singing melodies and songs. I would sit and swing outside for hours and make up music and I won my first actual songwriting contest in the fifth grade with just a piano song I had written. I remember thinking that someday I’m going to put words to this that actually make sense. In college I was practically a double major with English and Vocal Performance. I lacked being a double major by two classes. So I was into reading. I loved writing prose. I loved poetry – all of that. I wanted to do that to strengthen my songwriting because I knew in order to be a great writer you have to be a voracious reader. That’s really where you learn about writing. And so I think it was after that time in college that I really started focusing on taking some of my poems that I had written and transformed them into songs. But then later it became more about the music and the moment. Now when I write it’s pretty much a melody line will come in my head and the words will follow. I’ll record them on my phone and Voice Notes and then I’ll come back and put the chorus to it, but it’s almost as if they happen simultaneously. They’re like these serendipitous gifts that fall in my lap all at once where it’s almost as if the song’s already created and record it. It’s strange. That’s the methodology that happens for me. I know it’s different for everybody.
Does it depend on the song or do you have a method to your writing madness? Does the prose come first or the music come first and you have to figure out – I never understood it myself how folks can put words to the music. I’ve heard instrumentals and I’ve heard people come up with the words for them before. In your mindset how does it come about?
Usually a melody will run through my head and sometimes, for instance there’s going to be a song on the new album called, “Living Inside Of My Voice”. When I started writing it I was thinking it was kind of about one thing that was kind of lighthearted and love related. But then it was almost as if the song wrote itself. The more I got into the lyric component of it and matched it up with the music I found out that I’m writing something a little deeper than I anticipated. This is really about how technology can tear us apart motivationally. And that wasn’t what I started out to write. It’s interesting: sometimes I think you’ll start out with a melody line that kind of dictates how you’re writing, how you’re thinking, as soon as you get deeper into the process it changes and it evolves based on the music. The music will really drive my lyric pretty much in every situation.
I saw your music video [“Good Girl”] and listened to your songs. From what person do you come from when you write? Is what you write very personal or do you create a fictional character that you vicariously live through?
I think early it was experiential, but later on look through people’s life perspectives and I think it makes your writing richer if you can almost try to dive inside a person’s mind – what they’re thinking, what they’re living and write about it. So, I would say more of my newer material is coming out from the perspective of trying to experience others and their own lives – almost try to inhabit them from a character, which I guess draws back to my theater background a little bit, too.
When you found your voice did you realize you weren’t a “pop” singer? Jazz has always been romantically referred to as the “music of an old soul”. Do you feel like an “old soul” that’s breathing life into it? What do you see as you goal?
I definitely think I was born an “old soul” and my grandmother and I were very close and when I would spend time at the house she didn’t want me to watch modern day television and she thought that would corrupt me. She would often change it from what I was watching to some old Hollywood film. And so I kind of felt like musically I was drawn to the old Hollywood film style – the epic imagery, lush orchestration – all of that – how the story was bigger than life. And so I found myself writing like that and then honestly singing like that because I was drawn a lot to those voices. Judy Garland was one of the first voices I remember hearing as a little girl and thinking, “Man, that’s power”. It gave me chills and still does to this day. And now it’s like you realize in those voices there’s a lot of pain and a lot of tragedy that has brought about that art in that person. And for me, it’s not like I have some tragic childhood story like that, but I think just characterization-wise I can relate to that and to that richness and depth of emotion. I remember listening to a lot of the stories my grandmother used to tell me about her upbringing and the toughness of that life and put myself in those shoes. And you see why they kind of sing with such soul and such graveness of voice that they brought to the table because there was a lot of depth with their life experiences. I just relate to that.
I do notice in a lot of your songwriting, while it has a very true jazz sound to it, it also has a little bit of a beat to it – almost a South American/Latino influence to it.
Yeah, it’s funny that you way that. When we recorded the first album I think we spent 12 hours in the studio on that day. I would not recommend that to anyone. I ended up at Vanderbilt Vocal Center in recovery Thomas Cleveland who was my vocal coach after that said, “You sound like you’re not from America. Why is that?” (laughs) I don’t know. I traveled a lot in college with my college choir overseas to Europe. The first time I got in a plane was to go to England on a tour. We went to Australia, New Zealand. I do have this desire to travel with my music. I don’t know what it is about – maybe it is something that we were talking about – the characterizations I feel like I’m another person. Sometimes when I’m writing a certain song I put on a voice maybe that person would use if they were singing about their own life. Right now I’m writing things for whatever comes next. A lot of them are French-influenced. I’m putting a lot of French into the music. And I’m thinking I don’t know where this is coming from. (laughs) Art just has a life of its own I think and if you open up to whatever the artist that is inside you and you follow that path, it’s going to go someplace interesting, so you can’t reject any of it I think.
You’re a busy gal, playing out some with some big shows coming up plus you have a new album coming out. Do you see yourself more of a recording artist or a live artist?
Live. I love live. I love the connection with the people. To me it’s all about the song and the song creates a connection with other people. You can meet people that you would have never been friends with that you connect with over a song. And that’s what it’s all about to me. I love live performance and it’s different every time, kind of like theater. I do not enjoy the studio. I do that because it’s a necessary means for getting the music out there, but it’s not very personal. Sometimes it feels very cold. I really only like recording when I can record vocally the same time my band is playing because I feed off that energy and to go into a studio by myself it’s hard to feed off that head space of where I need to be. Live setting I never have that problem.
The new album, Things We Didn’t Say, is the follow up to Good Girl. Being that you have more of a theatrical background. What do you see the difference between albums? Many artists will talk about how they’ve evolved as a songwriter. Instead of evolving – I’m guessing you have to a degree, do you feel as if you changed directions trying something completely new to you?
I think my first album I was trying to write for jazz and this one I don’t think I care. I’m just writing what I feel, writing what I connect with, writing what I felt from other people, so I don’t feel like its genre specific to jazz. We’ve started calling it “sophistipop” because I think musically were all musical products of everything we’ve ever listened to and I’m no different. There’s some Merle Haggard somewhere in one of my songs. There’s some Diana Krall, there’s some Sarah Vaughn and there’s some Louis Armstrong. There’s some Aerosmith. There’s a little bit of everything, so this time I didn’t really care. “Does this sound like jazz?” I didn’t put that synthesizer on when I was writing. I refused to do that this time. I wanted to write what I felt. And so a lot of it is “sophistipop”, some of it is “cinematic jazz”. A lot of times when we perform people will say, “Gosh that should be in a Bond film. It sounds like James Bond film music.” And I guess it does to them. That’s what’s cool and I don’t think we should put labels on music really. I know we have to, to market them to where they should land radio play-wise. But now that things aren’t really radio specific, you can choose your own music and it’s personal. I know on my personal playlist, it’s very eclectic – the pendulum swings wide. Why can’t it be that way with music in general? I think there are a lot of people if I say this is jazz that would be off-put and not want to listen to this, who would really enjoy it if they kept an open mind because its influence is from a lot of things. I think overall the arching thing was “Things We Didn’t Say” – and that’s a song that is actually on the album, means things maybe we haven’t said – a couple in a relationship – and it doesn’t have to be in a love relationship, it can be in any kind of relationship where there are things unspoken and you want to get them out there. So I think for me, there are also things musically unspoken that I want to get out there. That’s why I thought, “Things We Didn’t Say” – it fits it well because it’s not just talking about the lyrical content, but musical content as well.
– Dave Weinthal
Robin Grant and The Standard perform on Valentine’s Day at Songbirds Guitar Museum North.