While most bands and artists today have jumped on the insanely popular pop-rock band-wagon, Svetlana & The Delancey Five have other plans and aren’t afraid to make their own mark on the music world their way. That way is by reinvigorating the New York music scene with the jazz sounds and styles made famous in the 1920’s and 30’s, performing at one of the very few remaining speakeasies in the city and reminding people everywhere that the music of the past doesn’t always have to stay there; that it can and indeed deserves to be heard by modern day music fans.
With more shows planned for the weeks and months ahead, leader of the group Svetlana kindly agreed to this interview to chat ambitions, dream shows, the influence of Ella Fitzgerald and the power of social media.
PW: Please introduce yourself.
Svetlana: My name is Svetlana, I am a vocalist, songwriter, and band leader from New York. I front Svetlana & The Delancey Five.
PW: How would you sum yourself up in five words?
S: Artist, mom, nerd, neo-gypsy, super-woman.
PW: When did you first realise you wanted to be a performer and did you have any other ambitions prior to that?
S: I feel I have always been an artist - I spent hours as a child drawing, making dolls and houses from sticks, stones, and dirt, that was my favorite activity by far... and then, when I was about five, we had a holiday show in my preschool, and I have discovered I could control my voice and sing the song the correct intonation and projection. I was given a big poem to read but not given a solo to sing and remember being super bummed about it, thinking, yes, singing is so fun, performing is fun and I definitely want to do that!
There was no stopping me after that and I sang every day - kids songs, pop songs I heard on the radio, classical songs - anything I heard really! While I studied music my whole life as an adult, I had to take a detour before becoming a full-time professional musician - I have a degree in mathematics and worked in education, market research and management consulting for a while - there were a lot of circumstances and people throughout the years that led me back on being on this road of being musician - and I am very glad that I am here now!
PW: Can you recall the first concert you attended and record you bought? What impact, if any, did they have on you?
S: One of the first 'real' concerts I attended as a child was classical series subscription concert for the Moscow Conservatory. I was pretty young, I remember sitting at the balcony in this gorgeous half-empty Moscow Conservatory Hall on a Sunday afternoon... I was a little bored - it was a lot to take in as a kid, music is one of the most abstract art forms - it is there one moment, and gone the next.
So I started creating stories in my head and even sometimes drawing these abstract multi-color drawings of lines and circles as the music went on... Creating a story with the music is what made music meaningful for me as a child - and what makes it meaningful still, as adult - in additional of just being at awe with the beauty of music itself.... Several years later I also remember seeing one of my first American show in Moscow - it was the show by Liza Minnelli. We have all seen the old movie "Cabaret" so she was quite a star to us especially because American artists did not make their way to Moscow that often. I was just a kid and could only afford "penny arcade" tickets - yet what amazed me that it felt that she is singing straight to me, her connection to the audience was incredible, and something I think about every time I perform.
One of the first records I bought was a compilation "30 by Ella" which is 1968 studio album by Ella Fitzgerald. I earned some money by working at the electric plant in high school - we had to do these 'practical education' courses which included assembling radio transistors or electric parts in a real assembly line. It was not much but it meant I could afford to go into a store and buy a CD! The album has very unusual structure because it is made of six medleys, 5 - 6 songs each which were arranged by Benny Carter. I only had money for one album and Ella was one of my singing idols, so I just bought the album that had the greatest number of songs. I listened to it almost every day, and have learned every note and every instrumental transition within the medleys. It just became one of the building blocks inside the musical library and vocal library inside my brain! And I still sing many of these songs, some quite rare as far as jazz standards go.
PW: Which bands or artists did you grow up listening to and have those influences/artists from your childhood changed much as you've gotten older?
S: I listened to all kinds of music as a child - as a student of classical piano, and, frankly, as a Russian kid, classical music has always been part of my ear diet. On the other hand, every day, as I was eating my breakfast in Moscow apartment kitchen, I was listening to the radio which, between the hours of 8 and 9 am was spinning Russian pop music. At the time it consisted of a mix of poorly constructed patriotic propaganda tunes pretending to be "easy listening" music - "Our friendship is better than Western World friendship! Oh Yes!" - and 60s sounding pop songs in Russian which were not so bad, but kind of consisted of the same 20-some tunes in rotation performed by the few Soviet pop stars "appointed" by the party leaders - Soviet pop was 20 - 30 years behind western pop, style-wise.
At the same time, we all had a random bunch of illegally copied cassettes with classics of Western rock and pop, whatever we could get our hands on such as Boney M, Beatles, Abba, Queen, Ozzy and Metallica. We also had a whole bunch of LPs - soviet Pop Groups, as well as a rare Western Pop, especially French - Mireille Mathieu was huge - and several Ella Fitzgerald LPs which I listened to over and over again on the turntable in my apartment! As the borders and musical tastes of the country started to open up I have listened to a lot of local rock groups - there was a lot of rebellion and anti-establishment type sound and also a lot of sentimental "early Beatles" type groups.
As I began my study of jazz in Moscow, my ear pallet opened up to include more sophisticated jazz sounds - from Monk, Coltrane, Roach - to singers that did a lot more with the song than simply deliver it superbly, such as Betty Carter, Billy Holiday, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter and more - and as I matured as a person I could also hear and appreciate more than simile sweet and nostalgic sentiment of their music, but also their pain and torment.
PW: How did you meet your band-mates?
S: I met my band-mates for my Svetlana & The Delancey Five band through my Speakeasy show we play every Monday at The Back Room. It is a rotating cast of characters, but I mainly have the same band playing there every week with me!
PW: Is there a particular band or artist you think you sound most like or do you make a determined effort just to be yourselves?
S: I think in jazz you try to incorporate tradition, and therefore you end up incorporating the sound of jazz artists that came before you, but then you also take it to the next level and make it more unique. I am not trying to sound like someone - or NOT sound like someone, just trying to do my best writing and singing the best song I could sing - and if it ends up reminding someone of an artist they have heard before, well that's another way they can connect to my music and my performance!
PW: How easy or difficult do you find the song-writing process? Can it depend on what you're writing about?
S: I think it is different with every song. Most ideas for songs come to me, the core 'purpose' of the song - and if the idea is strong and complete, often times the song just kind of 'flushes out' of my body right away. Of course then it takes many iterations of polishing it up, taking stuff away, replacing a lyric or a melody line. But the core of the song is there.
Other songs take a long time to work out - and at times end up in 'abandoned' folder. But I do come back to them if I am still drawn to the original idea that propelled the song into existence. It may sound like a cliche, but I find that if you are writing about what you know, everything is there for you to put together a good song - the details, the metaphors, musical ideas, etc. If the song has a hard time forming, it may be that you have gone into the 'thinking' territory too much, where you are not expressing something truthful to yourself, be the underlying idea an imaginary one - or based on real life events.
PW: Who or what most influences your song-writing?
S: Frankly, influences can come from anywhere. My songs usually start with the idea... For example, one time, I was traveling to a festival with a friend, and we were speaking about relationships, difficulty of connecting with someone, falling in love - and he said to me "well, love is an illusion anyway" - and a song was born - it is called "Love is An Illusion", the rest was just filling in the blanks, some with memories of events that happened in my life, some in pulling from imagination and creating a coherent overall story, a dream.
This other time, I noticed, at the gig, that a piano player in my band, who is also a singer, sings many of the same songs that I do, but in a key that is one step away from the key I sing those songs in - for example, C major and D major - so I wrote a song "One Tone Apart" about singing in slightly different keys, walking at slightly different paces, and ultimately not being able to connect in life and in love - but still hoping to do so one day.
I also spend a lot of time driving to and from shows, especially very late at night - and I am a gypsy at heart, I love the travel part of performing... So I had this idea about us, musicians, leading this night life while our partners and families often are asleep when we are awake and active and are engaged in our magic, but then it's such a pleasure to come home and cuddle with your loved ones - the resulting song, "While You Are Asleep," kind of speaks to that idea.
PW: What, to you, makes a great song and with that in mind, which song would you say is the greatest ever written and why?
S: I love songs too much to say that there is one that is the greatest ever written! Sometimes I connect so deeply with the song at a gig, and everything comes together - the band, the music, the interpretation, the moment of my life when I sing it, that I immediately declare the song to be the greatest ever... and then it passes on to the next one - sometimes within a matter of one show!
I am also learning about and learning new songs every day, so I really would not dare to declare any song to be 'the greatest'... It is also difficult to separate the song itself from a performance of the song - many old jazz standards have very simple melodies and lyrics, but because they have been performed by greatest singers ever alive - Ella, Billie - these performances elevated the songs to being even greater! It also depends on the time of your life you hear a song, and how much you can relate to - or even understand what the song means.
That said, I do remember a few songs that stopped me on my tracks. For example Bjork's “Unravel” or Thom Yorke of Radiohead’s “Present Tense” - they are, to me, are full of such breath-taking beauty and sadness, such hopelessness and heart-breaking beauty. It just goes straight to your heart. The lyrics and music for these are also deceptively simple but can be perceived at more literal and also a deeper imaginative and musically complex level. And of course, the performances by Bjork and Thom Yorke make those songs that much more special.
One song I truly think of as one of the greatest ever written is “Deep Purple” which was a big hit in the 30s written by the pianist Peter DeRose - originally as a piano tune. It has a huge tonal range and is very hard to sing - and the lyrics, which were added in the late 30s, are incredibly poetic, starting with the very first line "when the deep purple falls"... not the dawn, not the night, but "deep purple", and, as the songs mentioned before, refer both to literal meaning. Many songs of the era were like that, with the meaning very clear or hiding right behind the surface, but it’s also dreamy, and imaginative. It's just gorgeous poetry and gorgeous music which make this song incredibly beautiful and special, truly, one of the greatest jazz standards ever written.
PW: You regularly play shows at one of the very few remaining speakeasies in NY. Why is playing such shows so important to you, and how does it impact both you and your audience?
S: This is the room where the band was born, where I learned to be a band leader, and a better more confident performer, singer, where I have expanded my song list of jazz standards and have tried out the songs that I have written. To me jazz is a very social music - and at this weekly show we bring jazz to "jazz curious" audiences that do not necessarily go to jazz clubs on a weekly basis. The show has also been valuable in terms of the exposure it affords - to new audiences, to dancers, to listeners, to press. We have been covered by press from the US, England, Russia, Japan, France, Argentina, Sweden, Germany, and so many more - it is truly a very unique spot for music and night-life. Only in New York!
PW: What are your upcoming tour/performance plans?
S: We have lots of shows coming up, including our continuing weekly residency at the Back Room Speakeasy. The next big show in New York for us is for Blue Note Jazz Festival at BB Kings - Lucille's Grill - on June 24 - we are going to show some of the new material, as well as do a segment of the show as a tribute to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald Verve Records recordings that turn 60 years this year! We are featuring an incredible trombonist and vocalist Wycliffe Gordon, so this will be a fantastic show!
In July I am off to Israel to play in clubs in Tel Aviv for the Blues Festival, and also play clubs all over the country, from North to South. I am now also planning West Coast and New England mini-tours for the end of the Summer.
PW: If you could play a venue anywhere in the world with three other bands or artists who can be living or dead, where would you play and who would you choose?
S: I want to play in Japan! Any venue - this seems like such a fairy tale place, I am really hoping to get there soon! I am also a rock-star at heart, so it would be great to play a super huge venue, to experience the energy of a very large crowd.
Since you told me I could travel into the fantasy land, I'd say that it would be fun to share the stage with some of the jazz legends of the past, such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington. A lot of this music has been learned in the past by touring and working with band leaders - while singers were not given as much respect initially, it allowed the vocalists to learn and develop "on the job" - it be really nice to experience that kind of vibe of the swing era!
And I also dream that I'm at a Bjork concert and that she points to me and says "Hey, you, in the 75th row, come down, you are now going to be an opening act for my band!” I really dig Bjork as a musician - she created all the beats for her last album – but also as a singer and an imaginative, original and authentic artist. She has created in so many genres, from pop, to jazz, to experimental electronic - these are the genres that I have created music in as well, in electronic experimental form with my group Petits Machins. It would be phenomenal to participate in the creative process with someone like her!
PW: What are your thoughts on social media? Would you agree it's a necessary tool for bands and artists today?
S: I think when social media was in its infancy, it was really an incredible way to connect with other artists and audiences "social networking" as it was meant to be... During that time I have met a great number of people who are now my collaborators in various ways - and was also able to reach out to people who may not have known me personally and who ultimately became my audiences. Social media has only become more confusing since then!
On one hand it still contributes to transparency and openness of music world, it’s a great way to see what's going on, find out about events, festivals, follow the news of your favorite artists - in many ways, with its events, artist pages, and other features, Facebook is a 'google' of music industry.
On the other hand social media a nuisance that takes independent artists - who manage their own social media - away somewhat from creative process. It also proliferated a number of 'brokers' who, in their own self-serving way would attempt to scare artists into thinking that if they do not have a certain specific numeric indicators - "likes", "followers" – that kind of thing, they would never move to the next level of their career.
Ironically - and especially due to the existence of these 'brokers' who can aid anyone with the budget to buy 'likes', 'views', etc- social media has become much less of an accurate indicator of show attendance, ticket and record sales, at least in the independent music world. Additionally, audiences and fans do not feel like checking in with "the inter-webs" about their actions by doing things like clicking "yes" to "attending" a Facebook event, and just go see shows.
Generally, social media forces you to focus outwards and to seek confirmation of your work outside of your immediate artistic product - versus serving the music and producing the work that you are most proud of yourself, and this is our job, and our focus, as artists, first and foremost! As one of my mentors said to me "Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you"! This has nothing to do with social media!
PW: Finally then, where do you see the music industry going in future, and what one thing would you most like people to remember about you and your music thirty years from now?
S: Assuming the present state of economy and world politics, I think because of development of music-making and communication technology, the industry will keep deregulating, the music will be more and more so 'in hands of people' both in terms of making, but also in terms of consuming it. On one hand, this is great and allows anyone who is interested in making music to grab a gadget and make a professionally sounding product, express their creativity, connect with other musicians who may live across the globe and collaborate real time on a project - and allows limitless connection and consumption of any music anywhere!
This will deliver music to people that may not otherwise be as interested in or have opportunity for accessing it - and it's a good thing, more music is great! That said, this will result in much more music product, good and bad, and it will also be harder and harder for musicians to sustain living making music because it will be more and difficult to draw audiences to live shows and to sell music to consumers. I suspect - and hope- this, however, will not change basic human desire to create art - and, in particular, music...
If, however, we all have to move to the Moon because we have destroyed world's environment, it will be a whole other story altogether.... And then - and even if we don't - I'd like people to remember my music as the one that took them away from their daily life's troubles; that transformed their world into a happier one, and, maybe, made them smile!