Bending Notes to Blue – Vocalist Shelly Rudolph

Shelly Rudolph 2

Shelly Rudolph is master of the well-placed sensual groan, around which she has built stories – worlds – of hopeful hearts and broken hearts. The song “Hidden Moonlight” talks about something intensely intimate (the sound of a lover’s name in one’s mouth). Not only is Shelly’s articulation dripping with lusty delight; she has eschewed traditional percussion on this and instead recorded a back beat with her own vocalizations, shushing like the brushes might if drums were present. The listener is therefore receiving 360-degree Shelly. She immerses us in heat, which one might guess is her wicked intention.

Sultry is not all she does. “The Late, Late Show” is a chance to prove she can absolutely swing, and accompanied by the amazing and festive piano of Tom Grant, the song comes brilliantly to life.

Her upcoming CD, “Wild Bird Project,” is about inviting you home to yourself; finding what is home for you, emotionally as well as spiritually. On this CD she’s invited several different pianists plus Grammy winner and cellist David Darling, whose stunning, emotional sound is guaranteed to enhance this body of work.

Where did you receive your vocal training?

I am pretty much self-taught and have been performing – jazz, blues, soul and a stint with a Belizean reggae band – professionally for over thirty years. I started in the high school choir and fell in love with singing. After being selected to perform a solo with the jazz choir at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, I began private lessons.

During my first year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York I enrolled in Music Theory which included a bit of classical vocal training. The professors were wonderful but I had such a hard time with the concept (and practice!) of actually singing the notes as written. I am definitely a jazzy lady at heart.

Were you writing poetry first?

Yes. I’ve always loved to write – journaling, creative stories, even research papers – but the intuitive, mysterious, yet minimalistic and clarifying practice and product of poetry and lyrics suit me best. I clearly remember my first experience of “writing” a poem. I put this in quotes because I really feel more like I “receive” poems and songs as opposed to writing them. It’s more of a collaborative process with something beyond me.

Anyway, I was in seventh grade and we were given the assignment of putting a photo into words. I looked at the picture, felt myself open up, entered the photo and a poem poured out.

The next day the teacher shared my poem anonymously with the class. It was so surprising and wonderful to be seen, heard and met in that way.

What gives you the spark of inspiration throughout your day as you write new songs?

My songs really just come to me. Unbidden.

Love, as I mentioned, tends to be the main inspiration. With its infinite flavors and manifestations, it is endlessly juicy, rich – not to mention the beginning and end of what life is all about.

I love writing! The process is so magical. It feels like I am taking a moment out of time and connecting with the source of it all. I’ve learned to stop and welcome songs when they do appear. If I am driving in the car I record them on my phone. If I happen to be free, I head to my little studio/mermaid cave, open up and let the words and melodies flow through me. It is a really dreamy, rather meditational process. Sometimes there is rum involved.

It doesn’t really work for me to set out to write a song about something specific though I’ve discovered that I can plant a seed for a song and one will usually blossom pretty quickly. I’ve been creating custom songs for couples (weddings, engagements, anniversaries) as well as events (fundraisers, celebrations) and am launching a custom song page on my website soon. It’s such an honor and delight to share the process with others. 

What venue have you liked the most in NYC?

Honestly I haven’t been to NYC in such a long time. I lived in a six-floor walk-up in the Village, just around the corner from the Blue Note and loved the clubs near there. The Vanguard, Smalls, Sweet Basil… I’d love to perform in New York, of course, especially since David Darling lives nearby in Connecticut. It would be another dream come true to perform live with him!

What is the jazz scene like in Oregon, where you live?

When I moved back to Oregon from Los Angeles, I was thrilled to become a part of the scene in Portland. There is an abundance of incredible, truly world-class musicians here – as of course there is in LA! However, the overriding feeling here is one of true community and support. It really feels like everyone wants to help each other and see one another succeed.

I am so grateful to be able to work with incredible talents, both live and on my upcoming album. That said, as most anywhere, it’s hard to make money as a jazz musician. There are only so many gigs, only so much money to be paid. It’s an exciting and very creative time to be a musical artist, as there are so many ways to reach listeners beyond your local area; yet the possibilities and schemes can seem endless and overwhelming.

I am doing my best to create music that is artistically, soulfully true for me while keeping an eye towards how best to share my work so that I can connect with more fans and make more music.

What was it like to perform in Asia?

My first time performing in Asia was a three-month stint at a five-star hotel in Japan. I loved singing six nights a week, meeting people from all over the world; and having clean sheets, fresh orchids and a gorgeous pool to swim in every day. I was able to explore the city and make some friends.

The club patrons were so appreciative and enthusiastic about my singing and song selections. I must confess though, sometimes when I received a request for a song that I did not want to sing I’d pretend not to have heard of it. “’Memories’? Hmm no.. I don’t know that one.” They’d often go on to sing it for me and I’d still look mystified.

My second stint was very different. I toured military bases in Japan and South Korea with a band that I worked with in LA. We performed classic soul, R&B and a few Latin songs as well. The USO wanted us to focus on a Latin repertoire so I added more of those selections – some of which I still regularly perform. This was a completely different experience from my luxury hotel vantage, of course. We traveled on military aircraft (so loud!) and mainly stayed on base. I often felt like I was visiting Midwestern America more than traveling in Asia. The reception was also quite enthusiastic, but in a different way. “Mustang Shelly” was our big closer, for example. So silly! But fun.

The cello is interesting in jazz, and it’s prominent in your new CD. How does it mesh with vocals?

It is interesting! And makes it a bit challenging for me to classify this music. I am hoping that this is a good thing and not an obstacle in the promotion of the album!

The sound of the cello feels so human to me. The timbre is bittersweet, resonant and vulnerable, as if the heart is speaking directly. Cello and voice come together in conversation, heart to heart, soul to soul. Sometimes intimate, sometimes epic, sometimes sensual, sometimes otherworldly.

The cellist “Maverick” David Darling, who is featured on this album, plays from the heart. He is extraordinarily caring, wise, deep and a bit wild, and all of this comes through in his playing. Working with him has always been a dream of mine. Due to a series of serendipitous events set in the Caribbean which is my dreamland, it came true! His arrangements and interpretation of the songs are so enchanting and transporting, like a sea of celli.

With David Darling on board, talk about the inspiration for this new CD, titled “Wild Bird Project.”

“Wild Bird Project” is an integration of my musical tastes (jazz, soul, classical, roots-world) as well as an integration and expression of all the parts of my life experiences: body and soul, earthly and mysterious, sensual and spiritual.

My intention with this collection of songs is to invite the listener into this space of acceptance, where all are welcome, and in so doing inspire a sense of wholeness, healing, peace and celebration. In essence, to invite you home to yourself. Indeed, home is such a prevalent theme on this album – and I am speaking/singing here to the home of your soul, to a place that is indefinable and inexpressible yet 100% knowable – and 100% essential to living a sane, satisfying, centered life!

This is what inspires me. This is what I hope to convey with this collection of songs.

The recording of this album has been a lengthy process. I became a mamma to my wonder boy Hollis soon after recording with David Darling, which certainly makes everything better! In addition to the busy-ness of life, my mom had a head injury and needed a lot of care, I had a concussion in July 2016 that slowed things down quite a bit and fundraising for the project has also been quite consuming. I am so thrilled with how the music has come together and just amazed by the incredible musicians who have helped create it. Speaking of whom, they are:

Chance Hayden (guitar, co-producer)

David Darling (cello)

Tom Grant (piano)

Dave Captein (bass)

David Matthews (piano)

Darrel Grant (piano)

David Goldblatt (piano)

Devin Phillips (soprano sax)

Redray Frazier (duet and backup vocals)

Martin Zarzar (cajon/Peruvian drum)

Jeff Langston (bass and vocal producer)

As far as the naming of the album, “Wild Bird” was written while I was up in the middle of the night with my newborn son. I felt such wonder and power within and without me. The dark, deep quiet of the night. The miraculous presence of this new human. The knowing that I carried him, birthed him and nourished him with my own body. Wow. Nothing bigger than that for me. It has become my anthem of sorts as it unabashedly expresses the fierce, essential, uncontrollable feminine force. This is what empowers and moves me.

My favorite track depends on my mood. Today I am in love with “Butterfly Walk,” which features my lyrics and is an adaptation of Vladimir Cosma’s “Sentimental Walk” (from the cult classic movie “Diva”). On a sassier day I love “Close Enough.” This song was inspired by an ee cummings poem: “Lovers are mindless, they higher than fears are hopes. Lovers are those who kneel…” I love how he invokes both the lusty and the mystical.

On a day when I am in need of inspiration I turn to “Faith” where I remind myself: “You know just what to do. Have a little faith and see it through.” The upside of this slow-moving album is that I feel immersed in the music yet also pleasantly detached, which allows me to actually listen and enjoy the music more than I normally would!

How does this CD differ from your earlier album “Water in my Hand”?

I see “Wild Bird Project” as a natural progression from “Water in My Hand.” It delves more deeply into the dreamy and poetic side of my musical and lyrical sensibilities. Cello, which was included on a few of the “Water in My Hand” tracks, obviously has moved to the forefront and the overall sound leans more to the jazz side of things colored by acoustic piano, soprano sax and the absence of drums.

The intention of this album is to conjure, convey, integrate and honor the experience of being both body and soul, both human and divine. I really hope it touches and opens listeners’ hearts, however they interpret the words. Or perhaps they will pay no mind to the words at all and just lean back into the music to find themselves feeling a bit softened, soul-soothed and glad to be alive.

How is the crowdfunding going?

The crowdfunding has been successful, I say with huge gratitude. I have been brought to tears many times by the generosity and incredibly kind words of my supporters. Lordy – it is HARD to ask for money and keep at it.

I am happy to report that the album is completely recorded! The mixing is underway though I am looking for a few more donations and/or business sponsors to reach the final fund-raising goal which will allow me to complete the mixing and mastering.

The stunning Skamania Lodge in the Columbia Gorge (WA) just signed on as a corporate sponsor and invited me to be their Artist in Residence this year. I am so honored and excited! 

Release Date?

I am anticipating this summer. There many steps to making a record!

I keep on writing too, so I’ve got songs jumping up and down, waiting to be recorded. I envision a live, in-studio album next time.

Marketing plans for it?

I will be getting the word out as best I know how! Online and in person. Bugging everyone I can think of, relentlessly. I am exploring the possibilities of teaming up with a promoter and/or a record label for the launch. I have a lovely fan base here in the Northwest and am affiliated with the fabulous PDX Jazz Festival so that will be where I start. I’m open to ideas and connections!

Where will you perform this year?

I have a host of regular gigs here in Portland for which I am so grateful. It’s important to keep the music and energy alive and “on the scene.” I will be starting my artist residency at Skamania Lodge in Washington this May with regular performances and workshops. In addition, I will be performing as part of the Portland Jazz Festival, several delightful vineyard concerts throughout the Northwest and at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle with Tom Grant this summer. Many other venues and collaborations are in the works including a trip back to southern California with shows in LA and Malibu.

How will you grow and develop your music?

This month marks the debut of my new ensemble: SOUL SHINE. Here’s the link: With this group, my eyes are definitely on growing new songs and conjuring a vibe: enchanting, sensual and soothing. I keep writing so the challenge for me is to set up some structures that allow for an easy flow from songwriting to performing to recording to promoting — to doing it all over again. 

Other comments?

Thank you for your wonderful, thought-provoking questions and for giving me a platform from which to share my thoughts, vision and heart. I so appreciate it!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Shelly Rudolph.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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