Wistful and in need of emotional closure, the title song “Long Distance” from Sara Decker’s CD of the same name is a bluesy interplay between her vocals and the expressive piano. It’s a modern story of a love affair conducted via social media. The song conveys the emptiness and disconnectedness of such an electronic relationship which prevents a genuine human bond from forming.
The emotional, haunting “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (with a descending line from trombone that lends a stunning extra layer) shows Decker’s voice in its full beauty: standing on its own, adding no unnecessary adornment; notes hit head on, harmonies blending like mist in the clouds.
Other songs, like the cover of “How Deep is the Ocean,” are gems as well; not just stories of ungraspable love, but also of the joy of finding and celebrating love. Decker’s refreshingly new voice on this debut CD shines with clarity and glows with an inner light.
When did you move from Germany?
I received a Fulbright Scholarship to obtain my Master’s degree in jazz voice at Manhattan School of Music in 2014/15. I fell in love with the city and the music scene! Since the beginning of last year, I am living and touring on and off in New York and Germany on an artist’s visa.
Do your cultural roots inform your sound today?
I think the German language and my cultural heritage undeniably left their mark on me, as I grew up surrounded by it. But it was more an unconscious process.
I was never a big fan of German folk music in particular, but this year I rediscovered my love for German poetry and I started a poetry project with Tom Schreyer, a German composer. We called it “Nachtgeschichten” and we wrote music to selected poems about darkness and night.
I think my sound today is informed by a variety of music I grew up listening to. There was some classical music (Bach and Beethoven) and also Joni Mitchell, the Carpenters, Alanis Morissette and later Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Bjork.
What do you like most about the NYC music scene?
New York has such a variety of live music venues and a scene for every imaginable genre. There is a great concert every night! I feel like a musical pilgrim here. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide where to go.
Most of the musicians I’ve met are dedicated and passionate about their craft and the music. The level and the quality of music is very high, while everybody is humble, supportive and professional. That is very inspiring to me.
How do you take care of your voice?
At the moment I am doing a daily warm-up routine for my technique. I’m taking some speech therapy lessons and try to do yoga at least three times a week to keep my body and muscles relaxed.
That doesn’t always work while traveling and touring, but I try to stay disciplined and take care of my health. I recently had laryngitis and recognized how important it is to be careful with this fragile instrument.
How did you expand your range and how long did it take?
It took me quite some years. I had not had many music lessons and my higher range was not trained. So I had to start from scratch, which was actually a good experience.
It helped me develop a good sense about how I learn and how to develop my voice in a healthy way. Ultimately it also helped me as a vocal coach because I understand the struggles.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
That’s a tough one…there are just too many good musicians. In my teens I listened to a lot of rock, electronic, pop and hip-hop; the Beatles, Kraftwerk and Jill Scott. After high school, I spent a year in a social internship program living in Brazil and fell in love with Brazilian music and the Portuguese language. Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento, Seu Jorge, Chico Buarque and Joyce Moreno. I studied music history and got back to listening to a lot of classical and contemporary music from Bach to Stockhausen.
I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan; her lyrics are just beyond comparison. The Mingus albums are just great and feature incredible jazz musicians.
Jazz music was something I discovered much later in life. My father listened to free jazz when I was growing up but I didn’t like it then. Now I’m grateful he opened my mind to improvisation and free music.
Jazz music: for me it all started with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I bought a jazz compilation and those ladies were on it. I was completely hooked. They made me realize I could indeed use my voice as an instrument, scat and so on. I started listening to and transcribing instrumentalists like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles and so forth.
Now I sometimes get to work with my favorite musicians or I see them in concert. That’s super awesome!
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” – talk about the unusual combination with you, trombone (plus later, trumpet) and piano?
I wrote the beginning of the song as a singer/songwriter/pop ballad and wanted the chorus to open up the feel, to support the lyrics and the loneliness in it.
In the beginning, the trombone plays the bass notes while the bass supports the upper structure of the piano melody in the second verse. This combination gives the fragility I want and leaves a lot of space for the chorus to open up.
In the chorus the song becomes more jazzy: drums enter and bass switches to the low range, while trombone and trumpet support the melody. The piano plays a sound carpet which lifts the chorus, then Oskar Stenmark plays a beautiful trumpet solo and Caleb Mason partly solos beneath him on trombone.
I am eternally grateful for those amazing musicians and friends who played the music so beautifully and made it come alive.
Was that inspired by the Carson McCullers book or from your own experiences?
I read the book, but the lyrics are mainly inspired by my own experiences while I was living in New York for the first time.
For me New York is a city of controversies, full of dreamers and hunters. People seem to be busy searching for something. It can be beautiful and energizing, but it also can be very lonely.
The song became a story about longing for something you cannot even define, and about the loneliness that search implicates. It was January and extremely cold and snowy when I wrote the song.
How did it feel to place second at Montreux Jazz Voice Competition?
I actually did not expect it at all. It already felt like a big honor to be invited to one of the most prestigious jazz voice competitions in Europe.
I tried to be as relaxed as possible and enjoy as much as I could. It’s not easy and as I am not really a competitive person, it was quite a challenge. I felt like all of the seven invited singers could have placed. They were all talented. Some of them were great improvisers.
I chose songs that I could identify with. Being authentic and the ability to tell a story is one of the things I most admire in other great singers and I try to do that myself.
To me the competition has a traditional face and that’s not necessarily the music I write, but nonetheless I chose songs and standards that I really love and felt capable of writing some good arrangements to.
Winning was a great feeling of course, and singing in front of and being judged by Cécile McLorin Salvant was a big honor. I love her singing!
In July we will presumably open for the Chick Corea Trio with the Montreux Academy band. I am looking super forward to this!
Major differences in style between the Sara Decker Group, and Schadrack Pierre/Sara Decker?
I would describe my music as more introverted, dreamy jazz/pop, while Schadrack is singing lead vocals for Oneword which is stylistically a hybrid of R&B, hip-hop, soul and jazz. Schadrack also wrote many melodies and lyrics for the project.
When we play live, we normally start out with one set of SDG [Sara Decker Group] music where Schadrack is singing backing vocals. In the second set, we tend to mix the groovier SDG tunes with Oneword repertoire to get a more upbeat set. And I also get to sing backings for him. It’s super fun and the audience appreciates this kind of mix.
Why did you do a double release of SDG and Oneword?
We wanted to bring Schadrack to Germany to make some music together. He and my husband Jeroen met in New York while studying. It started out as a friendship tour.
Oneword is a band formed by Jeroen Truyen (drums) and his friends Joos Vandueren (sax) and Juresse Ndombasi (guitar). They recorded an album with Giorgi Mikadze (piano) and Antoine Katz (bass) at Systems Two in Brooklyn a few months before I recorded my debut album “Long Distance” at the same studio.
In the production process, Schadrack wrote some lyrics and we overdubbed them while he was visiting Berlin. It was inspiring to see him work, especially to see him overdub all those backings. He is such a talent!
For the release we played the whole repertoire with the SDG band in Germany. We played about 10 shows all over Germany and part of the Netherlands and Belgium. The US release will come soon.
What IS the “one word”?
The band name occurred while Jeroen and his friends were desperately looking for the one word – the band name – that would suit their music.
How do you keep discrete flavor between hip-hop and trad jazz?
Arrangements and harmony depend on the essence of each song, and the lyrics (or no lyrics) and the mood I want to transport with it.
I don’t think in terms of genre when I start to write. I allow my ideas to come out without too much judging and then I try to dig deeper. If I have a motive, I’ll try to develop and harmonize it. If I have a lyric, I’ll sing it how I mean it and then try to harmonize it. When I start out with a harmonic progression, I’ll find lyrics or a melody.
We aim to have a good balance between groovier, R&B music and jazz-oriented songs. Sometimes we also integrate standard arrangements to offer our view on traditional jazz.
What themes inspire your lyrics?
Everything that surrounds me. Emotions, experiences, politics, art, going to the next subway stop.
Name a few of your top clubs in NYC and abroad.
Too many great clubs in NYC. Many of my favorites are in Greenwich Village. The Village Vanguard, Cornelia Street Cafe, 55 Bar, Smalls. But I also love the (old) Stone, Jazz Standard and Birdland.
How would you like to develop your sound this year?
I am in a very inspiring process of searching for new sounds and possibilities for my voice. I want to try different settings, mainly smaller and more acoustic this year.
I recently had a very inspiring work phase followed by a performance of free/noise music with Theo Bleckmann, where I discovered completely new sound options and concepts. I want to dig deeper into these areas and will definitely also take some time to write new music.
How do you keep the songs fresh and new?
I look for inspiration and movement. As long as I’m moving and learning, I think my music will develop too.
What do you most want audiences to know about your music?
Music is communication and I hope my music speaks to people and makes them stop and listen for a while.
Thank you so much Debbie for the interview!
For more information, visit www.saradeckermusic.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sara Decker.
© Debbie Burke 2018