Like that first morning pot of coffee, you just gotta have your java and keep filling it up to the brim. There’s no reason to stop pouring when the enjoyment level is so high. And thus we have the magnetic Sandra Marlowe’s new release, “The Heart Always Remembers,” in which her fount of energy and breadth of technique are amazing and addictive.
It’s easy to over-sing tracks that have their origins in movie musicals or are otherwise uber-popular, but Marlowe brings a natural proportion to these tracks, like the syncopated “Fascinating Rhythm” which she draws out like colorful taffy and the sensitive-yet-torchy “When Did You Leave Heaven?” (killer instrumentation from all concerned: piano, drums, bass). Marlowe is adept at hitting the fullness of a tone without the need for vibrato, evident in “A Sweet Wind,” where she reveals only a peek at the width of her vocal range. The title track “The Heart Always Remembers” is pointedly contemporary, shaking-your-head relatable and very sweetly sung with perfectly subtle harmonies (with Robin Hambey guesting).
Do you remember your first public performance as a vocalist?
Absolutely. I grew up in rural North Dakota in a town of maybe 300 people at the most. I was the youngest of four children in a very musical family, and my parents insisted we attend church. At the age of six, I sang a righteous rendition of “Away In A Manger” for a Christmas service at our little gospel church. As I recall, the preacher was quite impressed and “prophesied” that I would sing for millions some day. Well, it’s not been millions, but a few hundred and maybe thousands via radio.
Why did you choose to be a musician?
Coming from a family who appreciated and practiced music in community, albeit mostly as an expression of divine worship and praise, I was immersed in piano lessons at five years old. Discovering I liked to sing, I requested voice lessons from my parents with a local teacher (who made contact with me just a few years back, after 40+ years!) when I was 14.
An interesting side note is that due to my father’s religious beliefs, I grew up without television and many social activities that young people enjoy were restricted – no dancing, no dating, no movies, no theater, no teen stuff, etc. I threw myself into music and personal creative pursuits, aspiring to excellence, practicing for hours, doing recitals, singing in school groups and attending competitions.
As I grew in my skills, people began to take notice of my talent, and supported and encouraged my efforts. I’m sure those early beginnings led to the unfoldment of a career in music, one that has had many re-definitions. At times, it is difficult to have made something that is so deeply connected to my insides into a “career” or business. But I don’t know how it could be any other way. Although I am not particularly a religious person, my spiritual and personal growth is woven with who I am as a singer and a performing artist.
Talk about how theater work helps keep your skills sharp.
I’ve done a small amount of theater work over the years, and a couple of my vocal teachers were theatrically educated and inclined. Theater to me is all about telling the story, selling the lyric, being in the character.
I have never been the quintessential theater performer in terms of my temperament or loving being onstage and in character, yet my regard for the lyric, the story, is evident I think in how I approach and present a song. Some jazz singers may lean more toward groove or improvisation or vocal “gymnastics,” but my first priority is usually the story or interpretation of a tune. What is being said by this lyric? What is the subtext?
I consider the audience a major priority – they should be entertained, touched, affected. Whether it’s a jazz venue/show or a theater/cabaret setting, I’m always aware of my audience, and that I’m part of a team effort and we are working “in the moment” without a net.
I enjoy doing vocal direction with young actors/singers in theater. They seem so much bolder than I ever was as a youngster. They keep me on my toes, just one step ahead. As a private voice teacher and coach, I stay tuned in to what is current, the musical trends (good and not-so-good), what the scene is for teens, college students and young pros.
What was the biggest takeaway from your early training- either about technique or the music business?
My early vocal training was classically oriented – because no one was teaching jazz much back then – and because I was told I had the potential to sing lead operatic roles. I enjoy the vocal mastery – power, beauty and agility of sound – in opera, but it was not where my heart and path were going to take me.
However, that training and discipline has been vital to my journey. It gave me a foundation for further work – music theory, ear training, vocal technique including breath and core support, vocal placement, vocal registers; but also I developed strong work habits.
Regarding the music business, that has been a bit tougher for the sensitive artist side of me. As a young person, I was shy and lacked confidence – not necessarily in my singing, but certainly about many other aspects of being – so I learned perseverance. And eventually, as you age, you develop some bit of “devil-may-care,” I’m going to do this! You worry less about what people think, and you have proven enough, mostly to yourself.
How long did it take you to expand your vocal range and are you still developing new skills?
Vocal range can definitely be expanded. It’s a matter of training the musculature to support the sound, although natural ability does vary. I was born with a fairly broad range, and the early exposure to singing and training helped develop and strengthen that in my late teens and 20s.
One renowned coach I worked with in my late 20s, Judy Davis in the Bay Area, CA, did sort of “boot camp” resonance work with singers. The foundation of her training was singing “full voice,” full resonance, throughout one’s entire range. These are ideas that I now pass on to my students, along with a series of rigorous exercises. With some age, my voice has developed a richer, warmer sound along with more varied timbres. And yes, I am always exploring the voice – Mongolian overtone singing, sacred chant, scatting, toning, new methods of expression!
What is the inspiration behind “The Heart Always Remembers”?
Oh, wow. Well, it’s been in the planning stages for a couple years. It was time to do another full recording project. And it had come to my awareness in the past few years that in doing music as a profession or career – struggling to teach, perform, write, and find various income streams to make a living – I was losing sight of the actual joy of singing, the bliss I felt as a young person discovering my voice. So I tried to select tunes that inspired me, had personal meaning, that returned me to that earlier self – rather than “crafting” the perfect set or show, so to speak.
The title track is a song written as a duet for myself and a close friend/former student, who’s also a singer/songwriter. It speaks truth to some aspects of our connection, and then I elaborated on that in a tune that asks a universal question.
What were some of the highlights in making this CD?
My mother passed away (at 97) while I was contemplating this recording project. Also a singer and songwriter, she and I were very close and alike in many ways. A small sum of money from her estate was the seed money for beginning this project. I am so grateful for her, and for that.
I have a deep sense of satisfaction that I have original songs on this CD; my own, as well as songs written by fellow musicians and friends, Robin Hambey and Larry Dunlap. I received support (from seen and unseen realms) during this project. My husband and I made a major relocation to northern Idaho at the beginning of all this, but I continued the work and recorded the project in the Bay Area with amazing friends and fans supporting my work, my travel and my housing. It was crazy – a week here, a week there! I had mad itineraries of teaching, performing, rehearsing, recording, back and forth.
I recognized the challenge of the entire recording process for vocalists. Finding your stride and keeping the spirit buoyed to produce good work and “birth the baby” can be grueling around travel, schedules, budget, allergies, late nights, unexpected stresses. Our voices are internal instruments; they feel the effects. After the initial recording was finished, I also realized that all of the mixing and mastering would have to be done without being in the same room with the engineer due to the long quarantine of early COVID-19. I could not obsess about “fixes” I might have done with more overdub sessions. My engineer, Gary Mankin, and I worked with what we had, sending files back and forth – listening, taking notes, editing. It saved my sanity to have that focus of work and a reason to look forward.
Talk about your band members and how you feel they complete the music yet give you the space to shine.
I worked with excellent and innovative musicians, some of the very best in the business.
Larry Dunlap is a world-renowned pianist/arranger. He crafted sumptuous and interesting arrangements, always keeping in mind who the players were and who I am as a singer. Bassist Dan Robbins is on everyone’s A-list for performing and recording, as well as Jason Lewis, a first-call percussionist. All of them shine tremendously on their own, and in this recording, at just the right times around the vocals. As veteran musicians, they know how to let the vocals be the focus, beautifully framing what I do – emotionally, contextually, musically. I tend to work with them in the same way, listening to what they are producing instrumentally and weaving a sort of “sonic” picture with them.
What is your favorite track? Which song has proven the most challenging to sing?
Selecting a favorite track is a coin toss. I love the almost lazy, lush feel and certain melodic shifts of “When Did You Leave Heaven?”. I gravitate toward bluesy ballads, as do many vocalists. We love to emote. I like the haunting feel of ‘Whistling in the Dark’ that ends on a light and positive note with ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’ And for personal reasons, and because it’s a lovely original, “In My Arms.” The most challenging? Another toss-up – between “Too Much Heaven” (the vintage Bee Gees tune) and trying to take it somewhere new; and Dunlap’s “So Quiet Is The Night,” which is just lovely and in my eyes, nothing less than simply beautiful would do it justice.
How have you kept your music moving forward during this difficult time for artists?
Well, I’m still finding my way! I’m happy to say we are planning an outdoor “drive-in” release show at a ranch arena in San Martin, CA – bring your chair, bring your friends, bring your refreshments. I’ve also just booked two live stream release shows for the fall. I’ve been teaching online sessions via Facetime and Skype for a while, but it has become my only teaching right now. In-person sessions and workshops are just not advisable yet.
But the arts and music will survive; they are intrinsic. Most artists and musicians that have been around a while are used to surviving, and thriving, with or without. We are often part of the “fat” that gets trimmed first. And we often shine best during shadowy times. We know how to whistle very well in the dark.
Looking through your career, what are you most proud of?
Truthfully, that I have a career in music! I’ve stopped at a lot of things and places, some because I had to, some because I chose to. It may all look like meandering and musing at the surface, but down deep, I’ve aspired, plodded and persevered – always keeping sight of the goal and the main thrust of my life, to be a singer. The “falling to my knees” moments – when I realized I could actually sing with a band, when I wrote my first song, when I sang with a symphony, when I looked out at a sea of faces during a festival – those all make me proud and so grateful.
For more information, visit www.sandramarlowe.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sandra Marlowe.
© Debbie Burke 2020