Vanessa Collier and the magic of the blues

Vanessa Collier

It’s not a bad thing to have a degree from the Berklee College of Music in your back pocket. Far from it. But Vanessa Collier’s “real” education in the blues likely came from one of the greats, Joe Louis Walker.

“I think anytime you’re on the road, you’re learning more than you can ever learn in a classroom,” admits Collier, who was part of Walker’s band in 2012–13 before going out on her own to release two critically acclaimed albums. “And that was no exception with Joe. I learned a lot about stagecraft just watching him. He really pays attention to his audience and does a great job of that and running his show and showing off his band. And he’s an encyclopedia of knowledge — not just for blues, but everything. Everything in the history of music, he’s a history buff, so you get this whole wealth of knowledge, and I still love going and playing with him because I’ll always learn something new.”

It’s an old school approach that you would associate with the blues, but not with someone from a younger generation more geared towards pop, rock and hip-hop. But Philadelphia’s Collier was all in from the start, and even when she enrolled in Berklee, she wasn’t veering from her chosen path.

“I had that bent towards blues right from when I started,” she said. “When I started playing jazz and started playing a 12-bar blues scale, that’s what always spoke to me. So it didn’t really matter as much about the theory that I learned. All that stuff added on to what I feel is spiritual, emotional music. And that’s kind of where I started. So the theory and the scales are on top of it, but not as important. So it was really easy. And when I started playing with Joe Louis Walker my senior year of college, it was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, this is home, this is what I know, this is what I love.’ And I started my own career after that and I just really wanted to play blues.”

With vocals that can go anywhere Collier wants them to and the saxophone playing that put her on the map in the first place, it’s no surprise that she’s the latest recipient of the burdensome “Savior of the Blues” label, especially after the release of Meeting My Shadow last year. But she takes such talk with a grain of salt, content to make the music she loves, no matter what you want to call it.

“I’m not super concerned with genre boxes,” she said. “I like a lot of stuff, I listen to a lot of stuff, so naturally it’s gonna come out in my music. I tend to make and write what I love.”

Yet when Collier takes her show on the road, she does notice that there is a younger crowd starting to file in and stay, a hopeful sign for a form of music that will always be comfort food for anyone’s soul.

“It’s very interesting to watch the younger generation listen to this music because they do think it’s an older crowd that always wants to listen to it,” she said. “Then they see people like myself or Jarekus Singleton or some of the people coming up that are trying to carry it forward or do their own thing, and you can see them light up. This music is so needed because it’s such an emotional release both listening to it and playing it. However you’re attached to it, it’s part of your day, it’s part of your being, and if you let it become part of your spirit, then I think your life is better. So I think it’s incredibly important and such a blessing that some of the younger generation takes notice and they dance and they’re into it. I just love it.”

And though she’ll pass on the “Savior” label, it’s clear that Collier will accept “Evangelist” when it comes to making her music and bringing it to the people. And that’s important, because while anyone can make a great sounding record in their bedroom with a cool computer setup, it’s out on the road where music — any music — truly lives.

“You can get away with a lot of things on a record that you can’t live,” she said. “But the artistry is in that live moment. What can you do, how are you going to connect to an audience that might not know you or isn’t necessarily warm to you? How are you going to keep the ones that do know you excited about what you’re doing? You’ve gotta be on the road, showing that side of yourself, and that’s where the true magic happens and where you get to grow as an artist.”

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