THE VOCALMUSICIAN INTERVIEW
By Dawn! E. Robinson
When I first heard JOHN STODDART sing, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was assured that GOD was still making baritones Ė there really was hope. Since the end of February, John and I emailed this Q&A to each other - sorry, but it was just too snowy and artic to go outside. The result was this interview. Enjoy...
DR: I know you were the child piano prodigy. But do you remember how early you sang?
JS: I actually began singing first. My earliest recollection is of a song called "That's Why I Love Him So". It's an old hymn that Sis. Roole, who still attends the church I grew up in, would request every Sabbath. I got so tired of singing that song that when I started playing the piano I didn't sing again for, like, 10 years.
DR: I can relate. A similar thing happened to me when I was a kid in church. But I didn't have the option to quit - tee hee. People don't realize what a burden that puts on young singers who are just discovering their voices. Sure, on one hand, it's encouragement. But on the other, it can put alot of pressure on a kid not to disappoint people. Did you sing in choirs as a kid growing up; at church or in school?
JS: I don't remember singing a whole lot in church as a kid but I did start singing again in high school.
DR: What kind of music did you sing in high school?
JS: I remember singing conservative Christian music and, oddly enough, musicals.
DR: When was the next time you sang solo? Do you remember what the song was?
JS: The next time I had a significant public solo, ironically enough, was also in church. While I was in college, I attended Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, DC. Wintley Phipps was the pastor at the time. One Sabbath I sang an impromptu duet with a Contemporary Christian singer named Patty Cabrerra whom I had met the previous night during the audience participation segment of her concert. We sang Mervyn Warren's arrangement of "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" from the movie Sister Act II. It was funny to watch the audience reaction. Most people, even friends of mine, had never really heard me sing before.
DR: I can imagine your friends were stunned! Like where did all that voice come from? What made you decide to study voice?
JS: A certain amount of voice and piano is generally required for completion of a music degree. I was also on a music scholarship, studying conducting as well as singing in the College Choir. Studying voice just kind of came with the package. But in the end I was really glad I did. College was the only time I studied voice so all of my real technical understanding of that instrument was developed there. I still use much of what I learned during that time.
DR: Good answer. Having a good technique as a base definitely helps if you find yourself in some vocal trouble. Who was your voice teacher at Columbia Union College?
JS: I began studying with Leland Tetz who was also my choral conducting professor. But I finished with an amazing tenor named Jon Gilbertson who was also a pretty good jazz pianist.
DR: Are you still in touch with either of them? Do you ever go back to them for vocal coaching?
JS: I saw Mr. Gilbertson a few weeks ago in the audience at a Wintley Phipps concert. He also sang at my wedding.
DR: For the sake of young singers reading this, would you describe the voice curriculum at Columbia Union when you were there?
JS: I was a piano major/voice minor so I didn't quite have all the same requirements as voice majors. But things like ear training, sight reading (both rhythm and melody), actual voice lessons, languages (I only did German, French, Latin and Italian) were part of the program. We also had to do juries every semester and I think all voice majors had to be part of the choir.
DR: Can you recall any arias or art songs you worked on? Also, what was your worst and best jury experience as a voice student?
JS: I don't remember any of the solo vocal pieces although many of the choral are pretty common in standard church repertoire. I always sing along.
My worst college performance experience came during my Junior recital when I forgot where I was during a Bach Prelude and improvised for about 3 bars and sort of ended up back on track. Afterwards, my teacher said, "that was a very interesting rendition.Ē
DR: How did you get involved with arranging and producing for "established" singers?
JS: My first big production/arranging gig was for gospel artist Wintley Phipps. The album was entitled The Power of a Dream. I was a member of his church at the time and when the organist moved to California, I was her replacement. I had also been experimenting with music programming since high school and he gave me a shot.
DR: That's great!
JS: Around the same time I became friends with the guys in Spur of the Moment who I met through Andre "Blues" Webb -
DR: "Blues" is one SINGIN' child too!
JS: I met "Blues" through one of the original Smallwood Singers who was managing a gospel group I was playing for at the time. The guys in Spur introduced me to Kevin Jackson (Night Flight Studios) who got me to do a remix for an R&B group they had produced for MCA. The mix engineer for that project was Paul Brown. He and I really hit it off and have been working together ever since. He's produced my songs for everyone from Al Jarreau to Boney James. Paul also passed my first solo record on to the people at Warner Bros. That connection eventually turned into an artist deal.
JS: There are many details I left out of that story in order to make this point--these events were not luck or good karma or anything mystical. I am an example of how God can orchestrate your life. Most of what I left out of the above story were instances where I tried to make career moves that resulted in dead ends. At the time it was discouraging but looking back I'm very happy with the direction God has taken me and it gets easier and easier to trust Him with the future. If I tried for a million years I could never have designed such a plan, let alone gotten it to work the way God did. So to anyone reading this, don't be discouraged by set backs. Like my friend Willie Jolley says, "A set back is just a set up for a come back".
DR: Along with Wintley Phipps, you have worked with Celine Dion, Sandi Patty, Al Jarreau, Diana Ross and Patti Austin. Would you describe your experiences working with singers? You donít have to name names if you have horror stories. Were you able to work closely with them or did you deal primarily with their "people"?
JS: As a songwriter, which is where some would say I've had most of my most notable success to date, you don't usually get to work directly with the artist. I did get to work with Al Jarreau and he was amazing. I didn't realize he was such a great songwriter. He was very good at providing direction while still valuing input from others.
DR: Oh my gosh!!! Al Jarreau is a REALLY great songwriter - I love the way he phrases lyrics. And, of course, he has a phenomenal musical ear. You should check out some of his early albums (on CD now) like We Got By, Glow, This Time or my absolute all-time favorite, All Fly Home. I'm a Jarreau fan from way back.
JS: I find, in general, that singers need to be handled more gently. Because you are the instrument, criticism really has to be phrased delicately. Also, there are physical limitations that other instruments don't have. For example, I might do a whole day of keyboard production or arranging but couldn't imagine doing more than 2 or 3 hours of singing before needing a break.
DR: Absolutely. As a songwriter, what usually happens first for you, the melody or the lyrics?
JS: The hook-melody, chords and some type of lyric or - lyric concept - usually come first and I build the rest of the song around that.
DR: When the ideas for a melody come to you, do you hear your own voice singing them or do you just hear the notes?
JS: I've never really though about it. I guess I would have to say I hear myself most often but I have written specifically for other people as well.
DR: In bands, there is often a kind of animosity between instrumentalists and singers. Being an instrumentalist who also sings, do you experience that at all in your work?
JS: One of the funniest things to me has always been the distinction that people make between "musicians" and "singers" as if those are 2 different things. I've been really fortunate to work with some amazing singers, the interviewer, not withstanding. Again, because of the delicacy of the voice/body as an instrument, most singers tend to handle themselves gently. I would say, however, that the singers who are most respected by the other "members in the band" have really done their home work when it comes to other areas of musicianship like understanding harmony and chord changes. This understanding really facilitates communication within the group which is the foundation of any musical relationship.
DR: Good answer. The first lesson I learned at Ellington [School of the Arts] was that if you're in the music department and you're studying and making music, you're a musician. Whether youíre a vocalist or instrumentalist, you're a musician. Let me ask if you had any favorite singers growing up and if they're still your favorites - do they still inspire you the way they did when you were younger?
JS: I grew up listening to a lot of big band so some of my favorite singers early on were Nat Cole, Sinatra, Dean Martin & Bing Crosby. I also listened to a lot of Wintley Phipps & The Breath of Life Quartet (one of the fore-runners of Take 6); The Richard Smallwood Singers (he was/is a huge influence and inspiration); Bebe Winans, Sting, James Ingram . . . I could go on.
DR: Thatís a great list!!! Now, about your recordings. You're first CD (which I loved, by the way) Love So Real you recorded/produced independently. Will you talk a bit about what that process was like? Is the CD still available?
JS: It was a really organic learning experience. I had no idea what I was doing, just following my instincts and what I had already learned. I actually set out to put together a production/song-writing demo but by the time I was finished ended up releasing Love So Real as an artist.
One of the great things about doing my first project independently is that I got to do exactly what I wanted. I called in some favors and everyone was really supportive. Seeing the whole process through to the end also gave me a great perspective that actually helps me when I produce for other independent clients.
You can still get a copy [of Love So Real] from the web site http://www.uje.com
DR: Now, you're new CD will be released in August. What is the title?
JS: Wings to Walk This Road . . . I think.
DR: And you're now on the Warner Brothers label. How was the process different in making the new CD from what is was on your first?
JS: We spent a whole lot more of my money (Advances: a whole different interview!) and there are obviously many more people involved in the process. I got to meet and work with some people I may have otherwise not met and I'll have a whole lot of help when it's time to distribute and market the record. I always tell people--everything has its pros and cons.
DR: With a busy schedule, a wife and very young daughter, how are you handling the challenge of balancing career and family?
JS: There's no magic secret. You just pray and ask God to help you keep your priorities straight. He comes first, your marriage & children come next and you just do your best when it comes to keeping all the plates spinning. I try to remember that part of what it means to be human is that, every so often, one of the plates will fall so keep a broom and dustpan nearby.
DR: Finally, VocalMusician.com wants to wish you the VERY best in all of your musical endeavors! Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
JS: We have the best job in the world. Always remember to thank your Boss.
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