Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
January 16, 2019
By Joshua Miner
When Vanessa Collier performs, she’s not just playing music. What she’s really doing is sparking an ongoing conversation between herself and the audience, one which hopes to speak directly to the soul and transcend the shackles of everyday life and the status quo. While her feet are firmly grounded in blues tradition, her positive and optimistic vision aim to inspire each and every member of the audience to leave their own blues at the door.
Collier, a native of Columbia, Maryland, began playing the saxophone at 9. In the years that followed, she has steadily carved out her own spot in the blues scene, gaining international recognition with her tours taking her all over the world. Just this week she was nominated for two 2019 Blues Music Awards: for Horn Player of the Year and Blues Contemporary Female Artist of the Year.
However, before she picked up the sax, she studied a much different instrument, the piano. Due to a strong distaste for her instructor, she quickly lost interest in the instrument, quitting after only six months. Her sights soon shifted to the saxophone. Eventually convincing her mother to rent one for her, Collier immediately fell in love. Everything clicked. She had found her calling.
“I loved the sound of it,” Collier says. “Something about it just caught my ear.”
The saxophone is unique, she says, in that is resembles the human voice more closely than most instruments. Controlling your breath is crucial to playing the instrument, requiring constant awareness of your own body.
“You really do have to work on staying relaxed.”
Her style is an amalgam of not just blues, but jazz, funk, soul and straight up rock. Comparisons made to female rockers like Bonnie Raitt are well deserved, however the soul and energy she gives through her sax-playing serve to set her apart from other women in music today. At every show, she gives her very own life breath to create a unique experience for herself as well as each individual member of the audience. All of this is through the language of music, by which Collier lives and breathes.
Collier says she looks forward to having this same conversation when she returns to Plattsburgh this Friday for her anticipated performance at Retro Live.
With the release of her critically acclaimed albums Heart, Soul & Saxophone (2014) and Meeting My Shadow (2017), she began touring coast to coast and beyond, playing alongside blues legends like Buddy Guy. Her most recent tour ended with a slew of shows in Brazil.
More than playing to large festival crowds or meeting her blues idols, Collier says the most rewarding aspect of her life as a performer is lifting and inspiring those around her.
“I’ve had a couple tears fall when I’m looking at someone who’s obviously [been] touched by what either me or what the band has done and made them feel. I think that’s the most rewarding thing. I’ve had quite a few [that said]: ‘I lost my partner recently, or I struggled with cancer for a long time, or really gone through a lot recently and had a really negative outlook’,” Collier said. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and the rest of the band and say ‘You know, you guys really made my day, you made my week. This is the first time I’ve felt joy in so long.’ And to me, that’s the whole goal. To connect to someone and make them feel good and make them feel hopeful in the world.”
Her inspiration isn’t confined to the stage, however. Collier graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in 2013, and soon found an ambition to teach as well. Instructing students in Columbia, Collier says she found a way to give back to the community that was so integral in helping her get where she is today.
Her penchant for teaching didn’t begin there however, Collier has taught music since her high school days, tutoring students only a couple years younger than herself. As a teacher today, her philosophy revolves around finding things that get the students excited and engaged in learning. By speaking their language and meeting them on their own turf, Collier hopes to avoid the problems generation gaps of the past have caused in relating to students.
Over the past few years, she has become increasingly well known as a force to be reckoned with in the blues world. With her witty and inventive lyrics, Collier’s clever writing recently won First Place in the International Songwriting Competition. She also won the Jammingest Pro Award bestowed by the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise as well as Best of 2014 Blues Breaker Award on Dan Akroyd’s BluesMobile. She has also been nominated for five Blues Music Awards and a Blues Blast Award.
In the wake of her newfound recognition, her third album Honey Up carved out a place on the Billboard Blues Album Chart Top 15 for a total of 9 weeks. It also reached #10 on the Living Blues Charts.
One track from that album, Bless Your Heart, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary of an all too common experience for many women today. In the song, she takes aim at those who might underestimate her. Someone who calls her “honey” or “baby”, as if she isn’t the powerful blues tour de force she is. In the chorus, the belittling language is dismissed with the oftentimes condescending southern expression “Bless your heart.” While the song keeps the subject lighthearted with amusing lyrics and clever rhythms, it seeks to shine a light on a real issue that women deal with on a daily basis.
“Every once in a while you come across the person that kind of puts you in a box, like you’re just a female up there to look pretty. I believe I have a message, I believe I have more to give than my outside appearance. If you listen, you’ll hear that,” Collier explains. “It’s not that I take offense or anything like that, it is what it is. It just shows you where people are at. But Bless Your Heart came out of that sort of call to sisterhood in the way [that] we don’t have to put up with some of the degrading things that women experience on a day to day basis.”
Collier says she is grateful that these discussions are taking place today, both by men and women. As a performing artist, she says she has an obligation and a responsibility to use the platform she has been given to address these issues, as all good artists have always done. More often than not, she explains, an idea is sparked through a lyric, and that spark can quickly grow into a wildfire of social change.
“I think it’s part of your job to throw some ideas out there that people will listen to. And hopefully that sparks a movement or sparks some small change in your town, but then it expands through the county, expands through the state, and so on. That’s the hope at least.”
There is a long history, Collier explains, in using music to affect positive change.
“A lot of our thoughts come from musicians and artists that view the world slightly different, slightly outside the box. So that first statement of ‘Hey, maybe we’re not headed in the right direction’ often comes from artists.”
The lineup for Collier’s band fluctuates, with the Strand Theatre show consisting of Laura Chavez on guitar, Derek Lavoie on bass, and Nick Stevens on drums. Chavez, a well recognized musician in her own right, was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award for her stellar guitar work. She was also featured on Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter’s album Right Place, Right Time, which went on to win the 2018 Blues Music Award for Best Album. Stevens and Collier have a long history together, dating back to the first gig she ever played in high school. Stevens joined the band three years ago.
Collier is also no stranger to the North Country. Not only has she played in the area on three previous occasions, her second album Meeting My Shadow was written in the Adirondacks. Hiding away in a camp for a week, she found the inspiration to meet her shadow head on, in turn producing raw and soulful compositions and more of the clever lyrics she has become increasingly known for.
She has fond memories of the area, saying she is looking forward to her return to the North Country.
“I love it up there,” she said. “It’s gorgeous.”
Whether she’s playing in front of thousands of people at a festival in Brazil, or in small venues scattered across the country, her mission never wavers.
“A large part of what I’m looking for is to connect with each and every audience member, regardless of the size of the venue. So, at big festivals I try and connect to every person I can. And [the] same thing with a club of eight people.” she explains of the relationship between her and the audience. “If we’re both somehow feeling this energy, it builds and builds and builds and somehow the music just gets better by the end of the set than you’ve ever played before. So [the audience has] helped tremendously [to] explore new areas artistically.”
For the world today, Collier says the need for the musical therapy of blues music is as necessary as it has ever been.
“I write a lot of positive stuff, because there’s a lot of people that are down, they don’t always see the bright side of things. And I’ve gone through some very difficult times. Music has often pulled me through, It can give you that joy when you can’t always get yourself out of the rut. It just kind of gets in your body. I don’t know what it does, but it’s like everything gets twisted around and you can get the feeling that everything is going to be ok.”
The show starts at 8 pm this Saturday, September 21st at Olive Ridley’s in Plattsburgh. Tickets can be found at plattsburghbluesandjazz.com for $15 in advance, or $20 at the doors.
Link to the pdf: Bless Your Heart – Lake Champlain Weekly: January 16, 2019