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Singer-Songwriter Valerie Mize

In first watching Valerie Mize perform, one could surmise part Sarah McLachlan, part Tracy Chapman, and part comedienne. Maybe it’s the Midwest in her, nonetheless the Oklahoma-bred, Washington Heights-based singer-songwriter sat down with me at Tiengarden Vegan Restaurant on the Lower East Side to chat about her music, songwriting and why she decided to pursue New York City.

Describe your style of music.

I would say jazzy, folk-y, pop-y; lots of things that end in y; Tracy Chapman. A lot of influences that made it in the 90s like Natalie Merchant, Fiona Apple, Jewel. I kind of slide right in there.

There’s a lot of quirky-ness and humor in your performances, is that your personality coming through in song or simply a persona?

Yes. I like to have fun. I’ve actually been having conversations with my bass player lately. He’s like sometimes when you’re doing a very serious song, you’ll preface it with like the most off-the-wall banter. So I don’t know. I can’t help myself.

So I guess it is a part of your personality then.

I’m part stand-up comedian. Like I would want to be a comedian if I couldn’t sing, you know it could be my fall-back career.

Having seen you perform at Rockwood Music Hall, you often write songs about your friends…or shall I say, your friends often inspire you to write songs about them, is that intentional or just something that happens?

Well, the first song I ever wrote I actually played it at Rockwood; it’s called “Now or Never.”

Is that the one about the girl in a bad relationship?

Yeah, there are a couple of them. Same girl, same bad relationship. It started there, I had this experience with this girl and I definitely was trying to be Prince Charming on some level; trying to rescue her. And basically convincing her that she was worth more than putting up with somebody who was abusive; mentally, emotionally and eventually physically. Um, so that’s what sparked me to make songs in the first place. I needed a process to deal with that and I hoped that even if I couldn’t help her immediately that I could help others who were in a similar situation, or reach her on a level musically that I couldn’t conversationally.

You touched on it earlier but I hear a lot of Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman in your songs, has that always been your style or did it develop over time?

Early on when I was teaching myself guitar, a lot of my songs were very folk-y as a result of my limited ability on the guitar. If you only know three chords, everything sounds like a country song [laughter]. So I think that that’s been a continuing thread in my music. I’ve often had comparisons to Tracy Chapman but in trying to figure out “my voice,” I went to college where I ended up getting a music degree and studying jazz vocals and opera training…which was a good idea. To be honest, I didn’t even know what jazz was when I showed up. I couldn’t tell you what it was; who a jazz singer was or what made it jazz. And so I definitely received an education; kind of a crash course in the quintessential American genre of music. And growing up in Oklahoma we didn’t have a lot of money as a kid, so I couldn’t really afford to buy CDs; we didn’t have cable TV, we had basic cable, so we didn’t have MTV, I didn’t see music; I heard music. But what I mostly heard was on the radio. I heard Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. I don’t think there was a jazz station or maybe there was one…something like smooth jazz, Kenny G. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I got the whole jazz education in college. But I feel like it shows up now more so as a result of school.

Do you think you’ll make a jazz album at some point?

Probably; I’ll probably pull a Joni Mitchell late in my career.

So you’re working on your first album right now? How’s that process going?

Bit by bit. It has taken me my whole life, or at least the last seven years since I started writing songs, to pull this together. But I feel like in the end, it really took everyday of that. Like I had to live the life of the songs created to improve my skills as an instrumentalist and as a vocalist to the point where I could record something and not be in pain. Or put anybody else through pain.

What kind of music will it be? Will the songs you performed at Rockwood be on the album?

Yeah, only with bass and drums; the piano, strings and horns and who knows what other sounds. But you know I’ve been in New York for two years now, and in all of that time there hasn’t been a week that’s gone by where I haven’t seen two or three shows a week, and making friends with a lot of singer-songwriters and amazing musicians. So I’m pulling together a crew of people who are my friends in addition to amazing musicians, so I’m making like a little musical photo album.

What gave you the confidence to pursue New York City?

Like I said earlier, I’ve moved 33 times, so in a lot of ways it was just another move…

But New York is not just another move.

No it’s not but you have to tell yourself that on some level. It’s equally a pain in the ass to pack up everything and to go somewhere where you don’t know anybody; regardless if I’m going to New York City or Kansas City. But I’ve always had a little more chutzpah than your average country girl.

One of the songs you performed that I liked was “Cinderella.” Was that one of your inspirations for the move? And when did you write it?

I actually wrote that song while I was living in the Netherlands; I was 20 at the time. It was like the 12th song I’d ever written. I’d done a summer-school program in college and our mission was to study the folklore of our native country. Since I didn’t really have access to American folklore, I simply remembered the story, and wrote those lyrics while I was sitting through a third repetition of a presentation in which I had no interest in hearing again. Like a different class, different topic, different time and this teacher kept giving the same presentation to a different group of kids. So I just sort of went into a zone and started writing it. I actually recorded a little demo while in the Netherlands. I’d met this guy with a studio and I played all 11 songs I’d written at this point; and “Cinderella” was finished like a day after I’d gone to his studio.

Will it be included on the album? Will the album be all original songs, any covers?

Yes, it’s definitely going on the album. But so far we’re eight songs in and I think we’re getting bass and drum tracks down and that [“Cinderella”] may just be guitar. There’s a possibility of one cover too; a jazz standard.

So essentially, what would you like to squeeze out of this city, musically?

So many options; it’s like one big rabbit hole. I’m half way there though. When I moved here, my goal was to meet musicians and record an album with said musicians. Not so much to move to New York but through New York. I wanna get back to Europe and tour Europe and make music and get paid to go from city to city. Plus I wanna go to Japan; my drummer is from Japan; so it may work out.

Be on the lookout for a Valerie Mize album…soon (hopefully). In the meantime, you can find her at www.myspace.com/valerieeskridgemusic

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About ND McCray

ND McCray is a former Brooklynite, now St. Louis-based writer, penning pieces on arts, culture and other stuff.
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