A Career Unfolding: Exclusive Interview with Natalie Cressman

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Up-and-coming trombonist and singer Natalie Cressman has been hard at work. She just finished another year at the Manhattan School of Music and completed Turn the Sea, her follow-up to 2012 debut, Unfolding. While she wasn’t expecting to make a record so soon, she couldn’t stop the songwriting bursts she encountered. She’s even staying busy over the summer —  we caught her during some off time while serving as a counselor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

Cressman will lead her own group at Summer Fest, but she also tours with jam band great Trey Anastasio in TAB (the Trey Anastasio Band). Though Anastasio is currently on tour celebrating Phish’s 30th anniversary, Cressman notes that the break is by no means an indefinite hiatus and she looks forward to re-joining the fold in time.

While we had her on the line, she let us know how the  new album is the logical continuation of her catalogue thus far, explains why she went the Kickstarter route with promoting both records and opened up about why a dance injury in high school helped her realize she wanted to pursue the life of a professional musician.

If you get a chance to see Ms. Cressman on the Metro Gordon Biersch Stage Sunday afternoon, don’t forget to pick up an advance copy of Turn the Sea. If you don’t, you’ll have to wait a while — Cressman says the album won’t officially be out until early 2014!

Based on how you describe your latest album, Turn the Sea, the album sounds like a bit of a change. As you mention, you “became entranced by the intimacy of songwriting and of expression without my horn as a medium.”

When I was writing the songs for Unfolding, it was just the beginning of me taking on singing in a solo role. The lyrics came to me a lot later in the process of writing those songs. There were four tracks on that album that have vocals, two of them originals, and those originals were written toward the end of the process. On this album, the lead voice is the vocals. There were a lot of secondary voices on the other album.

What other patterns have you noticed in the music people first heard on Unfolding, and how does Turn the Sea diverge from your debut?

I think [Turn the Sea] is kind of a logical continuation. [Unfolding] was really eclectic and drawing from Afro-Brazilian styles with little hints of hip hop influence. I think I just took that further by letting in a singer-songwriter / indie influence on this project.

Also, on Unfolding, things were really revolving around improvisation and the solo sections. With this album, the improvising kind of takes a back seat to the songs themselves. At the same time, it’s not really an indie album or a singer-songwriter album because there’s still that spontaneity of creative, reactive music that’s very much associated with jazz.

I wanted you to weigh in on another quote of yours. You’ve said that Turn the Sea is “very reflective of who I am. It is pure, and honest, and genuine, something that I find elusive in this day and age.”

What I meant is that it’s really easy when putting a record together to try and be bigger than yourself. I think I feel most comfortable making music when I embrace exactly who I am. As a frontman, and as a singer especially, there’s a lot more nuance and subtlety to what I do. I’d like my role in my singing [to be seen] as being part of a band and not stuck way out in front, and I think the music reflects that. Even though I am singing a lot, everything is really integrated.

I think it’s really hard these days to really find a group, especially in mainstream music, that does that. It’s always really about the one person, and it’s their whole overly dramatized persona that almost seems more important than the quality of the music and what’s going on underneath it.

You’ve used Kickstarter, and successfully raised funding, for both of your albums. Why did you choose to first go that way with Unfolding, and why did you choose to follow that route again with Turn the Sea?

I don’t really have the support of a record label that’s going to help me promote and get distribution and such. I had finished Unfolding and was trying to figure out how to afford, as a college student, to hire a publicist for three months and hire a radio promoter to do an eight-week campaign. There’s just so much happening in the world and the music market is so over-saturated that unless you have someone really connected and helping you get some traction with the media, no one’s really gonna hear about your CD.

I saw that other people had been using Kickstarter to fund their albums, and while sometimes I feel like funding someone’s entire album – a whole $20,000 budget goal – is a lot, I thought that my first campaign for $6,000 was reasonable. I think it’s worth it. It’s a nice exchange and builds positive energy around the project.

Back in high school, you were dancing ballet at a pre-professional level. A foot injury sidelined you, which eventually led to a your full transition into music. Before that time, did it seem that you were destined for the world of professional dance?

I was invested in dance for a long while. At the beginning of high school, it became a really big struggle. My body wasn’t the right shape or format. There are certain things [in dance] where, if you’re not born with, it’s hard to overcome. After battling that – being very pre-occupied with what I was eating and spending lots of extra hours outside of the classroom trying to basically force myself to figure out a way to become the ideal type for this creative art form – I just didn’t feel a lot of creativity in dancing any more.

When I got injured and had all this free time to play music, and I found some people to play music with, [I reached] a really big turning point. I realized how level the playing field is in music. The way you play is an exact result of what you put into it, and I liked that fairness and openness. The camaraderie with musicians is also really different. Being jazz musicians specifically, you’re playing with each other all the time, so that level of competition and intense isn’t really there in the same way. For a lot of those reasons, I decided that I’d be happier, and more successful, as a musician than as a dancer.

Dance will always be there. I still dance for fun. Without the pressure and intensity of being in a rigorous program, I can really enjoy it and find that expressive part of it much more easily.

Much like Sasha Dobson, another Summer Fest ’13 performer, you come from a musical family, with your father a trombone player and your mother a vocalist. What specifically do you feel you’ve learned from each musically?

I think from both of them, I learned to be professional, prompt and reliable – all the things that don’t have to do with the music. Especially in a place like New York, there are so many good players, and I think what sets people apart is their positive attitude, the energy they bring to the music and being reliable.

From my dad, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of being melodic. For me, that’s really at the forefront of everything I do – the way I write, the way I play and the way I sing. He also taught me to play to the style. We grew up doing everything from practicing Latin jazz to playing classical and jazz duets. He has his own voice for sure, but also has this real respect for the music he’s playing and an awareness that really impacted me.

My mom’s love for Brazilian music really had a huge effect on me. I also learned from watching her be a band leader. She also composes, and seeing the way she feels when writing music made me interested in writing my own music.

Natalie Cressman appears on the Metro Gordon Biersch Stage Sun Aug 11 @ 4pm. For more info on Cressman, visit her site at nataliecressman.com