Interview: Jazz Vocalist Erin McDougald

Erin McDougald, The Flapper Girl, is a Chicago-based jazz vocalist, bandleader, composer-lyricist and producer.  She will be performing at The Velvet Note in Atlanta on January 6th and 7th.   In addition to her own songs Erin McDougald performs the timeless tunes of people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and others that fill the pages of the American Standards Songbook.  She has produced four critically acclaimed recordings as leader since 2000, and is the creator the FGP JazzSeries in Chicago, which brings a live audience into a recording studio environment so they may be part of the recording process and part of the actual recording through audience reactions and applause.

Q&A With Erin McDougald

In anticipation of this weekend’s show I got a chance to chat with Erin.

Tell me about your compositions and inspirations.

I write my own own music and compositions.  I love to start with obscure songs not necessarily out of the American Standard Songbook.  I like Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen as composers and writers.  When I am doing standards my intention is always to modernize and fit the music into a new progressive situation. Whether we are talking about the standard musical collection of jazz or if we are looking at modern jazz composers like Miles Davis or John Coltrane.   In my 2005 release Meeting Place we did a cover of “Sweet Child of Mine.”  This song done by Axle Rose with Guns and Roses we tipped the song completely inside out.  We put it into 7 4 and turned it into a modern jazz treatment.  I LOVED doing that.  So whether is taking Celtic traditional songs, heavy metal songs, or even classical music I love to draw from those parts and transform them into something truly unique and rhythmically savvy.   .

How did your time at the Columbia College in Chicago help to shape your musical career?

I knew that I wanted to go to a school that focused on music and performance.  At the time I was interested mostly in musical theater.  That quickly dissolved after being in Chicago for a few months.  The jazz bug bit me and I transferred my focus from music theater into Jazz Studies.


What do think of the life blood and legacy of jazz music in the context of declining record sales?

Jazz use to be the definition of pop music.  “Pop” music was of the jazz idiom for many decades. Around the world, through jazz, America was seen as the trend setter for music around. I think that in terms of popularity, it’s never the goal for someone that goes into jazz. As a creator, it’s more about the idea of breathing in new innovation, understanding where the music comes from and creating your own voice.

If you are caught up in how popular the music is you aren’t being authentic in terms of your pursuit of what you are doing musically.  I never really pay attention to what’s popular I care mostly about the pith behind what is being created. I think the idea is to create interesting and moving music and finding opportunities to get that out.  Not just on the radio or on iTunes but through actual performances.  Reaching people on a personal level is the key while performing jazz music. This is really the difference between jazz and many other genres of music.  Jazz is such an improvisational art form.  If you go to hear Wynton Marsalis in New York at Dizzies with his big band on any given weekend in January and then four months later in New Orleans… even if he is playing the same songs he wouldn’t be playing them the same way, it would be a completely different experience.  I would argue that jazz is the most non-stop, moving, evolving music that there is.

If we are focusing on what is popular, jazz will most likely never be the most popular form of music.  I think that most of us wear that as a badge of honor as we dedicate our lives to doing jazz.  I love being outside of the mainstream pop culture.

For the crowd at the Velvet Note, what can we expect for your performances?

I really, really enjoy playing with the extremes of tempo.  From slow as molasses to break neck, Charlie Parker speed.  Then doing a medium tempo swing or taking something that would be a swing and slow it down or change the meter on it.  It’s fun since I’m relying on the experience of the audience to know the material.  If they are novices in jazz hopefully they will hear something that makes them want to hear more and go look up other versions of the song.  Before I sing a song I like to introduce music to the listener. I explain why I may be playing a certain song or what that song has meant to me or just tidbits about the composer and how the song was written.  It’s important to engage the audience and educate everyone on the material and give personal connection.

What was the first album that you added to your personal music library?

There are a couple that come to mind, from when I was five years old.  For the first one I still have the album cover out at home as a bit of a joke.  It was the Soundtrack to the musical Annie.  No matter where I was from the pool to the waiting room at the doctor, I assumed that everyone wanted to be part of the audience for me to perform songs from the musical.  The second would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  My sister and my neighbors and I would dance and act out a story for each song.

If you could cover one album in your music library which would it be?

Carmen McRae The Great American Songbook Live at Dante’s.  I just love that album and what she did with tunes.

What artist do you wish more people had in their music library?

Multi-instrumentalist Rob Block who is a killer jazz guitarist and Victor Garcia a trumpeter out of Chicago.

Erin McDougald sings “My Funny Valentine” Live

Raw Live Recording (unmixed) of Jazz Singer Erin McDougald performing her open-lilt of the Rodgers & Hart standard. Recorded live in front of a studio audience for an FGP Jazz Series performance in November 2013 with Eric Montzka on drums, Jim Cooper on vibes and Dan Thatcher on upright acoustic bass.