Normandie Wilson seems to have emerged as a talent, fully formed only recently, but there is a lifetime of experience behind her cocktail jazz pop. Recently featured on NBC’s Sound Diego, she currently has a Wednesday and Thursday evening residency at the Lafayette Hotel; meanwhile, most Saturday nights, she can be found at the Caliph singing with inspired covers group Blue Velvet.
The buzz started in 2013, with the release of her excellent disc, Geography and Other Problems (reviewed this month), full of “martini-sipping, diamond-wearing swing pop.” Anyone who enjoys the sounds of Bacharach or Jobim, Swing Out Sister or the Style Council will find this album an indispensable addition to their collection. “Its classy music,” Wilson smiles. “It’s music to dress up to and music to listen to, to sit and really listen to while you eat or drink or relax. It’s music for cocktails and tuxedos and nights on the town. It is not music to rock to, or to destroy things to, or to get crazy to.” It’s a testament to her songwriting prowess that her songs stack up well against those of her musical influences. “I’m a pianist and play lots of standards, and often when I play original tunes, no one can tell the difference.” Matched with real stage presence and wit, it seems only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to the wonders of Wilson’s music.
While the acclaim is recent, Wilson has actually been performing publicly since the age of five. “It was at a holiday talent show, and the song was “Frosty the Snowman,” she recalled. “The audience response was thunderous applause, but, looking back, I think it was the material that elicited the response. I mean, it’s a pretty great song with a killer narrative,” she joked. By 13 she was playing weddings and was also in a competitive show choir all through high school. “We’re talking 10-12 hours of rehearsal a week, plus performances,” she said. “It was just what I wanted to do; I loved music and when you played music, you gave performances. This wasn’t original music though.”
Wilson was born and raised in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, aka the home of the “Mothman,” for any Forteans out there.
How she came to San Diego is a musically motivated tale. “It was the Beach Boys, believe it or not. I have always been a huge fan and I always wanted to live in California. It seemed like a paradise. So I moved to LA, with the help of a long-distance boyfriend, and I was shocked to find that it was exactly the way I envisioned it: Paradise.”
She arrived in LA the day before New Year’s Eve, 2005. The visions of paradise didn’t last long. “I had food poisoning and rang in 2006 from the comfort of a bed with a trash can next to it,” she recalled. Wilson joined the band Red Pony Clock shortly after that and started coming to San Diego regularly for shows and rehearsals at the beginning g of 2006, finally moving here in November 2009 for good. “I’d just returned from a long, disastrous European tour and I’d had enough of the hectic life of LA,” she explained.
In the ensuing years, she’s amassed an impressive discography, starting with two independent EPs in 2007, Glitter Patter and Healing Arts for Broken Hearts, which were later combined into one 2010 CD called Early Birds: Songs from 2007. In 2009, she released a joint record with fellow songwriter Sebastian Clark, titled Music for Smart People. Wilson also released her album The Flower Box in July 2010, with two EPs in 2011: Summers Are for Lovers and Buon Natale, Vol. 1. That same year saw her only foray to date in vinyl, with a 7-inch single of her song, “Saturday Night Girl.” 2012 brought out a new EP, At the Heart of Staying in Love, with a pair of releases in 2013, the instrumental Mod Piano, Vol. 1 and Geography and Other Problems.
Wilson is known for her wonderful piano playing, but she’s adept at several other instruments. “Piano was just the first instrument I learned how to play, because it was the first instrument that was available to me, and that’s really all there was to it,” she said. “I don’t play anymore, but I started playing violin in fourth grade. Then I wanted to play the saxophone in sixth grade but it was too expensive so I went with the trumpet. Later on in life I taught myself how to play the vibraphone and then the marimba and the clarinet, and finally, at age 26, the guitar. I play marimba with Red Pony Clock and guitar from time to time, but I don’t play much of the other instruments anymore.”
Beyond giving her a chance to stretch out instrumentally, Wilson credits her involvement with Red Pony Clock as a catalyst for her creativity. “I saw how it could work. I wouldn’t say that being in a band is easy, but I had always thought there were more limitations than there were. Nobody in our band had a ton of money, or free time, yet we all managed to make it work. Gabe Saucedo is literally the one person who not only introduced me to most of the people I know and love today, but who also showed me that I could do it. I am not exaggerating when I say that I owe a great portion of the life that I have today to Gabe Saucedo and the band that I’ve been in for almost eight years.”
Two other names feature prominently in Wilson’s modern career. Ecuadorian drummer, Luis Cely has been accompanying her on select dates; meanwhile, she has been collaborating with pianist Kevin Cavanaugh as part of a covers project called Blue Velvet, a gowned and bewigged piano and vocals quartet, specializing in pop classics of the sixties and seventies.
Wilson has now seen her fair share of the world, toured the U.S. extensively, and been at least a semi-resident of several zip codes, but future plans are for her stay in San Diego to be permanent or at least into the far foreseeable future. To that end, she considered it important to finally move her baby grand piano from the East Coast family home out to San Diego. “It was actually important for my mom, who wanted to use her living room again,” Wilson laughed. “I am planning on staying in San Diego, and I don’t know a better symbol of permanence than a baby grand piano.” It will not be housed at Wilson’s residence however. Instead it will be found at Rarefied Recording and can be used for recording by other artists.
It’s been said that having someone else sing your song, whether an artist or an audience member, is the ultimate compliment. Wilson has taken this to heart. “I want my songs to be known, and I want to write songs in the classic style of many songwriters that I like and admire… people like Cole Porter, Joni Mitchell, and Burt Bacharach…. so I’d better study what it is they do, so I can do it too,” she said good naturedly.
Having witnessed Wilson perform at a variety of venues from house parties to headline club nights, the way her songs hit a crowd is impressive. It’s like they’ve suddenly run into an old friend. People stop. People listen. People smile. “When I started singing with Blue Velvet, no one knew my song “Saturday Night Girl.” Now, my friends sit and mouth the words with me while I’m singing. That’s a fun thing.”
For her own material, the subjects are often close to home. “I am a very reflective person, and my songs are a mirror of that. I spent a lot of time thinking about things, probably too much of the time,” she mused. “I do both forms of songwriting, lyrics first and also music first — the kind of song that comes from lyrics first is always different from the kind of song that comes with music first. I write a lot of instrumental pieces; sometimes the lyrics come to those, and I decide to just leave them out because it feels better without them. Or sometimes an instrumental song gets lyrics after a long wait. It varies, but I’m open to the ways in which the process works for me,” she said.
She is particularly proud of her latest album. “It was a long haul, emotionally and financially,” she remarked. “It was a good investment of my time and I appreciate the album more after letting it be out in the world for a little bit. I know I made it the best that I could,” she said.
As for the cool space-age cocktail jazz and pop sound, Wilson notes that it’s not a pre-planned thing. “I don’t think I decided on this type of music. I think Geography is just the latest evolution of my sound, the core of which came from my friends in Sweden. The three of us sat together and recorded four of the songs live. That was a real experience for me, and I’m happy to have had it.” Wilson would like to create more records that have that kind of cohesive ensemble sound. “I love doing the solo thing, because it means I actually get things done, but to be able to work with people who “get it” — who understand the sound that you’re going for, and not only do they work with you to get that sound, but they take it a step further as well — that’s amazing. The bassist on a lot of this record was a kid who was 19 years old at the time, my friend Fredrik. He sat down and agonized over his takes and his sound. He made sure that his bass and his guitar work sounded exactly the way he wanted. He put his 100% in, and it shows. I look forward to working with those guys again in Sweden and to also find more people who work like that. That’s something special.”
Upcoming projects include her first book, a self-penned, soon-to-be-published volume on her experiences in the music business, Mistakes, Misadventures, and Miscalculations in Independent Music. Plans are also in motion for a new EP later this year, in addition to a “best of” collection. She also continues to collaborate with artists around the world, most recently with Adam Marsland (ex-Cockeyed Ghost).
Despite financial, emotional, and personal setbacks in her quest to bring her music to the world, as detailed in her upcoming book, Wilson is happy to be a musician. “My favorite thing about being a musician is being able to touch people,” she said. “Every week people come out to shows and gigs, and they’re all touched by the music. They sing along to their favorite songs, or they dance around, and they all look so happy. People say live performance is dead but it’s not. People say no one is buying CDs anymore but they are. The music industry landscape is changing, but the experience of listening to music has not changed. It’s still a fundamentally human experience, and it’s an experience that brings people closer together. It’s an honor to be able to participate in one of the most universal human experiences that exists. I love the creative process; I love writing and now that I’m getting older, I love the constant rediscovery of music.”
She also likes the connections she’s made. “I love all the amazing friendships I’ve formed through music,” she said. “I’m in several bands, and it’s never just a band; the longer you play with someone, the more like family it becomes. I’ve been lucky enough to congratulate friends on their marriages, hold their new babies, look at pictures from their trips abroad, and be there with them through both the joys and sorrows of life. That’s the kind of friendship that music creates. It’s a wonderful thing.”