A life on the road, playing the blues
● By J. Chambless
For a few days in late September, Vanessa Collier was
at the Chadds Ford area home of her parents, but only for a moment. Pausing
between a string of concerts across the United States and a trip to play
another series of gigs in Europe, Collier brightly discussed what it’s like to
lead her own blues band, and how she manages to be seemingly everywhere at
At 28, she has the kind of critical buzz – and touring schedule – that countless blues musicians would envy. A multi-instrumentalist, she contributes stinging saxophone to shows with her five-piece band. Her rich, confident vocals have the pleasant raw edge of Bonnie Raitt, an artist she greatly admires. She has written three CDs of original material since 2014, including the latest, Honey Up.
From third grade through her first year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Collier’s family lived in Maryland. “We’ve been here for eight years or so,” she said. She has three younger sisters. Her parents are professors at the University of Delaware.
“Nobody else plays music,” she said, “but my mom’s always been super creative, and I’ve always marveled at her ability to help me with school projects, crafts and stuff. She’s always been artsy.”
The music in the Collier household when Vanessa was growing up was an eclectic mix – Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. She started learning the saxophone at the age of 8, working her way with surprising ease through the lessons and clearly showing a gift. “You have to get past that first cuteness,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t until sixth grade that I played a 12-bar blues. I started singing jazz in late high school. I was so nervous the first time I sang in front of people at a senior recital in high school. I could not look people in the eye at that point because I was such an introverted person. I stared at the floor, but it was still a good concert.”
Having learned to play classical selections but drawn to the grit and soul of the blues, Collier worked on recreating the work of blues greats, learning by ear since any written scores for the compositions barely scratch the surface of the music and are, she noted, “frequently wrong. I read music quite well. I grew up playing classical saxophone and sight reading everything. But a lot of blues music, you can’t really read it. There’s so much that you can’t write down, and inflections. You have to listen.”
Primarily a saxophone player, she can also play clavinet, flute, organ and percussion. In the many videos on YouTube of Collier leading her band, she is unfailingly a magnetic stage presence, belting out her originals and classics such as a reinterpreted “When Loves Come to Town” by U2 with arena-filling energy. As one of very few women blues band leaders, though, Collier is accustomed to being “the girl saxophone player.”
“Yeah,” she said, sighing. “I do have my moments. I try to have a lot of patience. There’s me and a couple of other younger women that are coming to the forefront and bringing a powerful, different presence to what the blues is.”
There have been awards and critical accolades all along the way, with Collier’s name frequently cropping up on “best of” lists and on blues sales charts. And she earns every one.
“We played something like 110 dates last year, and this year’s like 200,” she said. “So, I’m feeling the difference, for sure. I love to be out, though. It’s wonderful to go from five years ago, playing 10 little gigs, to 200. And doing what I love.”
Collier’s Ford van, parked at the family’s house for a very few days a year, has clocked something like 125,000 miles in three years. “It’s something ridiculous, for not being my main vehicle,” she said. “We do some crazy drives – six hours between places. We’ve done two overnight drives from Virginia to Canada to West Virginia in one weekend. That was insane, but it comes with the territory.
“My goal now is to get seven hours of sleep. It can be broken, but with seven or eight hours, the voice is OK and I can muster up the energy to do anything.”
Having played to audiences in some 14 countries, Collier is eager to return to Europe. “With my second record, I did a deal with a German label, and as part of that was promised 60 to 80 dates overseas for the year. We ended up doing 51, I believe, in eight or nine different countries.” That has continued, with Collier and her band playing everything from tiny clubs to huge festivals.
“In the U.S., it’s mostly people in their 50s and 60s who come to the shows,” she said. “But in Brazil, for instance, it’s mostly people in their 20s. Everywhere else loves American music, whether it’s pop or old blues, jazz – they love the spirit of the music. I think sometimes Americans take it for granted.
“Sometimes people won’t speak English, but they’ve heard the song enough that they know what the sounds are. If it’s a really well-known blues song, they’ll sing along. And when you talk to them afterwards, they say, ‘Oh, we can’t really converse. We just know the lyrics.’ But music is super universal. No matter where I go, people can understand my feeling and energy, regardless of whether they understand the exact words.”
European blues bands work hard to emulate their American inspirations, and Collier gets to see as many as she can when she’s in a festival setting and not yet performing.
Collier, who can be in front of thousands of people one day and performing on a stage six feet wide the next, has learned to adapt her performances for both size venues. “When it’s a bigger stage, I feel I can really come out of my shell a bit and move around. But it’s great to play the smaller places, because you can actually converse and look people in the eye and really connect on a more intimate level,” she said.
She’s also learned to control her singing so that the distinctive edge doesn’t get too ragged. “One of my biggest influences is Bonnie Raitt, and I love her voice when she’s like 16, and I love her voice now when she’s in her 60s. I hope to have that longevity,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to place my singing correctly and not end up hoarse at the end of the night. But if I take more than a week off, I feel out of shape.”
Collier’s CDs are released on her own label, and her last one was crowd-funded through donations from fans. “We raised between $20,000 and $25,000 for the most recent one, and the promotion. It’s lovely to be able to have a fan base that wants to hear the music and support me as an artist,” she said. “There are a lot of people, especially in the Pennsylvania area, that have helped. And there’s a fan page on Facebook as well.”
She maintains a private saxophone studio, teaching around 30 students per week; serves as an adjudicating judge at solo and ensemble festivals; and offers jazz, blues, and saxophone clinics throughout the United States. And Collier remains dedicated to spreading the word about the blues, especially to younger people. She takes part in the “Blues in Schools” program as often as she can, speaking to elementary through high school students about the roots of the music and following their aspirations. She appears by herself, or with her band.
“We play a 15-minute set for them, and then talk about following their passions,” Collier said. “At the last one, we talked about blues history and how it influences everything. We wouldn’t have rock and roll if not for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If they’re listening to Bruno Mars, well, that came from James Brown. I try to spark the interest …. Some of the kids don’t know Prince, which blows my mind,” she added, laughing.
“I try to give them the same advice I got when I was their age, which was to follow your passion. You can always make money somehow, so you might as well shoot for your dream. The side road will lead you to something you love. Go after it and see what happens.”
For more information, visit www.vanessacollier.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.