Teaching Talia Billig
August 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
Cornelia’s vocal festival concludes Sunday night with Talia Billig, a self-taught singer whose graceful disavowal of genre & type make way for a clear voice unbound. She sings from the piano alongside her band of kindred New Schoolers, and was kind enough to spare a few words with us here.
How old were you when you first began teaching yourself to play music?
From what I hear, I started playing piano at age three. My grandmother had a piano in her Washington Heights apartment that I believe functioned more as a frame holder than anything else. I do remember the initial sensation of that piano and just understanding it. From then on I would seek out whatever pianos I could find. There was an elderly couple next door to us that had a piano and I would just wander over at any point in the day asking to play it. Eventually my parents got me my own. I was in love.
Was there anyone around you family & friends-wise who provided encouragement/inspiration?
My family was incredibly encouraging, but no one in the immediate family played, so they just were really amused that they had a daughter that figured it out. I learned by piecemeal. My parents’ dear friend Elliot is an incredibly gifted guitarist, also by ear. He was a really helpful creative sounding board as I was growing up. I was also fortunate to go to a school that encouraged me to pursue my music.
What sorts of music did you initially learn, and how, if at all, did that differ from what you’ve come to play since then?
The initial music that I was playing was whatever I heard and loved, whether it was classical or contemporary. I was able to play what I heard, so I learned what I heard in my own house, which was a lot of folk, soul, and old Israeli deliciousness (my father’s side of the family is Israeli). I’d like to think that the folk stays with me today.
Tell us a little about your time at the New School. What led you there in specific? How did it differ from a more traditional conservatory setting?
My path to the New School was definitely not direct. I knew that I wanted to pursue my music, but I had a lot of questions because I had never placed myself in any sort of box before. I didn’t know if I should study piano or voice, and I was in no place to decide what genre to study. I eventually chose The New School deliberately, because they appeared to be the most open to new ideas while still remaining small and nurturing.
I was entirely right in that initial impression. The New School provided a really open environment for me. It definitely differs from a more traditional conservatory setting because it’s called The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and they work hard to make sure they live up to that name. You’re required to take all the courses of a standard jazz degree, but can also elect to take ensembles in some really fascinating genres (almost all of which I did). In my first semester I took a Middle Eastern Ensemble with Israeli legend Harel Shachal that completely changed my life.
In the end, I started to realize that I was not cut out to be a jazz singer in the purest sense of the form. I began to compose my own songs. Eventually I worked up the courage to put together a group of my best friends to play these songs. Again, the New School — being the excellent haven for creativity that it is — allowed the band to be considered an “ensemble” with a faculty advisor. We chose Richard Boukas: a prodigious guitar player and singer who excels in literally every single variety of music. His advice was brilliant, sensitive and intuitive. He somehow taught me my own patterns of songwriting with each suggestion.
When did you realize that your classmates were also the perfect people to become your bandmates?
I realized that from the first mangled draft of a song I brought in. They were able to sidestep my neuroses and bring their own brilliant and unique ways of playing and thinking into my music from day one. They made my songs come alive. These days I couldn’t be happier than when I’m playing with them. There’s a lot of pressure on young singers coming out of jazz school to hire bands, or to find bands of very well established pros, but I really believe in just playing with your absolute best friends. Everyone in my band is fully invested and I consider each member to be completely essential and irreplaceable. They’re like my brothers.
What can folks expect to experience at your performance this weekend? What do you hope they’ll come away with?
I’d say expect to smile. Expect some really joyful music to be made. This is a group of people that just really loves playing music together.
Talia Billig appears downstairs on Sunday, August 14th at 10pm, with Francois Rousseau, guitar, vocals; Dan Parra, bass, vocals; and Marc Beland , drums, vocals. Call 212/989-9319 or visit http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com for reservations.