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Valerie Vigoda – Winning With TC-Helicon!
Coming from a musical family (her Grandfather a famous Jewish liturgical singer and her father an accomplished jazz pianist), Valerie Vigoda’s career as a songwriter and performer came in to focus at the age of 26. Then in 1997 she quit her job to tour with Cyndi Lauper followed by Joe Jackson. Since then she has been on a non-stop musical adventure balancing her band (GrooveLily), her songwriting (with husband Brendan) and her wildly growing career writing musicals with her husband also.
We managed to speak to Valerie following her recent win in TC-Helicon’s Love Songs Competition…
Joey: How does it feel to have won the grand prize of the TC-Helicon Love Songs Competition?
Valerie: WOO HOO! It’s a huge vote of confidence. This entire solo-with-looping concept is a pretty scary new project for me, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think I, and a lot of women musicians, have a tendency to be scared of new technology. I’m not the type of person who automatically seeks out the latest and greatest – I tend to learn one thing and stick with it, while Brendan is always reading blogs and checking out new gear. So it’s incredibly gratifying to me that I took tentative steps in this new direction and met with such a wonderful response from you guys, from the comments on Facebook and my site. It feels like the world is responding in a positive way, and I’m thrilled.
“I think I, and a lot of women musicians, have a tendency to be scared of new technology.”
Joey: How did you go about arranging your mish-mash love songs video? Are there any pointers you could give others wanting to try and accomplish something similar?
Valerie: I am lucky to be married to my band mate and songwriting partner, Brendan, who has become a pretty terrific arranger, orchestrator, and producer. So the bulk of the arranging is coming from him, while the bulk of the learning, practicing and sweating the details of actually *doing* this is coming from me. It’s funny – most of the projects we’ve had that have been successful are the ones that came out of necessity–our band is performing less and less now that we have a kid and our drummer has two–so the idea of a Valerie Vigoda solo-with-loops project was born out of my desire to keep performing and also a pressing need to find a way to bring home the bacon while Brendan stays home with our kid, who’s getting too old to go from gig to gig – he needs consistency and school.
We wanted to have some cover songs in the set list that would be touchstones for much of the audience, but we wanted to do them in a different way – something unexpected. And one of the problems I have with a lot of looping performers is that they tend to set up a single harmonic progression and then just turn parts of it on and off. I’m such a sucker for verses, choruses and bridges with different harmonic content – I knew I wanted to find a way to make that happen.
One of the wonderful things about Ableton Live is that it doesn’t tie you down to one particular way of recording. The main window is set up in rows and rows of scenes, and it’s up to you to put things into them. So we can set up separate scenes for verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge – and then go BACK to them and add more layers.
I have always been a sucker for that Arthur Theme Song – the harmonies at the end, and Christopher Cross’s voice – it’s sooooo good. I like plenty of rawk music, but I have such a soft spot for this particular songwriter and his voice – I’ve always wanted to sing this song. While he was tweaking the arrangement, Brendan had a flash of insight about the chord progression of the verse – it’s the exact same thing as “Wild World” by Cat Stevens. AHA! From there, it was just a matter of deciding what went where, and what would be the best surprise.
Joey: What preset and tweaks were you using in your video?
Valerie: Now that I’ve switched from the VoiceLive 2 to the VoiceLive Touch, I’m not quite sure if the numbers will match up. But I used #59, Chorale Two for the main harmonies in the “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” backup vocals, and #45, Bassman for the bass line. In the video, I had the harmony output boosted too much, and there’s a little distortion as a result. (Sorry about that.) That’s a kink I’ve ironed out since then.
Joey: How did you go about triggering your harmonies in your video? Can you talk us through the process?
Valerie: I’m actually playing a teeny Akai keyboard, with a usb cable plugged into my laptop. The laptop is running Ableton Live, and passing through the midi out to the TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2. There are some songs I do where I use a lower octave of the keyboard to pitch-shift loops that I’ve made on the fly – but that’s for a very small range of keys, and when I want to go back to choosing harmonies with the keyboard I just hit the octave-up button again and I’m good to go.
Joey: What genre would you say your music is and what effects from the VoiceLive Touch & VoiceLive 2 really add to performing that genre?
Valerie: Wow. I’ve never thought about it–I’m so new as a solo performer. As a band, GrooveLily has been described as Ben Folds meets Dave Matthews meets Paula Cole–but when you lose the drummer and the keyboard player and you’re left with just the singer/violinist? I’m still working that out. Clearly I’m still doing pop music of some kind.
Having easy access to vocal doubling, vocal delays, and the harmonies is simply divine. We tried doing this on the road with Digitech Vocalists back in the late 90’s and we never achieved good results. But the fact that this thing is constantly gently autotuning me, adding a little compression and eq – it’s awesome. I feel like a kid in a candy store.
Joey: What led you to use the VoiceLive 2 and later the VoiceLive Touch?
Valerie: I wanted to be able to create the largest amount of sound with one person that I could–and I’m not a drummer. Smile. I have always loved vocal harmonies, and we’ve always talked about how we wished we could find a way to duplicate on stage the vocal arrangements we have on our records – listen to the last two minutes or so of this song, “I Dare Say I’m In Love” as an example:
(It’s a free download if anyone’s interested) So when we decided to launch this project, we wanted to find the best hardware harmony box we could–and it became clear very quickly that the TC Helicon boxes were the cream of the crop of what’s currently available.
Joey: How has your TC-Helicon equiptment changed the way you work?
Valerie: The TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch now lives on my mic stand permanently. Smile. So I need to make sure I’ve got a sturdy mic stand, because I tend to keep the boom arm out pretty far and at a right angle so I don’t hit it with my bowing arm when I’m playing electric violin. As far as creativity goes, it’s helped me find new solutions to old problems – when there’s something that needs to sound eerie or otherworldly, I have delay, reverb, and an octave and a fifth of me at the touch of my hand. It’s wild.
Joey: How do you go about writing your songs, do you find your TC-Helicon gear plays a part in your writing process?
Valerie: As a violinist, I tend to think in long lines first, and I don’t gravitate toward chord structures immediately. But I can imagine that loading a preset and singing the same line over and over, playing with different harmonies and presets, could be a real inspiration-sparker in the same way that moving the same chord shape to a different place on the neck of a guitar could be, or an alternate tuning. It’s essentially a new instrument, and not an effect, and a lot of happy accidents have already come from just playing with it.
Joey: In this day and age, what does it mean to you as a vocalist/musician having control over your own sound and effects?
Valerie: It’s thrilling. When we were starting out, delays and Eventide-style doubling effects on the vocals were not under our control – they were something taken care of by the sound guy if at all. We actually had a sound guy for a long time, Rob Killenberger, who would always put Eventide doubling on our backups when he did gigs with us, and we LOVED it… but it was always his purview, and not ours. Now I have it at the touch of my finger, and it ROCKS!
“Now I have it at the touch of my finger, and it ROCKS!”
Joey: What effects do you find you use all the time from the VoiceLive 2/VoiceLive Touch? What are your favourites?
Valerie: I love Chorale Two. I love just opening my mouth and singing and hearing this huge, glorious wash of sound come back at me. It’s also great to sing a simple part and have a tempo-synced delay ready to go – I’ve used it as a nice color to play up the contrast between different parts of a song.
Joey: How did your band or your music act come about, what are you currently doing and what’s coming up?
Valerie: I started my solo project (funny how these things come around full circle!) in 1994 with the indie release of my solo album “Inhabit My Heart,” and by 1996 it had morphed into the trio that is GrooveLily. We did the college circuit, we did a lot of festivals, we did a lot of quieter gigs in the folk music world, and then we started to branch out into theater – first with “Striking 12“, our band-is-the-actors holiday show we wrote with Tony-winner Rachel Sheinkin, and then with this show that’s about to open right now called “Sleeping Beauty Wakes”.
I have another theater piece, a one-woman show called “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”, about a delirious, sleep-deprived new mother who becomes convinced she’s receiving phone calls from a dead Antarctic explorer. We wrote it with Joe DiPietro, who just won a Tony for his show “Memphis“. This Shackleton show was our original impetus to get comfortable with Ableton Live, actually, and we knew we would need some live harmonies on stage–so we bought the VoiceLive 2. It was terrific–but as usual in the world of musical theater, it’s taking a little while to get the show produced, so in the meantime we started developing a solo concert for me with Live and the VoiceLive, and the rest is history. Or YouTube. Or something.
Joey: What’s your overall philosophy or approach when it comes to singing, composing, playing live and recording?
Valerie: To me, it’s all about communicating to the audience, whether that’s a live audience or someone who is listening to a recording, and about energy. Because I’m a words person, I’m the one always advocating for really clear, easily understandable vocals…all the instruments, all the drums, all the everything has to be in service of what is being sung… my bandmates can usually count on me to be the one asking for a 1-db push of the lead vocal in any mix, or to be the one making sure we all end our “s”s at the same moment… and because I get exhilarated from performing live like from nothing else in life, I love love love the possibilities of this solo project. When people recognize a song they know well, but done in a very different way, and get excited about that, it starts this incredible feedback loop of energy from the audience to the stage and back again… and then allows people to listen and welcome songs that they have NEVER heard before, in a wonderfully open-hearted way.
Joey: Where can people go to hear you perform live?
Valerie: There are some gigs coming up this fall/winter (this spring/summer I’m working a lot on “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” – in which I don’t perform but if you like what I do you should check out the show! It will be running at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ from April 29 – June 5, and at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, CA from July 19 – August 21).
To see me with my band GrooveLily, doing our show “Striking 12″:
November 18th, Lone Tree Arts Center, Lone Tree, CO
December 10th: Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT
To see me on my own doing my solo looping concert:
November 11th & 12th: Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA