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An Interview With Wren Marie Harrington

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Q: What are your goals as an artist?

A: My primary goal as a singer is to deepen the level of understanding of the intentions of songs with my particular voice, and a rich variety of languages and musical idioms. I consider the human voice a crucial element in uniting the listener with the spirit of any given song. Words and language are what give us humans our identity in the world, like plumage is to birds, or leaves on trees and I’ve always felt so lucky to be able to use language and music to spread the joy of this reality.

I’m unconcerned about always singing in my native language, because we are a world of many languages and music is the ultimate unifying element. Because I feel this way, I’ve made a home with the international song repertoire and sing in five languages – the result is a multi-cultural programming that I hope will speak to the hearts and minds of audiences who might not always go to concerts like this.

In the same manner, as a native English speaker, when I’m singing outside the U.S., I like doing shows that combine repertoire from the “world” songbook with songs from the American Songbook, which audiences tend to enjoy. In short, my goal is to create a sort of tapestry, with jazz being the “loom” and language and other musical idioms as the yarn. I do this, thanks to an amazing ensemble of NY-based jazz/world musicians, and my co-producer and pianist, Art Bailey.

Career goals: I’d like to get my music and band out beyond the Northeast to festivals and concert venues throughout the U.S. and abroad. I have a strong desire to collaborate with living composers and other singers and musicians as well. I am a dedicated ensemble performer as well as a soloist, so the idea of collaborations is particularly thrilling and only can deepen the interest in a multi-cultural approach to song. I’d love to blur the line between jazz and cabaret a bit by doing shows in interesting spaces and in new platforms, such as live streaming concerts.

Q: Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to?

A: Runs the gamut! My musical life began with singing in the church choir – so I had very early exposure to popular Gospel music and classical choral music. My mother also took me to the opera and I became hooked on that and listened to Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, Richard Strauss – all the biggies. However, one night when I was about 17, back when radio stations still played whole “albums” at midnight, I heard Jackson Browne’s The Pretender and fell completely in love with him, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, CSN, and then a crazy jag with progressive rock (Yes, Gentle Giant, etc). Well, you asked! Then came college and even though I was an opera major and heavily pursuing an opera career, I became smitten with Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Mildred Bailey, Tony Bennett, and a whole assortment of the jazz singing greats.

Q: What artists have had the most impact on you on a creative level?

A: There are so many and they come from all over the map. Of course, the great jazz singers of the past have really informed me – Betty Carter, Irene Krall in particular, but also a handful of theatrical cabaret singers such as Barbara Cook, Eartha Kitt, Edith Piaf. Currently, I have to say that there are a number of singers and composers from the international circuit of the past and present that have truly had a powerful effect on my embracing of world-music traditions: Caetano Veloso, Concha Buika, Ana Gabriel, Caterina Valente, Tom Jobim, Sergio Mendes, Eva Ayllon, Roberto Murolo, Sergio Bruni, Gino Paoli, Pedro Luis Ferrer – the list goes on!

Q: What inspired you to become a musician?

A: I started piano and guitar study when I was very young and continued all through school in addition to voice lessons. In the South where I grew up (Louisville, Kentucky) there is a very deep spiritual connection to singing and music in general. You are surrounded by it everywhere. I lived for choir practice and concerts. Nothing else really interested me. All my time away from school was spent listening to records, going to concerts and practicing. When the time came in my senior year of high school to tell my parents “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” I didn’t have to think for a minute what the answer would be. Of course, my inspiration was my passion for music itself, especially vocal music. And that fact that even though there was nothing terribly practical about becoming a singer, I’d be lost and miserable without it!

Q: How would you describe your artistic evolution since you began?

A: In two words: Gypsy caravan! In a few more words: I began as a classical singer, performing in opera and concerts nationwide and abroad. I moved towards musical theatre and wound up doing a 14-year stint on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera as an understudy for “Carlotta,” the opera diva and ensemble member. I went on frequently as Carlotta and had a fabulous time – but as anyone who has done one show for that long can attest, you can get terribly bored. During that whole time I was exploring a variety of other musical genres, singing jazz here and there, and in particular, Cuban and Brazilian styles. I found that my opera training facilitated a lot of my exploration into other styles because of my acquisition of other languages.

I also studied flamenco dancing for seven years, so I was really drawn to this and other genres of Spanish music. Here in New York, of course, all I have to do is walk out my door and I can hear or sing music from all over the world. I live in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood and a good friend and jazz producer in the area who has sadly passed, Aquiles Alvarez, encouraged me to perform and record some world/jazz tunes. I workshopped some tunes – tango, boleros, bossa, and American Songbook standards with an amazing pianist/producer Art Bailey, who then brought some other musicians onto the scene, and all of a sudden, we were recording and producing what is now my first solo debut recording Light Travels. Since then, I have been performing in Mexico and Italy and here in New York at the Metropolitan Room.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: Plans include recording and performing more in New York and beyond with my group that I call “The Travel Light Quartet” (Art Bailey, Dave Acker, Marty Confurius, Diego Lopez). I continue to develop material with Art that is a delicious hybrid of the “world songbook” taken primarily from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. This was a particularly rich time for popular songwriting and there is a plethora of forgotten songs from this period that begs to be reintroduced. When not performing with the group, I produce an “opera-in-the-schools” program for artistically underprivileged schools and am on the development team of “Mainstreet Musicals,” a festival production company which brings theatre professionals together to select, distribute and exhibit live musical performance festivals throughout the United States.

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