Saturday, November 28, 2020

Artist Interview: Candace Lynn Matthews

 Christmas music is an ever-expanding genre.  It is growing and blending, with new niches being created within the domain of Christmas music, nearly constantly it seems. Candace Lynn Matthews, with her debut album "Baking Spirits Bright", has, to me, popped open a new little space in the vast realm of holiday music.

Candace Lynn Matthews is a Bronx, New York native, of Puerto Rican and Chilean descent, with serious musical cred - degrees from the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase and from the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens College.  Candace is a soprano with a performance portfolio mainly in opera, even performing as a soloist at Carnegie Hall.  

Candace, with all her classical training and opera background, approached "Baking Spirits Bright" as, of course, a traditional jazz record.  What?!!?  So here's that new little pocket of Christmas music brilliance - Candace's gorgeous soprano voice and opera style nudged into a classical jazz sound, with a great jazz trio backing her (plus a guest trumpet on one track).  This all comes together into something just different enough to gain your attention, yet sustaining the comfort we feel from the Christmas standards Candace has chosen for the album. Standards, yes, with one notable and marvelous exception, which you'll learn about my interview with Candace Lynn Matthews.

To preview and purchase "Baking Spirits Bright" and to learn more about Candace, follow these links:

Merry & Bright Interview with Candace Lynn Matthews

Merry & Bright:  Hello Candace!  Thank you for spending some time with us.  I’m excited to learn more about you and about your new Christmas album “Baking Spirits Bright”.  Let’s start with a little but about you.  You have a Bachelor’s degree from the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase and a Master’s from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.  Where did your passion for music come from?

Candace Lynn Matthews: I have been surrounded by music my entire life, primarily thanks to my father, Louis Matthews. I have many fond memories of us singing and dancing along to Elton John, George Michael and ABBA just to name a few. I didn’t starting singing (or really know I could sing) until I auditioned for the school musical “Footloose” in 6th grade. To my surprise, I got the lead and my entire family was shocked on opening night to discover that I had a voice. I then became fascinated with musical Theatre and wanted to be on Broadway someday. When it came time to apply to College I had a wonderful chorus teacher and mentor, Mrs. Harel, who suggested I audition for a conservatory as she noticed my voice began to develop and change to a classical sound. I applied to SUNY Purchase and so began my operatic training!

MB:  And your career has primarily been in opera, is that right? 

CLM: Yes, my professional career has primarily been in opera, although I did get to perform one of my dream roles “Maria” in the iconic musical, “West Side Story” with Opera North (A young Artist Program location in Lebanon NH). It was wonderful getting the opportunity to combine my passions for musical theatre and Opera in this production. Being of Puerto-Rican descent, and growing up in the Bronx, I was very proud to be able to represent my Latin heritage. 

MB:  Let’s talk about “Baking Spirits Bright”, your new Christmas album that is also your first release.  Why did you choose a Christmas album for your debut?

CLM: This is indeed my first full-length album release, but I did release an EP about 10 years ago, with music written by a wonderful song-writer Vincent James. I collaborated with him while getting my Undergraduate Degree. Now a decade later, and during a pandemic lockdown, like many artists, I was struggling to create as all of my performance opportunities were cancelled. Fortunately my wonderful partner, composer/instrumentalist Sammy Wags, is a co-owner and engineer at The Koop Studio located in Irvington, New York and we were able to use the space as a creative outlet. I knew this year’s holiday season would look very different, and that led me to the idea of recording a Christmas Album, and Sammy was excited to join the project as producer!

MB:  The title, “Baking Spirits Bright” is unique and catchy, as a play on a traditional Christmas phrase.  It really stands out among all the new Christmas releases this year, or any year for that matter.  What’s the story behind the title?

CLM: Thank you so much for the kind words! Actually, besides singing, I am a very active baker. I worked at the renowned “Magnolia Bakery” for two years in the heart of the Upper West Side and it was there that I learned how to bake more professionally and make classic desserts. It was such a lovely (and delicious) environment to be a part of. During the quarantine in Spring I had more time to bake things like cupcakes, breads, and banana pudding, and hone my craft. I decided to start an Instagram page to share and promote my creations called Candys__cupcakes. I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time baking this Holiday Season for friends and family, and of course I love me a good martini, as you can tell from the cover of my album. So Baking Spirits Bright seemed like the perfect soundtrack and album title. 

MB:  You approached “Baking Spirits Bright” in a traditional jazz vocal style, although I can hear your opera background coming through.  I might describe your sound as opera-flavored classical jazz.  It’s a really beautiful style that works well for Christmas standards.  Was jazz part of your musical academic background?  Why did you choose this approach to the songs?

CLM:     Jazz was not a huge part of my musical background, although I was surrounded by it quite a bit since both opera and jazz departments shared a building at SUNY Purchase.  I have always admired jazz standards and classics, especially when performing classic musical theatre even as far back as high school productions of “Anything Goes” and “Kiss me Kate”. There are so many wonderful songs from the great American songbook, especially when it comes to holiday music. I’ve always listened to Christmas jazz around the holidays, it just seems to fit perfectly with good food, company and spirits. Working on a record in this style, I didn’t want to ignore my operatic roots, but also wanted to expand my palette and better appreciate vocal jazz, through learning the techniques and trying a new challenge for my voice and musical sensibilities.

MB:  I love your song selection for the album.  It’s a mix of true standards like “White Christmas” with other seasonal comfort songs that everyone will recognize, such as “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”.   How did you select the songs for the album?

CLM: I actually started with about 20-25 songs and began the challenge of narrowing then down. It’s so hard to not do them all! But once we chose the overall style, sound and vibe we were going for, it helped to guide us to the final 9 songs on the album seemed to be the best fit. 

MB:  “Sally’s Song” is a brilliant selection to include on the record.  [Note: “Sally’s Song”, by Danny Elfman, was featured in “The Nightmare Before Christmas”].  This is a first for me - I’ve never seen it on a Christmas album before, and you sing it beautifully.  Can you tell us the story behind “Sally’s Song”?

CLM: Gladly! I am a “Nightmare Before Christmas” fanatic! It was my favorite VHS tape as a kid and I would watch it for days pretending to be Sally and never got tired of it. Tim Burton is one of my favorite filmmakers and Danny Elfman is simply a genius with an incredible body of work. “Sally’s Song” was the first song I wanted to do, and in some ways helped inform the sound of the record and the other arrangements. Recording Sally’s Song was a very special experience. I began to tear up during the recording process because I had truly always wanted to sing this song and finally found the perfect musicians to collaborate with and come up with an arrangement that is a bit different, but still a loving tribute to the original. Now I know I can never surpass the iconic original Catherine O’Hara version, but I am thrilled with what we came up with and think It turned out better than I could have ever have dreamed. That was one take in the studio, and we all looked up after the last note and felt that we got it, and it was something special. That alone was worth it all for me.

MB:  “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” is an instrumental piece that showcases your band (Tom McDonough on piano, Chris Conte on bass, and drummer Sammy Wags).  Can you tell us a little bit about your band?

CLM: I LOVE THESE GUYS. I am a little biased when it comes to Sammy, but besides being a wonderful partner, he is a man of many musical talents. He indeed played drums on this album, but also did many of the arrangements, and mixed and mastered the recording. He spent countless hours on the mix, making sure the final product was perfection! Chris Conte is a very well known Westchester-based Upright Bassist and truly an exceptional Jazz Vocalist as well. He was incredibly helpful working with me to better learn the Jazz vocal idiom and recording techniques. Tom McDonough has played with Chris and Sammy for many years (he met Chris when they were both in the band for the Ringling Bros Circus!) and has an incredible list of credits to his name. Most of all he is an incredibly sensitive and supportive accompanist, which I knew would be paramount for this project. So I knew very early on these were the guys I wanted to work with. 

MB:  You used Kickstarter to help make “Baking Spirits Bright” a reality that can be shared with your backers, and the rest of the Christmas music community.  How was your experience with using a crowd-funding platform as a way to bring your album to life?

CLM: I must admit, I was a bit hesitant to use a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter to help fund my album. I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but boy was I shocked with the outpouring of support! I was overwhelmed by how many of my friends, family, no matter how distant, and even complete strangers were willing to help and support this project. We reached the goal with time to spare even though I knew I wasn’t the only person having financial difficulties at this time. I am so incredibly grateful for the generosity and support.

MB:  Who are some of your musical influences?

CLM: Musical influences start with my father. He never sang or performed professionally, but I believe I was blessed with his ambition and passion for music. He taught me to enjoy my talent and use it to spread love and joy to others. I have to also mention the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century, the one the only, Maria Callas. She was known for her wide-ranging and extraordinary voice. When learning a new song or aria, I always look for a recording of her interpretation. She was an icon and the definition of a “Diva”. If you haven’t already look her up on YouTube, you will not regret it!

MB:  Do you have any favorite family Christmas traditions you’d like to share with us?

CLM:     I have so many great memories celebrating Christmas with my family. Growing up in a Hispanic household, there are so many wonderful traditions during the Holidays. One tradition is celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. The family and extended family gathers and basically has a second Thanksgiving, but with presents. There is a huge feast of Rice and Beans, Turkey, Ham, Chicken and one of my favorites; Pasteles. This consists of grated green banana, plantains, taro root filled with meat, olives and spices. Another Tradition is a Spanish version of Egg Nog called Coquito. With ingredients of condensed milk, cream of coconut, evaporated milk and of course Rum! After the feast we listen to music and stay up until midnight to open the presents, just thinking about it now warms my heart.

MB:  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City twice during the Christmas season and take in the whole holiday experience the city has to offer.  As a Bronx native, do you have a favorite NYC Christmas experience?

CLM: NYC during the holidays is truly a magical thing to behold. I am so blessed to have grown up here and currently reside just north of the city. I have wonderful memories of watching The Macy’s Day Parade in-person and of course, the classic, Ice skating at Rockefeller center underneath the giant Tree. New York City is just so gorgeous during the Holidays! 

MB: Candace, I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us.  “Baking Spirits Bright” is a wonderful Christmas album, and is a bright spot as we come into the holiday season of a very challenging year.  It is sure to bring many smiles 😊 I wish you great success with “Baking Spirits Bright”, a wonderful and safe holiday season, and a prosperous career!

CLM: It is my honor and pleasure to answer these questions, thank you for taking the time to explore the record in such depth, and for your kind words. I hope it can be an uplifting and fresh addition to the soundtrack of this holiday season. I simply adore Christmas, creating this record has been an incredible journey for me, and I especially felt the need to spread some extra Holiday cheer this year!

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