I was nine when I bought my first record with my own money. My brother Dominic took me to Judy’s Record Shop, a crowded, dusty place behind the El Cajon Theater, to spend my birthday cash. I got two albums that I love to this day. One was “Cosmo’s Factory” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the other was “Tapestry” by Carole King. As we walked home, Dominic looked at my purchases and asked, “why her?” “Because every once in awhile, I want to hear a woman play the piano,” I replied. Okay, I was a weird kid. I built model airplanes with the windows closed and fumes from the glue probably made my quirks worse. But all these decades later, it is still a good thing to hear a woman play a piano. Fortunately for San Diego, we have a woman who does significantly more than play a piano. Normandie Wilson can play the hell out that thing.
I first met Normandie at one of Bart Mendoza’s birthday parties. Those events are usually an excuse for every breathing musician in San Diego to converge and play a song or two and share stories from the road. I’d heard “Saturday Night Girl” and loved the jazzy feel and saxophone running through the thing. I bought a copy of her most recent album, “Geography and Other Problems,” and put it in the CD player for the drive home. The sound of her voice and the piano-driven jazz is a sybaritic treat for the ears. The lead track, “Don’t Use My Words Against Me” is a ready-made lounge classic. It conjures up images of a dimly-lit bar, smoke hanging from the ceiling, leather seats filled with guys in dark suits drinking their scotch neat while they try to forget the day at the office. There’s also a chanteuse in the corner, behind the keyboard, making life more bearable for the happy hour set. The whole record is nothing short of amazing. And she has released another full-length album since Geography that is just as good, if slightly less kind. “Normandie Wilson is Tired of Being Nice” is the sort of roll call to people who have done the musician wrong. Be glad you’re not on that list. A scathing indictment of people who deserve a measure of vengeance, the album is a tuneful look at the light and dark side of love and sex.
Her previous releases include the pop, jazz, soul confection “Mod Piano” and the smooth “At The Heart of Staying In Love.” Both EPs are worth looking up. Her voice is like a balm for bruised hearts and people who think Dusty Springfield should have a statue out in front of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. There’s a definite nod toward Burt Bacharach and early sixties Hi-Fi standards in the way she plays and sings.
Normandie moved to San Diego in 2009 after a stint in Los Angeles and recently married local multi-instrumentalist Dave Fleminger (Manual Scan, The Answers, The Comeuppance and too many more to list here. The guy is seriously talented) and agreed to answer some inane questions. Talking with her is almost as much of a treat as hearing her sing. A native of West Virginia, she has a 1,000 watt smile and a candid ability to tell you what is on her mind in a way that is both charming and at times brutally honest. Full disclosure time: she’s one of my favorite people on the local music scene, and that is only partly because we’re both Italian and she can pull off a bouffant better than I can.
Barry Benintende: What lead you to the piano?
Normandie Wilson: I had access to the piano. I know my family wanted me to play piano; supposedly when I came out of the womb, they took a look at my long fingers and said, “She’s gonna play the piano.” Which is fine by me. I like it. It’s a great instrument if you want to really know your theory. it’s easy, it’s all right there in front of you.
You’ve said before that the only person who has similar musical tastes to yours is your grandmother. Was she a musically inclined?
Yes, my grandmother sings and plays the piano. She is a wonderful human being, practically perfect in every way. She played a lot as a child and into college. My grandmother has a bachelor’s degree, which is awesome. Her father was also a pianist; it’s my understanding that his job was playing sheet music in a store, so you could hear it before you bought it.
Your latest project is the Joyelles. What led to the band’s formation?
It’s probably best described as a perfect storm of “being sick of working alone” and “meeting incredible people at the right time.” I met my husband (Dave Fleminger) through playing music together, and then we began playing duo shows and after we all did the San Diego Fair together, some trio shows with Danny Cress (drums in The Scavengers, True Stories, and many other SD bands). The three of us had an easy vibe in the studio and at shows, and I started thinking about putting together a bigger project. I don’t like carrying an entire show by myself. It is a lot more fun to work with others. Maggie Taylor and I sang together in Blue Velvet for a few years, I knew what a wonderful singer she was and also that our voices worked well together. I loved working with that group, but I always wondered what it would be like to have a full band backing. I met Symea Solomon through a Craigslist ad. She came over to shoot the Dressed in Pink video. At that point, I was just looking for a video model; I had no idea she was such a great singer. She was singing softly to herself while getting ready and I was like – wait, you sing too? And that’s probably where it started. I didn’t feel comfortable saying it was all a “Normandie Wilson” project if we had other singers and people contributing so much to the project, so I started thinking about a name. I kept coming back again and again to the idea that I wanted to put the joy back into music – both for myself and for others. The Joyelles had a great ring to it; it is so easy to convey that we’re an old school style girl group, and when you see the photos of us in costume, it all comes together. And once we got going, other people have come in and been guest singers, my friends David Giles and Bart Mendoza sing with us too. I want it to be a creative collective where we’re always expanding and including creative people who are on our wavelength and into the same stuff we are.
What can people expect from a Joyelles show?
You can expect to feel the Joy, to have some fun, to dance along, to dress up, and to leave feeling happy. Look, we’re all going to die someday. Things are tough right now for so many folks. It’s part of my sacred duty as an artist to take the sting off of life. I think the world needs more glitter, more shine, more glamour, and more excuses to come to a show – a real show, a show that includes you as an audience member, a show where we talk to you and laugh with you, a show that takes your feelings and interactions into account; not just people playing instruments and looking at their feet – and forget about your troubles for a while. I take that part of my job very seriously. It is a great gift to give, the gift of transporting people to another place and time, the gift of providing an experience that enables people to be truly present in the moment.
Any plans for a tour in the near future?
We just came home from a huge tour this summer; we went all the way to Seattle, over to Toronto, and back to California. So “near future,” probably not. But I think the probability of playing shows that are a day’s drive away (Palm Springs, Vegas, LA, SF) is extremely high.
You’ve been in a band, a solo artist and now you’re a band leader. What are the challenges and rewards that go along with each one?
When I first started out, I was often frustrated to be in a band and not be able to lead. Ha! Now that I’m leading a band, it’s much more fun to get together with my pals in Red Pony Clock and show up and play marimba and not have the focus be all on me. Being a solo artist has its perks – I play some gigs as a solo artist still. It’s great to be able to say “I can do the 26th” without having to wait for people to get back to you. It is harder work though. Two and a half hours through every four-hour solo gig I do, I’m always thinking, “I wish my band was here.” It’s fun. I don’t think there will come a time when I won’t play some solo gigs. Being a bandleader is a huge challenge, but it’s the most rewarding for me. I’ve been in so many projects that have fallen apart simply because of poor communication and bad leadership styles. I think it’s the #1 reason why most bands break up or don’t achieve what they want to achieve. I find myself thinking of a band like being in a family and it’s a big responsibility. When I was planning the tour this summer, so much was on my mind. I worried about my bandmates’ safety, I worried if they’d have a good time, I worried about how their experience would be. And so much of it wasn’t even about me, whereas when I used to tour solo, I’d hit the road with a little cash in my pocket and just bounce for a few months. I would never do that to my band, haha! I really felt responsible for everyone’s experience and wanted everyone to have a good time. I try to communicate as best I can as a leader, because it’s unfair to ask people to show up to bring your vision to life and not be clear with them about the expectations.
Are there challenges to getting your music heard as an independent artist?
So many challenges. I don’t even know where to start. It’s great that there’s so much music, but… there’s so much music. More music gets released than can be listened to. So it can be difficult. I’ve been happy with one of the agencies I have music with, Crucial Music. Their approach is great. They are a highly selective placement library. They have a small library and they only take the songs they think they can get placed.
What are you working on in the studio now?
My 10th anniversary is in 2017, so I’m working on that… also working on new Joyelles tracks with corresponding videos, and a whole bunch of surprises. My art studio has been busy lately, I’ve probably painted 50 pieces since coming home from tour. I’m enjoying creating visual stuff right now. I have some very lofty goals for the next few months of my creative life.
How is “Normandie Wilson is Tired of Being Nice” selling?
It’s selling… poorly, but that’s life. I’m very proud of the work I put into it. It’ll be around forever, so maybe sales will pick up after I’m dead.
Was it cathartic to write “The Art of Revenge?” What about the rest of the album.
I love that the first question the Italian asks is about revenge. Great call, fratello. It sure as fuck was cathartic. Art is a very healthy response to a lot of powerful emotions. Anger is a healthy emotion. It’s a normal human emotion. What’s not healthy is deciding to take your anger out on people. I’m not trying to end up in jail. The desire for revenge is a normal, human emotion, but it’s not attainable and it’s not healthy to enact it. It is healthy to write a song from the perspective of being able to enact revenge. The song started off with a simple line and went into a lot of twists and turns. My last album was, I think, very out of character for me. Lots of guitar, it’s the first record I put guitar on more than one or two songs, lots of fuzz bass, lots of rock. Not very characteristic of me, but it needed to be done. I really wanted to drive home the notion of facing up to the damage you’ve done. I think that’s what we all want when we’ve been wronged. I’ve been reading a lot about restorative justice lately, that is, justice options outside our current broken system. And one thing that keeps coming up is, when people are wronged, they really get a lot out of hearing someone say “I was wrong.” It’s very important. I wrote this album during and in the aftermath of a very difficult situation in which I was always the loser. I never got the apologies I should have gotten from the people who wronged me. I never will. They will carry on with their miserable lives without ever saying to me, “Wow, I really hurt you. I judged you without knowing you. I never gave you a chance, and I made your life a living hell for a few years, and I’m really sorry.” And that’s on them. But, I’m an artist. I’m a songwriter. And everyone, by now, should know the rules of engagement when it comes to songs: 1) If it happened, there’s a song about it 2) If an artist gets hurt, they will take it out in their work. People have differing opinions about whether you should name or identify people in your songs, I don’t even know where I stand on that. I have no interest in identifying the people that my last record is about. Most of them are so pathetic that I will never again sully my mouth with their names. It’s also not about what so-and-so did to me, it’s about the emotions that resulted from their actions. Whatever went on with those people, the emotions I felt were real to me. I can’t write about what someone else is thinking, and I can’t write well about things that are false. So, here we are.
You’ve shot several videos, did you learn that through trial and error or did you have any training?
Kay Piper is the person behind the camera for most of my videos. She and I met off Craigslist also. She’s super talented and we discuss bringing the ideas to life. We trade shot lists. She is in charge of all the technical details, directions, continuity, you name it. She’s directed most of my music video. It’s great working with her because I don’t have any formal video training. As we’ve been working together over the past year and a half, I’ve learned a lot more about what I need to do in advance to make the video what I want to be. My passion is in set building, makeup, and costume design. So after several projects, I’ve learned what looks good, what can be better… It’s a collaboration but Kay is the one behind the camera and doing all the edits. Mainly I’ve learned, the more prepared I am, the happier I am with the end result. Ha.
How often have you heard “We can’t pay you, but think of the exposure you’ll get?”
So many times. I love the meme with the pic from the Oregon Trail that says “You have died of exposure.” So true. I’ve learned a lot from the burlesque community. They are looking out for each other in ways that musicians, sadly, are not. Burlesque people tell each other, “Don’t even think about working for free, because you’re undercutting yourself and undercutting everyone around you that’s a part of this community.” I really wish professional musicians would band together (pun intended) in the same way when it comes to certain gigs. “Certain gigs”: Do I think my punk rock neighborhood garage band of teenagers should be paid $1,000 for their very first Casbah appearance playing their original songs? No. Do I think they should have our community support for their first gig? Absolutely. And maybe that support means that they bring a good crowd in and get some gas and spending money. Yes, totally. That’s all fine and good. Bands should be able to play their original music, get people through the door, and get paid for doing that. Where I get very angry about ideas of “pay” and “exposure” is when people (but PARTICULARLY organizations) can absolutely afford musicians and choose not to pay them. Last year, word got out that a major organization in San Diego “hired” a bunch of bands to “perform” for their huge corporate party… and didn’t pay them. That’s fucked all the way up. If you have money to have free liquor and beer flowing all night long, you have money to pay the fucking bands. If you have money to rent out a giant space for your party, you can find $500 or $1000 or even $2000 or $3000 to pay the bands. Pay the bands. There’s no excuse for people or organizations to have money for a chocolate fountain and somehow not have money to pay a band that spends an hour in transit, an hour setting up, three hours playing, and another hour to get it all home again. If you want to have a band at your event, pay them. If you don’t want to pay the musicians, don’t use the word “hire” or “gig” and please — don’t patronize us and act like you’re doing us a damn favor by allowing us to work for free. Nope.
Is it a challenge to get compensated for all the work you put into making music?
As you can see from part of the answer above, absolutely. It’s very important to make the distinction between making music and getting paid to make music. I don’t create for the money. I create because it’s what I do. So then the challenge is to find ways to get paid for what you are doing. With music, it is a long-range game. I recently had a song placed in a television show. Three years ago, I signed up to be an artist with Crucial Music. I submitted my songs and it took three years before one of my songs was chosen for anything, and it will take another 6 months before I see the money for that. That’s often the way it is. I don’t know. I’m in a hibernation phase right now. I’m taking a look at what’s working for me and what’s not. Right now I’m more interested in just finding a way to do the work. All I want is to do the work, and that’s hard when you don’t have any money. If anyone rich out there is interested in having a super important title like “wealthy patron of the arts,” please get in touch with our team. Or go to bandcamp and buy some of my many albums.
You studied dance in college, you’ve had art installations, you’re an accomplished musician… do you have a favorite part of the creative process?
I’m a big picture thinker. I like to start from how I want the end to look and go from there. I won’t work on an album until I have some visual concepts and ideas in play for it. I like working backwards and breaking down the goal into all the little steps and details that have to be addressed in order to achieve the final vision.
Do you have a method to your songwriting,or does an idea just appear at unexpected moments?
Words usually come first. There’s not much of a method. It’s more like, sometimes the ideas come quickly, and sometimes the process gets dragged out. Mostly I get a spark of inspiration, usually from the way words interact with one another and the sounds of words coming together in phases and ideas, and then I work it through until the end.
You lived in Los Angeles for a while. What’s the biggest difference between the music scene in San Diego and Los Angeles?
No one moves to San Diego to “make it” as a musician. People move to San Diego because they want to live in San Diego. When I moved to LA, I thought there was something in the water that made it a magical place full of dreams. Los Angeles is a magic place full of dreams and angels, primarily because there are a million hardworking creative people who’ve gone there to be creative. I enjoyed my time in LA. I love that I’ll never be a stranger there. I spent most of my life in a town of a couple thousand people, and living in larger cities became overwhelming. It is frustrating to have San Diego constantly addressed as nothing more than LA’s little sister (little friar? little brother?) but there are so many great things about being a working artist in a town where that isn’t yet a career destination for creative talent. There is a sense of community and collaboration here. There is also more room to breathe! My dear friend Roy got his world class recording studio off the ground (Rarefied Recording) and it’s been a great thing for him and for the community. If he was living in a city with hundreds of recording studios, he might not have been able to do that. Bart (Mendoza) always talks about how we have more publications and television shows here that cover local music than any other city in the United States. It’s absolutely wonderful to live in a place where major news outlets like NBC and CBS offer prime-time coverage to independent artists like me. And let’s be honest – it’s great to live just two hours away from one of the world’s major entertainment cities. If you want to take advantage of all the opportunities Los Angeles has to offer, it’s just a day’s traffic-filled car ride/stress-free train ride away.
Any plans to a return engagement at the Lafayette Hotel?
I don’t think so at this time, but we’ll see!
You’ve toured throughout the country and across the globe. Where is your favorite place to play?
The music scene in San Diego is one of the most welcoming and friendly places ever. I love doing hometown shows. Playing in Toronto was an incredible experience and had a great community feel. I love playing in small towns that don’t often get live music because it is truly a special event for the people there. And when it comes to treating artists with respect and paying well, Europe is great. Bart Mendoza set us up for a tour in Spain in December of last year, and it was an incredible experience.
What is the worst place you’ve ever played and why?
I don’t like playing anywhere that treats musicians like trash. And that list is pretty long. I’m not going to name any certain place because at the end of the day, it’s not about whether X club is a bad place to play, it’s about the people running X club, and sometimes it’s about whether the sound person at X club is a jerk, or a guest promoter for X club who put on a bad night. I don’t want to make a whole venue sound like a bad place to play if it’s only one or two people who made it a bad experience for me.
What are you listening to these days?
Lately been heavy into some weirder Joni Mitchell stuff like Hejira and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Phoenix (United, Alphabetical). Since Prince passed away he’s been heavy in my rotation, particularly early stuff like Dirty Mind and Controversy. The new Solange record is great. All my friends have seen Beyonce once or twice this year and I love all the live Beyonce concert videos that live on the internet now. Today I’ve listened to the same Feist song about 86 times. I am in a hibernation phase at the moment, which usually means I take my favorite songs and listen to them on repeat an embarrassing number of times.
Any advice for aspiring musicians?
If you aspire to be a musician, learn to play your instrument, get lessons as necessary, and practice, practice, practice. If you aspire to make a career out of being a musician, get prepared for a lifetime of hard work. And learn how to take rejection gracefully.