Valerie Troutt on Her New Album, Influences, and Creative Process
Valerie Troutt is a jazz-soul artist with all the good vibes you'll need in 2021. We spoke to her about her album The Oakland Girl, the people and places influencing her, and her creative process. Read the full interview below.
Intersect: Where are you from?
Troutt: I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, from a little town called Oakland.
How did this influence your perspective as a writer?
There are a lot of stories to tell coming from the Bay Area and Oakland specifically. I think that I was always hearing about what was going on in the neighborhood or the community, so I found at a very early age that you could put the message in the music. Oakland is just an amazing, magical place, where there has been a lot of discourse and really horrible things that have gone down, but out of that some really amazing programming has been created that the world has tapped into and now uses. Like the free lunch program at elementary schools and high schools, started by the Panthers here in Oakland. I find that kind of energy to be very inspirational. To look within my own community, my household, or my relationships, and see what message we can put in the music to get information out to people — good information, healing information. Oakland’s been good to me.
At what age did you start making music? What inspired you?
Probably when I was around eleven or twelve, I became more serious about [music]. My dad got me a tape recorder, so I had a boombox that had a double cassette, and he also got me a hand-recorder because at my middle school, where Dick Whittington was the piano player, and was our choir director, you would have to bring a blank cassette tape to your classes. You’d give it to him, and he would put all the music that you needed on there for your required repertoire for the semester. I learned from there — I thought, ‘oh, I can record the class? That means I can record my voice.’ So I started to do that kind of thing. I would record my voice, put it in the boombox, and then record more voices on top of that, and start to create my own songs.
What is your favorite part of being a musician?
My favorite part about being a musician is being able to have this message that is sent directly to me, that I’m able to tap into somehow, and then create a song where other people think ‘man! I felt that.’ It’s almost like it’s this cool medicine. When you take Tylenol, you’re like ‘yeah I have a headache,’ and the medicine knows exactly where to go. Music is the same way. I feel very honored to be a vessel to hold that kind of sound and to be able to create that kind of healing frequency and messaging. You get to travel and meet cool people with amazing minds.
"When you take Tylenol, you’re like ‘yeah I have a headache,’ and the medicine knows exactly where to go. Music is the same way."
How would you describe your sound?
I always call it jazz-soul, and I use it as one word, not two separate words, because it’s really derived out of the African diaspora. It’s Black music that is steeped in jazz and soul music, in that order. For me, jazz and soul music is almost like fusion, but it’s not as wide in the sense.
Who are your musical influences?
Walter Hawkins — he’s an amazing composer, singer, and leader. I didn’t know this when I was young, but I was in a number of choirs that he directed. I wanted to create a group myself, to create that love and that sound that he was creating in his music, and I did. It’s called Moon Candy, so I definitely attribute him creating community through music and through choirs as a huge inspiration in my life. Dianne Reeves is also an incredible vessel with an incredible sound. She has such elegance and sophistication when it comes to covering changes and just a real nice groove and feel. Meshell Ndegeocello is another amazing composer, bassist, vocalist, and artist. She just says the things that people want to say, but they don’t, and she plays things with her own mind. I love to take a standard or a song that has been created already, and do a reharm of it or just take it out of its comfort zone. She does that so well.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman of color in the music industry?
There are many challenges, one being that people assume that you don’t know what you want, and assume that you have to be someone else in order to be who you are. I’ve had to really step out on my own to allow myself to be able to mature as an artist to create my own sound, versus someone else trying to project onto me who a Black woman should be in music, or in jazz. Being a woman, specifically in jazz, which is a male-dominated field, a lot of times you aren’t given an opportunity or even considered because you’re just a woman. I remember in one of my history classes in college, they said that they weren’t going to discuss slavery or women in that music history class because they didn’t have enough information. I thought, ‘This is 1997, come on now. That is just an excuse and it’s ridiculous.’ Erasure culture is huge in jazz, and in the music industry, period. Also, sometimes people want to pay you one way and pay men another. I learned this through people sending me the wrong emails or just through conversations. Just like ‘wait a minute! Why did this person get paid this and I got paid that?’ Payment, representation, and also people just being ignorant and stuck in their ways — and not ready to give up power that didn’t belong to them in the first place.
"I’ve had to really step out on my own to allow myself to be able to mature as an artist to create my own sound, versus someone else trying to project onto me who a Black woman should be in music, or in jazz."
What advice would you give to artists just starting out in the industry?
Learn music business. It’s that thing that’s a drag, but it’s also going to propel you. The dream is always ‘I want to get a Grammy one day,’ but it doesn’t just happen. There are procedures and steps to get a Grammy, and one of them is having a song, that’s the smallest thing. Being able to find a mentor who can walk you through some music business-course is super, super important. Also to really just practice who you are, and really take the time out to honor yourself and whatever music you’re playing.
What is your writing process like?
It changes with the wind. Generally it’s an emotion or feeling that’s sat with me for a few hours or it might wake me up in the middle of the night. Generally I will start with drafting something in GarageBand or sitting at the keyboard and just starting to play chords from that emotion. Then a lyric will come, or if it’s the other way around, I’ll have a melody or lyric that I need to put chords to. It happens in different ways for me, it just depends on what comes first.
What inspired your new album, The Oakland Girl?
I actually recorded The Oakland Girl twenty years ago, when I was in my college days at The New School in New York, and what inspired that music was loneliness; seeking community and the truth in a place that I had never been before. I went to New York when I was twenty, and one of the songs on the album is “Where Is Truth?”. I would meet these new friends and create these relationships with people and automatically trust — then that trust was broken, and I’d never had that before. I started to ask these questions of myself and of the people I was hanging around. It was a place where I started to build walls and enclose myself in, so that album really helped me to ask a lot of questions of myself. It’s a beautiful album, I really enjoy the music, and singing and performing it; the stories are just great.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
I would have to say my favorite is “Oily Staircase” because it’s groovy, it tells a story, and it has different sections. I like colors, so you have this cool vocalise up front and it has horns and all kinds of beautiful sounds. The story behind it is what’s killing. I was trying to be a good roommate in my apartment in Brooklyn. I said, ‘let me take out the trash.’ So in New York, you take your trash out and you sit it on the corner on the curb. I did that, and as I’m coming back into the apartment building and up to my place, which was like four or five flights up, I check out the staircase, and it’s completely oily. I was like ‘oh my god,’ — this was at about two in the morning, so I was like, ‘oh man...’ So I went back up to my apartment and I got a mop and a bucket, and I got soap and water, and I mopped the staircase, and it became so oily everywhere. At this point, I’m delirious, it’s like two in the morning, I don’t know what to do because it’s so slippery now. Now I’m slipping on the staircase and I don’t know what I’m gonna do, and my door is wide open. My roommate’s like ‘what are you doing?’ And we end up having to share this moment together of drying up the staircase and letting everybody know that it’s slippery outside. That’s where the song came from, and then maybe a year after I wrote the song, my producer told me ‘the song isn’t finished,’ and I was like, ‘what?’ He was telling me ‘trust me, just listen to it again,’ so I listened to it, and sat with it for a few months, and then I came up with that second portion of the song. He was right, and it became so much more in-depth and beautiful.
Talk to me about the album’s cover art. How did it come about?
I feel like I’m a collage — of people, of stories, of places, of experiences — we all are really, but I really like collage as a medium. My mother’s a visual artist; she does mixed media, and we’ve always done collage together since I was a little girl. [The cover art] came about because I’ve really gotten into a lot of crystals, and I wanted to honor the women who inspired me from Oakland through some type of digital altar. In the piece you’ll see a couple of different alters: one to both my grandmothers, one to my great-aunt, to my elders, to my cousins, and to some other women who have passed on. The other images are young Oakland women and girls that have inspired me throughout my adult career as an artist. It’s a collage of amazing, beautiful Oakland women.
"I feel like I’m a collage — of people, of stories, of places, of experiences."
When can we expect new music?
I am working on a new project, and I believe it’s going to be called Unhooked. It’s going to be a jazz project, so leaning more towards my jazz side, meaning that I’m going to be taking a bunch of jazz standards, and just kind of Val-izing them. I’ve recorded three of them thus far, right before the pandemic, and I had planned to head back into the studio at the end of February or early March to finish the album. It should be out by summer.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Just love. Know that love has so much to offer us, so just stay open and if you need constant reminders, subscribe to my website, and I will give them to you. I do meditations, and offer SongCare and silliness as a way to stay connected to a community, so join me on my website valerietrouttprojects.com. I also started an online boutique called Ayana Blooms, which I am pushing into and learning about every day. It speaks to freedom within the song, and researching and learning about singers that are doing a similar kind of work.
Listen to Valerie Troutt'sThe Oakland Girl below: