The music industry is one of the toughest out there where you’ll be tested over and over again. Without proper guidance, you might even fail. In this episode, Valerie Day shares a rock star’s insight on what it’s like to live and breathe the music scene back in the ‘80s and how she started pivoting her life towards helping the next generation of musicians. She hands out her knowledge on how you can sing any style of music you want and gives some tips on how you can cope with the worst-case scenarios in the industry. Valerie will help you understand why letting grief be a part of your experience is a good thing and how you can use your gifts, talent, and experience to spark magic in the world.
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How You Can Pivot Your Life Like A Rock Star with Valerie Day
Part of “The Relationship between Business and Art”
This is the special series The Relationship Between Business and Art. I am delighted to have Valerie Day, the rock singer with us. Welcome, Valerie.
Thank you. It’s good to be with you.
This is a show all about presentation skills and how we can use presentation skills to move an audience to take action. This particular series is the Relationship Between Art and Business. In my business, I’m now using what I learned 30 years in the arts for business purposes. It’s the same thing, just a different vocabulary. Valerie Day is an old friend. I’ve known her for a long time. She was a classmate of my younger sister. When we first knew each other, she was one of those kids who hung around with my little sister and I was three years older, so think about the little ones. She’s then gone on to have this fabulous and huge career. It’s fun to be reconnecting as adults as we both had several careers. You know when you’re nineteen and you think you’ve got it all figured out. You know how it’s all supposed to go.
Let me start with Valerie’s official bio. Singer, educator, and arts advocate, Valerie Day has a continental, savoir-faire command of American Popular Song, an assured honey-alto delivery, a fierce sense of activism, and an alluring next-door gravitas that has echoes of another Day gone by. With her balance of authority, emotional immediacy, and here-and-now intimacy, Valerie is more than a little bit of a 21st century Doris Day.
She’s a gifted vocalist, a skilled percussionist, and a passionate advocate for arts education. She’s a generous artist of uncommon talent and dedication. Valerie was born into the fourth generation of a musical Northwestern family. I knew her mother who was an opera singer. That’s another connection we have. She was blessed to be raised amidst a supportive arts-rich home life. Her supportive musical mother paved the way for a fantastic journey from ground zero trajectory of the ’80s pop and R&B chartdom with the band Nu Shooz. They had a dance track called I Can’t Wait, which reached number three on the pop charts in the US out of how many hundreds of thousands. It was also in the top ten in Europe and Britain. Nu Shooz was nominated for a Grammy as the Best New Artist in 1987.
She also went on to sing jazz, big band, and orchestral performances with the Oregon Symphony, Woody Hite, and Tom Grant and many other greats. Now she has a dynamic career as a celebrated voice talent, educator, and inspiration to inspiring young artists. We talk about careers follow a path, and then there’s always the unexpected one, which was in 2013, Nu Shooz was invited to be part of the Freestyle Explosion Tour with other ‘80s hit acts. It was such a huge success that Nu Shooz is now performing as a live band and touring the world. Valerie also has a podcast called Living A Vocal Life with good interviews for anyone interested in singing as a career. I also have to ask you and this is something I ask all my guests. If you had a chance to have a dream interview with somebody from history, who would it be? What would you ask them about and who ought to be listening?
I’m always thinking about my podcast audience and the kinds of things that would be helpful to them. I had my private studio where I taught for twenty years. One of the things that I came across a lot when I was teaching is that people were afraid of or had been discouraged from singing different styles of music that were opposite from each other like jazz and classical. There’s a singer who is mostly known for opera. Her name is Eileen Farrell and she had a career in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s.
She’s singing professional opera at a time when if you tried to do any other music like if you were an opera singer, people thought you were going to ruin your voice. At a certain point in her career, she loved jazz and decided to make a record. The one that I’ve heard is called I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues. She does the best job of anybody I’ve ever heard singing both styles without an accent. What I mean by accent is my mom who was a classical singer, when I first started learning jazz, she comes down to the basement where I was practicing. She’d say, “I can sing the blues.” She started singing like, “I can sing the blues.” I’m like, “Sorry, you can’t.”You can sing any style of music that you want to, you just have to learn the language. Click To Tweet
I used her as an example for my students to say, “You can sing any style of music that you want to. You just have to learn the language.” Here’s someone who did it really well. Everyone who was in the opera world said, “You’re going to ruin your voice.” She didn’t because she had a good technique for both styles, and technique is technique. I’d love to talk with her and ask her about how she managed to sing both the styles authentically, and then how she dealt with the criticism and the pushback on doing the things that she wanted to.
In some ways, it’s easier for the lower voices especially the lower female voices, because most of the jazz is written for belters. I’m thinking of musical comedy terms of the belters. You could talk about that better than I can since you’re the professional singer. Your father was a musician and your mother was a professional opera singer. What was it like for you to sing rock and to go into popular music?
I never thought I was going to be a singer because my mom had a world-class voice and that was what she did, and so I was going to do something different. I came to it through the back door. I became a percussionist first.
You started with Calypso, right?
Latin music and Afro-Cuban, so I played congas, timbales, and all kinds of hand percussion. I sing backup vocals and I loved doing that because I love singing harmony. I love the feeling of those frequencies rubbing up against each other when people sing together. There’s nothing like it. We had another lead singer and I was always in the background because I was also introverted, shy and had incredible performance anxiety. Being in the back was fine for me. He then started missing gigs because he was captured by cocaine. I had to step in and take on more of the lead role. That was one of my first pivots with stepping out front and singing more. I didn’t sing rock. I sang mostly pop and R&B. I love jazz and all of the music that comes from the African-American tradition in our country.
You had a decent vocal technique.
None at first. When I stepped out to sing lead vocals more often, we were playing between 2 and 5 nights a week, 4 hours a night. I was trying to sing over a loud band and I got nodules fast.
For those who don’t know, talk about what nodules are.
Nodules are a little callus on your vocal cords and when your vocal cords rubbed together, that’s what happens when you rub tissue on the tissue. It creates a callus to protect itself and then the vocal cords become stiff and they can’t stretch. I could barely talk during the day. I had them so badly.
You hear Janis Joplin or Bill Clinton talk. Is that a callus on the vocal cord?
It can be many different kinds of things. It can be polyps, scar tissue, and just drying. Bill Clinton talks in the lower part of his voice and without much support. You can tell that he’s not lifting in and up when he’s talking. He’s letting it all hang out and he’s trying to create an emotional connection. When you talk down here and you’re talking for emotional connection, you can hear how my voice gets gravelly. This is called vocal fry and it’s common in our culture right now. It drives me crazy because when I hear it, I know that those vocal cords are rubbing together and they’re creating damage. If you’re talking like that all day, it can be bad for singing and talking.
It’s something that women do when they’re trying to sound more authoritative. They’ll pitch their voices low and it’s easy to lose your voice that way. You’ve got calluses on your vocal cords and you were singing five nights a week, four hours a night?
I went to get voice lessons from a classical teacher who didn’t have any clue as to what was going on with me and I got worse. That was frustrating because I knew that if I quit, and the vocal cords healed by themselves, usually it takes a few months. If I went back with the same technique, it would happen all over again, plus we have gigs. We were lucky we were playing all the time. We had to perform and the show must go on. Luckily, a bartender at one of the clubs that I played told me about a voice teacher named Tom Blaylock in Portland who I went to. I knew from the first lesson that he was going to be able to help me.
He knew so much about the physiology and the anatomy of the voice. He had me doing exercises where I would go out and I tear my voice apart, but every week it kept getting a little better. The tissue in the vocal cords regenerates fast. All the tissue in your mouth does. That’s a good thing because within a year and a half that vocal cord nodules sloughed off. My voice was clean and clear, and I had a good technique. I was a natural singer. It was a good thing that this happened because before I had nodules, I didn’t know how to sing. I just always had.
It’s a fascinating story, but let’s talk a little bit about how this applies like any other business. I was wondering when you were the babe in the band, did you ever have to do any of the negotiating? Did you have to walk into a producer’s office and say, “Take us seriously or take me seriously,” as a spokesperson for the band? What was that like?
I did. In the early days, our lead singer was a great salesperson. He could go into any club and get them to hire us. He had charisma in that way. I can sing and perform in front of people. I do get nervous but I get more nervous when I’m talking to people. There’s a lot going on when you’re in a conversation with someone on many different levels. I get overwhelmed and overstimulated. I was not the best person to do sales for the band but I was organized. I did create marketing materials and then leave them at different clubs. I did do phone work. It was not easy and I didn’t like doing it. When we were about 2, 3 years in, another bartender who was also working on the side as a promoter for jazz acts around town.If you believe in someone, then they will be able to access their own inner knowing. Click To Tweet
This is in Portland at this point which has a very vibrant live music scene. There was a bartender who was also a promoter.
He wanted to be our manager. It was with great relief that I relinquished those managerial marketing types of jobs to him so I could concentrate on the music.
We’re talking about pivoting and having had various careers. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like when Nu Shooz was a big hit in the 1980s, nominated for Grammy, all that stuff, and then the world moved on? What was that like? You had to reinvent yourself.
All along the way, I knew that we were in business that had no point A to point B. It was a miracle that we got on the radio in the first place. It was a miracle that the songs that were singles did anything at all. Let alone go into the top 20, top 40 of the Billboard charts. All along the way, I felt like I knew that the trajectory would be up and then down. I knew that I needed to create some internal foundation that was solid so that I would be able to make that ride work for me and not end up depressed, and not able to move forward after that happened.
It happens to a lot of people. It’s like being fired without the clarity of getting a pink slip. It’s just that the phone stops ringing.
We had played in clubs for seven years. We got a record deal with Atlantic and then we’d been on Atlantic Records for seven years. We recorded three records. Two came out and the third one did not. After four years of working on it, they put out a single. It didn’t do well and they dropped the record. There was the heartbreak of that four years of working on a creative project. We wrote over 100 songs for that record and no one ever heard it. There was that and then there was going to New York and trying to meet with the label, and having the ANR person who’s in charge of either the le repertoire, the liaison between you and the record company.
The woman who was in charge of us at that time and we had three different ANR people because their heads are always on the chopping block. If they work for the artists too much, then they’re fired. Most of them are more on the side of the record. This is in the old day. The pivot was tough because after losing that record deal, it was, “Let’s see, what am I qualified to do?” I’m qualified to either go out there and perform in front of thousands of people or bus tables at the local coffee shop because that was the job that I had before.
That’s what happened to me first right out of college where I spent a year working in New York City with 50% of the staff of a small touring opera company. The first show was fabulous and the second show was so horrible that I thought, “This is what I’ve been working for my whole life and I hate it.” I came home to Portland, Oregon and said, “What else do I know how to do? I can buss tables.” That was when I met your mother because I fell into a production of Don Giovanni that Portland Opera was doing where your mother was singing. That was the turnaround in me. I said, “I guess I’ll do opera after all.” Your mom was part of it. You were going to buss tables if you weren’t going to be in the band. What were you going to do?
Our manager did come to us, John and I are married, the songwriter, and the guitarist in the band. He came to us and said, “Do you want me to try to get you another record deal?” The joy of making music had been so expunged. It sucked out of us and it wasn’t fun anymore. If music is not fun, you can only fake it to a certain point and then it’s time to say, “Let’s do something else.” There were many other kinds of music that we wanted to do. I spent a couple of years trying to figure things out and ended up deciding to go ahead and teach because I had been rescued by learning correct vocal techniques. I wanted to be able to pass that on to other singers who were having difficulty. I became a voice teacher and had my own private studio for twenty years while we raised our son Malcolm.
We were talking about the choices especially for women. We’re recording this during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic where many women are having to choose whether you can have a job or a child but not both. You said something about your mother making that decision?
The decision was made for her in one case. She was a world-class lyric soprano. She won the West Coast Metropolitan Opera Auditions, performed with the Oregon Symphony and Seattle Symphony, and did all kinds of musical theater. She also won some other prizes. I found a newspaper clipping and it was a picture of her and these two other singers, and they had won. She had come in first and then there was number two and number three singer for this prize. Even though my mom had won the prize, they decided to give it to the runner up because she didn’t have children and she didn’t have a family that she had to take care of. This is the world that she was in. My dad was a physician and was busy. He had his whole life and wanted her life to revolve around his, and then take care of the children. I don’t even know how she had time. She wasn’t good at time management. I don’t know how she had the time to memorize all these performance roles that she was in.
That’s the fundamental equivalent of giving the promotion to the man because they know he has a family to support, and not giving it to the woman because they figure she’s going to drop out and have kids anyway, which is something that we are still battling nowadays.
Progress has been made but not enough.
I keep thinking of it as a spiral. We are spiraling. We get a little bit better and then we go around and we hit the same problem again. Maybe it’s a little better each time. I think about two steps forward and one step back. That’s a little too defeatist for me. It’s easy for me to get discouraged so I would rather not think of the steps back but I’d rather think of the spiral. We’re working our way up but it’s not all at the high point every time.
I love that image because I use it with my students. We constantly have to relearn and that’s how we cement the knowledge. It is a spiral because each time that you come back around, you are getting better at whatever it is that you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like that sometimes because you come back and you’re like, “This again? What happened?”
After a while, you had your life as a teacher and an advocate for the arts and all of that and then you were invited to go out on an ‘80s rerun tour.When your gifts, talent, and experience meet with the part of the world that needs it, magic happens. Click To Tweet
We said we’d never do it. When we were younger and we see the signs along the highway, “Come and see some ‘70s artists at the casino,” we’d be like, “We’re never going to do that. That’s pathetic.” We got calls to do that as Malcolm was growing up and we were like, “No, we’re done with Nu Shooz. We’re not going to go back.” It’s always forward. We have other music projects to do. I was singing jazz and that felt good to be in another circle of life thing, coming back to the style of music that I loved. There are many wonderful jazz musicians in Portland, Oregon that I got to perform with.
We finally said yes when Malcolm graduated from high school. We’d been getting calls for several years and one of the agents called and said, “These shows are fun. The audiences love music. You get to travel a little. Just try a few and see what you think.” We did and we got hooked because it’s like going to your high school reunion 30 years later and people are glad to be alive. Most of the bullshit is dropped from the interactions. It’s lovely to be able to be with people. We fly and we go into a city for a couple of nights. We tour in the afternoon. We go to a museum or two, and then we do 3 or 4 songs in our set and we’re done and fly home again. We were weekend warriors for seven years.
Especially during this COVID-19 time, we’re not performing. These were big arenas with 10,000 people or more. We’re at this point where we’ve done that enough now that it’s time to remake ourselves once again. That is always an exciting moment. After doing it many times, I feel like there’s a point where the thing that you were doing doesn’t give you the juice that it used to. When you stop having fun where there’s some stickiness in whatever it is that you’re doing, and you push past that point and you get to the other side, and you’ve done that enough times where you know that you can’t do it anymore, it’s time to move on. Luckily, I feel energized about the next iteration of myself. I wake up every day and I’m working on these courses for singers that are online. They’re going to be launched this fall of 2020. I’m writing about all of the experiences that I’ve had and putting them on my blog as a teacher and as a performer. I’m excited to help the next generation because it’s not an easy thing.
What could you say to people who find themselves having to pivot and it wasn’t their idea? Either they’ve lost a job or they were doing great in an industry that’s shut down like catering, events or something. What perspective can you give to people who are hurting having been through it several times?
It is different. The first time around when we lost our record deal, that was not our choice. I would say to people who are going through that experience where it hasn’t been their choice, that you have to let the grief be a part of the experience for a moment. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings that come with that. Not to be necessarily overwhelmed by them, but to allow them to be there. Sometimes you have to hold the grief in one hand while you’re scrambling with the other hand to try to figure out what to do next. It’s important to create something called Success Scaffolding.
What do you mean by that?
Jonathan Fields is a wonderful thought leader and he came up with The 8 Ps of Success Scaffolding. If you’re in a moment where you’re having to pivot, go look it up. It’s amazing. The eight pieces of success scaffolding are plan, purpose, people, possibility, proof, progress and pledge. What you’re doing is visualizing your outcome and you’re finding your purpose, which is also important. You’re finding people to help and support you as you’re moving through this next time. From people who can be your champion or your cheerleader to people who are doing the same thing you are. You’re in the same place as you’re trying to move ahead.
There are mentors, coaches and community because community is also important. People need proof that you can do it and it’s possible. We need micro-steps of that process to provide the proof and we need it from people we trust. We then have to take action and figure out. It’s all an experiment. Sometimes you have to experiment a bunch of times before you land on something that works because it brings your gifts, talents, experience to a part of the world that needs it. When those two things meet, magic happens.
It’s one of those things where I remember noticing in my 40s when I was working with a lot of younger people. You’d see the ones whose careers were on their way up and they hadn’t yet had a big failure. Those were often the ones who were busy talking, they had no time to listen. Their job was to listen to me because it was my job to tell them what to do and saying to wait. A couple of years later, you’d come around and you’d see them again, and they had a disaster. They screwed up. They’d learned that you can survive from it and then they’d moved on. It was so much easier to work with them. I’m sure I plagued my mentors as well in the days where I was sure I knew everything.
That is something that everyone has to go through because you have to have that feeling like you know everything in order to go out in the world and try. Those first two big hits that come and those first few failures, they are so rough. I turned 60 and I would not trade this moment for any other in my life because I feel like I haven’t seen everything. I know that I don’t know a lot but I’ve seen enough that I feel like I can relax a little bit in knowing that there is a cycle to these things. I will figure it out. There is a spiral. We are all naturally creative, resourceful and whole.
That is my mantra. When I’m talking to other people, whether I’m talking to my son who’s 25 and I’m trying to help him with something, I try to come to that conversation with he is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. That means that he can figure it out and if I have that belief in him, he’s going to be able to access his inner knowing. I also say that to myself because I still get performance anxiety. I probably always will but I know that I can move through it because I’ve done it enough times. Mostly, I guess what I’d say to other people too who are going through a moment of big transformation is that it does get easier the more you practice, whatever it is that you’re doing. You have to get up and go and do it every day.
That’s a great thing to end on. Think about yourself as being naturally resourceful, creative and whole. Valerie Day, thank you so much for being part of the show and it’s fun to have you here.
- Living A Vocal Life – podcast
- The 8 Ps of Success Scaffolding
- YouTube – Speakers Who Get Results
- iTunes – Speakers Who Get Results
About Valerie Day
Singer-educator-arts advocate Valerie Day has a continental, savoir-faire command of American Popular Song, an assured honey-alto delivery, a fierce sense of activism, and an alluring next-door gravitas that has echoes of another Day gone by. With her balance of authenticity, emotional immediacy and here-and-now intimacy, Valerie is more than a little bit of a 21st-century Doris Day. A gifted vocalist, skilled percussionist, and passionate advocate for arts education, she is a generous artist of uncommon talent and dedication.
Born into the fourth generation of a musical Northwestern family, Valerie was blessed to be raised amidst a supportive, arts-rich home life. A supportive musical mother paved the way for a fantastic journey—from the ground-zero trajectory of ‘80s Pop /R&B chartdom with Nu Shooz. Their infectious dance track “I Can’t Wait” reached #3 on the pop charts in the U.S., was in the top 10 in Europe and Britain, and Nu Shooz was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist in 1987.
Valerie went on to sing jazz, big-band and orchestral performances with the Oregon Symphony, Woody Hite, and Tom Grant, to a dynamic career as a celebrated voice-talent, educator and inspiration to aspiring young artists.
In 2013 NU SHOOZ was invited to be a part of the FREESTYLE EXPLOSION TOUR, along with other hit 80s acts LISA LISA, EXPOSÉ, STACEY Q, and PRETTY POISON. The tour was a tremendous success and brought the sounds of the 80s to a whole new audience. This led to the reforming of the NU SHOOZ live band in 2014 and the beginning of a new era. Valerie currently tours with Nu Shooz around the globe.