An Interview with Vocal Supergroup säje


2021-07-06 Hardly Raining

GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble säje (“rhymes with beige”) made their Seattle debut at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley on July 6 & 7, 2021. It was their first live performance together since COVID-19. Vocalists Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage were joined by Ben Williams (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums), Dawn Clement (piano), and Daniel Rotem (saxophone). Hardly Raining reconnected with säje for an interview after their shows.



Interview with säje

Hardly Raining (HR):

You received a GRAMMY® nomination for “Desert Song” [for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals] without even having recorded an album—congratulations, and that is quite the recognition to receive for your first composition together!

What talents do the other members bring to the group, and what do you think “worked” so well together?

Erin Bentlage (EB):

Amanda’s arranger–musician brain is just so genius, that it sets this precedent that we can do some serious [work] here. Johnaye has this incredible energy that keeps us in a very safe, authentic space. We all feel very safe to be in our truth because of Johnaye’s presence in our group, and she’s also an incredible composer who planted that first melodic seed for “Desert Song,” so she drives things forward and is always pushing the creation of our originals. And Sara’s just an incredible composer and lyricist, who just came up with the first concept seeds for that song and is also the producer of the group. She helps us see the macro picture that helps us incorporate the music that we want to make, but how can we also give the audience a 3D understanding of what we want this to be. So I think it’s a pretty bomb combination.

Sara Gazarek (SG):

And Erin exists in this artistic space that few people do, that beautiful composer brain rooted in this deep sense of artistry. So there is an integrity and a sophistication there—composer, educator, singer, soloist and vocal arranger.

For “Desert Song” in particular, we were all listed as arrangers in the GRAMMY submission, because the song had some shapes and colors that we had come up with together. But Erin took it by herself in Los Angeles and orchestrated it the way you hear it now. We all collaborate and have a say in everything, but there’s always one or two people that do the 70%-90% of the meat of it for themselves. Erin is the compositional and arranging voice.

It would have been so easy to be like, womp womp, everybody’s at home, I’m not sitting next to Beyoncé, this sucks. … But we created our own GRAMMY experience, and I honestly think it couldn’t have been any better.

Johnaye Kendrick

HR:

So really egalitarian, and also people take turns within leadership roles.

Tell me about your GRAMMY performance and the awards day itself.

SG:

Having been to the GRAMMYs before, and [having] been a Recording Academy member for a while, I’m grateful to have a tiny peek into what the experience is [in a non-COVID year]. I wanted us to submit for consideration to potentially be invited to perform, and I also wanted to make the digital GRAMMY award experience as special as possible for säje, so it didn’t feel like our first nomination was not as big of a deal as it would be if we were all going to the actual ceremony. … We didn’t understand, when we were first asked, that [not all nominees would be participating in the introductory song]. Three days after, we realized we were featured, and would have to write and arrange something for it!

So we wrote and arranged these four little sections of [Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”]. They told us, we can only use two phrases of this, thank you for doing this incredible work, you guys are amazing, who knows which section we will pick.  We were like, I hope it’s this section, I hope it’s that section, but you’re just not really in control of what they choose. Talk about an honor, to receive a nomination for the first song we’ve ever written, but then also to be invited to perform at the GRAMMYs without a major label or major publicist behind us. It was a beautiful, love-filled experience to have that opportunity.

Amanda Taylor (AT):

Arranging for [the GRAMMY performance] was a really interesting experience. Even though we kind of tapped in and out in contributing to the ideas for our little chunk of that tune, that was only the second time that we created something together in the same space. Since “Desert Song,” we’ve had our different pairings of arrangers that go off in their own corners, but that was [only] the second time we were in the same physical space to create something. It was a very fun experience!

Johnaye Kendrick (JK):

I feel like we celebrated it all—the whole GRAMMY thing, we did it just the right way. It would have been so easy to be like, womp womp, everybody’s at home, I’m not sitting next to Beyonce, this sucks. But we got on an airplane and flew to L.A. for the GRAMMYs, we reserved a really beautiful space, we hired a really talented photographer, we hired an incredible makeup artist, we had our outfits designed by an incredible designer who participated in Project Runway, Deyonté Weather, who is up the street in Edmonds. So we just went for all of it.

Going into it, we knew the GRAMMYs were in January, and then everything [was postponed] and it felt like the bottom fell out—like, this is such a bummer, now not only do we not get to be in person for the GRAMMYs, we also have to wait another two months to hear what the deal is.

We created our own GRAMMY experience, and I honestly think it couldn’t have been any better. That is going to have such a beautiful space in my mind forever, because we were together, we looked beautiful, we had a great time, we were in a beautiful location. Everything was the best it could possibly be, considering the limitations of the world at that point.

This ensemble—while we all understand and celebrate the vocal-jazz tradition—is more rooted in the contemporary-jazz solo artist genre that’s expanded for four voices. … We want to create music that heals, and that maybe shifts the narrative about what young female musicians can achieve.

Sara Gazarek

HR:

That’s amazing—just applying this do-it-yourself approach to the day and making it what you wanted it to be.

You all live in different cities, and most of your work together in säje has taken place during the pandemic. Tell me about your process of collaboration over the past year and a half.

EB:

I think it’s been very different for each project. The similarities between projects are that we have a pretty involved Google drive with many folders, and we’ve created a streamlined process for four creatives. We’re not engineers, but we’re pretty devoted to setting ourselves up for success. Usually two-ish people will take the lead on something and [hold] Zoom meetings. We’ve just started to use Marco Polo as a way to whip ideas back and forth more effectively. And then we’ll have a meeting to get the macro ideas in place, and that’s when demoing will happen and audio ideas get sent back and forth, and Google documents with lyrics and, oh, I was thinking this for this section. From there, it really depends on the project.

JK:

What’s cool is that we’re so free and open. We’re still exploring the many ways [to collaborate remotely], and obviously there’s no one way of doing anything. What’s exciting is that we’re always looking for new ways to be inspired by one another, and new ways to collaborate. We have lyric writing sessions in one space, we try to do our song-writing together in the same space whenever we’re together—we’ll dedicate some time to writing, because it’s important to us to write original music in addition to arranging.

When you write your first song as a group and it gets nominated for a GRAMMY, you kind of feel like you can do anything! So it’s like, well, ain’t no wrong way to do this, let’s just do it, let’s try this, let’s try that, let’s see if this works. … We’re just really making the most of everyone’s strengths and trying to use technology to our advantage. Being in different cities, we rely on technology a lot, and we are constantly trying new and different ways to collaborate as though we are in the same space.

Because of the players that we are lucky enough to play with, it just enhances the whole experience. … It feels like we’re all there to create art in the same space, and everything just feeds into our energy and enhances what we’re trying to accomplish onstage.

Amanda Taylor

HR:

Several of you have ties to this area. You had a great turnout both nights at Jazz Alley. What was it like to return to play Seattle?

SG:

I’ve played Jazz Alley since I was 23, so the last two and a half years. Just kidding, I’m not 25, so I guess 16 years.

HR:

I wasn’t going to call you out!

SG:

As an artist, it’s always scary to play a club, because there’s so much on the line. If you don’t pack the place, it affects what kind of performance you’re welcomed back into, it affects the relationship between you and the performance venue, it affects your relationship with that audience, it can change the mood of the show. You get to a space where you try really hard not to let that affect you. But I’ve always found that Seattle audiences are repeat offenders—there are so many people that continue to come back over and over again. I don’t find that in very many other places in the world that I travel to. Part of it is friends and family, but part of it is just the heart of the Seattle arts community—that people want to watch how artists have grown. It’s beautiful to see people come back over and over again and say, this is what I noticed, this is what I love, this is how you continue to grow.

But with säje, this is the first time I ever performed at Jazz Alley with something that wasn’t my group, so I was really curious what the response was going to be. I think we all have ties to the community in Seattle, and we worked really hard to make sure people were aware of it, but you never know. It was easy to go out to hand something to the sound engineer and come back into the dressing room and be like, guys, it’s only half full. Johnaye immediately was like, you’re a ding-dong, shut up, I know it’s not half full. But it was thrilling to feel that energy from the gate—the Seattle debut for this ensemble.

I love the saying, “It’s not as good as it gets, it’s as good as it’s gotten,” but our good-as-it’s-gotten started so high. I’m so excited to continue our trajectory in Seattle and elsewhere, but it was very special to feel that much love and that much enthusiasm for something that feels new, and feels like it’s a risk for someone to come, because there’s no track record other than the love for the human beings on stage. I think we’re all pretty grateful for the energy that we were welcomed with, and it goes in the bucket of salad-days performances for me.

JK:

I would say one of the things I really would attribute to a lot of folks coming was we have been sharing as much of ourselves as possible online. I really got the impression that people were like, we want to experience this, we want to be there for this, we want to see what it’s like in real life. Because when you’re presenting things online, there’s a lot you of tweaking you can do to make things look real polished!

There were a lot of people—some that I knew very well and others that I’ve never met before—who were like, I just needed to see if this was real, I couldn’t believe all the things I’d been seeing online, and I really had to come to see if you guys were real. I think that that brought a lot of folks in—they’re like, there’s no way. There is a way! This is what it is. I had people crying on me after the show, like, I didn’t believe it, I couldn’t conceive of it, that was unreal. I think there was this, I have to be in the room for that, that made the experience so special. I think we all really felt the love. And when I say, there’s no way, we’ve got to see this, it wasn’t like the audience was like, mm-hmm, what’ve y’all got? But it was, we love this, what is this like, is it really really real? So that was a really exciting experience.

We all trust each other and trust ourselves, and want to know each other and ourselves. So it creates this dynamic that’s very safe, and also fosters growth in a crazy way.

Erin Bentlage

HR:

You have experimented with different instrumentation. And säje brought a really stellar band to Jazz Alley, featuring Ben [Williams on bass], Kendrick [Scott on drums], Dawn [Clement on piano], and Daniel [Rotem on saxophone]. What does that traditional vocal-jazz [rhythm section] backing bring to your sound?

AT:

Because of the players that we are lucky enough to play with, it just enhances the whole experience. They’re so sensitive, and they want us to have the best possible experience onstage and are trying to make the most of it. Honestly, it feels very foreign to think of them as a traditional vocal-jazz backing band, because it just doesn’t feel that way in the moment. It feels like we’re all there to create art in the same space, and everything that they do just feeds into our energy and enhances what we’re trying to accomplish onstage.

SG:

I think we also talk a lot about how this ensemble—while we all understand and celebrate the vocal-jazz tradition—is more rooted in the contemporary-jazz solo artist genre that’s expanded for four voices. Each of us celebrates and is influenced by the genre, but more artistically resides in the space of, what can I say with this, how can I communicate this with the choices that I’m making. In a big band or a vocal-jazz ensemble, which is where the tradition came from, it’s like the rhythm section is part of that large ensemble and they have a role to fill.

With the solo artists, and what we hope for in säje, is that we understand the arrangements, but we want to breathe life into them and communicate and express in a way that feels human. I think that’s something that individual jazz musicians strive for: that artistic space to be able to contribute. Obviously our book is tough, and a lot of it is pretty meaty in terms of what we’re asking of our rhythm section. But then on top of that, in our dream scenario, it’s like, you get the picture and now we’re all taking it to another place with artistic approach on the front burner.

I’ve never experienced anything like [säje] in my life—there is nothing like it. … The beauty of being nurtured by your peers, by your team, by your sisterhood, by people that you love, and just knowing that you’re safe at all times.

Johnaye Kendrick

HR:

And maybe I’ve made an assumption, too. Would you say you consider yourselves a jazz ensemble?

EB:

The word jazz is getting trickier and trickier. It’s hard to say what jazz is. I think we are very informed by jazz harmony, and we are informed by the big-band tradition. At the same time, we all have serious influences that would not label themselves as jazz at all. We do improvise a good amount and we have improvisation in our sets, and we also have some very through-composed arrangements. So it’s funny, we’re kind of skating around that word, knowing that we have a lot of love for what that word often entails, but also realizing that it doesn’t do us a service to stay within what that means either. It’s very nuanced and tricky.

SG:

I think it’s hard when you have a title, and people associate it with what it is you’re able to do. That’s where I think we kind of push back against the idea that we’re a jazz group, because what we hope for with this ensemble is the broadest reach possible. And not because we want to be famous or get rich off of music—because what does that even mean—but because we want to create music that heals, and that maybe shifts the narrative about what young female musicians can achieve.

So while we are delighted to play in jazz clubs, we also would love the opportunity to work with some artists that wouldn’t typically be associated with the jazz genre, or wouldn’t be labeled as jazz musicians—like if Emily King discovered säje. For us, it’s more if certain aspects of the music world influence what we’re doing and writing. We love jazz and the authenticity, and the freedom and expression, and the willingness to speak to the human condition, and that’s something we’ll never shake. But that anytime you put a label on it, it’s also the willingness to put a limitation on it.

Talk about an honor, to receive a nomination for the first song we’ve ever written, but then also to be invited to perform at the GRAMMYs without a major label or major publicist behind us.

Sara Gazarek

HR:

That’s really fair. It seems like you have a number of homes—genre-wise, and not just geographically—and that is a real strength.

The jazz scene has not always been hospitable to women. With säje, you have spoken about a “profound sisterhood,” and an awakening about how musical collaboration can be. What is different about the atmosphere in the room when it’s the four of you women, and what does that allow you to do musically?

JK:

I’m over here laughing, like, you know, when four women’s periods get synced up, let me tell you!

I have a hard time articulating it, actually. There’s so much socialization that goes into being a female jazz musician—well, there was, I’m going to pretend that all of it is in the past. When I was coming up it was like, being harassed is just part of the gig; you have to deal with it, and you have to figure out how to handle those kind of things because they’re going to happen. I think that an awakening is happening.

But then it becomes this thing where I’m one of the guys; it’s very important to be one of the guys if you’re a jazz musician. You have to be cool, you have to be down, you have to be chill, you have to be funny. There are all these things that you have to be, and it’s exhausting. So then I convinced myself that, yeah, I am one of the guys and this is who I am, and relationships with women are so complicated and it’s so exhausting. [But] then I denied myself a lot of power, because I feel like when women get together, and make decisions about shit, and decide they’re going to do shit, it gets done.

There was a bit of time when we were beginning to learn about one another—Erin and I, Amanda and I, we didn’t know each other before säje. We knew of each other and admired each other, but I didn’t know them. Going into a space with women that you don’t know, for me it was, let’s see how this plays out. I think it’s special because everyone came into the space exactly as themselves. I think that’s where the power lies.

I will attribute it to [our first retreat in] Palm Springs and the mimosas—but from the beginning it was, this is who I am, nice to meet you, you are safe here. Just starting at that point, of, there is nothing you can say or do that would be wrong, you are exactly right in every feeling you have, you are perfect in exactly the way you exist, and there’s this open willingness to nurture and uplift. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life—there is nothing like it. There’s the idea of a mother’s love, that everyone assumes you just know what this feeling is, the beauty of being nurtured by your peers, by your team, by your sisterhood, by people that you love, and just knowing that you’re safe at all times.

It’s like you have the keys to the universe, honestly. We know all the answers, we can do anything, we can take over the world if we want, because as a unit we are the strength of the thousands of women who came before us and made us who we are. It’s this unlimited power source when we’re tapped in.

EB:

I love what Johnaye just said. That’s totally it.

[One] specific that’s coming to mind is that this week I noticed I was creatively stumped, and I was able to bring that to säje. Instead of being like, oh, I’ll get through it, I’ll get over it, don’t worry about it, I was able to actually unpack why that was, and have a beautiful existential conversation about why that was, which I honestly don’t think I would feel so safe doing outside of this particular group. We all trust each other and trust ourselves, and want to know each other and ourselves. So it creates this dynamic that’s very safe and also fosters growth in a crazy way. It’s very special.

AT:

I’d say it’s a wholly exploratory and celebratory experience, versus showing up to a rehearsal or a retreat and feeling like you have to prove yourself in any way.

SG:

I don’t know for me if that was something I had experienced before. I’ve collaborated with women, I’ve collaborated with men obviously, and there have been times when both didn’t feel safe. But I think we [säje] exist in the realm of that spectrum on the feminine side, where we exist in a space of abundance, in a space of yes. I think that is something I learned in this ensemble, that it’s safe, you can be flawed, you can express your challenges, you can throw something on the table and people won’t judge you for it, they will celebrate it. I think it is not common, and I hope similarly that it serves as an example that it is an option, it is something that people can choose.

The priority is to amplify Johnaye’s voice, her experience and perspective as a Black woman, her message to the Black community, and the names of those Black lives we’ve lost to police violence. … [and for white listeners] to not settle into the deep appreciation of Black music without also being reminded of how this music that we all love so dearly came to be.

Erin Bentlage

HR:

At your Tuesday show, as you introduced [Johnaye Kendrick’s tune] “Never You Mind,” you had said that säje believes Black lives matter. Johnaye later spoke the names of Black Americans killed by police, and it was a poignant moment—people were tearful. What messages do you hope your platform can help amplify?

SG:

I think we all share a common desire to speak truth through our art, and aren’t shy in attempting to do so in the music we create together. There are voices in the world who deserve (and need) to be amplified. I think we recognize that what we’re doing might feel futile if we don’t ask ourselves who or what it is that we’re creating for, speaking for. I think I can safely say that we celebrate Black American music, and deeply value Black lives. We celebrate and deeply value women, particularly female identifying musicians and artists. We celebrate intersectionality, we celebrate equality. We celebrate the planet, we celebrate human and animal rights. We celebrate love and truth. We celebrate each other. We celebrate you.

AT:

We feel strongly that it is not only our honor to celebrate Black lives through music (or otherwise), it is our responsibility to do it thoughtfully, proudly, and unwaveringly. säje is privileged enough to have an audience, a following, a social “stage”… and we would like to use that platform to amplify the voices that need it the most: Black voices, female voices, LGBTQ voices, and the voices of all people of color. As we continue on our path, the importance of uplifting, connecting, and listening becomes ever clearer, and ever more urgent.

JK:

Regarding “Never You Mind,” it’s so easy for some people to walk into a jazz club and escape. To enjoy life and enjoy the moment. The reality is some other people don’t have that same luxury. It is my hope that as people are escaping and enjoying the Black music that they love so much, they take a small percentage of that time to acknowledge the difficulties that Black folks and, well, all POC face in this country—a country for which many died to help build. In a general sense, Sara said it well: We have the luxury of speaking our truth through our art, and we will always dedicate our time and energy to these efforts.

EB:

Overall, as a group, I think we aim to tell honest stories that speak to our collective and individual experiences in hopes that we can hold space for our listeners to either identify with and process through, or learn from, what we’re offering. In the case of “Never You Mind,” the priority is to amplify Johnaye’s voice, her experience and perspective as a Black woman, her message to the Black community, and the names of those Black lives we’ve lost to police violence. As a white woman performing that song, I also hope to invite our white listeners into a heightened engagement with and responsibility for the protection and amplification of Black lives and Black voices, and not let our white listeners (or ourselves) settle into the deep appreciation of Black music without also being reminded of how this music that we all love so dearly came to be.

It’s a wholly exploratory and celebratory experience, versus showing up to a rehearsal or a retreat and feeling like you have to prove yourself in any way.

Amanda Taylor

HR:

You just announced that you are making your first album! What can we expect, which city will you record in, and can you share any hints yet about the personnel?

EB:

Oh my gosh, we have not even established yet what we’re willing to share! We know both the rhythm section sessions and vocal additional sessions will be in October. We are definitely recording the rhythm section in Los Angeles. We are trying to create an incredible situation for ourselves for the vocal sessions, and are still zooming in on the perfect solution for that.

SG:

But we’ll be doing that ourselves.

AT:

We’ll be doing all of that ourselves. We’re producing ourselves. We’re super-excited about the personnel, but we are definitely large and in charge of the whole thing. And of course we launched a crowd-funding campaign a week and a half ago, which again we’re just running ourselves. We didn’t use one of the more common platforms, it’s all through our website, we’re in control of all of it. We have a special until July 31st, which is that anyone who joins will get two singles right away: “Wisteria” and “Desert Song.”

SG:

We had a lot of fun coming up with the perks. There are the staple things that everyone does, like, you can have a digital download, you can have a signed CD, you can have a private lesson! But it’s fun watching the orders flow in, to see that, oh, that person wants a signed postcard, and that person got the exclusive photo album from the studio session. And we’ve had a couple of people order the song dedication, which is one that I haven’t seen on any other crowd-funding campaigns—where someone says, I want to dedicate this song to my dad, or in loving memory, or happy anniversary, or whatever people want to say. Those to me are really special because it will not only be something that means a lot to us, but also something that other people can hold, and celebrate something they really love through the vessel of our debut album.

And, as [radio host] Abe Beeson said [when he introduced the show at Jazz Alley], he anticipates that we’re going to win a GRAMMY, and someone could be the executive producer of the säje album that maybe is GRAMMY-nominated!

Edited for clarity and length.


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