Interview: Bobby McFerrin

We speak with the legendary American vocalist & Colours of Ostrava headliner

Craig Monts

Written by Craig Monts Published on 17.05.2012 15:33:44 (updated on 17.05.2012) Reading time: 4 minutes

Ten-time Grammy Award-winner Bobby McFerrin will return to the Czech Republic to play at the Colours of Ostrava Festival, July 13 at Dolní oblast Vítkovice.

We had a chance to pose a few questions to the legendary vocalist – here’s what he had to say:

I heard that you spent six years ‘exploring’ your voice before releasing you first solo concert. Can you tell us what exactly ‘exploring your voice’ involves?

It involves sitting in a room and singing!! I knew that I wanted to perform all by myself, and first I practiced improvising, and tried playing with a couple of tunes I could “hear” in my head using just my voice. And I started to perform those songs solo during shows with my band. And I kept practicing at home. Gradually I started to do short 20 minute sets alone, then 40 minutes. Took a long time before I was comfortable doing a whole show. Now it’s completely natural. But I just kept practicing and trying to make the sounds I imagined. I think most musicians hear an ideal sound in their inner ear and try to get close to that ideal. For me, because I was “hearing” things like big intervals jumps (so that I could “play” the bassline and the melody simultaneously, sometimes that meant stopping to practice a few notes over and over again so I could tune them properly. But I found that the very best thing was to just keep going, keep singing, keep trying to respond in every moment to what my inner ear was telling me, keep following the music forward.

Do you have any regular vocal exercises? How often do you do them?

When I’m getting ready to leave for a tour, I try to sing every day. I’ll just start improvising. I might start with 10 minutes, and do that several times a day, then do longer stretches. I usually find that those improvisations take me where I need to go to develop flexibility and strength. Sometimes if I really want to hone my ear or my technical flexibility I’ll sing some Bach preludes.

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How do you feel about the use of vocoders and other electronic voice manipulation devices being used in current music?

I don’t love it, and it’s not something I’m interested in myself. But I understand why other people are curious about them, and that’s becoming part of the history of music. We’ll see where it all takes in the future!

How would you say 2010 VOCAbuLarieS album differs from your 1982 self-entitled album? Would you say you’ve changed as an artist?

Those are very different albums. But of course they both celebrate the human voice and the beauty of singing in harmony, and they both reflect my own quirky way of hearing/articulating sounds. VOCAbuLarieS was very much a collaborative effort. It started with my manager/producer Linda Goldstein, who had the idea that we could take the choral improvisations I was doing with Voicestra one step further, really make through-composed music which was based in the “vocabularies” I’d been exploring as an improviser. Linda’s listed as a producer, but she had the vision and made a lot of taste calls throughout the long process of putting that album together.

The next important component was Roger Treece, who Linda found through his work with the Manhattan Transfer and Mark Murphy. Roger spent years on the task of taking my “language” and developing longer forms. You can hear my sound in the final album, it’s unmistakably about the way I like to sing, but you can also hear a lot of Roger, whose biggest influences include Singers Unlimited, Lyle Mays, and the film composer John Williams. What’s kind of interesting about this question is that in both cases we were really trying to do something new, and weren’t exactly sure how to do it, so there was a lot of trial and error.

With VOCAbuLarieS, I had the privilege of an established performing career, so we took a lot of time. With the 1982 record, we were also experimenting, but we had less time, less money, less pressure, and of course at that point I was still honing in on what I really wanted to do with my voice. The thing about music, whether you’re talking about three decades of a career or three minutes of a solo, is that it all keeps evolving. I’m excited about moving forward and about what comes next.

Who or what are you currently listening to?

Right now I’m on tour, traveling from city to city, doing five concerts a week. Whenever I can find silence, that’s what I’m listening to. I need some quiet time to renew my love of sounds!

What did you like the most about the Czech Republic the last time you were here? What are you looking forward to this summer?

The audiences in the Czech Republic are really incredible. You can feel the musicality in the room, the level of music appreciation and music education is so high. And when everybody sings it’s incredible. I travel all over the world, and I’m more aware of similarities between people everywhere than differences, but I’ve performed in the Czech Republic often, and I do have a sense of the character of the audience, intellectual but playful, listening intently. So I’m always excited to come back.

This summer I’m especially looking forward to bringing WeBe3 with me!

Bobby Mc Ferrin will play at Colours of Ostrava July 13th 2012. For more details click here.

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