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Suzahn Fiering: That's Why I Say "Indie" Music
Independent jazz vocalist/guitarist, Nashville songwriter and teacher Suzahn Fiering drives home the definition of true "indie"
By Dom Kamper
(more articles from this author)
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Independent jazz vocalist/guitarist, Nashville songwriter and teacher Suzahn Fiering drives home the definition of true "indie" and talks about her amazing career spanning decades as a performer, songwriter, industry pro and jazz vocalist. We met up with her at PlayPrague 2010 in the heart of Europe.

What's your perception of PlayPrague?

[Suzahn Fiering] PlayPrague is a collaboration between Czech singer-songwriters, entertainment industry folks and Americans, mostly from Nashville, though some of us are from around the United States. We came across the pond to share our knowledge with anybody who wanted to hear it, whether they were Czech or Brazilian or African or American, or whatever. It's an opportunity for people to showcase and to learn and to get close-and-personal with industry professionals.

What's your role in this?

[Suzahn Fiering] I am an educator and also one of the artists. Although I write some country music, I travel the world as a jazz artist. And Despite the fact that I have a lot of music industry experience - manufacturing, music publishing, record label, lighting, audio/video - I really spend a lot of time educating people about what's going on at the grassroots level of the music industry in terms of independent touring.

What do you think is most important in the music industry?

[Suzahn Fiering] In my opinion, the most important thing is making music available to everyone that wants it. Every single person on the planet you talk to, whether they are living in Zimbabwe, Morocco, Berlin or Northern California, every person listens to music and has a list of things that they like. So the most important thing is making music accessible to everybody and from there, as a human being, the next most important is to give artists who want to create that music the opportunity and outlet to do it. Part of my job is to debug the myth of the music industry and let people know that you can make a living off this and that it can be a really terrific.

I'm in my forties and I travel around the world as a jazz artist. What? How is this possible? I play festivals, I teach master classes at colleges and universities and community centres, I represented Al Gore in a huge environmental project with the city of Paris. How is it possible that I can do this and travel the world playing jazz? Well, it's possible because I know the truth about the recording industry and I know that there are hundreds of thousands of musicians who make a really make a good living touring as an independent artist outside of what the record companies want us to perceive as the way to be a musician.

Why is indie music so important now?

[Suzahn Fiering] There are two ways to look at indie music. Sometimes, when people see the titles of my seminars they misunderstand what I'm talking about. I represent "indie" music and some people think it's a type of music, a genre. But, really, it's independent artists that I'm talking about. Every single musical genre is indie music now. Whether you play bagpipes, folk, Americana, Celtic, jazz, R&B, chill-out music, dance, or old-school soul - it's all music, and the way they make a living is to do it independently. So, that's why I say "indie" music.

What would you tell musicians when it comes to surviving in the current climate?

[Suzahn Fiering] This is what they should do: They shouldn't quit their day-jobs right away; try and save money if you can; the most important thing a new person trying become an independent artist can do is learn; the two most important things to learn are: sales and marketing techniques, because you need to become your own salesperson in the beginning; and the second most important thing you need to learn is your craft; you may think you know how to write a great song, or you may think you are a great singer, but you should never stop studying.

I'm touring major festivals and playing small clubs and opening for really great people and have great people opening for me and I'm still taking guitar lessons and I still write with people whom I feel write better than me to improve my game. I'm never going to stop and there's so much joy in that. And the other really important thing to do is just play, play, play. If you're a singer, sing all the time. Sing everywhere you can, and, in the beginning, sing for free, and get an Email list, collect Emails from everybody in the room, build an Email list and send them regular Emails, build your network, that's the most important thing you can do.

Now for the artist...

[Suzahn Fiering] I started out as kind of a folk/Americana-person and folk recording artist from way back, I've got 5 songs at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC; I played with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Sam Bush, I mean I was just really heavy into the folk thing. But the whole time, I was obsessed with jazz. I taught myself guitar at a young age, I started playing folk songs and really loved that, too. So, I've got, like, the perfect world: I travel the world as a jazz artist and write country songs for Warner Chappell!

So, I did the artist thing as a rock person and as an Americana person and I moved to Nashville and realized shortly that I didn't want to be a country artist, I really wanted to be a writer. But I missed the intellectual side of jazz, I missed that part of it. As a vocalist, I didn't think I should be singing jazz because, like, vocalists were not taken seriously, even though the top five selling records in jazz every year are always vocalists. So I thought, well, I'm just gonna sing jazz for fun, I'll never make it as a jazz vocalist, even though I'm very good and scat better than almost anybody on the planet, I think, and I've got a lot of training and everything.

But, living in Nashville and writing country songs on guitar, there was always that feeling of having a hole in my heart, there was always something missing. And I started writing jazz probably 20 years ago, I'd just figure out the chords in my head and then, I learned to write jazz that way. But, just as a hobby, I started playing jazz guitar again. I got a degree in music and audio engineering because I thought it was a way of having a job in the music industry. I worked at the record labels because I thought it gave me authority and people would look at me as a responsible and intelligent person, but the whole time, all I ever really wanted to do was be a jazz guitar player!

Around 2005 I started touring; I started making a few phone calls and a couple of people in England heard my jazz record and hired me immediately and I've been touring Europe probably 3-4 times a year for 3-4 weeks ever since. And a lot of jazz artists around Europe are playing my tunes and I tour the United States when I'm not in Europe, playing jazz - that's what I do. And I do a lot of teaching when I'm on the road, too. I still teach commercial songwriting; I still teach people how to write a great country song. I've always had a dream of getting a publishing deal as a pop writer, a country music writer, and now that I have it, it's not enough - I need to write jazz! And now that I'm back to writing jazz I spend a couple of months with my head surrounded by jazz and all this intellectual, heavy stuff and then I think: I've got to get back to Nashville and write some country songs! So, it's really kind of the best of both worlds for me.

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