The Interview: Stella Heath
Interview conducted by Michael Raver
The Billie Holiday Project, led by Stella Heath, celebrates the music of Lady Day. Shrouded in mystery, as she was draped in furs, Billie was quintessentially multi-faceted, possessing the sensitivity and ability to make the songs she sang as personal as if she was singing them softly in your own very ear. Featuring some of the Bay Area’s finest Jazz musicians, The Billie Holiday Project evokes the electric and intimate feeling of experiencing Lady Day live in a 1930s Jazz Club. Drawing from some of Billie’s most recorded tunes, such as Blue Moon, Billie’s Blues, God Bless the Child, and Strange Fruit, to name but a few, the band also revives some of the earlier and lesser-known tunes that Billie interpreted. In performance, interspersed with the music are stories of Billie’s life and musical artistry. The Band features Stella Heath, invoking the vocal stylings of Billie Holiday; Neil Fontano, piano virtuoso from Sonoma County; Michael Fortunato, rich and inventive on tenor saxophone and clarinet; Trevor Kinsel, interchanging between upright bass and cornet; and the Spike Klein on the drum kit.
New York performances of The Billie Holiday Project are November 23rd at Caveat and November 24th at The Duplex.
How did this project first come together?
I had listened to Billie Holiday a lot over the years–my childhood and young adulthood–but I had been focusing my attention more on others of my musical passions, such as Gypsy Jazz and Swing. I have always gravitated toward early Jazz, and have a particular fondness for the quirkiness of the 1930’s music. Something compelled me to deeply revisit Billie’s music during the Winter of 2017-18; I was undergoing a sea change. Listening through her music spurred the idea to create a show based around her life and music. When living in NYC, I had gone to see Audra McDonald’s show, in which she magnificently portrayed Billie. I could see myself doing a similar kind of show, but in my concept of the show I wanted more to tell Billie’s story as myself and not try to personify or impersonate her. That said, in the process I did put a lot of study into her vocal intonation and cadence, as well as her unique sense of timing. To some extent, I do emulate her voicings to various degrees when I sing the music. I spent most of 2018 researching her life and putting together the band, choosing the right musicians, & getting together marketing material and demos. Our first shows in the Winter and Spring of 2019 all sold out, and in general our shows are very well attended. It makes me so happy to see people interested in Billie and also Jazz and its history. I am very passionate about Jazz, and the History of Jazz, and holding it up as a great American art form and legacy.
What is it about Billie Holiday that moves you?
So many things… one of my objectives in the show is to celebrate how multifaceted Billie is. She has often been painted into a corner, associated with the more negative aspects of her life: “The drug addicted jazz singer who died young…” But a deeper look shows you what a damn spitfire she was, and how deeply compassionate and feeling she was, because she wouldn’t have been able to interpret songs as she did if she didn’t feel deeply. She was also an incredible musician. The way she played with melody and rhythm was truly masterful, and everyone who played music with her recognized that.
In researching her, some of my favorite things that I came across were outtakes of her ‘shooting the shit’ and telling stories and cracking jokes with other musicians at rehearsals and recording studios, telling jokes and laughing. The Lilt of her speaking voice was so lively, animated and playful! I love figuring out ways to incorporate some of these little moments into the show.
Why do you think her music still resonates?
It’s like Shakespeare, isn’t it? These artists, and works of art, that stand the test of time, because they strike at the core of something so human, opening up people to feeling, emotions, memories, etc. Billie felt the lyric and stories of the songs she sang. She would always say that she just couldn’t sing a song unless she felt it. And she felt it so much that anyone watching or listening to her felt it too.
Is there a particular song that stands out to you?
I have fallen in love with many of the songs that Billie sang: Currently I am really loving Crazy He Calls Me, You Go To My Head, and My Man. These are songs that are more recently added to our repertoire. We are constantly adding in material, and there is such a wealth to choose from! But the song that was so important in Billie’s career, and is absolutely still so relevant, is Strange Fruit. Billie would often end her show with that song, and never do an encore. In honor of Billie, that is how we end the show as well. It brings it back to our own realities and life, and our current political climate, and asks the question: How far have we really come from the days of lynchings and rampant racism?
What does it mean to bring the project to New York?
Billie considered her home to be New York City. I’m looking to bring it to the Jazz Museum of Harlem, and other reputable New York Jazz venues, so will be looking to book in 2020. When I realized I would be in NYC in November 2019, it was a little late to book some places. I too have a big part of my heart in New York, having lived in the City for many years before relocating to Northern California. This story, this show, is something that compels a farther reach, because the ultimate message is still so relevant. Bringing it to different places in this country, into schools for example, and communities of such variety, is certainly desire for myself and the other band members. From our very first show, audience members have suggested that we should take it to Europe and Japan and other world audiences… I conceived the show to be a sit-down experience, intended for listening spaces, and to have the arc of the show tell a story. I try to book places that have a seating arrangement that provides the audience there to have this experience. That said, we must remember that this music is quintessentially of the Swing Era, and we always welcome dancing!!!
November 23rd. Caveat. 21A Clinton St. Manhattan 6:30 doors. 7pm Show. 90 Minute show. Ticket Link: https://www.caveat.nyc/event/billie-holiday-project-11-23-2019
November 24th. The Duplex. 61 Christopher St. Manhattan 8:45pm doors. 9:30pm Show. 75-90 minute show. Ticket Link: https://www.purplepass.com/#193156/The_Duplex-The_Billie_Holiday_Project-The_Duplex_Cabaret_Theatre-November-24-2019.html