Interview: Natalie Gelman
An opera-singing, roller-blading, blonde bombshell of a singer-songwriter who’s not afraid to busk her folk-pop on the subways of NYC
ven if New York is where you grew up, you’d need some guts to busk around the city’s subways of an evening, and you’d have to be a confident vocalist to perform at Carnegie Hall. But for Natalie Gelman, this was just the start of a story that has taken the young songstress from performing to tourists in Time Square, to studying opera in Austria and even embarking on a charity rollerblading tour of gigs along the US East Coast.
Since picking up a guitar at the age of 16, Natalie’s attractive blend of folk, pop and rock had charmed strangers on the subway and it would have the same effect on Songwriting when the press release landed in our inbox. But we had a few questions… What happened to opera? Why choose busking on the cold streets over the warmth of an acoustic venue? And what made her decide to spend 48 days rollerblading?
We catch up with Natalie taking a well-earned rest in her new home outside Los Angeles, after touring across America in support of her new EP. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on her story so far and where it all started…
You picked up a guitar at the age of 16. Did you start writing songs then?
“Yeah, it was pretty natural for me to write immediately. I think I learned A and C major and started writing a song going back and forth. I’d been playing music a long time before then, so it was just a means to accompany myself – the guitar wasn’t a big part of the songwriting, it was to facilitate something between the lyrics and the melody.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I THOUGHT ‘I CAN’T WRITE MUSIC BECAUSE I’M NOT A GUY… AND I’M NOT DEAD!’ [/cc_blockquote_right] “I went to the LaGuardia High School in New York City, and before then I’d grown up singing classical music, musical theatre, studying classical violin and piano – a really technique-based music study. Then when I got to high school, it blew my mind wide open and I got into gospel music, and we had a programme called New Music Singers where we’d write our songs and perform them. But up until then I thought I can’t write music because I’m not a guy, I don’t have great-looking hair that’s curly and grey and weird… and I’m not dead! I thought that’s who writes music: Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. But then I started seeing kids around me writing songs and playing guitars, so I signed myself up for guitar lessons, without owning a guitar! I told my friend and she had one behind her couch, which she gave it to me and that was my guitar for a solid four or five years.”
A lot of musicians who have a classically-trained background find it difficult to improvise and get into songwriting because they have a very rigid technique. Did you actually find it came quite easily?
“I did. The biggest thing is I stopped judging myself and my thoughts. I was learning about it all and having fun. I was using it as therapy too, writing a lot about what I’d gone through, so it wasn’t contrived in any way. I just loved singing the songs and emoting and sharing. It really came together and grew into busking really naturally.”
Busking on the streets of New York must take some guts to go out there and stand on your own. What made you do that, rather than going to an acoustic night?
“Well I did both. I was only 16 when I started getting gigs in the city and 10 years ago there weren’t many cafes and under-age venues, so I’d go into bars with my fake ID and I’d go to an open mic and get offered gigs after I’d performed, but the only people coming were my friends’ parents. So after a show I was showing a friend around Time Square, carrying a guitar, and someone asked me to play a song, so I did. Then 20 minutes later I’m walking down the street and someone else asked me to play a song! Next thing I know, a crowd had gathered and this woman came up to me and said, ‘Where do I put the money?’ It was a really special moment. Next thing I know, a guy at a magazine kiosk offers me a job to play for three hours a day and he’ll pay me $50! So it wasn’t really busking.”
“It was ingrained in me from high school that if someone asks for you to sing for them, you sing for them – you have to take every opportunity in life. Then my friend said, ‘Let’s do this in the subway’. I was nervous about it at first, so I said I’ll only do it if you’re stood right next to me. But then I kept doing it on my own and I stayed in that same spot for years – every time I came home from college that was my little place. I was a lot younger so it was super-lucrative to help my fund my CD and has made me fans from all over the world who’ve kept in touch.”
Did you start taking yourself seriously as a singer-songwriter at that point?
“There was always something in me that made me know I wanted to be a singer. I dabbled in musical theatre, acting and dancing, so I knew I wanted to perform. But I was studying opera when I’d started busking, and I was super-stifled by it all – I had to perform songs a certain way to honour the period that they were written, and it didn’t fulfil my creativity. I had so many opportunities at high school, so by the time I’d graduated I’d sung twice at Carnegie Hall and interned at the Metropolitan Opera, but once I got to college there was a sense of ‘What am I aiming for?’ Opera is extremely tough and there are fewer opportunities to perform, and I love to play a lot! So it wouldn’t have been a good fit.”
Listening to your EP it’s not obvious that you have an operatic background, other than the strength and range in your voice. Has opera influenced your songwriting at all?
“My acting work in opera has really served me as my songs get older. I respect the fact that it’s my job to play songs that people expect to hear, even if they’re off my first record. So if they don’t resonate with me anymore, there’s a lot of work that I did in opera that helps me find new meaning in them, and still be connected to the songs so I can perform them authentically. It’s about getting to an honest performance.”
[cc_blockquote_right] DON’T HAVE ANY CONTRIVED EXPECTATIONS OR JUDGMENTS OF WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO MAKE… JUST PLAY [/cc_blockquote_right] You’ve been compared to Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Joni Mitchell. Do you agree with those comparisons?
“Yeah, when I first started writing the only record I was listening to was Pieces Of You by Jewel, so a lot of my early stuff was like something she could’ve written. Then I moved onto Sheryl Crow and my stuff started leaning that way, but I think everyone goes through that. The only comparison I didn’t agree with was Joni Mitchell, but I get it now. It’s very flattering and I get compared to a whole range of artists from Tracy Chapman to Adele and Alicia Keys. I’ve really been influenced by Patty Griffin recently, so I’d love it if someone compared me to her one day!”
Do you write songs with a piano as well?
“I’ve just started actually. I played piano for 14 years but I couldn’t write ‘pop’ on a classical instrument – my approach then was very different to what it is now. I got up to playing the Gershwin’s Three Preludes and then I said ‘That’s enough!’ I also write on the ukulele now, but mostly I write on the guitar. Lately I tend to have an idea before I even pick up an instrument – I’ll sing little bits into voice memos on my phone.”
Are they melodic ideas or lyrics, or song titles?
“I’ll usually write the melody and the lyrics at the same time, then it’s a matter of filling in the words, getting clearer about what I’m trying to say, and is what I’m saying clear to someone else. I work really hard on my lyrics, to get the point across and also saying it in an interesting way – getting rid of extra words. That’s the work bit, but the initial inspiration comes all at once. I have books, files and notes on my phone of lyric ideas and titles. It’s not safe to chat with me because things might end up in a song!”
Can you give us any examples?
“Totally, The Lion and Laugh So Hard came from me picking up on the world around me. A friend of mine and I were waiting for a movie to start and he said something like ‘You woke up a lion’ and I wrote that in my phone, then that night I wrote all the verses for that song. With Laugh So Hard, I was in a coffee shop in Fargo, North Dakota and they had these promotion pamphlets that I kept, and months later I read it said ‘laugh so hard you cry’ on the way to a co-writing session. I ended up being half-an-hour late because I wanted to work on a song around. You don’t always know why, but it’s good to save things like that. The best advice I have for songwriting is don’t have any contrived expectations or judgments of what you’re trying to make, just play!”
Tell us about your ‘rollerblading’ tour from Miami to New York. Where did that crazy idea come from?
“It was right after my sophomore year of college, and I’d just failed my ‘barriers’ which decides if you’re going to graduate. They didn’t fail me, but they didn’t pass me! I was being pushed to keep going with opera, but it was really liberating in Europe and I wanted to take a break, so one day I got this idea: I really like rollerblading and I really like writing songs, so I could rollerblade across every state and write a song with everybody along the way! I dropped out of school, but my mom’s a teacher and said you’re not going to live under my roof if you drop out. That was enough to make me go back to Miami and finish school, but I was so happy to be done with it, I thought why don’t I rollerblade home to New York. I’d started working with a charity called Children International and so it became a whole thing about raising awareness, getting sponsored and we made a record along the way. It took 48 days all together and was a ton of work. It seemed like everything went wrong – I got hit by cars twice on the first day, got pulled over by the police in Virginia, and got caught in a tropical storm! It was crazy, but I wanted to prove to myself I could do anything I set my mind to. When people tell you can’t do something, it’s like ‘well, watch me!’”
Have you been touring again recently?
“I have, this year I’ve been out to Florida, Seattle and back down the West Coast. Now I’m based out here, I’m doing more in California. That’s where my heart is – it’s fun being in the studio but I love live shows, so I’m hoping to do a lot more touring.”
Interview: Alex Miles
Natalie Gelman’s 6-track EP Streetlamp Musician is available now on iTunes or directly from her website www.nataliegelman.com. The single Most The While is also out now on iTunes and you can watch the video below…