It sounds like a setup for a parlor game: If you could get 19 of the best female voices in New Orleans together for one song, which one would it be? That was answered during French Quarter Festival this year, when all 19 official members of the New Orleans Nightingales were onstage together for the first, and so far only time. And the song they chose was “Laissez Faire,” a tune that’s been a staple of the Pfister Sisters’ repertoire (all three Pfisters now double as Nightingales). The song is hip, inclusive, playful, a bit sexy, and steeped in New Orleans—all qualities that apply to this loose-knit super-group.
Since they don’t perform together often, the New Orleans Nightingales aren’t a band in any traditional sense; various members instead describe them as a revue, a sorority, or a social aid and pleasure club. At the core, the Nightingales are an umbrella concept for a bunch of artists that play solo and in subgroups, with new combinations that have sprung up since they formed.
You can call them an embarrassment of riches, or a testament to the strength of female artists in town. But like many good things, they were really a simple idea that got out of hand.
The springboard was vocalist (and now producer) Ingrid Lucia’s compilation CD of two years ago (originally released as Ingrid Lucia Presents: New Orleans Female Vocalists, and since reissued as the Nightingales).
“The first thing that instigated it was feeling a little isolated [as a female artist] and thinking there could be more of a community,” she says. “The guys I play with are great, but I work with so many guys that I feel sometimes like a guy in a dress. The second thing was that everything is changing right now, Frenchmen Street is changing, so this would be a good time to capture a moment—like that photograph of Harlem in the ’50s, with everyone sitting on the porch. It’s a marker in time. And the last thing was that a friend of mine—Steve Steinberg, who also writes for OffBeat—asked me once, ‘What does it feel like to have all these girl singers taking over your job, do you feel threatened?’ I wanted to tell him it was just the opposite—we’re all in this together as a team. Sure, there may be cattiness sometimes when someone else gets a gig, but there’s always plenty to go around.”
The 2012 CD was all over the map stylistically, which was part of the point. There were at least two generations of jazz-based singers (the Pfisters, Miss Sophie Lee, Lena Prima, Sarah Quintana, Linnzi Zaorski, Banu Gibson, Meschiya Lake, Jayna Morgan) plus a honky-tonker (Vanessa “Gal Holiday” Niemann), a funky R&B specialist (Margie Perez), two from the alternative rock world (Alexandra Scott and Kristin Diable), one blueswoman (Roselyn Lionheart), a Celtic singer/songwriter (Sinead Rudden), and a few (Aurora Nealand, Tricia Boutté, Debbie Davis) who’ve worked in a number of genres.
Many of these names are well-known as headliners: one (Prima) is second-generation musical royalty, and a few (including Davis, Scott, Gal Holiday and Lucia) have made standout solo CDs in the past few months. And a few are still on the rise, but the group aims to be a rising tide for all involved.
“It’s like trying to herd 19 birds; but surprisingly there’s been very little drama,” Lucia says. And it’s interesting to see who’s clustered together: Vanessa and Alexandra hit it off well, Debbie and Meschiya, Sophie and me. So we’ve all found a new circle of friends.” Or at least a venue for collaboration, which is rarer than you might think. “You’ve heard of the movie, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, “says Debbie Davis. “Well, that goes double for girl singers. People have this misconception that we’re going to be at each other’s throats, but the fact is that we hardly ever see each other when we’re out there working in the trenches. I think people take for granted that they’ll always be girl singers in New Orleans, but they also assume we’re all doing the same thing—and maybe we are. But it’s a good thing.”
“It’s been a welcoming sisterhood,” says Margie Perez. “There isn’t a lot of diva-like behavior when we’re together, even though we’re all divas on some level.” Adds Alexandra Scott, “It’s given us all a chance to be in the same room regularly, and we realized how much we needed that. Personally, the Nightingales are many of the people who took care of me during my last surgery [a knee replacement last year]. And professionally, it’s been like going to music college. We meet about once every two months and we plan our gigs, we plan the festivals, we plan who the sponsors are going to be. We’ve all run our own businesses for quite some time, so we do a lot of talking over each other. It’s given a real impetus to my professional life. We realize we’re all stronger together than we are separately. And that’s pretty strong, because it’s a group of bad-ass women.”
The release party at d.b.a. was supposed to be the one group shindig, but the offers kept coming in. They played Voodoo later in 2012, joined by Irma Thomas for the finale (“I got to do my Irma Thomas selfie with her, which was amazing in itself,” says Vanessa Niemann). They also played Preservation Hall, the Ogden Museum and have done both French Quarter Festivals since forming. But many of the Nightingales shows have been small-group residencies—usually at Three Muses, but also at the AllWays during this year’s Jazz Fest.
There have been sublime moments along the way—check YouTube for clips of last year’s Christmas concert at St. Alphonsus, where ten Nightingales do a “Silent Night” that’s as close as it gets in this world to a chorus of angels. And there’s been the occasional wild idea, like a Star Wars-themed show that Scott and Nealand played to close Jazz Fest on the fourth of May (as in, “May the Fourth be with you”). And because Tricia Boutté now lives in Norway, the recent “Laissez Faire” was a rare gathering of the full cast. “One of my missions in life is to write songs that explain New Orleans to the rest of the world,” explains Holley Bendtsen of the Pfisters, who co-wrote the tune. “I call that one my mambo-goddess song. It was loads of fun to do it with my girls.” Adds fellow Pfister Yvette Voelker, “We really became a choir that day, but one where everyone is individually strong and people are hunting for the right spot. There’s a bit of a trapeze artist feel to it.”
Old-fashioned glamour is also part of the package. Last year they did a pin-up calendar, albeit a wholesome one that included the members’ favorite recipes. They’ve been sponsored by the Trashy Diva fashion line, and Lucia has every intention of getting them all into Vogue for a fashion spread someday. “New Orleans and girl singers kind of leans toward that angle anyway,” she says. “That’s something that everybody’s going to look at differently. I like that we have so many different looks and so many body types. Everybody has confidence in themselves, and being confident is sexy.”
The CD lineup wound up deciding who was a Nightingale and who wasn’t, which inevitably meant that a number of first-tier female singers didn’t make the cut. Lucia says there would have been more on the disc, but it was already maxed out at 19 tracks and 79 minutes. “There were some hurt feelings at first, but we’ve reached out and I think we’ve smoothed the waters,” she says. There have been guest Nightingales at a few of their residencies, and the circle may expand further in the future. “I’d hate to feel like I was part of something exclusive, that we might be leaving out some great singer I haven’t met yet,” says Sarah Quintana. Adds Scott, “One thing we’re all committed to is our support for female singers. Or as we call them, singers.”
Since the group does its own business, the members’ extra-musical talents also came into play. Lucia is the resident dreamer and conceptualizer. Voelker is the bookkeeper, Niemann the librarian and keeper of the musical charts. Scott is the publicist and provider of the Nightingales’ name; Davis does the website. Lee provided her club Three Muses as a home-base for residencies. And Banu Gibson brings four decades’ worth of accumulated showbiz know-how. As Davis puts it, “She can go in there and scare people with her authority and expertise.”
Gibson laughs when we relay the above quote. “I guess my role is as the person who’s been in bands the longest. When you’ve been in the business long enough to know where all the potholes are, then you can look at people with great authority and say ‘You don’t wanna do that’.” In fact Gibson has considerably more to offer: with a career going back to the ’70s—when she sang in the early swing-revival group Your Father’s Moustache—she’s a singer who exudes class and elegance. Having played some of the world’s swankier stages, she’s now mentoring younger singers through her New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp. “Emotionally and spiritually, this group has been a big influence on me. I lost my husband a little over a year ago, and the Nightingales were one of the things that got me through it. What a collective like this does is to recharge the energy I had in my 20’s and 30’s, how the music affected me back then. I see that energy in some of the younger Nightingales, and it makes me tap into my own.”
Being a Nightingale holds different meaning for different members. “It’s like therapy, really,” says Sarah Quintana. One of the troupe’s youngest members, Quintana sang for a few years with the New Orleans Moonshiners before teaming with Lucia, who produced her solo debut The World Has Changed. “When we were all in the dressing room together, I thought it was going to be like seeing every diva in town. But there’s a real diversity there—some are mothers, some are sisters. Some may be going off to get tattoos. Some smoke and some don’t. But everybody’s got their talents; you can cheer them and love them. And it makes you realize what you really do—for instance, Gal’s heart is in honky-tonk. And I came to realize that mine was in songwriting and guitar playing.”
There’s been room to stretch musical wings, especially among the Nightingales who aren’t known as jazz singers. “I was a jazz and swing singer when I first came to New Orleans, and to me Gal Holiday isn’t just straight country,” says Niemann. “In the Nightingales shows I usually do Western swing or blues-based numbers, so they fit in well.” Scott also studied and sang jazz before gravitating to sophisticated pop/rock. “I was tentative about putting my foot in those waters, because I felt you didn’t just move to New Orleans and start singing jazz. But I told myself I’d start doing it seriously when I turned 40, and that’s one of the few things in my life that’s gone as planned.”
Described by Scott as “our soul queen,” Perez says she’s also picked up some new influences. “When we do our Three Muses shows it seems more jazz-oriented, so I’ve expanded my song list with a few standards. And it’s opened my eyes to how beautiful that music is—you find the lyrics to a song you’ve known all your life and you end up saying ‘Wow, this is really sweet’. It’s also helped me get myself together in terms of making my charts user-friendly, which is important because you don’t get a lot of rehearsal time in this town. Audiences love it when you play off-the-cuff and it looks like you’ve been doing it forever. So I guess the Nightingales have helped me play well with others.”
Gibson says she’s always gratified to see younger singers do right by the standards. “My music has always been the American songbook, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, all the music that disappeared when rock took over. Sometimes I feel like the dinosaur in the La Brea Tarpits raising a flag—‘Hey! Come here and visit the old stuff’.”
Ironically enough, being part of a large group gave Debbie Davis the gumption to perform solo. She’s one of the busier singers in town, a member of the Pfisters, the eclectic Gloryoskis! (with Myshkin and Helen Gillet) and the front-woman of her own Mesmerizers. She’s also one of the only singers who’d dare work the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” and Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” into a jazz format, showing her cred as a musicologist (“I think ‘dork’ is the word you’re looking for,” she offers”). The one thing she hadn’t done was to play without backup. “I’ve now done two shows at Siberia with Alexandra and Meschiya, and the idea was that each of us would play solo—just one singer and one string instrument, and for me that would mean playing ukulele. Unless you were at those shows, I’ll bet you never saw me onstage with a ukulele by myself. That one is way outside my comfort zone, and it didn’t sound like a particularly good idea to me. But Meschiya and Alexandra believed in me and because of them, I can now say I’ve done it twice.”
Some of the Nightingales expect the group to continue as a loose-knit collective; others see more collaboration down the line. Another compilation album is a definite, along with new projects by separate members (like a Christmas disc by the Pfisters this year). “I personally have no idea where this is going, but I’m happy to join my friends and ride along,” Holley Bentsen says.
As for Lucia, she’s typically dreaming big. “We’d love to have a base, a Nightingale Lounge like the club Jeremy Davenport had. My ultimate dream is to get a national sponsor, put us in a tour bus, take us around the country and have a ball doing it. And part of that dream is to license songs to movies and TV so these ladies can make a chunk of cash.” Another goal is to make good on the “social aid” part of their mission. “I’d love to have us doing fundraisers for special causes—for instance, Sophie had the idea of doing a prom ball or a James Bond party. We had a meeting with the tourism bureau—if things like filth and murder are the main issues, I’d love to be the poster child for one of their campaigns. We’ve already got some great sponsorship from Trashy Diva, so why not get involved with the ‘Don’t Trash Dat’ campaign? We could have the Nightingales in Rosie the Riveter costumes picking up garbage.”
Adds Alexandra Scott, “I’d like to put some money in everybody’s pocket, and I’d like to see us get a following out of town….God, when did I start dreaming reasonable dreams? I’d like to see us take over the world. Because I think we all deserve it.”