Ava Victoria is a grounded, direct woman who is funny, engaging, and fully Artist with depth, emotion and a penchant for drama. For our interview Ava and I relaxed together on a terrace with a gorgeous view of the San Francisco Bay. Just off a plane from performing in Southern California, Ava, looking elegant in her tailored pants suit, happily regaled me with stories about the launch of her fabulous new CD, Hybrid Songbird. Having already listened to the CD, I quickly came to understand the meaning of hybrid in the CD title. Hybrid Songbird warmly reflects her own intrinsic nature with its mix of bluesy guitar, folk, poignant ballads, and classic showtunes. Over the course of the afternoon Ava attempted to satisfy my bubbling curiosity about her background, family, and how she arrived at this point in her career.
HL: Your CD is such an unexpected mixture, where do you find your inspiration?
AV: I find inspiration in variety, listening to jazz, rock, pop, opera, and classical. The American flavors of both of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland are so enjoyable! Aaron Copeland particularly inspires me with the breadth in his appreciation and passion for music. As for performers? I often listen to recordings of Amalia Rodrigues (a Portuguese singer), Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Joan Sutherland and Caruso.
HL: Tell me, when did your love of music begin?
AV: Both of my parents are great lovers of music so, growing up, music filled our home. When I was young, my father sang a lot (he had a wonderful voice) and my mother read poetry to me. By age three I had memorized all sorts of poems and songs and would perform them for anyone who asked. When I was fifteen, my mother bought a guitar. She tried to teach herself to play. My sister and I snickered at our mom, but it wasn't so funny that I didn't try it myself. I picked up the instruction book and guitar and it just happened. Despite an affinity for music, the piano lessons I took as a child never really interested me. I was into sports and playing with boys. That is, until I picked up my mother's guitar. . . then I fell into music and never wanted to climb out.
HL: Where did you study music?
AV: When I became serious about music in high school the music director, James O'Connor, locked into my talent and helped set up opportunities for me to perform at school events. He was a selfless, wonderful teacher.
By the time I reached junior college, I was so into music and performing that I had no choice but to major in music. I found a private classical guitar teacher and immersed myself in studying, practicing, and writing music and lyrics.
Even as my singing career began, my guitar continued to absorb me. After two years of studying music at the local junior college, I applied to the Conservatory of Music at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California. I was accepted and given a music scholarship from a man I respect greatly, Frank Sinatra. The conservatory was a terrifically intense time for me. My guitar teacher, a real taskmaster, drove me hard. I spent most of my time working on the required classical guitar literature and didn't socialize much. My living space was in an old hotel on Franklin Avenue, an area known in the 70's as a strong hold for strung out musicians. I never got involved in that scene though; I just did my own thing and stuck it out until I graduated. Looking back I realize that time was an incredible growth period for me. I studied hard and when I found spare time I performed in restaurants and lounges.
After completing my studies at the Conservatory, I was awarded a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institute at UCLA to study Ethnomusicology. It was a great deal of research and a much better neighborhood. I learned a lot about myself. Foremost, I am a performer. After two years of a masters program, I went off to perform professionally and never looked back at academia. I've enjoyed teaching privately and small classes at ACT in San Francisco, but it's only a part of my musical schedule.
HL: How did you find your way professionally?
AV: My dear friend, Mary Chun Neuhoff (who is now an excellent conductor) heard my music and encouraged me to sing with the college stage band. I resisted auditioning because as a singer- songwriter/ guitarist I was unfamiliar with such a big sound behind me. However, Mary persisted in her efforts and asked me to sing a West Side Story medley. I had a great time with it; not knowing the band director was in the next room. As you can guess, soon after I was performing with the stage band. As their lead vocalist I won the state stage band competition for best jazz vocals and Don Ellis (trumpeter) presented me with the plaque. I became a frequent guest on a local radio program where I played my guitar and sang. I continued to perform as well as write and directed a youth choir.
I started playing open-mike nights in the LA area. I sang at Joan River's Ye Little Club, the Gypsy Club, the Bla Bla Café in Studio City, the Improv…. I was a favorite at Joan River's Ye Little Club because I sang comedy songs in between the other comedians.
Ahh, Studio City, California. I loved that time and place. The area was hopping with open-mike nights and I got numerous gigs. I particularly enjoyed opening for Al Jarreau and all guy bands. I sang ballads, foreign language songs and lots of comedy songs. The contrast was a good combination, girl performer opens for guys.
During that time, I met Bud Dashiell of the duo Bud & Travis, a former Warner Bros. act.(For more information on Bud and Travis click here.) Bud was a unique guitarist/ vocalist, an old world cabaret performer in the Brel tradition. I studied with Bud for four years while I was playing and singing in clubs in Los Angeles. He taught me how to be a solo artist, how to hold a room intimately, to entertain, to handle an audience, to stand alone in that bare place in front of the crowd. Chick singers with guitars were hot in Los Angeles at the time and I played a lot of hotel and restaurant gigs. Those lessons really came in handy.
A respected producer used to come into a club where I performed regularly. One night, he talked to me about doing vinyl (records). He asked me what I wanted to do? I told him that I wanted to record but for the time I wanted to keep honing my skills in front of audiences. He thought I was a promising live performer and suggested I move to New York City or San Francisco. He said that San Francisco had a nice Cabaret scene, so I took his suggestion and left Los Angeles for San Francisco. (I'm a Californian and I wasn't that crazy about the NYC rat race.)
I played and sang in the Bay area at the Purple Onion and many other cabaret bars, restaurant and hotel lounges. I took a gig in Japan and came back to San Francisco to find rooms closing left and right. It was the beginning of the AIDS health crisis and a lot of club owners were ill. I spent some time singing in and managing piano bars for a few years, then in 1988 I began studying singing seriously with a master voice teacher, Edward Sayegh.
Once again I found a great teacher and received excellent training. After three years he asked me to assist him in his studio. I assisted him for almost five years before I left to start my own studio. There I began to work on my first CD and launched my record label in 1998. Now here we are.
HL: You handcrafted this CD. It is you. Tell us about it.
AV: I arranged all of the songs (along with the musicians playing) co-produced all of them, and played the nylon-string guitar pieces myself. My co-producer Sam Duaine, and the engineer, Mark Love (a skilled technician and fine musician) provided me with an incredible amount of support. I enjoyed producing, creating, and mixing the music (a lot of choosing!). It was incredibly gratifying to work with so many talented people and to have them interpret my ideas with such thoughtful arrangements. In making the CD, I came upon an unexpected challenge. The pianist, Barry Lloyd decided to take a job in London while rehearsing for my recording. I hadn't made a complete decision on the arrangements. So, we laid down all of the piano pieces at Polk Street Recording in a matter of days and then I had to sing around them! When Barry returned from London the engineer requested that Barry return to the studio to clean up a few endings. My preferred way of working is to have more rrehearsal with the pianist and have input into my arrangements. I have accute chord voicing skills and like to make some of those choices. It worked out ok but is was a challenge. Barry is a very talented pianist.
HL: Where can we hear you play live? And what can we expect next?
AV: You can expect more of what I love to do... which is more live performances and more recordings. In San Francisco I enjoy the Plush Room. (Any performances I do in the Bay area would be listed in the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle.) In Southern California I frequently play country club gigs that are for members only and their guests.. My listeners mainly keep track of me by logging on to my website's "Press & News" page.
I am looking forward to a series of fund raisers and benefits in the Bay Area.