whilst I must make some sacrifices, especially financially and lifestyle, I try to never sacrifice my artistic integrity for any reason
Shininglights has been talking to artists about the interaction between music and money. The aim is to understand how different artists approach and apply this to their own circumstances.
In this interview we talk to Victoria Klewin, a professional vocalist and songwriter based in Bristol. Gigging since she was 14 she is the lead vocalist and songwriter for ‘Victoria Klewin and the TrueTones’. Originally conceived as a cross between vocal jazz and blue-eyed soul, the Bristol 7-piece is all that and more, gracefully merging genres and styles to create music that is as unique as it is engaging and accessible.
In 2012 they released their debut EP and singles followed in 2104 and 2015. In late 2016 they will be launching their debut album (funded through fundsurfer).
We caught up with Victoria to talk about the thorny subject of money and music to understand how she has approached this.
SL: “Can you start by giving us a potted history of your career to date?”
VK: Like any 3 or 4-year-old I wanted to be a ballerina, footballer or musician! By the time I was 5 I was dead set on singing and have never budged! Music has always been part of my life and from an early age my parents exposed me to all different genres of music, taking me to concerts and gigs.
At school I sang in choirs with a focus on classical music. I loved the music but wanted to explore my vocal range (and more importantly being able to improvise, which I learnt is frowned upon when singing Mozart! Ooops…). Jazz was where I felt a natural affinity and I was able to explore this outside of school, both as a solo artist and within bands. My first paid gig was when I was just 14, at a local jazz club.
At A‘Level I studied Music as well as Drama, English and Art, and from there studied Music Performance at Dartington University. University gave me the vocal freedom I was looking for.
When I left in 2008, I came to Bristol and formed ‘Victoria Klewin and the TrueTones’. Paul Crawford joined the band at the start as did Mark James who I had worked with since I was 16. It was important to keep my name as I had already built a following through my solo projects and adding ‘the Truetones’ gave a more vintage feel which matches the style of music we play. The band is the main output for my songwriting.
I also work with a band called Flat Earth which is a jazz/blues band, mainly singing covers (rather than original music). I have done some session work singing on adverts for Bodyshop, Pizza Express and National Geographic, which is something I really enjoy. Other than that I run my own singing school, Bristol Vocal Tuition (www.bristolvocaltuition.com), which I allocate two days a week to. I have also done some work at my sister’s charity, Gathering voices (www.gatheringvoices.org.uk).
SL: “Describe your musical style and how this has developed over time?”
VK: I would describe myself as a music magpie. My music blends jazz, blues, soul but also reggae and rock. Lyrically what happens around me seeps into what I write, delivering emotional substance to my music.
SL: “I’d be interested to know who influences you musically?”
VK: Lyrically, poetry is a big influence especially singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen who blend this into their music. Other influences include Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.
There is also a vintage revival within music including the likes of Gregory Porter, Vintage Trouble, Joss Stone, Caro Emerald and Imelda May which has an influence in what I write.
SL: “How have you seen the music scene change? What do you consider to be good/challenging change?”
VK: I don’t really see it because I live with it daily but the key thing is people’s access to music. In the past people were more reliant on press and perhaps a website whereas now artists are more in charge of how their music is distributed, especially through social media.
For all the positives there are challenges. The market is more crowded with people playing music as a hobby alongside those trying to make a living. It means that if venues can pay you less they will and that is difficult.
I believe I am a good singer/songwriter but I find the business side harder (which is all part of the mix), especially pitching myself.
SL: “What was the trigger to make music your full time career and how do you make a living from music?”
VK: Since I was 5 I have wanted to be a musician and when I left university it was an opportunity to fulfil that dream. It’s been important to have the support of my parents in achieving this. Although there have been times when I have thought I should have been “sensible”, this was the only option.
At the start I did lots of things including working for my sister’s charity (recording and gigging was secondary in the early days). About two years ago I cut down on the music education side to focus on recording and gigging.
It was scary at first, perhaps a little impulsive but the thought was, what was the point in doing Plan B when you haven’t tried Plan A!
SL: “What are the biggest challenges financially from making a career in music?”
VK: One of the biggest challenges is that music is not valued in the UK in the same way as it is in mainland Europe. In Europe artists are paid more whereas in the UK people don’t really want to pay!
The problem appears to be that music isn’t seen as a tangible asset and therefore music venues, restaurants etc will focus on whether an artist can increase their profits first rather than on the artist and their music.
As an artist trying to pave a way in the industry it is hard to convince promoters, bar owners etc that they should pay you what you are worth. Once you become more established you can start to earn more money, but it’s always a struggle.
SL: “In making this step, have you had to make compromises/sacrifices with your music, and financially?”
VK: Financially this has to be the biggest sacrifice and there are moments when I am living hand to mouth on or below the breadline. So the biggest sacrifice is security and this can be challenging at times.
With music there are sometimes sacrifices in where I play as a function gig will pay more than a pub, so if I need money then the function gig will sometimes win! Despite this fact, I have also tried to cut back on the amount of functions I do because I don’t find them musically/artistically rewarding.
When writing songs, I don’t believe there is a sacrifice, as I always write from the heart. Other artists approach songwriting in a formulaic “let’s write a hit” kind of way, and are very conscious of what they want it to be, what’s commercially viable etc… before it is even finished. They sacrifice their creative voice and ideas for what is going to sell.
I tend to try and let a song become whatever it wants to be naturally and that means referring to nothing but the original inspiration, the way I hear it in my head and the feelings I want to put across. Also some songs are perfect for a single release or radio play, some are best live, while some are best enjoyed through a pair of headphones alone chilling at home. I try not to define a song before it’s born…I finish it and then when it comes to performing or recording it I think about how best to serve the song and its meaning.
So whilst I must make some sacrifices, especially financially and lifestyle, I try to never sacrifice my artistic integrity for any reason.
SL: “What do you consider as success within the career path you have taken?”
VK: My view of success varies depending on how I am feeling in myself. If I have no money then sometimes I can beat myself up and feel that I am a failure but then if I have a good gig with a responsive crowd it reminds me that it’s not all about the money and that my worth is not tied to how much I earn.
But the reality is that when the bank balance is healthy I am happier, when it is low my self-esteem dips. Culturally success is connected with money and this needs to be separated. Deep down I know that success for me is to be able to do what I love doing to the best of my ability. Of course I have to eat and pay bills but success shouldn’t be about money. It is always easy to assume that the grass is greener on the other side and that money can buy happiness but then I wouldn’t be doing what I want to do if money was my main goal.
I don’t want to be famous but I would like to be known within a niche. The likes of Madeline Peyroux, Caro Emerald and Imelda May have been able to achieve this. Seeing success in this way is about being well respected and supported to play good venues with listening audiences.
I am aware that to achieve this I need to move to the next level. My main focus is the debut album which will give me something to send to people with the aim of being played on national radio.
SL: “With your current project you turned to fundsurfer to fund the debut EP. How did you approach this and what did you learn?”
VK: I was really taken by Amanda Palmer who raised £1 million through crowd funding and I thought I could do that! It took me a couple of years to have the self-belief that I could do it as I was scared of failing so publicly. Once I bit the bullet I worked out a budget for everything from production to PR and came up with a figure of £4,000. In the end we raised over £4,500.
Most of the money has gone into recording as I really believe it is all about the music and that has to be right. The rest of the money will go into PR and I may have to spend some of my own money if we go over budget. I am not planning to rush the production and the aim is get it out in September.
If anything I have learnt that (despite my insecurities) there are people who do want to hear my music, and this knowledge motivates me to bring this project to reality. However, it is scary because crowdfunding is a very public thing, you have to put all your cards on the table and everyone knows what you are doing! But equally there is freedom. There is no-one telling you what you can and can’t do (as you would expect if an album were funded by a label).
SL: “What are your aims over the next twelve months, and over the next five years?”
VK: The focus at the moment is on the album and then a tour in the UK and Europe to support it. On the back of the album I would like to engage an agent or manager.
After that it will be album two, but the focus has to be on the short term and currently it is difficult to see beyond that.
SL: And finally, what are your favourite venues and where would you like to play in the future?”
VK: One of my favourite venues is the 100 Club in London and in the future I would love to play the Albert Hall, Blue Note in New York and anywhere in New Orleans!
I was introduced to Victoria through a friend. Throughout the interview I felt there was a real honesty in all that she says and does.
The discussion around success and money highlights how the two can easily be interlinked whereas success isn’t just about money. Victoria has been able to achieve what she wants to without money and it will be fascinating to see the next step on her journey.
Listening to her music there is a real “new jazz” feel akin to Caro Emerald and I hope to be able to experience a live gig in the coming months.