Singer/songwriter Maureen Washington has been described as having ‘the soul of Etta James’ and ‘the playfulness of Jann Arden.’ (CD Baby) In 2011, having relocated from Prince George to Victoria, BC only a few years earlier, she won the fan-vote based Monday Magazine M Award for Best Jazz and Blues Vocalist or Group. She is also a Vancouver Island Music Awards nominee for Female Vocalist (2011) and Best Live Act (2012) and has released four albums.
I had the pleasure of seeing Maureen Washington perform twice in Victoria this summer – at Hermann’s Jazz Club, and at a lunch-time concert she did in Centennial Square, where her performance transported listeners from a slightly chilly Canadian day to a smoky New Orleans club. Her voice runs the gamut from soft whispers to whiskey-toned growls, and everything in between.
Sassy, sexy and entertaining on stage, what you see is what you get – in person she weaves stories punctuated with song lyrics and laughter. Maureen is open about the insecurities she’s overcome in order to grow a career as a performer, and is also humble – giving much credit to the talented musicians she works with. Her goal is to become nationally-recognized. Canada, if you’re reading… take notice!
When did you start singing?
I think I was born a singer. My mom says that as a baby I wouldn’t just make sounds, I would hum melodies. I was in church choir when I was little, and I’d get leads for musicals, and then in grade 9 I joined the choir and music all of a sudden came alive to me. The structure, the sounds… everything just spoke to my being.
I got engrossed in music. I taught myself the guitar, and I was in the BC Honours Choir. Then I went to college, and because of certain things that took place in my life I got kind of derailed. I didn’t have belief in myself, and didn’t feel my mentor had a belief in me. When you’re 18 you don’t have the courage to say ‘do you believe I can do this?’ And because I didn’t have that courage I sabotaged, and within four months I was out of college.
By the time I was 22 I couldn’t sing in public. I did not think I could do music outside of high school. That was the ticker in my head: ‘You cannot do music outside of high school.’ Those were the dark years for me – my 20s. I would sing at home, with my children, but that was the extent of it.
Part of it was depression and struggling with ‘this is what I was meant to do, this is who I am.’ In my 30s I slowly started to come out of it. My heart loves to sing… to tell you stories about what a song means to me. I love to tell you about what has happened in my life, through a song. I don’t think I’ve got this impeccable voice or great pitch – I sing from what resonates deep within me, and try to share that with an audience.
What gave you the courage to perform again?
I started working for a company called The Pampered Chef. I’d do a presentation and have $600 in sales, but I’d say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, no one’s ever told me how to do this!’ That was part of my self-sabotage as a musician –I couldn’t call myself a musician because I don’t have a degree or a diploma. But [in sales] was where the entertainer side of me would come out. My shows would be animated and crazy. I was able to be vulnerable in front of people. I’d make mistakes, and I’d share that with people, and they’d laugh. I was honest about who I was. And that’s what started to break my shell. I could tell stories and interact with people. I wasn’t a great sales person, I’m just an entertainer.
Little by little I started singing again at church, as a backup singer. And I thought, ‘this is great! I’m not meant to do music outside of high school, I’m meant to be a backup singer.’ Joy came back into my life. Then I had another little tragic happening in my family, but I got back into singing backup, and within about a year I was the music leader in a church. I got out my guitar again and started writing songs, and started getting myself into coffee houses.
You must draw on your life experience when you’re performing certain songs.
Yes, the songs where there’s a lot of brokenness. I don’t do a lot of blues, but I do sing the blues. I’ve had people say ‘you’re from Prince George? Where did you learn to sing the blues like that? I was sure you were from New York.’ And I say ‘I’m from the north, the blues find us! Come on, we get eight months of winter there… I know the blues!’
I’m a singer. I love this life. That song is so appropriate for my life today. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to accomplish that… but I’ve come to where I can say ‘I’m a composer. I’m a jazz singer.”
When you’re performing, you such personality and presence on stage, how similar is that to you off stage?
I think it’s just me, but it’s me pumped up a bit. If I wasn’t performing and I came into a room I’d be sassy, I’d be all sorts of things, but I’m a story teller. When I did St. James’ Infirmary the other day…
I loved that, by the way!
Thank you. That was only the second time I’ve ever performed it with the full band. I’d never really researched the song but I think it’s about the fact that she’s killed him. She’s going down there to make sure he is dead. Because when she says ‘you’ll never find a girl like me’ well, he’s dead, why would you say that? So I think she somehow has done that man in. Is that me? No. But can I bring out a side of that in me? Absolutely. I even shocked myself… that song just came totally alive. And it’s the musicians, they had that total New Orleans feel… you just can’t stand straight and sing. They ramp it up and you play on it, and we all just go to New Orleans for a moment. For me, I walked away from that saying ‘that was amazing!’ It was very, very cool.
What drew you to jazz and blues?
As a kid my favourite band was Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I just loved their harmonies. I loved ‘50s and ‘60s music, the melodies and harmonies. It comes from the jazz era, and that’s how I started. Then I got involved with a jazz band, they had me come sing one song and then they said ‘great, you’re hired!’
What kind of music do you listen to?
Why is that?
Because it’s noisy. I’m an obsessive listener… a song will catch my heart, and I’ll play that one song like a broken record because it’s probably feeding something or healing something in my soul. If I’m learning a song, I will listen over and over again until it’s oozing out of my skin. My children will say ‘mom, if I hear [singing] my mama done told me… one more time!’ But otherwise I turn it off because I can’t handle the noise. It’s like you have to shut out everything else, or your own creativity starts to get muddled up. Even if what you’re listening to is great, it’s just too much. And when I go into places that are loud I will put cotton in my ears. I need to save my ears, they’re the only set I have.
How old are your children?
The oldest is 24, and the youngest is 17. Five children in six and a half years. I wanted a big family, and I wanted them close together!
How do you balance motherhood with your career?
There’s no balance. It’s a free for all. I home schooled my children for seven years, and we have this world where everyone is part of the community. Everybody has a job in the house, something they contribute, whether it’s physical or emotional or whatever. Because they’ve been in this nucleus with each other they all support each other, and support me, and I support them. We’re like roommates, in a way. Am I the stellar mom? No. Do my kids adore me? Yes. Do I adore my kids? Oh my gosh, yes, I’d go to hell and back for each one of them. There are days when I wish I was a more involved mom, but I have incredibly fabulous kids.
You home schooled them – that’s pretty involved!
Well, my kids always say how much they appreciate me, so I must have done something right. But they don’t know what it would be like to have a normal home with a normal mom, someone to make their sandwiches, make their beds… instead I’m saying ‘make me a sandwich! Mama’s tired, she did two gigs today!’
Now that they’re growing up, are they involved with your career?
To some extent. My oldest daughter has a diploma in writing and media technology, so she does almost all my artwork for my CDs and posters. My third daughter is a hair stylist. So for big shows and photo shoots, she does my hair. My middle daughter is going through RMT, so she’ll become a registered massage therapist. My two boys are both musically inclined; my oldest son loves playing guitar and my youngest plays piano. So they all contribute into parts of my career.
Has it been a good move, coming to Victoria?
Fantastic! I’ve been extremely blessed. The opportunities and the musicians I get to work with, they’re so well-qualified. Their willingness to work with me… it’s an extreme honour to be able to call them up and say ‘I’ve got this gig,’ and they say ‘absolutely Maureen, I’ll travel with you.’
Yesterday I was looking at one of my videos of us singing Love This Life. And I look back to years ago when all I wanted was a big family, and I wanted to be a singer. And I realized, I have a big family, and I’m a singer. I love this life. That song is so appropriate for my life today. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to accomplish that.
What is your goal?
I’d love to get some recognition across Canada. I have a great fan base in Prince George, and a fabulous fan base in Victoria that’s growing in leaps and bounds. Typically I was doing about 50 shows a year, and I figure I’ll be hitting easily 100 shows this year, so that’s a huge step. I’ll never be a world-renowned singer, but I’d love to be a nationally-known singer. This is my country, this is my home, and I’d love to build that up. That’s not easy for me to say, because there’s still the ‘you’re not supposed to do music outside of high school’ voice. But I’ve come to where I can say ‘I’m a composer. I’m a jazz singer.’
Thank you, Maureen! I look forward to seeing you continue to gain the recognition you deserve!
Come back tomorrow…
Maureen has something special for readers that you won’t want to miss!
All photos courtesy of Maureen Washington.