As a lady artist myself, I jump at the chance to support women in any way I can, and especially women in the arts. But I wasn’t just excited about this Q & A opportunity because Natalie Cressman offers the feminine mystique alone, but because she’s a vibrant character, talented across so many facets of music…who just happens to be a woman. And a young one, at that. At the ripe age of 24, Ms. Cressman has been touring and dominating trombone with our beloved TAB for years and is about to release her third album with her own band, entitled Traces. Pretty sure when I was 24, I was trying to pull off hangover-working-all-day-without-anyone-noticing and then years later when I ran into coworkers at a bar they bought me a shot and cheers’d to “HQ” – who I guess..was me? I asked why, and they all said, “cuz you’re the Hangover Queen!!!” …Oh. So my point is, when you’re 24, you mostly don’t know much, and you think you can pull off a lot more than you can. I would venture to say Natalie is quite a different breed. The opposite in fact. She’s the kind of 24-year-old who downplays her successes, citing her bandmates as her strength, and generally deemphasizes her abilities to the tune of the bigger picture, making her quite an admirable human in addition to her repertoire of public talents. This isn’t to say she is meek, just very, very humble.
An old soul with an incredibly warm approach to her music and her fans, this endearing humility ends with her words. To hear her play, and then to sing, well… it’s really astounding. Here’s this sweet little redheaded girl who is all smiles, but then she gets behind a trombone or a microphone, and man, is she powerful with nothing to hide. With the skillset and power to command her space like someone three times her age and stature, she is truly the utmost talented babe across so many realms. Given the nickname of “Chainsaw” for her chops on trombone, she is also often considered “the darling” of the jamband scene. Without disrespect to the positives of that terminology, I do think that is an understating label to stick to our girl Natalie. Cuz, yes, she is a beautiful lady, and very sweet to boot. And, hey, it’s better than “HQ.” But, her talents extend much further than physicalities and sweetness, and as she grows and evolves, I am constantly impressed by the way she challenges herself and her band, and continues to increase the depth of their musical story. They really gift us with light and joy, taking some leaps of faith and moving forward into a newer soundscape replete with risk, which includes vocals, new covers, and dare I say.. an overall more poppy and ultimately more modern take on the sounds of jazz, jam, and innovation. If you haven’t yet heard her cover of the hit Weeknd song, “The Hills,” check it here to see what I mean.
An awesome cover develops the original song into something new, and Cressman’s band does just that with this hit single. It’s also honestly really gratifying to hear her sing “I just fu**ed two bitches ‘fore I saw you, and you gon’ have to do it at my tempo,” ‘cuz…. reasons. I love that she’s a lady takin the power back, and I love that she’s exploring new ground with her own abilities, and most importantly in a selfish way…sharing them with us. And don’t get any ideas, ‘cuz her boyfriend, Ivan, is in her band … which is another notch on the awesome belt for Natalie as far as I’m concerned. Partnership at its best! In fact, her band lives together… but I won’t spoil all the reveals in the Q & A for ya.
Her voice is sugar sweet, and I can really only compare it to a summer cocktail starting with a solid base of her own strawberry flavor, a contemporary splash of Kal Traver’s full and organic sound (from Rubblebucket), and a twist of Peggy Lee’s classic swing rhythm and tone. Together the composition highlights her clear musical training, while all-the-while showcasing her natural ability. Her voice, her trombone, and her band will be gracing us on Saturday at Tonic Room, which is basically the perfect setting for this band. It’s intimate, but just big enough to hover the sweet sound of Natalie’s angel voice amongst the benevolent crowd, even if you’re in the way back ripping shots. No judgment; signed, HQ. So, here is the lovely Natalie herself, who was so sweet to talk to, I knelt down and prayed for my sins when we finished.
(Interview was done just before Halloween, where TAB was to play in Vegas)
Q: So, you’re gonna be in Vegas for Halloween. Are you gonna be dressing up at all? Or..are you allowed to talk about that?
A: I am… allowed to talk about it, that is. Only because I happen to know that Trey doesn’t really like dressing up like that, or costume-y stuff really. But I did order a pair of black leggings in a mermaid print. So I’m kind of, very subtley doing something for Halloween… you know the Little Mermaid vibe.
Q: That is awesome!! And I guess it makes sense that he wouldn’t be into that stuff, since he doesn’t seem to be much for fanfare these days.
A: Totally. I feel like he doesn’t want it to be distracting; it’s still a regular show to him, which I totally respect and appreciate.
Q: For sure. And you played four or five new covers last weekend in Brooklyn, which one was your favorite to play?
A: (Counting off the different covers)… I guess it was five! “Dazed and Confused” was added kind of later, so I didn’t even realize til just now. That is kind of a lot!
Q: Totally- it’s really impressive. What brought on playing them all at once, were you working on them all separately for a long time, and just decided to go for it all in one night, or how did that come about?
A: Well, Trey sent them out all at once to us a couple weeks beforehand, and we actually got to rehearse at the venue (King’s Theater) for four days before the shows.
Q: Oh wow, what a difference that probably made!
A: Oh, ya. It was great. We hadn’t all gotten together in almost a year, so it was really nice to have that time. So you know, we had that time to not only catch up on the old material we know and love, but to also rehearse these new songs, and we just had a blast doing it. The other thing is that TAB is the only band I use in-ear monitors for, so during rehearsal I also had to get used to that. It’s just an adjustment, really, to what I’m used to. So while it was four days, it was mostly four days of tech rehearsal for me, with some band practice in between.
Q: So, just in TAB you use them?
A: Yes, and it’s even kind of new to us. We’ve just started using them since the last tour, so it’s a pretty new thing in general. So I was really grateful that we had the time to do that and get adjusted.
Q: You know, I have to say, that’s something that we, as the audience, don’t consider as much as just…the actual performance. The technical stuff, and all the pre-production work that goes into your shows, and spending four days’ time getting it all ready just to present to us. The practicality of playing & rehearsing, yes, but unless you’re on the tech side, I don’t think you’d even consider that as part of “things,” so that’s an interesting point to bring up.
A: I know! It’s crazy. It’s this whole other side to everything: the logistics, the setup, the in-ear’s and the ability to hear one another, and all that goes into the show. It really is a huge team effort. It’s not nearly as fun to talk about! But, it’s there.
Q: (laughing) Well, that is probably true for everyone, so we can move on. In other TAB news, are you guys excited for Conan on 11/2?
A: Yes!! I am so so excited about that. I actually just found out about that right before they announced it. I think back in the day Trey did more TV appearances like this, but nowadays, that I can think of, this will be the only one I’ve done besides (Jimmy) Fallon. So you know, it’s exciting, and I’m still a little star struck! Like, “Oh, I get to meet this comedic personality that I grew up watching!” That’s pretty cool, you know? I’m definitely stoked.
Q: Sweet, I can’t wait to see it! I’ve been joking with my friends that when it airs it will be “The Power of the Gingers,” since three of the best will share the stage together that night. Trey, Conan, and yourself!
A: (laughing) Right! Haha- I didn’t even think about that! That is definitely hilarious.
Q: Well, we’re all looking forward to it. Without going too much further into TAB, though, I really wanted to talk about your new album, your band, and your new song you released, “Traces,” the title track off your new album. It’s great, and it’s almost R & B’ ish which I haven’t heard as much on Turn the Sea. Is that accurate, or?
A: Ya, I mean, that is consistent to where I’m at musically. I grew up with… a really weird mix of music in my life. Definitely neo-soul and R & B are part of what I got really into as a teenager and young adult. For a long time, I was fusing that with jazz, but it still ended up kind of just sounding like jazz, first and foremost. I think that this new project, this EP Traces, starting with this track, will show a bit of a departure from that, and put it in more modern terms. Like bringing it to more the R & B, Indie, electronic even… side of things. Which, that’s always been part of what I’ve been putting out, but I think this time, jazz is going to be tucked back more into the background of things. Not necessarily even consciously, but just like…I’m just not doing as much of that in my life any more. So, you know, I’m writing different stuff.
Q: Totally understandable. It’s like your evolution! That’s great. On that same note about the genres you, kind of … spread across, I heard you say in an interview from a few years ago, that fans of yours from TAB in the jam world go to your Cressman show, expecting something “different” than than they ultimately “get” from your show. You mentioned that while you bring those jam fans into a jazz realm, that you’d like to do the reverse, as well, and bring a bit of jazz into the jam side of things. Are there any specific songs for this type of fan as kind of a gateway tune? Or are you mostly just trying to meld the genres together for your fan-base, and music itself?
A: Ya, well, honestly… it’s always a balancing act, you know? You don’t want to always be making music for your self, so you want to keep in mind who your audience is, and kind of sculpt what you’re doing to suit them, and what they like. But, then at the same time, if you’re just making music for the audience, and not doing what speaks to you, you’re kind of losing out on the whole point of having a project. It’s definitely a balancing act. I like bringing in some of those elements of jam into my project because it is kind of freeing to think of solos like that, in a kind of…more open setting. That’s a similarity to jazz, but in its aesthetic, it’s a bit more collective on the jam side. So, I guess especially in live shows, we definitely take the jam ideal to heart in a way. Whereas, the studio record may not have as much that you could point to and say, “that’s coming from the jam world.” We’re kind of looking at it as – these are our songs, and we can break the mold when we do it live.
Q: I’m a big fan of another band who goes by the same mantra- Phish. Is that something you’ve learned from Trey?
A: (laughing) Yes, and no. I think the attention to detail on Traces will be more on the production side, and each song will have a bit more of a poppier feel. You know, verses, choruses, bridge, and you know… I haven’t had that before either. Both my last two records were more jazz-centric, and also were recorded live for the most part, and there wasn’t a whole lot of post-production, whereas now I’m playing with synths and different tweaks that are kind of EDM-elements as well. But I think that model, of having a song “be the song,” and then improvising it while on stage, is something I’ve learned from Trey for sure, but we’ve expanded on it in our own way.
Q: That’s awesome. And would you say that sound of “Traces,” the track, isn’t really a cohesive theme of the album, but just one of the many different types of music offered on the track list? Is this record different than what people have come to expect from your band in general?
A: They kind of hang together in a weird way. Not on purpose, but I wrote them really close together, so they are connected to one another, for sure. But, you know, one has a bit of a Western vibe…then the R & B, and you know, I don’t want to give it all away. It’s kind of like the songs are different characters, who are all about different things. But kind of, what we put down in the studio, then how we master it in post-production will likely leave everyone feeling that this is much different than our past work, and brings those differences from song to song. It’s like… the way we’ve been working on “Traces” (the single) and the rest of the EP (Traces) is not just taking what’s happening live and sharing with you on a record. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but that’s what I’ve done in the past. This time, we’re kind of building it more. Like, I wrote all this music on my computer, using my own synths and drum samples through programming my own drums. Then almost one at a time, I’ve been layering in members of my band, where they replace what I’ve programmed previously. It’s coming at it with more of a complete picture from the get-go, versus bringing the whole band, rehearse it until we figure it out for the record in one shot. By building each sound one by one, it gives me all this reflective time in between sessions to think about what to add. That is something that is really different for me, and will probably be apparent in the way it ends up sounding on the record.
Q: Well, that’s really cool. Do you think having this different production structure with more time to reflect will allow for changes that you otherwise wouldn’t have made if it was live?
A: Oh ya, definitely. Because it’s kind of like, looking at it as a producer for the first time. We recorded live strings on three of the songs, and that’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t “just happen” live, because my band doesn’t have a string section. You know? If I was going at making this album taking what we do live, and literally just putting it on in the studio, I wouldn’t have heard that opening. It wouldn’t have been in the palate to begin with. But because, it’s like “hmmm… I have this time to kind of dream big,” then kind of make it happen in real life. That’s really the fun part.
Q: Definitely! That’s kind of the point of your own project, right?
A: Ya! And I have some help from my boyfriend (Ivan Jackson) who is the trumpet player in my band, who’s also a producer and works with lots of different artists. Right now it’s me and him collaborating and tossing ideas around… so it’s just kind of cool that we can take our time with it. Every other record I’ve had like two days to make it happen in the studio…then the recording is DONE. Again- nothing wrong with that, but this is so nice to just kind of, be able to take my time, and do it right. With “Traces,” we’ve had three weeks with three different sessions where we can tweak and replace things to make it just how we want til it’s released. It’s conducive to all the juggling that I have to do with my various different projects, and especially when I’m on the road with TAB.
Q: That’s really awesome, and it seems like as you move along you’re finding more and more what works for you as an artist and as a band. It’s really inspiring. Since you mentioned your boyfriend, I have to ask, how does your home life and community, whether home with your boyfriend, or family even, impact how you create, and what kind of music you make?
A: Right, ya, that is definitely a really crucial part to who I am. Growing up with musician parents, they raised me on a lot of different styles of music that kids don’t necessarily get into on their own. So, that stuff is always just, there, so some of the sounds and rhythms that I feel really at home with are kinda different and unexpected flavors to most. That definitely comes from my parents, and my upbringing in the Bay Area, cuz there is such a vibrant, rich musical scene there. The musicians there in that scene play so many different styles of music, but, it ends up kind of becoming this huge book of hybridized music that’s coming out of the Bay Area, which has impacted me too. It’s why I have a hard time coming up with one genre to define my new EP, even, or my music in general. But I think we’re living in a day in age where that’s happening on a really big scale, and genres are almost obsolete at this point. My theory on it is that the world is so connected with the internet that know we don’t have regionally specific music, and we’re just starting to blend into each other, and I think that’s really cool.
Touching on current home-life, I live with my band now, in an apartment with my boyfriend (trumpet), my drummer, and my bass player. It’s really easy to rehearse, and record. When I’m talking about recording, we’ve recorded a lot of this, just in my house. There’s been a few sessions where we’ve had to go outside because we don’t have a piano, or live organ, but mostly we can do it here. It’s great, and it’s really homemade in a way. We’ll outsource it to a mixing and mastering engineer on the back-end of it, but ya, it kind of makes it so it’s an around the clock thing. For me, music has always felt this way. Work and play kind of mix together, it doesn’t feel like work, it’s like play time for me. The fact that I can do this with my band, in my own home, just feeds into that notion that it’s fun and it doesn’t feel like a chore, or a task. We’re just hanging out and making something cool, you know?
Q: That really is so cool. I can’t believe you live with your band! That’s a lotta love right there. And as far as your family, would you ever have your family perform on any of your records? I saw your sister also sings on some of your cooking videos on YouTube.
A: Well, they haven’t played on my records, but my dad engineered my first record, Unfolding, he mixed it. He also mixed Turn the Sea, the last record I put out, too. So he’s been involved on a big level. He still is, too. At the same time as I’m working on this EP, I’m working on a duo project with my guitarist that we just recorded last Sunday and Monday, that’s more of an indie/folky/duo vibe. My dad flew out from the Bay Area just to record us in the studio and he’s gonna mix it. So, he’s super involved, and listed as a producer on those records, because he’s a big part of it. He’s really great at what he does, and it’s just so great to work with people you’re really comfortable with who really know you.
Q: And who knows you better than your Dad?
A: Exactly! Having your dad on a project is the ultimate example of that. I would love to get my mom and sis on a cameo appearance in the future on an album, that would be cool. My mom sat in when we did a Bay Area show with my band, and sang in a song that has three-part harmony, so that was fun, and it’s always fun to bring them in. The “family band” thing is always hilarious!! (laughing)
Q: It really is, but I would also think it’s the best thing! So you can’t really go wrong. What would you say to younger kids who maybe aren’t in as musical of a home, but wants to learn to play music?
A: I would tell them to seek out other people their age to play with. I had my community of people older than me, but that’s not the only way to keep your musical journey going. Most of my favorite music is a collaborative effort. It’s hard to develop those skills without peers to practice with. Half of what I’ve learned in Trey’s band is how to play with a band, and how to communicate with other musicians, and build something. I just would urge younger people to kind of find their tribe. Be outgoing, find people to play with. Music is collaborative and it’s about listening. I grew the most in high school when I found a group of people who were into a lot of the same music. We’d listen to it, then we’d get together again to emulate it. I think that’s a big part of it. I think for me, what I’d recommend to younger kids, is really just listen to music as much as you can. Really, actively listen to the music that you’re into, and figure out what makes the bands you like, great. What about it do you really respond to? Think about listening as learning these records inside and out, so it kind of seeps through in your own playing. Because, while it’s great to play with other people, if you don’t have access to that, you could really learn a lot just listening to CD’s even, if you really listen.
Q: That is very true, good point. On a different note, are you going to be cooking for Thanksgiving? I mentioned your Youtube cooking clips before, and I just adore them.
A: Thank you! I hopefully will be cooking. I’m actually going out to Minnesota after the Midwest tour ends with my boyfriend. I’m gonna meet his whole extended side of the family and do Thanksgiving there for the first time.
Q: Oh wow! Are you excited? Nervous?
A: I’m excited. I’m really close with his parents, so I’m not scared. Normally when I do Thanksgiving with Ivan’s family, I make the apple pie, which his Dad’s favorite food, and he really likes my pies. So I will hopefully be able to contribute that this Thanksgiving! I’m really excited. Part of why I’m so excited for this tour, is that it gave us the kind of…kick in the pants to get out to Minnesota and capitalize on the fact that we’ll be really close by.
Q: Well that is adorable as possible. Since you mention the Midwest, are you looking forward to your Chicago show at the Tonic Room?
A: I am! I’m so excited. I’ve played Chicago a bunch, and besides New York and the Bay Area, it’s like…. my friends and fans in the music world are there! So to finally be able to bring my own project is really exciting. It’s gonna feel like a party, because I’ve been playing there so long, but this is the first time I’m showcasing my own music. I feel like people are pumped, and that makes me even more excited!
Q: We definitely are really excited. I talk about Tonic Room too often probably, but it is seriously a spot that lives in my heart. It is just such a great place, run by musicians, and the space is just magical and fills with the energy we create, and it’s different each show. I’m excited for you to play there, and also to see for yourself.
A: Yes! That’s what a lot of people have said. My booking agent was saying that for whatever reason, when you’re out in Chicago, you end up at Tonic Room, even if you don’t plan on it. That’s where the musicians go, and music fans hang out, and it’s kind of one of those music venues that is kind of a big part of what Chicago is … like it fulfills a niche spot, or important space in the Chicago music scene that everyone experiences at some time or another.
Q: That is so true, and makes me happy to hear. So is this your first Midwest tour?
A: Yes! We’ve done the coasts, and Denver, but … this is us branching out!
Q: Kind of like your Weeknd cover of “The Hills?”
Q: How did you come up with that track to cover?
A: Well, this is something Ivan and I were talking about, because I haven’t put out music in a pretty long time. So this was, we thought, a way to get the momentum going before the EP comes out. Kind of like something suited to the “Soundcloud listener” type person, because I think my music has always been too jazzy to have that kind of… Soundcloud buzz, and organic listening success on the internet, because the genre just has too small of an audience. So, we thought it would be fun to do something that’s very “me”- it’s still the harmony, it’s still my voice, so it ties in with what I’ve done before, but it’s something really unexpected that would not just get people’s attention, but kind of break out of the jazz mold, too. Because that word is not really the best word to describe what kind of musician I am anymore. We decided on “The Hills,” because I could see myself doing my own take on it when I first heard it, then two weeks after we decided on it, it hit Billboard’s #1… so, we thought, “Yup, this is a good cover. This is timely. Let’s do it!” I also kind of wanted to put up something for free, and just see what people thought. It’s crazy to me how many people have listened to it so far, and it’s a great feeling. (12,400 plays in the first 24 hours) It’s cool to know that people are out there that I don’t even know, all across the world, listening to my music. I don’t care too much about the counts and stuff, but it’s a good feeling that people want to hear my stuff.
Q: Is there anything else you really wanna talk about? Concerning Traces, production, Thanksgiving, etc?
A: (laughing) I really just wanted to convey how excited I am for the show at Tonic, and for the whole Midwest Tour. We’ll be previewing a lot of the material from the new EP that won’t be out yet, too, so that will be kind of cool to get to share that before anyone else can hear it.
Q: Ok, and in closing. I have to ask. When was your first Phish show?
A: I can actually remember it really well. It was in the Winter of 2009 at Madison Square Garden (12/2-12-4). It was right before I started working with TAB, but Trey had already accepted me into the band at that point. He wanted me to see what Phish was all about, because I was really honestly, … I just didn’t know a lot of their music. I mean, I “know” Phish, but I didn’t know Phish. So I asked him to feel free to throw anything at me that would help me “get it,” so he just invited me to come see the show. I got a pair of really great seats from him, so that I could see what they were all about and get a feel for how he plays. I took Ivan, and we weren’t even dating yet, but he was my date. We just went, and didn’t know what to expect, and man! The vibe of the crowd and the excitement, was just, such a surprise. It was so very cool. I’ve gone to a bunch more shows since then, but I still feel like a total noob around all the veterans who have hundreds of shows under their belts, but I love seeing them play.
Q: Well, in your defense, you were only 18 when they came BACK from hiatus, so, I think you get a pass.
A: (laughing) Well, thank you. I just love seeing them play (Phish), because they’re just so great at playing together. When I was talking before about what I’d say to young musicians, one thing Phish does really well is listen and react to one another, and so much of it is spontaneous and creative. Like, I didn’t grow up listening to jam music at all, and that’s not necessarily my bag, but I can really appreciate that as a musician: how much they listen, and how dynamic they are as a group. It’s pretty compelling, even if you’re coming from a different place.
Q: I think that’s a really good way to explain it. Honestly that your first show was gifted by Trey on an invite, is something you can throw in any vet’s face should you need to feel protected, if they give you a hard time. Not that you need it.
A: (laughing) …The Phish community is amazing, and very entertaining. They’re a real blast.
Natalie was such a delight to chat with, and she’s just so down-to-earth, I felt like I was connecting with an old buddy. She is a real badass chick, and I can’t wait to see them this weekend at Tonic. Hope you can come out and join us!
Tonic Room is located at 2447 N Halsted, and in the deepest parts of my heart. Buy tickets for Natalie’s Saturday 11/21 show for only $12 here.
Natalie Cressman’s band is comprised of: