10 Questions with
Stephanie Browning made a name for herself as the Artist-in-residence at the world-renowned Gold Star Sardine Bar here in Chicago. She has toured Japan, Sweden and has had extended runs at the Champagne Bar in Hong Kong and other locations around the world. She is currently performing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Peninsula Hotel and has a new release coming out this fall. We talked with Browning about her early beginnings, influences and how she has continued to expand her passion as an artist.
Did you grow up in a musical house or have musical influences in your life?
My musical influences were everywhere. My dad had a beautiful singing voice that blew my mind the first time I heard it. My mom played piano and tirelessly encouraged me to practice every day. My Grandpa Jack was a major influence and taught me how to sing. Someday I want to write a book about Jack. He was a singer, bass player and piano payer, and hummingbirds would land on his finger. In his early years, he was a singing radio cowboy and was still taking cello lessons at the very end of his life. No one has shaped me more. I remember the first song he ever taught me line by line all the way through, “Let the Rest of the World Go By.” We sang it together driving across the country. My sister and Gram sang too, but his voice was the one I locked in on—strong and clear. That beautiful song is still in my songbook.
Stephanie Browning - photo by Jeff Stella
Was there a specific musician or recording that influenced you to become a vocalist?
As a little girl, I was fascinated with this particular record: Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson. I carried it around and wanted to listen to it all the time. There are still several songs from that album that are in my top 20 songs of all time, especially “I Only Have Eyes for You.” That song makes me light up like a little kid to this day even though I’ve sung it thousands of times. When I was 4, my favorite song was “Mean to Me.” Years later, I was a photo-stylist on the brink of a career change and fell real hard for Sara Vaughn. I was driving around Denver in my giant van (for dressing, styling models on location for shoots) listening to her obsessively when she passed away. It was at that point I decided—as crazy as it sounds now—the world was down one great jazz singer, so I would try to fill that opening.
Did you go to school for music?
No. I learned on the bandstand and through obsessive, continuous listening. For example, I listened to Coltrane’s Ballads album on a continuous (cassette) loop for two years all the time in my house or my car, in my sleep, in the shower, etc., in an attempt to imprint his music into my DNA. I was marinating in the music that I wanted to absorb. There have been lots of intense phases of “marinating” and lots of gigs.
How did you end up moving to Chicago?
My best friend from high school moved here after art school. One day out of the blue she called me in Denver and said, “You should move to Chicago; you’ll love this city, it’s full of music.” I came for a visit during Around the Coyote in September and she was right! I fell in love with this city at first sight. Two months later I lived here.
Tell us about the Gold Star Sardine Bar. That was one of Chicago’s hottest music clubs and you were headlining several nights a week. How’d that gig come about, and Bill Allen and the band?
…Another thing I could write a book about! At the heart of the Gold Star Sardine Bar was Bill Allen. He was like as if Anthony Quinn had played “The Wizard” in The Wizard of Oz, by way of Rasputin: brilliant, passionate, visionary, nuts. He crafted the club to feel like 1938 and would not allow modern songs because they broke the spell—my words not his. He thought there were no good tunes written after 1950. So, he was the grit around which my pearl was formed. Suited me though—I had no problem going deep into the Great American Songbook of the ‘30s and ‘40s and not coming out. He would shout lyrics into my face and make me sing them back to him. He taught me phrasing like a verbal sparring partner. If he didn’t like a song selection he would slam his fist hard on the bar and yell out, “Dumb tune!” He seriously used to yell that out about one of my top five all-time favorite songs, “Moon & Sand,” by Alec Wilder. I remember thinking to myself: I KNOW you are wrong about this one Bill! But he taught me a lot—not just about music—about art and culture and gave me some exquisite art books and history books. He wanted me to be well rounded. It was more than a job; it was an adventure, and not one for the faint of heart. Bill was scary sometimes, mesmerizing always, and he took his music very seriously. I’m lucky to have known him.
There are so many stories about that place; someday I want to write a play. I have pictures of some of the ghosts that haunted it while flying around in the back hallway the night John Larson recorded Live At The Gold Star. The band was incredible—Jeremy Kahn played piano with such polish and precision, and Lawrence Kohut is as much a musical director as a bass player, sculpting and generously supporting the moment always, and on drums was Joel Spencer groovy, swinging and hilarious. The idea that I could start out with such a world-class band in this jewel-box time capsule of a venue—it was an opportunity that only Chicago could offer me.
You have performed throughout the world on tour. Was there one experience that helped you to experience music in a different way?
I sang two tours in Sweden with saxophonist Johan Stengard. Those were enchanting experiences. I performed in small villages and towns in the dead of winter, yet the audiences were warm and welcoming. I sang “Stardust” in a church that is over a thousand years old on New Year’s Day for an audience, with some who had traveled a long way—it was a peak moment. I met Andreas Landegren, a talented Swedish pianist and composer, and he and I have collaborated on an album’s worth of original songs. I got one of my best compliments in Sweden. A lovely woman said to me after a concert, “It’s like honey to the soul, what you do.” And I realized, Yes. That is what I’m trying to do. I had never articulated it that way before.
You’re very passionate about how music can help developmentally challenged people. Tell us how you first got started in this field.
I started as a volunteer. My sister-in-law attends a sheltered workshop for adults with developmental disabilities. Back in 2010, she asked me to come and do music with them, so I did and ended up teaching there three days a week for six years. I worked with over 100 students and brought and got a lot of joy.
The program you developed is called “Sparticles.” Can you walk us through the concept and tell us about the incredible results you have seen?
Sparticles is an idea I’ve been developing for years. Basically, it uses colors to show the seven musical tones, A, B, C, etc., and shapes to show the degree of the scale (do, re, mi, etc). Originally, my idea was for a video game, but when I had the opportunity to work with this diverse population, it turned out they responded to the simplicity of the colors and shapes and could play a song the first time when they tried. This success made them want to try again. The results were pretty great and gave me a chance to take my ideas out of my imagination and onto the dance floor. I hope someday I can develop Sparticles into an actual game or kit that could be used as a teaching method so even non-musical parents could teach their kids as they learn along with them. It starts out as simple colors and shapes, but it can act as a bridge to reading sheet music and understanding chords.
Currently, you’re performing on Friday and Saturday nights at one of the top hotels in North America, the Peninsula Hotel. Tell us about the atmosphere, the band and what people can expect to hear there.
The Peninsula is such a gorgeous hotel and I love performing in the beautiful Lobby. It’s something straight out of a Fred Astaire movie. Part of the fun of this venue is I get to dress all the way up. I can’t deny I love the glamour of an evening gown, and I’m curating a whole new collection this year. Real romance is rare, but you can find it at the Peninsula. We’ve got honey to the soul (that’s me), and chocolate and dancing (that’s you), in this beautiful room with a great band—delicious! We’re there through July 1, but don’t wait for summer to come out and play (you don’t have to wear an evening gown; that’s just my thing).
What else do you have coming up that people should know about?
I’m super-excited about a new (not-at-all-jazz) project. This is my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but it is weird, wild, epic stuff. My first superfan—who lives in Copenhagen—said he loves it because it has “that James Bond grandiosity.” So, that gives you kind of an idea. My partner on this project is Dean Jensen, a talented Seattle-based guitarist and composer who has been a part of Robert Fripp’s various guitar projects over the last 20 years. The name of the band is Tendril, and we’re making an album to drop in October. Anyone can feel free to send me an email through my website if you want to hear more about Tendril or to get on my mailing list for jazz updates.
Visit www.StephanieBrowning.com for updated performance information.