Singing with Cirque du Soleil
Recently Jeremy and Gillyanne were invited to the first night performance and party of the spectacular Cirque du Soleil show Varekai. Jeremy met up with singer on the show Craig Jennings, and a few days later interviewed him between shows on his job, his new CD, and his top tip for performers.
how it started:
J: First of all, how did you get into singing?
C: You know, it wasn’t my first choice.
C: It’s strange because I always liked to sing and stuff like that. I got the nickname Mavis from a barber in our town in Ohio because I was always singing in his chair. And everyone in the family would say that I sang along with the radio. But I studied theatre in school and I got a degree a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from my college and I auditioned for the vocal department because they told us the more skills we had the better off we would be, and I auditioned for three years in a row when I was at college and I never got accepted into the program.
C: And it wasn’t til I moved to new York that I ended up singing because I was in a flat with several other out of work actors and we started a band. And our band was like out creative outlet and I was the singer of the band and then I became identified as a singer. I know it’s not necessarily like the best for encouraging someone for training, but that’s my story!
J: No, that’s all right! Because I think the interesting thing is people come to singing and performing in different ways. And I’m good with that!
C: I really did want to start studying music and vocals and singing but I never studied for the first time until I got with the Cirque du Soleil. That’s the first time I started taking voice lessons. Actually I take that back. When I auditioned for Cirque du Soleil and I got a callback, they recommended a vocal coach to me in New York. They had a singer they were very keen on and they asked her who her vocal coach was, and they got the number for me of this woman Caroline Keller and when I was trying to get into Cirque I started studying with her every week. And she helped me to get my first job with Cirque which was with Quidam.
J: Well, you’ve actually led beautifully into the next question which is: because I’m a specialist in auditions, I’m really fascinated to know how you came to audition for Cirque and what you did – what were the songs you did?
C: OK, again I wish it was a little more – I’d be more proud if I could say it was a bit more formal! And that it was done because I was recognised for greatness! But it wasn’t that way at all!
Basically at that time I had been in a band for six years and my band had broken up. We did a big tour on the West Coast, and we came back and for whatever reason our Mojo was gone, and everybody decided they wanted to play other things. And I had heard about the Cirque du Soleil audition that was going on and I just showed up.
C: I showed up with my acoustic guitar and they told me when I got to the space (it was 890 Broadway and any actor – I mean I had auditioned at so many jobs at that place – everybody knows like “Oh, Cirque is coming here” so I just showed up.
C: And they said the spaces were assigned. In other words they were by invite only. And I asked if they were doing standby, and they said I could go standby, and the first person didn’t show up so I went in at 9am. And I went to pull out the guitar and they said “Well, we won’t be interested in the guitar”, and I said OK, so I went to the piano player and I asked him if he knew Les Feuilles d’Automne – the Autumn Leaves in French. I just happened to know that particular song on guitar and he said he knew the Autumn Leaves. So I sang a little bit of that and they asked me if I had anything else, and the piano player – the accompanist was a sweet man and he had a fake book and he just handed it to me with a sort of a smug look on his face and I opened it up and saw the song Shout! Which is [sings] “You know you make me wanna Shout!”
J: Yeah, it’s the Lulu song
C: And I thought to Autumn Leaves that would be a good second, you know?
C: And he started cranking into that and I started singing that and they all laughed at how spontaneous the audition was. And they asked me to sing along with the song Let Me Fall (which I ended up singing for five years in Quidam) and it’s actually in Corsican – they changed the lyrics from English to Corsican.
They asked me sing along and vocalise over the CD for them. So I sang and they were apparently very impressed and they gave me a tape and asked me to send in a tape.
Oh, I’m sorry, the woman asked me to do a little bit of movement. She wanted me to move while I sang. She wanted to see if I could do two things at the same time! And they asked me to send in a tape and if I could do it pronto because at that time the lead singer on Quidam had resigned and they were kind of in a bind looking for someone serious, you know.
So I turned that around to them and didn’t hear anything back. I called the studio and they said that they had hired someone else.
And I just kept going to my voice lessons anyway and every weekend – I had a little four-track machine – and every weekend I’d just make another tape for me. I made another tape and another tape and then one day I got inspired and decided I was going to send all my tapes. And I sent eight tapes! And I was on my way to my voice lesson and I got a phonecall from one of the casting agents saying “We just received this package – very impressive”. And I said “I’ve been doing these and I just want you to know that maybe you could put them in my file” And she said “Actually would you be interested in coming up and doing a session?” And what they meant was another audition – I thought maybe I was getting a recording session. And so I went up there and I did like an hour of work being monitored by the artistic director and the artistic coordinator with their vocal coach. And they hired me. They just said “Do you want to go on the European Tour” and that was it!
And as a back story, apparently the other guy who they had hired he and the vocal coach were not getting on at all, and the vocal coach had gone to the casting director and said “If you want this guy, you’ve got to find someone else to train him because I’m not working with him” So they fired him [the singer] and obviously I got the job. So that’s kind of how it happened.
J: That’s quite a story!
C: Yeah. At the end of the day I feel like I walked in the door backwards, do you know like Mr Magoo.
Analyzing the audition:
J: Well, I tell you what I hear, which is fascinating; and it’s fun because I’ve just been advising somebody to do that myself in one of my coaching sessions. You basically gatecrashed the audition and stayed there and said “Look, I’m quite happy to wait until you want to hear me”, and that for me, that’s a great thing. And you were serious, you were going to stay there until they heard you.
C: Well yeah, I would have stayed there all day.
J: Absolutely. And the other thing is having done the audition – actually there’s three things. You did the audition and you stayed with the process because they asked you to do all sorts of different things. I mean, you were really winging it on that audition weren’t you?
C: Oh, completely! I had never auditioned for something like that before. I had auditioned for Stomp a couple of times. At one time I got like three cuts away from actually getting the job, which is pretty far if you know how many people were in line for audition in New York! I don’t know what it’s like in London, I’m sure it’s pretty much the same.
J: Oh, I should think there’d be more in New York. So the second thing was that you actually picked up on what they wanted and did it, and that’s quite something. Because you were staying with the process, you were in it. And the third thing is having finished the audition, you then decided because you were recording your stuff, you decided to send it off, and it sounds like that was the third thing that actually got you the recall.
C: I think so, and they were so impressed that I had been doing this. And it was all dated. I had basically kept dates of my progress. Maybe you could advise me on this, Cirque, they very much fancy a self-starter, someone who is going to do it that they don’t have to manage every step of the way, that is just going to do it.
J: Yes. What it sounds like is that they are looking for someone who is independent and able to follow direction.
C: Yes, exactly. That’s it.
J: Which is great. And that’s a great energy to work with. When you know that somebody is happy to go into the improvisation are but is also disciplined enough to be able to do it over and over again.
C: Exactly. It’s like when new people come in that are familiar with show process that’s different from Cirque, oftentimes I find them speaking their frustration when they say “Last week they told me to do it this way, now they’re telling me to do it the complete opposite way”. But that’s exactly what Cirque is!
…improvisation on the show:
J: I know we had a conversation on Premiere night about how fixed is the job. I mean do you repeat everything absolutely identically every show or is there complete leeway or do you have to have certain things that you know you have to go round in case…
C: Right. There are certain… you kinda create your own vamps. There are certain things you create in order to elongate a phrase like this. I mean I just sang a gig just a moment ago and there was a lot of problem with setting up the [Russian] swings. So vocally it was hard because I was singing a line with Isabelle [the other singer in the London production]. If I would have just cut out, she could have gone on and created something and vice versa , but together we were just locked in a phrase that was so monotonous, it was just ridiculous. And we had a meeting afterwards, “If that ever happens, Craig you stop and Isabelle you can go free”. Because we made it sound like a mistake because of the fact we kept repeating the same thing over and over again.
J: Yes, I get that. That’s fascinating. And for me that’s the great thing about live performances – you never know what’s going to happen.
J: I want to go back to your voice lessons in New York. What sort of things were you doing with your voice teacher and why?
OK, well first off one of the major criticisms that I got from the audition and also from my first tape that I sent in was that they felt as if I never really held out any nice, long full notes.
C: Everything was very like abbreviated and hard and crusty. They felt like –
No.1. They wondered if I just didn’t have the support to do that, or
2. if I didn’t have the technique to do that. So the first thing that we did – we found that I didn’t really have the technique and I was more like in a shouting kind of voice. This was where I had to take a vowel and sing it out, and it was kind of a foreign voice for me.
My teacher Caroline Keller was working with me on my vowels and really getting inside them and singing my vowels not necessarily singing the consonants. And we worked hard and we identified that most of my vowels were stuck in the back of my mouth and I was singing with really just the consonants in the front of my mouth and that’s why I wasn’t able to hold any long notes. And so that’s what we worked on.
As we went on and on I would use what we did in the lessons on the tapes I was making for Cirque, to show that, to use that more and more.
At one point it became too much the other way, it became too legato, there was no expression any more.
J: Yeah. But that’s such a great idea to actually put down on tape, you know, the stuff in practice that you had been learning in your lessons and then sending them off to them to say “Look, this is what I’ve been learning in my lessons, this is what I’m doing.” It’s great.
C: I think so. But I don’t know with other shows whether you would have that luxury. Cirque has a large casting department and they do keep files on people. I’m not sure whether it works like that in the Music Theatre world or whether it would just be agents that keep a file on you.
J: Some casting directors keep files, some directors actually, they sort of hold memories of people, and that’s why some actors will often get asked to step straight into the recalls.
J: But my guess is that because Cirque is such a great industry and it’s extremely well organised, I should think that’s fairly unusual to have that amount of detail on your file.
warming up before the show:
J: I have a question which is about performances. How many shows do you do a week?
C: Well now in London we’re going to do nine shows a week for the rest of the run. We did one week of ten but sales on the Wednesday matinee just weren’t conducive to continuing it so we’re going to stick with nine. But the city is selling very well.
J: How do you do nine shows a week?
C: You just sort of come here and do it!
J: Do you do any special warm-ups, do you get your voice ready? Or are you so ingrained in that job now that you can just step onto the stage and do it?
C: No, no, there’s no way I can do that. I have a Pilates instructor that I work with four days a week, and I don’t think I would have the stamina for this kind of schedule if it wasn’t for this kind of work. It stretches me and also I find that it strengthens me and I’m really working against gravity. So I find strength in it and I find the stretch. At one point I was just doing Yoga and I felt just exhausted all the time when I would come on. Of course, Yoga is such a… you say what kind of Yoga there’s so many kinds of Yoga, and Pilates for that matter. Anyway I have a Russian Pilates instructor that I work with and then when it comes to warming up vocally I have my little ritual. I do a 15 minute warmup on work days. It’s no longer than that, it’s essentially scales and vowels. I just like identify the vowels (mi mi mi mi) Like this kind of thing, and I run up and down the scales and focus, remind my voice to go up through the nose and like straight up and get it – make sure that the elevator is in the front of my face and not in the middle or at the back…
J: Oh, I like that
C: Otherwise it’s horrendous
J: That’s a great image.
C: It’s kind of like if you’re a golfer. I find that 15 minutes is like taking a few swings before you go out golfing, you know? I don’t go overboard with it because at the end of the day it’s just too much on my voice..
C: And I try to stay off the phone in the week. I find that being on the phone and talking to mates in between shows, that’s pretty exhausting for the voice.
J: Well, I’m very honoured! Thank you.
C: No problem. Well, this is Sunday so I feel as if I’ve already made it! I only have one more show…
J: You do make a lot of different sounds in the show.
C: Yeah, for sure.
J: Were we right in thinking we heard overtone singing?
C: Yes, that was the Tuvan throat singing. Cirque sent me a coach in Montreal who is a teacher and does lots of groups like that in Montreal. His name is Bernard Dubreuil and he basically brought me up to speed. And I’m lobbying right now to get him sent back here to give me the next regimen.
Because I’m not really doing overtones. That’s what I want to do is overtones, but I’ just doing …[sings demonstrating multiphonic chanting sounds, moving around on vowels] doing that part. What I can do is a whistly sounding overtone above it that plays a melody, and I’d like to get into that.
J: Sorry, can you do that again? Unfortunately the phone went at my end, so I’ve got a phone going all the way through that. Can you just do that again?
C: Yeah, sure. [Tries] No, I can’t do it! [laughs]. [Demonstrates again]. Like that.
J: That’s fantastic. Thanks
C: I can tell you one way that he showed me to do it that was the most reliable when I first started was to do a baby’s cry like [demonstrates baby’s wail, sliding down into the chanting sounds] to first find it. That was the one that really connected with me. He tried different avenues to get there, kind of thing? That was the one that really worked, to do a baby’s… imitate a baby’s cry and then try to siren down into it. If you do that [demonstrates baby wail, slide down arriving at chanting sounds] then you can find it.
C: I prefer that one but it’s taken me a long time to get it stable enough that I can actually sing it in the show and sing my high notes as well. Originally when I got warmed up I couldn’t do it at all. And the other one that I don’t like as much is what they call the… well that was the monk voice, this is the Tuvan throat singing, which is more abrasive, more of a [demonstrates Tuvan throat singing on a low pitch] like that. [Coughs] And that always makes me cough after, I just don’t like the way it feels so I try to stay away from it as much as possible, and recently in the past year or so I’ve been able to stay away from it quite a bit.
J: That’s excellent.
C: Maybe I just don’t do it correctly. I probably don’t!
…who is mavelvis:
J: Now I want to move on to Mavelvis. The CD
C: Did I give you a CD?
J: No, but I’ve been downloading the excerpts on your website mavelvis.com (that’s M.A.V.E.L.V.I.S.com). Tell me about that.
C: Well, Mavelvis is sort of a band name that I chose for myself. I’ve been recording songs on my laptop essentially while I’m on the road and playing out with other musicians that I’ve been playing with on Quidam and while here on Varekai.. And I’ve decided to start making and putting out my albums. It’s given me a lot of creative juice. When I do the show I always feel as if I need to do something else to balance it artistically. I just feel like a one-trick pony if I’m just doing show-show-show-show-show.
And I’ve found that it really brings a lot of energy to my life. Creatively for the show and for it. It works as a circle-8. And I just finished another album while I was in Australia called Return to Puterdise. The plan is I’ve found somebody to mix it, he’s going to mix and master it, print that up and put it out in May or June. And just keep putting out albums. It’s fun.
J: Sounds great. I had a listen to some of the tracks and there’s a real mix of stuff there. You know, again you sing in a lot of different styles.
C: That’s for sure! On XRNR there’s definitely lots of styles. That wasn’t necessarily – I don’t know if it was so much because of working for Cirque as it was… I went to a festival in France, the MIDEM Festival? There were these Polishers that were speaking. And this one woman in particular really caught my ear. Maybe because I fancied what she had to say. She was like saying that in the past, especially in the 80s and 90s we were always telling artists “Find your sound, find your sound. Send this one thing that we can identify you as, and then repeat it. Don’t go too far away from that or we don’t know who you are” And now because of how much the music industry has changed (I’m sure we can all agree about that) the publishers were encouraging writers and singer-songwriters, and bands for that matter, to try to open up and go a little more genre-free and to spread it out. And if they have the talent to, to really explore everything that they can explore. Because today it’s like one song here, one song there. If a publisher has any chance to do anything with a song it’s either on a commercial or they place it in this ad or that movie. They’ve found, the publishers, that they’ll maybe spend a lot of time with an artist and if the medium they’re looking for music isn’t that interested in that particular kind of music then the game’s over. And it they have an artist that has three or four different kinds of music that they do and they do well, then they can say “Well, what about this song” or “Maybe this song would be right” or “What about this other one”. So I took that as encouragement to try to explore and I decided to try to take that homespun Americana Rock and Roll and to mix it that with European Techno. And that’s were I got the X.R.N.R. for XRNR [pronounced ex-erner]. That’s what came out of that for me. The next one isn’t necessarily going to be so much like that. The next one’s going to be a little bit more story based as opposed to hopping around musically.
top tip for singers:
J: That’s great. Now, if you could think of a couple of top tips for singers like you to move on in the business.
C: Like to move on in the business, where are they in the business, what do they want to do?
J: If they wanted to basically improve their chances of moving in the music business, what would you suggest they did?
C: Oh, wow…
J: Oh, it’s not all easy questions!
C: Yeah, gosh. You know what, they have to find some amount of joy in just doing it. Because if you can find that, you’re a success right out of the freaking box. You know what I mean? Especially spending so many years in New York like I did. All my friends including myself – we were such ambitious… messes!
At some point it was just like “What are we doing?” Everything was just so crucial and so… because that ambition made it so that we couldn’t sometimes just enjoy where we were and what we were doing. Not always, there were many times that were just the opposite, but I do know now looking back that if you can just really really really find a huge amount of joy in what you do it’ll lead you places. For instance, I wasn’t doing those tapes on the weekend because I had this… I’m not that organised! You know, “I had this idea and if I do a lot of tapes and I send them to Cirque…” I’m really quite honestly not even close to being that organised. I wish I had that kind of steadfastness. But I was doing it because it was fun. That was the reality. I spent my time… I want to sing that song, I like singing it, I like the way it feels, you know? If you do it out of that and you can find that place of joy and somehow steer yourself out of that thought that comes in inevitable whether you like it or not, especially when you have ambition for growing in art… if you can steer yourself around it as much as you can at least a few times a year, if you can steer around it I think it’ll lead you to where you need to go.
J: Yeah. And of course you’ll enjoy it on the way as well!
C: Yeah. Which is the whole point. You know sometimes in life we spend so much time thinking “If I only have this or when I get that I’ll be happier I’ll be happier, or when I finally get that gig then everything will be great.” None of us are on this ride of life long enough to really wait that long for that day to come! You might as well just say “What is it that I enjoy about this right now?” And if you go there, you’ll find yourself doing things that’ll just randomly get yourself in the right place. Because that joy factor is going to put you there. Go out and listen to other people. Go out and see other people’s shows , go out and really soak it in and enjoy other people and what other people are doing. Next thing you know you’ll be talking about how much you enjoy this with somebody who’s going to end up putting you in a show.
J: That’s a superb answer, thank you. We’re pretty much done! First of all, anybody who wants to hear you in the next couple of weeks I think you’re still here.
J: 17th February is it? Something like that?
C: Yeah, 17th is the last day.
J: So basically if anyone wants to go and hear you live they can go to the Albert Hall and hear you there with Cirque du Soleil., And also we can get your CD can’t we?
C: Yes. I need to send you one of those!
J: Yeah, that’d be fun.
C: I have your address, I’ll pop it in the mail.
J: That would be great. And in fact if anyone wants to hear some excerpts from it, you’ve got your website which is www.mavelvis.com and you’ve also got a MySpace, which I’m on at the moment which is www.MySpace.com/mavelvis
Well, Craig, thank you very much, that’s been excellent.
C: You’re welcome Jeremy.