Interview: Natalie Cressman

The next Artist Interview Project installment features singer/songwriter and trombonist Natalie Cressman. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.

Find more information about Natalie Cressman on her website. You can also follow Cressman on Facebook and Twitter (@natcressman).

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

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Image via Natalie Cressman’s Facebook page

Music comes in many forms, including extremes from mellow piano to heavy metal. Is there one type of music that is any greater then any other form? Is there one song, band, or lyric that can be universally recognized as the greatest? Philosopher D. Robert Dechaine would say no, because aesthetic judgments, he argues, are subjective and grounded in individual experiences. In my interview with trombonist and songwriter Natalie Cressman, I had the opportunity to discuss her views on the beauty and power of music. Does her music qualify as beautiful? Does the answer differ if we’re considering her album Traces, duo with guitarist Mike Bono, or performance with the Trey Anastasio Band? I sought to answer these questions in our telephone interview.

Cressman has created quite a name for herself in the music world. An outstanding and unique trombonist and vocalist, she has performed with the Trey Anastasio Band, Phish, Escort, Big Gigantic, The Motet, Umphrey’s McGee, Anat Cohen, Sparkle, and many others. Her diverse talents range from jazz and salsa to improvisational rock and even to composing and producing her own music. She has released three solo albums in addition to a duo album featuring her vocals and guitarist, Mike Bono.

So, what is beauty? Is it is possible to achieve? Philosopher and music critic Eduard Hanslick argues that, in the context of music, these questions are difficult to answer:

It is extremely difficult to define this self-subsistent and specifically musical beauty. As music has no prototype in nature, and expresses no definite conceptions, we are compelled to speak of it either in dry, technical terms, or in the language of poetic fiction. Its kingdom is, indeed, “not of this world.” All the fantastic descriptions, characterizations, and periphrases are either metaphorical or false. What in any other art is still descriptive is in music already figurative. Of music it is impossible to form any but a musical conception, and it can be comprehended and enjoyed only in and for itself (70).

Music’s beauty can’t be quantified or have a general definition because experiences of it vary from person to person. There is so much power and energy that is encompassed in music and creating a hierarchy of its beauty is an impossible task. Cressman’s view of beauty is similar. When asked what makes music beautiful, she responded:

That’s such a complicated question… I find that I have strong musical preferences, but I don’t want to discount music that I don’t personally respond to, but that brings other people joy.

Cressman recognizes that her experience of beauty in music is influenced by her years of experience as a professional musician. She has a deeper level of expertise and appreciation of music.

Yet, Cressman wants to make room for the pleasure non-musicians find in all kinds of music, even pop hits. She explained:

Music is such a curing, cathartic experience for people, especially non-musicians. So I have to put myself in the position of someone who isn’t a musician and how that music might make them feel about their life.

In this respect, Cressman finds beauty in the pleasure that music brings to our lives. When understood from this perspective, music that brings joy or other intense emotional experiences to someone’s life can be beautiful.

Music has a profound ability to create intense embodied, emotional experiences. In our interview, Cressman discussed music’s ability to evoke memories. She explained, “Music is such an interesting conveyor of memory. Certain songs will just pull you back, like you’re talking about. I have a very strong reaction to music like that.” As DeChaine describes, music has this unusual power that Cressman described. He writes:

 I suggest that the activities of remembering constitute, by the way of affective musical experience, a poetic re/membering of events and histories that, if considered seriously, lead us to a fuller understanding of our selves (87).

Through her music, Cressman’s audience experiences a wide range of intense emotions. Phish phans, she explains, are usually “bursting with joy.” Others, like her recent audience in Brazil, were brought to tears. Her music is powerful in the way that it can reach people on such a deep level. With music, she has the ability to unite people not only together, but also with their own memories that otherwise may have been forgotten.

Finally, Cressman has the ability to move her audience from what philosopher John Drabinski calls a one-dimensional life to a multi-dimensional life. He argues:

Western culture has become ‘one-dimensional.’ Life is reduced to one dimension, which means…that our lives are modeled on a work-a-day efficiency and little more. The management of this life is total…laboring under a totalitarian regime (31).

As Drabinski puts it, we need to get out of monotony of everyday life and live, dance, and create. Cressman does this through her music. As the music moves through her, the creative energy transfers to her audience. Music, as Trey Anastasio notes, is in Cressman’s “DNA.” She experiences it, lives it, is moved by it, and now moves others through her talents. Her ability to truly understand and appreciate music is rare. She has the humility and critical ear of a true musician.

So is Cressman’s music beautiful? I believe beauty lies in the heart and mind of the individual who is feeling the beats move through their body and the lyrics ring through their head. The fact that it moves her is enough to qualify it as beautiful. Music only has to touch one individual and once it does, it gives a window into the beauty of life and pulls us away from the ordinary and leads us to the extraordinary. From my experience, the sense of beauty is unmistakable in her music. It has the ability to bring you back to a time of forgotten moments and allows you, for a brief period of time, to escape your one-dimensional life and feel life pulsing through your veins.

Thank you very much to Natalie Cressman for allowing me to interview her.

Interview Transcript

Student: I’m not sure how much you know about our class. It’s nicknamed the Philosophy School of Phish. I’m not super artsy; I don’t play an instrument, but listening to what you play is really cool. It’s a lot different than what I would normally listen to. I’m a straight redneck and listen to country music. What you play is awesome! Thank you so much for doing this interview.

We’ve been talking about how we evaluate music in terms of the beautiful. We’ve been discussing different philosophers’ views on how they classify music. What do you think? Is all music beautiful?

Natalie Cressman: That’s such a complicated question. It’s great that they’re having you think about that. I find that I have strong musical preferences, but I don’t want to discount music that I don’t personally respond to, but that brings other people joy. It’s a good thing and there’s value in that music as well, but it’s definitely tough to reconcile what’s on the radio—like pop hits—that have no emotional impact on me at all. It’s hard to appreciate that music coming from my musical background, but I appreciate the way that it gives people relief from their everyday life and brings people joy. I think that all music is valid, but that there are certain areas where you can tell the quality. Just to give you a little background on me, I went to a jazz conservatory and studied very dense, complex music. That’s definitely a time when I was just coming to college, when I thought there’s good music and there’s bad music. I thought that a lot of pop radio and gangsta rap was bad music, but now with a little more perspective, I think that even if it’s not music that I respond to, music is such a curing, cathartic experience for people, especially non-musicians. So I have to put myself in the position of someone who isn’t a musician and how that music might make them feel about their life.

S: That’s what I was thinking too. Our class has these discussion boards that we have to go on. Some of the students think all music is beautiful, but I say “No! Some of it is horrible!” I think you’re absolutely right; it depends on who’s listening to it. If they find it beautiful, it’s beautiful.

NC: That’s true in art in general. Like in painting, some people love modern art, some people hate it. You can’t say that one person is definitely right on that subject.

S: Exactly. That’s what I was writing about in our discussion board. We’re going back and forth on questions such as “How do we classify music?” and “Is it possible to classify music as beautiful?.”

 What do you feel when you perform?

NC: Wow. I feel a lot of different things and it really depends on the setting. I play a lot of improvisationally based music. That means every time I get up to play, it’s different. I’m not just doing the same part every time the same way, so I feel very connected to the people that I’m playing on stage with. There are definitely certain times when there’s more synergy and connected feeling than others, but when I play music it’s a way of expressing myself and building something with the people around me. I kind of think of bands as like a team. We’re doing something together. So definitely when I’m on stage, I’m really aware of what everyone else is doing and trying to follow the path that the music wants to go when I’m improvising. It feels like it’s almost out of my hands. I’m trying to get what’s in my head out through my horn or out through my voice. I follow this path that’s kind of…I don’t know. Sometimes I find that the music guides me to things. That’s what it makes me feel like.

S: Is it different when you do solo stuff versus when you do it with a band?

NC: Yes, I think so. My solo stuff is, obviously because I write it, a little closer to home. The songs are about things that are personal, so it feels like me being my truest self. Where sometimes when I’m playing with other people’s bands or if I’m playing a cover, I feel this need to put on a character or sing it like the original or fit into the style of music that it is, but with my own band I can just be me 100%. Not that I’m not being myself when I play with other people, but I definitely have other considerations, because it’s someone else’s project or vision. When it’s just me– this is who I am– so it feels really easy to be in the moment.

S: When you’re playing, do you have something that you want to evoke in your audience, like an emotion or feeling? Or is it more dependent on the person? I know some artists might try to evoke a specific emotion in their audience. Do you try and do that?

NC: I think I don’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily that I want them to feel one specific emotion. I definitely write songs that I’m trying not to tell the audience what to do or what to think about it, even if I’m writing a sad love song, for instance. Lyrics aren’t just my personal story from the first person, very point blank. I try to make the lyrics in a way that they can be interpreted differently by each different listener. So maybe someone takes it one way or maybe it reminds them of something that happened to them but it’s not telling them what to think or what to feel. I feel like it depends on the style of music, because when I play with Trey or Phish, the crowd’s vibe and the audience is very joyous–bursting with joy. That’s how it feels when I’m on stage playing with them. And other times I’m playing a piece of music that’s jazz or Brazilian music and people in the audience are crying, but they’re happy. That’s what they want to feel and it’s moving in a totally different direction. It really depends on the song and the style and also the intent of the composer. I did a show in Brazil where I sat in with this really amazing composer and everyone said that I made them cry, but it was a big compliment. I feel like people don’t go to see Phish to cry. It’s a different purpose. That’s why I’m going back to your first question. People want different things out of music, so it’s not for me to say what’s valid or not.

S: When you listen to your own music, do you have the same emotional response to it? Or does it change based on what’s going on?

NC: Yes, but it also depends on what point in the process it is. If I’m listening back to some music that I’m working on…. Maybe when– I’m referring to mixes or in the studio still—I’m being very analytical, so I’m not really listening to it in the same way that a consumer of the music would. And then other times, if it’s just on the radio or it’s an old song that I’m just hearing again after a while, I can be hit by the emotion of it instead of being caught up in the performance of it. I think it’s hard for me to listen to myself, because there’s a tendency to be self-critical, but usually if enough time goes by or if I’m in the right head space, I can be a listener and have distance from it, enough to appreciate it.

S: That makes sense.

NC: But sometimes I really can’t stand hearing it. If I didn’t feel good when I sang the show and then I’m sitting back to listen to it and I’m cringing at that one note that came out off key… that’s definitely a little tough for me.

S: What inspires you to play music? You started out in ballet and were sidelined by an injury. Did having that inspire you to get into music the way that you did?

NC: Yeah. I did play music my whole life, just not very seriously, because my parents are musicians. I was already playing the trombone when I was dancing, but I really wanted to dance ballet and I was doing several hours of that day. So singing and trombone definitely took a back seat, but then once I got injured, I ended up having all this time and trying to figure out what to do with it, because I couldn’t dance. I started a band with some kids in my high school. What was really inspiring and different from dance was the team aspect of it. It’s such a community activity to play music together. For the most part, unless you’re a classical soloist, you’re not playing music alone, so there’s this social element that’s not competitive. I sometimes tell my students, “Your job is to make everyone around you sound even better.” It’s all about the group outcome, not just about your self. I feel with dancing, you’re trained to focus very much on just yourself and it can be really cut throat and competitive because of that. I also just like that it doesn’t matter how you look or how old you are or where you come from in music. Everyone is welcome. It’s all about the work that you put in… to some degree, because I’m not a pop star, so I don’t have to worry about fitting that kind of a mold. The music that I play is really all about who you are. But in dance, if you’re born with a certain body type or less flexibility or weak ankles, you are lesser than. That was why music felt like getting a warm hug, playing music didn’t feel like dance. So when my foot healed, I just kept going with the music.

S: That’s awesome. Do you think you would have continued with ballet had that injury not happened?

NC: I definitely would have tried my hardest. It’s interesting. I wonder that every once and a while, because I was taking dance really seriously and all I wanted was to be a working ballerina, but that’s so hard to do these days. When I was in Brazil, I was talking to an Uber driver about the metropolitan orchestra there. He said that the principal ballet dancer is an Uber driver, because they don’t even make enough. It’s such a struggle emotionally, physically, financially to do that art. I think it’s really, really beautiful when you make it, but I didn’t have the right body type and I was going to be struggling with that. I think even if I had found a way to work I wouldn’t be nearly as happy as I am with what I’m doing now.

S: Everything happens for a reason. Look at how many lives you’ve touched with your music. It’s crazy to think that had that injury not happened, music might not have been the path that you’re on. It’s amazing.

NC: I know. It’s crazy how things like that can change you.

S: You talked about how you started playing trombone with your father and mother. In your 2016 Etchings of Amber, are you still playing trombone on that?

NC: On that record, no. That was the first CD that I’ve put out where I wasn’t playing any trombone. It was really different for me. The point was to do something really delicate: just voice and guitar. That was a departure from what I normally do, because I usually play at least some trombone, or mostly playing trombone and singing a little bit. But with this, I felt very naked because I had no instrument to hide behind. It’s just me and my songs, nothing to hide behind. It was cool. It was really fun and we did a lot of touring. It definitely made me a better musician to experience that.

S: Do you think you’ll continue with that?

NC: I think I’ll keep doing both. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to make a living full time just doing original music. That’s why I end up doing a lot of different things, but I will keep it going because, for me, it’s a really nice release from all the loud, party, high-energy music that I play to do some really… what’s the word… retrospective, very delicate music. It’s just a nice yin and yang. It’s also just so easy to go on the road with me and only one other person. With my band, there’s all this pressure to have everything make financial sense and have everyone comfortable. We have to book a bunch of hotel rooms for my band. It’s so much easier to just get in the car and go with my project with Mike Bono. I’ll definitely keep that going.

S: Listening to the first albums versus this latest one: it’s completely different. It’s still amazing and gorgeous, but it’s from one end of the spectrum to the other. I don’t think a lot of artists can do that.

NC: Thanks. It’s definitely not the smartest idea, because everyone in the music business talks about how you have to have a brand, but part of my brand is being really eclectic. I just keep pushing myself to do different things. I just got really lucky that I got asked to be in Trey’s band when I was so young, but the downside of that is that people have the expectation of what kind of musician I am and what kind of songs I might write. I still have to follow my own thing that I really want to do as well. I think it comes to a lot of Phish fans. The cool thing is… Trey listens to so many kinds of music and it all kind of seeps into what he does. Phish in general is a good role model of how you don’t have to fit a mold to do really great.

S: Where do you want to go from here? Biggest dream, if you could do anything. Would you stay in the band or would you start doing more solo albums?

NC: I always want to tour with Trey. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. It’s just been a great experience to see the world. But I think my dream, personally, would be to be touring the world playing my own music, either my band or the duo. Dreaming even bigger than that, I’ve always wanted to write for a bigger orchestra. When I was in music school, I got to write for a string quartet and the harp– instruments you don’t see that often. It was really fun, but if I could dream really big I would get to do my original music with a full orchestra. I don’t know if you know this name–Laura Mvula. She did a record where she did her songs from her previous record with the Metropole Orchestra. Man, if I could do that one day, I would be so happy! But it would be fun to have a hand in writing for it too, because that’s always something I want to do. Not just hear it—giving my songs to an arranger and having them do it—but actually writing the music for the orchestra myself.

S: I can’t imagine that, but hearing you talk about it, I can tell it’s your passion. To be able to write something and have it be your own. I can’t wrap my head around it, because I’m not a musician. But that would be amazing.

 NC: Maybe one day. It’s fun to think about… what if it were possible?

 S: The minute you stop doing the what ifs and stop doing what you want to do, you’re stuck.

NC: Exactly.

S: Last question. What moves you most in life?

NC: That is so deep. How do I even answer that? I would say that for me, great stories move me, but that songs really… in life, I’m moved by people expressing their truths through music. I mean, through many things, but music gets me the most. It will make me cry or feel so happy or feel so much, so I think when people are out there being themselves whole heartedly and just being open-hearted to, that’s what really moves me, when I meet people who just feel like old friends. That’s the cool thing about music in general. You can connect to people all over the world, you know? All the internationalities of people that I know, just because we all share this love of music is amazing. I just get super touched by people sharing their stories through music and being really genuine with how they express it. I think that transcends any one genre of music too.

S: There’s so many different types. You hear so many different emotions and stories. I think that’s why I like country music so much. Because in every song—yes they’re usually about girls and alcohol, boats… whatever… horses—but there’s always a story behind it. Even songs without words! I come from a family of cops, so unfortunately, part of the job is being there through difficult times and funerals. You go to these funerals and they play Amazing Grace every single time on the bagpipes. If I even hear bagpipes or any part of that song, the emotion that it brings me back to every time is that. There’s no other thing that I’ve experienced other than music that can pull you so much into the direction of an emotion that you felt before. It’s amazing.

NC: Yeah, totally. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Those moments. Music is such an interesting conveyor of memory. Certain songs will just pull you back, like you’re talking about. I have a very strong reaction to music like that.

S: I think the most beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re just some military kid like me, or an artist like you are, that emotion is there. There are very few things in this world that can speak to every single person regardless of culture, heritage, or anything like that. Being able to perform and inspire people that way—you can touch every single person on this planet, which is amazing. Thank you so much. Your music is amazing.

Image via Natalie Cressman's Facebook page

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