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discover: Nora Germain

By Anthony Garone

Jazz violinist, prodigy/virtuoso, singer/songwriter, dancer, author, and ball of energy!

Nora Germain is a multi-talented powerhouse of music, energy, and inspiration. She sings, she dances, she rips it up on the violin, she writes books, and more. I first heard about Nora through Steve Ball when he told me about her involvement in the Tiny Orchestral Moments project. Steve got us in touch and we got this interview filmed in December 2017 while she was visiting Seattle.

Interview video

Interview Audio (Podcast)

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Interview Transcription

AG: Nora Germain is a jazz violinist and singer out of LA and she is joining us to talk a little bit about her new album, called Nora, and about some of the challenges of being an artist in today’s musical climate. So, Nora, thank you so much for joining us.

NG: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.

AG: Awesome. So, I’m really thrilled that you could be here. I’ve talked to Steve Ball, a mutual friend, about you many months ago and I saw how busy you were. I thought, “Wow, it’d be really cool to talk to her, but I don’t know if the stars will ever align. So, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.

NG: Of course, of course. I’m very excited. Everybody I know wears your t-shirt, so I feel like I’m part of the gang now.

AG: Yeah, well I’ll have to mail one out to you.

NG: I’d love to have one. Thank you.

AG: Nora, can you give us a brief history of your musical career and then tell us a little about your new album?

NG: Sure, so I started playing violin when I was really small. My parents were both violinists. When I was 15, I found an interest in playing jazz, so I sort of switched from classical violin to jazz. And then two or three years ago, I realized that I really wanted to sing. I didn’t really realize I wanted to do that until kind of later on. I’d already been playing music for 20 years or whatever. So I made some jazz violin albums and then slowly started to introduce the voice into it.

And then in the last year or so, maybe two years even after I started singing jazz, I thought, “Well, maybe I should write my own music.” So I started exploring with this last record a sort of funk and pop sound because I love that stuff so much. And right now, I’m kind of working on how to make my jazz violin sound work with the original music that I am doing kind of as one big world. So, we’ll see how it goes. This record I did, this one that just came out, is sort of my first attempt at that.

I’m a big believer that you have to actually do something to know if it works. You can’t just think about if it would hypothetically work. You have to really try it and find out. So I’m learning a lot about myself and all that, going through the process, but it’s been a lot of fun. So, yeah.

AG: Can you tell us about the world of jazz violin? I saw a quote on your website that might have been Martin Taylor . I forget who it was. It said that you’re keeping the world of jazz violin alive. I didn’t know there was a “world of jazz violin.” I imagine there’s a history, it’s just not an instrument that we normally associate with jazz.

NG: Yeah, well, I mean people should associate violin with jazz because the violin was a very integral part of the blues music that jazz came out of, so the violin was kind of part of it even before the saxophone, which is a much newer instrument than the violin. The violin as we know it now has been around for 400, almost 500 years. Most of the violinists, the great jazz violinists, are from the past. There are a few living today who are great, but people like Ray Nance  and Stuff Smith , who played in a lot of the big bands, they were very important.

And then there was Joe Venuti  and Eddie South , who were one of the inspirations to Django Reinhardt  and Stéphane Grappelli , who of course were the first European all-string band . And that, obviously, changed the world as well. Stéphane Grappelli is probably my favorite of all of them. But, there are a lot! Throughout history you find a lot of them. Most of them were American, but once Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt became famous, then this wave of Gypsy Jazz  came around and then you see a lot of all-string jazz bands.

Now, especially this year and last year, I’ve seen there’s been a huge renaissance of that for some reason, which is very exciting. The violin in jazz was a lot more popular in the last century, but now because of this gypsy jazz renaissance, it’s becoming more popular and there are quite a few young people around the world who play jazz violin. But I don’t see that many violinists these days using what I use in the band, which is piano, bass, drums, and guitar for more of that kind of traditional American sound rather than the gypsy sound, which usually doesn’t have piano or drums.

So, yeah, there’s definitely a world for it and I hope that I can continue to bring it more into the forefront of music rather than kind of a niche thing because I really do think, just like any other jazz instrument, it should be something that everybody can hear once in their life. But, yeah, there is a world for it, it’s just a little bit in the background right now.

AG: I’ve spoken to several out-of-the-box classical musicians and people who were trained with a classical background that ended up in the world of improvisation.

NG: Yeah.

AG: It’s not normally something that’s taught on classical instruments.

NG: No, it’s not.

AG: What was your background in moving from–I would assume you learned classically first.

NG: Yeah, I did. Yeah.

AG: How did you get into improvisation and jazz, specifically?

NG: There are a lot of ways to improvise on string instruments. There’s a lot of improvisation on American fiddle music and Celtic music. A lot of those fiddle tunes have a lot of–you sort of learn the tune and then you kind of make it your own and sort of pass it around a group of people. That was one of the first ideas I had about improvisation, was learning a lot of different styles of fiddle music and kind of making up my own fiddle tunes that were loosely based on the ones that I knew before.

But then the jazz thing came around when I heard Stéphane Grappelli. I really remember the moment, it really changed my life. I heard it and it was a funny thing. I heard it and I felt like I already knew how to do it even though I didn’t know how to do it, but I heard it and I thought, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” Even though it took me many years to actually do it. [Laughs.] But, yeah, string instruments are not usually used to improvise, which is a shame because we see–to take another example, dancers, there’s all different types of dancers. There’s ballet dancers, modern dancers, tap dancers, flamenco dancers. And if you grow up as a ballerina, you might not have the kind of swag that a tap dancer has, you know?

I think it’s all about taking different things in and figuring out what speaks to you because if it speaks to you, you can probably do it. That’s what I’ve found.

AG: I watched a video of you playing with Tommy Emmanuel  last night.

NG: Yes.

AG: He’s one of my heroes. I attended one of his master classes.

NG: Oh yeah, he’s great. I love him.

AG: But, I think I saw in one of the comments that you guys hadn’t even rehearsed the songs you performed.

NG: No. [Laughs.]

AG: I heard so many influences, particularly Mark O’Connor  in your improvisation.

NG: Yeah.

AG: I was just floored at your ability to play over these changes, especially–I mean, obviously, the song and Tommy’s an incredible musician himself, but to see you two just getting up and playing–do you attribute that to your bluegrass study or is it just something that you started doing when you were young and it’s natural to you?

NG: Well, obviously, when you play with somebody who’s so great and you feel like you can click like that, you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing. It’s like saying, “How do you go to a restaurant with your best friend and not get into an argument?” Well, you just sit down and you have a great time. There is no argument. It’s a very effortless thing.

The things that do take effort are, obviously, being able to play at fast tempos. You have to work on that. You have to keep yourself pretty loose. Practicing songs in all of the different keys so that if somebody says, “Let’s play this” in a different key than you’re used to and you’re in front of a thousand people, you don’t panic. You can just do it.

Stage presence is something I work on, making the audience feel like I care that they are there and not just taking them for granted. And really playing so that they can enjoy themselves, not so that I can enjoy that they’re enjoying me. There definitely are skills that are part of that, I think, but I feel like the less you think, the easier it is. I really–you have to think about it when you practice and you have to think about it when you’re researching things. If you go to school, you have to think about it then, but when you’re in the moment of actually doing it, you have to let it all go otherwise you’re not really there. You know?

You won’t be able to use all this background information that you’re consciousness kind of has. It’s not really words. It’s kind of like feelings. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. What I’m trying to say is that if you just let yourself be natural, there is all sorts of help that you already have to making whatever you’re trying to do great without overthinking it.

AG: So, the knowledge is already there. You’re just losing any of the firewalls that stand between you and connecting with the music at the time.

NG: Well, right. I’m not saying that I could have done that the same way when I was 10 years old. I’ve been practicing for a long time. Obviously, it’s not just automatic, but once you have the skill down, if you just let your mind go quiet and just enjoy it, it’ll always be much easier.

AG: I couldn’t believe how fast you guys were playing. Not just performing, but playing off of each other and spur-of-the-moment decisions… As a musician myself, I saw what you were doing and I thought, “Oh my goodness, they’re at a whole other level of communication.”

NG: Well yeah! That’s what I’m saying. If you stop thinking about it, you can actually communicate really quickly between people. Like if you watch any of the great performers. If you watch the Rat Pack or anybody in any genre, you always see this kind of instantaneous thing and you realize people are not really communicating using regular communication techniques of human life. You know?

Tommy and I are not going to talk about what we’re going to do. I don’t have to look at him for him to know what he needs to do. You just kind of let it run free. It takes a little bit of telekinesis, maybe, but I think that humans do already possess a bit of telekinesis. I think it’s possible. Maybe not in the, you know, conspiracy sense where I could think of an object and you would tell me what the object is. But certainly in a way that if two people have a vision in mind and they don’t really think about much else, that vision will probably come together.

AG: So you said you’re trying to put some ideas together in the context of who you are and what you’re capable of doing and this new album is an expression of that.

NG: Yeah, right. I’m definitely trying to do something new. Always something new.

AG: What are some of the things that you feel are “new” about this record and who you are?

NG: Well, it’s so easy for people to say, “Oh, I’ve seen you do ‘this,’ therefore you’re this one thing.” “Nora, you’re a great jazz violinist, so why would you ever try another style?” I just think life is short and you don’t want to save anything for the next go-around because you’re not sure if you’re going to get one. So, you might as well try everything that you love right now even if it comes out a little bit messy in the beginning.

People might say, “Oh, you needed more time in the studio,” or, “You should have re-recorded that vocal,” or, “Your videos are not the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” That’s fine and I’m fine to take criticism because at least I have experiments that I’m doing. You know? I’d much rather find out by doing something and releasing it, find out what I like about it, what I don’t like, what I can do better, what I might do again, what I might not do again, and then change accordingly or not change accordingly, rather than not test anything out and just never sing and never dance and never write anything and never make any music videos. I just think it’s so much better to experiment, even if sometimes you have to learn some hard lessons. But God, why shy away from that?

AG: Done is better than perfect?

NG: I think so. Maybe at this stage. I’m not sure if I’m going to keep going–you don’t want to experiment in the same way when you’re young as when you’re older because hopefully when you’re older you’ve gotten a lot of that stuff out of the way. But, I’m 26. I’m on the young side of life. I have an opportunity to do something, maybe, that hasn’t exactly been done before.

Who says that you can’t have a show when you sing a pop song and then you play a lovely ballad on the violin? Or, whatever! Who says that you have to do any one thing? So, I guess I’m just trying to figure out how to put it all together, but definitely don’t want to have any passion that I don’t test out. That would be–to me, that would be a big mistake because you always want to try anything that speaks to you.

AG: In the spirit of youth and experimentation, one of the things that drew me to you recently was a Facebook comment thread [laughs].

NG: Oh, God.

AG: I don’t normally get into these things.

NG: You ought not to. You ought not to, that’s for sure.

AG: Yeah, but you had addressed some of the challenges of being an artist in today’s world of streaming and financial ruin or whatever where I think older people have a sense of, “This is how the industry used to be and now it’s not this anymore.” As a young up-and-comer in the music industry, can you talk a little about your beliefs and some of the spirit of these kinds of discussions? What you see and where you are?

NG: Well, one thing about being a millennial is you have nothing to compare this disastrous non-industry to, so that’s very comfortable in a sense because I can’t sit around and say, “Oh, back in the 70s” or “back in the 80s things were so great” because I wasn’t alive then.

AG: Exactly.

NG: The idea of making money off of people buying your records, making thousands and thousands of dollars off of that, even as a small artist, that to me sounds kind of crazy. Who’s going to buy them?

A lot of these discussions, generally there’s a few different sides of it. There’s usually some kind of a pessimist who says, “It’s all over and there’s no point in anything anymore.” And then there’s somebody who’s usually very ignorant who says, “Oh, but I support artists because I stream their music and hopefully they see some kind of revenue from that.” And then you see some kind of a tech person who says, “Oh, it’s just the kinks. It’ll all get worked out. There’ll be a future with different types of revenue streams.”

And then you find somebody who takes things into their own hands and says, “Well fuck the whole industry. I’ve got my Patreon and I’ll be fine.” And then maybe you find somebody who’s still kind of clinging on to what once was and thinks they can get a major record deal and, for better or worse, they can kind of make it work. I’m kind of all of those people wrapped into one, I guess, because I do believe that we’re in kind of a dire situation, but I also believe that we don’t know what is going to happen with the music industry five or ten or a hundred years from now.

There are ways that we purchase and consume music that nobody could conceive of a while back, so obviously there are going to be new ways that come up that people haven’t thought of yet. But yeah, I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t think that anybody really has a total answer for you, even somebody who would say, “Oh yeah, I know what’s going to happen,” or, “I know the best way to make a living as an artist.” They’re probably just lying to you because I think that every artist has their own possibilities for making money.

Again, you just have to try stuff. You really can’t just sit on your couch thinking, “Oh, maybe I could try this. Maybe I could do that. Maybe I can sell 500 records doing this. Or maybe…” You really have to try, so that’s kind of the route that I take. I just try what seems appealing to me and I learn from doing it. I’ve done a couple of crowd-funding campaigns that were really successful and I’m thinking of going over to Patreon next . I play with other people and I do recording sessions and things. It’s a hodge-podge, but we’re in a transition so you’ve gotta try stuff if you want to make it out.

AG: Yeah, so I see you forming a lot of one-offs with a broad variety of artists. You’ve recorded with Knower  and you’ve performed with Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor. Kind of two ends of pretty different spectrums, you know? How are you reaching out to these people and connecting with them?

NG: Well, with Louis [Cole] and Genevieve [Artadi], I used to live with them so I’ve recorded on a few different projects for Louis and he used to play drums with my group sometimes. Genevieve would sing with my group now and again and I’m in a few of their music videos as well, so we were just roommates that were trying to help each other out whenever we could.

But in general, one thing I really believe in in my life is if you get in touch with people, some of the time they will respond. I mean, a lot of people don’t even believe that is true. I think of a list of people I want to work with and I write to them and tell them I want to work with them on something. I’ll ask if I can be a guest on their show or if they want to have me on their record. Some of the time it does happen and it’s great.

So, I think you just have to reach out to people and be honest and try to see in your mind what you want to do with them before you ask them. It would be great for me to work with Elton John, for example, but I haven’t really thought about–I guess now I could. I haven’t thought about exactly what he and I would do together, so I would probably have it in my mind, like when I did a show, Postmodern Jukebox, last year.

There was a video we did that got some pretty good views. When they reached out to me to be in the video, they had an idea. They had a song they wanted to do, they knew how they wanted the violin to be featured. Once you reach out to somebody, you want to kind of envision it so that if they get back to you and say, “Well, sure, that sounds cool. What do you want to do?” You’re not thinking, “Well, uh…” You want to have something in your mind.

If people reach out to me and say they want to work with me, I’d definitely consider it because we’re artists. We want to create stuff. We want to have fun. And it’s great to share audiences. It’s great when my audience will discover somebody new or somebody else, discover me, whatever. That’s kind of what it’s all about. I like to collaborate.

AG: Speaking of collaborations, you worked with Steve Ball and lots of the crafty guitar crew.

NG: Yes.

AG: Recently on Tiny Orchestral Moments projects. How’d you get connected to them?

NG: Okay, so that happened through my brother. My brother was involved with those projects and he’s been a crafty for a long time and he’s known Steve for a long time. They were in Los Angeles working on a different project, happened to be my birthday actually, and Carl [Germain] was in LA and he said, “Well, I can’t really hang out with you, but why don’t you come to this rehearsal and hang out and listen?” And I said, “Okay, great!”

So I came and I had my violin because I always have my violin and Steve and Paul Richards from California Guitar Trio , who I’ve also worked with, they invited me to play on this tune called Blockhead. I think there’s a video of it somewhere, but–so I just jumped in. I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s like twenty-five guitar players and me, you know? But Steve thought it was cool and fun and wacky and whatever, so I think he was kind of interested in breaking out of the traditional guitar craft modalities and sort of getting into something a little bit more out-of-the-box, inviting other types of instruments to play along.

So he decided to do this Tiny Orchestral Moments thing. We’ve done two projects with that. I’ve been a part of both of them and I’ve made some amazing friends. Julie Slick has been on two of them, and Petra Haden  was on one of them, who’s an amazing violinist, and Nigel Gavin  who’s a long-time crafty and an amazing kind of world music musician. My brother and I have gotten closer doing it and I got to record with California Guitar Trio on their last album because of this collaboration. It’s been a lot of fun!

I never would have considered that I would do something like this, necessarily, but music is an amazing thing because you can’t really be hurt by it. There’s nobody’s life that is at stake when you try something new. You just jump in and see how it goes. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun.

AG: One thing I really appreciate about your music is there’s a recurring theme of being yourself, expressing yourself, being true to yourself. Can you talk a little about that and where that motivation is coming from?

NG: Well, I think I was a victim of repressing a lot of my own creative passions for a long time. [Laughs.] And I only realized that kind of recently. A couple years ago. I grew up singing and dancing and playing piano and I–oh my God, I did so many different types of dance. I was a really creative person, really creative kid.

Violin was always something I took very seriously, but I had a lot of other talents. I was in musicals and I did all sorts of stuff. And then when high school came around I discovered jazz, I thought, “I want to be the best in the world at this thing and I want to bring this thing back. I want to hold the torch up. I want people to love jazz violin.” And that became a very deep focus for me for about ten years.

In high school and then at both of the colleges that I went to, I really focused on that. And also because I didn’t really have any jazz violin teachers except for one briefly–I took lessons with the late John Blake Jr. who’s an amazing player, but that was only for one semester. So basically for nine and a half years, I was on my own. I didn’t really have any jazz violin teachers.

So, I guess because I had to study so hard and I had to figure so much stuff out, I didn’t really sing or dance or write anything because I just wanted to be good at this one thing. It’s like hyper-focused. And I’m very grateful for that because I love the way I sound now and I really am proud of how far I’ve come with that. It was not easy. But anyway, a couple years ago I thought, “You know, there’s this whole side of me that I kind of left in the dark.”

So, being yourself, expressing yourself, is really about remembering who you were when you were a kid, who you were before you cared about if people were going to subscribe to your stupid YouTube channel and all that stuff, which matters. It definitely matters, but you’re not going to live a rich life if you’re blocking out… “Oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that.”

It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not that holds you back. [Laughs.] So, it can be messy. I’m not saying it’s easy to incorporate all of your interests. And maybe some of your interests just are hobbies. I’m not saying that everything you love in life has to be part of your commercial product, but I definitely think if there’s a part of you that you kind of left when you were a kid, if there’s a skill that you had or something that really gave you a lot of joy, you don’t have to start from scratch. You just have to remember how to do it again because you did know how to do it before. If that makes any sense…

So, I’m just trying to not let anything go. I just want to be myself and all of my favorite performers are people who do lots of different things. Lady Gaga  comes to mind. She’s done so much different art, but it’s all very authentic because it all really comes from her. She can sit down at the piano and that’s one mood and she can light herself on fire or whatever she’s doing and then make a record with Tony Bennett  and then be on stage with Metallica . It’s all available to you. You know? You don’t have to close yourself off. So that’s kind of the place I’m at now.

AG: That is awesome. That’s ultimately what this Make Weird Music website is about. I get a lot of people reaching out just sending me some of the most outlandish music you’ve ever heard.

NG: Sure. Sure, yeah.

AG: While I appreciate that about the word “weird,” mostly I want people to be connecting with who they are because we’re all unique and weird in our own way.

NG: Yes we are. Yeah.

AG: So, yeah, I completely resonate with that and I’m really appreciative that there are artists like you who not only are virtuosic and incredible at what they do, but see that the picture’s not completely dry yet. You know?

NG: No.

AG: There’s still plenty of time to keep working on it.

NG: Well, right. And also just letting go of the fact of the idea that it has to be perfect the first time you try it. You know? I just feel the things you create don’t have to be masterpieces the first time you create them. I guess there’s a whole school of thought about “Should you release something that’s an experiment? Or should you not?”

People can go back and forth about that. You know, “you should only release the stuff that’s absolute perfection” or “you should release everything and the chips will fall where they may” and then there’s everywhere in between. But if you’re going to try something new or try something that you used to know, but you’ve left it and now you want to bring it back, you can see the total person and not just an adult version of yourself. It’s okay for it to be a work in progress.

I’m not saying this album that I did is my full and total potential, but definitely it’s a new thing and it’s a step in a direction that I’ve never taken before. That definitely makes me proud, so there you go! [Laughs.] I’m proud of my mistakes!

AG: That’s excellent. All right, so where can people find out more about you and your music?

NG: Right, okay, so I have a website: noragermain.com . And I’m on instagram  and Facebook  and everything. But my website is kind of the hub for everything. I’ve got my videos and biography and some links to other stuff, so definitely go to my website. Yeah.

AG: All right. Cool. Thank you so much for taking some time out of my day to talk.

NG: Of course, I’m so happy to be included in your community and I’m thrilled. I consider it a badge of honor that you think I’m weird enough. I love it!

AG: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t think anyone would listen to the music and go, “That’s really weird,” but I think it’s what you’re doing, the way you’re doing it, it’s just another definition of “weird.” You’re being true to who you are and I think it’s awesome.

NG: Yes, well thank you and thank you for being true to who you are by doing all of this. You’re doing an amazing thing. People should remember that.

AG: Thank you. Sweet. That’s very kind of you. All right, thank you so much. It was really great spending time with you.

NG: You too!

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