One Girl Symphony
Whitney Vandell from Ethiopia is a young musical prodigy adopted at the age of two by an American missionary and music teacher. She completed her Symphony with the help of violinist William Stewart. We have conducted an interview with her.
I can’t say that there was a time when my music career began as I have always played and composed music from before I can even remember. It is who I have always been as a person.
The idea of becoming a recording artist never crossed my mind growing up in Ethiopia without pop music. My evangelical upbringing was mostly about singing gospel and the classical training I received from my mom who is a musician.
I attended high school in New Jersey living with my grandparents who gave me a MacBook. Stumbling upon GarageBand and the music recording software that came pre-installed, I set up a microphone in the choir rehearsal room of the local church and connected it to my computer. Discovering how easy it was to record multiple tracks and mix them together was a revelation to me. Having tried to start a band in the past I realized that it wasn’t necessary now. I could play all the instruments myself and make it sound exactly like I heard the music in my head. That might sound pretentious to say but I’m shy and a musical perfectionist. Some even say that I have a superiority complex inherited from my adoptive Austrian-American mother. But anyway, just like my mom Gertrude, I just never had an easy time getting along with people in person. So when I learned how to multi-track and playing with myself I started spending almost every waking hour arranging and recording.
Who is your inspiration?
Same as with how discovering recording changed my life as a musician so did my short stay in the US during senior year of high school when I heard American rock music from the 80’s and 90’s for the first time. Especially Guns n’ Roses with Slash’s guitar playing in particular opened up a new world to me. I began to view Slash as the father figure I never had and even fantasized that it could be possible that he was in fact my real father. I have basically two kinds of songs, the first based on piano grooves in a the vein of 70’s rock and Elton John. My other kind of song is this gritty blues rock that is inspired by Slash.
I never felt a need to prove myself or impress on anyone so when I started recording my music I never intended for anyone to ever hear it. But I can admit that in the back of my mind I secretly planned to one day play the songs for Slash and afterwards we would drive over to Axl’s house to jam and hang out. This has hasn’t happened yet but I’m still keeping my hopes up.
Who are the key people in the production of this unique album "One Girl Symphony" ?
There are close to twenty different musicians involved on the album over a very long period of time that stretches back ten years when I started composing these songs. From percussion, trumpets, strings, guitars and a girl’s choir. However, I must foremost mention Chris Tull who was introduced to me through work contacts at the international missions organization that I’ve been connected to since childhood. Chris is a blind musician of very few words, a genius who plays almost every instrument and has been a mentor to me over the years where we build on each others arrangements. In the beginning I would send him burned CDr’s by post and it would take months to get a CDr back from him. The symphony would not have been possible without him and I decided to also name my son in his honour. And of course, I must also mention William Stewart who is the lead violinist on all the album tracks. During much of the production he was living in southern France in a small cottage without heating. He could only play during short intervals at a time before his fingers would go numb. I think that this practical restraint really focused him and pushed him to put out performances that came from the core of his heart.
Which instruments do you play and what kind of music is created?
To a varying degree I play all instruments except the violin. The way that this album was recorded was that I first worked on programming the rhythm tracks on my keyboard along with the bass guitar with piano or guitar putting down chords. I then arranged the songs on top of that to later reach out on the Internet to find collaborators to do different overdubs. In many cases replacing or complementing mine, especially the rhythm tracks that were entirely replaced with live drumming. If you listen very closely to the opening track you can hear the bass drum padded with a synthesized tone. Also, the drum fill opening the second verse also includes synthesizer congas. These are some of the few remnants that I left of the programmed rhythm tracks.
What is the proof to musicians worldwide about your own story?
I think that it has always been that musicians believe that they need a big budget from a label to ambitiously record and bring in for instance real string and horn sections. New technology that enables home recording has been around for a while now but I feel that it is more often used to take shortcuts and move away from using the capabilities of acoustically recording performances by real instrumentalists. Instead it is easier to use samples, loops and programmed synthesizers.
Putting out a purely instrumental album like mine is unlikely to ever get much commercial interest. But what I think I’m showing with this is that it’s possible to create music without feeling that your vision is curtailed or hampered in any way to lacking access to musicians or technical resources. While you are listening to One Girl Symphony reflect on how professional musicians from all over the world came together to play on this without having met to rehearse or even spoken to each other. On top of that, all this was accomplished from my living room with only a standard MacBook, no other reverb than what comes with Garageband and a sound card with two inputs.
How does the story of Whitney Vandell push the limits of your kind of music?
It is clear to me that despite living in a time when ever more music is being recorded the appreciation for real musicians is less valued than ever. It is surreal that William, a former violinist with the world’s leading chamber orchestra, is accessible for anyone to work with for about twenty dollars by connecting with him on an Internet forum like Fiverr. In previous times engaging musicians of this caliber meant large investments to book them, prepare the exact score they would play and book a quality studio with the right equipment, acoustics and engineering skill. That would have been impossible to do, especially for a girl with no resources living in Africa!
What are your wishes for future collaborations with other musicians?
I would like to try conducting a real symphony orchestra and to make park performances of my music outdoors. It might all just be fantasies but then again, I would have said the same only a few years ago about the symphony and accompanying film that I’ve now completed and recorded.
Tell us about your thinking with releasing the album not only on CD but DVD and Android mobile app as well .
I realized that people have incredibly short attention spans when it comes to music, most of all instrumental music. It is easier to get people to listen through the album if it’s associated with cool footage. The music is very cinematic and comes alive better when there are different clips to go along to each track and demonstrate their different feelings. When the film was done I used it to play on the backdrop at performances we’ve had and I thought I might as well put out on a DVD and a mobile app to have all the bases covered.
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