From a theater job at 11 years old to moving to New York City at 17, Brenna Whitaker has been working hard to pursue her musical dreams. When she was in her early 20s, she moved back home to Missouri to lead jazz bands, and then made the move to Los Angeles to pursue her music career. Now, in the past year, the jazz singer has made waves, releasing her debut, self-titled album and appearing on Disney’s We Love Disney. She’s only continuing to make moves this year.
Cliché: How did you first get into jazz?
Brenna Whitaker: I grew up in Kansas City, which has a nice music scene, and my parents exposed me to a lot of live music at a young age. When I was a teenager, I really got into singers like Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Etta James, and Dinah Washington. I did a lot of theater as a kid and my dad would drive me. We would listen to a really cool radio station on NPR called “Fish Fry Friday.”
What about it was so appealing to you?
I love characters, or “Hams,” rather. I like people and musicians who have a sense of humor and could tell stories in a clever way through singing or playing an instrument. I like making my own interpretation of songs and stories through timeless music.
Who are some of your inspirations?
I have a lot of things that inspire me. Most have to do with the senses. When I hear an upright piano and upright bass and brushes on a drum, I feel like I’m most at peace creatively and spiritually. My dogs, Louie and Pearl, my family, eating appetizers, and working with children are probably my biggest inspirations of late. I’m heavily inspired by making emotional music that could possibly help someone.
What was your first professional theater job?
My first professional theater job was at Missouri Repertory Theater in a production of A Christmas Carol, and I was a “caroling girl.” I was a really strong alto and could pick up harmonies really quick. I love harmonies.
What was moving to NYC at 17 like?
It was crazy moving to New York City at 17. I was young enough to not really be scared at all. It’s a magical city, and I’m lucky I could be there while you could afford it as a young artist.
How was the journey to getting your debut album made?
The journey to getting my debut album made was a pretty much the closest to the “old fashioned” way as you could do these days. I had been gigging and creating my own residencies for years, and I really believe it was time for me.
How was it appearing on Disney’s new album?
To be on the Disney album was one of the highlights of my life. I’m a huge fan of Walt Disney and the Muppets have inspired me on a big level. The song “It’s Not That Easy Being Green” is an anthem for so many good causes, and it’s an honor to be asked to sing it for so many charities and nonprofits to promote being different.
What made you pick that song?
It was totally by chance that I was recording it on my album at the same time the We Love Disney album was being made by Verve Records. I had been asked to sing the song years ago for a eco-friendly sustainable energy forum party in New York City and the song stuck. It’s basically my anthem and I really wanted to be on my debut album somehow.
How did you go about choosing your songs to cover on your album?
We really took our time figuring out how to go about choosing songs for the album. I had ideas about what was working at my live shows and what messages I think the world might need in a song. A lot of the songs are about my struggles in Hollywood and “finding the light” at the end of the tunnel. We also had to think of how I might fit into the music industry in 2016 and still remain true to myself. It took a while to really figure out, but I think and hope people can hear messages that give them a positive feeling about life.
How was your tour?
My touring is just starting with this album, and it’s fantastic. I’m really excited to go experience other cultures with this album and see how people respond. Germany has been wonderful to me, and I’m excited for Japan this spring. The tour bus life suits me.
What’s next for you in the new year?
2016 is off to a great start, and I choose to remain positive about the music industry and what I have to offer young singers and people who appreciate emotional singing. I’m writing a lot and have a lot of ideas for my second album, and theater and cinema seem to be calling me of late. I’m gonna be touring a lot this year and basically I’m the luckiest duck in the pond.
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Brenna Whitaker Talks Jazz and Being Different: Photographs courtesy of Verve Records