PUTNEY—Even with more than four decades as a touring professional in the music business, Claudia Schmidt still faces the dilemma of how to market herself.
“People most often put me in the category of singer/songwriter,” Schmidt explains. “But I sing other people’s songs too. In fact, I consider myself a pretty good jazz singer.
“Nonetheless, the folk-music people are hesitant to hire a jazz singer, and those in jazz won’t take me seriously because I come from the world of folk. Yet I am totally experienced as a jazz singer. In fact, I understand both worlds quite well. As Duke Ellington once put it, it’s wrong to think in categories. There is just good and bad music”
On top of that, Schmidt also writes poetry and tells stories, both of which she weaves into her performances.
“My performances are not just me singing a bunch of songs, but a veritable one-woman show,” she says. “Besides the music, I include spoken words, my poetry, and stories I tell. If the mood hits me I will break off a song midway through and go onto a spoken word tangent, perhaps (or perhaps not) going back to the song in the end.
“Nothing is really planned out. I perform spontaneously. I may have a rough outline of what I am going to do, but I read the room and go with that. I have a background in a theater group, which I call upon to create a rather unique evening’s entertainment.”
On Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m., Schmidt is bringing her unique entertainment to Southern Vermont, where she will perform at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney. This one-woman show is designed to promote the release of her newest CD, Hark the Dark, her 20th recording.
Along with her voice, dulcimer, and deluxe pianolin, she will be accompanied by pianist Miro Sprague, bassist Marty Jaffe, drummer Conor Meehan, and pianist/accordionist Chris Haynes.
Schmidt has recorded 19 folk, jazz, blues, and spoken word albums. Singing mostly original songs, she explores folk, blues, and jazz idioms featuring her acclaimed 12-string guitar and mountain dulcimer playing.
She was a frequent guest in the early days of the public radio program A Prairie Home Companion. She also appeared in Les Blank’s Gap-Toothed Women (1987), a documentary about women who, like her, were born with a space between their teeth. In 2006, Schmidt recorded the soundtrack for The Motherhood Manifesto, a documentary written by John de Graaf and directed by Laura Pacheco.
In addition, Schmidt has made a name for herself in musical theater around the Midwest. She has scored the music for several plays including a Joseph Jefferson Award-winning effort for The Good Person of Szechwan, mounted by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1992.
Born in 1953, Schmidt grew up in New Baltimore, Mich., a small town near Detroit, and she appreciates that her early formative years were there, rather than a big city.
“I was surrounded by peace and nature when I was young,” she says. “As a kid, I could spend all day outside. There was lots of space around New Baltimore at that time. I feel blessed to have been raised there.
“Of course, it is all different now, since my hometown essentially has become a suburb of Detroit. As the change was happening, I remember my parents being shocked to discover that murders were suddenly now taking place in New Baltimore. It wasn’t like that before.”
Always loving to sing, and performing in numerous choirs throughout her youth, Schmidt soon began pursuing a professional career. She left New Baltimore and joined a theater group, which was to give her essential experience for her future career as a stage performer.
Ultimately she moved to Chicago, looking for a regular job at the time of the ascendency of the singer/songwriter scene. Within a year, she quit her day job and was able to devote herself full time to music. Schmidt became a well-known fixture in the folk/acoustic music scene, first performing at Amazingrace Coffeehouse in Evanston, Ill., and then recording her first self-titled album.
“There were then folk clubs up and down the strip in Chicago,” she says. “In those days, few women were working in that scene. But since I did, I was always compared to the holy trinity of female folk artists, Judy, Joni and Joan.”
A unique sound
Actually Schmidt doesn’t think she sounded much like Collins, Mitchell, or Baez. “At one concert, two fans came up to me,” she says. “One said I sounded like Karen Carpenter and the other like Janis Joplin. What does that tell you about the subjectivity of listeners?”
Schmidt then adds with frustration, “I became branded as a Midwestern folk singer. That sounds really exciting, doesn’t it?”
Midwestern or not, all 10 of her subsequent recordings were clearly in the folk/acoustic domain. However, in 2001, she made her first full-fledged jazz recording, and later made two more jazz CDs, a folk/acoustic CD, and a spoken word CD.
On her latest CD, Hark the Dark, Schmidt “takes a thematic turn, offering an homage to the oft-maligned season of the winter.”
Besides her original pieces, she says she has thrown in some works by other composers.
“I really love all kinds of music,” Schmidt explains. “I am the last one to talk about what is my style of music, but I feel I can confidently say that I incorporate into what I do many different influences. Whatever I listen to, I take in. I was always a sponge. The more kinds of music I use ... the stronger my own will be.”
With so many big names in the music business retired or no longer in demand, Schmidt believes that sheer tenacity has enabled her to sustain a career over four decades.
“In fact, it recently has gotten even more difficult to have a career in music,” she says. “The whole music environment in the last 10 to 15 years has become less friendly. Before, you could count on long-term relationships to sustain you, but no longer. Even if you were not a music star, you would have people doing things like picking you up at the airport for a concert.”
Schmidt claims that now there are a lot more people doing this work and fewer places to perform.
“You used to be offered maybe five nights at a club, so you could work your craft with an audience,” she says. “Clubs are cutting back on the number of days they offer live music. You could count on at least a group of annual dates around the country. Now sometimes you can get one performance at a venue and they don’t want you back for two or three years.”
On top of that, Schmidt finds herself being aged out at festivals.
“That really infuriates me, because here I am at the peak of my performing ability, and being told to go away,” she says. “... Even the few older performers who are wanted usually are those making a comeback with some redemption story to sell. But someone who has managed her career with no real big crisis is not sexy enough or in the news. That’s just the way it is.”
All of which is not to imply that Schmidt is daunted about what she has dedicated her professional life to pursuing. In this cultural climate, she feels that what she does is more important than ever.
“People need to be fed musically,” she says. “Audiences want to open their hearts to joy in the moment, which is what my shows are all about. Does that seem too big a claim for something as frivolous as a concert?
“Perhaps, yet as someone once said, ‘frivolity is the species’ refusal to suffer.’ My concerts are not run-of-the-mill. A fan once told me that my performances were ‘shapers of space and time.’ Although hyperbolic, I think what a nice way to explain what I try to do.”