Chaney Sims is from Queens, New York and was raised listening to her parent’s collection of old school R&B, Soul, Blues, Jazz and Worksongs. Steeped in these musical traditions, Chaney is dedicated to sharing their significance; revamping classics to reflect her experiences as a queer woman of color; and telling her story.
In 2013 Chaney was nominated for a GRAMMY award, as well as two Blues Music Awards, with the Heritage Blues Orchestra (H.B.O.) for their debut album, And Still I Rise, an international collaboration that honors African-American roots music. She has also received an Award of Distinction from the Fresh Fruit Festival for her performance in tribute to LGBTQ Jazz greats at Joe’s Pub.
Chaney is honored to perform at venues around the world and to share the stage with amazing artists who incite and inspire, including Staceyann Chin, Phylicia Rashad, Keb’ Mo’, Bill T. Jones, Mavis Staples, Ruthie Foster, and the late Odetta.
Currently, Chaney is taking time off of touring to enjoy NYC and work on an EP inspired by her daily haiku project, #haiku365. You can find out more about her travels, performances and inspiring verses on Facebook and Twitter (@chaneysims) and on her website: www.ChaneySims.com
Topic: Your career, your life’s inspirations, touring and what’s next?
DM – If you were to make a movie about your career and it could be animated, documentary or scripted- describe it. It does not have to be your actual career- more like
a metaphor for your journey; from when you first started singing until now.
CS – Interesting question! I guess it would be part documentary and part word animation. My #haiku365 project in 2013 was all about documenting my experience as an artist in transition. I would write a haiku every day and share it to all of my social media platforms. At the time, I had recently quit my full-time job at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and then 6 months later I was nominated for Grammy, two Blues Music Awards and touring the globe regularly. Even though I had been performing music and poetry in NYC for a decade, in 2013 everything changed so quickly. I was new to the world of touring, the hustle and bustle of being a full-time independent artist and I was also transitioning out of relationship. There was a lot of turnover in a short period of time and haiku helped me stay present and grounded. For anyone reading this that is unfamiliar with what haiku is it’s a short form of Japanese poetry. Here’s a link to read more about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku
It became sort of a meditation I did everyday to not only practice my writing, but also to allow myself to be vulnerable and at the same time, sharing my story. So much of the imagery conjured during that time is about hope, healing, rebirth, blossoming, letting go and getting free – this is what my journey as an artist is about for me. It would have to be a part of any documentary concerning my journey as an artist.
DM – Who are your life models?
CS – I have people who inspire me, but I wouldn’t call them models.
I’ve always been very moved by the work of Toni Morrison and Beloved is one of my favorite books. Morrison’s ability to tell a story, speak the unspeakable and have it linger is something I also reach for when I sing. I hope you really feel what I’m saying when I sing. I want to show you my underbelly and convey as much with the timbre, tone and colors in my voice as the actual words in the song.
As a teenager I listened to records all day. I’d listen to Dinah Washington’s The Blues Ain’t Nothing, Donny Hathaway’s entire collection, worksongs from the Alan Lomax archives and anything by Aretha Franklin. I’d play their records over, and over, and over again and go sing my heart out in the bathroom (for the great acoustics) for hours. I hadn’t experienced half of the things they were singing about, but their voices haunted and enchanted me. They felt instantly familiar, and there was an undeniable, almost tangible truth there. I could feel their voices and I knew I wanted to do that too.
I was recently featured at the Blues Hall of Fame in an exhibition called “Screamin’ the Blues” by Francoise Digel. The collection highlights how artists emote and embody music they are performing. When I look at the images it reminds of a little nugget of advice I heard Aretha Franklin say once as a youngster that I still carry today: something to the effect of – make whatever face you need to get the note out. In short, your job is to go there even if it isn’t “pretty” and be about telling the story. I guess that is who I’m most influenced, effected and inspired by: storytellers.
Right now I’m obsessed with Beyonce’s new album Lemonade. The storytelling by all the artists involved, the use of different mediums, genres and histories as well
as the focus on black arts and feminism, is just amazing.
DM- I know you have toured a lot? How many months out of the year the past 3 years
have you been on the road? Share the best and worst parts of touring.
CS – Last month I realized that in 2015 I was only at home in NYC for 3 months out of the year. I’m not even sure how many days during those 3 months I was here.
Touring is wonderful because you get to experience parts of the world you never even dreamed of, and at the same time you are doing what you love. Pretty flipping awesome! I am so thankful that I’ve had the privilege to travel for my work. Also, the foodie in me loves trying different cuisines — my first stop is always the local grocery store.
The tough part is all that travel can be very hard on your body and your spirit. When you’re on the road, you are always on the job. You’re at the whim of wherever you land and it is extremely physically demanding.
This past February I was in Mumbai for the Mahindra Blues Festival. A few days later I switched gears (and a few time zones) to do performances and poetry workshops at The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA and then I headed for the mountains of Utah with the Heritage Blues Orchestra to fill in for the late Allen Toussaint. I was extremely honored to do all of these performances, but in March my body retaliated and I was sick for weeks from not getting enough rest.
Exhaustion and missing family and friends is the worst part of touring. Thankfully there is Skype and iMessage and Facetime and WhatsApp to keep in touch with your loved ones, but nothing compares to having sustained, in-person time with people that you love … and sleeping in your own bed. I miss these things the most when I’m on tour.
Different cities and hotels every night can get lonely and confusing, so I am eternally thankful to my friends and chosen family for holding me down when I tour. Keeping in touch, sending funny videos, supportive messages and being so available – it means the world to me.
DM- what’s the best part about singing on stage to a crowd? How is it different than
singing in the recording studio? Please describe the emotions before during and after-
both stage and studio.
CS – I’m always nervous before I sing. Whether it is on stage or in the studio, my head and heart fill with very loud questions: What if I forget the words? What if my voice isn’t there? What if I come in at the wrong time? What if I fall?
All of these have happened, by the way, and I was okay – I survived. I have to remember to trust myself when worry hits, and that whatever happens I know I’m doing my best.
I prefer singing to crowds than being in the studio. There is an energy, a living energy that is present during live performances for me. Everyone in the room contributes to the space. The audience trusts us with their time and their ears; I trust myself with my voice and the story; all the musicians are talking and listening to one another with their instruments. There is a very sweet surrender that happens in live performances that I just adore. I’m usually so full of energy for hours afterwards that I couldn’t sleep, even if I wanted to.
Being able to capture that in the studio is hard. You’re in a room, surrounded by equipment, walls, foam that literally buffers the sound and usually singing to a pre-recorded track. Soooo very different. I have to dig much deeper into my imagination in the studio. It is really an art unto itself that I’m still learning. Also, I realize that I’m much harder on myself in the studio because I want it to be “perfect.”In live performance I don’t even think in those terms, I really just want to have a good time and be open.
DM – What do you look for in a song when you decide to sing a song?
CS – I choose songs that move me: that make me want to dance, or clap my hands in agreement, that make me tear up, fill me with profound desire and longing or tickle me with joy.
They have to strike an emotional chord. Singing for me is very healing; I work through my emotions in songs and sometimes go places I didn’t know where there.
i think music can
heal everyone in the room
even the songbird
That is one of my haiku’s about it
DM – What is your wish list for the future? Both personally and professionally.
CS – I want to take some time this summer to focus on myself, my music, get grounded, expand on my skills as a teaching artist at Lincoln Center Education’s development lab and spend quality time with loved ones enjoying NYC and going on food adventures.
In the fall, I wrote a few songs from the #haiku365project and I’d love to share them. Maybe do some living room concerts, and more intimate salons like Sofar Sounds to try the songs on and see how they move. Once the EP is finished I’d love to do some low key touring around the U.S. to visit and perform places I’ve never been like New Mexico or the Jazz Heritage Fest in New Orleans.
This summer, I’ll be doing a couple of out of town gigs with the Heritage Blues Orchestra. I’m really excited about participating in Chicago’s free music series on July 21st at Millennium Park. It’s a double bill with Toshi Reagon, whose music I love, and I think it is gonna be kinda magical.
Last summer I walked by the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park after the Chicago Blues Festival and said “I’m gonna perform here.” I took a picture of the outdoor theater, and posted it to my Instagram with the caption “dream big y’all. #oneday” A few months ago, we got asked to perform there. My wish came true!
DM – Thanks so much to Chaney Sims for taking time out to share with me and our readers at Ask a New Yorker. And keep on dreamin’ big Chaney! Keep on!