'Something To Hold': Why This Self-Produced Jazz Singer Made A Physical CD In 2019

Jun 8, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 12:07 pm

Los Angeles jazz singer Judy Wexler has no record label. She is like many musicians in that way. But unlike many others, every few years, Wexler puts together and circulates a CD herself. That's right — not a streamed album, but a physical CD.

Wexler is a friend of NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg, who'd been hearing Wexler talk about making the album for more than a year. Stamberg began wondering: Why, in the age of streaming, would an independent artist go to all the trouble and expense of putting out a CD? And what would that process involve?

For Crowded Heart, Wexler envisioned a collection of songs she thinks could become what she calls "jazz standards for the 21st century": Timeless-sounding tracks that could join tunes from the 1930s and '40s and become part of the Great American Songbook. "While they're brilliant and wonderful, there's only so many versions of them that one can do," Wexler says of those jazz classics.

Wexler needed crowdfunding to make an album, and put up her own money to get started. "I decided that I would just finance half of the CD and just do it," she says.

YouTube

Wexler asked for song suggestions from jazz songwriters who shared her vision, and then recorded five songs with her band. A videographer shot that session and Wexler posted clips of it on social media to launch her crowdfunding campaign. Altogether, the project has not been cheap. "I'm kind of in denial in that I haven't quite figured out the numbers," Wexler says. She guesses, with a laugh, that the final bill adds up to "maybe cost the amount of an economy car."

Wexler feels the cost and effort were worth it. Even in this era of streaming, many listeners and music lovers want a tangible recording.

"I think there's a lot of people who still want something to hold," the artist says. "They can open up, they can look at the artwork, they can read the liner notes, they can see the personnel."

As an artist herself, she feels having a CD is like a touchstone. "You just have to have something of yours that you can hold onto that represents the work you did."

Listen to the full story at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Judy Wexler appears in clubs around Los Angeles, gets occasional radio play and, like many singers, puts it out on her own record label. Every few years, she puts together an album and releases it on CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWDED HEART")

JUDY WEXLER: (Singing) Clouded moon, upon a star, the sky (ph).

SIMON: Judy Wexler is a friend of NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, who got to wondering why in this age of streaming Judy went to all the trouble and expense of having CDs manufactured. Here's the story.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The album's title song, "Crowded Heart," is a sinuous, sexy, hard-to-sing lament from a woman breaking up with her married lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWDED HEART")

WEXLER: (Singing) Never spring, as long as he wears that golden rain that comes between us. How will I win his heart when I know it's wrong to sing this song with its bittersweet melody (ph)?

STAMBERG: It's a gorgeous song by Danish jazz singer-songwriter Sinne Eeg and Mads Mathias. The song is new but sounds old, as if it's been around forever. Judy Wexler says that's the point of everything on her CD.

WEXLER: It's jazz standards for the 21st century.

STAMBERG: She's always looking for new songs to sing, loves the oldies, gems in what's called "The Great American Songbook."

WEXLER: They were beautifully all constructed, and they were mostly from '30s, '40s. And while they're brilliant and wonderful, there's only so many versions of them that one can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY BREATH AWAY")

WEXLER: (Singing) And down over me. Hold tight. Set me free (ph).

STAMBERG: And so this collection, her fifth CD of songs written in the last 10 or so years, songs that could be around for decades. Recording them, she hopes other singers will take them up. That's how a song becomes a standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEXLER: (Singing) Come into my parlor.

STAMBERG: It took Judy Wexler a year and a half to make the CD. Finding then choosing the songs took the most time. She reached out to lots of jazz songwriters for suggestions.

WEXLER: I told them what my concept was. It should sound like a standard. What do you have?

STAMBERG: Jazz journalists had ideas, too. They listen to everything. So did her co-producer and longtime arranger Alan Pasqua. Once she had a song list, Judy wanted to start recording.

WEXLER: I knew I wanted to start a crowdfunding for it. I decided that I would just finance half of the CD and just do it.

STAMBERG: That way, possible funders would have something to hear. And hopefully, they'd write checks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST GOODBYE")

WEXLER: (Singing) I passed by the house just today. It seems to have something to say. The gates were all worn. And the pathway was torn. And yet, I still hoped you'd be there (ph).

STAMBERG: The band assembled, all friends she'd worked with before, and they recorded five songs - just one or two takes. A videographer shot the session, and Judy posted excerpts on social media to launch the crowdfunding. What did that first session cost her?

WEXLER: Well, I'm kind of in denial in that (laughter) I haven't quite figured out the number.

STAMBERG: More than $5,000, she thinks. And how much for all 10 songs, more sessions, audio engineers, photos, the jacket - the whole project?

WEXLER: Maybe cost the amount of an economy car. You know, (laughter) I don't know.

STAMBERG: She knows other self-produced musicians who've spent more.

WEXLER: Seventy-five thousand, a hundred thousand, a hundred fifty thousand, you know, using a big band with a name.

STAMBERG: And why, in this universe of low-cost streaming, would a musician want to spend that kind of money, work that hard in a dying format? And why would music fans want to put out cash for a CD? Judy says the reasons are similar for both groups.

WEXLER: I think there's a lot of people who still want something to hold. They can open up. They can look at the artwork. They can read the liner notes. They can see the personnel.

STAMBERG: You can't usually do that with streaming. And from the artists' point of view...

WEXLER: You just have to have something of yours that you can hold on to that represents the work you did.

STAMBERG: Comedian Fred Allen once said radio was as lasting as a butterfly's cough. Maybe that's true for unrecorded musicians, too. With CDs, they can have something permanent, please their fans and maybe earn back some of their cost selling CDs at gigs.

WEXLER: Trickle by trickle by trickle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCUS LIFE")

WEXLER: (Singing) Day and night, day and night.

STAMBERG: If you're lucky, your CD gets radio play, which governed Judy's choice to begin the album with this upbeat song.

WEXLER: For radio, when you send your CD out to these various music directors across the country, they pop it in, and I'm not sure how many seconds of each track they listen to. But the first track is going to be pretty important, so I wanted to make sure it was something that radio would respond to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCUS LIFE")

WEXLER: (Singing) Day and night, day and night in the circus life, in the circus life.

STAMBERG: Well, radio listeners, there you have it, the how, what and why of making Judy Wexler's new CD, "Crowded Heart." In Washington, tapping my foot, Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCUS LIFE")

WEXLER: (Singing) Day and night, day and night in the circus life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.