The first time Tish Oney sang in Hawaii, it was at a Waikiki karaoke bar. That was about 15 years ago, and she’s come a long way since — with two well-regarded CDs and the highly acclaimed Peggy Lee Project to her credit.
She also is blazing a remarkably wide path as a crossover artist, stretching her repertoire from opera to jazz and pop. Her varied talents will be on display in a recital of sacred and contemporary music Sunday at First Baptist Church of Honolulu.
The New York native now divides her time between L.A. and the East Coast.
Calling from New York, Oney discussed her musical upbringing, her vocal technique and her connection to Peggy Lee. If she sounds as much like a scientist as an artist, it’s because she has a doctorate from the University of Southern California in vocal performance with a concentration in musicology, and studied premed before deciding to go into music.
‘AN EVENING WITH TISH ONEY’
Jazz, baroque and sacred vocal music
Where: First Baptist Church of Honolulu, 1313 Pensacola St.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Info: 521-4708 or visit www.tishoney.com
TGIF: How did this business as a crossover artist begin?
Oney: I began as a pop singer in a band. I became interested in jazz as a teenager and began to sing professionally in that genre, but I was taking lessons in classical singing. I went to college as a premed major and decided I really wanted music. … I had been cast in an opera in Rome the summer before my senior year in college, and so I accepted that and had a wonderful summer in Italy, singing in Italian. It was a life-changing experience.
I was (also) part of a wedding party band. That’s really where I cut my teeth as a professional performer. I was learning music really quickly and taking requests and figuring out how to learn a song on a break and then perform it in 10 minutes. Those skills came in very handy when I decided to pursue music.
Q: You sing classical, jazz, pop. There must be some differences in technique involved.
A: When you’re singing in a classical style, the objective is to sing with no tension whatsoever on the laryngeal muscles, with complete freedom, and that’s why you sometimes hear rather wide vibratos in classical singers.
In order to straighten out a tone, which you need to do in a jazz song, you need to put a tiny bit of tension on the muscles and tilt the larynx forward slightly for correct jazz pedagogy. So if you understand those differences, and rehearse and learn them with a teacher, than crossover becomes a much more accessible goal.
Q: Your concert here will show off your range. Could you comment on the program?
A: I have been invited a number of times to combine genres. Up until this year I have declined every time because of the laryngeal differences. It’s just using muscles in a different way, so the warm-up is a little bit different and there’s no telling how many low notes I’m going to have at the end of the concert if I start with some soprano arias.
However, I’ll be starting with baroque music by J.S. Bach. … I’ve pulled out a lot of soprano arias from a lot of different cantatas and passions that he wrote and put them together in chronological order to tell the story of the life of Christ. Another Bach recital I offer is Bach through Holy Week. … I’m going to be doing to be doing three selections from that to open this concert. Then I will be doing some contemporary Christian music and hymns and jazz settings of hymns that I’ve done.
The whole second half of the concert will be a solo piano and vocal jazz concert, a compilation of a few of my touring shows that are straight-ahead jazz.
Q: Tell us about the Peggy Lee Project.
A: I wrote my dissertation on the lyrical genius of Peggy Lee. In doing so, I analyzed a large number of her original songs in terms of their poetic structure, themes and different genres that she wrote in, rhyme schemes and different things relating to the poetry as well as the music. … It turns out she was a highly prolific songwriter, more than most people know.
Q: You must have felt some special connection to her.
A: When I was 7 years old, my mother pulled me into the room and said, "Tish, come here. You’ve gotta see this jazz singer." It was on the public broadcasting channel. And she was giving a concert, and I had never seen or heard of her before and I went, "Mom, she can’t be a jazz singer, she’s not black!" I only knew Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan, which for a 7-year-old isn’t too bad. (laughs) … But she said, "This is my favorite singer, and I want you to listen to her because if you ever want to sing (jazz), you can. It doesn’t matter what color you are." As a child, that was very important for me to hear.
But it wasn’t until I was a doctoral student that I ran into Peggy Lee’s daughter at a jazz conference. She stood up in a room full of singers and said, "My name is Nicky Lee Foster, and I am Peggy Lee’s daughter. I’m here because I want all the singers in the world, all the jazz singers, to know about my mother’s true legacy, which is her songs." So I thought, "Ding, ding, ding" in my head and, you know, dissertation project! This is all original, nobody’s written about it, let’s explore it.