A brilliant non-diva makes a historic non-comeback
By Michael Clive
Fame came early for Phoebe Snow. Success real success did not arrive until later.
Snows upcoming set at the Cutting Room next Wednesday is not exactly a comeback; she never really went away. But she did curtail her career, and only recently began to increase her limited recording and performing schedule. These days, her audiences encounter a different musical presence a more centered person and more complete artist than the star who was a household name in the 1970s.
What happened between then and now? For one thing, the birth of her daughter, Valerie, who had multiple birth injuries. Snow is a woman with a strong sense of priorities, and Valerie is first among them. Though Valerie is non-verbal, the closeness they share is strongly expressed on both sides. When she attends her mothers concerts, Valerie has no trouble communicating her pleasure in the music. The girls got rhythm, and it shows.
Its all good now, says Snow. But in the 1970s, a breakthrough decade for feminists, having it all wasnt an option for her. The music industry wanted Snow to tour more, but could not find ways to accommodate her chosen role as a mother. Yet today, where you might expect to hear regret, there is only satisfaction about her relationship with Valerie, and about the fullness of experience that informs her music.
When you step back, she says, you usually find that things happen when theyre supposed to happen. I feel like those early days were a rehearsal for today. Im still in love with music, but now Im enjoying the ride. Snow also credits her manager, Tom Valentino, for tailoring her current career to her life. As a father himself, he really gets it.
Happily, the big, rich sound that made hers a signature voice for her generation is more than intact. I first encountered it live at the unlikeliest of venues: a 1997 group concert in Hoboken, where young pros and aspirers were studying operatic vocal technique to build their skills in other specialties. Snow insisted she was just another student, but accepted star billing to support the class.
When Snow stepped up to sing an aria, she unsheathed a gleaming sword of a voice that early hits like Poetry Man dont begin to suggest. Her rendition of Io sono lumile ancella, from Cileas Adriana Lecouvreur, was the real thing, and it raised the roof. The audience was already cheering before she nailed the perilously exposed, climactic high note.
Trying to peg Snows voice in print is like trying to describe a good wine, and probably just as pointless. It is complex, nuanced and expressive, with a surface like the patina on a million-dollar antique richly colored, smooth but not glossy, with a hint of smoke in the finish. The skill with which she deploys it makes it equally apt for belting, blues or intimate ballads. Yet when she uses an operatic style of projection, the complexity is supplanted with a brilliant, hard edge and a flowing, bright sound qualities that opera scouts call metal and ping.
Though she doesnt sing opera professionally, the skills surely deepen her ease and authority in her chosen repertoire. Im still a big proponent of classical training, she says. It has helped my voice stay resilient. Longtime fans go further, saying that Snows voice sounds better than ever and she now sings with newfound freedom and maturity.
As a practicing Buddhist, Snow may well see this classical side in her careers very beginnings, and in another family relationship with her father, who first took her to hear Gershwins opera Porgy and Bess. I was maybe four years old, maybe six, she says. There were these crashing chords in the overture and the xylophone going like crazy. I leaned over and told my dad, I think I know what I want to do when I grow up.
She was right. Snows set starts at 9:30 pm on January 18th at The Cutting Room, 19 West 24th Street. With a four-piece band behind her, shell be doing some favorites, some new covers, and previews of new projects Im working on.
Tickets are $25. Call The Cutting Room at 212-691-1900, or visit www.thecuttingroomnyc.com for more information.