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Techie Geek Turns Indie Artist

by hyper3 (writer), San Francisco, September 25, 2007

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Everyone knows that California’s Bay Area is full of brilliant “techie geeks” and incredible indie musicians, but we rarely think of these two different worlds colliding. That’s about to change with the emergence of Vanessa Van Spall, a powerful confessional singer-songwriter who deferred her lifelong goal of making music to enter the lucrative (and far less risky) world of information technology.

While working in corporate project management, she won the attention of a colleague, Ian Hisert, by showing him some database tricks. By night, Hisert was a keyboardist in a popular local 80s band, and he inspired Van Spall to stop being afraid of her dreams and get working on her first album.

Joined by violin/violist Eric Golub and bassist Derek Yergler, the two began performing together at Bay Area hotspots like San Francisco’s Blondie’s Bar & No Grill and Ireland 32 and The Bistro in Hayward. The compelling result of their eventual songwriting collaboration is Van Spall’s stylistically diverse debut Cotton-Poly Blend, whose 12 tracks draw from her love for rock, blues, gospel and pop, as well as a cool mix of Hisert’s lighter side with her unique dark and brooding vibe.

“Save Me,” the infectious, Fiona Apple-flavored first single, recently spent 5 weeks on the top 10 of FMQB’s AC radio charts. FMQB tracks Secondary and Tertiary Hot AC Radio stations across the country.

Cotton-Poly Blend was produced by veteran rock drummer Atma Anur, whose extensive resume boasts workwith everyone from Journey and Third Eye Blind to Richie Kotzen and David Bowie. True to the spirit of eclecticism that the album title promises, Anur adds exotic elements of Indian Bangra music to the mix.

“I originally met Atma when I was 16 and was on the path of having a musical career that I always should have been on,” says Van Spall, whose early musical memories include harmonizing with her friend at church at age 12. “He encouraged me to sing back then and meant a lot in my life, but we lost touch for a long time after that. I went to college, got a degree in history from San Francisco State and got married while he moved to L.A. I didn’t see him for ten years and then ran into him just as our careers were moving in similar directions. It was a great experience to work with him after all that time.”

While the singer attributes her edgy, brooding side to “typical artistic temperament,” there is an ultimate optimism in her lyrics that gives Cotton Poly-Blend an overall feeling of optimism after a series of struggles. The title of the forward thinking, easy rocking “Hopeful” captures that sentiment beautifully, as does “Follow Me,” in which she sings eloquently about that point in her life when she was struggling with the dilemma of finally pursuing or giving up her dreams. Her lyrics provide heartfelt, bittersweet and piercingly incisive reflections on the ups and downs she has been through. Musically, it’s just like the title implies, capturing multiple moods and styles—from unplugged acoustic numbers to more synthesized ‘80s influenced songs.

“This album represents the culmination of a few years worth of work, spanning a number of seasons in my life,” she says. “A lot of the songs were written right after my divorce. In fact, a lot of them came from a period where I was in the middle of that, while at the same time moving residences and being laid off from work. I think that all of the life experiences have made me a kinder person overall. I remember being very critical when I was younger, but time and these hard experiences mellowed me out and gave me a deeper understanding about other people.

“Maybe I never should have run from my dreams,” she adds, “but my songs reflect a broader life experience than I had starting out at 16. I hope people can relate to that and appreciate it. This music is for anyone who’s ever made mistakes, been afraid or just taken the long way to get there.”

That long road was paved with a great deal of musical ambition from the get-go. The daughter of a church music minister, Van Spall—who moved back to her hometown San Francisco during high school after four years in Chicago--began performing for live audiences at age 5, started piano lessons at 6 and won her first statewide songwriting competition in second grade. While she performed in musical theatre in high school, the lifelong choir singer grew disenchanted with this type of performing “since I didn’t like the acting part and felt it was more important to express my own voice. That’s where songwriting came in.”

At 16, she recorded her first demo, which was “picked up” by an industry person. But somewhere between getting her drivers license and finishing college, her detour began. Afraid of failure or success or who-knows-what, she started on an alternate path of seemingly sensible choices, like getting married, finishing a degree in History, working office and corporate jobs, substitute teaching (not easy), etc. During these years, she slowly came to the realization that she wouldn’t find the fulfillment she was looking for in anything other than music.

“I feel like everything is falling into place for me now, and it finally feels like I’m all connected,” she says. “Before I was putting my heart into my music career, I felt like I was at odds with myself and knew I was in the wrong place. The most gratifying thing is that I haven’t been able to pinpoint my specific audience. People come to see me who are 70 years old, and I have fans as young as four! Right now, the goal is to get my music out there to as many people who will appreciate it as possible. In a way, following my dreams is harder than avoiding them, because every day is like a moment of truth. That isn’t easy, but it’s great to feel like things are coming together and my days of being fragmented are over.”

For more information on Vanessa Van Spall go to: www.myspace.com/VanessaVanSpall or www.VanessaVanSpall.com


About the Writer

hyper3 is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Techie Geek Turns Indie Artist

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By Rose Mountain on December 03, 2007 at 03:18 pm
Hyper 3- I heard your music on your website, I really enjoyed the resonances in your voice, your lyrics, and the spectrum of sound in the band. It allows an experience of deeper presence within oneself. I also heard your YouTube Videos from gigs in clubs, it seems not quite fitting for your music and vocals to have to compete with guys drinking beer, maybe coffeehouses are better. I wish you all the best.
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By hyper3 on December 04, 2007 at 11:42 am
Hi Rose Mountain, Thanks for your feedback! We have been doing more shows as a trio at cafes and in homes. I agree with you, it does work better for us. By the way we're offering a couple free downloads at http://www.last.fm/music/Vanessa+Van+Spall Enjoy! Vanessa Van Spall
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