by Brett Leigh Dicks
Most people will be familiar with Valarie Mulberry through her collaboration with singer-songwriter David Gunn in the duo Fly to Blue. Having performed together for six years, the two recently decided to undertake a hiatus from their combined foray, which has thus afforded the Oregon-raised musician the opportunity to set about forging a solo career. Having eased herself back into the local music scene at various open mike nights, Mulberry recently joined Owen Plant at the Cambridge Drive Concert Series in Goleta. This month sees Mulberry venturing out upon the SOhO stage when on March 13 she will be joined by two other local singer-songwriters, Kat Devlin, and Alex Nishi for a night of local singer-songwriters. For this outing, Mulberry will joined by her latest collaborator, electric guitarist, Maximiliano De Leon. Hailing from Uruguay, De Leon subtlety underpins Mulberry’s contemplative and sultry melodies with his inspired tones. From Oregon to Hawaii to Vietnam and back to the United States’s west coast, Mulberry’s musical journey has been one filled with wonder, stories and songs. In preparation for unleashing some of those stories and songs, along with a hearty dose of wonderment, on the SOhO audience, Mulberry first shares an insight into her musical adventures with the Music! The Sounds of Santa Barbara audience.
Tell me a little about your history with Santa Barbara. What brought you here in the first instance?
I was in the San Francisco bay area for a couple years and came here to study at UCSB. For the first year or two I still played most gigs out of the area – San Diego, San Francisco and even the LA Area. I was a little surprised at how few outlets there were here for musicians that are not on the national touring circuit. Currently, I am getting involved with this new nonprofit venture called the MusiCollab which is trying to bridge all the music networks in town. I see there is a lot of potential here for a great music scene. I am hopeful for this new organization because there are so many people doing great things in the community music wise, we just need more cohesion. I have also been an ongoing contributing musician to Nectar. It’s a professional level artist collective that helps to raise funds for local nonprofits and awareness about various social issues. Other than that I play gigs fairly regularly here in town.
You have been quite an adventurer – relocating from Oregon to Hawaii and to Vietnam – and always with your guitar in hand. What have those experiences infused into your music?
I think most notably it has given me boundless songwriting opportunities. It has certainly kept my cup of artistic inspiration full, so to speak, especially the cultural experiences. I lived in Vietnam for two years and although I cannot say specifically how it directly influenced my music, it did influence me personally and politically a great deal. I just try to live what I call the “life of the artist.” I try to pay attention and keep asking questions and pondering. Cultural immersion is a good way to get to know oneself in relation to the world as well as one’s beliefs and thought processes. There are so many lessons to learn and write about, whether they are resolved or not. Sometimes these things are easier to see when I am stirred up from travel and adventure. When I am out of my element of course I pay attention to different things and have fascinating reactions. There is just a natural expansion that can come from living in another culture. Plus Vietnam is such an enchanting place. I still have plenty of scraps of paper with lyrics and notes and tapes of melodies that I know someday will grow into songs when they are ready. Other than that, certainly location and the element of nature has been a tremendous influence. I think Hawaii is more evident in my music than anywhere else. Mainly it is the lyrical imagery. I have several songs that are undeniably Hawaii. I think Maui – the island where I lived -is very healing. My experience living on Maui was that everything was magnified. It felt like everything I needed to heal was put directly in my face in the most intense and immediate way. It is such a cathartic place – which is great for a songwriter.
Most people in Santa Barbara will know you through your previous collaborative effort, Fly to Blue. Talk me through the evolution of that undertaking.
We started out more as sort of parallel singer-songwriters. We are both lead singers playing our own songs and backing each other up. It was great for live shows to have two stylistically different yet compatible songwriters. Our voices go so well together, so it is always fun to sing together. David Gunn, my duo partner in Fly to Blue, is a prolific songwriter as well, so we always had about four hours-worth of songs and had to decide which ones to fit into a two hour gig- which was always a challenge. We performed regularly for six years up and down the California coast.
What inspired you to branch out alone?
We are actually on a hiatus now but I needed to get out there and keep going with my music. I felt that my songwriting was at the best it has ever been and that I was just coming into my own as an artist. I needed to get out there and see how my new songs stood up in front of a live audience and people were asking me when my next show was. So I started booking and playing shows.
Harmonies were an intricate part of Fly to Blue. Has being a lone voice influenced the songs you write now?
I have started using my head voice a lot more. I was doing a lot of head voice singing when singing back up. I missed that aspect of it and started incorporating more of it in my newer stuff. I’ve also been leaning more toward my bluesy influence in my newer songs.
You are currently backed by guitarist Maximiliano De Leon. It is quite a cross-cultural collaboration. How did the two of you meet?
I met Maximiliano originally when I was working in Fly to Blue. His father became a big fan of ours and came to a lot of shows and we became friends. He kept telling us about how his son was a really good guitarist. So we invited him to rehearse with us for a gig. So of course Max is a phenomenal guitarist and we were quite impressed. So when I started out on my own, I called him up for the first paying gig that I had. Since then we’ve been playing together regularly. He’s is originally from Uruguay where his dad owned a record store. So he grew up on a lot of blues and jazz, which is a sensibility that fits nicely with my sound. He really feels the music and doesn’t overplay which is important for a singer-songwriter. He understands it from the standpoint of what is best for the song.
I understand that you have recently been working with filmmaker/choreographer Robin Bisio on an intriguing collaborating that sees you contributing live music to dance pieces. Talk me through how that collaboration works.
For the nuts and bolts part of it we are typically working with a theme and Robin asks me if I have a song that I think will work. I will email her the lyrics or mp3 if I have one. Then I show up to her dance studio for rehearsal and there are dancers there already warming up. Robin is pretty fun to work with, sort of like a mad scientist, very passionate and excited and full of ideas. She has a book full of thoughts and movements that she has compiled for the piece. She hears the music and she just hashes it out trying movements while I play live to it. It’s pretty magical how it all comes together. There are some moments when you just feel that it’s very synchronistic and everyone in the room feels like ‘ah yeah that is it, that is the highest potential for this piece.’ It’s not too often that you see dancers move to live music with the musicians on stage with them and it seems to get a pretty good response. It adds another emotional layer to it. It’s just a really cool artistic experience.
Is soundtrack work something you would like to delve deeper into?
There are so many things I would like to do. I would like to do some licensing to film and TV. I would love to do jingle writing and put the sillier side of my songwriting personality to good use. I also have one song, Lullaby, that I am planning on making into a children’s book with CD. I think I finally found the illustrator for it and hope to have that completed in a few months. I have also written several commissioned personalized songs for children. It’s sort of like a baby book but in song format.
What is on the horizon recording wise?
Presently, I am gearing up to record and that is my number one focus right now. However, I like to be overly prepared so I am taking my time on it. My goal is to have a CD out by early summer. But I am looking for the right studio and producer at this point. It feels like a daunting task at the moment, so I am just doing the leg work. I want nothing less than a really great CD that I truly love and am proud of. I think the production is such an important aspect to achieve what I want, so I am on the lookout for the right producer to help me with my vision.