‘I sing because I have to do it. I can’t not do it. It’s a such a strong desire in me to express myself in music. When I don’t do it, I don’t feel like myself,” says jazz singer Carol Heffler, a Princeton Junction resident who celebrates the release of her second CD, Exactly, at Lambertville Station on Saturday, February 26. It took a full two years and $10.000 to $15,000 of her money to self-produce “Exactly.” You have to sell a lot of CDs to get that back.
“This CD is an investment in my career. It shows what I can do right now. Nobody really makes a lot of money on CDs — even people who have record contracts,” Heffler says. “It is a way to get better performance venues and airtime on the radio.” Performing with Heffler on the CD are members of the Carol Heffler Quintet: John Bianculli, on piano; Angelo DiBraccio, saxophone; Steve Varner, bass; and Dave Mohn, drums. The quintet has performed at Red Bank Blues and Jazz Festival, Grounds for Sculpture, Odette’s in New Hope, Nassau Park Pavilion, Lambertville Station, and at Cornelia Street Cafe and Chez Suzette in New York City.
During the day Heffler teaches piano, voice, and songwriting. “I have two teenage students who take private lessons with me. One studies musical theater voice and the other, an alternative-rock musician, studies songwriting.” She welcomes more voice students. The remainder of her students are all younger children taking piano. And, yes — she makes house calls to students in Plainsboro and Princeton Junction. Her husband, Michael Heffler, works at home for the San Jose-based Cisco Systems, as a senior manager, dial solutions, where his work is concentrated in the Internet and telephony. They have one son, Michael, a junior at Rider University, who is studying communications.
Like most artists, Heffler has had many different careers while pursuing her art. She graduated from Hood College, in Frederick, Maryland, in 1972, with a B.S. in music and earned a masters in music education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1978. She was awarded Best Female Jazz Vocalist by the International Association of Jazz Educators. Her master’s thesis, “The Vocal Jazz Style of Eddie Jefferson,” became a featured article and solo transcription in Jazz Magazine.
A former resident of Manhattan, she collaborated with song and jingle writer Marilyn Harris and sang commercials for Nestea, Nestle’s, Impulse perfume, and Dimension shampoo. In 1981, her song “Strong Steady Love” was published by Shapiro and Bernstein and recorded by the Markley Band on Accord Records. She once worked for Elliot Lawrence Productions, providing music for TV soap operas. “I was a music director for Search for Tomorrow and Edge of Night, which are both long gone. That was a really fun job.”
She also spent five years as a video producer but says “I always ended up coming back to music. This is the career I love the most. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to get up on stage and sing fantastic jazz music and have a great time.”
Heffler also wears the hat of marketing manager for her own music. At present, she performs two or three times a month at gigs she finds by getting on the phone and calling venues. It’s the luck of the draw. It seems to Heffler that you have to be both a musician and a salesperson. “I could do marketing all of the time, never practice and never write a song, and it would take up all of my time. There doesn’t seem to be any simple way.”
Most of the jazz musicians she knows have to finance and produce their own CDs. One reason, Heffler says, is that the major labels have really dumped jazz. “Going out to hear live music doesn’t seem to be as much a part of people’s lives as it used to be.” She notes that electronics, computers, and video systems create many forms of competing entertainment.
So, in a business as big and competitive as the music industry, how does someone get a CD produced all by their little lonesome? “Well, nobody does anything by themselves, alone,” says Heffler. “The musicians who I know, and the connections that I have in music, really helped me. The first thing to do is to find a studio that you like. I just happened to find Morningstar Studios in Spring House, Pennsylvania, through a contact who wanted to record one of my songs. She brought me to this studio, and not only did I really like the people, I loved the sound they produced. I made a mental note that when I wanted to record, I was going to go there. So, finding a studio is a big part of it.
“Then there’s finding the musicians. I performed at Mediterra restaurant (in Palmer Square in Princeton) for about a year, and I had a regular group of musicians. I had the studio, and I knew what songs I wanted to record. At that point, I just had two originals and my favorites that I always wanted to record. But during the process, I wrote two more songs. Since I was producing myself, I could only record a few songs at a time. I usually recorded three songs at a time and got them mixed, and then made some more money and went back to the studio.” She then created a website (carolheffler.net) where people can buy her CD. (It is also available on cd.baby.com.)
There are a lot of steps, Heffler admits. “There were times when I was stressed out because as the producer, I was making decisions that I never made before. I was learning as I went along. Sometimes it seemed intuitive and natural and other times I said to myself, ‘Do I know what I’m doing?’ And, somehow I did.”
In terms of income, Heffler says she, like most musicians, make money from their performances and concerts, not their CDs. Her marketing goals are to make more connections and book more concerts by the end of this year.
Heffler produced her first CD, Pull of the Moon, in 1998. “This time around, I’ve hired Kate Smith of Kate Smith Promotions to do professional radio promotion for me. We’re about to send out 300 CDs for radio play. Kate is supervising and managing the whole process to make sure the stations play it. I’ve learned that if you just send it, nothing happens.”
While Heffler was growing up in Summit with two younger brothers, her father, Don Crawford, supported her dream. As the liner notes for Exactly, which is dedicated to him, state, he “encouraged me to sing even when he could no longer speak.” Crawford, who died in 1984, was a vice president at Con Edison. He moved the family to Beaumont, Texas, when he became CEO of Gulfstates Utilities, where her mother, Colene Hansen, a homemaker, still lives.
Music seems to be in Heffler’s blood. “My father’s mother was a pianist who went to Julliard. His brothers’ kids, myself, and one of my brothers are all musicians. My father wasn’t musical but he loved music. His most important contribution to me was his love of Latin music. Because he worked at the Pan American Union for a while in Washington, D.C., he had this incredible collection of bossa nova, samba, and merengue music, that I never would have been exposed to without his influence.”
Heffler started piano lessons at six years of age, but at 15, a teacher gave her a book of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s music including his most famous, “Time Out.” “I loved it. I just wanted to get my hands on all of the jazz I could find. First I just played jazz. I didn’t start singing jazz until quite a bit later.” Heffler started her first trio while studying for a time in the graduate music program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Heffler and her husband moved here in 1988 from the Main Line in Philadelphia. “There is just a part of me that can’t express itself in any other way but to be on stage and to write and sing my own songs. It certainly isn’t for the money. Although I do have more gigs now, it is difficult to succeed financially doing this.”
One song on the new CD, Bittersweet, is written from the perspective of a mother to a child who is leaving home. “I had to write Bittersweet as therapy for myself. I was going into this new phase with my son leaving and this empty nest. I had so many strong feelings. Writing a song is the best way to get strong feelings out.”
“Exactly” contains nine tracks — four original songs written by Heffler, along with five of her jazz favorites, including the notoriously hard to sing “Lullaby of Birdland” by George David Weiss and George Shearing. Heffler has dedicated the CD to her father and chose the song “You Are There,” a beautiful ballad by Dave Frishberg, specifically for him.
“I’m so grateful to be able to express myself through music in this way. When I get up on stage, I’m really bringing my emotions from my own life experience. I choose my songs very carefully, only that ones that really speak to me.”
Now that CD number two is out, what’s next? “I wanted to write a whole CD worth of new songs, as soon as I finished Exactly. But I have been so busy with the marketing and promotion of this CD that I haven’t taken time to do much writing,” says Heffler.
Whatever happens, Heffler says this is her time to shine. “I don’t play it safe anymore. I don’t just sing a pretty song. I really get into the emotions. I feel like this is my time to do this, and I’m going to do it 100 percent.”
Carol Heffler CD Release Party, Saturday, February 26, 8 p.m., Lambertville Station, 11 Bridge Street, Lambertville, 609-397-4400. There is no cover, but reservations are recommended. There is limited seating in the downstairs club, but the music can also be heard from the bar.