Okay, let me get this out of the way. My mother’s name was Genevieve. When this Genevieve came into my musical life a few years ago, my ears perked up and I am so glad that I could make the acquaintance of another person with that name! As it turns out though, this Genevieve was actually Jennifer while my mom went by Jean. Genevieve, the musical artist and creative conservator and author, is a woman of great substance. My own mother was as well but in very different ways! This Genevieve is a woman who perseveres and creates and re-creates herself all in the spirit of, as she says, to make the world a better place.
Music has been a constant force in Genevieve’s life. It’s helped her heal and it”s helping heal others. Her work with wildlife conservation and her love of a creatures large and small has provided a glimpse into her artistic soul and her desire to be an advocate for goodness and equality in every shape.
This song “The Sum of All Things” is a great introduction to the many moods of Genevieve. Listen to the background vocals….they’re mentioned in the interview below. And, yes, Genevieve has every reason to be proud of the layering of these marvelous vocals.
To learn more about Genevieve and her music, visit this website.
However, if Gen’s work with animals and conservation pique your interest, check out this website. Let your fingers do the walking and you’ll discover info about Gen’s (aka Jennifer Vitanzo) children’s book, Santiago: True Tales of a Little Bug in a Big World as well as many adorable photos of meercats and other wildlife.
And here’s my interview with Genevieve!
It was fun to read through your biographies on your websites and to get to learn more about you! It certainly sounds as though you had a voice inside that very much to be heard from a very young age. You had to cultivate that passion yourself by taking baby steps now and again and finally coming into your own when you realized your dream by singing in an a cappella group in college. You showed your own strength and belief in yourself by continuing to sing despite the fact that many around you didn’t quite “get it.” What words of advice do you have for others who feel that deep down they’ve got a talent that they are destined to share with the world?
Channel your inner Nike and just do it. You’re never going to be happy, you’re never going to find any semblance of contentment if you don’t at least TRY. It took me a long time to get comfortable with that sentiment, but the reality is, no one can live your life but you, and no one has the right to tell you how to live yours. I firmly believe in the power of community and finding your tribe. And family doesn’t always mean blood relations. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Surround yourself with people who challenge you in a positive way, in a way that encourages you to grow. And don’t listen to the people who want to put you down. Constructive criticism is not only good, you need it. But criticism for criticism’s sake? That helps no one, not even the person trying to make themselves feel better by offering it. Also, limit social media time. Honestly. Social media can be wonderful for many reasons, but it often serves to be more toxic than helpful, mostly because people usually give you the highlights reel and not the full story. A lot of people also use it as a way to bully others and not face the consequences. Anyone not willing to say to your face what they will post online is most definitely NOT worth your time.
Spend time alone as well. The best way to get comfortable with who you are and build the confidence to own who you are is to KNOW who you are. And that comes with time spent reflecting and through introspection.
Your bio hits the nail on the head when describing your musical style. It’s very eclectic. I’ve seen you go from sounding like the most soulful singer on the stage to the bluesiest vocalist to the next Disney princess singing sweetly for kids and adults of all ages. You have a knack for matching your voice to the tone and feel of each song. To me, this means that you’re a keen listener and are able to adapt. Is this a skill you had to develop or does it come naturally?
First of all, thank you! I grew up listening to music in pretty much all genres, and I was lucky to have a natural gift for hearing things like harmonies from the time I was very young. I used to make a point of singing the harmonies or creating my own. It was a great way to learn how music is built in terms of chord structure, harmonics, etc. But I’ve always been able to distinguish and pick up different sounds, from singing styles to accents in speech to identifying different bird calls in the bush. One of my favourite things as a kid was to learn different dialects and intonations and pretend I was from another country. I did a lot of acting as a kid, from Shakespeare to musical theatre. It came in handy to be able to pull out different voices and characters. To me, that’s what performing is all about – interpreting a character and a story and sharing it with an audience. …….
You grew up in New Jersey. We all know what that means to most people… Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and the like. But I love that you gravitated to Newark’s pride and joy, Whitney Houston. What was it about Whitney that you admired?
For one, the girl could SING. And she knew how to use her voice in ways I hadn’t really heard before. My parents listened to a lot of 60s folk music so I heard beautiful voices, but Whitney was different. Whitney had a stunning voice that was almost like a weapon – she could use it to make you feel her joy as well as her pain. Whitney not only could sing beautifully, but her ability to interpret a song was inspirational to me. She had a big voice, but she knew how to shift seamlessly from a howl to a whisper and make it work. She opened the door for me to discover so many other artists that had that incredible emotional delivery, which I always gravitated to as a dramatic kid. It wasn’t about the vocal gymnastics. It was about the ability to paint a story with your voice WITHOUT having to resort to tricks. Whitney could do both. She opened the door for me to so many other amazing voices: Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Trisha Yearwood, Linda Ronstadt. Then all the old-school torch singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Etta James. Then I found Eva Cassidy and the game changed once again.
Also, I was surrounded by male musicians and performers, and I didn’t have a lot of female influences musically who could really belt. I was a belter. I had a big voice, even from the time I was a child. And I liked to test my voice, to see how far I could push it and develop it and use it to its full extent as an instrument. On top of that, she seemed like she had it all together. A strong personality coupled with a powerful instrument and gift. Learning more about her now, I understand there was a lot more under the surface that was far from perfect or happy. Which now only serves to make her more special to me – because she was so REAL, despite the perfect image the record labels punted of her.
When did you start writing your own songs? I know that you had a string of gigs on both coasts but did you mostly do cover songs or did you go out on that tightrope to sing your own songs?
I started writing songs when I was in grade school, but I stopped once I got to high school. The songs were, from day one, so indicative of my desire to do good. For example, the first one was about protecting the ocean. Not exactly light fare for a 10-year-old. High school was a very difficult period of my life when I went very introverted, and while I continued to play the piano and create music, I didn’t actually write songs, per se. The only real performing I did was in high school and community theatre plays. Otherwise, I kept my music to myself. I rarely played for anyone. And the only writing I did was poetry.
I didn’t pick up songwriting again until I graduated college, when I took a songwriting class in NYC and got back into the creating side. However, my first gig in NYC was singing torch songs in a very swanky NY bar, complete with an amazing jazz pianist to accompany me. At that time, I didn’t trust myself to play and sing at the same time. I wasn’t confident in my multitasking abilities, something certainly exacerbated by my family, who told me (and plenty of other people) that I was so much better when I wasn’t playing and singing at the same time, a comment which stuck with me (and still sits in the back of my mind every time I perform). Despite that, I quickly moved into writing and performing my own music, and by the time I hit the road as a touring musician in 2005, the vast majority of what I played was my own music. But it took a very long time for me to feel confident in my abilities as a piano player, even though I’d been playing for almost two decades by then. I still struggle with it, though not nearly as badly as I did years ago.
Do you enjoy the recording process? Of all the songs that you have recorded, do you have any special favorites?
I LOVE the recording process. If I had the choice, I would split my time between being a studio rat and getting lost in the woods. In fact, when I moved to South Africa, the plan was that I would split my time between writing and recording as an artist and working in the field as a naturalist/wildlife photographer. Of course, that was predicated on having good internet access and, you know, constant electricity. Which was not always the case. And is a big reason why I ended up returning to the US.
I’ve always loved being part of the recording process, and from the time I started recording, I had a heavy hand in the production of my music. I taught myself ProTools so that I could begin recording and producing my own music without having to rely on someone else and could drive the entire creative process myself. Just recently, I was hired to produce someone else’s music, which was exciting.
There are three songs that stand out as being special favourites. “This Little Thing” is the first song I recorded for my first CD, and I distinctly remember coming home from the studio at midnight, popping it into the CD player, and sitting on the edge of my bed, listening to my song come out of the speakers. It was such a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Two other songs hold a particularly special place in my heart – “The Sum of All Things,” and “Everybody Else.”
“The Sum of All Things” was a labor of love to get done. I wrote the song in about a half hour while sitting at a piano in an empty studio, waiting for a friend to finish working on another project in another studio in the facility. I recorded a piano and vocal demo a few weeks later and then left it. Less than a year later, I had moved to South Africa and put music mostly aside as a career. A few years into living in South Africa, I was introduced to a producer who owned a studio in Cape Town. I decided it was time to revisit the song and see if I could finally finish it. I booked some time with him while I was in town, laid down a piano part, lead vocals, and background vocals and harmonies. And then left it once again.
Three years later, I was back living in the U.S. and visiting a friend who has a home studio. I mentioned the song and we decided to build on what I had already done in South Africa. Except we ended up redoing almost the entire thing. I had the flu when I had to record the lead vocals so I eventually went back in and rerecorded them, and the song became the title track of my latest EP, my first major musical project in over a decade. The song stands as a reminder to me that you never lose your creativity.
The other song that has a special place in my heart is “Everybody Else.” I have struggled with depression my entire life, and as the youngest child who is also very much the black sheep, I always felt as though I was screaming to be heard but no one was listening. I was constantly bombarded with messages that who I was wasn’t good enough. Whether through family, school, society, whatever, it felt like everything about me was not what it was ‘supposed’ to be. I was supposed to look a certain way, act a certain way, do certain things. And I didn’t. I didn’t want kids. I didn’t care if I ever got married. I didn’t care about a white picket fence and a house in the suburbs. I didn’t care that I wore hand-me-down clothes. I didn’t care that I didn’t have a new car or the latest tech. I cared about being a good person, doing work that made a positive impact, and trying to make the world a better place. Regardless, I was bullied throughout most of my life. And so much of my success has been marred by people assuming any success I’ve had is because I’m an attractive woman, or because someone else did the work behind the scenes, or because I’m just ‘lucky’. This happened with my most recent EP, in fact. The assumption was that Neale (Eckstein) did all the work and I just showed up and sang and played the piano. And that was so far from the truth. It discounted the weeks of countless nights I stayed up all night, alone in the studio, adding parts, mixing parts, editing parts, rewriting, recording. And that is not to say Neale didn’t do a lot. He certainly did. But the assumption was that he did everything. And that pisses me off to no end. And that’s so much of what “Everybody Else” encapsulates. It is possibly my most autobiographical song and speaks to the pain of people not accepting you for who you are and putting expectations on you to be someone you’re not, particularly because it makes THEM more comfortable. That’s not me. I’ve never been one to conform. And I’ve spent the better part of my life fighting to be accepted as I am. So, for me, the song is an anthem for our inherent need as humans to be seen and accepted as we are. Finally getting to record it was cathartic, and Neale (who I recorded it with) gave me so much freedom to play in the studio and just do what I wanted with it. I remember one night going into the studio at midnight by myself and just laying down about 20 different background vocals. And I listened back the next day, fully expecting it to be a train wreck and instead getting goosebumps because of how powerful and moving it was. It was a pretty proud moment for me.
After some time working very, very hard in the music business, you chose to move to South Africa to work on conservation and use your writing and photographic skills. Why South Africa? And in looking back, what are your thoughts about that time of your life?
I always wanted to go to Africa, and one of my closest college friends was living in Johannesburg at the time. I needed a break and told her I was thinking of coming down for a holiday. I was initially going to meet up with her, but as luck would have it, I booked my flight and then she found out she had to go out of town for a work trip, meaning I would only see her the last night I was there. So off I went to South Africa, alone, for a month. Wildlife has always been a special love of mine, and given my penchant for conservation (see above response about the song about saving the oceans…), it seemed like the perfect fit for me, who was desperate for a break from the grind of music. I organized two two-week stints through two different volunteer organisations. One was based in the townships outside of Cape Town, and I would be doing photography documenting a women’s center that was being built to serve the community and teach women skills to help them get jobs. The unemployment rate in South Africa is staggeringly high, and women are especially hard hit. The center also offered classes for children in an effort to keep kids off the streets AND provide a break for the mothers. The second two weeks would consist of working as a priority species monitor on game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, the most northeastern province in the country. I would specifically be working with a conservation organization that monitored critically endangered species such as wild dog, cheetah, and black rhino.
I fell in love with South Africa. I fell in love with being in the bush and being so utterly out of my element. It was the first time I’d felt truly alive in such a long time. The rawness of life on a game reserve sparked my senses in a way that inspired me and threw me off balance in the best of ways. And it actually added to my creativity. Being so out of your element, where you aren’t the top of the food chain anymore and you don’t have easy access to the many things we often take for granted (like a washing machine or electricity in general), really puts so much of life into perspective for you.
I also fell in love with a South African. Which is what sealed the deal for me in terms of moving there.
Those years were cathartic and profound and life changing in so many ways. They forced me to face every bit of baggage I had. They forced me to reevaluate all my life choices. Being alone in a foreign country (and, in this case, a foreign country where I was actually the minority, which adds a whole new dimension to the experience), where there were 11 official languages, where all the systems were entirely new and different, where I was living in isolated areas that didn’t have easy access to anything and had a fair number of things living alongside me that could kill me, pushed me to be present and aware in ways I don’t think I had ever been before. In South Africa, I didn’t have the luxury of zoning out, not when I was on foot in a game reserve, armed with nothing more than a faulty radio and surrounded by potentially dangerous wildlife. Add to that my personal travel, which included solo trips to places like Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. You learn so much about yourself when you travel alone. You learn so much about yourself when you move away from your comfort zone as well. I wish everyone took the opportunity to push themselves outside their bubble and step into a different life.
Your deep connection to nature and to teaching people about what’s important to you has resulted in a wonderful book that you published last year. Santiago: True Tales of a Little Bug in a Big World. has received rave reviews from educators and librarians. You make the story personal yet convey some important facts and information about conservation. Is Santiago a little bit like little Jennifer (aka Genevieve)?
And your latest album, The Sum of All Things, was a long time coming since it was started before you moved to South Africa in 2010. Once again, you proved to be the little engine or the little bug that could and you accomplished what you set out to do.
Smart lady! Santiago pretty much IS Jennifer/Genevieve – curious about the world and wanting to understand all of it, but also a bit snarky and often overly logical about how it should all work. But, and probably most importantly, he has a voice and wants to use it to make the world a better place for ALL the inhabitants, not just the human ones. Also, it was really important to me that I included photos of the real-life Santiago. I wanted people to see him (Santiago) as he was as opposed to some cartoon rendering. I wanted them to connect with him as an insect, something so many of us have an aversion to, don’t understand, and just kill). I also really wanted to stress the connection and value of all things in life, from the smallest inhabitants to the largest, from the inanimate to the animate. We are all reliant on nature. Without a healthy environment, we humans cease to exist. And we keep ignoring that very fundamental reality. Species are disappearing at alarming rates, the vast majority because of human activities, much of which are at the expense of all other life forms. We are not just killing other species; we are killing ourselves and our future generations. And we have created a world where we think we are disconnected from and above nature. It was really important for me to show that we are not, and that other species (particularly those we like to look down on, like insects) carry incalculable value. And now I step down from the soapbox…
What’s next for you?
Well, I just launched my Patreon page, which I’m hoping to build into a community based on creativity and sustainable living. My goal is creating a space where art, nature, conservation, and inspiration converge. By sharing my story and process with others while also helping others as a mentor and coach with their own creative journey, I want to offer people a space where they can not only feel heard, but feel safe to experiment and try new things. It has always been vitally important to me to be myself, but it’s equally important for me to be able to use what I’ve learned to help people embrace their own uniqueness and find their own voice. So often people are told they aren’t creative because they aren’t good in art class or aren’t musically inclined. And that’s total BS. Everyone is creative. Creativity is all about problem solving and finding answers in our own unique way to life’s many questions. Some people do it with pen and ink. Some do it with a piano. Some do it through building teams. Some do it through solving scientific or mathematical questions. We are ALL creative. And we ALL have something unique to contribute to the world. I’m hoping that, through the sharing of my work as a creative and as an activist, I can not only open people up to different ways of living that are more sustainable for the planet, but also help others carve out their own voice and path and live their best life. So that’s the next step. I also recently got hired to produce other people’s music, which is really exciting. I love working in the studio! Oh, and I applied for a children’s book writer-in-residency with the Boston Public Library and wrote the first two chapters of the next book. We’ll see what happens…
I saw the play Hamilton the other day. Something in particular in the show really resonates with me, and that is his relationship with time. The story comments on how he seemed like he was forever racing the clock, always doing more as though he knew he only had a finite amount of time and he wasn’t going to waste it. That’s how I feel. I don’t know why, but I have always had this fear that there is so much to do and I won’t have the time to get it all done, which is probably why I’m always doing so much. That’s probably also why I’ve never understood how anyone could ever get bored. There is so much out there, so much life to be lived! Learning new languages and skills, meeting new people, seeing new places. Life is one big adventure. Why would anyone want to give away their shot? If my Patreon community serves the purpose I hope it will, I’ll be able to accomplish my goals as well as help others accomplish theirs. Idealistic? Absolutely. But as the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.”
Photo by Neale Eckstein