An interview with Claron
Meet Claron McFadden… She has an honest handshake and is endowed with a disarming smile. She is open and forthright; has no false modesty and certainly no modest falsity. McFadden is a successful singer, who, through the years, has developed into a musician of integrity, with a wide-ranging interest in, and, not altogether unimportant, an affinity with music from different style periods. She feels as much at home singing Cavalli’s La Didone as she does singing Dances by Louis Andriessen.
She is known by some as Claron ‘Emotion’ McFadden and although this soubriquet has not yet become a household name in the music world like Eric ‘Slowhands’ Clapton or Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, all signs indicate it will be.
Listen to an ever-passionate McFadden…” I think I’ve had that ‘drive to succeed’ since childhood. I am now, at this stage of my life, very curious about what I was like as a small child. It’s what I talk about with my mom. It turns out that I was always very independent. Always wanted to do everything myself and was almost annoyingly eager to learn…”
“My parents have worked hard to give their children a better life than they had. They were the children of poor farmers from the South who moved up North and had to start all over. A hard life. Every time you tell that story you realise how merciless U.S. history is. Even if you’re from a musical family, the moment you tell your parents: “I’m going to be a freelance singer” you can understand why they look worried. But they supported me, and how!”
Her love for her parents is unconditional. She sends home reviews and copies of her latest CDs to show them that she’s doing well.
“One of the stories I cherish is this one: Mom and Dad are driving along in the car and are trying to find a classical music station… they’ve grown very fond of classical music… There’s a lady singing and they are moved… it sounds like the kid. Believe it or not, it was.”
In her childhood McFadden sang solo in church, she sang in a children’s choir, gospel music, funk and jazz. When she was fourteen she decided to take singing lessons. She discovered Bach and Mozart and four years later she enrolled in the conservatory. she earned her Batchelor’s degreeat Eastman School of Music Rochester, NY. In 1982, with a Rotary scholarship in her pocket, Claron crossed the Atlantic for the first time to study with Max van Egmond for a year, at the Sweelinck Conservatory in The Netherlands. She came over to learn about Baroque music. “It felt like stepping into a warm bath.” She also discovered her own versatility. “It was purely by chance that I ended up in Harry Spaarnaay’s Contemporary Music class. They would hand out compositions in class, which we had to prepare and I was handed Litanei IV by Karel Goeyvaerts. We performed it at the IJsbreker and everyone in the contemporary music scene was there. Louis Andriessen was sitting in the front row and Reinbert de Leeuw just behind him. Later on I heard that Lucia Meeuwsen had heard the concert at home on the radio. She was a major influence in the early stages of my career because she kept mentioning my name on the circuit.”
Claron had already had job offers in Europe but had to finish training for her BA in Rochester first. She graduated in 1984. Barely a month after receiving her degree she made the big move to The Netherlands. “I landed at Schiphol and it really felt like I was coming home.”
Classical music or Jazz?
“Since Sarah Vaughan has always been my greatest role model, I hesitated at first, between a career in jazz or in classical music. I still love jazz and to this day Vaughan is my heroine. What I would have missed most, had I chosen a career in jazz, would have been acting on stage, crawling into someone else’s skin, displaying myself. Very narcissistic, I know. But that whole learning process of a classically trained singer was something I wanted to experience: mastering different styles of music, leading a disciplined life. What I’ve always felt and greatly admired in Sarah Vaughan is the risks she takes. I do that too, as often as possible, anyway, always searching for spontaneity.”
Doesn’t that make you more vulnerable on stage?
“More vulnerable? Me? No, that’s not possible. You’re always uncertain, that’s inherent in being an artist. When you step on to a stage and think: I’m going to do something different tonight. You keep things exciting for everyone and that gives you a kind of freedom. Performing should never turn into a trick.”
To what extent is the classical style of singing a trick?
“The funny thing is I never ask myself that question anymore. It’s become sort of second nature to me. I’ve trained my voice to use the classical way of expressing emotion. You have to have a lot of control, because you’re working with emotions, some sort of ‘control tower’ that tells you: breathe deeply now, support that note.”
Do you ever get emotional while you’re singing?
“Yes, that’s happened a few times. It’s so difficult to describe, a voice is so personal, so close. Almost all emotions are expressed with the voice, except jealousy maybe. You’re always trying to find the right balance between exposing not too much and not too little of your soul.” It once happened to me in a Spanish Christmas Carol, a very mysterious gipsy- moorish kind of music. Just before we started recording I was sitting quietly in a chair, my head resting in my hands and I was trying not to think about how I was going to sing it. I didn’t want to ask myself how I should interpret it. What was going through my mind was: what am I saying, what does this mean to me personally? I stood up and was overwhelmed by all kinds of feelings. What touched me most though, was the vulnerability in my voice.
I always get emotional hearing the vulnerability in someone else’s voice too; For example when I’m listening to Maria Callas or Sarah Vaughan. When they sing you hear a woman, a girl. Someone who takes risks but none the less has enormous control over her voice and doesn’t mind sounding ugly sometimes, everything else is subservient to getting an emotion, a message across.”
Can people hear in your voice who Claron McFadden is?
“I think so. My voice has a kind of clarity and you can find a lot of sensuality in it Claron is down to earth, direct and vulnerable. I think the most important part of any singer is his or her character and the voice is an extension of that. I sometimes wonder why I feel the need to be on stage so much. When I’m practicing I can spend hours on two bars of music. Still, those two bars of music only come to life when I’m sharing them with others, the audience.”
What makes Claron McFadden think: this is a piece for me, I want to sing this?
“It has to appeal to me, I think it has to do with certain inner rhythms, harmonies, sounds, the emotional charge of a piece is an important yardstick. I certainly enjoy bravura, but music that is happy just for the sake of being happy, doesn’t mean anything to me. It has to have a second, deeper layer. There are pop songs I’d like to sing. It’s hard to explain why Kiss by Prince touches me the way it does but I feel a connection to that song.”
“What I find over and over is that the term ‘emotion’ is so timeless. Pieces by Handel, Verdi and Wolfgang Rihm all share the same emotions.”
Melchior Huurdeman (from: Entr’acte Music Journal)