I submit to you, for this Silicon Valley Tales edition, the first of what will hopefully be a series of interviews of Bay Area working musicians. I’ll speak with singers, songwriters, band leaders and music professionals in the hopes of bringing a greater sense of familiarity to the vibrant and inspiring musical community that is always hard at work right here in our own back yard.
I recently had the good fortune to sit down with local blues singer, Tia Carroll. Tia Carroll is one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after blues vocalists world-wide. She has traveled and performed extensively in Italy, Mexico, Lucerne Switzerland, Brazil, Estonia and Chile. She has been awarded West Coast Female Blues vocalist of the year 2007 and recipient of the Jus Blues Music Foundation’s Traditional Blues Woman Of The Year 2008 and Band Leader of the Year in 2009.
Q: You were born and raised here in the Bay Area. What was it like growing up in the East Bay?
Tia: “For me, probably not quite as typical for a lot of families growing up in the East Bay. Our family was pretty all encompassing with friends and family, so I grew up eating all kinds of food. Not just your regular American food but, you know, Chinese food, Mexican food, Jamaican food. In such a small place that we were, we grew up kinda worldly. We had a very diverse neighborhood.”
Q: When did you discover that you had a talent for singing?
Tia: “Well, it wasn’t discovered by me. I used to sing all the time when I was really little. When the doorbell rang, I felt like that was the curtain call for me to come running to the door and start singing and dancing. But I didn’t really know or care if anybody liked it or not so I just did it all the time. I’d be in high school, walking down the halls, singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But it wasn’t until my first husband told me, this was back in the late 70’s, “Hey, you have a nice voice. You should be singing or something.” And I’m like, “Really? YOU liked it?!” So, history was written right then. I spoke to a guy I was working with at the time at Granny Goose, he had aband called Yakety Yak, and I said “Hey! Can I come and audition for your band?” He said “Yeah, well…Can you sing?” I said “Well, I really don’t know. But somebody said I could, so can I try?” And he said “Yeah, sure. Come on out and try.” So I went to the audition and everyone in the band was like “Oh my god! Can we keep her?!” So that was the beginning!”
Q: Going back to when you were little, did you notice how people reacted when you started to sing? Do you remember what people would do when they heard you?”
Tia: “(Giggles) Well, I was just a little kid and all I knew at the time was that my parents were mortified most of the time and the folks that were on the receiving end of the show were all smiles. I don’t know if the smiles came from the fact that they knew my parents were mortified or if I was just a really, really cute little kid…or both. I never really recognized at the time that people were just enjoying the heck out of it. I would just see their faces and, depending on what I was doing, people would have that look on their face of “Oh my god!” or maybe a tear would come out or they would just be like “Wow!” and their mouth would just be open. I never really saw that. I would look and I would think “Oh, Gosh! I wonder what’s wrong with her…Surely it couldn’t have anything to do with me!” But as my career has evolved, I began to see that I can actually evoke emotion from people with some of the songs I do or some of the things I say.”
Q: What was it that made you want to sing when you were little, what was it that was bringing all of that out of you?
Tia:“ That, I don’t know. I think that was just a God given, just a gift that I didn’t know what to do with. Neither did my parents (laughs)!”
Q: When was it that you decided to make a go of singing as a profession?
Tia: “I would say it was probably after my very first show withYakety Yak. It was at a backyard BBQ in Richmond. I was like “Oh wow! This is easy! People like it! I love it! Let’s do it!!”
Q: What were your biggest challenges when you were starting out? Were there some things that you expected? Were there some surprises?
Tia: “Probably one of the biggest challenges was choosing a genre. What do I pick? Where do I fit in in this business. What do I do? Back in the day, you could do a track show with just a karaoke machine and a tape player with a microphone. I’ve done that plenty of times. There are SO many different genres to do and I love them all. So, that was one of the biggest challenges. How do I get this machine rolling in the right direction? I started out with 18 wheels and not all of them were headed forward. Some of them were headed to the side and some were going backwards on this big ol’ machine that’s just rumbling and bumbling and stumbling down the road.
Q: How did you end up singing the Blues? Was it because you found you enjoyed that particular genre the most?
Tia: “Well…I think Blues kinda came along and chose me. I mean, I did play in some Blues bands with some other Blues people. But it wasn’t necessarily something that I loved. My first love, I think, really was rock. I really enjoyed listening to and singing some hard rock. But I think Blues kinda chose me as far as the music that was being presented to me and the music that was available for me to sing backgrounds for seemed to always be the Blues. Then, one time, I heard how Koko Taylor delivered a Blues song and I thought “Ooohhooww……right! That’s the one, right there!” So, then I kind of gravitated in that direction. Although, I still, in all of my shows, throw some kind of rock song in there just to satisfy my own…you know it’s supposed to be about the people, but SOMETIMES, it’s about me (giggles)!”
Q: Being a band leader is another entirely specific skill set. How did you develop your ability to lead a band and what were some of the more striking challenges that, perhaps, took you by surprise? What were some issues that you didn’t ever expect having to address as a performer, after becoming a band leader?
Tia: “Well! (chuckles) You’re right, being a band leader is a specific skill set. I don’t necessarily believe that I have that particular skill set. But what surprised me the most was how…..I’m just going to put it out there…How many men don’t want to listen to you. They just…they get a little disrespectful and they start acting like it’s not your show and you can’t tell them what to do. And it’s like “Dude! I’M paying YOU. I’m going to tell you what to do.” And they kind of get it twisted. Like…you know…like I’m trying to…slap their manhood into the next…millennium… or something, when it’s really…..it’s just music. Everybody, just do your job. Don’t tell him how to do his job. Don’t tell me how to do my job. I won’t tell you how to do your job. I’m going to present you with some music…If you choose to accept this mission (chuckles) then listen to the music and play it how it’s supposed to be played, and everybody will be happy! But, you know, there’s always a challenge in there somewhere, somebody’s got some ego where it’s like “Well…this is how I used to play it with So And So” …”Well…you’re not playing with So And So right now, you’re playing with me, could you do it the way I want to do it, please?” It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes you have to fake it and pretend that it’s all great when you’re thinking to yourself “……You are SO fired as soon as we finish this show.” That is a challenge. It’s a big challenge. And sometimes, as a female band leader, I believe we need to take management classes and separate manager from employees and not be all chummy with them because as soon as you get chummy with them they start to believe that they can start telling you what to do. (Makes car braking noise) “EEERRRT!” No! So, I would recommend that for women band leaders, go take a management class. Learn to separate those two. Because you ARE separate as a female vocalist or a front person. Whether you play an instrument or not, you kinda have to be the manager of that and everyone else has to fall in line. Whether they like it or not.”
Q: On the heels of that question, you happen to be married to another local, prolific blues performer, Big Cat Tolefree. Is your household as musical as it sounds? Do you ever collaborate on anything?
Tia: (Laughs) “We collaborate pretty well on arguments! (Sings) Didn’t I teeeeeeeeell you? (giggles) To take out the garbage! (laughs and continues singing) Why don’t you go home and cook?! (Laughs) So….yeah…we’re pretty musical at home. That’s one of the great things that we have in common. That we can sit down and listen to music together and…we may not agree on everything that we hear or I might like one aspect of a song and he might like another aspect of it,but over all, we’re pretty much on the same page as far as what we like to hear. For instance tone in voices or intonations or the way people phrase things or how they change things up or something. We like to be able to go out and listen to a live band without being called up on stage. We just want to listen and see. And yes, we are competitive and comparative with each other as well as with other bands. I think that’s kind of just a natural thing. But we do definitely enjoy our music at home as well as individually.”
Q:You’ve watched your husband manage a band of his own as well. You both manage bands out of your home for your own gigs. What similarities or differences do you see in the way either of you manage your projects?
Tia: “The fact that 95 percent of the time, his band is all male, he just doesn’t have a problem. The fact the 95 percent of the time, my band is all male, I do have a problem. And that’s just an age old problem that is…..just an age old problem. It’s always going to be that way. I know you’ve heard it before: when women take charge and start leading a band like a man does, they get called names. (Chuckles) Now, not that I care about what name they call me, as long as they are playing my music, I don’t care (Laughs). But, you know, I just don’t see him having that problem. We will both operate the same way, for instance, he’ll fire someone at the end of a set too and have somebody in the audience ready, with their instrument to come right up on stage.”
At this point, I interject: “Really?! A backup?”
Tia: “MMM Hm. I will fire somebody and NOT have a backup. But I don’t care. I’m just going to finish the show, the best way I can and move on to the next one. So, there are some similarities and some differences but it really all boils down to the fact that this is a male dominated profession. Especially in the blues…. Well.. shoot. I can’t even say that. It’s pretty much all over the place.”
Q: You’ve performed all over the world from Italy to Lucerne Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico and here in your own backyard. How do you feel the Bay Area fares compared to when you perform abroad?
Tia: “…..(Sighs)… That is a sad question. (Laughs)”
Me: “I was hoping it wouldn’t be.”
Tia: “I know. Unless you are a huge name that can fill the Paramount or theColiseum… If your name isn’t “Brunetta Mars” (we both laugh) or something.. It is a hard..HARD thing trying to get people to come to your shows. I’ll put it to you this way: Once people her you, they’ll say “Oh! That was cool! We’ll come see her again!” But if they haven’t heard you already… or if there is ONE drop of rain that comes down people are like…”Op! Nope. I can’t go. It’s raining….Nope.. Not.. nope.” If you have two shows, one in Vallejo, one in San Francisco, you aren’t going to be able to get everyone to come to either one of those shows. The support is just not there. However! Abroad, people who are living 6 hours away will drive or take a plane to come to a particular show and you don’t have to have some huge name. I don’t have a huge name in Brazil. But people actually take flights and plan their vacation around a particular show because I’m going to be there. It’s so….fulfilling! You know… I just love to sing. Whether I make it big, or I don’t make it big, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to be singing until I just can’t sing anymore. So, for something like that to happen? For there to be billboards and there you are, on the highway, there are trucks with car wraps of your name and your face on them, they make flyers and posters of you and post them all over the town, they post them all over the internet, the houses are full, there are sold-out crowds…it’s just amazing. It’s amazing. I go there once a year and people are like “When is she coming back!?” And they PLAN… They PLAN to be there. Here… It’s kind of like..”Meh….whatever.” It’s sad.”
Q: Your Mama named you Demetria. How did you end up with your current stage name, Tia Caroll?
Tia: “Tia is actually short for Demetria. Because I know, after having brought up my daughter and looking at my granddaughter, I already knew that my mother was going to be like “Tia! You put that down! You stand up! You sit down! Stop it! Git over here! Go over there! You, mind your own business!” She wasn’t going to be able to get “Demetria” out of her mouth every time. So she gave me a nice, short nickname, Tia. “Tia, sit down! Tia, get away from that door! Tia, go over there, Tia, Mind your own business!” So, that’s how I got Tia. The name Carroll was the only good thing I kept from my ex husband. The last name “Carroll” had a nice ring to go with Tia and it was perfect. So, I kept it.”
Tia Carroll performs regularly all over the San Francisco, Bay Area. To check out her music and to see where she will be performing next, visit her website at www.tiacarroll.com