Magazine, Sonoma People

Meet Sonoma Jazz Singer Stella Heath

The local artist loves to interpret Swing-era jazz standards, along with French gypsy and New Orleans favorites

Singer Stella Heath is an old soul—or, as people like to tell her, “I’m not of my time.” By age 8, she was obsessed with classical singing and piano, preferring her mother’s collection of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recordings to the latest radio hits. As the lead vocalist in a handful of local bands – Bandjango Collectif, Stella & the Starlights, the Stella & Ian Duo – she loves to interpret Swing-era jazz standards, along with French gypsy and New Orleans favorites.

At 34, her crowning achievement to date might be The Billie Holiday Project, a touring storybook revival concert she wrote and performs, exploring the life of the iconic jazz singer – a show that always ends with Lady Day’s ominous classic “Strange Fruit.” Looking ahead, 2022 is shaping up to be an epic year for Heath, not just because of her growing popularity on local stages, but because she’s also expecting twins in March.

Here, Stella talks about music, motherhood and surviving the pandemic.

Surviving the pandemic

I tried to hit the ground running and make the most of livestreams and online concerts. I met a fantastic blues pianist and singer from Cincinnati named Ben Levin, and we did several duets during the pandemic. We want to continue the collaboration since it’s so rare when you find someone’s voice that really blends with yours. I also did a lot of hiking, which is one of my favorite things to do (favorite trails: Willow Creek near Monte Rio, Jenner Headlands and Armstrong Redwoods), and I visited Mt. Rainier for the first time.

Reviving Billie Holiday

I think jazz is this incredible American art form that should be studied and revered in our society, but it’s not. People feel alienated and they don’t understand jazz. People have to be introduced to it. So, connecting jazz to a storyline or a historic figure, an icon like Billie, kind of brings people into it in a different way. And having the pinnacle be “Strange Fruit,” and how it’s connected with the struggles we’re all still facing today, I think is really important.

Singing in different tongues

The language intrinsically brings out different aspects of yourself or your voice. Like singing in French, a lot of the French songs are these melancholic, complex story songs with a whole dramatic arc. Whereas singing in Spanish, it can be very carnal and guttural, like on your sleeve, your heart’s just out there. I love how the language allows you to express different parts of yourself.

On the verge of motherhood

I could have the best-laid plans, but I know it will be totally different once the twins come. It’s a time of transition. I want music to be a part of their lives, so I want to get back to performing and having music around, at rehearsals and all of that. We’ll see how it all shakes out. The last show I have booked on the calendar is March 5, so right now that’s my cutoff.

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