Our good friend Cindy Shapiro has returned to Los Angeles and her family, but she continues to teach, write, and of course, sing. Cindy began singing at a very early age. She had platinum level instruction from several people including Elaine Russell of the Western Wind Ensemble and the Philip Glass Ensemble).
Having developed her voice and special sound, she became a leader in “Art” Rock. Her bands, The Card Game and 2.5D were hot on the New York scene playing such famous venues as CBGB. She progressed to ethnic singing and at one point focused on Jewish music becoming Cantorial Soloist at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, taught there and was on full pulpit rotation.
She has done a lot of soundtrack work (including work for video games and documentaries). She toured around the world with Video Games Live.
Cindy, thanks for sitting down with us. You have a fascinating story tell. Start us off from the beginning.
CS: My story begins with a foray in pre-school music at age three. I was in love with music from this point forward, and still once in a blue moon run into my original music teacher, now a professor of music in Washington DC.
From there I moved into private study in piano. I’ve played many instruments along the way, including violin, flute, contrabass, and guitar, but my main instrumental love is the human voice. What can’t it do??
Who do you consider to be your first source of inspiration…any musicians stand out in your mind as the one (or ones) that set the Cindy story in motion?
CS: When I reached high school I was fortunate to have a music teacher who had unreasonable expectation of his students. He taught us college level music theory, exposed us to, and expected us to sing perfectly, very challenging choral material, and insisted that we develop the ability to both write and read music. Who gets to do these things at such a young age?
My major musical influences have been, in no particular order: The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky, Pete Zeldman, Chrissie Hynde, XTC, Peter Gabriel, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Laurie Anderson, The Police, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Andes Throat Singers, The Bulgarian Women’s Radio and Television Choir, and Yoko Ono. So, as you can plainly see, I embrace a very narrow and focused gaze at music…
And your development as a musician…? Take us along the road from where you started to where you are today.
CS: Get ready for a twisty and turny tale:
I started out wanting to be an opera or Broadway singer. I had a vocal scholarship to Pepperdine University, and was steeped in legit singing and choral work. My interest in participating in creations devised and organized by other people waned, and so I became a software engineer specializing in human behavior modeling/games/simulations while simultaneously putting together crazy original downtown New York bands. (Side note: my father, Bud Shapiro, had been a pioneer in electronic publishing, and so I was exposed to computer science notions from a very early age, and LOVED technology. Still do…)
My first serious NYC band was The Card Game. It consisted of world-renowned drummer Pete Zeldman, brilliant bassist Kyle Turner, andme.There was no guitar or keyboard, so that mid-range sonic space was filled up by the three of us — Kyle moving nimbly around the bass fretboard, Pete sounding like a tribe of drummers all playing simultaneously, and me using my voice not only as a singer, but also in experimental ways as an instrument. It was at that point that I schooled myself in middle eastern singing, and that style, along with growly rock and opera, was incorporated into the music. We had a good following, and played mostly originals. In order to “explain” ourselves to audiences we always ended our sets playing our own twisted version of a Beatles cover. By playing a piece that was already universally known we were demonstrating our unique take on the rock genre by our through-the-looking-glass interpretation of the piece. Our version Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was a particular favorite with our audiences.
After that band broke up I put together a new band, called 2.5D, again with the genius rhythmatist Pete Zeldman, but bringing in the wonderful Jeff Virgo on bass, and my brother Rob Shapiro on guitar and back vocals. My brother is a particularly skilled song writer, and we were very excited to be working together. This band continued on in the upside-down and backwards approach to rock and roll that was started in TheCard Game, and had a serious element of playfulness and fun. We also maintained our Beatles-at-the-end tradition to help get people on board with our oddball way of approaching music. We did a really fun version of I Wanna Be Your Man that incorporated punk elements, audio deception (where in the hell is 1? Oh… there it is…), and surprise. We had a large following in NYC, and were signed to Capitol Records.
I used to say that the breakup of that band was like every band in the “Behind the Music” documentaries, only without the fame and money. (Sigh…)
I got married to an engineer that had worked with us on our Capitol Record recordings. We moved to Los Angeles together, where we still live, had a child (a killer musician in her own right), and started a business of music and sound for video games. This was a nice intersection for me, as it intertwined my long history as a game developer with my passion for music. My husband, Jack Wall, turned out to be a stellar composer, and is now easily one of the top ten composers for video games in the world. I’m very proud of him. After our child was born I turned the keys to the business solely over to him, and he has turned his business, Wall of Sound, into a force to be reckoned with.
MORE twists and turns:
After the birth of our daughter I went back into technology, only this time I was toiling in the soul-killing field of internet services. I didn’t much care about making websites for large corporations, and, though I loved my co-workers and was tasked with the challenge of managing large-scale multi-million dollar projects, I was bored and depressed. I needed to be singing, and I needed to nurture my soul, so I set out to become a Cantor. –What?!?! (I must say, this foray into organized religion/spirituality FREAKED out some of the people who had known me as a gyrating, sweaty, stage-diving rock singer… But I was still me. Living within the container of being a Cantor was at times very difficult for me as an artist. There were still times I just wanted to drop to the floor while I was singing and writhe my way through the piece I was gobbling up and spitting back out to the audience. Not the most appropriate behavior on the pulpit. I had to make do with swaying back and forth, a movement that the Rabbis (there were 7 of them) sometimes found disconcerting.)
An explanation: a Cantor is a member of the Jewish clergy who leads the congregation in traditional ancient chant, modern musical interpretations of sacred text, and generally provides spiritual context through the use of the human voice to a congregation. That was for me! What a great job… The only thing was I had absolutely no training for this, and it requires a very broad and deep level of knowledge in order to be executed properly. So, I found the oldest, crankiest (they tend to be charming, but cranky, I don’t know why) male Cantors I could find. This has been a male-dominated field for millennia, and I wanted to learn how to do the chanting in the most authentic way possible, so it made sense for me to seek out these guys. They were MORE than willing to take on a female student, I was pleased to discover, and I learned an incredible amount about interpretation and the art of this style of singing. Plus I learned the modes, and leitmotif necessary, and a decent comprehension of texts was imparted to me.
Lucky me(!) I was able to get a full-time job as a Cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Not only that, I was the musicteacher/Cantor for the day school, and was on full pulpit rotation there for six years. I did all of my High Holy Day services at the Wiltern Theater — a well-known Art Deco-style rock venue in Los Angeles. I think I hit my most spiritual moment there when I was leading services the morning after Robert Plant had just gigged there. I mean, I was breathing the same air as the guy just had, and it seemed to add to the spirituality of the experience that day.
Meanwhile, back in the world of video games, my husband was devising a symphonic touring show of a survey of music from the beginning of video games (Pong) to now. The show launched with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2005. I soloed, as did our daughter. The show began to tour all over the world after that to much acclaim, and my husband, who was not only the show’s producer but also its maestro, was gone a lot. We made a family decision to go off the grid — we pulled our daughter out of school, (I homeschooled her), I left my job at the temple, and we toured everywhere, performing in some of the greatest venues with the most sophisticated orchestras in the world. What an experience! We did that for five years… The music was challenging and soaked in beauty, and the audiences were filled with kids and their parents and grandparents all sharing the symphony-going experience together, an unusual happening this day and age.
We left that business in 2010, wanting to get back to our creative musical roots. Jack was reinvigorated to continue to compose music for large-scale video games , and I was ready to being writing albums, and then move on to long-form work. Last summer I wrote and recorded a solo album, Sun God’s Consort, which will be released this year.
Last fall I applied for an artist-in-residence at Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris. I thought my chances of being accepted were about nil to none, so I didn’t incorporate a major trip to Paris in my plans for 2011. HOWEVER, much to my surprise and delight, I wasaccepted. I arrived in Paris on 2 September, 2011, and set out to compose an opera based upon the Psyche and Eros myth.
Let’s take a few minutes to watch your vid leading vocals for ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 (performance by Video Games Live).
Fabulous! Along the road, you’ve no doubt had some really great “ups”, but just about everybody in the business has at least one experience they could have done without…can you share some highs and lows with us?
CS: I think the lowest points for me were the breakups of my two NYC bands — The Card Game and 2.5D. I loved the music, the musicians, the challenge, the performance, the feeling of being ensconced in the larger arts community of downtown NYC. I think some part of me will always be mourning the loss of those two great bands. I plan on doing an independent release of some of the music we recorded back in the day. Be on the lookout for it!
You have been in Paris for the last few months working on a very special project. Tell about your stay in Paris and your current work.
CS: I’m currently working on long-form pieces — right now I’m about 2/3 of the way done writing an opera. I was an artist-in-residence at Cité Internationale des Arts for a three month period working on an opera based upon the Psyche and Eros myth. The musical style is a hybrid of postmodernism and rock. My stay in Paris was truly magical. I was inspired by the thrum of the city as well as the deep arts culture woven into the fabric of French society. Psyche as an art subject is pretty rife, so I found many works from antiquity through the Renaissance, and beyond, about her scattered throughout Paris. This enabled me to look at other artists’ interpretations of the myth and the characters, bringing a greater dimension to my own work. What a privilege! I hope to return to Paris to do another residency sometime over the next couple of years. I plan on continuing to do larger scale work, and find that Paris is a perfect crucible in which to create.
Plans for 2012?
CS: 1: FINISH! I must finish writing this opera. I’ve completed Act I and part of Act II and need to get to the end.
2: Stage Psyche — I’m currently speaking to producers here on the ground in Los Angeles, but haven’t ruled out a run in Minneapolis or Chicago sometime later this year.
3: Release my record from last year and older music from my experimental NYC bands.
4: Continue to be a support to my awesome daughter and husband.
Wow ! You really do have an incredible background and story. I know you are missed in Paris and I hope that you’ll come back to “La Ville-Lumière” to share your contributions. Thanks again, Cindy, and our very best wishes to you and your family in 2012.
Visit Cindy at http://cindyshapiro.net/