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Interview with Amy Wolter and Carol Z

Amy: Carol Z and I go way back; meeting when we were both in bands, and have stayed friends for all these years.  She’s based out of Minneapolis and is still out doing shows and keeping very busy. Since she was in town recently, I grabbed the opportunity to interview her and thought it would be interesting for you singer/songwriters, as well a cover artists, to hear how she’s applied Tom’s methods to her gigs.

*Note about closing your eyes while performing. We recommend that you keep your eyes open almost all the time ; communicating with your audience and with your bandmates on stage. Your audience is coming to see you. When  you close your eyes, you’re closing yourself off from your audience. The exception to this would be if you’re singing a difficult phrase and you want to emphasize that. You can lean back into the moment, close your eyes and show the intensity of what you’re doing with your body language. You would be telling your audience “I really need to concetrate on this difficult passage to deliver it to you….be right back…” 

Amy: What kind of set-up are you using at your shows?

CZ: I’ve gone through a lot of equipment…used to be the huge speakers and all that comes with it, but now I’m down to a Bose stick because it’s so portable.  I play in duos, trios, quartets and a couple of corporate bands, but for the most part I do a lot of solo gigs.  I don’t haul my keyboard anymore but now for solo gigs I take my acoustic guitar and have added a djembe, some percussion and a melodica.

Amy: Why did you add those instruments instead of just sticking with guitar?  We’re trying to encourage singer/songwriters to expand a bit to change things up for the audience.

CZ: Well that’s the thing…it’s to kind of have an element of surprise…you always want to keep and audience engaged, and hold their interest.  I change up the styles and sounds – especially something like the melodica that’s easy to play if you’re a keyboard player – you can easily play a melody line and it will cut through the air and if you’re playing in a crowd that’s not really listening – if they hear something cutting through the air, you’ve got their attention.  And that little sweet sound…or if you’ve got something like a harmonica or a flute – something that changes up the sound will get their attention and you’ve got ‘em.

Amy: So, tell me how you met Tom and how you decided to start implementing his methods into your gig.

CZ: I’d won a songwriter contest and had come to Nashville, and he was a part of that weekend seminar. I was already a mother at this time and something rang true…as soon as I heard Tom talking I thought oh my gosh, had I started way earlier, had I known about him earlier in my career, I would have saved years and years of time because his methods are SO effective and it really kind of changed the way that I perform.

Amy: So can you site examples of the differences you saw when you started implementing some of these things?

CZ: Well, the thing about [Tom’s] methods are, you have to not really think about each thing as you’re doing the concert …they have to be a part…you have to make this whole thing a part of who you are – a part of your DNA so that it’s just natural.  The thing that I realized was that there’s a lot of musicians out there in the audience. 

There’s a lot of people out there that are better than you…they sing better, they play better…but you’re on the stage at this point in time. And what makes you stand out? And Tom really showed me that I need to love my audience.  I don’t need to worry about myself and all my self-esteem problems.  The more that I give out and love my audience and connect with them in ways [moments], the more that I’m going to connect with them and they’re gonna be on my side.  I think loving the audience is a real big thing that I learned from Tom.

Amy: Tell them the story you told me about the day you woke up and…

CZ: Oh right! So, I do a lot of secular concerts, but every once in awhile I get asked to do women’s events. I perform at lots of churches and MOPS (Mother’s of Preschoolers) groups and stuff. This one morning I got up – and I had a big fancy women’s event to do – and I looked in the mirror and girls, you know…ya get a zit on your nose, it’s impossible to cover it! It stays shiny and red and bright, and I go ‘oh Lord, no! I can’t do this with this zit on my nose!’

And it was just HUGE, and if you pop it, it just gets worse and if you just leave it, it’s just gonna get bigger! What do I do?! And I just wanted to stay home. And I couldn’t stay home cuz this was a big event and I had to go. And so I just said ok, I’m just gonna work with this. I have to forget about how this makes me really feel – I wanna disappear – and instead I went and I ADDRESSED it right off the bat with my audience. When they introduced me I said, ‘well I’ve come with an extra friend today’, and I named it…I think I called it Francis or something. I said ‘I brought Francis with me and she’s a close friend today, and I just wanted to introduce it because it’s just here. She’s here with me.’

Amy: How did they react?

CZ: Oh, they were TOTALLY sympathetic! I had them in my hands from the minute that I got on stage and on, cuz they knew – people know how you feel when you have something that’s wrong with you…totally relatable. I got them on my side…I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.  I was a broken kind of a person, and so they knew I was self-conscious about it, but then they were just pulling for me and listening to every word that I said.   That’s one example of just letting it go and being real with your audience. 

Amy: You play a lot of restaurant gigs and wineries…how do you handle those kind of audiences? I know a lot of [our artists] been frustrated about that have asked us what to do to get their attention, when you’re kind of expected to be background music.  Tell me how you’ve made that work and how you try to get the audience’s attention.

CZ: Well sometimes you just can’t get their attention at all. And sometimes you’re there to please the person that booked you, and sometimes they don’t expect you to put on a ‘show’. Sometimes you ARE just background music and you have to be okay with that. So then it’s all about how you connect with your band members and every once in awhile somebody stops by and says ‘I’m listening, I’m listening! you did my favorite song.

A lot of times in a crowd like that where it’s noisy and you’re background music, you don’t realize that there are people that ARE listening. You think that they’re listening to the person at their table but they ARE listening to you and you are connecting all the time, whether you know it or not, so you have to perform as if they ARE listening to you.

Amy: Are there certain gigs that you turn down?

CZ: At this point in my life I try to say yes to everything because I think I can learn from every situation.  I ask when I get booked I’ll ask all the questions I can think of to the owner, like what do you expect, what would you like out of this – what would be a successful day for you?  If I get the answer, ‘I want everybody up and dancing’, I know I can’t do that. So I say as kindly as I can that I might not be the right person for them, but do they have another venue that I would work better for-? I just have to keep the door open

Amy: That’s great…if you’re not a good fit, don’t try to force it.

CZ: I don’t want them to waste money on me [if I’m not the right fit]. I’m realistic, but if there’s something I know I can handle – it’s a new situation…it seems like I’m always getting into situations that I’ve never been IN before and it’s kind of frustrating that I can’t just get the same gig down – just do the same set over and over. But I’m always being stretched, cuz (promoters) always want to have a little different twist on it. So you have to be really flexible and you have to know that you’re gonna love your people and you’re gonna get them on your side.  I try not be afraid anymore.

Amy: Speaking of loving, how do you love your audience?

CZ: From the time I walk into the restaurant, the venue, the winery, the club, the coffeehouse, the church…I put my antennas up and I notice everything.  I wanna absorb the atmosphere, and notice people; how they connect, how they talk, how they decorated, how it feels.  Then I’ll talk about that. I’ll make some kind of connection one-on-one from the stage and notice things.  I’ll be very complimentary – that’s important too.  They’ve put on a lot of work for this event, they’ve created a space for you and you want to notice that…acknowledge that and encourage that.

Amy: Tell us about Tom’s set list (from Live Music Method)…do you follow that in terms of creating those different moments!

CZ: Absolutely. That’s another thing that really changed how I perform. Sometimes you [may] want to start with your strongest song but they’re not ready to hear a heavy duty message or anything…you’ve gotta get ‘em on your side first.  He said that when you get onstage, they don’t know who you are, they’re checking you out, what I wear.  I dress pretty flamboyantly because I wanna to be interesting to look at as well. I’m a hat person, I wear glasses, I wear cool jewelry…I’m kind of known for being funky, so at least I’m something visual to look at. 

I usually start with a funny song…and that usually throws them off because I may intimidate people sometimes by the way that I over-dress, and they’re not sure what to expect. So I disarm them when I come up with something really goofy and that seems to work for me best. So I start with a little goofy, tell a personal story, then I slowly get into something that is really meaningful songs that I’ve written and why I wrote em.  And also if I do cover songs I do research on them, because everybody that’s written a song, wrote it for a reason.  There’s a story behind every song, and with the internet there’s so much research you can do on different [writers] or where that song was played in a movie…

Amy: That’s great! I would think that would be interesting for people [to know]. If you’re doing a lot of covers it IS fun to know [for example] why did James Taylor write that -? Who was that [song] about?

CZ: Being a songwriter, I know about the hooks, and you usually title your song with the hook. I do the song ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. Well that’s not the hook of the song….it’s only in the first line. The song originally was [titled] ‘In Other Words’, because it’s the repeated hook of the song; ‘in other words, I love you…in other words, kiss me, in other words. So the name of that song was In Other Words.

So the title was changed to Fly Me to the Moon when the Apollo astronauts went to the moon for the first time. So when I tell them that story and then perform the song, they listen to it in a whole different way. They’ll listen to it for the first time. It kind of validates my songwriting too…they listen to and think ‘what’s the hook of HER song?’ You’re kind of educating the audience too – they wanna learn something. Kind of the whole package.

Amy: What’s your take on eye contact?  Have you noticed a difference when you do make better eye contact?

CZ: I have always sung with my eyes closed…

Amy: *to camera* Don’t do that!

CZ: I know! There’s so much to think about, when you’re trying to stay [on pitch], when you’re trying to hear the monitors, when you’re trying to get the chords right and the feeling right…and sometimes I think closing your eyes works. But when you can all of a sudden open your eyes and make contact with somebody, they know that that’s so purposeful. So if I close my eyes they know that I’m into it, but when I open my eyes it’s purposeful and that’s when I really connect with the audience.

And sometimes if I’m doing a funny song or if I change the lyric I’ll make a goofy face or I’ll cross my eyes…I keep them engaged that way.  I’m really into comedy…telling jokes and being goofy a little bit…

Amy: And if that’s your personality, that’s what you need to draw out.  We try to do that with every artist…we figure out what your personality is and bring that to the surface.  We don’t wanna make you cookie cutter…[Maybe comedy] is not your gig. You may have more of a dry sense of humor or are more of a serious person, or contemplative or whatever it is.  I love that you bring [your sense of humor] out ‘cuz you ARE funny. *to camera* You should see her Facebook posts.

CZ: Tom said also, address everybody over there [pointing right] and address everybody in the back, and address everybody over there [pointing left] I really do try to look around the whole room. And then I’ll notice as I’m performing, I try to notice what’s happening and make a connection between songs with what I’ve noticed.

Amy: Good! And she can notice those things because she goes onstage prepared.

CZ: That’s another thing..

Amy:  If she’s having to think about her set, or what she’s gonna say next, she wouldn’t be able to focus on the audience…right?

CZ: That’s the thing too is…so Tom suggests how to lay out your program [set list], and also to be prepared. He was saying in one of his videos about how bands rehearse and rehearse the music…and I’ve heard a saying that says rehearse until you don’t get it wrong…rehearse until you can only get it right. 

So you’ve got everything all laid out and what you’re going to say, so you’re completely prepared. And when you’re completely prepared, you can also then, have the flexibility…you have to have a plan – a set list, but then you can [be spontaneous] and veer off from there.  But you’re always prepared for ‘what if’. If I don’t have anything spontaneous, then I can at least do that [follow your plan].

Amy: Spontaneity works best out of form, and we’re always trying to tell people that.  Especially those of you that say ‘oh, I just like to wing it’, cuz that rarely works.  I mean,  in certain cases, but if you go in prepared, then you really can spend that time [during a performance] loving the audience and then go off on a spontaneous thing…if you see somebody and have this idea, and you can just go for it. 

Can you tell us about any things that have gone wrong in your shows?

CZ: Oh, things go wrong. You just have to almost expect it.

Amy: That’s right.

CZ: You have to expect and if it goes wrong you have to just go with it and make something good happen.  I had a duo – we were called the BZ girls – and we had been booked for this HUGE event. There were probably 500 women there. They had all paid good money to come for this dinner and I got laryngitis in the worst way. There was NOTHING. Nothing came out of my [mouth]. And we were a duo and I sang half of the songs!  So my duo partner was saying what do we do??

So I made up some little signs that said things like ‘really pretty harmony here’….and I stuck Kleenex in my nose. She had to do all the talking. So it ended up being kind of a whole different thing, because she had to do all the singing, and I would put up these signs and I would be playing. And at the very last song –the height of the show – the most meaningful song.

And I wrote down [on a sign] ‘I’m gonna try to just sing what I can’ – do ANYthing. And I started trying to voice something…and this last song was a very precious song. And Tara was singing and I started – and I was asking God for ANYthing – and sure enough this little squeak came out and it was right in pitch and people got on the edge of their seats like ‘there’s a miracle happening right here –  she’s gonna all of sudden be able to sing!’

And was able to eek out just enough so that I had people on the edge of their seat, and it ended up being a whole different kind of a song, and it was really cool how this funky noise that was coming out of my throat actually worked! And the ladies were actually bawling! Cuz it was a really pretty song and I was trying so hard to give them SOMEthing that day. They were just so emotional…I had been playing along for about an hour and nothing was coming out, and I was trying every once in awhile and they saw, nothing was coming out.

And at the very end, on this very beautiful song, something was coming out and it sounded good….it was just concert that they’ll never forget.  And we sold more CDs that day than ever because they wanted to hear how the songs really were supposed to sound! So we sold ALL of the CDs – I think we sold out of everything we brought. We had won them over because we tried so hard.

Amy: They could see your heart and they knew that you WANTED to [to sing]. And you took that risk, to open your mouth…

CZ:…and try. It paid off.  It wasn’t what it was supposed to be but I gave everything that I could that day and we made the most out of a really bad situation.

Amy: You’ve got to!  Great advice.  Can you tell me about any specific moments that happened that were memorable for you as a performer?

CZ: Well it was a large crowd but it wasn’t a typical situation. It was a funeral. A dear friend had died and I wrote a song [about him].  There was a very large gathering and I was asked to sing, and I knew it was going to be difficult. And you know you guys, this is the BEST part of being a musician and a writer , that you can play peoples’ emotions. You are putting music and words to how people are feeling….and…*tears* …it’s just a real gift.  So, I sang this song – and I’m not gonna say the words cuz I don’t wanna cry.

Amy: It’s too late for that…

CZ: When you write a song – a good form of a song is a hook, and you want [the hook] to be something that’s memorable. So this funeral song had a hook, and I’m not gonna say what it was, but by the end of the song, I was just at the end of myself emotionally because I loved this person so much. And everybody was just feelin’ my song. 

So the song ended on the hook, and they had been with me emotionally through that whole song and got the hook. So when I got to the very end of the song I hit the chord, and they knew that the hook was the last thing I was gonna sing…and I couldn’t do it. And so the whole audience sang the hook for me, and it just ended the ceremony on such a unique, glowing moment, that it was just memorable…I’ll never forget it.  

So you’ve got such a gift when you’re a writer and a singer, and it’s so important to just love people, love what you do…be confident! You’re not gonna be the best player, the best singer…but believe in what you’re doing, believe in what you’re saying, and you can make a difference.  And that’s all we can do in our life is to try to make a difference and make somebody feel something, make somebody feel happy or feel sad or feel SOMEthing and you’ve made a difference and it matters in life, so just believe in what you’re doing. Thank you for letting me share with you guys.

Amy: Thank you so much for doing this – appreciate that!

CZ: Thank you for being my friend.

Amy: Take her advice you guys…

CZ:  Take Tom Jackson’s advice!

Visit Carol Z’s website: www.carolzgirl.com

Amy Wolter

As a trained Live Music Producer for Tom Jackson Productions, Amy Wolter brings her years onstage as a lead singer & keyboardist - along with her experience as a producer, arranger, and songwriter - to singers and bands who won’t settle for ‘good enough’. She’s worked with artists at all levels, and genres ranging from Rock to Celtic, empowering them to have confidence and authority onstage, and put on memorable live shows, a few of whom have been on two of the largest US tours in recent history. Some of her clients include Grammy award winners The Band Perry & Lacrae, CMA and ACM –winning country acts, Gloriana & Thompson Square, 2016 The Voice contestant Mary Sarah, CCMA (Canada) winners High Valley, Jess Moskaluke & Chad Brownlee, and Winter Jam Tour veterans Sidewalk Prophets & Love and The Outcome.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. Olivier Laroche says:

    Thank you so much for this interview. Very insightful. I work with bands in Montreal and use some of Tom’s techniques, they are incredibly efficient and I love to see how the artists become more and more confident on stage and how they create a stronger bond with their audience.

  2. Thanks so much for the video today. I have a show tomorrow night and we have been using Toms techniques in our rehearsals as well. Can’t wait to melt some faces!!

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