“I don’t know any jazz singers apart from you,” I tell Risa Branch as we peruse the dinner menu at Farmacy Kitchen, a pop-up vegan restaurant in SoHo. “You’re a kind of time traveler.” She may look like a 21st-century New Yorker — hair in long locs, an intricate silver ring running the length of her index finger, the chill-and-steady presence of someone who meditates every morning — but when Risa opens her mouth to sing, you get why fans would liken her to an “old-school jazz singer from the ’30s” even when she was performing electro-soul on the Vancouver indie scene five and ten years ago. Farmacy is a British company testing the New York City market (through February 2020), but the fern-colored velveteen cushions, ivied wallpaper, and dividers teeming with palm fronds are a fitting backdrop for a conversation about the greenest city either of us have ever seen. Risa moved back to the States four years ago to be a little closer to her family in Texas, but she still misses Vancouver.
Risa orders the truffle mac ’n cheese, and I go for the Mexican bowl with sprouted coriander rice and some pretty excellent guac. “I was the kind of kid who’d come out to the living room with my best friend and we’d say, ‘We have a show for you!’, and we’d do a song-and-dance number,” she tells me. From the age of ten or eleven she vividly remembers listening to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. After performing in gospel choirs from grade school through undergrad, she began a collaboration with electronic artist Obediya Wonderful that would yield R and Be, her 2011 debut album. A friend in Vancouver connected Risa with a local jazz band—leading her back to her childhood favorites—and she’d occasionally “jazzify” some of the electro-soul tracks co-written with Obediya, too. Her 2014 Kickstarter campaign raised more than $6,000, which Risa used to hire Vancouver jazz linchpin Cory Weeds for her session producer along with a full band to record her debut jazz album, I Thought About You, which dropped this past April.
Having grown up listening to Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald on the family stereo — discovering Nina Simone a little later on — I’ve been savoring Risa’s renditions of classics like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” It troubles me, though, the disconnect between the coziness I’ve always felt when I listen to jazz and the discrimination these brilliant Black performers routinely faced in nightclubs and television studios — and then there’s the matter of who was the menu at all those old-time clubs. Risa’s continually thinking about this, too. A committed vegetarian since high school and vegan since college, she’s been campaigning for animal rights and food justice in various capacities ever since; we actually met last year at a Seasoned Vegan meet-up organized by hip-hop artist Grey (of “Vegan Thanksgiving”), though at the time only one of us realized there were two incredibly talented musicians at the table. As someone who’s written extensively about “ego management” in the arts, I can’t help thinking of how many other musicians would have used “Grub with Grey” as a networking opportunity.
Of course, there are challenges involved in performing music that belongs to a bygone era. “There are a couple of songs with words like ‘my love bought me a fur coat’ — I would never sing those,” Risa says. “I will ad-lib new lyrics to speciesist songs. And it certainly narrows down the meals I can have at the venues I get booked at; sometimes there’s one thing I can get.” She tells me about the one vegan jazz club she’s found, Barkett in Berlin — with a motto of open until you leave — where she sang at a jam back in 2017. Booking gigs is a process fraught with dead ends and logistical headaches, especially if you’re responsible for hiring your own band; contrast this with the electronic music Risa was co-creating with Obediya Wonderful, where all a musician really needs is a laptop.
The final drawback (as I see it) is this: in other genres, like electro-soul and hip hop, there’s so much more space to sing about the important stuff. The most widely-shared track on R and Be is “Strange Fruit” — a variation on Billie Holiday’s masterpiece that is centered on the slaughterhouse — but you won’t find anything like it on I Thought About You. Improvisations aside, vocal jazz feels like a genre that gives you more or less exactly what you expect from it. “It’s so much easier to listen to a love song,” I venture. “It doesn’t ask much of the listener.”
“That song [‘Strange Fruit’] was always more difficult to perform,” Risa agrees. “I did perform it quite a bit. It changes the mood in the room, and I’m sure Billie experienced the same thing when she sang her ‘Strange Fruit’ — going from a love song or a ballad to…that. It has the same effect: they’re both protest songs. And then you just have to follow it with something light, something fun. It does what it’s meant to do if it makes somebody think about it, for even just a second.”
Like many artists, Risa’s résumé is eclectic. At first it looked as though she might become a professional activist. “In college, I began to see speaking out against animal exploitation as my moral responsibility…I was so bent on learning how to persuade others to change their behaviors that I chose advertising as my major,” she writes in Lisa Kemmerer’s 2012 anthology Speaking Up for Animals (aptly titled “Using My Voice”). “Animal activism and my social life were nearly one and the same.” After a semester abroad in London—during which time she fondly recalls protesting outside Huntingdon Life Sciences alongside activists older than her grandmother—Risa interned at PETA, where she worked closely with vegan Olympian Seba Johnson on expanding the organization’s African-American outreach. From here it made sense to go for a master’s in nonprofit management; and after receiving her degree from the New School in 2006 (her thesis topic was “Health Marketing Strategies to Encourage African American New Yorkers to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables”), she worked in the field for several years. In many respects it was the helping profession she’d been hoping for.
“Not every singer is here to start the party. Everybody in music has their own purpose, and I don’t know that mine is entertainment, per se. I feel that the energy that comes through my voice has a healing quality, and so whether I’m entertaining them or not, if the vibrations or frequencies are getting out — from my voice to their ears — then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
But the instability of the nonprofit world — especially in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis — pointed Risa toward jobs that were less career-oriented, allowing her more bandwidth for her music. She became a certified Reiki healer whose clients are human and otherwise. She’s also worked in vegan restaurants, and if you’re in New York City she can take care of your cat or dog while you’re out of town.
“I’ve expanded my definition of what can be helpful,” Risa tells me. “People need music. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t listen to some form of music: for relaxation, for sanity, for dancing, to unwind. I’m coming to an understanding of the things I want to offer that don’t have me forced into an office from nine to five.”
“Not every singer is here to start the party. Everybody in music has their own purpose, and I don’t know that mine is entertainment, per se. I feel that the energy that comes through my voice has a healing quality, and so whether I’m entertaining them or not, if the vibrations or frequencies are getting out — from my voice to their ears — then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” Coming from another artist this might sound like New-Age baloney, but I can vouch for it. A few weeks after downloading I Thought About You I was in Ireland researching the next edition of my guidebook, and I spent hours in my rental car listening to the album over and over. Risa’s voice was the only sound that seemed to ease my anxiety over never covering enough ground in a day.
“I’m continuing to evaluate my musical offering through that lens: ‘what’s the purpose of the music?,’” Risa tells me over dessert (rich and gooey chocolate chip cookies and a glass of almond milk for her, an oat-milk gingerbread latte for me). “That’s part of the reason why I’m not upset that I’m not performing more, because through the recorded music people can get the healing, the relaxation, and maybe in a better way, too: they’re home, in a relaxed environment, or when they need it on the train, rather than at a bar where you’re trying to have fun.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we? As much as I like the idea of dressing up to go out to a jazz club, most of the time I’d rather listen to my favorite albums on the stereo, in my pajamas, with a beverage I poured for myself.
And for all my talk that lyrics ought to mean something, I do enjoy the love songs. “Nuzzle with My Nizzle” is my favorite track on I Thought About You — I get giddy to be / just in your vicinity — and I didn’t even realize Risa had written it until I read the press release.
“That’s funny,” she says. “I wanted a couple more originals, but they didn’t come out in the studio, and the album was already long enough, so I just left it at the one. But the next album will have a lot more.” She’s already composed a record’s worth of songs, but she’ll keep composing over the next year or two to have even more to choose from.
That willingness to take her time is admirable, even for an independent musician who has no interest in turning herself into a product. Fueled by plants and inspired by classic jazz, Risa Branch will be filling the air with healing notes for many decades to come.