By Aram Arkun
NEW YORK — Romance is on Gracie Terzian’s mind, or at least in her songs. Her sinuously sensuous singing takes listeners through poetry and music to a world of love and heartbreak. The young, talented songstress and performer has made her mark in the world of jazz with her first EP (extended play recording), “Saints and Poets.” It quickly became the number 3 jazz album on iTunes and the number 23 jazz album on the Billboard jazz charts, and has garnered excellent reviews. Terzian wrote or co-wrote all six songs.
She lives in the Astoria section of New York City, and says that it feels like home now, perhaps due to a retro feel, and with all the modern jazz music being created there. A product of a northern Virginian childhood, her father, journalist and writer Philip Terzian, provided her with a first exposure to jazz. She danced and acted from a young age, and at the end of high school learned acrobatics, which was useful for theater.
She studied at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where she acted, sang with a jazz group and began writing jazz lyrics. She started a collaboration with Wells Hanley, her jazz piano teacher, and soon became a master of the harp ukulele. She said, “I think it was when I started having a desire to write music that I got more serious about practicing instruments.”
Terzian often accompanies herself while singing. She related that “it can be a little difficult. It depends on how comfortable I am with the song and how much I’ve sung it and played it. I do have to practice when I do it.”
Terzian does not mind occasionally performing jazz standards, putting her own stamp on them, but ultimately she wants to present her own creations. If she cannot come up with a new arrangement, or add something different to a standard, she feels there is no point in doing it since people will prefer the original. She said, “I definitely am far more interested in writing new music and doing new compositions.”
Writing a song each time can be different. She explained that “Sometimes I will write a song really quickly and it will take me one day. Sometimes it will take me months going through different lyrics, seeing it is not right.”
Though many people think of jazz as a field like classical music, with most of the famous compositions written by people who are no longer alive, Terzian said, “I think there is a lot of room for new jazz to be made and there are a lot of jazz artists making new work.” Furthermore, she continued, “you can hear jazz influences on a lot of modern day music, especially in hip hop. I think jazz is alive and well. You just have to seek it out and find it.”
She observes that there are a lot of new forms or subgenres of jazz that are currently being born or have yet to be born. Though she is not herself consciously trying to create such a subgenre, she said, “I do think about making music that sounds new, and coming up with things that people have not heard before, with a new quality to them. I think that a lot of times when people do create a new subgenre of music they don’t do it intentionally.”
She composes and writes in a spontaneous manner. She said, “The melodies come into my head, and I just write them down. It naturally happens. Sometimes I start playing around with a chord progression I hear in my head, and then a melody comes out of that chord progression.”
Her lyrics, she said, are usually drawn from real life experiences. She explained, “I do think about the words a lot. I jot down interesting phrases or words on my cell phone or paper. I jot notes in my journal everywhere I go, so that when I am ready to sit down and write lyrics I have material to pull from. I find sometimes reading or watching plays are good sources of inspiration.” She watches at least one or two plays a week, and mines the dialogue.
She uses a lot of rhyming and alliteration. As she writes lyrics, she said, “I will sing it out loud to see how it sounds without thinking what it means.” She also thinks about how the meaning will come across.
“I’m not trying to necessarily teach people any obvious lessons from my lyrics intentionally,” she stated. “I may share lessons that I have learned for myself in my music…I hope that my music helps people or that they do learn things through it …The most important thing is that it speaks to them in some capacity.”
She listens to a lot of different genres of music, which, she thought, all contribute something to her work. She said, “On a day to day basis, I listen most to jazz and hip hop, but I also listen to some rock music and folk music. I listen to some electronic music as well. I’d say for the stuff I am writing, pop and jazz and maybe folk music influenced me the most.” She does write music that is not jazz, and, she said, “I am definitely interested in experimenting with other genres and cross-blending them, and singing in different ways as well.”
Terzian looks to jazz artists not only for their ability to make good music. She said, “I also really look up to people who have a reputation for being good and kind. … I also admire people who work hard. People who are nice and hardworking are the people I admire the most.”
She performs at a lot of events and parties now, and often sings jazz standards or cover songs. While she has temporarily created various bands or backup groups, she often plays with a lot of different people. Sometimes she also does backup singing for other musicians.
Terzian occasionally has sung songs in Spanish, French and Portuguese (for Brazilian jazz music). She studied Spanish in high school and college, but for the other languages usually finds a friend fluent in them to correct her pronunciation.
She used to pick and choose online when she listened to music, and accepts that it is an era for musicians of releasing singles. Nevertheless as a musician, she now hopes people will buy whole albums. She prefers to present her original music on her albums, not to perform music that she herself did not write. For her EP, Terzian said, “I wanted it to flow like an album, so that if you put it on at the beginning, it would just play through…It is nice to have a consistent feel or story which does not change the mood too much. The people who take the time to listen from start to finish will have an experience into which there was some thought placed.”
Terzian is Armenian on her father’s side, with his ancestors originally from Sepasdia (Sivas). There are some relatives who ended up in Syria with whom her father has kept touch. She has learned about Armenian history, and said that “at the very least, I would like to learn basic conversational Armenian.” In the realm of music, while not that familiar with the corpus of Armenian folk or jazz music, she knows the work of some individual musicians, and has been listening recently a lot to jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s work.
As a child, Terzian recalls, her family went to a limited number of Armenian events or gatherings, periodically visiting to the Armenian Church and an Armenian bazaar in Washington, DC. However, the last name Terzian always led Armenians to start up conversations with her and ask if she is Armenian. Furthermore, she said, there is a “camaraderie” of sorts because of the shared dark history of the Armenian Genocide. Terzian declared, “I feel connected to my ancestors and family, and what they went through. I pay respect to them. Even though I live a very American life, I would really like to go to Armenia soon and spend some time there.”
Terzian said that she really enjoys recording her work, as well as doing live performances. She interned in a recording studio in New York while in college, and worked there a while afterwards as an engineer.
She finds that unlike pop music, where youth is a great advantage, in jazz good music stands out so that there are also successful artists who emerged later in life. Nonetheless, she said that there is an advantage to being youthful in your image, particularly for a female singer.
So far, Terzian has been performing individual shows up and down the East Coast. She said, “I really want to tour because there are a lot of cities where people online say, come to San Francisco, or whatever, and I want to go to San Francisco soon.” However, it is complicated logistically and financially must be well planned, so it may take a year or two to arrange.
Recently, she has been able to support herself through music and composing, though sometimes she still has to supplement this with odd jobs on the side. She gets commissions to compose songs for shows, films or individuals, as well as payment for performing shows.
She gets paid a small fee when people download her songs online, but it is true that if you look for it, almost anything can be gotten for free online. With the digital revolution in music distribution, Terzian said that “you have to come up with more creative ways to make money. I am not exactly sure of all the ways yet. I think that musicians do have to accept that this is the way things are going now unless stricter laws are set.” Some possibilities might be advertisements, sponsorship and writing music for shows.
She enjoys both making music and marketing it afterwards, but added, “The marketing and business side can get tiring. It is a distraction from creating. There is a reason why artists have managers who handle the business side for them.” Nevertheless, at present, she has a publicist but not a manager.
She responds to fans on social media as quickly as possible, though it can be all-consuming. She said, “If I don’t respond, it is because I don’t have the time or didn’t see it. I am appreciative any time somebody reaches out to me.”
Terzian recognizes that jazz is a risky choice as a career, and is constantly reevaluating her goals for the present, near future, and the long run. One day she may wish to do more acting in the theater again. However, her next immediate goal is a new album. She said, “I usually set everything aside to focus on one [project] at a time. It is … what I want to be thinking about all day and all night, and it requires that much time.” She is writing a lot of new songs from which she will pick out what works best for the album. In comparison with her first one, she wanted to try a different approach. She said, “I think I want to have more of a dynamic story line and arrangements in my songs, and have it be a little more of a journey going to different places, but still in a cohesive way.”
Terzian has an upcoming performance at Club Bonafide in New York City on December 17 at 10 pm. Clips of her songs are posted on YouTube, and she has her own website, gracieterzian.com.