Could you imagine how a child who reveals themselves to be a musical prodigy would develop as such if they have the opportunity to discover music without the influence of popular music? Well it is the case for multi-instrumentalist Whitney Vandell aka One Girl Symphony. The musician is from Ethiopia where she was adopted at an early age by an American missionary and music teacher. She grew up sheltered from music fashions and commercial impositions within a strict house that still gave her the creative freedom to develop her musical talent. She now releases her first album which no doubt opens us up to a world whose frontiers are cleverly blurred. We met with the musical artist and producer to have a further insight into her journey making this debut album.
1inmusic: Hello Whitney and thank you for joining us. Could you describe your music for anyone who is discovering you for the first time?
One Girl Symphony (OGS): Many describe my music as either melancholic or gritty. I think that these are the two moods I feel perpetually stuck in and know how to express but I don’t really know where it comes from.
If you listen through the album, I think that anyone that likes Blues Rock, Folk or Classical will appreciate something in my music and how these styles are blended together. It’s almost impossible to be truly original musically because everything has been done and much of what you hear in my music is borrowed, or inspired, whichever way you want to look at it. To the extent I’m creative I think it’s having merged diverse styles and making it to sound familiar and not convoluted. Take for instance the opening track ‘No Glitch’ with its mix of pizzicato strings and blues guitars against a hip-hop beat and Celtic folk violins coming together. In that way I think the music has a very broad appeal which is probably a strength and a weakness for finding an audience.
1inmusic: I understand that you had a strict upbringing that limited your exposure to pop music for example, so what type of music were you able to listen to?
OGS: I keep going through seasons with what I listen to. Besides classical music I grew up listening to 70s rock like Queen, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and American singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne. These are still the main types of music that I listen to today. I wish I could say that I was adventurous and always taking in new styles but it’s not true, I’m the first to admit that I’m really boring and conservative. A lot of the time I prefer to not listen to any music at all for long periods of time.
1inmusic: Can you tell us about how you produced the album and collaborated beyond borders?
OGS: Well, Dropbox certainly played a large part in it! I think it is fair to say that the Internet is not always the fastest in Ethiopia. I would send the backing tracks to be recorded on in MP3 and get back the high quality music files on Dropbox that sometimes would require a day or more to sync.
The album is all instrumental with the exception of one of the bonus tracks that has a choir singing the chorus. The way I produce my songs is that I first play all the instruments myself building up all the arrangements with the instruments. It is almost always piano, bass and guitar. Once the basic grove is down I keep experimenting. Needless to say, the songs keep changing and growing beyond recognition.
The main Internet collaboration parts were the percussions and the violin. I first programmed rhythms on my keyboard along with the bass guitar that I then arranged the songs over. The drum set was then added on top of that by drummers in Sweden and Colorado. There have also been overdubs with other instrumentalists from around the world but the violin of William Stewart was no doubt the most critical for the album. There are about twenty different musicians involved on the album in all, over a very long period of time. However, I must mention Chris Tull, Oscar Wendel and Cal Johansson who have contributed on all of the tracks.
1inmusic: How did you know the violinist was the right one and how did you set up the search for one?
I had the idea to try and get a vocalist for the songs but I thought it limited if not sabotaged the music. When someone sings it becomes all too subjective if you like who you think the singer is. Even though I have done so much work with strings I didn’t at first consider my music to have the violin as the lead instrument. I was at first thrilled when starting to work with a few different violinists I had found on the Internet on forums like Fiverr. But when I was introduced to William Stewart through a family friend back in the US everything changed. It was just a completely different level. William and I connected on a deep musical level where he brought out elements in my music with Blues, Folk and Classical styles that I didn’t even know were there. It was as if he knew things about me that I didn’t even know myself. The way we would record is that William would send me up to eight or nine violin overdubs per song. I would listen to them one by one and piece them together to get the best parts from each. Sometimes that was easy, other times I would cut segments of his violin to different parts of the song. In most cases though, I made it sound as if there are two lead violinists playing live where it is mixed left and right.
1inmusic: What inspires you to write compose?
OGS: I don’t have a formula for writing but I do it on the piano. A lot of how I see song writing is a matter of setting the scene, creating a build up and a satisfying release, or preferably two or three. How it often starts for me is that I focus first on just writing a piano intro, as if it is an opening chapter setting the scene for what kind of a story it is going to be. That tends to then reveal the chorus. Once those main characters are sketched out, the verses are like background that offers the context to make the whole thing interesting. The solo is like the décor or special effects.
1inmusic: What about your own performances, how do you prepare for these?
OGS: Growing up as an evangelical and also leading services for many years, it always felt natural to be in front of crowds. The audience is not interested in me as a person, they are there for the music. Making sure I don’t forget that and to feel as a part of the audience is most of the preparation to go on stage.
1inmusic: Your album took a long time to be done and was released independently. Who has been supporting you through your musical development and the production of this album?
OGS: I still live with my mother in the house where I grew up here in Ethiopia. This is where I recorded and there is no question that my mother has always been my main support. A lot of what has made my composing and producing possible is not directly financial resources but being given the time and peace of mind to explore without having any particular goal in mind. Growing up I was very shielded from modern trends or global problems, everything revolved around music and the communion in our church where the outside world did not really exist to us.
It’s a cliché to say that there was always music around the house but that is the case. We had one of the few private grand pianos in Addis here at our house when I was growing up. Seeing how little there is here in terms of entertainment and my mother being a rather private person on the outskirts of town, most of the time we would just spend playing and listening to music together. It’s just the way it always was and I don’t remember that she would give me formal lessons as such.
I also want to mention other support and many opportunities I have been given to make this album possible. I was sent to editing and photography courses by my employer over the years and the American Embassy sponsored the printing of the album to give it away as a gift at the TEDx conference.
1inmusic: With such talent, dedication and affinity, do you see a career in music?
OGS: I’m certainly no professional as I’m not making any money from music, nor do I ever expect to! I realized from the start that hoping to get any recognition, professional or otherwise, would be a sure way of going into a depression!
The best advice I was ever given was to work on my tracks as if I was the only person intended to listen to and enjoy them. I composed and recorded this album acoustically with real instrumental performances for over five years. Literally thousands of hours spent only to get asked again and again if the music has been programmed with computers. Is that a compliment or an insult? That people think it is so perfect that it must be programmed synthesizers? On the other hand, comments like that make me accept that few have any idea of the kind of effort behind the music and that’s ok by me.
1inmusic: Who would you say is the most undervalued music artist?
OGS: Good question! I would say ‘the Blind Boys of Alabama’. While they haven’t been massively influential, I think that they have perfected this mix of Gospel, Blues and Rock. I relate deeply to their music and I think you can clearly hear my Gospel roots in all of my piano playing that is in almost all my tracks.
It’s almost ten years ago when I saw both the Blind Boys of Alabama and Bo Diddley at the same venue, different nights, with about a hundred people or so in the audience. I got to hang out with them for a while after the shows and I can’t help thinking they are underrated when you are able to chill out with legends like that and people barely seem to know who they are.
1inmusic: What do you do when you don’t do music (creative or otherwise) and that you are passionate about?
I work in an American missionary organization as a project manager. Most of the work is related to education and healthcare projects. It is very fulfilling and allows me to travel all over the country to remote areas and meet people in our organization from all over the world.
1inmusic: Success to you is…
OGS: … to be true to themselves while also seeking recognition and appreciation from the public or people around them, a challenge for everyone.
I don’t know how you can be seen as successful or feel successful unless you have both of these to some degree. My mom has always said that there is victory in knowing you have done something to the best of your ability. I always try to keep that front and center instead of judging myself by how I think others may see me or trying to live up to some fantasy of how I think I should be. I think it’s with success as with happiness, when you try to find it you realize you either have it or you don’t. It’s not something you do or achieve, it is who you are, what you decide to feel from moment to moment.
1inmusic: What do you wish you were told when you started out and that you think would help anyone who starts out?
OGS: I’m definitely not someone qualified or worthy to give advice on the music business. But to share my thoughts as a musician, it probably helps to know what you want from your efforts into music. If you want to get noticed and get attention, and that’s fine, then focusing on your music will probably not get you that. To stand out, self-promote, look attractive or somehow different, to provoke and put on a show is are all separate instruments that requires deliberate practice to master.
1inmusic: What is next for you?
OGS: The music is on all the streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and Soundcloud. The album is even available as a mobile app and with an accompanying film on DVD. I hope to bring the concert to Europe later this year. You can find all the links on