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‘It was just so natural’: Hilary Gardner explores her country roots

Hilary Gardner
Margherita Andreani
Hilary Gardner

I first met singer Hilary Gardner as a member of the vocal trio Duchess, where she blended her beautiful voice with two other wonderful chirps: Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou. But it has been fascinating to learn of her separate identity and unique music journey, from a teenager in Wasilla, Alaska singing Patsy Cline and vintage country tunes to the jazzy streets of the holy city of Brooklyn, N.Y. We talked about our mutual love of Bing Crosby, the romance of exploration, wide open spaces and the lonely trail, and the classic "singing cowboy" era of music as we strolled and chatted through her latest project On the Trail With the Lonesome Pines.

Enjoy our conversation, above.


Interview transcript:

Janis Siegel: Can I just say right off the bat that I freaking love your new record? I got a copy of it a day or two ago and I just listened to it at the gym. And I've been listening to various cuts here and there. You nail this vibe.

Hilary Gardner: Oh, thank you.

Could you explain the title? How did that come to pass?

When I started looking at all of these songs, I just kept calling them trail songs, because they don't really have a genre. There's not really a neat little box that they fit into. So trail songs are sort of my shorthand because I wanted the album to be centered on that theme of “Life on the Trail” in some capacity. I didn't really have the catchiest title in the world. I think in 1936, there was a Zane Gray novel and even maybe a film called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. And the last song on the record, twilight on the trail, the final A-section of that song, which I find just incredibly poignant, is—"When it's twilight on the trail and my voice is still there/Still, please plant this heart of mine underneath the lonesome pine on the hill.” It's so evocative. I wanted to nod to that idea of the lonesome pines. I wanted a band name because this project really feels like a band.

How did you find these musicians?

They're so good. Noah Garabedian is the bass player and, Noah and I have done so many gigs over the years. I'm a fan of his as well. He's done many different kinds of projects. He's playing tonight at the Blue Note with Ravi Coltrane. He does super straight ahead, but I remember hearing him with a group that he was playing in called the Slim Tones. It was this very kind of hard driving, mid-century, R&B almost. He's an eclectic, really great musician and a great hang.

I knew I wanted to work with Noah. I also had a slight ulterior motive in that Noah and Justin Poindexter have done projects together, including the Amigos. Justin is a guitarist and vocalist. I have been a fan of Justin's from afar for a long time. Noah said, “Well, we got to get Justin involved.” Justin's from North Carolina and so he's very steeped in roots music and Americana and country. The three of us got together and from the first time we played a tune, it was just so natural. Justin just spontaneously started singing some harmonies and it felt like that from the beginning.

Then the wonderful singer songwriter Kat Edmondson, she's fantastic. The drummer Aaron Thurston is also Kat's drummer and they are partners in music and in life. Because Kat does such interesting intimate eclectic music, I thought, “I bet Aaron would get this.” That was the same thing. It was just like the second he came into the room with us, it’s like, ta da, we're a group.

The vibe is so deep throughout the whole record. I love your writing about the songs too, because you're a wonderful writer.

Well, so are you, so that means a lot.

It's the romance of exploration and of open spaces and of that empty, lonely trail. It's so beautiful. And thank you for explaining the word doggies. I thought they were little dogs.

It’s not in our collective lexicon, the way that maybe it was back in the thirties and forties. Certainly not in New York City. It's not a word that we hear a lot.

[sings] Get along, little doggies. Get along, little doggies.

I think you really hit it on the head though. There is this romance about the American West. This isn't a historical exploration of what happened in the West. It's these archetypes of cowboys and being on the trail and of westward expansion and frontiers and all the longing and the solitude.

Missing loved ones.

Exactly. Those ideas loom very large in our collective imagination. I think there are these really intrinsic kind of American sounds and images and absolutely very drawn to that.

The singing cowboys. Let's not forget Dale Evans. How many singing cowgirls were there besides her? Well, not as many as singing cowboys. You've got Gene Autry and Rex Allen and Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers. [sings] “Happy trails to you.” Great, great song.  My current favorite on your record is “Silver on the Sage.” Tell me about Bing Crosby and how you got to love him. You're so right in your writing that he's extraordinary in that there's no one with a more relaxed delivery of a song.

Silver on the Sage

He literally sang maybe everything over the course of his career from those very early days to the end where he's doing Irish songs. The breadth of his career is astonishing, but he was kind of this hip cowboy. I think I did a count at one point of the 12 songs on my album that he recorded. He recorded so many of these songs. I think he loved melodies and he cared about lyrics but his feel was incredible. He became such an enormous superstar, rightly so, in the ‘50s when he was doing all those crooner song and dance man films and certainly all the Hope and Crosby movies.

And White Christmas. Iconic.

But he was an incredible jazz singer. He had an amazing feel and he was so generous with other artists. He did a great record with Rosemary Clooney called Fancy Meeting You Here. These wonderful duets. He did so many things with the Andrews Sisters. And there's always a point in these recordings where he kind of hands it over to whoever his duet partner is. Then Bing's just kind of being Bing in the background and improvising or adding a harmony. And it is so burning and so easy. It's amazing.

I think that is from his tenure with the Rhythm Boys and with Paul Whiteman.  Some of those recordings are amazing. He's scatting in the’30s. It's very evocative of that period. It's very much the syllables of that period. It’s interesting, but it's totally swinging. He's bringing all of that to whatever he's doing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, certainly that jazz feeling that he's got.

Again, I think most people knew him mostly from the crooning and the TV shows and the movies, but they don't know about his real jazz pedigree. Sometimes I think he's dismissed as not as hip or that he's a corny crooner. He was very mainstream and he made a lot of money. I get that, but if you scratch the surface just a little bit, there's so much great stuff.

A personal memory I have is that Bing Crosby was my father's idol. My father would sing in the car like Bing Crosby, just very relaxed. And he had a beautiful voice, my father. And that's where I started doing harmony, in the car with him, singing those songs from Bing Crosby.

Tell me about the inception of this record, because I know that many of us, because of the limitations of the lockdown and the pandemic and feeling closed in, would maybe be dreaming of wide open spaces. So how did that happen for you?

That definitely was the seed that kind of started it all for all of us who were in New York City and working in music. And out of New York City for that matter. The lights went off, overnight. It was literally overnight. With Duchess, the vocal trio, we were in Atlanta to do a gig the next day and we got on a plane and came right back home. So many people interrupted tours or just never did another show.

That's what we did. We were in Florida. We came right back.

It was just this instantaneous thing and all of a sudden the world just got so small. I found that I wasn't hankering to sing some of the same stuff that I'd been singing. I wasn't missing certain types of gigs per se. I think I was longing to still do music, but I, without really knowing it, was on the cusp of some big sort of creative changes and professional changes. I think my subconscious was probably working very hard and what felt like a new genre and something that touched on these themes of open spaces and the ability to wander through nature was also kind of pointing me in a direction truly towards unexplored territory, which is kind of a metaphor that started to extend into other facets of my life. But I grew up singing country music. That was the first music I ever sang.

How did you get interested in this genre? It was Alaska, wasn't it?

Yeah, it was Alaska. I mean, even before Alaska. I was born in Omaha and my father tells a story about dancing me around the living room at six months old to Hank Williams records. It was from the beginning. When we moved to Alaska, we drove up the Alcan highway and listened to Merle Haggard the whole time. And Patsy Cline was a hugely formative singer for me. We had vinyl records and I sang along so much to Patsy Cline. She is as formative for me as Ella Fitzgerald or Joni Mitchell. Just one of those bedrock kind of artists. And being in Alaska, there wasn't really much live jazz. You, Janis, were the first live jazz singer in concert that I ever saw when the Manhattan Transfer came to Anchorage.

That's crazy. Why were you in Alaska? Why'd you guys move there?

I never found out. It was an adventure. My parents were quite outdoorsy. The economy was strong. I mean, I don't know. I always felt like there had been some sort of cosmic glitch. But I did get to do some early gigs when I was 14 and 15 years old. You know how like at bar mitzvahs, there's the party dancers that get the party started and the ringers, they get everybody on the dance floor? When I was 14 or 15, I was a ringer for a guy who had a karaoke business. And he would go into these crappy little dive bars on weekends. It was my part time job. I would sing Patsy Cline songs and get the karaoke party started. So, it's kind of funny and fitting that this project would combine all of these various paths and unite them into something cohesive because they've always existed in parallel.

Doesn't that feel good?

Yes. I also just feel so refreshed by this brand new repertoire. Obviously the repertoire itself is not brand new, but to me it's been brand new. And they're great songs.

I was amazed to learn that “Silver on the Sage” was written by the guys who wrote “Easy Living.”

And “Thanks for the Memory.” Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger.

Jingle Jangle Jingle (I Got Spurs)

Incredible songs all. And there's a Frank Loesser song in there. [sings] “I got spurs that jingle jangle jingle.”

And his co-writer on that, Joseph J. Lilley, was a big orchestrator and conductor for Paramount Pictures. And he was the orchestrator on White Christmas. I realized this past holiday that “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was their first hit song.

Are you going to tour this project?

Gosh, I hope so. I'm just starting to kind of do a lot of outreach now. I would love to.

You got to do it with this band too. It's not the kind of thing I don't think where you can pick up players on the way. It's a whole cohesive concept. I think that's going on here.

I know you get this too. It's great to be in a band. I love being in a band and seeing and feeling how things take shape on their own and over time and exploring things together and finding your own group sound.

I hear you loud and clear. There's a certain thrill about winging it and going to a new place and picking up local players and teaching them or sending charts in advance. But it's nerve wracking actually. And sometimes it doesn't work out so well. It’s great to travel with your own people, certainly. What's happening with Duchess?

We've got some stuff on the docket this spring. I’m so happy about that. We're finding a little bit of a groove again. We're going to Cincinnati for a couple of shows in early May. And then we're coming back on May 6. We're going to be part of a jazz series that's happening at the National Arts Club. We're going to play a great venue called The Mainstay in Rock Hall, Maryland in July. We've actually got even some holiday shows on the calendar.

Duchess was inspired by the Boswells mainly, right?


Well, i'm a huge Boswells fan, but also another reason I love you Hilary is because you're a Beverly Kenney fan.

Born To Be Blue

I mean, what's not to love? “My Brooklyn Love Song” is now in my repertoire. There are so many of these little songs. Sometimes you come across these tunes and you go, well, I can see why that one didn't become a major jazz standard. Not everything has been destined for greatness, but there are a lot of tunes out there that I don't know why they just didn't take hold. I always cite this example of a great song by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, “Brooklyn Bridge.” It's a great song. It’s location specific, but it's a great standard. It came from the movie It Happened in Brooklyn, and the hit song was “Time After Time.” And I think that “Brooklyn Bridge” then just got eclipsed by “Time After Time.”

My “Brooklyn Love Song” has the absolute best first line of any song I've ever encountered “Why is he recalcitrant in Flatbush?” First of all, using the word recalcitrant.

Why is he reluctant in Canarsie?

Why in Coney won't he even try?

It's really perfection. Somebody sent me the original sheet music and that verse was not on it. There was a different verse on it. And so I wonder if that was one that somebody made up later.

I have the original sheet music inside but I'm not going to leave you and check it out.  But we do love our Beverly Kenney. What is your favorite song on the new record? Or is it like children? That you can't really pick one.

I don't have children, so I’m a little bit loathe to use that simile, but I do feel like, how could I possibly pick a favorite? But one that I loved from the very beginning and a song that I learned from the vintage sheet music I hadn't heard anyone do, was “Cowboy Serenade (While I'm Smokin’ My Last Cigarette).” Because it's so atmospheric. It paints such a picture and it's moody. It's a very elegant melody and these kind of soaring melody lines, but you're singing “Yippee Ki Yay.” And so you've got this mashup of a beautiful melody, but also very cowboy on the dusty trail.

So where did “Yippee Ki Yay” come from?

Now that I do not know.

That language that you sing also in “Cow Cow Boogie,” which was the Ella Mae Morse hit. It's got a triplet in it. It's so cool. A lot of people don't sing the triplet. That I've heard anyway. But “Cow Cow Boogie” is one I recognized just from the R&B world and Ella did it too.

Yes, with the Ink Spots and it's so charming.

Cow Cow Boogie

Is there anything else you want to add about this record

I will say I've been really moved by how nostalgic people get about some of these songs. People come up after shows and say, “I used to watch Roy Rogers every week.” Or they know these songs. I was a little nervous about how it might be received, just in the sense that people can get a little fussy about what's really jazz and what's not. And nobody cares. These songs, they seem to speak to something.

Who cares if it's jazz or not?

That's how I feel.

You are a jazz singer and whatever you do, whatever you sing, it must be jazz. It's like Bing Crosby. Whatever he's saying, it was always a subtext. It was always available to him. It's the way you think about phrasing and time and emotion. It’s part of who you are, I think.

Yes, we can only bring ourselves to the music that we make.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Over the past five decades, the voice of Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy winner and an eighteen-time Grammy nominee, has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a founding member of this musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned almost a dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base and garnered consistently high critical praise.