by Charles McGuigan
Laura Ann Singh has a voice that can bring you to tears one moment, crush you with melancholy the next. Then lift you beyond your wildest expectations to mountains of sheer joy, to pinnacles of love, to summits of romance. Words fused with melody—a double-edged sword—can carve any emotion into your ears, can cleave your heart from your soul. Laura Ann grew up in an East Tennessee home that was filled with music, not far from the home of June Carter. But music would take Laura Ann to a world in another hemisphere, to the Bossa Nova of Brazil, and the Boleros of Latin America. Today she sings with Quatro Na Bossa and Miramar, both of which have a loyal following. When singing, Laura Ann experiences a wholeness and a fullness that connects her to the Divine.
Laura Ann Singh sits on the couch in her sun-washed living room on a day that bursts suddenly with the full promise of spring after many false starts. Coats are long-last shed, and the temperature rises slow and steady as sap. A time of expectation and hope, two weeks before Easter.
Her sea-green eyes widen as she begins describing her childhood in Kingsport, Tennessee. Laura Ann’s ancestors were all Scotts-Irish and Irish, settling in East Tennessee and the coalfields of central Kentucky generations ago. Her grandfather had built a small grocery store chain in Kingsport called Oakwood Markets.
Music filled Laura Ann’s childhood home thanks in large part to her parents Wallace and Jan Boyd. “Something that I have always kinds of marveled at is that we grew up singing socially,” Laura says. “If we went camping or had just finished a meal, people would sit around and sing. On long car trips, my mother would teach us a song. She would teach me a high part, and my sister a low part, and we would sing three parts together. That’s how I learned to hear harmony.”
Her father played guitar and piano, also little songs for the kids. “So we always had music around the house,” says Laura Ann. “Everybody kind of sang, but it didn’t’ matter if you were really good, it was just a cultural thing.”
“I was always drawn to music as a child,” she continues. “A lot of times my dad or mom would sing us to sleep at night. I do the same for my daughter, now. I sing the old hymns my mom would sing to me, hymns she learned from her mother and her grandmother.”
Then Laura closes her eyes, raises her head, and her mouth opens, and she sings.
“Peace, peace, wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above.”
And the sunlight in the room seems to intensify.
After five in the evening there wasn’t much teenagers could do in Kingsport. You could got to the Waffle House, buy a pack of cigarettes from a machine and smoke out back. Or you could go to a parking lot, roll down your car windows, and listen to crackling music from the radio.
But sometimes, Laura Ann and her friends would travel twenty minutes north to Hiltons, Virginia home of the Carter Family Fold. It was an unassuming music venue in an old barn, the inside of which was lined with tiers of well-worn bus seats, and every Saturday night a different bluegrass band would play. “They’ve actually redone it lately, and it’s not as cool anymore,” Laura Ann says. “But June Carter’s grandkids are still running the place, and Johnny Cash gave his last performance there a couple months before he died. They wheeled him out in a wheelchair, and he sang a few songs.”
After a pause, she says, “There was a lot of music around that area, and though it wasn’t the music I ended up with, it was still music.”
Laura Ann’s grandparents also had an influence on their granddaughter’s love of music. “My grandparents loved big band music, so they introduced me to the early jazz sound in the United States,” says Laura Ann “And through that I got interested in Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, some of the crooners. So that was cultivated by them a little bit.”
And Laura Ann’s mother was and always been extremely supportive of her daughter’s music career. My mom has been one of my biggest advocates,” she says. “Being a musician is really not very glamorous, and so a lot of times I’ve wanted to quit. And she’s really pushed me to stay in it, and not pushed me as in a stage momish way at all. She would say, ‘This is what you’re good at, this is what you’re meant to do. You should do it, the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter. Just don’t give up because it’s important to you and it’s important to the people who are going to hear you, to the people that are going to receive it. Don’t give up.’ Both my parents have always been supportive, and so has my husband.”
When she was just eight years old, Laura Ann asked for an unusual present. “I wanted a French-English dictionary for my birthday because I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and language especially,” she says. “It shapes how you think, it shapes how you express yourself.”
In high school, a boy she had a crush on gave Laura Ann a mixed tape. Among all the songs, one stood out and struck something deep within the girl. It was a piece performed by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, called “Desafinado”. Gilberto who wrote the song (he also wrote “The Girl from Impanema”) was one of the progenitors of a new kind of music in the 1950s and 1960s, a sort of jazz-influenced version of Samba called Bossa Nova, which quickly spread around the world. The voices are almost feathery, the four-against-five rhythm velvety. But the young Laura Ann knew nothing about any of this.
“That was the first time I had ever heard anything Brazilian,” she tells me. “And it stayed with me.”
As a senior at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Laura Ann listened to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” a million times over, and was blown away by the breadth of it. That year she toured colleges throughout the state—James Madison, University of Virginia, William and Mary, and University of Richmond. She decided on UR because of a concert they would be holding during her first semester there. “Ladysmith Black Mambazo was going to be playing at the Modlin Center,” she remembers. “And honestly that’s why I applied.”
But Laura Ann didn’t study music at UR. Instead, she majored in international studies. She minored in music for a time, but it wasn’t to her liking because the program was classically focused.
During her senior year in college she met Kevin Harding, and after graduation they began playing gigs together at the Tobacco Company. They mainly did standards, but would throw in a couple of Bossa Nova numbers as well. “And then eventually we ended up learning these songs and started this band called Quatro Na Bossa,” says Laura Ann. “Kevin played rhythm and lead, Aaron Binder was the original drummer, Randall Pharr bass player, and I was singing.”
Their focus was always Brazilian music, Bossa Nova, specifically, and they began landing gigs around town, and then on to the Big Apple.
“We got hooked up with this guy in New York who started booking us every year for a week-long run at Dizzy’s Club,” Laura Ann says. “We would be the closing act for this amazing Brazilian trio called Trio da Paz. We would go up in August for a week.”
By the by, Laura Ann would move into another music project with one of her best friends, Marlysse Simmons, keyboard player and music director for Bio Ritmo.
“Miramar is the name of our group, and we have been performing a lot,” says Laura Ann. She sings duets with Rei Alvarez, also of Bio Ritmo, and Marlysse plays keyboard or organ with Rusty Farmer on bass, and Hector “Coco” on percussion.
“Boleros span all of Latin America,” Laura Ann says. “Eydie Gorme was singing boleros and getting hits in the United States. Miramar is kind of a romantic project that is more of a listening thing and less of a dancing thing. A more intensive listening experience than Bio Ritmo.”
It’s been about decade now that the band has been performing, and in recent years Miramar has had one success after another. “This was a kind of a passion project for us,” says Laura Ann. “Marlysse is just one of these people who absolutely has a focused idea of what she wants to accomplish musically, and she makes it happen.”
And happen it did. “We started performing with a string quartet in concerts,” Laura Ann says. “We released a record a couple years ago on Barbes Records, a label out of Brooklyn. We got to do an NPR Tiny Desk with that record. And we’ve gotten to do some amazing shows in some beautiful concert halls. We performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. a couple of times with a string quartet. We played the Elebash Recital Hall in midtown Manhattan. We’ve played the Brick Music Festival in Brooklyn this past year.”
Laura smiles broadly. “We were number one on Amazon for Latin music for a few hours,” she says with boisterous laugh.
But all kidding aside, Miramar has a very strong fan base. “It’s amazing we found an audience for it that is much larger than what we ever anticipated,” says Laura Ann. “We just did globalFEST in New York, which is this giant showcase, and we were invited to play, which was really cool because a lot of people have to pay to play that festival.”
And when Laura Ann took a hiatus a couple years ago to spend more time with her daughter when the family relocated to San Francisco for her husband’s work as an attorney, things for Miramar began to mushroom.
Laura Ann remembers vividly the golden light of San Francisco, the faint scent of eucalyptus, the deep indigo of the Pacific, the crisp lines of the homes sitting on the curvature of hills. “I got to live in this amazingly beautiful place, and spend time with my daughter,” she says. “And then I got to have some of the more rewarding work of my life. I mean we played the Lincoln Center outdoor concert series that same summer, and it was amazing. We had a little tour of the Midwest through Chicago and Minneapolis. It was a great time for me. It opened my eyes. The benefit of having a friend like Marlysse is she just believes, and so she doesn’t face the same discouragement that can kind of cripple me sometimes. She just pushes for things she believes in, and we found people engaged. People loved these shows and we kept it up.”
Just last month Miramar cut a 45 for Daptone Records, an indie company out of Brooklyn. One side is “Salida”; the flip side is “Urgencia”. And both songs were written by Rei and Marlysse. “They called us to come in and do this because they want to release some Latin music,” Laura Ann says. “These kinds of opportunities I just could not have imagined. We’re super-excited about it all.”
She remembers when both those songs were being crafted. “It’s really fun to watch songs evolve,” says Laura Ann. “Especially when you’ve been in projects long-term. You think about how it started and how it just became this whole other thing as you kept revisiting it. That was one of the things I had to learn. I do write songs, but they’re mostly for me. They’re not great necessarily. That’s not one of my great gifts. And I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to be an interpreter, that that’s its own art. But I love watching these songs evolve, and I feel like I’ve had input, and I feel like I definitely have ideas about how they should be shaped and formed.”
She recalls one song Miramar had been playing. Laura Ann liked it, but sensed there was something missing. “I thought it was beautiful,“ she says. “But then Marlysse added this string arrangement and this really small percussion part, and for me it just started to shimmer when we played it.”
Laura Ann mentions one of her favorite songs, “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington, and then she begins to sing it, and the room shimmers.
“It’s amazing how much music draws out of us,” she says, taking a deep breath. “The season in my life when I would go out and sing for three or four hours a night in a loud room is not that appealing to me now. But I am so grateful for the ten or twelve years I spent doing that. That was my 10,000 hours.”
Laura Ann is extremely glad for the current season of her life, and projects like Miramar that give her audiences a different kind of experience. “I think we’re so inundated by sound and noise, digitally and otherwise, that people don’t realize what it does when you pause and turn your attention toward something that’s as transcendent as music,” she says. “Taking time out of your day to listen to a concert. That’s another reason I like the Bolero project, because we’ve kind of demanded that people pause and listen. It’s been a really special thing to have music that demands more attention, which is something we’re all short on right now.”
Laura Ann then asks me to consider beauty. “I’m a big fan of John Muir,” she says. “And exposing yourself to beauty is very important to our well-being. Culturally we’ve become inured to that idea. We ignore our spiritual sides, but we’re still spiritual beings that need to be nourished.”
Laura Ann, always humble about her own talent, talks about what music does to her. “There are so many people who know so much more about music than I do, and people who are much more talented than I am,” she says. “But I just know that when I’m singing, I feel the fullest. By and large when I’m singing I feel whole, and that’s a really precious thing, I don’t know that I feel that way much in any other sphere in my life.”
From outside we can hear the trill of birds. “There’s something about music that connects us to the Divine,” says Laura Ann. “It’s like being outside and witnessing beautiful things in nature. There’s something in us that needs that kind of nourishment, and I think there are a lot of avenues to that nourishment.”
On an Easter Sunday about fifteen years ago, Laura Ann met a man whose father is pastor of the church she still attends, a place called Eternity. It might not have been love at first sight, but it could have been love at first sound. After meeting, the pair talked for hours and hours and hours, and within a year, they were engaged to be married.
“I also sing at my church on Sundays,” Laura Ann says. “It’s one of the few places in the world currently where people still get together and sing. I don’t know any other time that people do that nowadays, and that’s really beautiful to me. So that’s been really rewarding. I love the people I get to play with there.”
“I think the reason faith is so important to me is because it says there’s higher consciousness, there’s higher purpose and we’re all complicated and we contradict ourselves,” says Laura Ann Singh. “We do things we don’t want to do; and then we don’t do things we want to do. But still God loves us, and He actually cares about the minutiae of our day and our lives, and cares about the things that oppress us, that keep us from being our fullest selves. And that’s what it is for me, ‘Who am I really, who am I essentially? And can I get to that point where I fell that wholeness permeating more of my life?’ That’s the same kind of wholeness and fullness I get when I sing. Music reflects, and does not deny the Divine”