Valerie Ghent is a singer-songwriter of many talents. The daughter of a violist and an electronic-music pioneer, she took up the piano at an early age and began to play the synthesizer as a teen. After an apprenticeship with record producer Mike Thorne, Ghent went on tour with Deborah Harry. At the same time, she began a long-term working relationship with Ashford & Simpson. And she has continued to perform and record with Valerie Simpson. As a solo artist, she appears in and around New York, in addition to performing in Paris and the south of France. She has produced six albums, including Unstoppable, Day to Day Dream, and Muse, with more on the way. Ghent is the founder of Songwriter’s Beat, a showcase for new writing, and Feel the Music!, a nonprofit organization that aims to help people through music.
Terry Stoller spoke with Valerie Ghent in November 2015 about her musical childhood, her early experience with synthesizers and her teen years in rock bands, her work as a recording engineer, the tour with Deborah Harry, her long association with Ashford & Simpson, her solo career, her organizations Songwriter’s Beat and Feel the Music!, and the Westbeth community of musicians.
Terry Stoller: Was it a given, coming from a musical family, that you would focus on music?
Valerie Ghent: My parents really didn’t want me to become a musician. But I grew up with music. I was singing and making up songs as a very young child.
You have a sister who also became a musician.
I have two sisters. My older sister plays the violin. My younger sister is gifted musically, but she didn’t follow a career in music. She went into the tech world.
And you were given music lessons.
From an early age, I was drawn to the piano. My parents started me on the cello at age 5, but I insisted on sticking with the piano and took lessons for a few years. I heard a lot of song ideas, and I wanted to play those. I would sit at the piano and sing melodies, and my mom would write them down and sometimes play those melodies on the viola or the violin. One time, she took one of my compositions and wrote it out for her ensemble. And when I came home from school, they played it. That was a wow moment.
My parents made a lot of games around music so that it became a creative thing, rather than a task. My father made a game—on a big cardboard box, he drew staves of the F clef and the G clef. We threw plumbing washers down on the staves, and we had to name the notes they landed on. And once we were done, he’d say, You just wrote a song. Let’s go play it, and see what it sounds like. With both my parents, there was a lot of music and creativity and interest in expressing yourself, finding new ways through music to do that.
[Ghent recorded Songs for Children (and All Their Friends) by her father, Emmanuel Ghent, in 1999.]
Were the songs that your father wrote for children an influence on your writing?
Those were songs we grew up singing, fun songs that my dad wrote after my younger sister was born. He wrote twenty-eight songs in two days. He composed a lot of electronic music and contemporary classical music, and is known as a pioneer of electronic and computer music. His music definitely had an influence on me.
My father had a full studio in our loft in SoHo with tape machines, a piano, oscillators, a patch bay. So when I was pretty young, I would go in there and watch what he was doing. He composed a lot of his electronic music at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Max Mathews, who was director of research at Bell Labs, invited my father to participate in a program in which composers could come and use the equipment at night. Bell was using the computers in the day for research in how to improve telephone communication. They were also interested in how artists would use that same technology. Max was a visionary who’s known as the father of computer music.
My father took me to Bell Labs when I was about 10. I remember freezing cold rooms filled with massive computers, and he showed me some of what he was doing then, and I would come home and experiment with the tape machines.
Did you have a facility with electronics?
I guess so. My father taught me at a young age how to solder. I don’t know if you remember Heathkits? I made a light dimmer by following the instructions and wiring the components together.
You’ve said in an interview that you learned to play the synthesizer as a teenager.
When I was 15, I took a class at the Public Access Synthesizer Studio on 22nd Street. I had been given a KORG MS-20, and I wanted to learn how to use it. That synthesizer was monophonic, meaning it only played one note. You couldn’t play a chord on it. It had a little patch bay. To change the sounds, you had to patch things in. Now you press buttons, and the sounds change. But then you had to set it, and patch all this stuff in.
Your mother’s field was classical musical, and your father’s was electronic music—and you went on to a whole other genre.
I had to rebel somehow. My dad would call me the “rock musician” of the family, in a kind of teasing way, which made me quite pleased. My parents and my older sister were serious musicians, and they probably thought I was just fooling around with a band on Saturday afternoons rehearsing rock songs. In high school, I was in a band called Dizzy and the Romilars; we played a lot of New York clubs and made a few records. I was still in high school, and the other musicians were in their 20s. This was in the early eighties.
In Dizzy and the Romilars, I played two monophonic synthesizers and sang. The band I was in afterward was a big funk band here in New York called Intensity Quotient (IQ). In that band, I played keyboards, sang, and cowrote a few songs. That band introduced me to funk and groove music.
When you became an apprentice with record producer Mike Thorne, you already had experience with electronics.
Yes, that’s one of the reasons he hired me. I had some experience; he also knew about my father and my father’s music. He jokingly referred to me as a computer music progeny. Working with Mike, I learned how to run the Synclavier and developed my skills as a recording engineer.
Was it unusual for a woman to become a recording engineer?
Definitely. I had two big influences. The leader of Dizzy and the Romilars, Ramona Jan, was one of the only female engineers at the time. I was in her band, but I was also seeing her experience as an engineer. Ramona worked at a studio called Media Sound, which was one of the best studios in New York at the time. We had our first big recording session there. I could see how other engineers respected her because they knew she was also an engineer. So it was important for me to know that was possible. The other thing was, engineering didn’t seem unusual to me because my father was so encouraging of my abilities. And with Mike Thorne, similarly, gender never felt like an issue. It was just, Can you do this? But besides Ramona, I rarely saw another woman engineer in the studio.
As a recording engineer, are you also producing the record?
Sometimes. Now when I make records of my own, I’m often engineering and producing, although I prefer to hire an engineer so that I don’t have to do everything. But working for Ashford & Simpson in the studio all those years, I was mostly engineering. They were the producers.
You started with Ashford & Simpson a few decades ago as their Synclavier operator.
That first year was quite incredible. Valerie Simpson called me because they needed a Synclavier operator. I went up to their studio, and we had a great recording session. Almost within the same week, I was called by Deborah Harry. She needed a keyboard player to do a world tour. I went to meet Debbie and Chris Stein, and got the position. The tour started a few weeks later. So Valerie Simpson said they wanted to work with me whenever the tour was in New York. That was very unusual in the music business, where it’s: We need somebody now. If you’re not here, we’ll get somebody else. I would call Valerie and say, We’re coming back to New York for a few days—and I’d go straight to the studio to work with Nick and Val until I went back out on the road again. Ashford & Simpson really waited for me. When the tour ended about nine months later, I started working full time with them.
What was interesting with Debbie’s tour was that the position required singing vocal parts, playing keyboards, and also programming and running sequencers for some of her songs like The Tide Is High, Rapture, Heart of Glass—all those songs have samples and a click track, which the drummer has to follow. You had to have a combined technological ability to program the keyboards and the modules at that time, and coordinate them and play the parts and sing. For me, it was a tremendous highlight.
You must have had a lot of confidence to do those gigs.
Actually, I had just done a tour with Grayson Hugh, which had me playing keyboards and singing live. And I was hoping for more touring work.
A lot of my confidence came from my apprenticeship with Mike Thorne. He was a taskmaster, and I was in the hot seat. Mike would say, We’ve got to make this work, which meant I had to make this work—and function at a high level under a lot of pressure, knowing that a lot of money was being spent in the studio, and the artist had limited time to be there.
It was interesting to go from working with Mike to working with Ashford & Simpson because they’re all high-level professionals who made phenomenal records, but in very different ways. I benefited from having both experiences. Mike at the time was doing a lot of dance music, which is quantized rigorously to be on the beat. With Ashford & Simpson, we rarely quantized anything. It was all about the feel of the music. If you overloaded the mike, it didn’t matter. If the performance was fantastic and your hairs stood up, it didn’t matter if you distorted the microphone. It was the performance. So that was a very different way of capturing music. Both methods gave me important skills and taught me different aspects of recording and producing music.
You eventually played keyboards and sang backup with Ashford & Simpson. How did that come about?
I was their engineer beginning in 1989, but they knew I played keyboards. We made a wonderful record with Maya Angelou, which took four years to complete. And later, when Nick and Val wanted to do some of the songs live with their band, Valerie asked me if I would go to the first rehearsal before they arrived. She said, No one knows this music better than you. You can help the musicians and the background vocalists learn their parts. So I went to this rehearsal, and one of the singers, Chandra Armstead, said, You sound great. You should be singing with us. She talked to Valerie, and the next thing I knew I started singing background—which for me was funny because I’d never sung background without a keyboard in front of me. So I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
Were you also playing keyboards at this point?
At first I was just singing background, and I was still in the studio as Nick and Val’s recording engineer. Then one of the keyboard players couldn’t make a concert, and Val asked me to sub. I started playing keyboards and triggering samples. So for a few years, I did either or, depending on which musicians were available. Around 2007, Ashford & Simpson decided to put together a small, intimate band with just four of us. At that point, I was the only background singer and playing keyboards with bassist Tinkr Barfield, drummer Bernard Davis, and pianist Nat Adderley Jr., who was the music director—a quartet and Nick and Val. That was very special for me.
Was it then that you decided it was time to also go solo with your own songs?
I had started performing solo in the early nineties here in New York, at the China Club, at CBGB, in places that are long gone. That was my first band. My first record, Unstoppable, came out in 1996.
When you put your first record out, you think everything is going to change. You’re going to have a hit record, you’re going to tour and be famous and make lots of money. Of course, when that doesn’t happen, and when I learned how screwed up the music business is, and how if you don’t pay $50,000 for radio promotion, no one is ever going to hear your music, I got pretty depressed about the whole music business. But a few years later, when I went into the studio to record the Songs for Children album with my father, I realized how much I loved to make music. I didn’t want to be bitter. I love music and have to do it. I have no other choice. Once I cleared that up—maybe that’s getting older and letting go of some of the dreams of your 20s and becoming more grown-up—I realized I’m just going to keep making records.
In 2012, I did hire someone to promote my music on the Day to Day Dream album. And that got it on radio stations in Europe and the UK and Australia. My song “Love Enough for a Lifetime” was a No. 1 hit on iHeartRadio. It was also in rotation on SiriusXM. More recently, I have become active on Twitter, which has led to radio play, including a station in Argentina that made me their featured artist in 2015. The other big thing is having my music on YouTube. People are finding my music there.
Your technical skills must be valuable for producing your records.
Absolutely. I encourage all musicians and especially songwriters and composers to learn engineering. Knowing the technical side helps you communicate in the studio and is invaluable for recording new songs and trying out production ideas. And knowing how to engineer has meant I can record at home. In fact, my first album, Unstoppable, was recorded at Westbeth in my apartment. I programmed most of the instruments, including most of the drums, and for the rest, I bartered, trading engineering for studio time so that I could record vocals and live instruments.
Now I prefer to record live with great musicians to capture the band sound in a big studio. But once we’re done, I bring all the tracks home, study them, choose takes, then overdub vocals, keyboards, percussion—and I can edit that right at home.
The Muse album  seems like a departure from your work in rock and R&B.
Muse actually goes back to my roots, the songs I talked about writing when I was sitting at the piano and singing. Some of the songs for Muse were recorded fifteen years ago. And others I wrote after my parents passed away. There are a lot of personal songs on Muse that helped me get through that period. And because my mother [Nathalie (Natasha) Ghent] had string quartets and often rehearsed at the house, having strings on the record was very evocative of my childhood. My sister Nadia is playing our mother’s viola on “Heavenly.” It was a very intense and therapeutic song to write. I still feel when I sing it that I’m somehow talking to my mom. I wrote the viola part trying to imagine what she might have played.
I love writing ballads, where I can just sing and let the music flow. I also have the side that loves to play funky grooves and rock out with the band and be a show person and have fun with music. So I’m always balancing the two.
Can you talk about how Feel the Music! started and what it has developed into?
It’s hard to talk about Feel the Music! without mentioning Songwriter’s Beat because they are connected in a way. To go to the beginning, Songwriter’s Beat is a night I started in 2000 at the Cornelia Street Café. Three friends and I did a great concert, and the café asked if I wanted to host a monthly night. I said, OK. I encouraged people to try out new material at Songwriter’s Beat. For fourteen years, every month, I had four songwriters come in. I built this big family of songwriters, mostly around the tri-state area, but also around the country and around the world. There were songwriters from South Africa, Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, and lots of other countries.
The weekend after 9/11, I did a big concert for the Parks Department. I had wanted to cancel, but the Parks Department said, No, people need music. We need you to perform and bring people together. In the following months, Songwriter’s Beat held a lot of benefits for firehouses. Through my volunteer work at the World Trade Center site and through meeting firefighters and policemen who were poets and musicians, I got the idea to do a concert on the six-month anniversary of 9/11 with firefighters and police officers and volunteers. It was such a big thing, it turned into two concerts. The power of the submissions was so incredible that I said, “This should be a record.” I managed to get everything donated, the manufacturing, the artwork, and the mastering to put the We’ll Carry On record together in 2002.
Throughout that six-month period, I was thinking about the power of music in this kind of tragedy and talking with my parents. (I’ve talked about my father’s music career, but he was also a psychiatrist, and my mother was an educator as well as a musician.) And I was meeting 9/11 family members and hearing about their kids. I was thinking, I know all these great musicians in New York. There’s got to be a way to match the kids with these musicians.
Eventually, in 2004, I submitted a grant proposal to the Red Cross for a music program for 9/11 family members. NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis had agreed to partner with us. And in 2005, I received a quarter of a million dollars in funding. I put a team of teachers together, and we started running workshops and training sessions with NYU. We began the regular program at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. We were there in sessions of twelve weeks, every Saturday, three sessions a year, running a full-day program: music, art, lunch, discussion groups. My partnership with NYU involved including a therapist as a participant observer in the classes. Mental health outreach became an intrinsic part of the program—besides the fact that I believe music to be therapeutic, just playing it and singing it.
The program has expanded since then. I saw a YouTube clip of a drumming workshop at VISIONS, an organization for the blind and visually impaired.
Yes, we’ve gotten other funding and have expanded to serve senior centers, the children’s cancer center at New York–Presbyterian, as well as other community programs.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that I haven’t touched on?
There was a period of time after 9/11, when I was running Songwriter’s Beat and Feel the Music! was forming, that I took a long hiatus from recording my own music. I was always writing, but I didn’t record much besides demos. My father died in 2003, and my mother died in 2006. I remarried. I have a stepson, and I was focusing with him on schoolwork before he went off to college.
Even though I wasn’t recording, that was a huge time of growth for me as a songwriter. It was a gestational period as I was processing my parents’ passing, my becoming a parent, and the work we were doing after 9/11. I have more than fifty songs, material that I’m now recording. At the moment, I’m working on three records. I’m mixing my next record, Velour, which was recorded in New York City and in France. I have another album of songs we recorded in France this summer, some of which are reggae, some jazz, and some rock. And I’m working on a blues record, which is a lot of material I’ve been doing at Sugar Bar this month. I’ve been writing some blues songs and going into the archives and finding lost songs from the thirties, forties, and fifties. A cousin of mine, Dimitri Vicheney—he’s 91 and lives in Paris—is a blues historian. He was very encouraging, and he directed me to singers and songs that he thought would be perfect for my voice.
And would you like to say anything about Westbeth?
I love living in Westbeth. I love the mix of artists and the creative energy here. One of the first people I connected with musically was Stan Satlin. I was at those earliest meetings with him and Eve Zanni when Stan had the idea to do the music festival. I thought it was such a brilliant idea because there wasn’t a musical outlet at Westbeth, and there were some great, talented musicians here. I knew Noah and Miles Evans. I did some recording in the basement studios. So I met John Gamble and, of course, Nasheet Waits. We all kind of knew each other. I think it was around the time the music festival started that we began to work together more. Bobby Harden just sang with me in my blues show last Tuesday. And Madeleine Yayodele Nelson performed with me at Joe’s Pub. I invite her whenever I can to come perform.
Here’s another thing I found helpful at Westbeth. My other passion is photography. I went to the gallery one holiday show and said, I’m a musician in Westbeth, but could I put in a photo? They said sure. I was printing my own photos, and I put two in the show—and to see them hang on the wall, I was really grateful to Westbeth for that opportunity. It’s easy to be in Westbeth and to just be in your apartment and not connect with people. I think the festival, the gallery shows, those are wonderful opportunities for people to come and be together.
(For more about Valerie Ghent, go to valghent.com.)
Photo credits: Ghent portrait: Maurizio Bacci; Symphony Space: Sharron Lee Crocker;
Sugar Bar (2): Fredy Mfuko. All photos courtesy of Valerie Ghent.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council