Vocal trio Duchess sing and laugh their way through hard times

Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou make up the New York-based vocal group known as Duchess.

Following in the tradition of the Boswell Sisters, the group has been singing together in New York since a chance encounter brought them together in 2013. In the years that have followed, the group has toured all over the world, sharing their tight harmonies and engaging stage presence.

They’ve just released their fourth album with Anzic Records, a 12-song set called Live at Jazz Standard.

Cervini joined us to talk about the making of that live recording, and how the album is a form of wish fulfillment for those of us who have been missing the experience of live music.

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How are you doing these days?

I’m in New York, which I think is probably different than a lot of places. We’re okay. Our apartment isn’t the smallest apartment in the city, by far. I have two young kids, so I’ve added “elementary school teacher” to my resumé. I understand the new math now, which is great. We’re alright. My husband and I are both musicians, so we’re just trying to cobble together rent and figure out how to make it happen for the next few months, or a year, or whatever it’s going to be. But we’re all healthy and we still like each other, so that’s good.

It was a year ago when you took to the stage at the Jazz Standard to make this record. It must seem like longer than a year ago now.

So much longer. So much longer. I mean, I long for the days when I will spit in those girls’ faces again up on that stage. It’s really hard to believe it was just a year ago. Our CD release was supposed to be at the end of March at the Jazz Standard. It felt weird at first to be releasing a record in the middle of this, but … it’s sort of the perfect record to come out right now. You sit down for an hour, close your eyes and pretend you’re at a live show, which is what a lot of people are wishing they could do right now. We included all the banter, the talking and the audience reaction. So, it feels alright. It feels like a show.

Were those decisions made afterwards?

No, the whole idea about putting out the record was that there are so many places we haven’t been yet, and we wanted people to get a sense of what it’s like to be at a Duchess show. We just wanted to capture the organic growth of the group, and how we sound live now compared to how we sounded in the studio the first couple times we went in. We try to entertain as much as we try to provide good music. So, we try to make people laugh. The Rat Pack did that Live at the Sands record that has a lot of the talking in between, so we thought, let’s do that. Let’s put out an entire set, full of all of our talking, too. It’s become so much a part of what we do, anyway.

There’s something that’s in short supply these days, and that’s joy. That’s part of what you wanted to do with this, to show that there is reason to celebrate and to smile.

For sure. Even before this, we’ve been living in some very confusing and hard times in general. This is just an added… I can’t even believe it. But one of the things we wanted to do was spread joy and let people forget about what’s happening around them for an hour — to smile, laugh and feel nostalgic.

How difficult is it when you’re making choices for material? 

We chose based on what had grown the most from when we recorded it. A lot of things change — and they might be subtle, but that’s okay. We wanted to document the arrangements [by] Oded Lev-Ari, who’s my husband, and all the organic changes that had happened to them. There are also a few numbers that we had never recorded before. We had been doing a version of Chattanooga Choo Choo since our first show, and it was supposed to be just for that first show — we never really intended to keep it in the books — but people love it, so we keep doing it. It’s way too high for us, it’s not in the right key… There are so many things about it that don’t work for us, but we have a great time when we’re doing it, and the audience loves it, and people know that song, so we wanted to also cover things like that and make sure that we recorded some of those tunes.

You’ve talked about the customizing of arrangements as the difference between off-the-rack and couture. I think that’s a great way of putting it. It’s not just going out there and singing a song; these things have been tweaked and put together in a very specific way that, I’m guessing, showcases the best of what the three of you can do differently.

Absolutely. [Oded Lev-Ari] knows our voices really well. Obviously, he knows mine better than anyone’s, but he’s also produced a record for Melissa, and he knows the three of us, he knows our strengths and he knows our weaknesses. It’s sort of like what Duke Ellington did for his band. He was writing for Johnny Hodges. No one else was going to play that part. That’s how he writes for Duchess. Sometimes I don’t even know who’s singing the melody, because my part is so beautiful that I go, “Wow, I’ve never heard that melody before,” but it’s not the melody — he just wrote such a great part for me to sing.

Is it always a rubber stamp when you’re given the arrangements, or is there some tweaking?

I’ll be honest, we have not had to tweak anything. I’m sort of a bad student, so sometimes I sing the wrong notes. Let’s not say the wrong notes. I sing a different note than what he has provided for me. But it’s not because my idea was better, but probably because it was easier.

How different are the three of you? Besides vocally, but as people. Obviously you have great camaraderie, but how different are you in all the ways that people are?

We have a very special, sisterly [relationship]. Once you work together like this, you become sort of a family. In the same way that siblings are not the same, we are definitely not the same. Vocally, you hear our solo records and they’re three different points of view, and we come together for this. We have different strengths and weaknesses as humans as well, but it works out because you can’t have a group of three alphas and you can’t have a group of three quirky people. It doesn’t work that way. So, our differences in personality and style fit together to make this neat little puzzle, where if you tried to put someone else in there it just wouldn’t fit the same way. I think that makes it beautiful. I think that makes it human and real.

It seems like people want authenticity. They want people to be who they are and not put on airs. That just seems like the only way we can connect now.

I think that’s a way to make sense of a saturated marketplace. There are so many musicians out there, and there are so many different opportunities to get your thing out there. I think the only way to navigate that and find your place as an artist is to be honest and authentic. The audience sees through it otherwise.

You’re a Torontonian, and I guess there are no plans to come here right now. Your brother Ernesto Cervini is one of our favourites here, and you probably have lots of family here. What has that been like? 

It’s horrible. I don’t think we would’ve been home at this point if this things didn’t happen, but knowing we can’t come there is really not okay for me. I miss my family so much and it would’ve been so nice to spend this time together. I mean, no one is spending time together, but it would’ve been nice to know that as soon as it’s over, I can run out the door and hug my brother and sister. It’s been really hard. We come visit every summer and we’re not sure that that can happen this year … Frankly, I just miss home more and more. Living down here has become super complicated emotionally. So, we’re holding on until November, without saying too much, and we’ll see what happens.

It’s a very complicated existence on planet Earth right now.

Oh yes.

Tell us where you can get the record, and anything you want to promote — take as much time as you need, would you?

The best way to get the record is on anzicstore.com. All of our records are there — my solo records, Melissa’s solo records, Hilary’s solo records, Ernesto’s solo records. They’re also on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon… you can get them at all of those places. You can find Duchess on Facebook. We do a show every two weeks in quarantine. It’s a live hang and we usually put together a musical bit. The past videos are all up there. I started a Patreon, where I’m trying to connect with an audience and make a little money that way. By contributing monthly, you get access to a bunch of archival videos that I’ve never put up anywhere; I make new videos of me playing piano and singing, which I think is worth the price of admission because it’s kind of hilarious. I’ve also been doing live-streamed concerts. It’s just a fun way to connect with people. The concert was weird — it’s not the same. The song ends and it’s dead silence, but I look at the screen and everyone is doing the American Sign Language wave for applause. It feels like a vacuum. But it was fun and people were smiling and having fun. It’s been a really good way to connect with audiences.