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Hope for more from Women Under the Influence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2012 - This Saturday, Nov. 17, a group called “Women Under The Influence” makes its debut at the intimate Showroom space at Joe Buck’s Restaurant at 10th and Clark in downtown St. Louis.

It may seem unusual that a local quartet can sell out its first appearance, but given the names of the talented performers in Women Under The Influence, it should be no surprise.

Up-and-coming cabaret singers Katie McGrath and Debbie Schuster have both performed successful cabaret shows as leaders at the Kranzberg Arts Center on Grand over the past couple of years. McGrath made her solo cabaret debut at the venue with “Second Chances” in 2010, and Schuster’s debut as a solo performer, “Unwritten,” was staged in March 2011.

The major factor in the advance sellout for the debut of Women Under the Influence are the other two members of the new group: pianist/vocalist Carol Schmidt and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Michele Isam.

Schmidt and Isam got together in 1977 to form Jasmine while they were both students in the Webster College Music Department. The duo gained a devoted following in the St. Louis area, and on the strength of two strong recordings (the second with the addition of vocalist Lydia Ruffin), they toured nationally several times before deciding to put Jasmine on hiatus in 1988 and pursue individual projects.

Over the years Schmidt and Isam have reformed Jasmine on special occasions, and even released a 2003 CD that compiled the group’s studio work and added several live cuts from a 2002 reunion concert at the Sheldon.

But these days both Schmidt and Isam have chosed to pursue diversity in the musical projects they tackle –individually and together. And Women Under the Influence is clearly their primary focus as we talk earlier this week.

“I first met Debbie (Schuster) four years ago when I was working with Tim Schall for his annual Cabaret Conference,” Schmidt says as she and Isam talk over lunch.

(NOTE: Schall, who also performs regularly on the area cabaret scene, started the conference in 2006, and it continues as a successful intensive training session for potential cabaret performers.)

“We ended up working together on a couple of cabaret shows, including ‘Unwritten,’ which was Debbie’s solo debut in 2011,” says Schmidt. “And I had also worked with Katie on a show earlier that year. After ‘UnWritten,’ Debbie and Katie talked to me about working with them on a cabaret show based on Motown songs. So that ended up being the starting point for Women Under the Influence.”

Bringing in Michele

As the initial meetings and song selection for the new show proceeded, Schmidt recognized that Isam would be a perfect addition to the project as someone who could work on vocal arrangements for Schuster and McGrath.

“I was really happy to get involved,” Isam says. “I remember when I was growing up and shared a room with my older sister, always listening to music on the transistor radio at night. That was definitely the era of Motown and also for girl vocal groups … being a backup singer in a vocal group was my dream.”

With Isam in the mix, the musical focus of the evolving performance began to take a broader perspective than Motown songs – and also in the lineup of the group.

“We started out picking songs during the first six months,” says Schmidt. “Then I would work up charts and we would select the key to sing in for each song and work on arrangements. As Michele got more involved, it was a natural development that with her singing talent, it developed into more of a three-, and with me, at times a four-part vocal harmony approach.”

With the expanded harmony possibilities in place, the repertoire began to evolve as well. Motown classics such as “Come See About Me” got company from other classic songs from girl groups such as “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons and the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow.” And memorable tunes by songwriters as diverse as Laura Nyro (“Wedding Bell Blues”), the Pointer Sisters (“We’re Gonna Make It”) and Dolly Parton (“Jolene”) are also part of the performance.

“Here’s a good example of how things evolved,” Isam says. “‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’ was originally a Motown song, but we decided to use the version recorded by Laura Nyro with LaBelle. That’s an approach that takes the harmonies a step further.”

Bending caberet rules

The basic approach to Women Under the Influence’s debut concert had already broken from the traditional cabaret format of a single vocalist backed by one instrumentalist – almost always on piano. With three full-time vocalists, Schmidt adding vocals on occasion as well as playing piano, Isam adding percussion at times and guitarist Billy Engel and bassist Rick Vice also part of the mix on certain songs, this concert was definitely bending the rules of cabaret.

But Schmidt emphasized that there are still definite links to cabaret style for this concert – especially in the thematic approach to the songs.

“There is a definite flow to the performance, but it’s not as structured as cabaret usually is,” she emphasizes. “It’s tight in terms of the set list, but we want to make sure it’s not totally scripted out either.”

Both Schmidt and Isam are happy to be part of Women Under the Influence, but they also want to emphasize to longtime Jasmine fans that this concert – and the group itself – is definitely not a Jasmine spinoff.

“The whole focus for me as the musical director is to make sure that Debbie’s and Katie’s talents are showcased the best they can possibly be,” Schmidt says. “I’m definitely happy that Michele became involved in the group as a performer as well as a vocal arranger, but this is a group effort that was started by Debbie and Katie.”

“I loved Jasmine,” adds Isam. “But now I’m happy to be doing a real variety of different things. I love that I have the ability to do this project – while also working with Billy Engel in a duo, and sometimes adding Dave Torretta for trio performances. It’s nice to have a lot of different projects happening rather than focusing on just one.”

Schmidt, who is adjunct faculty at Webster University’s Jazz Studies department, works as the music director at Garden of Life Spiritual Center and performs in jazz trios on occasion as well as other cabaret performances, agrees.

“I love performing, but I also really enjoy creating a musical event in terms of directing and putting it together in conjunction with other artists,” adds Schmidt. “I especially love working with singers as well as teaching and arranging music. So music has become more satisfying to me as I have the chance to be involved in different ways.”

Although the Nov. 17 debut of Women Under the Influence is officially sold out, it’s a good bet that additional performances by the group will be scheduled.

In the meantime, fans of Isam can look forward to her trio performance at Joe’s Café on Dec. 6. Schmidt will also be performing a Christmas Cabaret with singers Deborah Sharn and Tim Schall at the Garden of Life Spiritual Center on Dec. 2.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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