Candice Hoyes has been prancing the streets of New York City for nine years — ever since she completed impressive degrees in music at Harvard University and Westminster Choir College. She has a powerhouse of a voice that will easily sweep you off your feet and has captured audiences at Lincoln Center, international music festivals and even New York Fashion Week. Yet the true magic lies in her unique sensibility for storytelling, and she uses themes such as the Jazz Age, feminism and black history as her guide. To complement it all, she has a style that speaks (and sings) for itself.
Get to know Hoyes, the jazz musician telling stories through song and style.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where does your love for music and jazz stem from?
Candice Hoyes: As an American musician it’s really in the fabric of me. It also comes from my family. My grandfather was a really huge Billie Holiday fan. So, I grew up always hearing jazz at home. My family is from Jamaica. I also started studying classical music when I was 6. So, I would say I’ve had a mix of influences all my life.
At what age did you delve into singing?
I started singing when I was about 11. Not in a professional capacity, but in school and church, and it grew from there. I started playing around with writing songs around that age, as well, but I didn’t really share them with anyone. As I started to get older, I started to explore languages and cultures and styles, and started using them in my music as well. I got a fellowship from Harvard to study at the Boston Conservatory when I was in college and in that period, I really discovered that I had a talent for classical singing.
And now is On a Turquoise Cloud, your debut album. I read that you had to do some digging through the Smithsonian Archives to unearth some of the really unique history that’s a part of this album.
I was doing a lot of research on Duke Ellington, and I had heard these really rare songs that most people don’t sing or perform too often. So, I decided to go to the Smithsonian and take my time and explore the Duke Ellington Collection at the National Archive. That was like opening another dimension in the universe of my creative life.
Ellington wrote these songs for Kay Davis, who was a classically trained artist who could not really assimilate into classical music at the time when she met him. She met him on the campus of Northwestern [University] and the school was still segregated. She lived in segregated housing. And he discovered her and asked her to collaborate with him. So she left her opera program, graduated and went on the road with Ellington for six years. No one in my generation has really sung these songs, so it’s like vintage music really.
It’s interesting that surface conversations about jazz, we end up only talking about Coltrane or Ellington. We’re giving a lot of credit to men. But what you’re doing here is unearthing not only the music Ellington created for women, but also these women themselves. And you’re inserting this history into popular culture today. How do you find your place in the music?
Jazz is a particularly powerful art form because it’s music for celebrating and it’s music for jammin’ but it’s also music for expressing really complex social experiences. It’s music that’s born out of black identity and so it does become a transcendent artistic instrument.
As far as why we hear more of men [in jazz] than women, there really are powerful cultural voices that come from jazz that are women voices. Some of the people that have influenced me are Mary Lou Williams, Abby Lincoln, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson. Some of those women are band leaders, some of them are composers, some of them are vocalists. They’re really complete artists.
Let’s talk about jazz and fashion and self-expression.
Jazz had a way of empowering black Americans to express themselves, to celebrate, to be joyful, to be complete, to be in communion and, as it was transported to Paris and beyond the United States, to transcend our American identity. It was a popular music. It went into style. I’ve noticed when people throw a jazz party, it’s often just flappers in the 20s. That’s just one part of the jazz culture. There’s so much richness and so much funk and beauty that came after that. I inherited all of that.
Do you have a favorite style icon that’s a jazz artist?
I love Eartha Kitt’s style–off-duty Eartha Kitt. Lena Horne. Carmen de Lavallade. When I talk about vintage style, those are women whose style has influenced me. And I mention Carmen de Lavallade because I feel like jazz is also about dance.
When did you develop your love for vintage?
My grandfather pretty much collected any record he could get his hands on. Both of my grandmothers were seamstresses and all of my grandparents immigrated from Jamaica. I’m an independent artist, so I don’t really have the budget of my dreams for my wardrobe. But I’m pretty resourceful and I have a really strong sense of fit. So you can go into a vintage shop, and if the fit is impeccable, and the fabric is good, you can really make a pretty glorious look.
So here you were discovering Duke Ellington’s music was a lot like vintage shopping. Have you ever had a moment when you were in a vintage store and that piece was just “it” for you?
Oh yes! I can tell you that the really pivotal tool to me in the process of researching my album was Vintage Black Glamour. I used this fashion book as a compass because there was a time when I couldn’t find the songs that I wanted. I listened to Ellington’s recordings, but I couldn’t locate the manuscripts. But while I was looking, I was using inspiration pictures from Vintage Black Glamour’s Tumblr, of Lena Horne, of Kay Davis, of Ella Fitzgerald. I would used these pictures as a beacon in my search process. It really did help me connect to the look for my album and connect to the feeling of the songs. It kind of kept the fire in me.
Rikki Byrd is a fashion scholar and freelance writer living in Brooklyn by way of St. Louis, MO; follow her @rikkibyrd. Follow Candice @candicehoyes1 and listen to her album on Spotify. Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.