Guitarist Vicki Genfan on Finding Light in the Heart of Darkness

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As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter 2019

Guitar aficionados and acoustic music fans are familiar with guitarist Vicki Genfan. A singer, songwriter, and performer, her unique approaches to the instrument — utilizing 29 alternate tunings and applying a percussive technique that she calls “slap-tap” — have made her an internationally recognized virtuoso, albeit a modest, self-effacing one.

Trained in jazz and classical music, with influences ranging across the spectrum, she has released six albums, each one a unique project showcasing both her original material and personal interpretations of classic songs. To date, she has created seven instructional videos for TrueFire, offering guitar players at every level an opportunity to learn and apply her methods. Throughout the years, she has regularly appeared at festivals in the U.S. and Europe, and is an in-demand clinician and teacher at music camps.

In a word, Vicki Genfan is busy — working, writing, and sharing her art. Or so it has been for many years … until her world came to a traumatic halt in December 2018, when she lost her beloved brother and sister-in-law in a drowning accident. Felled by grief, she and her wife, Tay, put their lives and careers on hold, immediately relocated to Texas, and began handling family affairs while in the throes of shock and despair.

Almost a year later, Genfan is rebuilding her inner strength. The pain of loss is ever-present, the ensuing responsibilities continue, but she is finally regaining her footing and looking toward the future. She was at home in North Carolina, between trips to Texas, when she spoke candidly with Guitar Girl Magazine.

Let’s start with the fact that you’ve started performing again.
Yes. A couple of cool things are going on. I started to branch out and make some musical contacts while in Texas. The Austin area is filled with musicians. One of my friends, an amazing singer/songwriter named Terri Hendrix, is a local legend there. She started a nonprofit called Own Your Own Universe, OYOU, and she does a lot of outreach in the community. She has a fundraising festival every year for her organization, called Tammi Fest, and I played that in October.

Through her organization, she has different teachers come in, so I’m going to do some teaching there as well. We’re making plans for me to do some guitar workshops and whatever else I can do for her. I’m excited about having the opportunity to be involved work-wise with Terri. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

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I will be back in Germany in November for a big guitar festival in Hamburg called Hamburger Gitarrentage, and I’ll be doing a workshop there. I’ll be performing in the Frankfurt area as well.

And I’m working on a project in Germany. This is the longest project I’ve ever worked on, because I only work on it when I’m there. It’s with a friend and colleague of mine named Christian Lauterbach, who is a fantastic producer and guitarist. We met at a concert in Frankfurt many years ago and we clicked. We appreciated each other’s work, and we started writing music together. Christian is a heavy rocker when it comes to his own stuff, but he loves the interaction and collaboration with me because it allows him to take the acoustic guitar and do some crazy things with it.

We’d come up with cool grooves, and he’d take a little bit of it, chop it up, loop it, put it through a processor, and all of a sudden, it would sound like a keyboard or an orchestra. We’ve written about six tunes, really worked on four of them, and they’re like nothing else I’ve done. They’re way produced, massive vocal tracks, and I’ve loved working on it. I love dance music, R&B, and electronica, and this goes in and out of those worlds, with a tinge of rock here and there. It’s a fun project. Christian and I have become the best of friends, and it’s great working with him. We’re done with most of the recording, and we’re trying to get a drummer/producer who’s a friend here in the States to do some drum tracks for us, and we’re trying to get a well-known engineer to mix for us.

We’re going to release these four songs in the versions that Christian and I recorded them, and then simultaneously, within the same project, I am going to release a version of each of those songs with just me and one acoustic guitar, which is something that I love to do. I love to take complex songs that have great grooves and are maybe orchestrated for a huge production and create an arrangement just for acoustic guitar and vocal. So it’s going to be an interesting and different project for me. Since I work on it only when I’m in Germany, I don’t know when it’s going to be done, but we’re getting closer. It’s been great to branch out in that way and do that kind of work, because I love the recording studio.

Playing live is like showing
the finished product, and that’s
a whole other wonderful experience.

What do you most enjoy about it?
It’s like being in an art class, especially with somebody like Christian, because his knowledge and production capabilities are so vast and huge that we can take something and go anywhere with it in terms of sounds and instrumentation and production. He really is a master. It’s like being in this huge art studio, with every kind of medium available to you, and you get to create. Playing live is like showing the finished product, and that’s a whole other wonderful experience. Interacting with a live audience and all of that is incredible. But I also love being in the studio.

You released a CD, In the Shadow of a Small Mountain, with Sally Barker in 2017. Tell us about that.
That was a great project. Sally Barker is a very well-known singer-songwriter in England, and she was the runner-up on The Voice in 2015 or 2016. I’ve known Sally since 2001. She was part of the original tour Women Onstage, which is what got me to Germany that year. Once Women Onstage wasn’t happening anymore, she and I would tour as a duo sometimes. She’d play her tunes, I’d play my tunes, we’d guest on each other’s tunes, but we had never written together. So we thought, “Let’s write an album’s worth of music together.”

She came to the U.S. twice, once in the winter and once in the summer. We were in North Carolina, and a lot of the music is North Carolina-inspired. She was very taken with this area. Sally’s got an incredible voice, and it was wonderful to work with her and really focus on writing. We recorded it with Tay, my wife, in our studio in New Jersey, and fidelity-wise, it sounds beautiful. I loved the opportunity to arrange stuff in an acoustic, Americana kind of way, with a lot of mandolins and some banjo, which I hadn’t focused on before.

From what I read, this was five days of writing.
We wrote for five days at a time. The first batch, we wrote twelve songs in five days, and we spent the next year finishing and arranging them via Skype sessions primarily. I enjoy collaborating, and one of the things I’m looking forward to in the future is collaborating with different people.

How does working via Skype add different elements to long-distance collaborations?
What you cannot do on Skype is play music together at the same time, because you cancel each other out. But we didn’t need to do that. We were writing, and in that process, it was brilliant. We’d be in a session for an hour or two, sometimes longer. She’d write, I’d write, and “What have you got?” I’d read it to her, she’d read it to me, or I’d play a progression, and she’d go, “Oh, let me try this.” It was like being in the same room together, so for that process, it worked really well. But trying to put a song together at the same time — that’s another technology, and I don’t know where we stand with that yet. I know people are doing it, but it requires something more sophisticated than Skype or Messenger.

With the Open Tuning Handbook,
I created a simplified way to understand it, so that people
can jump into that world early on in their playing.

You released another instructional DVD, Acoustic Rhythm Guitar Cookbook, since we last spoke.
That one and the Open Tuning Handbook: Rhythm. I love teaching the hard stuff — tapping, open tunings, harmonics, and all the stuff that’s kind of advanced. However, there’s not a huge amount of people that can do that. With these two videos, we tried to address the player who’s maybe a late beginner or early intermediate.

With the Open Tuning Handbook, I created a simplified way to understand it, so that people can jump into that world early on in their playing. We work with five tunings, and for each of the tunings, I show you diatonic chords that are the basic chords that come out of a major scale. They have all the basic building blocks for tons and tons of songs. I wrote three different levels of little exercises, etudes, in each of the tunings, starting at a pretty simple level and then getting a little bit harder, so that you can spend some time in the tunings, play around, and hear how it sounds doing different things. I wanted a way to lead people into it that wouldn’t be intimidating, hopefully, and that would just give them cool resources that they can go out and use.

How difficult is it to create something simplified? Open tunings are second nature to you, so what was the process for breaking them down to make them simple enough for beginners to understand?
I have practice with this, because the very first video I did for TrueFire is called 3D Acoustic Guitar. That video takes my most difficult techniques and breaks them down. While that course is geared toward a more experienced player in general, the way that I simplified it, I think anyone could understand it — and it took me years to be able to do that. Through that process, I’ve trained myself to be able to do that, and I’ll explain how I went about it.

As I began to come out of my little shell after years of playing in my room, and I began to share what I was doing, I realized there were other people playing other kinds of cool strange ways, too. I was immediately aware that I could not do what they did, and I was intrigued with understanding why I could not. What I realized was that I need to see something in order to learn something, especially if it’s difficult or different from what I’ve done before. I need to see the very first step. You have to take it back to 0 and show me 1. When I learn 1 completely in my muscle memory, then I can learn Step 2, but I can’t go from Step 0 to Step 10.

That’s what gave me the impetus to break apart what I was doing, and break it into its simplest and most basic techniques. What is the very first thing you have to do in order to do a sophisticated slap tap thing? I realized there were two or three basic techniques that a person had to master before they could then take it to that next level. So I created a bunch of exercises, and I used the example from a song of mine called “Kali Dreams,” which is a song I wrote for one of my cats. I drew some of the music from that, and I incorporated it into these original exercises. That was an incredible exercise for me in exactly what you’re asking.

Having gone through that process with that original 3D Acoustic Guitar teaching video, now when I’m coming up to do an open tuning handbook, I had to think about it the same way: What does somebody need to know that won’t intimidate them, that won’t overwhelm them? One of the foundations of that were these diatonic chords. You have a major scale, and from a major scale, we grab a melody. Once we have that, we take those same notes from that major scale, we put them together, and we have diatonic chords. Of course, there is music theory behind that, but you don’t need to know that, other than to know that the building blocks for songs come out of a major scale in its simplest form. You can definitely get more complicated, but you don’t have to.

For a lot of folk music, pop music, rock music, blues, a lot of those notes are going to be drawn from that major scale, and chords you’re going to be using are going to be drawn from that major scale. So I thought, “Let me show people these diatonic chords in each of these five tunings, so that you can take a song you already know and substitute these chords.” As an example, I used “Let It Be.” The verse uses almost every one of those chords. I take you through the verse of “Let It Be” in each of the tunings, so you get to hear, and play along with me, that song in five tunings. I give you a bunch of tools from the get-go.

Following that video, what was your goal for the Acoustic Rhythm Guitar Cookbook?
The Cookbook is like a precursor to a course I did many years ago, which was called Acoustic Rhythm Guitar Survival Guide. That course had 14 techniques you could employ to spice up your playing. Say you play cover tunes, and you’re always using the same chords, you’re always playing in the same way, and you’re always using the same strumming patterns. This course gives you a whole set of new skills that you can insert into your playing.

With the Acoustic Rhythm Guitar Cookbook, we tried to present that same kind of stuff. Let’s add some new things to your playing, but you don’t have to be that intermediate to advanced player. You can be playing for six months or a year and already looking for new ways to do things. Again, I got to simplify, simplify, simplify, and it will add new flavor and possibilities to your guitar parts. I’ve chosen ten popular chord progressions and written twenty performance studies to give you an idea of how you might put these ingredients to use in songs you’re working on or already playing, or songs you’re writing. It really is a simplified version of the earlier Acoustic Rhythm Guitar Survival Guide.

In terms of the Open Tuning Handbook, we called it Rhythm Edition, and I’m primarily working chord progressions and chords. The plan is to create another edition that will focus on playing some lead lines, playing some riffs. How can I find my way to playing a pentatonic scale or jamming around with a blues thing or play some lead lines on a folk tune? That’s an edition that we hope to come out with in the near future.

What do you have planned for the coming year?
I’m going to the NAMM Show in January. Fret Monkey Records is a label that features fingerstyle guitar. They sponsor all kinds of events, and they’re sponsoring an event at the NAMM Show called Women of Fingerstyle Guitar. It’s on January 16, and they’re featuring Kaki King, Muriel Anderson, Christie Lenee, myself, and some others. It’s going to be at the House of Blues in Anaheim. I’m excited about that. It seems there has been a push recently toward women in the fingerstyle realm. It’s finally coming to the forefront. There are a lot of women playing fingerstyle guitar nowadays.

Any theories as to why?
I’m not sure. I just think it’s been growing, and as more and more women see other women playing, it’s almost exponential. A lot of that has to do with the influence YouTube has. I think we’re also at a time when women are having more opportunities. We’ve come a long way.

Are you still teaching?
Yes. I’m available for Skype lessons. I may branch out in the future, but right now, I’m accepting a limited number of students, and they can contact me through my website.

I love the six-string banjo, and I’m going to be working on some new material featuring my percussive techniques on the banjo.

Is there new material in the works?
I love the six-string banjo, and I’m going to be working on some new material featuring my percussive techniques on the banjo. I’ve also recently had the opportunity to experiment with the ToneWoodAmp. I’m very excited about that, and I will be talking more about that soon. And, as always, I’m grateful to D’Addario Strings and Luna Guitars and Gray Burchette, who made my custom guitar. That still is an amazing guitar in my arsenal, and I’m grateful every day for Gray’s work on that instrument.

Handling grief and living with grief is a lifelong project.

At the risk of great understatement, you had a very difficult year. Do you want to talk about that?
First, I want to say that I don’t want to talk about a tragedy so that I can get sympathy. I want to talk about it so that maybe I can be helpful to somebody who might be experiencing something similar. So I’ll explain that while something absolutely unexpected and unfathomable happened in my family, I’ve been going through an incredible grieving process, I’ve had to deal with an unbelievable amount of business, state probate, handling two people’s deaths and everything that means, and at the same time attending to a nephew who is going through medical challenges that he will go through the rest of his life.

When death happens in your immediate life, one of the things you think about is, What am I doing in my life? Is it what I want to be doing? What do I value? Am I living in accordance with my values, or am I living in some rat race? Am I caught up in some kind of work that isn’t feeding my soul? You look at everything and you examine it differently. You question things.

One of the things that I’ve come out with at this moment, just after a short period of time, is I’ve confronted some of the fears I’ve had in my career about putting myself out there. I’ve looked at some of the ways I’ve held myself back because I’m afraid of whatever, afraid to ask for work, afraid to be seen, afraid to be rejected, afraid to . . . I don’t know . . . just afraid. I’ve also looked at some of the broader ways that I feel I can work, which have to do more with the healing work that I do.

So I’ve been looking at all these things. I have to work, I have to make money again, I have to do my living. How do I want to do that? Do I want to change anything? I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to do as much work as I can in areas that feed my heart and soul and energy. Playing music feeds me, performing feeds me, being in community feeds me, doing the sound healing work that I’ve studied and been trained in feeds me. I love to teach all of these things. And so I have a renewed commitment to being brave and doing these things. It makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself, and that’s how I’m thinking about “What am I going to do?” and “What are the next steps I’m going to take?” It’s helping me to be more courageous and not just settle for self-doubt.

As women, I think we’re prone to self-doubt, maybe more than men. We’re trained in it. And I’m just like, “Am I going to die thinking, ‘Oh, it’s too bad I wasn’t brave enough to do that or do this,’ or ‘Why didn’t I ever teach that?’ or ‘Why didn’t I ever do sound healing sessions?'” So I’m pushing myself to do some good things that I’ve been apprehensive about.

I’m not full-time, 100 percent back to normal. I feel like I’m in pieces, and I am committed to putting myself back together. My vision is that I will be stronger, I will be more whole, and I will be truer to myself and my values in the process. The situation has forced me to grow and expand in ways I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have. Handling grief and living with grief is a lifelong project. I lost my mom when I was 23. That was very tragic for me. I’ve been dealing with that in my own way, or not dealing with it, and this is giving me an opportunity to deal with that again as well, and to learn that we can live through grief.

As writers and songwriters, we think a lot about what inspires us to write, what environment do we need to be in, what circumstances do we need to be able to create and write music. I think about those questions a lot. When I was on my way to Texas in December [2018], I was beside myself, but I kept thinking, “There’s got to be some light during this period of time. There has to be.” In February, my nephew was wearing one of my brother’s shirts, and a short lyric came to me. I titled the song “Wear I Am.” [Note: The video can be found on YouTube.]

I wrote two more songs during that month, but I haven’t finished them enough to play them publicly. But this song was simple; it came so easily and quickly, and it was special. Every time I’ve played it at a concert, somebody comes up to me from the audience and tells me about themselves or someone they know who has worn an article of clothing that belonged to a loved one and what that feeling is like, to feel them wrapped around them.

I’ve had to readjust my expectations of my ability to write music. I’m sure I will write a lot of material at some point; I just have to be patient, and I have to know that you can’t be in the middle of a crisis and expect yourself to all of a sudden turn that into creative art because you want to. A friend said it best to me: “You have to let yourself metabolize this event.” You have to digest it, you have to take it in, and that is a process that nobody can predict how it goes, how long it takes, or what its path is. So that’s also been a learning process — to honor this process for myself, not judge myself, and to trust that I still am a creative person, I still am a writer, I will write music, I will write songs, and I don’t have to feel panicky about it. It’s OK. It’s really OK.

Photos provided by artist

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