Tiffany Austin Seeks a Soulful Path
Boalt graduate Tiffany Austin puts law on hold temporarily to tend to her singing career.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
To Austin, good music is soulful music, plain and simple.
As Tiffany Austin was nearing graduating from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School three years ago, she found herself at a crossroads. Should she take the bar exam, as would most of her classmates, or should she pursue a career as a jazz singer?
The Los Angeles-born vocalist opted for the latter, perhaps less practical path. Even while attending Boalt, she had begun studying on the side at the Jazzschool (now the California Jazz Conservatory), soaking up the sounds of Bay Area singers Faye Carol and Kenny Washington, and doing gigs with such cutting-edge jazzmen as bassist Marcus Shelby and tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley.
Between performances with Shelby and Wiley and the bands Orgone and MoonCandy, Austin developed a Creole music project at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House that was inspired by her French-speaking, Louisiana-born grandmother and pioneering zydeco accordionist Amede Ardoin. She spent much of the past year preparing for the release in June of her debut CD, Nothing But Soul, on her own Con Alma label.
The Wiley-produced recording was the outgrowth of a November 2013 SFJAZZ Hotplate concert at which she re-imagined compositions by the great American songwriter and singer Hoagy Carmichael. In addition to such Carmichael-penned standards as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark,” and “Stardust,” the disc includes a barrelhouse blues arrangement of the Johnny Cash hit “I Walk the Line.”
Austin had been familiar with some of Carmichael’s songs prior to doing the Hotplate show, but she knew little about his life. That changed after she began doing research.
“It was a little bit bittersweet,” the Berkeley resident said. “On one hand, I feel like our lives were parallel in some ways. I grew up in a kind of impoverished area, and he grew up in an impoverished area. He went to law school and I went to law school, but there was no way of escaping your calling to music, which I think is a beautiful thing. But Hoagy was also prejudiced in some ways. When I was reading one of his biographies, he made casual anti-Semitic comments. I really love the compositions that came out of this person, but at the same time, I don’t believe in his views on other people. And he was a staunch Republican. It made me have a debate in my mind about how immersed is the art with the artist, particularly when you are approaching a song.”
Austin, who plans on eventually taking the bar exam, said that lessons in entertainment law learned at Boalt have helped her in getting her singing career and record label off the ground. “I use them every day, whether it’s reading a contract that someone sends me for a gig or figuring out my copyright situation with cover songs,” she explained.
Although Austin’s debut album consists almost entirely of songs written by or associated with Carmichael, her inspiration for titling it Nothing But Soul was the Norman Mapp song “Jazz (Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul),” recorded by Betty Carter in 1961.
“When we talk about jazz and blues and pop, I think the expression ‘nothing but soul’ is perfect for what good music is,” Austin said. “If we brush aside all the labels, good music is soulful music. Nobody has a monopoly on being emotive, putting your whole soul into making music. That is my approach to not only to my music but my life.”
“I could have gone into a law firm, which can be rewarding, particularly if you’re helping a community that needs help, but my calling has always been to do music,” she added.
“I’ve been telling people that I want to lead a more soulful life. I don’t just want to make decisions based on money. I want to feel connected to my art. I want to really get in touch with my soul.”