By Chris Dunmire | Posted 2/8/21
I'm delighted to introduce you to the highly creative teacher and singing coach Valerie Day. Valerie describes herself as "a musician, mother, educator, neuroscience/psychology geek, and creative explorer," and if you were around in the 80s, you might recognize her as half of the husband-and-wife duo (with John Smith) fronting the Grammy-nominated band Nu Shooz with a couple of videos in heavy rotation on MTV.
Nu Shooz formed in 1979 and was a full-time gig for Valerie for 14 years. Then she opened a private voice studio and taught for over 20 years. And today, she's on a mission to help singers through her Web site ValerieDaySings.com, offering an array of inspiring content, a podcast, and eCourses geared at helping vocalists create a sustainable life in music.
Valerie's coaching style is warm and accessible. She knows a lot and uses the wisdom she's gained through her unique experiences to help others to find their voice, go deeper, and create a balanced life around their passions. I asked if she might be open to sharing more of her story and had the fantastic conversation that follows. Thank you, Valerie, for sharing your time and expertise with this creative bunch!
CHRIS: We all have songs on our life soundtrack that instantly transport us back through time when we hear them. One of mine is your 1986 hit "I Can't Wait", a track that filled the space around a transitional time in life that still brings me joy whenever I listen to it. As an artist, you've helped create something quite remarkable that's embedded itself into the 80s collective consciousness. What do you think about that?
VALERIE: It's a miracle that the music we made so long ago has become a part of music history. And the joy it brings people — that's the best part. It makes me feel like all that work was worth it.
CHRIS: Please tell me more about the adorable sunglass-wearing dog in the video and what you were working on at the table with all the tools.
VALERIE: I love that dog! The director, Jim Blashfield, is a genius. During the heyday of the MTV era, he made videos for Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, and more. Of all the videos we've made, the one he created for "I Can't Wait" is still my favorite.
The whole video was improvised. Jim brought a bunch of crazy, disparate objects to the sound stage and set them up before we got there. He had a neighbor friend who had a dog house he thought would look cool on the set. When he went to pick it up, the dog was there, so he brought him along too!
The scene with the tools was improvised as well. Jim had me sit at a table with a coffee pot, unroll a wrench set, and then had me take that coffee pot apart and put it back together over and over again. I'm probably the only pop singer ever who's worked on small appliance repair in a video for MTV!
CHRIS: Recently, in your Vocal Notes newsletter, you described a conversation you had with your friend Elizabeth Bachman where you shared some insights into your experience in the 80s with Nu Shooz. You said that you "lived and breathed the music scene" and have since "pivoted towards helping the next generation of musicians." How did it feel while you were living that life, rising in popularity as a Grammy-nominated band? And tell me more about the transitional pivot point that led you into teaching. In what ways do you want to help?
VALERIE: Nu Shooz was a full-time gig for me for 14 years. For the first seven, we played in clubs around the Pacific NW. My husband, John, was the one who started the band. I was a backup singer and percussionist early on. When the lead singer began missing gigs because of drugs, I became the lead singer by default.
From the beginning, our goal was to get a record deal, but we had no idea how to make that happen. So, we did what we saw to do first — we played, gigging two to five nights a week, four hours a night. We toured in a beat-up converted school bus that broke down at least once every road trip. Just when we'd start to gain momentum, one of our band members would leave, or we'd have to let someone go, so we were continually working with new musicians. We stopped counting after 50 had gone through the band!
We had some success in clubs, but breaking into the big-time was more elusive. We often felt like quitting but a small win — an article in a local music mag, record-setting crowds on Ladies Night at a downtown club, a local music promoter/bartender wanting to manage us — would keep us going.
When we made an EP that got some airplay on the top pop music station in town, it was a miracle. After living and working in obscurity for six years, we had finally broken through. But a record deal still didn't materialize. We were turned down by all the major labels who thought we were just a NW phenomenon. Warner Brothers said, "We already have Madonna."
Almost a year later, we got another lucky break. A remix of "I Can't Wait" made its way from Holland to the dance clubs in New York City, where Atlantic records "discovered" it. They signed us to a singles deal, and then, when the record quickly climbed the charts, an album deal.
It was an unbelievable feeling to finally have our music out in the world being heard by a wider audience. "I Can't Wait" became a crossover hit. Our first album sold over a million copies worldwide. We were even nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. But we were neophytes when it came to the business of music. We made a lot of mistakes. After seven years and two more albums, the label dropped us.
When you're a musician with big dreams and goals, it's like you're an Olympic athlete. You practice all the time and have no life outside of music. Your hours are opposite of the rest of the world. Your evenings and weekends are filled with work, and your band becomes your de facto family.
Success felt different than I thought it would. Hearing our music on the radio for the first time, a Grammy nomination, meeting artists we looked up to who had influenced our music — were all highlights. But in between those moments were a lot of others. Hard work. Dedication to craft. Uncertainty. Insecurities. What if we were delusional? What if none of this work ever amounted to anything?
When the label decided not to release our third album and dropped us, I was heartbroken. And I had no idea what to do next. When our manager asked us if we wanted him to try and get us another record deal, we said no. Nu Shooz wasn't fun anymore, and the music we were making reflected that. But how to make a living? I was 32 years old and had spent fourteen years of my young life working as a musician. My job qualifications at the time were pretty limited — pop music has-been or waitress.
Early on, when I became the lead singer for the band, I'd developed vocal nodules — small calluses on my vocal cords — from singing incorrectly. I found a voice teacher who saved my voice and made it possible for me to have a career. In my search for a way to pivot from pop music, I realized that I could share what I'd learned and help other singers through teaching.
I opened my private voice studio in 1992 and taught for over 20 years.
Recently, I pivoted again. I'm still teaching, but in a new way — through online courses. My first course, Creative Practicing for Singers, launched a couple of months ago.
My focus has shifted from my vocal studio days. Instead of teaching people how to sing, I'm teaching them everything else they need to know to live a life in music. Many of the struggles in a singer's life have nothing to do with their voice. Every week, students would come to their lessons with questions about practicing, performance, and their music careers. Online courses are a perfect vehicle for sharing everything I've learned on the front lines as a teacher and performer about the issues singers face. And I'm having a blast creating them.
CHRIS: Let's talk about "success." Is there really a way to define it since it looks different to everyone?
VALERIE: The Oxford English Dictionary defines success as: "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose." But I would say that the lived experience of success is different for everyone. It all depends on what you're aiming for.
For instance, in my teaching studio, students came to learn how to sing better, but for different reasons. For some, it was about learning how to sing well enough that their kids wouldn't put their hands over their ears during sing-alongs in the family car. For others, vocal mastery was tightly bound with their desire to make singing a lifelong career.
My question for each singer was, Why? Why do you want to learn how to sing? And then, what does success look like for you, and how will you know when you've succeeded?
And for those considering a music career, a few more questions: What do you value most in life? Once you've succeeded, what will have changed? Will success truly give you what you value most?
Some of these questions are hard to answer. But I think it's important to ask yourself questions like these and keep asking them — especially when you're at a change point in your life. Your version of success will continue to evolve and grow along with you.
In conversations with singers on the podcast, I often ask, What did success look like for you when you began, and what does it look like for you now?
Moana Wolfgramm, from the 80s band The Jets, said, "You'll never be able to satisfy that urge for success if you're looking just for the stars and the fame. It's got to be something more so that it sustains you longer. To me, it's relationships, and it's being happy in your own skin."
Jeanette Jurado, from the multi-platinum selling group, Exposé told me, "We all want to be recognized and we all want some sort of acknowledgment for what we do. But I think when you're initially creating something, you create it because you have to, just because you want to, because it's part of you that you have to get out. And if that is good enough for you, you'll make it in this business, you know."
I think what both of them are speaking to are the inner and outer realms of success. You might be aiming for "the stars and the fame," — but what is that going to give you in the long run?
CHRIS: What does success mean to you?
VALERIE: Inner success is all about learning, creating, and growing as an artist. But what I make doesn't live in a vacuum. I also want to share what I've created with an audience. If no one is interested, and I still am, I'll continue creating. But without that dialogue, without a response, it's harder.
There's also financial success, which is what our culture seems to value most. Money has never been my primary motivation for doing anything, but a solid financial footing helps. It makes it easier to carve out time to create.
The tension or dance between inner and outer success is something I've been trying to figure out my entire adult life. And, thanks to a short video by Elizabeth Gilbert, I think I'm almost there. In it, she talks about the difference between hobbies, jobs, careers, and vocations. Her insights are brilliant and helped clarify my struggles between art and commerce. Recently, I wrote a blog piece about that aha moment: How to Look at Your Love For Singing Through The Lens of Career. I hope it helps other creatives who struggle with making a living with their art — which I think is just about everyone!
CHRIS: What about failure? If you are enjoying the process of creating, learning, and growing, is there such a thing?
VALERIE: Great question! Again, it's all about what you're aiming for.
If your goal is to make a living out of creativity, then failure is definitely part of the equation. There's a lot of trial and error when it comes to selling art. What you love to make has to be something people want to buy. Timing, market saturation, and pure dumb luck all play a part in financial success — and failure.
If you aim to grow as an artist, failure is essential. Whether it's a high note or a more passionate performance, you aim for something, and then, if you fall short, take what you learned about the gap between what you were aiming for and where you landed, learn from it, and try again.
So yes, failure exists. But if you're enjoying the process, then you're succeeding at it.
CHRIS: Speak to the idea of collaboration. You said "you stopped counting when Nu Shooz had over 50 musicians go through the band." The concentrated synergy of a collective group like that is immense. And as a viewer, it's easy to forget when watching the video "The Point of No Return" that there are so many more players involved in creating and producing what you and John are doing. Teamwork is so important, isn't it?
VALERIE: Absolutely. Every member of a group brings their individual energy, creativity, and aims to the endeavor. Their contribution is felt — whether it's negative or positive. There are some incredibly talented musicians, engineers, and videographers in the world. But the ones I want to collaborate with are those who would make it bearable to be stuck in traffic or washed up on a deserted island. Life is too short to be on a "road trip" with people who aren't kind or who don't know how to laugh.
CHRIS: You've said that your mantra is, "We are all naturally creative, resourceful, and whole." How does anchoring in this guide you on your own creative journey and in how you coach others?
VALERIE: When I was studying to be a life coach, my coaching mentor and teacher mentioned the phrase "we are all naturally creative, resourceful, and whole" in a conversation about how I perceived my young adult son. What if I held this thought while in conversation with him? How would it change how I listen, the questions I ask? Our children have exquisite "bullshit" radars; when they sense that you're trying to fix them, they tune out or walk away. My relationship with my son has given me many opportunities to practice this mantra. When I see him through this lens, the tone of our conversation shifts and becomes more relaxed and open.
I also try to keep this thought in my mind when talking to other family members, friends, and clients. Sometimes people want advice or ideas, but more often, they just need someone to listen, ask questions, and help them discover their own solutions to problems. Now, before I offer my thoughts or advice, I try to regard the person I'm talking to as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. When I ask more questions and listen more deeply to their answers, it feels kind of magical. The creative solutions that people come up with on their own are usually a much better fit than the ones I could offer.
As for my own creative journey, it turns out I'm always trying to "fix" myself too. Telling myself that I'm naturally creative, resourceful, and whole helps quiet the voice inside that says I'm never good enough. Yes, there's always room for growth. But that growth is easier when I relax the tension of holding it all together and showing a perfect face to the world. I can exhale, knowing that my natural creativity and resourcefulness will help me figure out next steps and that my wholeness isn't dependent on what I do or achieve.
CHRIS: Your Website offers an inspiring newsletter, podcast, and e-course that integrates your "over 30 years of experience in performing, teaching, and coaching to help singers who want to create a sustainable LIFE in music." Based on your experience in the industry, why is this larger context important, rather just on attaining a fulfilling career?
VALERIE: To have a sustainable career in music, your life needs to be sustainable too. Your mental, emotional, and physical health, financial stability, and relationships are all essential to your wellbeing as an artist.
A successful career on its own doesn't guarantee happiness or fulfillment. A key finding from Harvard's 80-year study on happiness says that "Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives." When you're hyper-focused on your career, the time and energy for meaningful relationships suffer.
The other relationship that suffers is the one you have with yourself. I want singers to know that their wholeness isn't dependent on what they do or achieve. A successful career is a wonderful thing to have, but if your sense of self-worth is dependent on it, you'll never feel successful in your life.
CHRIS: What changes do you see in the music industry today versus 35 years ago? How do you continue to relate to the current generation of singers and the changes in the business?
VALERIE: On the one hand, making music and sharing it with the world is much easier than it used to be. You can record in your home studio and release the result without a record company. The advent of social media makes it possible to share your music in ways we couldn't have even imagined 30 years ago.
On the other hand, because it's easier to create and release music, there's a tsunami of artists asking for people's attention. You have to be remarkable to get noticed. And, because of the deluge of content on social media, people's attention span is shorter than it's ever been. The next shiny object is just one scroll away.
I find it hard to keep up with the proliferation of social platforms and the constant updates and changes to their algorithms. It's overwhelming.
But the thing that hasn't changed? How we relate to one another. Human beings are basically the same creatures we've always been. We put out feelers to detect whether someone is friend or foe. We all still want to be seen, listened to, respected and valued. Creating and nurturing positive relationships online is not only possible; it's essential if we're to navigate the social media landscape successfully. When we connect authentically, we're using technology, rather than it using us.
CHRIS: You've said that in this season of your life, you focus on three words: create, communicate, and contribute. How are you experiencing the fruition of these things through your Living a Vocal Life podcast and eCourses, Creative Practicing for Singers and the upcoming Becoming a Singer and Being a Singer?
VALERIE: This season of life is one of my favorites ever. I have time to create, and I feel like I've lived long enough to have something to say. I hope that the podcast, eCourses, and blog contribute to other singers' wellbeing, helps them navigate their journey in music, and makes the experience a positive one.