Natalie Cressman is a Bay Area kid and the product of two very talented musicians, Jeff Cressman and Sandy Cressman, who managed to foster creativity at a young age without exacting parental pressure. They raised a performer, who came into her own in New York City as the “chainsaw,” an integral member of the Trey Anastasio Band. A recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, all of a sudden Natalie’s “schedule feels weirdly free,” and she’s being modest when she remarks, “I just hope I can fill it up with work.”
This summer she’s already been hitting the festival circuit with Trey and sitting in with a number of projects from Lettuce to Van Ghost. Between a West Coast tour with her own band in August, a new solo project coming out this fall, and a homespun video-baking series, Natalie’s first year as a college graduate looks to be off to a productive start. Lucky for her, the notion of work equates fun: “The great thing about being a musician is that work is also my playtime. Music is my little sandbox.”
Having just switched boroughs, we caught up over coffee in her new home of Brooklyn, to talk about the upcoming year and discuss all that went on in the last.
Congratulations on graduating! Do you see yourself moving back to San Francisco now that school’s over?
I’m going to stay here for a while. I might end up there, because I love it so much, but right now it’s working out to visit my family every once and a while when I get homesick. I like this being home base for now. Musically there’s just a lot more going on. There’s a nice scene in [San Francisco] and my parents are both musicians, so I grew up very much in that scene, but I wanted a chance to do my own thing and not be their little girl.
I think it’s interesting you stuck with schools at all considering you had so many opportunities early on.
I guess I wanted to stick with it. The fact that Trey has Phish—he’s touring with them so much that our touring was a couple weeks out of the year, it kind of pushed the limits of what I was allowed to get away with at school. Every year I would kind of hold my breath and pray that things would work out. This last semester was too much, but at that point I was like I’m way too far to turn back now, I need to go ahead and get the degree.
What are some highlights of summer thus far?
I just got back from a couple festivals with Trey, and we haven’t done a whole lot of that in the past. I’ve done it with other bands, like Van Ghost—we do Summer Camp every year—but it was nice going back with Trey and feeling the festival vibe with those guys. Sunday of Summer Camp I had a set early on with Van Ghost, and then I went and sat in with Lettuce, and then I came back and played with Trey. The last couple of times I’ve played summer festivals I’ve maybe had one set. It was cool to be busy and feel like I’m really part of it now.
It’s been really cool to play with the masters of the music. Meeting Pee Wee Ellis and getting to play the orchestra at large at Bear Creek was really fun. I’ve gotten to play with George Porter Jr. a couple of times. I remember the first Bear Creek that I went to seeing Jen [Hartswick] do a set with him and Johnny Vidacovich and just being blown away—it was cool that a year later that I was getting to play with him.
Playing with Lettuce too, I had heard about them and saw them at festivals and didn’t know the guys personally, but I love their music and totally internalized their last album, Fly. So, when I started meeting them and they invited me to sit in they were so impressed that I knew all their music. Now they always have an open invitation for me to come up and play some tunes.
You’ve been playing a lot more “New Orleans” music this year, like Jazzfest and Dumstaphunk’s 10th anniversary show.
The connection with Dumpstaphunk was through Tony Hall and their old drummer Raymond Weber. They did stuff with Trey before I was in the band, but there’s kind of that connection. So on Trey tour once we met them in Pittsburg and ever since then they were talking about having us come play in some capacity, so it was really cool to do Jazzfest and really be a part of their set and learn some of their tunes.
I was thinking James Casey may have had a hand in some of your recent stuff?
Definitely a little, at least with Lettuce, because we got so close with the Trey stuff and we would end up at festivals where he was doing both things. The Dumpstaphunk stuff was more through Jen and meeting Tony Hall a couple years ago. You see a lot of the same people over and over again and talk about playing, and finally it came together.
Does playing the horns allow you to be more flexible in fitting in to other bands?
I think so. I mean more so than being a singer. I do that too, but when you’re a horn player you can just come in and sit in and having a good pair of ears can get you really far. And also doing your homework of course. I remember sitting in with Soulive and not knowing some of their music well and I was definitely really inspired to get home and check them out more.
I just saw you at Delfest, which was a cool mixing of musical types. Trey is about melding of genres, and from what I understand that’s really important to you too.
Yes, very much so. I grew up in a very interesting musical community, where it wasn’t enough to learn how to play jazz, which I guess is what you could call a lot of what I do. I grew up playing a lot of avant-garde artists and people that studied African music and Brazilian music and Cuban music, so I’ve never been set to do one thing. Especially now, I came to New York to go to this really strict conservatory and ended up joining this other world of really open-minded musicians.
I love that about Trey, he’s up there playing music that makes him happy. As much as he wants everybody to have a good time and cares about giving the audience a good show, it’s more about him doing his thing well and that’s what everyone appreciates. So that’s what I take to heart when I’m doing my own music: I don’t have to fit within the confines of a specific genre, as long as I’m owning what I do.
That was just so cool to have these string instruments on Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”
So cool. When Del was playing we—Jen, Trey and I—were checking them out, just listening. Trey was like, “Just listen to this,” because he knows their music really well. That was a really fun festival, I was so cold though. I looked up the weather and it was like 90 degrees—I wore all three pairs of pants on stage that night. And we were all so distracted by the moon.
I just got an email that that show is available for download. I couldn’t really hear [Jason Carter] from where I was. I was like I wonder what they’re doing; I want to hear what they’re doing! Because strings and Led Zeppelin, you wouldn’t necessarily put those two things together.
Jen’s vocals also just blew me away.
Yeah, she’s my big sister; we always call each other that. She has been a big part of welcoming me in to music settings and I used to tag along with her a lot at the beginning. A lot of people I met were because of her.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been getting into a lot more electronic music lately. Obviously I come from a very acoustic background. I’ve been checking out SBTRKT—I’m kind of obsessed with his title album. He’s done a lot of stuff with Little Dragon, who’s a band that I really like. Then also I’ve been getting more into singer/songwriters, like this woman Emily King. Totally obsessed with her. And anything Danger Mouse produces, like his stuff Broken Bells with James Mercer, his stuff with Norah Jones, I love that!
On the other side of things, I always listen to some jazz. I grew up with J.J. Johnson and those guys, but I’ve been trying to check out what people are doing now. I’ve spent so much time studying stuff made decades ago, so it’s nice to see what’s going on now. I’ve also been trying to bring some of the indie style of songwriting into what I do and the music that I write, so I’ve been doing some research.