Singer, actor, and playwright Tina Vernon is a woman on a mission to challenge herself–and the rest of us–to tell the truth. Born in West Texas, Tina spent her formative years in Dallas, where she attended the famed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (alma mater to the likes of Erykah Badu, Geno Young, Roy Hargrove, Sandra St. Victor, and yours truly). It was in the hallowed halls and often raucous classrooms of Booker T. that Tina and I met and became friends. Even way back then, she possessed an undeniable power that poured through her voice and through her movements, an unmistakeable passion that–at least on the surface–belied her youth. It would be years before I came to know the impetus for this power and passion, as she would reveal her fascinating biography to me only after we’d become adults, beginning one night last summer over Guadeloupean food in Brooklyn.
Tina headed to Atlanta after high school, where she studied theatre arts at Clark Atlanta University. From there it was on to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she earned her MFA in acting, and then to Los Angeles and finally (albeit not permanently), to New York. Now dividing her time between Brooklyn, Dallas, and any number of points in between, Tina is bringing her life story to the global stage through her one-woman theatrical production Wanted, and her newly-released EP Flight Risk. Tina gave SoulTrain.com the inside scoop on her work as an artist and as a woman, and the never ending journey to the center of one’s self.
SoulTrain.com: Tell our SoulTrain.com audience a little bit about yourself, Tina.
Tina Vernon: I am sort of the collision between small town and big city. I’m a small town girl but I’ve lived in the city for a long time. I’m a singer, an all-around artist. I write music and also work in the theatre. But primarily I’m just regular folk, you know! Just regular folk, a very creative person who loves the arts.
SoulTrain.com: Your debut EP Flight Risk is a collection of songs you wrote to complement your theatrical work, Wanted. Tell us about the one-woman show and how the music and the narrative tie together.
Tina: Wanted started out as a piece that was about freedom and reclamation of voice. It’s the story of a girl and a woman–the same person, but the intersection of those two. I was incarcerated at ten years old, and I spent about a year in total away from my family. I was locked up for forgery. I was writing checks to be able to live this life somewhere else that I’d imagined in my head–like going to New York and being a singer. This is at nine years old, and thinking about how to get out of La Mesa, TX. I imagined there was this world out there and I can’t get to it. I devised my own plan and I thought, ‘This is how I’ll do it,’ having seen the ways adults handled business. It was like, ‘I’ll write these checks and take them to the bank and they’ll give me money, and before I know it I’ll be in New York!’ Fast forward twenty years later and I’m in New York, and it’s a weird collision of paths that I’ve walked. But something’s not quite computing, doesn’t feel quite right. So Wanted is the story of that little girl and the woman I am now, and what happens when the only way forward is to go backward. It’s told through a singer who’s at this pivotal moment where she has to open her mouth and sing it, but she can’t for all the reasons that she hasn’t been able to all these years.
The music came out of a very crucial time. Some of it is dark, some of it is about that moment you realize you’re not free but you’re just gaining the courage to go after it, like escape velocity.
SoulTrain.com: On Flight Risk we get to hear a broad assortment of musical styles–from acoustic folk to blues to a little bit of country, all soulfully delivered. If you had to classify your music, how would you describe your sound–in your own words–to the uninitiated?
Tina: It’s soul music to me, but it is informed by where I’m from. I grew up listening to a lot of country music–the Oak Ridge Boys, Patsy Cline. I also listened to a lot of folk music. Folk music inspired and informed the style I write in, more than the way I sing it. I like a confessional style; I dig singer/songwriters who can paint portraits of a scene or a moment. But it is a mix–a little bit of rock, a little bit of soul, a little bit of country, a little bit of folk.
SoulTrain.com: In addition to promoting your EP and preparing to premier Wanted early next year in Seattle, you’re also busy working on a new theatrical piece. What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Tina: I spent about three weeks in Cuba last year, so my upcoming stage project coincides with what I’m doing musically and exploring this idea of home. For me, it’s also tapping a little bit into what it has meant to be Tejana, to have grown up in Texas and be very much influenced by Mexican culture as well. I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and I was the only little Black girl there, so the way the culture lands on me feels a lot like Cuban or Dominican–it’s more informed by the African diaspora. The question I’m asking myself is, “Is there such thing as Tejano soul?” I think that the answer to that question is yes, because I’m here! Latin music is what’s next for me. I’m working on a couple of Latin singles that I hope to have out by the winter or spring of next year.
SoulTrain.com: You and I have benefitted from an intensive fine arts education, and with arts programs being removed from so many public schools across the nation it appears that current and future generations of young artists–and of students, period–may not be exposed to the arts in the ways in which we were. From your personal experience, how would say arts education shaped you, both as an artist and as a woman?
Tina: A lot of my arts education was theatre-based. It had some music in it, but I was mostly theatre-focused throughout high school and I have a BFA degree in theatre arts and a masters in acting. I started my arts training as a junior in high school. I was sort of a troubled teen from my previous school and needed something else. My family saw that I leaned toward the creative so they sent me [to Dallas], and it worked because it gave me a way to express. It wasn’t like I stood on stage and yelled my feelings, but I found a way to channel my frustration, I found a place to put it. Just having that gave me the space to also begin to sit with whatever was going on with me in a different way. Arts education helped to ground me in myself, it helped me to know that I wasn’t strange; I was very sensitive and attuned but didn’t have the right language for all that stuff. So having arts education meant I found a place to channel some of that energy. It set me on a different course, because once I found this thing that I loved I pursued it doggedly. I knew it was what I was supposed to do in life. I knew that I needed it in my life.
SoulTrain.com: That’s interesting, that you didn’t begin your formal arts education until well into high school. I’m curious–when you were younger, did you write songs and plays?
Tina: No…I read a lot, I sang in church choirs and I did some community theatre. I don’t know if, at that time, it was about expressing something, but I remember the feeling it gave me. I was an interpreter–I wasn’t a generative artist at that age. That’s all I could be. Once I hit undergrad I was writing scripts–that’s when that all started. I didn’t really start writing music until my early 20s, maybe right after undergrad. So my approach to writing music is much more organic and informed a lot by my theatre background.
SoulTrain.com: Part of the mission you’ve been on, in addition to your overall artistic endeavors, is to encourage women to embrace the totality of who we are–from our sexuality to our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits.
Tina: We’re a thinking culture and not a feeling culture, and it’s more visible in women the way we feel through our lives; it has no place here. Everything is about production and mental capacity and this aggressive movement outwards. It’s counter-intuitive for us. So many women struggle with all of this stuff going on with them. We’re not outwardly destructive, so we take it out on ourselves. We nurture everyone else, but when that vicious cycle begins we take it to ourselves. We eat too much, we don’t allow ourselves to have enough sex, we don’t articulate what we really want. We hide our appetites under so much stuff.
How can one be vulnerable and open and human and flawed? That’s the sh** that real life’s made of right there. That’s the good stuff!
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.