Interview: Patti Austin on her musical family and singing for the love of it

The singer talks about growing up surrounded by music and her upcoming jazz concert with Janis Siegel and Elisa Chan Kit-ling in October

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 4:24pm

Q: What initially drew you to performing?

A: I started getting paid for singing at age five. I would say that I do what I do because of my dad. He was a jazz trombonist and I was very much influenced by his eclectic taste in music. He listened to all kinds of music. It was a combination of environment and DNA that made me become a singer.

Your godparents are also extremely accomplished musicians. What impact have they had on your career?

Dinah Washington was my godmother, and Quincy Jones is my godfather. We’d be here all day if we talked about their influence on my career. Dinah was extremely influential and to this day is heard on everything from the radio to commercials to film scores. I was on Quincy’s label for a while, and we still work together today. It was a very hands-on influence with both of them.

How did your family encourage you to pursue singing?

I needed no encouragement. If you’re singing when you’re five, you’re probably tremendously precocious and don’t need anybody to push you. I was never pushed into being a singer. As a matter of fact, my parents would be in a state of shock when I performed in public. Both of them were more concerned that I didn't become involved as a child because they had seen how becoming child stars destroyed so many lives. They both said: “Take your time, get your education first, and then focus on singing.”

How were you able to handle being a child star, and still maintain your passion for performing as an adult?

I had parents who were amazing. They were not enticed by the glamour of the industry, and they heeded the advice of people around them to allow me to work in the summertime and when I wasn’t at school. They were never typical show business parents: driving me to work all the time. They wanted me to have a life beyond being a singer. It was much more about getting good grades and being kind to other people. Then if I did all that, made my bed and did the dishes, I could sing on Saturday.

When you come to Hong Kong, you’ll be performing in a jazz concert. What do you enjoy most about singing jazz music?

I don’t categorise anything that I sing. It tends to make you not enjoy things as much as you would if you didn’t try to pigeonhole everything. I can say, though, that it’s a marvellous gift to be able to sing. It’s always fun no matter what kind of music. It’s just a great thing to do, and it brings a lot of joy to people who sometimes can’t find happiness in their lives. Music has a great way of opening people’s hearts and minds. It’s wonderful to be the conduit for that kind of message.

Can you recall any great moments you've had while performing? 

There are way too many to mention, so I’ll just tell you about my last one, which was in Gdansk, Poland. It was my 60th birthday on the night of the performance, and 20,000 people sang Happy Birthday to me in Polish. That was a pretty cool show.

You’ve won Grammys and many other awards. When you first started, did you ever dream of achieving so much?

I never really thought about that. It goes with what I was saying about doing this because you love it. If you love something you don’t sit around thinking what am I going to get out of it and when am I going to get it. You’re already getting everything you want out of the situation when you open your mouth and sing. I’m already so satisfied with everything that I’m doing in my career that I have no complaints and I don’t wish for anything more. I’m very happy with what I have, and if I get more, I’ll be happy with that too. But if I lose it, I’ll still be happy.

How have the challenges during your career affected your music?

I’ve been a “lucky so-and-so” to quote Duke Ellington. I haven’t really had a lot of challenges as an artist. I’ve certainly had challenges in my personal life, but as a singer, I’ve always been so lucky to have it come so natural to me and for it to be such a place of joy for me that it really hasn’t become challenging yet. I’m sure as I get older it may very well become challenging, but my plan is to not to be doing it anymore when it that happens. 

What advice would you give to aspiring singers?

Don’t do it because you want to be a star. Don’t do it because you want to make money. Do it because you must and if you’re doing it for any other reason, you’re doing the wrong thing. There are too many peaks and valleys  in the entertainment business to count on it for much of anything other than personal pleasure. If you’re doing it because it brings you joy and hopefully brings joy to other people, you can never lose.

Why did you decide to come to Hong Kong?

My Hong Kong audience is a very interesting audience: it is very knowledgeable about the music. They know everything about what they’re listening to and they know what it’s supposed to sound like, and if it meets the requirements you will get a response like no place else on earth. Every now and then when I perform in Hong Kong, I do something in Cantonese or Putonghua, and they just go absolutely insane. It’s the most rewarding and exciting response you could hope for.  

What plans do you have?

When I leave Hong Kong I’m going to Armenia to be presented with an award from the head of their country. For lack of a better description, it’s like the French Legion of Honour. It’s something they give to people in the arts. When I come back, I will be working on a YouTube channel and content for it. We’re also doing a concert in South Carolina, where they had that horrible shooting in the church. The city has asked me to come and do an outdoor concert for the community to hopefully lift spirits and get everybody’s heads and hearts in the right place for the rest of the year.