Kalia Vandever on the Precipice of “Regrowth” and Self-Actualization

The process of becoming is just as much about the losses as it is about the wins and the neutrality that exists in between. The success of this path is more about following your gut rather than treating it as a calculated science. It is an inner-standing that Brooklyn-based, Los Angeles-raised trombonist and composer Kalia Vandever channels into her new album Regrowth, which is set to release into the world on May 6 on New Amsterdam Records, helmed by the lead single “Pick it Up (and Drop it Again).”

Before Regrowth, there was a time during her childhood when Vandever had no ambition to be a musician; in fact, in fifth grade, she dreamt of a life as a veterinarian. That unequivocal love for animals as a young girl can be attributed to a life living in a dog-loving family.

“I remember having this book of dog breeds that I would tab certain pages of my favorite dogs, and I was, like, all I want to do in life is spend time around animals,” says Vandever.

But then, a new passion emerged that was just as undeniable as her love for animals, possibly even more so. What started as attending concerts bloomed into staring at a Berklee College of Music poster thinking, “Oh wow, this may be something I want to do for a living,” Vandever says.

Kalia Vandever--Photo by Alex Joseph

Kalia Vandever–Photo by Alex Joseph

As a fan of all things jazz music, her father flipped on a record where the middle schooler noticed the brassy notes of a trombone in the mix. Enthralled, she turned to her father and demanded to play the instrument. Only wanting the best for his daughter, he obliged.

“There were a few things that connected me to the instrument,” Vandever says. “One being that I was too small for the instrument at the time. So, my arm couldn’t extend to the last position on the trombone, which is seventh position. My arms were too short, so I think I was intrigued by the challenge of it, and I think that still remains true to the way that I approach music and my career.”

She applied to about four or five music programs her senior year of high school, originally planning on going to New England Conservatory merely because she was accepted into their creative program first. But then Vandever was accepted on a full-ride scholarship to one of the most prestigious music programs with an eight percent acceptance rate: Juilliard.

Like all new beginnings, the demands of life at a conservatory eventually started to set in. In high school, her teacher, Walter Smith III, was open-minded, encouraging, and had taught her a great deal of what she knows – including some of the best lessons she’s ever had ever to this day. But when she stepped foot on the Juilliard campus in 2013, she realized the curriculum was created for a specific kind of jazz musician, which made her question if she was on the right path.

I wanted to create music that felt most honest and true to my beliefs. I wanted to find a way to combine all of my musical influences and create something that can almost not be defined by a certain genre…

“In general, Juilliard’s programs are catering more towards the traditional aspects of the art form,” Vandever says, “which is great for some, but I realized at a certain point that I didn’t relate to some of the things that were being taught at the school. I was also one of three women in the program the whole time I was there, so that added a whole other difficult element that affected my time there. 

“I wanted to create music that felt most honest and true to my beliefs. I wanted to find a way to combine all of my musical influences and create something that can almost not be defined by a certain genre…I wanted to find a way to approach the trombone as almost an extension of my voice.”

Eventually, she did, though it was no easy feat. Her experiences with sexual harassment, misogyny, and racism are shared in her 2018 essay, Token Girl, but who she is today might not have emerged without having to learn to have conviction, speak up for herself, and lean into her community as a means to rediscover herself. And Juilliard is also where she met saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, a member of her longtime ensemble that also includes pianist Paul Cornish, bassist Nick Dunston, drummer Connor Parks, and guitarist and producer Lee Meadvin.

Nick Dunston, Connor Parks, and Kalia Vandever--Photo by Alex Joseph

Nick Dunston, Connor Parks, and Kalia Vandever–Photo by Alex Joseph

Their new album, Regrowth, is a combination of songs Vandever composed before and during the pandemic. “More of the Good Stuff Later” and “False Memories” are transcendent tracks written in 2019. “Soft” and “Passing Thoughts” are a combination of songs originally written in 2020 for a guitar and piano quartet. At first, she didn’t think these tracks would work together as an album, but ultimately, Vandever says she wants to “reach the people who love different forms of music and can accept it for what it sounds like as opposed to comparing it to something else.”

Regrowth as a whole is unsuspecting – it is as much a mystery as it is a synchronized stream of consciousness, emotion, and perspective. It is what emerges when stagnation feels imminent and creativity is daunting. It speaks the language of growth through songs like “Lift,” “Pick It Up (and Drop It Again),” and “An Unwelcome Visit.” The notes ebb and flow between the intense and the simplistic, ultimately building to a jazz-induced crescendo. This album is for anyone and everyone with main character energy.

“Ultimately, I think I just want someone to find maybe a song or two within the album that they feel really connected to, and you know, maybe they’ll feel connected to the whole album,” Vandever says. “I think there’s a little bit of everything in there for everyone.”

Unlike her debut album In Bloom, Regrowth is an actualization of growth amidst living the life she had longed for. Still striving but no longer struggling, the person Vandever is now, seamlessly blends past and present because they are both lessons and blessings on the path to becoming.


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