Blues Music Award nominee Missy Andersen reveals her timid childhood and explains her transformation into the outgoing singer she is today.
Last Halloween, blues artist Missy Andersen was singing in a bustling outdoor space at a Temecula, CA winery when bassist Michael McKinnon noticed a light left on in Andersen’s car, parked nearby. Concerned, McKinnon unplugged his instrument and walked offstage, heading to the car. Andersen was right behind him, microphone in hand. As the band continued to play for its costumed crowd, McKinnon and Andersen discovered an inebriated man passed out in the driver’s seat. Andersen reached inside to make sure the keys weren’t in the ignition. Satisfied, she sang a verse into the microphone still gripped in her hand, turned from the car – and looked directly into a swarm of superheroes. “While the band was still playing, missing the bass player and singer, the guy dressed as Superman ran across the dance floor towards the car and went, ‘This looks like a job for Superman!’”
Andersen chuckles at the memory. “I wish I’d seen that part!”
Five months later, Andersen sips from a martini glass before a three-hour show at Humphreys Backstage Live, her dinner on the way. It’s a warm spring evening in Andersen’s adopted hometown, San Diego, and Andersen adores the weather compared with that of Detroit, where she was born, and New York, where she lived until she was 20.
It’s over an hour before showtime and Humphreys is already filling with its traditional dine and dance crowd. Andersen, now a seasoned blues and soul singer with two albums to her name and a potential Blues Music Award on the way, is relaxed, waving across the room to friends as they file through the door. When the time comes for her to get to work, she steps directly into the spotlight, the epitome of confidence.
From the get-go, it’s clear Andersen feels right at home onstage. Dressed in black and green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day (“I’m wearing green – don’t pinch me!” she jokes to the crowd) with her sleek black hair pulled on top of her head, Andersen gives herself time to warm up, knowing she has three hours to dig in. She swings her arms and shuffles her feet, swaying to the music. Behind her, the band (guitarist Victor Marquez, drummer Michael Minor, keyboardist Rafael Salmon, saxophonist Travis Klein, and Andersen’s husband Heine Andersen filling in on bass) puts a jazzy spin on the blues, taking cues from Andersen and allowing the songs to unravel naturally. The six musicians onstage are a team, interacting playfully and performing for the joy it brings.
Andersen’s energy is contagious. Dancers are pulled to the dance floor as if magnetized, grinning with friends and friendly strangers as they all work up a sweat. Michael Blake, the food and beverage director at Humphreys, says the venue invites Andersen to return to its stage frequently because of the way she interacts with the crowds. “Missy has a broad range in her talent and an engaging personality,” Blake explains. “She is involved with our guests, who return to see her time and again. She knows them by name.”
It’s hard to imagine, but years ago the thought of standing before a captive audience terrified the now-confident Andersen. “I was timid as a child,” Andersen says. “When people see me perform, they don’t believe it.” Andersen loved to sing when she was younger, but the performances she put on back then were for her alone – she sang in the shower and in the basement, where no curious ears could listen in. When her church expected a 12-year-old Andersen to sing a solo for its annual Christmas pageant, she panicked. “I knew [‘O Holy Night’] backwards and forwards, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get one word out.”
Luckily, Andersen’s close friend Janice Johnson was around to encourage Andersen to plow through her fear. “She took me into my basement and turned off all the lights. She had a flashlight, and she shined it in my face and said, ‘I am one million people. Sing like you mean it.’” The trick gave Andersen the determination she needed to attempt her solo. Though the pageant organizers decided to use a prerecorded song for the performance just in case, Andersen considers the experience important. “That took me a long way,” she says.
Andersen has come far since her near-performance at the church Christmas pageant. Late last year, she was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Soul Blues Female Artist category – an award that has in the past gone to Etta James and Irma Thomas. Her role as a nominee in the 36th annual Blues Music Awards, to be held on May 7 in Memphis, came as a surprise. “It was like they just reached into a little fish bowl of obscurity, and out I came,” Andersen says. She and her husband Heine (who is also her guitarist, occasional bassist, and songwriting partner) were scheduled to compete in the International Blues Competition this year, but with a BMA nomination in hand, they are now ineligible. “It’s a good problem to have,” Andersen says.
Andersen feels as though she has climbed to a new professional level with the BMA award in reach. In reality, her entire musical journey has been a succession of steps forward. When Andersen first moved to California, she was a banker with a degree in business from the University of Phoenix – a combination that proves helpful today for staying on top of tours and recording projects. In the early 2000s, Andersen was singing for fun when a friend met Earl Thomas, a hero in San Diego’s local blues community. Between international tour dates and San Diego Music Award wins, Thomas was putting together a backing group called the Jezebels, and he needed singers. Andersen’s name quickly surfaced in their conversation, and before long she was a member of Thomas’s touring band. Not only did Thomas’ band point Andersen toward the blues – it also introduced her to Heine, who played with Thomas overseas.
“I knew they were meant for each other – I knew it!” Thomas says with a laugh. “I played matchmaker. I didn’t know they were going to get together and leave me!”
Not long after joining the Jezebels, Andersen began demonstrating leadership with the other vocalists. “I always referred to her as my right hand man on the left, because she always stood on my left,” Thomas explains. Even then, Andersen’s timid tendencies were fading. “She didn’t appear shy to me at all,” Thomas says now. “One thing I absolutely loved about her was her vibrant personality. She’s very intelligent and quick-witted. I always enjoy talking with her.”
Years after she began touring with Thomas, Andersen released her debut solo album Missy Andersen in 2009. In 2010, she decided to pursue music full-time. Andersen and Heine spent the next few years learning the tricks of the songwriting trade, determined to surpass the number of original tracks (two) that appeared on Missy Andersen. It didn’t come easy at first, but the duo eventually wrote five songs for Andersen’s second album In the Moment.
“I like the blues because of the stories,” Andersen explains. “Even when I was a little kid, the songs I was most drawn to were the ones that told stories.” One of Andersen’s favorite narratives is embedded in “Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” a tale of new love discovered amid the remains of a failed relationship as sung by the late Texas bluesman Z.Z. Hill. But translating narratives like Hill’s into song is a skill that requires the right combination of practice and inspiration. “What inspired me [to write] is that we had to,” Andersen explains. “If we didn’t, I wouldn’t have done it, because I didn’t feel like I had even mastered the singing part yet.”
During one of their early writing sessions, Andersen and Heine were playing cards when a song idea popped up unexpectedly. “I have a whole lotta nothing,” Andersen told Heine as she studied her cards. The phrase caught Heine’s attention, and by the end of the night they’d completed their first draft of “Whole Lotta Nuthin’.” “It’s gone through a lot of different mutations. Originally, we thought it was going to be a response to B.B. King’s “Whole Lot of Lovin’,” but over time it did its own thing. We turned it into a New Orleans second line kind of thing.”
Andersen gravitates toward the stories buried in lyrics, but as an artist she recognizes the importance of effective arrangements, especially when it comes to bringing songs to the stage. As she leads her band through newer songs like “Whole Lotta Nuthin’” and personalized covers like “Stand By Me” at Humphreys, couples leap and twirl across the dance floor, maintaining an energetic presence through each of Andersen’s three sets. As one older gentleman flips his partner, Andersen watches from center stage. “I am entertained!” she cries, exchanging grins with the band and clapping in encouragement.
For now, Andersen is exactly where she wants to be. With the Blues Music Awards approaching and plenty of summer tour dates to look forward to, Andersen is focused on enjoying her life on the stage – the life she always wanted. “It’s been my dream – I can’t believe I made it,” Andersen says. “I was the least likely to, and here I am.” Whatever the future has in store for Andersen, one thing’s for sure: there’s nobody Missy Andersen would rather be than herself.
Interview by Meghan Roos