By Anna Caldwell
As The Peppermint Patties celebrate three years of making music together, we share the story of how we became Chicago’s newest vintage vocal trio and reflect on our values and hopes for the future.
Among the many lessons learned over the past three years, one of the greatest has been the empowerment of producing our own shows and the joy of sharing that work both live on-stage and with a growing digital audience.
Our Origin Story
The Peppermint Patties began in September of 2018 at Roger's Park Social when members Daina Fischer, Laura Smalley, and Anna Caldwell (that’s me!) met for drinks at a favorite local bar. The conversation quickly turned to shop talk about recent and upcoming gigs.
Our plates were full, to say the least. Yet, as we chatted about auditions and upcoming projects, it became clear that something was missing from our hustle and bustle.
“A month earlier, Anna and I performed our first Cabaret together called Bespoke: An Evening of Song. The success of the show was empowering, and I wanted to produce another one as soon as possible.” -Daina
Having recently produced a music theatre cabaret with fellow DePaul alums in The Slotted Spoon Initiative, Laura was no stranger to the medium.
“Cabarets were something we all enjoyed and wanted to do more of! The idea that three of us could do one together seemed to come naturally.” - Laura
We can't remember who said what, but the conversation went something like this:
"We should do a cabaret together!"
"That's a great idea. We could sing some Andrews Sisters songs."
"Yes! And we could perform it at Davenport's!"
"Do we need a name? I think we should pick a name!"
Becoming 'The Patties'
At the time, Laura and Anna were both redheads, and Daina was blonde. This was the inspiration for choosing peppermint; red as pepper and blonde as mint!
Patties is a quintessentially vintage name. It pays homage to Patty Andrews from The Andrews Sisters, and we couldn't pass up a good alliterative moment!
Thus, The Peppermint Patties were born!
Shortly after that, we produced our first concert: A Very Christmas Cabaret at Davenport's Piano Bar with pianist Heidi Joosten and guest artist Wesley Taylor, who, in addition to being a talented performer, is an accomplished photographer and took the very first official group photos.
Exploring Other Genres
Before becoming The Peppermint Patties, we met and became friends while studying Opera at DePaul University. This shared experience has had a profound impact on how we view music-making.
For better and worse, music school is a demanding environment that often forces young musicians to set aside certain interests and aspirations to fully focus on academic demands. As "vocal performance" majors, the study of Opera takes precedence over other musical interests and abilities.
To be fair, no one at DePaul told us not to sing musical theatre or jazz, but the reality is, there simply wasn't much time for it, nor were there opportunities for these genres in the academic setting.
As Opera singers, we were taught to be a part of a large creative machine. That often involves surrendering control to the leaders in our industry. Operas can be so grand and complex that you must focus solely on your role while others do theirs.
While that process is satisfying in its own way, we yearned for the ability to express ourselves completely on our own terms. Becoming The Peppermint Patties has allowed us to make music without answering to gatekeepers in our industry.
To no small degree, our vocal trio was born of our desire to explore these styles and perform music that we loved under our own creative direction.
The "Feminist" Andrews Sisters
The Andrews Sisters have been a steady source of inspiration for our group. We love their close harmonies, sense of humor, and vintage style. However, we are keenly aware that the Andrews Sisters existed in a time and place where women did not have the same freedom of expression enjoyed by men.
In reality, the Andrews Sisters were symbols of traditional values. Some of their work is focused on military morale-building, playing up the theme of lonely ladies who stayed behind while their men went to war. A deep dive into their catalog of songs also reveals pieces that have a cheerful, patronizing racism. Likewise, none of their songs question the subordinate role of the female in American society, which is something that we do in our real lives every day.
As The Patties, we are committed to contextualizing this history and being careful about how we borrow music from the past. Like the Andrews Sisters, we want our music to be morale-building. We want people to feel good and optimistic when they listen to us. However, we also want our audience to know that our values are inclusive. We may sometimes rock vintage vibes but do not espouse vintage values.
Producing Our Own Projects
When we became The Peppermint Patties, we also became producers and entrepreneurs. This forced us to wear many hats. Luckily, we already had many skills necessary to operate and market an arts organization.
Leaning heavily on our shared experiences in arts administration, marketing, content creation, and production management, the Patties produced two live shows and booked numerous private gigs before the pandemic began.
Over the past 18 months, we have grown an online audience through free virtual song releases and a pay-what-you-can fully digital holiday concert. This direction is not something we could have predicted, but we are proud of how we have evolved.
Before the pandemic, we rehearsed a few times a month or more if we had a gig lined up. However, we often took time off to focus on other projects. To some extent, the pandemic changed that.
In the Fall of 2020, it was evident that COVID-19 wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, so we decided to put on a digital holiday concert. The level of organization, focus, and commitment required to make that happen (including quarantining and precautionary COVID-19 tests) upped our game. We began meeting weekly by video call and have continued to do so since.
Fortunately, the digital concert was a great success. The Peppermint Patties: Home for the Holidays was attended digitally by 176 screens and has since been viewed over 700 times on YouTube.
We quickly realized that the reach of our digital concert was far greater than the capacity of any venue where we sing in Chicago. Additionally, the experience of creating it was both highly challenging and very rewarding. The path was bumpy, but we took the momentum from the online concert and ran with it. In 2021 we recorded seven virtual song releases (one per month) as well as two solo video series.
The Value of Our Work
Everything that we create is made by us, along with help from a small group of collaborators. From the beginning, we committed to paying the artists we collaborate with, and this quickly evolved into the realization that we also need to pay ourselves. As three professionally trained artists, we owe it ourselves to acknowledge that our work has value and that we should be compensated for it.
Over the past year, we worked to find the balance between making our music freely accessible to everyone in our audience while also finding ways to be profitable so we can grow for the future.
For the time being, we encourage our fans to support us by “sending tips” via our Kofi page.
What the Future Holds
We are incredibly eager to return to live performance safely. It is one of the reasons that we were so excited when every member of our group received the COVID-19 vaccine. Many Chicago companies have begun resuming live performances. We are learning from their experiences and are proud to announce that we will be presenting a Holiday Concert this December with both a live and digital option, date TBA!
The past year has taught us that many of our loyal followers are not based in Chicago and are grateful for opportunities to watch us perform digitally. While we hope to focus on live performing in 2022, we intend to continue sharing content online via our social media platforms and offering digital options whenever possible.
To help us know that our online content continues to make an impact, make sure that you subscribe to our YouTube page and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.