There's more to Nancy Sanchez than just jazz. Anyone who has seen her monthly performances at Steamers in Fullerton knows her proclivity for busting out original acoustic songs in the middle of her set. So most of her fans are probably surprised to hear those tunes are now the core of Sanchez's full-length debut, Ruby In L.A. Though switching from jazz standards to a slickly produced, pop-flavored album seems a major stylistic change, it actually indicates a return to the past for the OC songstress.
"I started off as a [pop] songwriter," Sanchez says, as she finishes up her day gig of teaching guitar. "When I first started playing guitar, songwriting just came more natural to me. It wasn't until later on I discovered other avenues of music like jazz. Right now, I feel these songs have been with me for so long that they just need to have a life and be out!"
Even the album title recalls the days before she sang in front of the red drapes of Steamers' stage. Sanchez's first foray into live music was as "Ruby" of Ruby Red, and later Ruby and the Bear Traps. As the title track tells, there was a romantic admirer of Sanchez back then who wrote a song about her called "Ruby" that he performed in LA cafés until coming to the heartbreaking realization that his love was unrequited.
Such tales largely frame the new album. "To me, music is therapy," Sanchez says between sips of port wine. "I've allowed myself to write about my personal life. I'm hoping that whoever is going through the same thing in any of the songs can heal and find comfort in them."
She strikes a range of emotions, from the bluntness of "The Breakup Song" to the wondrously poetic "I Surrender." When asked which is the most personal, Sanchez responds with "In Blue," the album's first single. "When I wrote it, I was in this melancholic space. I wanted this person to be el hombre de mis sueños," she says. "At that point, he couldn't give me what I wanted him to offer me." The strums are hypnotic, lulling the listener into the double meaning of the song. It's just as much about a special blue dress as it is about the emotional color of her recollections.
The song is also emblematic of the album's overall sound, with soaring violins and melodic xylophone keys rounding out the arrangement. Throughout Ruby In L.A., a diverse roster of guest musicians add layers of jazz, hip-hop and country. For all the genre bending she does, it's good Sanchez was in the hands of a couple of very capable local producers, Evan Stone and David Carpenter.
"[They] got familiar with my style," Sanchez says. "The vibe and the instrumentation was really a collective thing."
A coup was later staged when three-time Grammy winner David Way signed on to mix the offerings. "I'm not going to lie. The fact that a person like that took interest in my music gave me a little bit of a boost," she says.
With all the confidence needed for a crossover, Sanchez is ready to take her music into the world. "I feel more comfortable onstage now and in my own skin," she says. Gone are the days of pre-show jitters, and life experiences have allowed her to grow into her material. "I'm more relaxed and even funny sometimes," Sanchez says, laughing. "I'm hoping [the new album] is going to take me to the next step."
Sanchez is not entirely sure of what that will look like other than feeling out her new (well, slightly old) musical identity. She muses of new venues to grace, such as OC's Constellation Room and LA's Hotel Café. Staying in Southern California while recording the album, she's itching to book some dates out of state, too.
"I want new experiences," she says, eagerly. "I'm ready to be free, damn it!"
Nancy Sanchez performs with the Hawkline Monster & Mariachi 3 Generaciones at the album-release party for Ruby In L.A. at Steamers Jazz Club, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8700; www.steamerscafe.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $8. All ages.