Interview by Bob Pawlo
Local 802 member Claire Khodara’s career spans 15 years, with various residencies and performances from the Arts Club and Shoreditch House in London to the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel, the Blond at 11 Howard, and the Peninsula Hotel in New York, where she performs under the Local 802 hotel contract. Claire trained at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, one of the oldest musical institutions in the world, finding her start as the pope’s benediction singer in 2004. Claire was also a past contestant on “American Idol,” where she appeared on season nine. Her repertoire includes original pop songs, with a dynamic, soulful sound engineered in collaboration with producer Billy Pavone. Her band KHODARA’s debut pop album, written together with Pavone, forms an intelligent homage to the genre’s shape-shifting nature; its title track “Where’s Your Love?” was released last fall. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Claire to get the musical story of one of our younger members.
Bob Pawlo: What are your first memories of music?
Claire Khodara: Apparently I was singing before I could speak. My mom says I’ve sung more words than I’ve spoken in my life, so I had an early start. My first poignant memory was at my cousin’s house in the Midwest when I discovered Mariah Carey’s 1995 album “Daydream.” Listening to the album, I knew I wanted to be a professional singer. I studied piano and started writing my own songs. I attended a Catholic school in Philadelphia and became thoroughly immersed in the music program. I sang in the choir and loved the experience of being one of many voices that creates one sound. It is overwhelming to realize music’s power lies in the strength of the ensemble, beyond one voice. In high school, I sang in an a cappella group and choir at Germantown Friends School. The choir was comparable to the Sistine Chapel choir at the Vatican, which I later experienced! After graduating, I moved to Rome and enrolled in the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. I did a part-time course with the world-renowned Renata Scotto, an incredible opera singer. I also signed up for a choir at the English church, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. It was there I met Raimundo Pereira, who gave me the incredible experience of singing at the Vatican on Wednesdays for the pope’s weekly benediction. On Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004 – which was my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary – I began my career at the Vatican. Shortly after 10 a.m., I was opening up for 60,000 people, and there was Giovanni Paolo – Pope John Paul – getting out of his Popemobile.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like to sing in such an immense sacred place?
Claire Khodara: It was a massive honor. It felt like a divine opportunity, truly like God was singing through me. It was something I’ll never forget. I had the opportunity to sing regularly on Wednesdays for the next two years.
Bob Pawlo: You were singing in Latin, of course?
Claire Khodara: Latin or Italian. After singing there for one and half years, Pope John Paul died and Pope Benedict came into reign. It then became a much different experience at the Vatican. When I would sing for John Paul, they would scream, “Giovanni Paolo!” and it was like a soccer game, completely wild; people were crying hysterically with joy. When Benedict came the same amazing energy prevailed, but the crowd was constrained.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like to hear your voice reverberating at Saint Peter’s?
Claire Khodara: It made me speechless every time, especially seeing myself on the Jumbotron screen, with my face blown up to 100 feet by 100 feet!
Bob Pawlo: I have to ask you, what was going through your mind at such a young age, in the minute or two before you know you’re going to be singing in the Vatican for the pope?
Claire Khodara: I would breathe and say a little prayer. When performing wherever you are, you must give it your all because you only get one shot.
Bob Pawlo: How did you go from singing for the pope to becoming a contestant on “American Idol?”
Claire Khodara: After two years of singing at the Vatican, I eventually moved back to Philadelphia to continue my academic career at Temple University’s music program where I pursued studies in classical voice. I briefly went back to Europe where I studied in London and changed my major to Communications. The summer before I graduated, I decided to audition for “American Idol.” I was determined to win. I took a bus to Boston and waited in line with thousands of people. I made it through the initial rounds and they told me we were going to what they called Hollywood Week. I flew to L.A. and made it to the end of the week. I was filmed a few times and was able to generate a modest singing career in New York City immediately thereafter. I was booked for weddings, for singing the national anthem at sporting events, and for all sorts of other jobs. I capitalized on the opportunity because I thought it was my moment. After a year and a half, I realized I didn’t want to be a wedding singer anymore. Doing the wedding circuit is incredible and very lucrative. It’s an experience I’ll never take back, because I learned how to sing in a popular context with an ensemble.
Bob Pawlo: Why did you want to stop singing weddings and those kinds of gigs?
Claire Khodara: I met my husband Gregory, who was living in London and he inspired me to start my own events company and booking agency. I soon started traveling back and forth to London, and I started booking music at events. My original music really took off with the organization of my business-oriented husband. I got booked with a residency at the Arts Club, an exclusive private members’ club where all the big stars play when touring London. Prince played there; so did Adele. From there, I was booked to perform in other members’ clubs all over London and started to have a real following. I eventually moved to London and created an album. When my husband’s father became ill, we moved back to New York so he could take over the family real estate business.
I was heartbroken leaving my beloved London, but New York is an awesome place, so I picked up where I left. I was given a residency at the Pierre Hotel, became a union member, and now perform at the Peninsula Hotel under the Local 802 hotel contract. It’s great having a backup team like Local 802. My musicians are supported. It is a real community, which has been awesome.
Bob Pawlo: What’s it like performing in a hotel setting these days?
Claire Khodara: It’s a blast. I have my own band. I perform original music and favorite covers. It’s steady and reliable, and I feel like I have an institution that supports me, which is invaluable. My booking agency has also taken off and we do about 100 events a year in London and New York. Recently, I’ve tapped into the Philadelphia market.
Bob Pawlo: How do you juggle going back and forth?
Claire Khodara: I have someone on the ground in London. I’ve learned to manage myself, as well as have a manager and a booking agent. As an artist, you’re your own best manager.
Bob Pawlo: Many of our members are instrumentalists, so they might be interested in knowing what kind of practice regime you have as a professional singer.
Claire Khodara: I don’t drink alcohol. I sleep eight hours a night. I eat three meals a day. As a singer, your instrument is part of you, so you’re kind of practicing 24 hours a day. It’s a lifestyle. I once read that Barbra Streisand doesn’t warm up. She’s so incredible. How does she not warm up? If I don’t warm up, it’s a disaster. I have to warm up. I have to do everything. I have to take a bath. I have to do a whole ritual. I’ve come a long way.
Bob Pawlo: What are your favorite parts of all this endeavor so far?
Claire Khodara: The spontaneity of it all, creating my own opportunities. Being in the music industry is kind of like navigating the wild, wild west. There’s no set industry as it is always changing. I have an amazing support system through the union, and through my family, so I’m able to bounce ideas off of people that I trust.
Bob Pawlo: And what are your least favorite parts so far?
Claire Khodara: The uncertainty. It’s tough, but if you work hard, save money and have a positive attitude, you’ll be fine.
Bob Pawlo: Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
Claire Khodara: In five years, I want a couple of kids and will be moving back to London. In ten years, I want a Grammy. But before I do that, I want to star in a Broadway play. That’s always been a dream of mine. I want to continue my original project with another album and bigger endorsement deals. I want to keep up my connection with the church. It’s an honor to sing at church, no matter what church it is; it doesn’t need to be the Vatican. I recently sang Ave Maria at a Roman Catholic wedding
Bob Pawlo: How do you balance the pop music, the jazz standards and also the sacred music?
Claire Khodara: That’s a great question. I don’t prepare differently when singing different genres. I have an amazing singing coach called Norma Garbo. She’s taught everybody, from Taylor Swift to the Scissor Sisters, and she teaches you to find your real voice inside. That understanding has really helped me navigate different genres. For instance, I sing softer and warmer when I’m singing standards, more twangy when singing pop, and with pure light when I’m singing classical music. So, it’s a blessing and a curse to be able to sing all these things, because what am I really good at? I love pop music. That’s where my heart is. There’s no fighting. I’m a pop singer.
Bob Pawlo: Lastly, from your perspective as a younger musician, how would you describe the professional music scene right now?
Claire Khodara: It’s really tough to choose a profession in the arts. Everyone told me it was going to be tough, except for my parents who always believed in me. I don’t have any other choice than to be a musician. I have perseverance, and if you have perseverance, you will triumph and your dreams will happen. The trials and tribulations have been worth it so far. I’m happy!