Kristi Roosmaa: “Life is full of inspirations!” Interview with New York-based musical singer & actress

Kristi Roosmaa is an actress and singer of Estonian origin and is the first Estonian musical theatre singer to perform as a soloist at the world renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City. Kristi’s first performance, at the age of 4, paved the way for her career in the arts. Her first leading lady debut, at the age of 16, was in the musical “Wild Swan” performed at the Estonian National Opera House. At 17, she became the voice coach for the Elise Girls Choir and lead singer for the P.P. Dixieland band. After receiving her law degree from the University of Tartu in Estonia, she packed her bags and headed to New York City to pursue her dream. She graduated from the prestigious American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) and the Broadway Dance Center International Dance program. Her favourite credits: Off-Broadway shows “Silk Stockings” & “Roberta,” guest entertainer on Celebrity Cruise Line, Hope in “Anything Goes,” Maria in “The Sound of Music” and witch Louhi in “New York Revels.”

Kristi, you have had quite a rollercoaster ride so far – from finishing a law degree in Estonia to graduating from American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Broadway Dance Center in New York. Don’t you sometimes feel that it has been too much of an effort and hard work, but the rewards are not that easy to come by? How do you keep yourself motivated?

You know, one of the reasons why I’m still in New York is because it’s a challenge and I love being challenged.  New York is so fascinating and exciting that it not only makes me a stronger performer, but also helps me grow as a person. At this point in my life, I don’t feel anxious about the hardships of the business. They’re all part of the profession and something you simply have to accept as an artist sooner or later.  To be honest, the hard work is starting to pay off little by little and that is a rewarding feeling.  The little successes give me the energy to keep going after my dream.  Ultimately, it’s all about the passion and desire to be great that can keep true artists motivated.

I understand that when planning your musical studies, you also researched schools in Austria, Australia and UK, before finally settling for New York. Although you have said that you based your decision purely on potential teaching quality, was there also some kind of ambitious vision for future involved – i.e. first Estonian musical star on Broadway – even just a bit?

Of course it crossed my mind, but Broadway really wasn’t a deciding factor in my decision to study at AMDA (The American Musical and Dramatic Academy). I heavily considered London, but life has its own ways and it just worked out for me to be in The Big Apple.  My logic was that I wanted to be close to the highest quality of musical theatre so I could study with the most experienced people in the industry before I took my chances.

I noted that to be a musical star you also have to be good at dance. What was it like to study at Broadway Dance Center, where artists like Madonna, Britney Spears and Bette Midler have taken a class or rehearsed?

It was fantastic!  Studying at BDC was probably one of the best decisions, in addition to AMDA, I’ve made toward advancing in my profession.  I mean, you really need to be a true triple threat (singer, dancer, actor) or you really limit yourself with getting work.  Dance was my weakest link of the three, and I knew I had to do something about it.  I’m not going to deny that the first month was devastatingly hard even though I studied ballet for six years as a child.  Given the level of talent around me, the first classes felt like I had never stepped foot on a dance floor.  If you see another dancer lifting, not pulling, just simply lifting her leg against her head and you’re only half way there, it’s quite intimidating.  That very same girl may be your competition, so the bar is set extremely high.  I remember when I started the program and we would start with stretching exercises.  In every direction I looked, someone was doing a perfect split and I, through the tears and pain, just couldn’t get to the floor.  Six months later, I was almost down to the floor, and by the end of the program I could do a full split and was dancing with confidence.  Now I take dance classes at every possible chance, usually three times a week, because without practice, you lose it all!

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

You have now studied and lived in New York for many years. Are you satisfied with your life and career – if you can measure it?

I’m happier and more grounded than ever.  I’ve learned to balance my professional and personal life, which is necessary for surviving in New York.  Even though the arts are my passion, it’s not the only love of my life. There’s so much more to enjoy! Since I married my wonderful husband, it has been so much better sharing life’s ups and downs with him rather than taking them on all by myself!

I’ve noticed that you’re also doing some modelling work. Is this just for the purpose of additionally supporting yourself while getting more and more involved in the musical business? Is your ambition still the same – to become a musical star on Broadway? Also, I imagine that there’s quite a bit of drama involved in the musical business – are you becoming stronger as time goes by and your stakes get higher?

Doing print modeling, shoe modelling, commercials or anything along those lines isn’t something you just randomly do.  I have agents who represent me and send me out to the castings.  If I’m lucky enough to book a job then it’s a privilege, not an expectation.  Of course we all need money to manage our lives, but all of the things mentioned above also have a strong PR aspect.  Every newsstand carries New York Weddings Magazine, and if I go into a store and open one, I can see my print work for New York Cruise Line.  This has helped me get noticed for additional work as a print model.  Think of it this way – if you turn on TV and see a commercial with Oprah or if you open a magazine and see Taylor Swift in a Cover Girl ad, they are promoting themselves and getting paid to do it too!  The more my face is out there and the more people see it, the better it is for my career. This business isn’t just about talent – it’s also about networking and creating sound relationships.  Hopefully, one day, all this work will lead to an opportunity where I don’t have to wait in line with 500 hundred other girls in hopes of just being seen.

As for drama, acting and singing are very emotional fields and the theatre industry itself can be quite dramatic—starting with actually getting a job, which leads to the real drama performed on stage.  What most people never see is the drama that can stem from being selected for a role, devoting yourself, and then the production falls through due to lack of funding, etc.  I love drama on stage, but other than that it’s too exhausting and a waste of positive energy. Life is tough enough, why create more?!

Do I want to be on Broadway? Absolutely yes, and I’m working really hard toward that goal.  All of my rehearsing and practice give me more confidence, making me stronger by the day.  I think the fact that I’m still in New York should speak for itself.

You have just released a jazz track called Special from the musical called Avenue Q. Does that indicate that we will see you becoming more of a recording artist instead? Special also features respected Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, who has also worked with notable jazz artists. What was it like to work with him, and how did you two find each other?

Recording music as an artist is such an important way of introducing your talent to a larger audience and I love doing it.  I will be recording more this fall, but there’s no better place than a LIVE stage, which I will stay true to unless something crazy comes my way.

I have quite a story for you regarding meeting Tim…I’m boarding a flight from New York to Estonia and since I’ve been doing this for years, I have a good idea of the best seats to be in, etc.  I have my own little system: I try to get a window seat that’s not too close to the bathrooms (this tends to become an area where people “hang out” and stand during the flight), put my pillow against the window, lay my head on it, tuck my feet to the front seat pocket and fall asleep.

The day I met Tim was no different, except when I boarded the plane, I saw a middle-aged man in a leather jacket sitting in my seat.  I smiled and politely told him that he was in my seat.  He looked up and asked, “Would you mind switching seats with me?  I broke my toe and I’m afraid someone’s going to step on it.”  I mean, he looked healthy and I figured he just wanted my window seat for an EIGHT HOUR FLIGHT!!  Besides, he wasn’t so tall that his legs would be in someone else’s way!  But, even though his story sounded really bizarre, I didn’t have the heart to say no.  This gentleman totally messed up my “plane-boarding-system”, but I smiled and said “Of course we can swap seats. We don’t want to break your toe again.” Eventually, we started talking and he told me he’s a musician.  Next thing I knew, we’re recording songs in a legendary New York studio and he’s inviting me to Finland to perform with him.  He is very creative, skillful, professional and an unbelievable artist. Working with him was such a treat.

Photography by Katrina Tang

Tim Ries on Kristi: ”I met Kristi Roosmaa in the most unlikely of places and even the most unlikely of circumstances – as Kristi already shed some light into how, I’m not going to describe it again in detail. But obviously while on that flight and after Kristi kindly trusted me with my broken toe, we struck up a conversation and realised that we were both in the arts, in music and the 8 hour flight went by rather quickly. Neither of us slept, mostly because of the enlightened conversation. During the flight I discussed with Kristi my various music projects, played some of the music on my ipod and she also talked passionately about her love of singing and acting and dancing. I was heading to Helsinki to produce and record a CD of music by some incredible Finnish musicians – 2 sisters, Selina and Jemina Sillanpaa.     

When we were both back in NYC, we got together on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to discuss working together in the future. I still had not heard Kristi sing. Those of you who may not know her, she is a beautiful, petite blonde, with a charming smile and the charisma and energy of an eager adolescent but the wit and savvy nature of a lady who has been driven to be a successful performer. Still, I hadn’t heard a note from her charming, witty self. We then went to midtown Manhattan to a rehearsal space to go over some music. When she opened her mouth to begin, I had no idea that much volume and intensity, and in the best possible way, could come out of this delicate creature. Wow. Serious control of her vocal abilities. Obviously well trained and seriously talented. OK, it was clear that we would do something.     

I work with so many musicians all over the world, like my friends in Budapest and Finland, but also, India, Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and many other locations –and now I had a wonderful partner in Estonia. A really great one. I knew already that there were great musicians from Estonia. I had worked the previous summer with the Absolute Ensemble under the direction of Kristjan Jarvi, and the wonderful Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu was performing with them as well. Both are incredible performers.     

During our time in the rehearsal room I asked her if she had any Estonian folk melodies with her and she did. I love folk music from around the world. I looked at a couple and immediately began arranging 2 of the songs right on the spot. She loved the idea and the direction I was taking. A week later we went in to a studio in NYC and recorded 2 of the folk songs, with my alterations with the chords and the rhythmic ideas and it went really well. Kristi sang beautifully. A few months later I was in Finland performing with the Sillanpaa sisters and I invited Kristi to join us for 2 concerts. 2 wonderful nights and the audience loved her.     

I then had the idea to take more of the folk melodies and perhaps involve the Absolute Ensemble with maestro Kristjan Jarvi. I contacted him and he seemed quite interested in the project. I hope soon this collaboration will take place and we can bring this music to Estonia. I think it would be an amazing musical exploration.”     

Kristi, how do you generally spend your pastime in New York, and do you have time to see musicals and theatre yourself?

Seeing musicals and cultural events is part of my job. I go to the shows – quite often alone, just to keep myself informed about what’s out there.  I get tickets in the orchestra, so I can really observe everything from the choreography to the most minuscule details.  Since weekdays are busy, this leaves my husband and me with time on the weekends to really let go and do whatever our hearts desire.  We live a very healthy and athletic lifestyle and both of us love sports.  Jonathan’s (Kristi’s husband) grandparents have family cabin on a lake in Vermont, so we enjoy driving up there and water skiing, tubing, kayaking, etc.  We love Central Park, the beach, dining out and grilling on our back porch.  Enjoying time with our family and friends is always such a treat because everyone’s lives are becoming more and more hectic.

What about idols in the musical and theatre world and generally in life – do you have mentors or someone who inspires you?

I don’t have one idol, but I admire dedicated performers for so many different reasons.  I am inspired by events that occur outside of the performing arts too. I mean, how inspiring was watching double amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa running in the Olympics?!  Family, friends, passion, fierceness, love, children, nature, success, hardship of life, a touching performance – I could keep going forever. Life is full of inspirations!

Yes, I do have mentors: my teachers. I participate regularly in voice and speech classes with Susan Cameron and vocal coaching classes with Stephen Purdy.  They coach and help me choose everything from the right song to which techniques are best to use in my upcoming castings.

Photography by Katrina Tang

 

How much has the multicultural atmosphere in New York influenced your thinking or approach generally?

One hundred percent.  From a business standpoint, I arrived here without realising what the performing arts are all about.  Now I have a much better understanding of how auditions, the casting process and productions work on a larger stage, such as New York.  From a personal aspect, I’ve learned to be so much more tolerant, open minded, positive and appreciative, because when you meet someone, “you never know” who they are or how they may be able to help you in the future.

What about your future plans?

I’m in the middle of two recording projects and lining up my next performance.  One of the studio projects will be with Tim Ries and I have a few modelling jobs I’ve been booked for in near future. Plus, auditioning season starts up again in the fall, so cross your fingers for me!

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Kristi’s single “Special” is out now: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/special-single/id548688506

www.kristiroosmaa.com

About the author: Silver Tambur

Silver Tambur is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Estonian World. He has previously studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and Politics & Society at the Birkbeck College, University of London. Silver has been the editor at the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s news service in English, as well as contributing for the Business Sense magazine in the UK, Deutsche Welle and Radio New Zealand. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can write to Silver at silver@estonianworld.com.