Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

November 17, 2004:

Valerie Vigoda ’87 on an electric violin

Fiddling her life away
Valerie Vigoda ’87 tours with her band

Valerie Vigoda ’87 entered Princeton not knowing what direction her life would take. She had always loved playing classical violin, which prompted her to leave the University after one year to attend a conservatory. There she learned that “someone would always play Paganini better than I,” and she returned to Princeton to get a liberal-arts education. But she never gave up music. A sociology major, Vigoda started singing with the Katzenjammers and joined ROTC.

Today she’s a professional musician, but in a much different vein than classical violin. She plays a futuristic-looking electric violin, the Viper, while belting out jazzy rock songs with her own band, GrooveLily (www.GrooveLily.com), which is based in New York but tours the country, playing at festivals and concerts and performing a hybrid form of musical theater.

Besides Vigoda, the band includes Gene Lewin ’84 on drums and Brendan Milburn on keyboard. Milburn was studying theatrical composition at NYU when he went to one of Vigoda’s first concerts in 1994. (From 1994 to 1996 the band was called The Valerie Vigoda Band.) He not only joined the band, he married Vigoda. The two frequently collaborate on lyrics that describe struggle and survival: “Days are tumbling past and I am stumbling faster now, I can’t keep up.”

Their sound is a vibrant, intelligent pop-rock. “There’s a strong element of theater in many of our songs,” says Vigoda, who in the 1990s played electric violin and sang backups for Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson. But while reviewers praise their eclecticism as refreshing, record executives have called it “uncategorized.” And until recently Vigoda didn’t have a record contract.

The trio has released several CDs on its own label, QMR Records. But their next CD, Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical, recorded live in New York City in September, will be released by PS Classics in December. That musical performance, says Vigoda, is “a unique cross between rock concert and play, based partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl.’”

Going from Princeton to a touring trio wasn’t a straight shot for Vigoda. After graduation, she held down successive day jobs at the SAT-prep company Princeton Review in Boston, a recording studio in Maryland, and Children’s Television Workshop in New York, while devoting one weekend a month to National Guard training. All the while she was making music and playing in other people’s bands. But now she is able to make a living with her band.

“It’s a roller coaster with incredible highs,” says Vigoda, describing her career with its constant grind of driving from gig to gig, and the thrill of relating to an audience. She often tells audiences that her military training gave her stamina. One night someone from the Army’s ad agency was in the audience. Now Vigoda, who served in the National Guard from 1987 to 1995, is featured in Army ads applauding her perseverance. That trait keeps her going, along with reviews like this one in the 2003 Newark Star Ledger: “Few fields make it harder to ‘get there’ than pop music, but Vigoda may just have her shot.”

By Margaret Van Dagens

Margaret Van Dagens is a writer in Princeton, New Jersey.