JAZZ JOURNAL PROFILE January 2015, interviewer Trevor Hodgett
Sarah Moule is such a compelling interpreter of a lyric that it’s bewildering that the 2014 Songs From The Floating World is her first album for six years. Moule’s explanation for the years of silence is simple: “I couldn’t sing. I got asthma and bronchitis and the medication really messed my voice up. I was still gigging but it was quite difficult and I would only gig with another singer and not sing for more than half an hour but I couldn’t record because I didn’t have the vocal stamina. I thought I was going to have to stop singing at one point. Then in April 2013 I just thought, “I’ve had enough of this – I’m not taking these drugs any more.” I stopped taking them and my voice just kind of pinged back. And because the illness comes and goes I thought I’d better make another album straight away, while I can – because I might not be doing it forever.”
As well as a few blues songs and standards, the album includes 10 mostly previously unrecorded songs co-composed by the late, hip New York lyricist Fran Landesman and Moule’s pianist-husband Simon Wallace. “The songs are about things in connection with love but they’re not love songs,” say Moule. “And they’re relevant, they resonate with life now, and that’s important to me.”
Moule explains how the Wallace/Landesman partnership worked: “Fran had written such a lot of poems which she thought of as lyrics waiting for music so she would give Simon a lyric and he would take it away and work on it. And then he’d come back and they’d fight about it because he would push her to make changes in the lyric and she would push him and say what she didn’t like.”
Landesman was as renowned for her Bohemianism and eccentricity as for her songwriting and was often depicted as being intimidating. “She was never boring,” laughs Moule fondly. “But she could be really difficult. She actually used the f-word on stage at Simon. She just went right over the top. She had a sharp tongue but it was more she had no filter – the truth came into her mind and out of her mouth. And if it was about you it could be hurtful. But then she would be incredibly apologetic.”
Moule admits that she rejected some Wallace/Landesman songs. “There were some that were overtly about sex and I just thought, “I’m not singing that.” The important thing for me in their songs is that there are layers of meaning. They mean one thing on the surface but they’re so well-crafted that the more you work on the lyric the more you realise it’s got all these nuances. And the same with the music.”
One of the Wallace/Landesman songs, Scars, is already becoming something of a standard, having previously been performed by Carol Grimes, Ian Shaw and others. “I’ve always loved that song,” says Moule. “It’s about physical and emotional scars and it’s truthful but it’s not a sad song. It’s very positive and really uplifting and beautiful.”
There are exquisitely textured arrangements by Wallace, who utilises surprising instruments like shakuhachi, played by Clive Bell, and bass clarinet, played by Yori Silver and Tim Hodgkinson. “The bass clarinettists are two avant-garde conceptual artists in sound who happened to be in the house that day and we just nabbed them and got them to play on some things.”
Moule favours a spontaneous approach to recording. “None of it’s rehearsed,” she says. “We just did a couple of takes of all the tracks because after two takes I’m no good. It’s either in the first two takes or it’s not going to happen, because for me it’s all about the emotional intensity and you can’t keep that up for take after take. So it’s about capturing the moment.”
The album title is significant for Moule. “The floating world was the red light and artists’ and pleasure and sumo wrestling part of pre-18th century Japan and I think jazz musicians live in the equivalent now,” she says. “They’re on the borders of society, it’s not a proper job and it’s hard to make a living. To me the floating world felt like our world and Fran’s world and it’s different to the one that most people inhabit.”
LONDONJAZZ.COM INTERVIEW February 2015
Tamsin Collison interviewed Sarah about performing with jazz legend Bob Dorough (Pizza Express Jazz Club 19th/20th Feb, Maidstone Pizza Express 21st Feb)
1) For those people who don’t know him, who is Bob Dorough?
SM: Bob is an internationally-renowned American jazz pianist/arranger/ composer/singer with a lifetime of jazz musicianship and experience to share. Definitely qualifies as Jazz Royalty! And he’s over here to play 3 gigs – 2 at London’s Pizza Express Club in Dean St on 19th and 20th Feb, and 1 at Pizza Express Maidstone on 21st Feb. It’s a rare opportunity to catch a true legend, live on stage.
2) Where would you place BD in the Jazz Pantheon?
SM: I would place him alongside fellow wordsmiths Dave Frishberg and Fran Landesman. But really he’s out there on his own stylistically as a performer – a one-off. He’s very much a singer’s singer. He’s a clever composer, but it‘s the dexterity, warmth and wit of his lyrics and the musical risks he takes as a performer that singers really respond to. He’s a master of Vocalise, and lots of singers study songs of his such as ‘Up Jumped a Bird’ and ‘I’ve Got Just About Everything’ when learning that repertoire. Like Blossom Dearie, his unique vocal quality reflects his quirky character.
3) What has BD’s influence been on the jazz world?
SM: Many of his numbers are considered part of the repertoire by the jazz world, e.g. ‘Devil May Care’, ‘I’ve Got Just About Everything’, ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, and ‘Nothing Like You, but he’s not a household name outside the USA in the way that the biggest stars of the Great American Songbook are. But he’s a key part of American culture from the 1970s and 80s, due to ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ – a series of educational videos he wrote which included the famous song ‘Three is the Magic Number’ and which were massively popular for a whole generation of Americans. Like Tom Lehrer, he has used his songwriting skills in the cause of education.
4) What’s your first memory of encountering BD’s work?
SM: I first discovered Bob’s work in the title song of Claire Martin’s album ‘Devil May Care’. I remember thinking that it sounded like a hard-bop instrumental and not like a Great American Songbook song. I liked the way it had a modern-sounding lyric that sat very comfortably at a fast tempo. Lyrically it’s a great introdction to Bob’s writing style, full of interesting intervals and extended lyrical lines. Like Dave Fischberg, Bob writes genuine jazz songs, as opposed to popular songs which can lend themselves to jazz interpretations.
5) What’s your favourite BD number and why?
SM: At the moment it’s ‘Love Came On Stealthy Fingers’ which I’ve been learning for these shows. It’s a beautiful song, both lyric and melody. It’s such an evocative title. He wrote a new verse for it for his DUETS album which is wonderfully dark. There’s a bittersweet quality to the lyric too. Like all Bob’s work, it’s very pleasurable to sing. Wonderful harmonic twists and turns and a satisfying story.
6) Has BD had any direct influence on you as an artist?
SM: I’ve recorded ‘Devil May Care’ on one of my own albums. I find him inspirational – a constant reminder that singers must have the courage to take risks in their choice of material. I love his musical playfulness and invention. He’s 91 and he’s still gigging all round the world – he’s just come back from Istanbul, and now he’s got these three gigs in the UK. He’s living proof that you’re never too old to have a good time, and that music keeps you young. His gigs are life-enhancing – he brings joy into the room. And he reminds me that audiences want to be made to feel things. His message: Live life to the full!
7) What’s your personal connection with BD – is this the first time you have worked with him?
SM: I first met BD about 13 years ago at Fran and Jay Landesman’s Duncan Terrace house. They met Bob when Tommy Wolf brought him to St Louis in about 1959 to play the lead in ‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ – Fran and Tommy’s smash-flop musical adaptation of Nelson Algren’s book. Bob and I worked together on a gig at the Southbank Centre in 2010 which celebrated Fran’s life and work. He had collaborated with her on songs such as ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, ‘Nothing Like You’, ‘The Winds of Heaven’, ‘Mount Tipsy’, ‘A Little Touch of Harry In The Night’ – and there are more. ‘Nothing Like You’ is the only song to be included on a Miles Davis album (‘Sorcerer’). And I’ve met him subsequently in New York and London since then. So we know each other, but we haven’t duetted together in public, though we’ve sung together in private. When I was invited to join him on these UK gigs, I jumped at the chance.
8) Who has chosen the playlist for these gigs?
SM: Bob invited Trudy (Kerr) and me to choose any numbers from his repertoire that we fancied doing, although he did suggest we included a couple of numbers from his celebrated ‘Duets’ album to sing together. He has added his own selections, which include his arrangement of the Wallace/Landesman song Scars, to the list and we’ll be doing a few standards too.
9) Who else is in the band?
SM: Trudy Kerr (vocals), Sebastiaan de Krom (drums) and Geoff Gascoyne (bass). Trudy, Geoff and Seb have already recorded an album with Bob, so they know him well. Seb is a singer’s drummer – a very sensitive player – and Geoff is a brilliant bassist who can play anything in any style. So it’s going to be a swinging band.
10) What are you most looking forward to at the gigs?
SM: I’m really looking forward to singing with Bob and Trudy. It’s a very different dynamic to performing a solo gig. I’ll enjoy singing Bob’s crunchy harmonies and having fun with a great group of musicians. It’ll be a bit seat of the pants in places – we’ll be singing some brand new arrangements that Bob is still writing at this moment – but that’s often where the magic happens!
11) At 91 years old, Bob Dorough is a living piece of jazz history. How does it feel to be sharing the bill with such a legend?
SM: There’s a definite adrenaline buzz. We’re all keen to do the best possible job for Bob on the night. And it’s always a bit of an extra challenge performing a writer’s work right in front of them. Plus, we’re anticipating that a lot of jazzers will be coming to these gigs – and that kind of audience really keeps you on your toes. So, it’s slightly scary but very exciting – just the right combination to spark a really Top Night.
12) Pick three words to sum up BD.
SM: Very. Cool. Cat.
YORKSHIRE COAST GIGS INTERVIEW – SEPTEMBER 2014
Q: You grew up on the East Sussex Coast – so you’re probably used to the sort of weather Scarborough has to offer…! I gather that in your early life, you were more likely to be found singing folk music than jazz. Do you still have a penchant for folk, old or new? And was jazz a ‘big discovery’ or just something that you steadily grew towards?
A: Folk songs were what we sang together as a family. My Dad had a great voice, probably still has at 92 but we don’t get to hear it so often, and there were loads of kids so we used to sing at home with everyone hanging on to a harmony as best they could – at least five-part, sometimes six. Poor neighbours, this never started before about 11pm. My Mum and her sisters had sung 3-part Andrews Sisters type harmonies too, so a love of singing on both sides. Still love folk and think it’s having a tremendous revival, if it ever went away, with Kate Rusby, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman et al. Martin Carthy does our local South London folk club! First encountered jazz at university – Billie Holiday, Ricki Lee Jones’s standards album and Jerry Southern – but really introduced to it by a great Scottish guitarist I was working with called Alex Gillan whose housemate was Tim Garland (who did a great 8 bar sax break on our first demo). Tim told me to go and get lessons with Claire Martin when I complained about the ‘sweetness’ of my voice. Didn’t change the voice but she introduced me to jazz and the London jazz scene, the 606 Club, my husband – you name it, it’s all Claire’s fault!
Q: latest album title, ‘Songs From the Floating World’, references the popular Japanese art of the 17th-19th Century, ukiyo-e or ‘Pictures of the Floating World’; this largely referred to to licensed brothel and theatre districts of the larger cities, home to prostitutes and Kabuki actors and frequented by the emergent rich merchant class. Can you tell us what drew you to this theme / reference, and how you feel it comes across in the work on the album?
A: It’s referenced directly with Clive Bell’s beautiful floating shakuhachi on Men Who Love Mermaids and Hell’s Angel but it encapsulates a few ideas for me. First I guess Soho at night, where I did my first gigs and just launched the CD, and Fran & Jay Landesman (who were part of my and Simon Wallace’s life for nearly two decades) spent quite a lot of their time, and not by accident where Ronnie Scott made his club. Jazz and the sleazy part of town have always been linked, in any town, any time. Secondly I think musicians are part of a contemporary ‘floating world’ – they don’t live a 9 to 5 life, some still only come out at night, though more of them teach (bleary-eyed) to make ends meet now, and in some ways being any kind of artist is a life on the margins of society without much security. But it’s our choice, I’m not complaining, it’s just art and money don’t fundamentally have a lot to talk about. They’re not mutually exclusive but music is about music. Business is about business, if you see what I mean. As Quincy Jones said though: ‘if you’re going to sell out make sure you’ve got something to sell’. In general I feel that the ‘floating world’ whatever it may mean to the listener comes across as a vibe, or atmosphere on the album and permeates all of it. At least I hope it does. We wanted to create a series of mini-worlds with these songs, little scenarios, if you like.
Q: The album also features lyrics written by Julie Burchill; in fact, you’ve recorded her lyrics before. How did the collaboration come about, and how does it work – ie: do you meet or talk beforehand, or are the lyrics just delivered and you interpret as you see fit?
A: Julie was Fran’s daughter-in-law for a period of time and Fran adored her – partly I think as a fellow wordsmith. Fran and Julie collaborated on a lyric, A Lazy Kind Of Love (title track of my 3rd CD) and Si worked with them both to set it musically. Subsequently she sent Si a couple more lyrics that were all hers which he set and we particularly liked Lots Of People Do and felt it fitted the ‘femme fatale’ idea which also feeds into theme of the ‘floating world’ – agh! It’s getting complicated. Thing is, I don’t look at songs literally necessarily anyway. If it resonates with me on some level, say thematically, I don’t have to really know why. It just does and if it makes sense to me then I think I can make it make sense for the listener. It’s a gut thing really. We didn’t run Lots by Julie before we sent it to production – I don’t know if she likes it. I hope she does – she tweets about it and is supportive. Met her once in a noisy club in Brighton and she said nice things but I couldn’t hear half of them so just nodded like a foreign person!
Q: I’m fascinated by the fact that you’ve created two biographical music shows – ‘A Portrait of Peggy Lee’ and ‘When Peggy Met Ella’, tracing the lives of both Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. What was the process of creating these like – the amount of research, the fusing of music and scriptwriting, then performing as a treasured icon?
A: Not performing as, it’s a take on their work and life, rather than an imitation of their singing. The first show grew out of me being stuck on my garden bench, quite ill for a few months in 2009. Couldn’t sing or actually move at all much. Thought I’d occupy myself with something and read about Miss Lee and listened to lots of recordings. She is fascinating, complex (check out James Gavin’s new biography on her coming out in the States in October – he’s a really good writer), influential and a great singer. It turned into a little show and has been quite popular. The collaborations with other singers started then too as my voice was too fragile to do a whole gig, so sharing a gig was one way to keep working. Then a promoter asked us to put a Peggy/Ella show together and Shireen Francis and I set to work. Lots of reading and writing, then internalising and now adlibbing. Really it’s about the songs – I don’t think people want too much info, but knowing it means you can drop bits in if it feels right. Vocal-folds now fine again once I found a way around the voice-slaughtering medication, which took until 2013, but people keep booking our show so we keep doing it. Geoff Castle’s on piano usually, but Si has also done piano duties. Doing one with Lee Gibson and Simon in October while Shireen is away (don’t worry, she knows). Really looking forward to working with Lee, whom I admire a lot. It’s very different from what I do with the band, but all these things cross-pollinate in one way or another. Have also started messing around with another singer, but it’s early days so not saying who! I like working with other singers. Someone I once worked for said to me on finding out we were both Leos: ‘Sarah, there are many spotlights’ and I think that’s a good way of looking at it. It keeps you on your toes working with other singers though – no slacking!
Q: Besides Peggy Lee, is there any other singer you would love to pay tribute to, or perform with?
A: Carmen McRae, though I don’t have plans for that at the moment. Perform with…Kurt Elling. I love singing with Ian Shaw because he makes me do things I wouldn’t necessarily do on my own.
Q: This is your first appearance at the Scarborough Jazz Festival, as part of your album tour for ‘Songs from the Floating World’. What are you looking forward to about the festival?
A: The gig! Playing with Alan Barnes again (he and Jim Mullen gave me, separately, the best advice a muso can be given: like what you do – meaning give yourself a break, let go of (negative) ego and don’t just criticise yourself and accept that you are doing the best you can at the present moment). Hanging out. Hearing what everyone else is doing musically. Being by the sea (I still miss the sea). Staying in a hotel (no washing up!). Performing our music for a new audience who I hope will be open to it. Getting out of London. Going by train. Didn’t really have a holiday this summer, too busy with the album and tour-admin, so this may be it.
Q: You have a packed tour schedule between now and the end of the year. What is on the horizon for you once that’s over?
A: Think I might try to have a little break somewhere with Simon and our son. Simon I hope you’re reading this. Yes, thoughts of a holiday starting to loom large and I’m only just getting going with the gigs! Then more and better. New music, and current music to new audiences (mind you it moves on all the time so ‘current’ is a one-time-use only word in jazz anyway, but I want to try new things which I haven’t yet identified). In terms of work I want to start doing good gigs in capital cities around the world, in a nutshell. Not asking for much, eh?
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A:Everyone should try to fulfil their potential and help other people to do the same – it’s why I enjoy teaching. It makes a person happy.
Many thanks for your time. A: It was a pleasure.
THE IRISH TIMES – INTERVIEW – 18 Jan 2005, by Trevor Hodgett
Notice how the album charts suddently seem to be full of excellent young women jazz singers like Stacy Kent, Clare Teal and Jane Monheit? You’re a better man than me if you can convincingly explain why there’s such renewed interest in the classic jazz repertoire of songs by writers such as Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart but with the revival continuing, English singer Sarah Moule, judging by the quality of her current CD Something’s Gotta Give, might just be the next singer of standards to find herself shifting albums by the truckload.
Oddly enough it was listening to a pianist, rather than to a singer, which first introduced Moule to the profound satisfactions of jazz. “I really fell in love with jazz when I listened to Thelonious Monk” she reveals. I bought a £3.99 CD called Portraits and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the sound was. It made me want to cry. And I just thought, “That’s it, I’ve found the music I will never get bored with. I had been listening to modern soul but I found it lacking in musical depth and I couldn’t find the meaning I was looking for in those kind of lyrics. So Thelonious Monk was the turning point and then I discovered fantastic writers like Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer.”
Moule’s current CD entirely comprises songs written either by Fran Landesman, many of them in fact composed recently in collaboration with Moule’s pianist husband Simon Wallace, or songs by Johnny Mercer. “Fran really crafts the lyrics.” enthuses Moule. “I am lyric-led as a singer and Fran’s got an interesting intellectual and emotional take on life. I don’t have a dark outlook on life and so I want songs that have some kind of optimisim in them and although Fran can be very dark she’s also very funny and I tend to see the funny side in what she writes. And she is increasingly optimistic now and I appreciate that – on this album her songs aren’t dark, just thoughtful and thought-provoking.”
The Johnny Mercer songs on the album include That Old Black Magic, Days of Wine And Roses and Jeepers Creepers. “There’s fantastic craftsmanship in his songs and they’re so natural to sings as well because he uses everyday speech but in a beautiful, elegant way. But I have to say that That Old Black Magic is a monster of a song. It’s hard to sing because it’s long and you’ve got a huge emotional range that you have to sustain. And obviously there are two absolutely stellar recordings of the song by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra so you feel like you have them looking over your shoulder when you record that. I thought a lot about the lyric and I tried to find my own angle on it and I hope I did – but it’s up to the people who listen to it to decide!”
Moule feels her singing style is continuing to mature. “An album is a record of a moment in time and then you carry on gigging and as you gig you develop what you’re doing and you get a new take on the music and the music you make just moves on. I’m constantly learning stuff about jazz and jazz harmony – it’s a huge learning curve”. Sarah Moule’s Something’s Gotta Give is on Linn Records. Interview by Trevor Hodgett