Yorkshire Coast Gigs, interviewer: Catherine Dunn-Mines, 22/9/14
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: Blimey, 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.