Piano lessons began at age 7 and Clarinet lessons at age 11. I dabbled in playing the Tenor Horn [I even used to play in the Boys Brigade band for some unknown reason!] – but eventually gave it up as my lips used to swell up profusely and my teenage sensibilities reacted against it…and that was before they invented Botox?! Guitar playing was also a private pastime, and I also began to experiment with various percussion instruments – bongos, congas, kabasas and the like.
Speaking of percussion, I’ve always been an “errant girl for rhythm” and absolutely adore great drumming & all things rhythmic –which is why when I went back to college to do first a BA then an MA in Music after having had 3 kids at a fairly early age, I decided to study a little Ethnomusicology (big word – 7 syllables!) - in particular Trad. Irish music together with Performance Studies and Jazz Improv and the Vocalist first at Roehampton then Kingston University.
I’d always loved Classical music, particular obsessions being the Baroque period full of Bach’s divine harmonic genius and Handel’s sublime way with a melody [learnt from the Italians in the 7yrs he spent there] and, as with most jazzers, the floating, eastern-influenced harmonies of late 19th/early 20th Century French “Impressionist” composers Debussy and Ravel - whose works definitely laid a foundation for later jazz composers in experimenting with extended chord figurations and whole tone scales. I find the shifting rhythms inherent in Eastern European music incredibly exciting too, incorporating them into a number of original compositions on my debut cd “Strange but True” , released in November 2004.
After completing the MA at the beginning of the ‘90s I began regular gigging with my first band First Circle formed with musicians on the BA Music course including pianist Paul Reeves [now pursuing a successful career writing & arranging film/tv music - See www.paulreevesmusic.co.uk ] and ace trumpeter Ray Butcher, who also features on my new cd what’s it all about on my own tune “waiting room blues” and has been described by noted pianist, arranger and the album’s sleeve note author, Steve Gray, as “giving us a comprehensive overview of 50 years of trumpet playing in the space of 24 bars” (see www.myspace.com/raybutcher ).
Gradually I began to hook up with more of the established jazz community, joining London based organization JSN (Jazz Singers Network) and developing my artistry by attending workshops with dynamic American jazz singer Mark Murphy at the 606 club in Chelsea and the late great Marion Montgomery at her home in Berkshire - where husband, renowned bandleader and pianist Laurie Holloway provided the backing trio alongside bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Martin Drew, two of the most accomplished Uk jazz musicians on the circuit, much in demand as sidesmen for famous acts, as well as successfully heading up their own groups for many years.(Incidentally, one morning family friend and Artist Rolf Harris dropped by to give workshop participants a few priceless tips on the idiosyncrasies – idiocies?! – of performing …great fun, and incredibly inspiring, especially in view of the length of years he’d been in the entertainment industry. )
Late 2004 happily saw the eventual release of my debut album “Strange but True”, recorded in the SW UK at Krazy Kat studios, Exeter under the capable supervision of ex-Muse Sound Engineer Rick Wolkers. The album gave several of my own compositions a chance to be aired and featured in particular the fluid, funky improvisational guitar licks of Dartington trained Bristol-based jazz musician Andy Christie, who had thankfully been able to come up with a new, solid rhythm section comprising bassist Chris Harris and drummer Dave Sheen that would at last ensure the project’s completion after a first abortive attempt had been made at my house some months before.
A couple of well-received tours featuring the new album ensued with RAW (Rural Arts Wiltshire – see www.ruralartswiltshire.org.uk ) and I continued to perform with my musicians at various venues both in the South West UK, where I had relocated from London late 2001, and in various places around the Uk. The new cd sold pretty well, and had some good reviews, but as it was quite an eclectic type of album – essentially mostly my own material incorporating a fusion of latin, folk-rock and blues - I began to feel increasingly restless about making my mark on the more “kosher” UK jazz community…
As the ideas started formulating in my head for a new, more straight-ahead jazz project, ex-London Drummer Quinny Lawrence, who had originally been earmarked for the first album but was eventually replaced by Dave Sheen in the new line-up (more owing to the fact that the latter and new bassist Chris Harris regularly worked together and were rock-solid [no pun intended!] than anything else) but had become a regular member of my live jazz ensemble by now, put me in touch with his good friend and fantastic arranger/pianist/composer John Horler ( see www.johnhorler.co.uk) . John has worked since the 1980s with Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth (both of whom celebrated their respective 80th birthdays in 2007 and have over the years received many accolades for their outstanding contribution to British Jazz), and has built up a reputation, particularly with singers, for his sensitive yet punchy lyrical jazz piano style (he was voted Critics choice Jazz pianist of the year 2002) and well-honed accompanist abilities.
I envisaged the new album embracing both aspects of the wonderfully retro/urban feel of “swinging 60s' Alfie film: the title what’s it all about was originally conceived with a view to opening the album with Sonny Rollins’ funky blues’ theme song 'Alfie’s Theme' – I wrote some sassy lyrics and was most disappointed when refused permission by 20th Century Fox and had to re-record it with just a scat vocal – and bringing the album to a close by leaving the listener with a poignant rendition of Bacharach’s sublimely beautiful “Alfie', with just voice and piano. (Last October at Canterbury Festival Club, the critic Sian Napier – see reviews – called us “a fine duo” referring to our live performance of this timeless classic.)
After some initial discussions John and I settled on around 11 tunes for the project and John began to write some original arrangements that would aim at giving a unique freshness to what were, on the whole, well-loved standards with a couple of more unusual tunes thrown in plus my own blues composition “Waiting Room Blues” - written for and dedicated to my mother, Ruth, after we had both been chatting somewhat too distractedly in our local doctor’s surgery and suddenly discovered, after around an hour or so of waiting to be called, that we had been forgotten!!
After another round of waiting later that day in the dentist’s, it drove me in cathartic mode to pen a blues tune about all those frustrating things in life that force us to either wait (why do I hate waiting so much?!) or to change our plans to deal with the everyday obstacles we face. I have to admit, this tune goes down so well with all the live audiences I’ve tried it on – they all join in most heartily with the chorus “I’ve got the waiting room blues..my tolerance is zero my resistance is low” - that I’m definitely persuaded we all have this contemporary neurosis in common, and need to express it/laugh about it to save us all going crazy!
As you will have noticed from reading the above, maintaining a keen sense of humour is an essential part of my life-survival strategy, as is creating enough space in all the madness to be able to contemplate the beauty of nature whenever and wherever possible (I adore Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark and in particular love to watch birds wheeling and diving especially over the sea, it’s so liberating and stress-busting…)
Many, many beautiful songs have been written in all sorts of genres, over the centuries, most of which are about that most frustratingly yet gloriously indefinable subject, “Love” …. Many wonderful song interpreters have come and gone, but one thing this "soulful songstress" aspires to is to soothe troubled spirits, touch hearts and move souls through my voice and music, with both my own material and as much of other great songwriters’ tunes as I’m able to discover – whether the rhythm is frenetic and driving or mellow and laid-back.. There’s room for huge diversity in life and a time for everything as the Book of Ecclesiastes says:
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance…”
But most of all, as lyricist Paul Francis Webster wrote to that most exquisite of Johnny Mandel’s tunes, there remains “A Time for Love”.
Maybe the final word in summing up why I bother to sing at all and why I find music such a fantastic vehicle for the releasing of emotions can go to that most gifted of composer/lyricists 20th Century America produced, the insurpassable Cole Porter, in the words of his lesser-known tune “Don't let it get you down”:
“say hello to a smile, say goodbye to a frown. Give a cheer for this vain world, this dear old insane world - it's a mere cellophane world - so don't let it get you down!”