Voltarol - related music

Friday, 17 October 2008

See Emily play

I was talking to Tony Oreshko the other day about our mutual enthusiasm for the late Emily Remler, a fine jazz guitarist from New York who was just beginning to emerge as a truly distinctive voice when she died of heart failure at the tragically young age of 32. Tony has written an essay about her on his website (see right for link) and I was reminiscing about having seen her play in, of all places, Berkhamsted in Buckinghamshire in the early 1980’s.

I first became aware of her when I was running a specialist guitar shop in partnership with luthier Richard Bartram (you’ll have to Google his web site - he’s asked me to remove the link from my pages because he’s convinced that the more links there are, the more spam he gets, and he’s up to his ears in spam!). We stocked a great many guitar records along with the instruments, amplifiers, accessories, strings, spares and sheet music, and I was importing a number of specialist labels which included the American jazz label, Concord. The label featured quite a few interesting guitar albums by the likes of Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow, Charlie Byrd, and George Barnes. As a consequence, when I saw the name ‘Emily Remler’ listed in such company I thought it might be worth stocking some of her albums. I was not disappointed. She was not a great player but she was very good. You could easily detect the influences on her playing and she did not yet have a distinctive voice of her own, but she was only in her very early twenties and it was clear that hers was a talent to be watched or rather, listened to.

At this time I was running a weekly jazz club at The Load of Hay in Uxbridge. (By an odd coincidence, my good friend Leigh Heggarty is about to launch a music venue there - see his blog under Leigh's mad world of... harps?!? He and I, in our Blue Five persona, played there together in about 1986.) I received a phone call one day from a fellow jazz promoter, who told me that the great Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander was touring England and had a spare date to fill. Was I interested in putting him on? The catch was that I only had five days in which to organise it! (If you are not familiar with his playing then here’s a clip of his trio playing ‘Satin Doll’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. Don’t be fooled by the little boogy intro…)

Needless to say, I was very interested in deed but knew that The Load of Hay did not have the capacity to make this into a financially viable event unless the ticket price was outrageously high. Despite the fact that there would be no way of advertising this except by word of mouth, I attempted to secure the use of Brunel University’s main hall. It was close by, it held enough people, it had a bar and would suit the occasion very well, provided that I could also hire in a Steinway and a piano tuner for the day…

The potential cost of the event was snowballing rapidly but I am nothing if not optimistic so after a frantic day of phoning and cajoling I was able to phone back and say “Yes please”, only to be told that the date had been snapped up by the Berkhamsted jazz club whilst I’d been running around like the proverbial azure-bottomed insect trying to make it happen. I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I had been saved from the possibility of losing a lot of money (my best hope for this event was that I would have – with luck and a following wind – broken even) but on the other hand Monty Alexander would be playing within easy driving distance of my home. I bit the bullet and bought the tickets.

I think the gig was in Berkhamsted town hall and I think it was on a Saturday night, but I can’t be sure of either of those facts. What I can be sure of is that the evening’s music was kicked off by the Chas Burchell quintet, whose drummer, Al Merrit, I knew well and had worked with in the past. After their set there was an interval and then Monty Alexander took to the stage, accompanied by the rhythm section of Chas Burchell’s group – Al and a bass player who shall remain nameless. Monty quickly took exception to the bassist's whole choice of notes, intonation and ability to play generally, and proceeded to take him to task about it, eventually getting up from the piano, taking the bass from him and demonstrating the part himself. Finally, he handed the bass back to its owner and returned to the piano, played one tune and then announced that he would now be joined on stage by his wife – Emily Remler. Emily duly took to the stage and played for the rest of the evening.

I would like to report that it was a memorable night musically but I can’t in all honesty. I suspect that the pair of them were not playing at their best that night – it was never less than very good, but I can’t recall any details of the music at all, other than who was playing it. In fact, Emily was still developing. With each album that she released she became more distinctive, continuing to work mainly within a hard bop framework but occasionally venturing into bossa novas (she had worked with Astrud Gilberto for a while). However, her development was somewhat hampered by an ongoing heroin habit, and her early death (in 1990) came as no great surprise, sad though it was.

Then a few years ago, Richard Bartram played me an Emily Remler album that I didn’t know about. It was called ‘This Is Me’ and I was completely blown away by it. It was the last thing that she recorded and had been released posthumously. It marked an entirely new direction for her, consisting as it did entirely of original material - much of it with a strong Brazilian flavour – and it inhabited a much more contemporary environment. You could still hear traces of her original inspirations - Wes Montgomery and Herb Ellis - and she had also taken note of Pat Metheny, but there was something fresh and original about this album that really moved me. I was delighted when it was reissued a few years ago and I was able to own a copy. I still play it regularly but can never hear the last track on the album without feeling the tears well up with the knowledge that all that was promised by this album will never now be.

Here are a few clips that will give you an idea of what she was about. Sadly there are none of the ‘This Is Me’ material. Here she is playing one of her own - Brazilian flavoured -compositions called 'Nunca Mais' ('Never Again'), with John Abercrombie.

And here she is duetting on 'Stella by Starlight' with John Scofield (who, incidentally was the announcer for the previous clip).

For much more information and many more clips, including an interview with Emily, go to allthingsemily.com

Unfortunately, the CD has once again been deleted but you can buy it in MP3 download form at last.fm

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Conversation with Carrie Mann – part two

Photo by Eliot Siegal

Carrie Mann is a Cornwall-based singer whose Carrie Mann Jazz Quartet has been playing successfully around the South West for the last six or seven years. I have known her since she sat in with my band one night, not long before she started her own group, and thought she would make for an interesting interview. In fact, our conversation went on far longer than I’d expected but for the best possible reasons. Once we got started we just couldn’t stop. The results appear below and in the previous posting \if you are new to the blog, the interview starts here.

Voltarol: So you went from stumbling around in the dark to being very focused about it?

Carrie: Yeah, but then I lost my way a little bit again…because I was earning a living from it…did I want to go back to…hmm…what am I going to have to do?...an office job?...I didn’t want to do that. I was having fun earning a living singing…but…I’d left home by then. You’ve got rent to pay, you’ve got bills to pay back at home and it’s a matter of – You take the first singing job that’s offered to enable you to keep singing and earning your money that way. Or you sit tight and wait for one that comes up that would suit you better. I chose not to do that…I didn’t want to go back to Birmingham, back to temping in offices…so I eventually took the first job that was offered to me singing…so once our time on North Sea Ferries ran out went and got a summer season at Pontins with a show band. It was a good experience and I think – if anyone can survive doing every night for a year in a Pontins Holiday Camp then you’ve got a fairly good background of experience about an audience – how it works, what works, what doesn’t. So that was very much a learning ground, but it wasn’t doing music that I love at all…and if I have to do Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ one more time…well…I’d rather not! (Laughs)

V: Ha! My bĂȘte noir was…I did function bands for quite a long time…and if I ever have to play ‘Yellow River’ again…aaargh…

C: Yes…we all have those tunes.

V: There comes a breaking point! Strangely, for me it wasn’t the Birdy Song’.

C: Really?

V: No. Although it’s viler than ‘Yellow River’, when I started doing the function circuit we were doing ‘Yellow River’ and when I finished doing the function circuit we were doing ‘Yellow River’ and one day I just went “AAAARGH! NO MORE!” I can’t do it.

C: (Laughs)

V: Whereas ‘The Birdy Song’…there’s a certain amusement…you know, you play the lowest of the low kind of gigs and their all doin’ the bit out on the dance floor…and then one year we did the Maidenhead Golf Club and I thought this would be a bit ‘up market’ but- no – sooner or later some one says (adopts upper class accent) “I say, chappie, can you do that Birdy thing at all?” (Laughs) So you actually keep your sanity that way…

C: (Laughs)…waggling the arms as they say it! It has to be done!...I was quite lucky obviously because The Birdy Song – in Britain – didn’t have any lyrics really, not officially…the song was just an instrumental wasn’t it, even though the crowds…Britain…made up its own lyrics – “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” or whatever it was…um…So – with that in mind, when the band played it at Pontins I wasn’t required. So I would run off the stage as fast as possible (Laughs)…trying to hang on to the last scraps of integrity that I had…and then come back on once they’d finished the piece. But I’d be in the wings – laughing at them. “Ha ha ha. YOU’ve got to play “The Birdy Song!” (Laughs)

V: So, when you were doing those two periods of commercial work, did the material include some stuff that you were happy with…or…?

C: Yeah. When I was working with Dave Meadowcroft Junior, on the boats, with the piano…he was the one who…He introduced me to some new tunes. Also, I introduced HIM to some tunes. He used to play saxophone in a big band in Jersey so he knew most of the big band tunes…but I was picking out tunes like ‘Cry Me a River’ which I was hearing because I was listening to music at the time but I wasn’t listening to standards – to what we call ‘jazz’ singers, I actually got that – the first time I heard that song and fell in live with it was by Crystal Gayle. She recorded it. I didn’t know it was a standard. I had no idea it was a jazz standard, I just thought it was a gorgeous song. So I took that to Dave and said “How do you fancy doing this one?” and he said “Oh yes. I’ve heard about this”. You know…he had heard of it but never actually played it. So we put that one in and then…Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’. So we had a chance to do some really nice…what we thought were nice songs…hmm what else did we do…Oh! ‘Crazy’ – Patsy Cline, but that was kind of more commercial, pleasing the audience rather than ourselves – but it’s still a nice tune…what else did we do? Oh, and then we did a lot of kinda – the audience pleasing…which I still like…Nice ballads, some Neil Diamond –‘Love On the Rocks, that I’d sing, which is typical ‘piano bar duo’ stuff. Then some jazz tunes like ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘Cry Me a River’, ‘All Of Me’ and things like that we’d put in. So I guess that was the first time I had a go at singing those songs. But I didn’t at that time understand the concept of a ‘jazz singer’ and what was different about a ‘jazz singer’ to a ‘normal singer’. I still don’t think I’ve truly got it…(Laughs)…but I certainly didn’t then…I didn’t understand when Dave said “You know, you can sing it differently if you want to”. I’d say “What do you mean, ‘sing it differently’?”, ‘cause I’d never heard it. I’d never heard singers pull the tune around and um…improvise with where a melody should go. I’d never heard that at that point. That’s something I’ve only heard about in the last six, seven years.

V: Yeah, mind you, I think that I’m not at all sure that I actually like ‘jazz’ singers…I like singers that are comfortable within the jazz framework. I mean…we’ve talked before about Stacey Kent

C: Yeah.

V: Stacey Kent isn’t a ‘jazz’ singer…

C: No.

V: …but her timing

C: She delivers it straight as a die, doesn’t she?

V: Her timing is beautiful…and her phrasing is beautiful…and sits very comfortably – which is what you do – You sing as part of that unit. It’s not a voice on a stick out front. The whole thing fits together…and then out of that comes solos as well, but, er…you know…is a bass player that never takes a solo – for example, Claudia [Claudia Lang Colmer: ex Ivy Benson band and a former member of both my band and Carrie's quartet], is she not a jazz musician?

C: She’s still a jazz musician!

V: Exactly! Because it’s all about imparting that feel!

C: Yeah. And there’s also a very strong part of me that feels that…these songs were written by amazing songwriters, people who…the names that we know! Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter…or Ray Charles – going more recently…and they knew what they were doing when they were writing the melody. They knew what they were doing when they were putting the words – or working with somebody to put the words to it…and it was a serious business to them…and it was like a polished art that they had, and so I sometimes think…”Who the hell am I to think I can make it better?” You know…if I pull a tune around…I sometimes stop and remind myself – if I feel that I want to pull the tune around, why am I doing that? At the moment, the way the musicians are playing it, that’s where it’s leading to naturally – you know? It’s like a teamwork thing. Or is it me wanting to show of my ‘vocal acrobatics’? – which I’m not very good at doing anyway…I do think that ‘vocal acrobatics’ can sometimes take away from what may have been written as a very simple melody on purpose, by these master song writers…

V: Absolutely!

C: …and take away from simple, moving lyrics. That’s why I like the style of music…the lyrics are worth singing. I mean…Stacey Kent…her pronunciation is amazing. You never have to rewind and say “What was that word?” You hear it. You hear every single consonant and there’s no mumbling – and there’s no guessing what’s first…what she’s talking about first…And the lyrics are great…Some of them are cheeky and teasy and they rhyme spectacularly. And I don’t find that from recent music…from today’s music…If they’re a bit scattered, I do…sometimes I think “Ooh! I like that!” The latest one I spotted was a Norah Jones tune called ‘Turn Me On’…and I love the lyrics to that…but I think it was written in the sixties, anyway, by…Loudermilk?

V: John D. Loudermilk?

C: Yeah…so Norah Jones has just done the same as I would and heard a song from way back and thought “Ooh, I’ll do that now.” I’ve heard it and thought “Oh, is that a new one?” and then found it’s not.

V: So. Favourite singers?

C: um…Diana Krall. I like Diana Krall. (Laughs) I LOVE Diana Krall. (Laughs again). Um…Stacey Kent, Ella Fitzgerald…I’m so sorry but I don’t like Billy Holliday. I can absolutely understand that her phrasing and everything is great but, personally…her tone…doesn’t do it for me and singing is very much a personal thing. There’s always part of me that thinks when I get up and do a two hour evening of singing…I always feel sorry for somebody that might be in the audience that – for them – you know, they just don’t like my voice. There’s just something about it…it’s nothing personal. They just don’t like my voice…because there are great singers that I recognise but I say “You know what I think? It just doesn’t please me, you know, the sound. It doesn’t make me feel nice and warm. Um…who else do I like? Well, to be honest – early days – Karen Carpenter – I love the pure, rich tones that she had…I’m trying to think who else…

V: Yes, Karen Carpenter was always considered to be very uncool but she was a superb musician…superb musician…Yep…I can go along with that…

C: Right…and going back to Elvis again. He could pretty much sing anything. If you listen to him singing Gospel and Blues and…OK, there were the sixty-odd films that he made that probably didn’t show his best stuff (Laughs) but he could deliver a ballad and he could also deliver a great gospel thing…and I liked his talent. Of course, there’s that very strong American accent which you can either love or hate…

V: Yeah but at least it was his own accent…(Laughs)…and not as so often you hear – an accent that has just been grafted on – in young singers today. There was a young lass that lived near here whose parents knew I had a recording studio and asked – would I do a demo for her? She came in the studio with her piano player and started singing and I said “Whoa! Where do you live?” and she said “Well…here.” And I said “Where were you born?” and she said “Here” and I said “Well why are you singing like you come from Alabama then?” And it’s because – the songs she learnt…she was learning the noise they made, not actually how to sing…

C: Yeah. I think the difficult thing is…I mean I obviously have quite a typical sort of mid-Atlantic British accent…The difficult thing is that a lot of these ‘American Song Book’ tunes…the rhyming if you sang it…it’s like the old Chris de Burgh ‘romance’ and ‘dance’. I mean we would say ‘romance’ and ‘darnse’, that’s how us Brits would say it. (Laughs) So you would have to say ‘romance’ and ‘dance’, but you soften it off a bit. Otherwise, the rhyme doesn’t work properly…

V: Yes, but you can do that without ‘Americanising’ it…because…after all ‘dance is Northern as well.

C: Yes, that’s true.

V: I mean – ‘barth’ and ‘bath’…

C: (Laughs) Like a Geordie!

V: I mean, my friend Brenda, who comes from Halifax, would say “Would you like a bath or would you prefer a shower?”

C: Is it ‘skon’ or ‘scone’?

V: For me? ‘Skon’.

C: I can’t decide whether it’s ‘skon’ or ‘scone’…Which is the Cornish way?

V: I’ve no idea…but it’s a word that I learned from hearing my mother say it…and my mother was from Edinburgh… (Laughs)

C: Well… (Laughs)…I get confused! That’s one of the few words – I’ll always say ‘barth’ and not ‘bath’ but…I think ‘skon’ and ‘scone’ is one of those that…you know…where it fits in the sentence and what’s coming next. (Laughs)

V: Yes, I mean…I think you do have ‘moveable vowels’ sometimes, especially if you’ve trans-located as you have, from the Midlands to down here…

C: Yeah, that’s roight… (Mimics ‘Brummy’ accent)

V: Well, you’ve covered my next question which was – you know – what about singers outside of the jazz scene…so we’ve done that really…

V: Ah. Well I wanted to mention…um…actually I’d quite like a look at my CD rack, which is getting smaller and smaller because I tend to buy things on ITunes and download them to my IPod…and the CD rack stops growing, so there’s nothing very much tangible there either…um…Claire Martin, I like the sound of. Some of the tunes she chooses are a little bit too obscure for me…but a nice sounding voice though…I can’t think…Ella Fitzgerald –obviously – um…

V: Well, I think we’ve got that one covered really. Something will come to you again when it’s too late…

C: I know…yeah.

V: Now, since you’ve been working in this current…version of yourself, as it were, you’ve been working as a quartet basically. There’ve been a few changes of personnel but the format is basically the same…Is that for purely economic reasons or…well, I suppose if it was economic reasons you’d be working as a trio, wouldn’t you?

C: (Laughs) DUO!

V: Well, yeah! (Laughs) But it’s difficult to do a jazz set-up…I mean it’s so much strain on the pianist, certainly when it comes to the improvisation and so on…but obviously it’s a sound you’re very comfortable with.

C: Yes it is, It’s the nearest I can get to a big band…and we’re talking about economy…a big band is obviously um…you know…dream come true…”Dear Jim, can you please fix it for me to sing with a big band?” Who can afford to run an eighteen piece big band? There are no venues – well, very few that would fit in a big band anyway, so…um…I’ll stick with a four or five piece. And that’s the nearest I can get.

V: And when you’re working out material and arranging…is that a collaborative thing, or are you leading the charge there?

C: I’ve started leading it. Yes, thanks to…well…Now I’ve got a better understanding of all of that and I play a bit of piano myself…I’m writing the charts for the guys. Um…There was a tune recently that I thought would work well if the verse was in Latin and then went into a swing for the chorus…um…we haven’t done it many times actually (Laughs) just because we don’t get too many chances to rehearse…and when you’ve got things like going from a Latin into a swing, you’ve got to be tight to sound good. But – I liked it. It worked, and that was an idea of mine. Often I’ll hear arrangements of other people and I think “Yeah that sounds quite nice done like that, so we’ll do it that way, so I tend to…well, it’s a bit of a dictatorship! (Laughs) They can do what they want within their solos, but when it comes to the tempo it’s set at and the arrangement and the style we do it in, it’s kind of…I put some force into that. I’ve got an idea of how I want the band to sound. We’re a small swing band and I want to try and stay true to that without going too much outside, even though sometimes I’m sure the guys would like to branch out from there…but…they have other opportunities to do that… (Laughs)

V: Absolutely!

C: NOT ON MY WATCH!!!(Laughs)

V: I mean – that’s what being a professional musician is all about isn’t it? When you’re getting the work and fronting the unit, you call the…What’s that phrase? ”He who pays the piper…”

C: It’s taken me quite a few years to find what I think is my niche…and it’s not so much a matter of sitting in your comfort zone, it’s more a matter of – “I’m going to stick to what I think I can do well. What I think I can do justice to. So that’s why the format has stayed the same, no matter who’s behind me, who’s working alongside me…

V: Well, in some ways that’s as it should be really. You would expect to have a different character to the soloing, but the ensemble sound is very much under your control. It’s there for you.

C: Yes. There is…an underground change…for instance, Tom Quirk [pianist - former member of Carrie's band]; he’s very edgy, modern style piano playing…um…modern jazz…and when we’re playing the standards and the swing tunes, that would still come through - just in the voicings he would use on the introductions…exactly the same introductions but he’d add some more edgy voicings to the chords and it would add a …adding a touch of chilli to a recipe…It wouldn’t be there if someone else made the recipe…but you’re still making Shepherd’s Pie. (Laughs)

V: Again, that’s as it should be really, because if it was – this is it and that’s all there is to it – then there wouldn’t be any of that interaction between all of you, which is what making jazz is all about.

C: Right. It would just be reading dots then, wouldn’t it, as opposed to improvising and putting there own slant on things

V: OK. Granting a Wish Time. For one night only you can hire anybody in the world to accompany your Festival Hall debut! So, who do I need to contact for you?

C: (Laughs) Have they got to be alive?

V: No, I have the power to resurrect where appropriate – for one night only!

C: (Laughs) Well! It would be quite nice to get Nelson Riddle to do an arrangement for a big band. That would be quite cool…um…with my voice in mind. That would be rather nice…Probably someone like Oscar Peterson on piano, um…I do like Scott Hamilton…er…I know they’ve worked with Diana Krall and I like their style. So, Jeff Hamilton and – Who’s that bass player that she works with? Um…You can put it in later! I can’t really think who else. I guess I’d rely on Oscar Peterson to choose a nice band. I think I could trust his judgment! (Laughs) Um… and I’d like to sing a duet with Frank actually…it would have to be a slow ballad with us both sitting down on stools because I would tower above him and I don’t think he’d like that! (Laughs) But I’ve never really thought about that…your fantasy gig. Festival Hall. Who would it be? Yeah, well it would definitely be big band with – yeah – I wouldn’t mind singing a duet with Frank Sinatra…

V: With Nelson Riddle arrangements and a big band under the control of Oscar Peterson.

C: Yeah. Something like that.

V: OK. I’ll get to work on it…

C: Give me plenty of advance warning because my diary’s quite busy…can’t make the 22nd October!

V: Fine! If you were able to transfer all of your musical skills to one instrument, what would it be?

C: Piano.

V: OK. That’s logical. Short but sweet, that question…And your ultimate musical ambition?

C: (Long pause…Big sigh!) I don’t really have any…you know, I’ve no desire for fame or anything…never really have. I just like singing…and I like singing these songs…that’s about all it boils down to…

V: But if you could make a full time living…for example…would you go in that direction?

C: Yeah. I mean anyone who loves music and loves what they do…

V: Well, the concomitant of it as you well know – I mean – it’s hard enough schlepping around Cornwall. If you’re schlepping around the country…constantly touring…

C: Yeah…I wouldn’t want to be constantly touring at all. If I could make enough money to live a moderate life-style. Not big houses and big cars but just pay the bills and stay in Cornwall…

V: Yeah, well you chose the wrong thing to do for that anyway! (Laughs)

C: (Laughs) Yeah. I know! But it would be quite nice to go into a large HMV, you know, the sort that has a big stock, and be able to look at the back of one of the sections – I don’t know whether I’d fall under jazz…or probably…easy listening, knowing my luck…but just see – “Ooh! They have got my CD in. I wouldn’t expect them to have loads, but just to be able to…that’s almost a way of saying; you know, “You’re respected for your contribution”. Someone has liked it enough to market it and put it out there. And if it’s in a large outlet – I’m not talking about Lidls – (Laughs), the big ones that have lots of stock of all sorts of people... (Laughs)…yeah, that would be nice. So if I could make some money by recording and then maybe say do one tour a year – one UK tour, wouldn’t mind that!

V: Sounds good to me. All right then, finally we come to the Desert Island. I have a desert island and I’m going to cast you away on it, but my rules are a bit harder. You can only have two records.

C: Albums…two albums, right?

V: I just said ‘records’ so you can interpret that as you wish. Me, for example – I would definitely be trying to smuggle in a boxed set or a double album…well, it comes as one package. You can buy it all together…Anyway, that’s it. Two records, given those definitions. Only one of those can be from the jazz area. The other one has to be from somewhere else. What would they be? And remember – you’ve got to live with these.

C: You know what…? You know what? - It’s just struck me. Ask me this another day and it would never occur to me…From the jazz side – quite easy - A Night in Paris. Diana Krall. Lovely. I love every single track on that album…and that would satisfy me. Lovely…and…I’m just trying to think of something else that you’d never get bored of…um…and there’s a musical called City of Angels. Have you heard of it? It’s amazing, kind of Manhattan Transfer stylee…er…just so many complex tunes and different styles and different time signatures. Very clever lyrics all the way through it…

V: Do we know who it’s by?

C: I don’t. I should do. I really should have paid attention because it’s astounding. It did get on Broadway but never came over to this country. It went on Broadway and the soundtrack was highly…acclaimed…no…not the soundtrack – the musical itself. Apparently, the way it was presented on stage was too complex…the story line…it’s quite an interesting story line…anyway, because it’s so…you know, a lot of musicals have that…I don’t know – it’s also got a big band, jazzy feel about it. Not unlike the Chicago musical style. But, yes – I think I would choose that one. I haven’t heard it for ages!

V: OK. I think we’re done!
Carrie's Live Space is at http://carriemannjazz.spaces.live.com/default.aspx

Carrie is appearing at The Foundry Bar, Hayle on October 22nd and Tregony Village Hall on 24th October.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

A Conversation with Carrie Mann - part one

Picture by Mike Norfolk
Carrie Mann is a Cornwall-based singer whose Carrie Mann Jazz Quartet has been playing successfully around the South West for the last six or seven years. I have known her since she sat in with my band one night, not long before she started her own group, and thought she would make for an interesting interview. In fact, our conversation went on far longer than I’d expected but for the best possible reasons. Once we got started we just couldn’t stop. The results appear below and in the next posting

Voltarol: What is the very first music you can remember hearing?

Carrie: Oh gosh…I was brought up going to church so that must have been a big influence…It was a Catholic church – fairly boring hymns, mostly in the minor key…never thrilled me unless it was done beautifully, frankly. But we went to a fairly modern church and they started bringing in some good ‘sing along’ songs and I remember that being an influence….I remember that feeling of everybody in the room singing all together and I loved it. I still do. I love that element, and it’s the only part of the whole ‘church’ thing that I would stand by and enjoy. If I could go to church and just sing all the time for the whole hour and then come out again I’d be quite happy. As for other styles of music…ah, dear me… um… musical films?...definitely musical films that stand out as a child, even the Elvis Presley movies that were being re-run constantly…and Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin…and Gene Kelly! All those musicals. I remember a rainy Saturday afternoon – loving it if one of those films was on. That would be one of the favourite moments of my childhood.

V: But you pin down the very first things to make you go “Ooh! What’s this?” That would be the church music?

C: Yeah…I think so…I guess that’s the first music I was actually involved in making. I was…

V: (interrupts) um…All right, I’ll give you my guilty secret. The first thing I remember - and I’m told I cried when it wouldn’t come back on the radio again - is ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’…

C: (laughs)

V: …So I’m talking about the real fundamental…

C: Well we did have…we didn’t play music much at home. My Mum and Dad didn’t listen to records. Mum occasionally had the radio on when she was cooking the Sunday lunch and that was the only time we had music on in the house. So I wasn’t exposed to it from any other angle except going to church on Sunday morning…and what the television threw at us…and then I had older brothers and sisters listening to David Bowie and Thin Lizzy.

V. So what age were you then, when you first thought “Ooh, this is good – this sound around me” – that sort of thing?

C: ……I don’t think so much that it was the music. I think it was the being involved in the…

V: (interrupts) well…your connection with music…that sort of thing.

C: Four or five…something like that.

V: So what did you listen to when you got into your teens then?

C: Hmmm…I was a bit of an odd one…all my friends were listening to Duran Duran and Madonna …and Wet Wet Wet and all those bands that were around, and I had a Sony Walkman and I’d disappear off and wouldn’t tell anybody what tape I had in it ‘cause it was actually The Everly Brothers! It’s not something I’m particularly proud of but at the time – and I remember - I was twelve years old, and I know that because I can picture where I was living at the time and what school I was going to – and I loved the harmonies. They had a different style to the other harmony work that I had heard in the past – which I now recognise as the usual third / fifth…you know…

V: Yeah, but that was actually part of a tradition which came out of ‘Old Timey’ music, of American Country music…the ‘high lonesome’ sound. I think they got that from The Louvin Brothers…if you check that out…You know, there’s a thread there, of music which is not nearly as commercial as it appears on the surface. If you like, it’s a polished version of something that is much more heartfelt.

C: Yeah…and I liked the lyrics as well, well – some of the lyrics – some of them are a bit twee – but I think I quite liked the simplicity of the lyrics. I didn’t like…’cause I was a teenager in the eighties…I spent all my teenage years in the eighties, so if you think of what I had exposed to me from a Pop point of view…

V: Yep!...(laughs)…You were bucking the trend more than somewhat!

C: The other one was I was a secret fan of Karen Carpenter…um…and also Elvis, and this was at a time when Elvis had stopped being cool…very much so…in the seventies – he died in 1976?

V: Something like that.

C: Seventy six, seventy seven…but of course it was the fat, Vegas, burger eating Elvis that everyone remembered…and he was no longer…he went through the uncool phase. And then later, in the nineties, with the re release of his ‘A Little Less Conversation’, people started admitting – “Oh, you know I’ve always liked Elvis. But I was listening to – particularly his ballads and I remember – and I’ve recently found out – one of my favourite tunes when I was twelve years old was a song called ‘You Don’t Know Me’ –which was written by Ray Charles. And I was only aware of it because Elvis Presley recorded it as a beautiful blues ballad. And I loved it and I think, really, for a twelve or thirteen year old I had quite unusual tastes.

V: I’ll go along with that! So – who or what first inspired you to make music – to actually have a go at it yourself?

C: I’m really not sure where that came from…um…’cause no one in my family…that I was aware of…There was no music in the house…just occasionally, teenage brothers or sisters would play David Bowie records or that sort of thing, but there was nobody having a go at doing it for themselves…um…except my mum was in the amateur dramatics…the local amateur dramatics. Seeing her up on stage acting, so being the centre of attention and making a show of herself, didn’t seem unusual to me because my mum was always doing it…and I also found out that she used to sing…in a kind of Beverly Sisters style band when she was training as a nurse when she was very young, when she was about sixteen. Ah…but I got a guitar when I was about seven years old and I don’t remember asking for one. Actually, I think it was my brother’s cast-off – just a little old cheap guitar and I started learning how to play D chords and C chords and G chords…and the amount of songs you can get through and sing along to just knowing four chords is quite astounding. So that’s what I was doing at the age of seven, eight, nine. You know, my guitar playing hasn’t improved since then. (Laughs) It’s got stuck!

V: I was going to ask you if you’d tried your hand at any instruments before you started singing but er…

C: My parents got sick of me picking up instruments, begging them to buy me a certain instrument…and I’d stick with it for about four months and then get bored and want something else.

V: So you were kind of looking for a voice or…or…any means of expression, without realising that you’d got it all the time.

C: Yes…and also my passion…the one instrument that I really wanted to play – but I think my problem is: I started – I was in a recorder ensemble at school – I think most young girls were – and I went through the normal descant, treble, tenor – and bass recorder, which is quite unusual – probably because I was tall and I could actually hold it…um…and then I went on to the flute and then on to saxophone, all the time I had guitar as well, and all the time I was saying “ Can I play piano please Mum?”. And they bought me the recorders and they bought me the flute and the saxophone and they bought me a guitar. And each one – I’d pick it up, put it back down after six months –frustrated and bored and not really dedicated enough to get stuck in. So I don’t blame them for saying ‘no’ to the piano(!) which is a huge piece of furniture in a small house when you’ve got loads of kids running around…so they drew the line at the piano…but that’s still the instrument that I’ve always wanted – and I’ve got one now, and I do sit and play it and I should get better at it but at least I can now accompany myself and sing…and I’m quite enjoying that.

V: So…when was it that you first thought – “Actually, I wanna sing”?

C: I’d always wanted to sing but no one wanted to listen!

V: Right…

C: Honestly…(laughs) I had people tell me to…my Mum says that she remembers – at bedtime, you know kids like to leave their door slightly open? And – “Good night”, put the light out – the normal night time routines and…when she went to bed a couple of hours later she would walk past my door and I was not asleep. I was lying in bed at the age of six, singing away to myself…um…there aren’t many six year old children that have nice voices…if you think about it…except for the odd one or two that you see on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, and it’s still a bit…not a proper voice.

V: No. And it’s mostly mimicry as well, isn’t it?

C: Yeah

V: Whatever song that they’ve learnt from something they like, they sing all the inflections and the accent of the singer, and they don’t sing in their own voice at that stage.

C: No, and I didn’t. And…um…and also I was dancing as well. I did normal ballet, modern, jazz and tap dancing so three or four nights a week I was doing that after school…and we would have annual shows – where one of us would audition to try and get one of the leads…and I auditioned every year and never got given a lead! (Laughs) um…So - obviously...I don’t know whether it was just the nerves, where nothing came out or whether it took for me to mature physically for my voice to mature as well. But eventually, when I was about seventeen years old, someone said “You’ve got quite a nice voice, haven’t you.” And that was the first time anyone had ever said it to me. But I had been singing to myself, thinking “Well, no one else is gonna listen. I’ll just sing along and keep myself happy”. (Laughs)

V: So, you had the drive to do it…

C: Yeah, but no one wanted to hear it…

V: Well – I see parallels with myself here – wanting to be a performer at that stage, before wanting to be a musician. You know. It didn’t matter as long as I was up there in front of an audience - that was great. And then there came a point at which it suddenly went the other way and I just wanted to make music, and the performance side of it…I lost me bottle!

C: Yeah! Yeah!...There’s a fine line…When you’re a child there is no fear. But when you get older…of course…Every adult fears humiliation. Nobody wants to put themselves on a stage. And every time we do it we are opening ourselves up to that ultimate rejection – the Boo!

V: Well, I actually experienced that at the age of about thirteen. You can read about it on the blog. (See: The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd... )

C: Thirteen! That’s such an impressionable age!

V: And…um…It wasn’t me playing. I was miming playing the piano. It was a sketch I’d worked out and auditioned for the school concert, but by the time I was half way through the audition I suddenly thought – “This ain’t gonna work”. But by then it was too late. It was – “No Lad. You’ll do it”.

C: Oh no!

V: But I learnt quite early on that you can actually come out the other side of the rejection and you don’t actually die or anything…

C: (Laughs)

V: …and I was bomb proof as a performer until I was in my early twenties.

C: Yeah! That’s good…I mean…What’s the worse that can happen? Where do you go from there? It can only get better, surely?

V: But it wasn’t until I had finished in the first band, the Jug band…for me…I wasn’t the greatest musician in the world but I was the front man, the performer…and it was only when I came out of that that I started thinking…you know…I think I could be a musician if I worked at it. And my character changed. As you say, you find your voice, because at that point I was playing guitar and penny whistle and harmonica and kazoo and swanee whistle and all sorts of rubbish.

C: Yes, but you’re searching…something in here is for me…something in this whole array of things that you can do is gonna suit me – is gonna click!

V: Yeah…and when you get it, it all kind of focuses…All right then! Next Question. Did you have any kind of flirtation with the Pop or commercial world?

C: I did actually…It’s funny…I don’t often think about this…um…I had a boy friend when I was nineteen years old and he was desperate to be…well…he wanted to be what ‘Coldplay’ is now…that very, very commercial, also cutting edge, cool, cool kind of…Oh…Oasis! I knew I’d get there. Yeah, my boyfriend at the time wrote songs, played the guitar and – I don’t know if I should say this – Oh, I won’t give his name(!) – sung badly. Didn’t have a natural voice but he was a great front man. \some of the songs he was writing were pretty good and he put a band together and I kind of came in as a -not quite backing vocalist but…female vocal alongside – I don’t know if you remember, Deacon Blue had two vocalists? Female vocal wasn’t lead and she wasn’t backing. She was somewhere in the middle there…like, second vocalist I suppose…um…and we really enjoyed that and we had some good stuff. We had some good music –and we had some fun recording in the studio. Once it got out to the ‘doing a gig’ stage, those sorts of gigs are not my cup of tea at all. You know, the typical grungy, student, kind of ‘pay to play’ gigs that there were at the time. They were in Birmingham…there were a couple of trips to London. We played The Orange club – you know, where you actually pay to play. You pay your forty quid or something…and when you’re nineteen years old, forty quid is pretty much a week’s wages if you’re working then. That was a lot of money and it was a big commitment…and you had to do all your own publicity too, you know, get your own ‘rent-a-crowd’ to come along and pay to come in. It was hard! But my heart wasn’t really in it. It certainly wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Not at all…um…and just naturally the relationship broke up and he continued with the band. I don’t believe anything ever happened…but they changed their style very much after I left. They went more ‘punk rock’ than they were when I was with them…It was still melodic but…No. Yes. But that’s kind of on the Pop…kind of ‘trying to get a record contract’ side of things…um… And then the very next thing I did was…I answered an advert in The Stage newspaper. Somebody wanting a singer to go and work on one of the ships sailing out of Hull – with a piano player –and I answered the advert, sent in a tape of my voice – me singing a song – and I was invited to go and meet up with him and run through a few songs to see how we clicked as people, because we’d be spending a lot of time together…um…and I got that contract with him and that was good fun. So – we did six months in total –two months on and one month off, two months on and one month off. And that was working on North Sea Ferries in the piano lounge, so that was my first commercial booking…And that was with Dave Meadowcroft Junior – he was on piano…Some musicians that you meet in all these walks of life…I worked with him, I think it was about six months I worked with him every single night and we were staying in the boat and sharing accommodation. We were like brother and sister and we got on really well – we were a great team. And I think it was the fifth month in – you know what it’s like when you’re with someone 24/7 and you think you know somebody really well? I found out piano wasn’t his first instrument. And I remember, I said “What’s your first instrument?” “Well, it’s not piano. I play a bit of bass guitar. I’m better on bass guitar than piano, but that’s not my first instrument either. Clarinet and saxophone would be my first.” And it turned out that I’d been working alongside this guy who, whatever he turned his hand to, he was a fantastic musician. And I was very lucky. I learnt quite a lot from him. He taught me how to understand chord charts and work through an arrangement, and read an A/ B/AA/B and actually follow it all, you know, so I wasn’t standing there waiting for someone to give me the nod to come back in. I knew when to come back in. He showed me that sort of thing…but…yeah, that was my first experience of meeting and working with what I call a real professional musician. Before then it had been other students just having a go like I had been.
Continued in the next posting...
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