Voltarol - related music

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...
Carrie's Windows Live Space is at http://carriemannjazz.spaces.live.com/default.aspx