“I was at a point where I hadn’t tried to do my own thing. I had lots of plans but I hadn’t really given it a try yet, to be an artist, to do my own music … So I needed to at least try.”
We were almost defeated before we began.
Our meeting had been arranged to take place in Greek Street, in the headquarters (and not-for-profit club) of The House of St Barnabas. The name sounds a little bit like a Sherlock Holmes story but this organisation, which aims to support London’s homeless people back into work, counts among its founding members DJ, Producer (and much more) Gilles Peterson, who runs the Brownswood label to which the hugely exciting singer Zara McFarlane is signed.
Sadly, neither Zara or I are members, and the gatekeepers weren’t exactly keen to let us in. We were both admitted, almost on a promise ‘not to do it again’, although I’m not sure how they think either of us might try that one on…
Despite the May mugginess of the day and threats of sunshine, McFarlane is well-wrapped-up, and she sits closely folded together throughout. That’s not to say that she’s defensive, just a little guarded perhaps. She talks with ease and a soft laugh-cum-giggle, is quite ready to emphasise her strength of mind, and challenges questions when she wants to.
As our interview progresses, it’s clear that the crossed legs, leaning-forwards sitting posture, and closed arms, are a sign of her focus. She is arrowed towards her subject, bent towards the conversation to better understand what is being asked, to fully engage in discussion.
Zara McFarlane is spreading her wings at great speed this year – a new album (‘If You Knew Her’) released in January, bookings across the festival circuit throughout 2014, and an appearance on the totemic ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ in April. On that show, her performance of ‘You’ll Get Me In Trouble’ garnered plenty of attention.
“At first it was nerve-wracking. I haven’t done that much TV so I was a bit like ‘I just need to focus on what I’m doing’. It was also difficult because you’re waiting, constantly watching other artists because it’s all filmed live … if you’re doing a gig you’d have those minutes beforehand to prepare.”
A more important signifier of her trajectory, perhaps, is the fact that she was invited to duet with Jools himself. That special, occasional honour is rarely accorded to newer talent – to be given that chance says a great deal about the high regard in which McFarlane is held, and by someone with a deep, broad and longstanding love for music in all its forms.
Having soundchecked and settled herself, there was a knock on the door. “Half an hour before the show began, I was asked ‘do you wanna do something with Jools’ and it got nerve-wracking again. Oh my god – I was totally prepared and ready and then they go and do that ! We went into a room to talk: ‘what songs do you know, what songs do you want to do ?’ and tried out a couple to see if he remembered the chords because there’s no music infront of you out there. We tried to see if there was a way to shape it and after that it was completely improvised. Because he never plays anything the same way twice, and I never sing anything the same way twice.”
Although Zara has been composing and singing since for most of her life, with “an interest in writing since around 11 and performing before that”, there was a pivotal moment when she could have gone down a different path. She studied Popular Music Performance as an undergraduate, and completed a Masters in Jazz and Improvisation (“I worked with a lot of jazz musicians as an undergrad and decided to study it because I didn’t know what people were on about half the time !”). She had also spent a lot of time teaching and it was that profession that might once have been her future.
“Just after I finished [my Masters], just before I did my EP, I was a bit, like, ‘well, what am I doing this for, is it really gonna work ? Do I really wanna do jazz, do I really wanna be an artist, do I wanna work with other bands, what do I wanna do ? Do I just wanna teach ?’
“I was at a point where I hadn’t tried to do my own thing. I had lots of plans but I hadn’t really given it a try yet, to be an artist, to do my own music. I had invested all this time and money and I hadn’t really tried. So I needed to at least try. And I gave myself a year or two years – I can’t really remember what I gave myself – to see what happened. And things moved along, I suppose, quite quickly, although I don’t really think of it as being quickly because I know I started singing professionally at 14.”
She gave up teaching regularly last summer because she “can no longer give it enough time.” She still teaches occasionally, working with adults on a programme in Saint-Cézaire-sur-Siagne in the south of France for example.
“I was getting to the point of not being able to do everything well. When you are trying to deal with being away all weekend, teaching a couple of days during the week, travelling 3 hours a day to get there, it becomes very stressful and tiring [particularly] on the voice. It becomes hard to have the voice left [for performing]. But also there were lots of changes in teaching, government cuts, lots of jobs were getting lost; I think I bowed out at the right time.”
Having made the decision to go for it, Zara recorded an EP of acoustic material which got passed to DJ, Producer (and much more) Gilles Peterson through her collaborator in an earlier House project, Bopstar. Peterson “liked it enough to play it on his Radio 1 show.”
“A few months after that I met Gilles in person in 2010 at the Southport Weekender. He said to me ‘it would be really great to have you on the show with your band’ so I kept tweeting him to get that to happen and it didn’t…” She giggles, remembering what is no doubt a favourite tease of Peterson, before continuing that “after a while, he said ‘I really like what you’re doing and I want to release your album.’”
She was signed to Peterson’s label 9 months later and her first LP, ‘Until Tomorrow’, was duly released on Brownswood in 2011. That record netted her a first MOBO nomination in 2012 for “Best Jazz Act” (won by composer and pianist Zoe Rahman).
Most of that album was recorded before meeting Peterson, with a couple of tracks laid down afterwards. He has been more involved this time around, although “not heavily; he doesn’t really push himself into the creative process – more in terms of suggesting people to work with and collaborate with.” His proposals have included the likes of trumpeter Matt Halsall and trumpeter/vocalist Leron Thomas.
“[Gilles is] always very positive and optimistic and enthusiastic. He’s quite spontaneous, and off-the-cuff. And I’m not really like that so it was interesting to meet him and work with him.” “That’s just a different way of working for me” she acknowledges with a grin.
“He takes chances as well … I’m not a huge risk-taker in general. Maybe I’ve never had to; especially when it comes to music, because I’d always been on my own before that and so I needed to do things in a way that I knew that I could manage it in order to keep going. [His way] is that if it works it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And that’s taught me a lot: that you can try a few more things out than you think you can.”
When talking with McFarlane about the new record, I got a palpable sense of her as the band leader as well as the artist, but laying down the framework for the recordings, rather than dictating the minute detail.
“I don’t tell them how to play. I tell them the energy or the feeling that I want to create for my songs. I’m not a pianist or a guitarist or sax player, so I wouldn’t know how to tell them how to do that anyway. I wouldn’t want to stifle a musician in that way.”
That said, the following exchange was instructive – and I felt the authority and certainty:
“Are you in control in the studio ?”
“Is there much of a battle between you and anyone else ?”
Before I even finished my question, a laughing but firm “No.”
One of the most important partnerships in her work has been with pianist Peter Edwards, someone she has been playing and composing with for about 8 years. It is different with Edwards says McFarlane because of that length of relationship which means that “I can talk to him about emotions or vibes.”
“For example, on ‘The Games We Played’ which is meant to sound like a music box, I said to him I have this idea of a music box – this high sound – but you do what you do: I’ve given you this example, find the right interpretation.”
The albums that she has made have mainly been recorded live as she “doesn’t really overdub.” “I normally tell the band ‘I do three takes and that’s it, whichever one is the best, is the best’; I’m quite strict like that ! There was a couple that we had to do more on, but generally that is what I like, that live kind of sound, discrepancies and all. I’m more trying to capture an emotion, than the perfect sound; if it’s got the right intensity or energy, that’s what I focus on.”
That way of working says a great deal about how important the live experience is for McFarlane. Although she’s enjoying the relatively new experience of recording, performing live is what she really loves to do. Part of “what attracts me to jazz is that it is such a live musical art form.” One of the major elements of that live experience is improvisation, and the potential for anything to happen from any area of the stage.
For her own part, as a vocalist, improvisation can of course include scat. I confess complete bewilderment, albeit laced with the delight of Cab Calloway’s ‘Minnie the Moocher’. We talked briefly about the potential for a connection between scatting and speaking in tongues.
“This is probably not a very technical way of putting it… it’s messing around with your voice. People did speak in tongues [at church, although] I didn’t really hear it until I was in my teens. Scatting’s not that weird !”
There’s a brief pause for guffawing. “I just hear scat as wordless melody. When I hear [speaking in tongues], obviously it’s spiritual but it’s also private in a way. For me scat isn’t private; it can be spiritual to a degree, but it’s more messing around with sound and melodies, it’s more intentional.”
“Scat can literally be messing around, just being silly, it can be really enjoying melody and not worrying about words, sometimes it can be the feeling of sounds: it just feels nice to be able to do that.”
Clearly McFarlane is someone who gets an intense degree of joy out of her chosen profession. And I wonder how easy it has been, to be a woman in the entertainment industry. We’re both tempted to take the positive view from our discussion: that she simply hasn’t suffered unduly in the way that many women have for being public figures, and that would be something to be thankful for. In fact, it isn’t really something that she had thought about before being asked.
Although she can think of aggravation, she doesn’t recall any of it feeling gender-related. She has more often felt it to be about relative youth.
“Sound engineers are a big problem, the way that they can treat people. Until they hear you sing for example. Often at first they can be quite abrasive. I don’t know if that’s a woman thing. But the moment they hear me sing it instantly changes every time.”
In Jazz she feels that sort of behaviour is more common “with certain instruments, like the saxophone, to be specific in terms of my experience. With a saxophonist and a vocalist … there can be rivalry.” But she dismisses that “silliness, that unnecessary, lazy and pathetic behaviour”; “don’t get preoccupied … people will get over it.” “I don’t know that I see it as a woman thing; sometimes it’s a singer thing and a musician thing. I know why I am here and why I am trying to do something … and I just get on with it.”
Our time nearly up, and not wanting to get thrown out by the doorladies for overstaying our welcome, we talk about the future. There’s plenty of work still to do this year – she’s headlining at the Sunsplash festival in Bodrum in Turkey on 6 June. She’s “heard great things” about the festival, which is one of Gilles Peterson’s favourites, and something she feels “very lucky to be part of”. The mixture of genres and styles is a draw – particularly the chance to mix things up between jazz and house in her set. There’ll be the chance to catch up with old friends and collaborators there, as well.
She’s “trying to get back into writing” now, for a follow-up, although “the big thing about this year is touring”. McFarlane would like to record a live album at some stage, and is keen to “collaborate with a few people to inspire me.” Names that appear include singer Gregory Porter, jazz giant Wynton Marsalis (“that would be cool, although I know he’s a hard taskmaster”) and “really great” singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. Other live appearances in the pipeline include the Glasgow (28 June) and Edinburgh (21 July) Jazz festivals, before a slot with Diana Reeves at the London Jazz festival (20 November).
Biggest of the bunch, though, is undoubtedly a debut tour of the US in June. She’s playing a relatively short roster of venues in Los Angeles (The Blue Whale, 16th), San Francisco (Yoshi’s, 18th) and New York (Littlefield in Brooklyn on the 20th). This could, and hopefully will, be another major stepping stone for McFarlane.
With that, it’s time to say our goodbyes, to each other, and to the House of St Barnabas. The doorkeepers are effortlessly polite as we cross the threshold, but I’m sure there’s an extra degree of force as the gates clang shut…