How did you first get into Joni Mitchell?
I’ve been into Joni Mitchell for many years. I did a Performance Arts degree and for my degree show I decided to do the album Blue. That was because, all through my teens, I’d been listening to that album. So that’s twenty years ago now. It takes a long time to explore her music because it’s so diverse. It’s a very different sound world to the early albums like Blue to the albums in the 1970s when she met Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and others. So it’s been twenty years of listening and sitting with her sound world. I used to be a guitarist. I’ve always been a singer but I used to play guitar much more than piano but it’s only in the last ten years that I’ve actually felt that I could accompany myself as a piano player as well. I think that for her later years’ music it really does make sense as an art form with piano rather than with guitar. So that’s something I really enjoy.
I think that because I’ve been working as a jazz singer more and more over the last decade or so, I’m realising how much jazz is there [in her music], even though she might refer to herself as a jazz musician but some people wouldn’t think of her as a jazz artist. It’s made so much sense to start exploring it with some of the brilliant jazz musicians that we’ve got here in Brighton.
It’s something I first mentioned to Terry Pack the bass player, last autumn, that I was thinking of doing something and he was really encouraging so then I felt a bit bolder to then ask Milo Fell, a drummer that I know, and hearing James Osler playing with Trees, Terry’s project, and hearing him play for The Cloggz as well, just realising that his sound would be perfect to complement that and then meeting Beccy Rourk again, through Trees, thinking she’s just the Wayne Shorter soprano sax sound that we need. So that’s how I put the group together.
What are the tunes that you’re doing? Which era?
It’s all of my favourite ones from that middle to late 1970s, or from about 1974 onwards. So we’ve got some tracks from, obviously, Court and Spark (we’ve called the project that), which I think is that first album where she’s started to go ‘okay, I’m not just a folk musician, I want to be bolder about my choices, of musicians, harmonies and so on’. So it’s stuff from that era right through to the mid-Nineties. The most contemporary tracks we’re doing are from Taming the Tiger which is 1998.
Do you have any further plans for the project?
I think that recordings are a logical next step. It’s just a matter of working out the logistics of five very busy people, to try and make that happen. We’ve got a gig booked at 88 London Road at the end of September and then we’re at The Verdict at the end of October. So it’s live stuff at the moment but it does make sense to put down a recording as well.
How do you go about teaching voice? Do you have your own method?
There’s an American woman called Jo Estill, who was the first pioneer of X-raying larynxes in motion. So it’s a lot of voice anatomy and how understanding voice anatomy can help make you more flexible in your approach as a singer. Before I trained in Estill, I’d gone to the Royal Northern and studied opera and then I did this Performance Arts degree, worked in musical theatre and in jazz and in folk and in pop and soul. So I’d obviously incorporated a lot of that into private teaching, which I’ve been doing for over twenty years now. But in the last eight years I’ve been applying this really useful method and it’s just like knowing what the tools are in your toolbox and making it so much clearer what you’re doing as a singer. I do that at a performing arts college and I incorporate it a little bit into the peripatetic teaching that I do at secondary schools.
You play other instruments as well. I’ve seen you play the flute.
I started as a flute player when I was eight. I’ve still got the same flute. I’m finally thinking I might buy a new one after 30+ years. I play the flute, the guitar, which used to be my instrument of choice – I used to run folk nights and acoustic nights when I lived in London years ago. And then I came to the piano. When I came to the end of my degree, in my third year I bought the Carole King songbook Tapestry and locked myself in a practice room until I could play it. I didn’t eat much that month!
The piano has come a lot later. I don’t know if you Pete Davison, the trumpeter and music teacher that I know. Being northern, his best compliment about my piano playing was ‘well, it’s workman-like, it gets the job done’. So I thought ‘that’s good enough’ and filled with that confidence I started doing piano vocal gigs in pubs. I do a Wednesday night at a pub up in Hanover which is a piano bar night. We get people to come in and give requests. Sometimes people get up and sing as well, so that’s a real broad spectrum of stuff from Adele through to Abba. A lot of the time I’m doing that on piano. I also play ukulele a bit, percussion a bit. I will learn the cello one day, I’ve definitely decided.
My friend, who is a singer, wants to know: When you’re singing, how do you know it’s really you?
That is a really interesting question. I think that with this Joni Mitchell project it is me being more me than I have been professionally for a long time. When you’re working commercially it’s not very authentic to yourself when you’re belting out We Are Family or Car Wash.
That is quite an unanswerable question but I know that I am being me with this project more than I am a lot of the time.
Is there a way of teaching voice that isn’t so technical but more about expressing yourself?
Absolutely. I think that a good teacher is still going to be hiding technique within what they’re introducing to their student, because obviously you have got to be physically safe. It’s not like breaking a string on your guitar, if you damage your larynx then you’re in trouble.
I think that the best way to really find yourself musically is just exploring and singing as much as you can. I do think of myself as two quite distinct people. There’s my teaching head – I do teach from a very technical point of view – and my performer head, is a very different person entirely. Where there is that little slot at the back of my brain where there’s all the technical stuff going on but it is very much the auto-pilot bit. You’re definitely opening up a communication channel more but still making sure that you’ve taken a big enough breath.
What have been the big lessons that you’ve learned along the way?
The most interesting one for me has been unlearning an awful lot of classical technique. I trained to be an opera singer from the age of 16 to 20 and I was at Middlesex and there were some terrific jazz people there. It was a real time of working out that everything that I knew (singing-wise) wasn’t actually going to be useful for that music world and to loosen the reigns enough on that side of musical discipline was a massive learning curve for me. It involved a hell of a lot of listening to other singers. Back in those days, sitting in the library with the vinyl and the headphones listening to Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro, all the great voices and just and just hearing it, feeling it and learning from it.
Another big lesson for me was that you can’t sing every night and go out every night and expect to stay well. I did definitely burn out doing that. Pacing yourself – that was a lesson that I learnt quite harshly. When I was working on cruise ships, one of my first jobs, which was great – lots of cheap booze, lots of twenty somethings, having a great time – you come off stage and drink until the early hours. I basically did that for four months and got laryngitis, had to take a month off work. That was a real wake up call that we are not invincible.
Tell us about the whole musical world of Joni Mitchell.
I think she’s got a really broad appeal. Obviously the readers of SJM are most likely jazz aficionados who might go ‘ooh! Joni Mitchell, I really like her’ and people who think ‘I used to listen to her when was lighting the joss sticks and playing on my guitar’ but I think there’s going to be enough in what we’re doing with her music to not just appeal to those two strands of existing Joni Mitchell appreciators.
It’s been really interesting because a majority of the musicians I’m working with work almost entirely in jazz. Particularly the guitarist James who has had to come at things from a different angle. It’s been interesting through the rehearsal process to see his change of tack. Joni Mitchell has her own sound world, definitely. In fact, a lot of the musicians that she was working with, around the time of doing Court and Spark, were going ‘I can’t play that, that’s not actually a chord, what’s the root of that chord?’ and she’s saying ‘it doesn’t matter what the root is, the sound I want is this’. And it took her a long time to find the right people to get their heads around that.
There’s very much a Joni Mitchell sound world but I do think it is one that has a broad appeal. What I think is great about her as well is that she’s a visual artist and her paintings are beautiful and there’s a lot of that visual beauty in her song lyrics. I was talking to the guys at the rehearsal the other day and saying that we’ve got two different sorts of songs in what we’re doing. We’ve got stuff where it’s all about the music and it’s about expanding and going to town on the musical ideas and then there’s the other stuff which is about the lyrics and the stories and about the word painting and the colours. On Night Ride Home she references blue lights and silver power lines and so on. There are all these colours and you can tell that she was seeing it as she was writing it. I think she’s fascinating for that and the fact that we can split off into those two strands.
In terms of the artwork on the poster, I was toying with the idea of whether I should try and use some of her artwork but then you get into all sorts of copyright issues, but my sister-in-law, Naomi Hart, is an artist and the poster is one of her paintings. It’s actually supposed to be of Paris but it reminds me of New York ironwork, so that’s why I’ve chosen that artwork because I think the visual part and the colours are a big key thing.
Lucy Pickering appears with Court and Spark: the music of Joni Mitchell at
The Verdict, Brighton on Saturday 29th October.
Photo of Lucy Pickering by Rob Orchard.