Award winning vocalist and Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson about her upcoming performance at the Rye International Jazz Festival and running her own record label.
You’re performing at Rye Jazz Festival this year. Have you played there before?
“We played there a couple of years ago in this little house which they used for [TV series] Mapp and Lucia. It’s a beautiful part of the world. It was a really sunny day so with the weather that we’re having at the moment it’ll be gorgeous.”
Tell us about the band and the music that you’re bringing to Rye.
“We’re changing our set all the time and we have lots of different line-ups of bands but the trio, which is the band I’m bringing to Rye, that’s the hotbed of everything we do. It’s all tried out with the trio, then if it’s going well with audiences and we like it then we might expand it to one of the bigger bands like the Big Mini Big Band, the Hollywood Orchestra or Soul Big Band. It’s like playing with your best mates. You can be as spontaneous as you like, you can do whatever you want and they’ll follow you. So we’ve brought a whole load of new material that we’ve been working on and we’re just beginning to work on the next record as well. Our style is very uplifting, hopefully, and celebrating great songwriters and giving a nod to some of the fantastic singers who made the great songs famous. We’re trying to let people remember how great the songs were of yesteryear but also we’re always writing new material and putting more contemporary covers in there as well but always using that jazz styling: chords from the Golden Era of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.”
What would you say was your favourite format: duo or big band?
“They’re all different. They’re all really enjoyable. I treat them all individually. I work with Jason Rebello and I’m a very, very lucky girl to be working with someone as incredible as him. When there’s just the two of you, that’s like the biggest workout in many ways because you have to lean on each other, you have to completely lock in to each other. There’s no drums. Drums are what I call glue. Drums can go for miles and they can cover any amount of whatever you need. They fill in gaps. And the bass will obviously give an anchor to a band. So when you take those two elements away, the pianist has to work doubly hard but so does the singer! It’s like that swan mentality of hopefully it’s all looking great on top but underneath we’re both paddling away furiously.”
“The bigger the band, the more you’re listening to what’s going on around you and reacting. Often, when you’re with a full orchestra, it changes entirely, the way that you sing, because with a big band you lean on time, you can work with the drums and sit back because you know that the drums are driving. When you’re working with an orchestra, when there are so many instruments (70+), you have to become the time.”
“So there are all different disciplines and of course if you mix the audience in with that, I think that’s why I love working in so many formats, because they all present a different challenge.”
Where do you get your songwriting inspiration from?
“It’s something that I rarely get the time to do now. Writing all the time is something that I’m doing at the moment but often I don’t have time because I’m running the business, doing the radio show and all sorts of other stuff. So I guess I’ve got to just grab it whenever it occurs to me. It tends to be always music first. I try to have at least 10 minutes a day where I might just sit at the piano and see what happens. It is literally just trying to let go and open your mind and see what comes. I’ve been working with Jason a bit as well and writing together which has been great fun. It’s often quite scary writing with other people.”
How would you advise singers learning to improvise?
“There are lots of different ways of improvising. Obviously we know all about scat singers, but there are so many other things that you can do to make it different to how you might have originally heard something. You can improvise with the phrasing, how the story is put across, or you can improvise with the timing, to put a different emphasis on music. Perversely, I like learning other people’s scat, as a discipline, because then you can get inside someone else’s head, see what they were doing and see what choices they made. I would say, ‘don’t be scared, have a go’. As long as you mean what you do. I think that’s often the mistake that people can make, they often do stuff that they think they should be doing, but what I’ve learnt, after all these years, is don’t do anything unless you mean it, then you’ll always be alright and the audience will always believe you.”
You mentioned your new record. Have you planned it out?
“It’s really early stages. I know that it’s going to feature the Big Mini Big Band, which is our nine-piece band. I haven’t made an album for a couple of years. The last one we made was with the Halle Orchestra, which featured 93 musicians. That one was probably the most ambitious and adventurous project that we’d ever undertaken, so it took a bit of time to re-group from that. So coming on the heels of that, I wanted to carry on with the larger ensemble stuff that we’ve been doing. Working with arrangers like Guy Barker, Jason Rebello and Grant Windsor we can combine these three voices. This is music that is being written specifically for this band. It’s designed to give people the thrill of what big bands are all about, but in a more tour-able size. I think that part of the decline of the big band era was because it’s just so expensive to tour big bands. You’re never going get rich being a big band leader!”
You run your own record label as well?
“Yes, we do everything in-house at Mud Records. We started making records in 2009. I’d come out of contract with Universal at that time. I learned so much and I worked with some brilliant people at Sony and Universal but it seemed to be time, rather than go back into contract with somebody else, to just have a go. And it was the best thing that we’ve done. I can record what I want, when I want, with who I want, release it where and when I want. We sort out all the touring as well. It’s like a kind of cottage industry but it works really well for me. The record label is just part of that umbrella.”
Are there any downsides to running your own label?
“I haven’t found one yet. I think we were lucky. Being already established by the time we decided to start our label. And obviously we only look after one artist (that’s me!), there’s no stress about making sure that everybody else is alright. You’re just looking after this one product. The way things are these days, for kids starting out, it’s a really positive thing to be creating your own music because you get to learn about the business and I think that’s really important. You get to learn all 360 degrees of the music business: what you need to do to put out a record, you need to be able to produce something, you need to be able to understand about studios and what happens, budgeting etc. But the music industry has changed and it’s almost unrecognisable since I started out. So if it has levelled the playing field at all, and it means that people can get their music out there, that can only be a good thing.”
What’s most important in your music making?
“The emphasis of everything that I do in life is geared towards live music and the importance of that. People coming out to support live music, they’re doing such a great service, keeping musicians on the road and keeping things ticking over. And a big shout out to festivals as well because they’re often run on a voluntary basis, lots of people giving their services. That’s great for small towns because it gives people the opportunity to hear things they wouldn’t usually hear. They’re so important, local festivals. It’s great to play to people in Rye who wouldn’t necessarily come to our gigs normally.”
Clare Teal performs at Rye International Jazz Festival on Sunday 26th August at St. Mary’s Church, Rye at 2pm.
Clare Teal is on BBC Radio 2 every Sunday at 9pm.