Vocalist and composer Zara McFarlane spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson about taking her new album on the road.
You recorded your third album Arise last year, tell us about the concept of the album.
“At first, I wanted to explore more rhythmical elements from Jamaica and the Caribbean at first. I knew I wanted there to be more harmonies and things on this album. So it started from that angle, as my last album was very lyric led.”
“I started doing some production and arrangements on my computer, so the music took shape first, before a lot of the melodies and lyrics came. You can hear that quite a lot more on this record.”
“The lyrics came much, much later on some of the tracks, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say for a long time. So I had melodies, I had the music but I didn’t have the lyrics. That took shape much later. It came out of the feeling of change and unrest. The kind of lyrics that started to come out were more about that kind of topic, as opposed to the last album which was more woman-influenced and about relationships. But this one has moved away from that.”
You’re taking your studio album on tour. What kinds of challenges have you had in turning it into a live performance?
“I don’t really think of them as challenges but for me the record is always a different thing to the live show. I never really worry about it being the same.”
“My first album was probably easier as we performed songs pretty much as they are on the record but we didn’t do that for the second one. This one has way more going on, on the record. It’s got lots of different people on it, different instrumentation. The way that I think about an album is that you’re trying to get it as close as possible to how you hear it in your head. But when you do a live show, it’s not really about what you hear in your head it’s about an audience, and having a moment, an experience together. And everyone’s playing off the band and sometimes taking the music somewhere else completely different. For the last record we had lots more remixes done and we would incorporate those elements into the live show also. For this one we’re touring as a five piece band but incorporating a little bit of electronic influence into it as well. We just tried to keep the same vibe. I was quite pre-occupied with having the feeling and the energy of the songs to be there for the live show. Even though it’s not a ten-piece band or whatever, and it doesn’t have five-part harmonies going on, it’s about trying to keep that energy. It’s worked out really well so far.”
Tell us a bit of some of the other things that you’re working on. Are you still in the process of writing for musical theatre?
“I’ve just been on a programme which is held at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The organisation is called the New Music Theatre Development Collective. It’s a year long programme trying to bring new composers and playwrights to musical theatre. There are four different groups. None of us have written for musical theatre. They might be songwriters, composers or writers but none of us have written specifically for musical theatre before. They bring new sounds and new ways of exploring new musical theatre. I’ve been doing that since February 2017 and it finishes up in March. I think it’s more of an exploration from their point of view, just to see what we come up with. I’ve had a dream to write a musical for a really long time so to be put on this programme I think this is a great thing for me to start thinking about that idea and start exploring some ideas and ways to make it happen. I see it as a long-term project that will probably take quite a few years to get completed. You have to R&D it a bit and get people in a room and get some actors in. We’ve got that happening in March, and we’ll do a showcase for part of our pieces and then see if people take up the idea. But you have to get a lot more people involved, like theatres and maybe other writers. The musical is progressing but I see it as a long-term thing and it’s a really nice thing to finally get started.”
What else have you been working on?
“I’ve also been working with the Royal Shakespeare Company this past year and it’s finishing up soon. I was in Antony and Cleopatra singing in the players. We did it in Stratford for six months and then we had a little break from that particular show and then they all started back at The Barbican since November and now we’re just finishing up. That’s been a really great experience to do something to what I normally do. Laura Mvula wrote the music for that play. She’s a composer, I think even a classically-trained composer. If you hear the CD of it, you don’t really hear all the beauty of the music live in the show, because it has to be whittled down for the amount of musicians. It was a really nice thing to do.”
Zara McFarlane performs at The Komedia, Brighton on Wednesday 28th February, 2018.