Cecilia Stalin Interview
For the first of our Love Supreme Festival previews, SJM editor Charlie Anderson spoke to Swedish jazz vocalist Cecilia Stalin at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank.
Do you ever dance when there isn’t any music playing?
Yeah, 'cos I sing!
Do you ever have music in your head?
Absolutely. I’ll start dancing and singing.
Do you do that a lot?
No, but it does happen. But the initial thing, I’ll kind of think of a song and then I’ll go and put it on, on my stereo. When it’s a good song you want to blast it out.
Do you like Star Wars?
Yeah, I love Star Wars.
Do you like the new trilogy or the old trilogy?
I like them all, actually. I even like the Lego Star Wars. For me it doesn’t matter. I’m not picky like that. I think there’s an idea George Lucas had and then they change. Some of them were filmed in the 70s and early 80s. So you can imagine the type of equipment that they had. When you look at the kids' programmes that I used to look at in Sweden. They were low budget and someone just put a hand in a sock, you know.
I’m happy that they’ve been able to move with the times, it would have been weird otherwise. Who today would want to see the same quality of films that were made in the early 80s when you have the ability to do what you can today? I like them all. I’m nostalgic about the old ones of course.
Here’s a hypothetical question. Britain declares war on Sweden. Who would you support?
What would you do to bring about peace?
First I would take away all guns. Then I would give everyone massive counselling sessions just to kind of re-evaluate life and how we should value it. Once you look at your neighbour or people that you meet and realise that they have a family, they have a life, they have friends. If they’re equally as grateful for their lives, then why would you even consider that you have more right to something than someone else?
Do you like football?
Football, not at all interested. Not at all.
What sports do you like?
Watching or playing?
Both, but I don’t really play it anymore. We’re trying to see if we can get access to a local basketball court and see if we can start a community basketball group on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and then see who turns up. We’ll just have some fun. To be truly honest, I like the summer Olympics but I’m not really one for watching sport. I like playing basketball and golf. I play golf with my dad so that’s more of a social thing. I’ve left my sporting days behind, I think. They’re gone. If anything I would say that I’m more into outdoor things. I would say more adventure stuff.
What sort of things?
Like hiking, canyoning or rafting.
When you said ‘adventure stuff’, I was thinking of treasure hunts.
No! That’s not really my thing either. [laughs]. Going to the beach. That’s the type of sport I like.
Here’s another hypothetical one. Your house has been burgled. What have they stolen?
I guess that all depends on the thief. I think they would probably steal my bass. My electric bass, 'cos that’s something that they can see instantly. My computer, of course, some of my studio gear if they’re clever enough.
So you play bass?
No, not really. I have one.
You just like to look at it?
Yeah. No, I’m trying to learn the basics of bass playing.
Do you play any other instruments?
Piano and I know about three or five chords on the guitar. So, not really.
What English words do you have trouble pronouncing?
"Itinerary". I always have a problem with that. And I have a problem with "very". Vs can be really hard for Swedes because we want to say "wery". Itinerary. It’s weird that I even get it right now but that would be the word.
Who are your musical influences?
Besides John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Freddie Hubbard, Millie Jackson, Betty Carter, Betty Wright. I really love early Tower of Power stuff. Fats Waller and Oscar Peterson. I think Oscar Peterson is amazing. Chet Baker I’ve listened to quite a lot.
Do you like his singing or his trumpet playing?
I like both actually but I’ve been listening more to his singing. And also his scat singing I find so mazing. It’s just so melodic. Lester Young. They’ve all got to have their own category like what I look for in artists. So Millie Jackson, Betty Wright and Ann Sexton and those people, that’s about attitude. Stevie’s about songwriting and Steve and Minnie worked a lot. Minnie is more about technique. Aretha is a big influence on me, too. Besides her amazing technique and ability, she wrote Rock Steady and on Young Gifted and Black, there were also her own compositions on there. Her phrasing. Wow, it’s so spot on, just incredible. So they all kind of have their slots. It’s the same with Nancy Wilson, her phrasing is just ridiculous. Dee Dee Bridgewater, she is just such a force on stage that you never know what’s going to happen and I kind of love that about her. It’s a bit mental. And then Wayne Shorter, I love his writing. His playing, too but I really, really admire his writing. And then there are all the contemporary people, too that I haven’t even mentioned. I really look up to a lot of people in my close realm – my friends, there are lots of talented people there.
What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about you?
About me as a person, or about me as a musician?
Err, not sure. How about both?
Well there was a guy who emailed me on Facebook, maybe two years ago, and he told me his whole life story and all the shit that he’d been through (and we’re talking about some serious stuff). And then he said "The only thing that got me through was your song". To me, that was really good. If your music can give someone life, someone who is going through hell, then that’s pretty awesome. I didn’t even release that album to get any recognition, I just documented where I was at that time and I’d just finished the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm and I had been in New York for a year. I had so much energy and so much music that I wanted to get out that I thought to myself "I’m just going to record an album, fund it myself and maybe press it up". It was picked up in Japan and a few other places around the world so he must have got hold of a copy. But that was really, really nice.
Ohhhh! That’s too big a question to answer. There are so many.
Is there one that you listen to over and over again?
There’s one album that I’ve been listening to when I go to sleep. Just because it’s such a stunning album. There’s actually two albums. One is called Alina by Arvo Pärt (ECM, 1999) who is an Estonian composer. The other one is actually John Coltrane Quartet Plays (Impulse!, 1965) which is so funny because they’re the opposite of one another but for some reason they both give me that same feeling of peace and tranquillity. Which is weird because the John Coltrane is like "Grrrh!!" but there’s something about the way that he plays, it has that calming effect on me.
You’re playing at the Love Supreme Festival in July. Have you played outdoor festivals before?
Yeah, some. Some in Sweden, I did something in Australia but not that much. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.
I performed at The Chiddingly Festival. Those people are super-nice. I was down there a couple of years ago  and it was really nice. There were a few people from Brighton that came through. It’s like a proper mini-jazz-festival. When we arrived, there were these bands playing outside and I was thinking "What if nobody really listens to jazz, it’s gonna be crazy" but it wasn’t. It was really nice.
Do you like singing outdoors?
If the sound system is good, I really, really like it. If it’s pissing down then it’s not going to be very nice, is it? But on a sunny day with a little breeze going on. Oh my God, I love that. So I hope it’s going to be sunny.
If you could write your own TV show, what would it be about?
Ooh, my own TV show. A series or a talk show?
It has to be a series.
Do I have to consider that it has to be commercially viable?
No, not at all.
Okay. To be totally honest, I think there’s such a non-understanding of creative people. They really don’t understand how much time and effort you put into your work. The fact that we still today have people coming to us and offering us gigs for hardly any money and saying "Oh it’s great exposure". But you wouldn’t call up a Michelin star chef and say "I’ve just bought a new house and me and my friends will have dinner every night and you can come and cook. We can’t pay much but we’ll give you some amazing feedback’".That doesn’t pay the bills. So I would do a programme on different types of artists. An in-depth look at what it really means for them to come to the point where they are now in their career. And what is it that they do, how many hours have they spent perfecting their art, writing that music or working on that sculpture. How much does it cost? When you break down a gig. Even if I get £500 for a gig that might actually mean that I have to learn certain songs for it, I have to travel for x amount of hours. Even if you get x amount of pounds, when you break it down per hour it’s under minimum wage. It all sounds so glamorous but the amount that you have to put in. We do it because we love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world but, at the same time, people have this amazing picture that "If I go on X Factor I’ll become famous" but no. You might get commercially famous for six months and then that’s it. I think that showcasing what it really means to be an artist, the passion and drive and the hours that you put in. I’d probably do something cool like that. Then I would get some really cool artists in, both famous and non-famous and [whispering] maybe even get them to work together.
Who would play you in a film of your life?
Erm…The only people I’ve been told that I look like are both artists. The singer in Ally McBeal. What’s her name?
No idea. [I had to google it later: Vonda Shepard]
Or Natasha Bedingfield.
Oh [holding back the laughter]
I have no clue. That’s a very good question. Kevin Hart maybe? [laughs]. I really don’t know.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
A hairdresser. When I was about six I wanted to become a hairdresser. It’s very popular at that age to want to become a hairdresser. I don’t know why.
I grew up. No, I think it’s because I wasn’t allowed to have long hair until I was eleven. My mum kept my hair short as it was easier to deal with. I think I dropped those ideas pretty quickly because I couldn’t really muck about with my own hair. But I think it’s one of those things that you say that you want to do because everyone else wants to be that.
I remember writing my first song when I was ten and I think somewhere it’s always been in me because I did music so early. When you write your own song when you are ten, then the satisfaction that it gives you, that you’ve created something.People who don’t write at that age might not have the same urge to express themselves in that way. You can enjoy music but look at Stevie, look at Michael. All of them started so early. I think when you start that early then that’s just a calling. In the same way that kids can play football at age two and they’re amazing. People have talents and a lot of people don’t acknowledge them.
What do you like most about London?
I think that London as a city, I love the architecture. It’s ridiculous. It’s so full, with all the old and the new. But I really love walking around in the older areas, even just down here [the South Bank]. And then you look at all the building and you think "Can you imagine who has lived here?" Back in the day when they had horses and carriages. It’s pretty cool. So I love that. And then I love the new additions: the London Eye, the Hungerford Bridge, the Millennium Bridge. It’s a diverse city, in a lot of aspects: culture, people, food, art. What’s on offer is so diverse. The thing that I really love, the one reason that has made me stay so long, is that people are so open to new things. You can mix things and people say "That’s interesting", instead of saying "Well, that’s not jazz". It feels like you get a pat on the back rather than a finger in your face. I really love that. Some of the stuff that I’ve seen. I saw a show at the Barbican. Basement Jaxx versus a symphony orchestra. Then they had a breakdancer from New York and a prima ballerina from London and they had a battle through all this music. That’s what I’m saying: they’re letting people be themselves. I think that’s why London is one of the hotspots for new music, I really feel that. They could do with better housing though, and less rain, but I’m not sure that’s not going to change any time soon.
Cecilia, thanks for meeting with me today.
Cool. It was fun.
Cecilia Stalin appears at the 2014 Love Supreme Festival on Sunday 6th July.
Her latest album, Step Like A Giant, is available now.