Claire Martin OBE Interview
It’s a busy time for Claire Martin OBE. Her new album is due for release and is receiving rave reviews. She is also, with local musician Julian Nicholas, forging ahead with plans for the first South Coast Jazz Festival to be held in January next year. On a rare morning at home, I visited Claire to find out more.
Your new album Time and Place is released on September 22nd . Several of the arrangements feature The Montpelier Cello Quartet; can you tell me a bit about your partnership with them and how the album came about?
“My daughter was having cello lessons, with one of the cellists in the quartet and he mentioned that he was doing a gig with four cellos in a church in Brighton and I just thought, ‘that’s nice!’ Everyone loves cellos don’t they? I thought four together would be amazing. I went down and saw them and thought, ‘that’s great! I could create something really different, something that’s not been done before, by putting a jazz singer in front of four cellos’.”
“I had to have cello parts and arrangements written. I thought that if it didn’t work and I’d invested in a few arrangements, I could at least use one of them on the album or as a guest spot. I took a chance and it really worked. It fits my voice, it’s a good register, it’s a good timbre for my voice, and the whole thing merges really well.”
“I thought perhaps I could tap into a classical audience that love chamber music and into my jazz audience and create ‘chamber jazz’; present jazz in another wrapping. I’m trying to increase my audience and do something new at the same time to stay fresh. If you’ve been doing this for a long time you can’t just keep putting out trio albums. I’ve gone for something different, to reinvent myself!”
There’s a really varied selection of material on the album. What was your process for choosing the tracks to include?
“Things just naturally led to becoming cello orientated. The Gershwin (My Man’s Gone Now) was easily accessible, my bass player, Laurence Cottle, had arranged Round Midnight as it was already in our set, and I thought that it would sound great with cellos so we did that.
“Pete Davison (the husband of one of the cellists) suggested David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World and that really worked with the cellos playing a tango behind it and I chose something from Joe Stilgoe, who I’m working with, who’s written a lovely song (Lost For Words) that was an easy choice. Mark Winkler, a friend of mine, had written a song Catch Me If You Can, which I also thought would be a great little tune to include.”
“I’d always wanted to sing My Ship and I got Richard Rodney Bennett to do the arrangement. That had to go in because, sadly, he died and I wanted quite a lot of ‘him’ to be involved in this album.”
“My record company said to me ‘Don’t have every song just cellos, people will fall asleep’, so for the other material, I looked at friends’ writing and standards that I’ve always loved and that I haven’t done yet.”
“I just had a go at things. A couple of things didn’t work and that’s the same with any singing set. Sometimes you really love a song and you want it desperately to work and it just doesn’t fit.”
“I squirrelled the songs away until I had too many and then I weeded them out. I had help doing that from my record producer and dear friend Phil Hobbs who is brilliant, so I wasn’t left on my own completely.”
“Generally, I think what I try to do is just reflect my broad musical loves, the range of music that I love, and not get stuck in a rut with just trying to recreate the standards.”
As you don’t stick solely to a jazz repertoire, do you find you get ideas from songs that you might hear on the radio?
“I do actually. Sometimes, especially an old song, from my youth, from the 70’s might come on, and I think, ‘I wonder if I could do that’, and then I have a go at it. Then, I have to find out how many other people have done it. Sometimes I try to find really obscure stuff, so yes, that does happen.”
So the album has classical elements, you’re a ‘jazz’ singer and you’re covering a variety of materials. Do you think that these labels in general are helpful or harmful?
“I used to think that you should have a label so that you know where to look in record shops! I don’t know whether labels help or hinder actually. I asked someone the other day ‘what do you do?’ and she said; ‘I’m sort of R&B cross hip hop, drum and bass…’. I pretended I knew what she was talking about; I had no idea!”
“Jazz can be perceived as a bit of a ‘kiss of death’ sometimes and that’s a real shame because that four letter word: it’s such a huge umbrella over music of so many different styles.”
“I don’t like all types of jazz and that’s fine, but there’s a big bit of accessible stuff in the middle, which I don’t think people know whether they like, or not. Sometimes people think it’s a bit high brow or it’s going to be a bit too self-indulgent or they perceive the audience as being anorak wearing ‘beardy-weirdies’… and I think that can sometimes work against us as jazz musicians. I needed the labels this time; I thought ‘chamber jazz’ would be nice.”
Would you describe yourself as a jazz singer?
“I would actually because I like to improvise. I like to take chances and I like to work with jazz musicians. I think I can swing if I put my mind to it.”
You mentioned your record label. At a time when so many seem to be struggling, what has kept your relationship with Linn so consistent and so prolific?
“Ahhhh, they’re so lovely. They’re not a massive label. There’s been times when I’ve thought ‘Oh it would be great if I had the same marketing budget as Diana Krall and we had £100,000 just to do adverts on buses or a TV ad’.”
“Linn are a hi-fi company. They’re based in Glasgow and they make the most amazing beautiful hi-fis ever in the world. Thousands and thousands of pounds worth of this beautiful technology and the record company runs alongside it. You know that with Linn you’re going to get a great sounding record. They take so much time to put it in surround sound, because they are going to use your music to sell their hi-fi. Often you go and see people sitting and listening, and they put a Claire Martin record on. It’s good publicity. They’re really loyal; they’re really open to any idea that I’ve come up with. They’ve let me do some mad stuff!! Some things have been really successful, others have been less successful but they’ve stuck with me. The artistic freedom is priceless.”
“The studios I go in to, to record, are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Mark Knopfler’s studio, called British Grove, which is where we recorded Time And Place, is just a lovely space to be in. I work with Calum Malcolm who is a great engineer. I feel like I’m supported and they help in any way they can. I like it, and I’m really loyal. I stick with people for a long time; I’ve stuck with my pianist for a long time. I don’t want to move. I have had offers; I’ve had a couple of offers from American labels but the deal hasn’t been right. I’m happy with Linn, it sounds cheesy, but it is like a family now.”
“However, if they suddenly said they’re going to do £100,000 worth of marketing that would be great, because it is all about getting the music out there and how you sell it and they’re not that kind of company. But that’s all right; I’d rather be more 'culty' really.”
You’ve won many awards and you were awarded an OBE in 2011. Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility to give something back and to ‘serve’ the music because of this?
“British Jazz Awards are terrific. There’s a small pool of singers that’s broadening I’m pleased to say, because we’re a small island and it’s a specialised music so you are going to get the same names coming up but I’m not saying I wasn’t glad to win!”
“The OBE, I’m still in shock about. I thought it was my brother playing a hoax! I immediately thought of about ten people that really deserved it that really have dedicated their life to this music. Then suddenly I thought, ‘this is a light shining on this music, I’m a woman in music, I’m a woman in a specialist music, it will be a great day out… I can accept it on behalf of the jazz scene’ and so I did, of course I did.”
“Now I’m thinking ‘what can I do with this?’ because there is a gravitas about putting those three letters after your name. I can, with Julian (Nicholas), start thinking about curating work for other people. I can do a free drop-in singing session at the Brighton Women’s Centre, because I want to give back. I can have more of a charitable role, which I really like.”
“I can also think about how I can broaden my work now because people go ‘Oh I don’t know who she is but she’s got an OBE, she must be someone!’ At the moment I’ve only used it to complain a couple of times, to get a refund quicker!”
“The most serious thing I’ve done with it is to show, with Julian Nicholas, to the governing bodies, arts councils and funding people that I understand what I’m doing and that I’ve got respect from my ‘gang’ and that I could put something together. I want to curate the festival as my next step. It’s going to be a really good part of my life and a good start to another chapter.”
You are working with Julian Nicholas to put on The South Coast Jazz Festival in January 2015. What are your goals for the festival both now and moving forward?
“We want to be a brand. This is the ‘South Coast Jazz Festival’ but we want ‘South Coast Jazz’ to promote work. We want it to get behind new artists and to curate stages at festivals. We want the festival to be annual and to hopefully be our legacy, to be something that this area can really be proud of.”
“There’s no Brighton Jazz Festival any more and we all mourn the loss of that and we don’t think that the Brighton Festival looks at the jazz talent that’s in this area. It’s not reflected enough in that massive festival.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. We want our brand to really become something quite special that we can expand. We can do master classes, we can do weekends, promote gigs… The festival is the kick-start of our relationship as ‘South Coast Jazz’. There can be quite a few of us on the board, we can start thinking about expanding it into doing stuff for schools, trying to get jazz on the curriculum.”
“We’ve just got to sell 600 tickets and get this festival as a ‘goer’ and then we will feel elated, we’ll get the buzz from that. We really need people to get behind it because everyone will get a play. We’ve had to, this year, rely on really well-known names just to get the ball rolling but we are also including some young up and coming talent, local bands like The Mingus Underground Octet and Mark Edwards’ Cloggz. Everyone involved is from the South Coast so we’re keeping it regional. Ian (Shaw) has got a second house in Hythe, I know that’s stretching it a bit and Joe Stilgoe is moving to Brighton next year so he’s soon to be a Sussex resident. I thought that counted!”
I don’t see your name on the bill.
“No, I’m not doing it. I didn’t want people to say ‘You’ve created a festival and put yourself in it’. I’d find that really uncomfortable. I will introduce the bands. I will run around with cake and tea. I will liaise with people and ask people for their feedback after the gigs. I’ll be very present at the gigs. Bobby Wellins has asked me to sing with him so I’m bound to get up and do a number with him. I will sing but I didn’t want just to be a performer, I wanted to really be a curator and bring it together and be the party organiser. I want to try this new hat on; I want to be this person now. I want to encourage other singers to get up and have a go. I’ll have enough to do.”
Apart from the performances, what else will there be at the South Coast Jazz Festival?
“I’ll be doing a vocal master class workshop on the Friday, 11.00am – 3.00pm with a half hour break. The workshops will be for intermediate to advanced singers that want to meet up in a group. It will be a really good chance to network, to encourage each other, to create little social networks, to spread the word about each other, share music with each other, swap charts… and it will be Gareth Williams on piano which will be a thrill.”
“Julian Nicholas and Mark Bassey will be doing an instrumental master class and on the Saturday morning we are having ‘Jazz for Juniors’ and that’s going to be with tutors Trudy Kerr and Sue Richardson. They’re both brilliant singers but Sue Richardson also plays trumpet. I thought it would be great for the young girls to see a female jazz musician playing the trumpet.”
“Then, on the Sunday lunchtime we’re going to have a Sunday Cinema feature and show a film about Bobby Wellins and then a very relaxed jam session. The amazing Pete Long will be appearing on the Sunday night with his Ellington project featuring Bobby Worth on drums.”
Do you really enjoy teaching?
“I do, yes.”
You’re quite forthright in your teaching style. Do you have ‘pet hates’ that you’re always going to pick up on when people are singing?
“Yes, I guess I am quite forthright. I try and give people quick feedback from the heart.”
“I’m not saying it’s right but ‘pet hates’ would be the usual stuff that I hate about myself. Getting the words wrong, not really knowing the melody, making it up a bit… I guess just when people aren’t engaged with the storyline and they’re thinking, “I’m going to be a jazz singer now”. You’ve got to really know how to breathe and sing and phrase to get the ‘jazz’ thing. I’d much rather people went to a singing teacher, learned how to sing and said ‘Right! Now I’ve got a voice, let me talk about jazz styling, how does it work? Tell me about harmony, tell me about who to listen to.’ That’s really interesting to me…I hope I’m not frightening and forthright and scary…”
“I’m also very aware that everyone’s skint at the moment; it’s really hard. If you’re going to pay money to go to a teacher you want to go away with at least something. I want to say at the beginning of my workshops, ‘Right, what have you come specifically for, let me try and tailor-make this answer because there’s a lot to learn’. Doing a master class with mic technique and stage craft; that’s hours. Let alone how to choose material, how to relate to the band, how to talk in between, how to get the gig, how to get the demo… that’s a week!”
Do you still see a singing teacher?
“I do see Verona Chard about once or twice a year. If I’m having a wobble or I’m having a bit of a problem I’ll ring her and just talk through what she thinks I should do. Once, when I was really in a state, I just asked her to come and stand on the side of the stage. I was so nervous about something and she just stood in the wings and just having her there settled me. It was a long time ago, it was a really big night and I was quite young. I wasn’t as mature in my head or emotionally, so she’s been really great actually. She’s seen me in all sorts of situations.”
Do you worry about losing your voice?
“No, I look after my voice. I have worried about it. If I (very rarely) get a cold or laryngitis, I totally panic and think, “I’m never going to talk again” like everybody does. Believe it or not, although I’m talking ten to the dozen now, when I’m gigging I’m really quiet in the day. It sounds a bit extreme saying ‘like an athlete’ because that sounds a bit poncy but it is like this; ‘ok I know I’ve got to sing tonight, it’s 11 o’clock now, right, I’m not going to talk till 6 o’clock and that’s it!’ I don’t smoke any more. I try and sleep loads. I eat well, I exercise, and I keep an eye on my vocal health. I take tonnes of vitamins. I’ve got a good relationship with my instrument now. It’s been years and years and years that I’ve been using it so I know where it’s at. I practise every day so I can hear where I’m at with it.”
“I always have my monitors loud enough. I never strain. I always make sure the monitors are in my favour and that I don’t ever, ever have a band that’s too loud and then end up shouting and then come back the next day knackered.”
What do you think in general of the UK jazz scene at the moment?
“I think it’s great. We could do with more venues. Definitely do with more venues.”
I’ve heard you say that before. Do you feel the situation is improving at all?
“Not really, no. We need ten Ronnie Scotts, we need ten Vortexes, we need ten Verdicts… there’s just not enough clubs. There are a lot of people trying for the same gig; there are a lot of people worldwide trying to sing at Ronnie’s. I can sing at Ronnie’s once a year for two nights, maybe three if I’m lucky and I can sing at Pizza Express once a year and that’s London done. I’ve got to fill the rest of the year so I’ve got to find clubs.”
“If I’m trying to do a theatre, Elkie Brooks will want that day or Kiki Dee or Mari Wilson doing her ‘Dusty Springfield’. I’m up against people like that. You’ve got to really present an act for these theatres to take you on and then you’ve got to fill 5 or 600 seats, it’s hard… I’ve got to really grab my jazz audience and say, ‘come on’ because these are the places I’ve got to fill now.”
“For up and coming players I think it would be great if there were more gigs. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop saying that. As far as I’m concerned, every town should have a jazz club.”
“The other thing is, you get lots of students coming out of the Guildhall who will play for free or play for £20 and of course the musicians that need to go and play for £150 are getting undercut and that’s an issue as well.”
Is there a solution?
“I don’t know. I think we’ve got to create the work. Look at Julian and I, we’re going to create a festival; we want to create a night once a month in Brighton somewhere. Hopefully that will have a knock-on effect. I think we’ve just got to make it happen. Paul Pace does the Spice of Life and that’s really on the landscape now as a jazz place. I think us ‘jazzers’ and all the volunteers up and down this country that work tirelessly in smaller clubs to keep jazz alive really need to be congratulated and to keep going because otherwise it will just get squashed by pop…”
For people to want to run jazz venues, they have to believe that they can attract audiences. The perception is often that ‘there’s no money in it!’ How would you respond to that?
“There’s no money in it because people aren’t exposed to it and they don’t know that it’s going to be a great night out. Five years ago people would be taking a risk booking Gregory Porter; ‘who’s Gregory Porter?’ but now at £47 a ticket, he’s good business because he’s become a star so it’s possible to become that kind of huge phenomenal success.”
“I’m just going to keep trying to create work and if my little OBE, for what it’s worth, is going to open a door so someone will actually see me because of it then that’s what I’m going to do. So we can play and make a living. And also, let’s up the money a bit. It’s rubbish. Someone told me the other day that they’re doing a gig for £20! What can you do with that?”
Who are you listening to at the moment that’s current?
“This week I’m listening to Kate Bush because I’m going to see her on Friday. She’s not exactly jazz but I was hugely influenced by her.”
“Because I work for Jazz Lineup on Radio 3, I get sent lots and lots of records. There’s a singer called Emma Smith who’s really taken my fancy. She’s based in London and she’s good, I really, really like her. I also love Anita Wardell; I think she’s a great scat singer. I’m listening to Bobby Wellins because he’s just done a beautiful suite of music with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (Culloden Moor Suite) and I’m going to be working with him soon and I’m listening to the new Monty Alexander (The River Rolls On).”
“I always listen to Brad Mehldau and I love Christian McBride. I also like Avishai Cohen who is a great Israeli bass player. It’s a mixture and then sometimes I don’t want to hear any music, just have a week off.”
Is there anybody on the scene now that you think is underrated or that should be a huge star but isn’t?
“Liane Carroll. She’s not underrated but she should be out there. She should be at the Albert Hall every night. She’s just the most amazing, soulful, heartfelt, beautiful spirit; amazing musician and I love her to bits. She is in Hastings doing lovely gigs but she should be a household name.”
Finally, a quick fire question: “If you could front a band with any jazz musicians past or present, who would you have in your line up?”
“Oh that’s so hard! I’d have Michael Brecker on saxophone and Miles Davis on trumpet. I’d probably have Art Blakey on drums. On bass I’d have Christian McBride and on piano I would probably have Herbie Hancock. Hmm, I should probably have someone more modern on drums…Oh there are no women in that! Right, let’s put a woman in. Let’s have Teri Lyne Carrington on drums and Regina Carter on violin. There you go.”
Thank you very much Claire.
Claire Martin’s new album Time And Place will be released by Linn Records on 22nd September 2014.
For more information about Claire, her discography and forthcoming tour dates: www.clairemartinjazz.com
For more information about South Coast Jazz:
Elaine Crouch runs her own company Buy Some Time which offers business support for musicians.
Claire Martin was interviewed for issue 28 of The Sussex Jazz Mag which you can view/download here.