Donna Lewis Interview
Donna Lewis had a global hit in 1996 with ‘I Love You Always Forever’ a song that exceeded one million ‘spins’ on the radio. Her latest album Brand New Day takes the Welsh born singer in a completely new direction.
Featuring musicians Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King, the album is an intimate, jazz-infused selection of covers and originals with a stripped-down acoustic sound – and includes a fresh version of I Love You Always Forever alongside songs from artists ranging from Neil Young to David Bowie to Gnarls Barkley.
This summer, Donna will be touring the UK in June with a band comprising Steve Hamilton (piano), Michael Janisch (double bass) and Andrew Bain (drums) and will be at The Old Market, Hove on June 21st. Presented by Claire Martin who will also be making a guest appearance, this event will also see South Coast Jazz Festival 2016 opening artist Alex Garnett joining the band.
Growing up in a musical family in Cardiff, her father introduced Donna at an early age to the sounds of big band music and the ‘great jazz vocalists’. Later, her musical influences included David Bowie, Kate Bush and most importantly Rickie Lee Jones. She began writing her own songs at the age of 14 and attended the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, where she majored in classical flute, piano and composition. Her early career saw her performing in piano bars across Europe whilst at home she developed her writing and recording skills in her own home studio.
After her debut album Now In a Minute, she recorded three further solo albums and collaborated with artists such as The Art Of Noise and Richard Marx before teaming up with long-term friend and producer David Torn to work on Brand New Day.
Tell us about your new album and how it came about.
“David Torn and Jeff Resnick who are two good friends of mine were talking about me at a gig one time. Jeff said that he’d always wanted me to do songs from the American Songbook and David said that he’d always thought I should do something more stripped back with just piano, upright bass and drums. So it wasn’t my idea originally but when they approached me about it, I thought it was great. A complete departure from anything I’d done before. I was worried that I might be seen as just a ‘pop singer doing jazz’ so we thought really carefully about the songs and the musicians. We wanted people that we knew could be really creative with the idea of taking a pop song or a mainstream song and doing something incredible with it. Because they are such brilliant technical musicians, I was worried they would look down on me but no, they were really, really lovely and they were so inventive with the songs, especially with my ‘Sleep’. I wrote ‘Sleep’ as a piano vocal and I brought it in at the last minute and that song, on the album was done in one take. I just loved what they did with it. The other songs on the album came about by making very long lists and narrowing them down again and again. There were certain classics I knew I wanted to do and David [Torn] was great at coming up with alternative suggestions. He suggested ‘Waters of March’ as he knew I was a big fan of Jobim and he also came up with the Bowie song [Bring Me The Disco King].”
You’re touring the UK throughout June, and releasing the new album. What can we expect to hear at your concerts?
“I’m glad that we’re going to get some good rehearsals in. It’s really exciting because I know that these jazz musicians are just going to take the charts and just ‘do it’. Steve Hamilton was suggested to me a long time ago as the pianist to use if I came to England so I was really pleased when Michael (Janisch) said he was coming on the tour.”
“So we’ll be doing the songs from the album. I don’t think of myself as a jazz singer. I think of myself as a contemporary singer who’s working with some amazing jazz musicians and I hope that people will enjoy listening to how we’ve merged these songs and styles together.”
“In Brighton, Claire Martin is going to be presenting the evening and doing a couple of songs with me. I’m nervous about that of course because she’s such an amazing jazz singer and I get to sing with her. I’ve been calling my Dad and saying ‘Okay I’ve got to write down… think of all the songs I used to sing… what are we going to do’?”
What plans do you have for the future?
“I’m going to try and concentrate on my writing. Most people know me as a singer-songwriter but I really want to get more into collaborating with other singers and musicians. Some people have wanted to record my songs and that’s something I definitely want to do more of. I love performing myself of course I do but writing is my strongest thing.”
“I’m also working on some music with a local author who wrote a brilliant book called The Reluctant Psychic. My dream would be to write a musical based on it but I know it could take years. I’m really loving it though and we have already written five or six songs so I don’t know where it’ll lead.”
“I help my son a lot with his music and there’s a bunch of kids here that I’ve been writing for… I just want to write what I want to write; I don’t want it to have to fit in to any pre-conceived criteria. I’ve realised this as I’ve got older and as the music industry has changed so much.”
“It’s the same with Brand New Day. I’ve just been able to sing songs in any kind of way I want. David Torn said ‘This record, it doesn’t have a genre as such but it’s informed by jazz, it’s people having that jazz perspective with these great songs’. And that was exactly what we set out to achieve.”
Brand New Day is out on Whirlwind Recordings on 17th June