Heather Cairncross Interview
Sussex vocalist Heather Cairncross met up with editor Charlie Anderson at The Brunswick in Hove to talk about her experiences in jazz.
You recorded your first jazz album with acclaimed jazz pianist Dave Newton. How did that come about?
“I met Dave Newton at the Hare & Hounds in Worthing. I went along to an Alan Barnes Christmas do where Dave was playing. We ordered some food and he accidentally took my friend’s dinner. We went up to the bar and said "where’s the dinner?" and they said "Oh, that gentleman with the beard there has taken it". We didn’t think any more about it ordered another, but afterwards he came up to us and said "I’m the gentleman who snaffled your dinner" and gave my friend a CD of his own compositions. It was a bit different from his normal stuff, with a string orchestra. She listened to it a month or so later and said "I think you’ll really like this, Heather" because it was a crossing of the two genres, which I quite like. I listened to it and it seemed to have quite wide-ranging melodies and I thought ‘These would make great songs, but because of the range it might make a good song cycle’.”
“At the time I’d been approached by the Arundel Festival to come up with a project. I contacted Steve Thompson, who is my bass player and also a very good screenwriter, and asked him to write some words to one of the songs and he did and then we recorded it and I just sent Dave Newton (he didn’t know who the hell I was) a recording of me singing different words on top of his already recorded CD. I said ‘I’ve had this idea. I’d like to do a song cycle of this album, of your music, put words on it. I don’t want you to think that I think it’s not complete in itself it’s just that it inspired me to want to take it to a different level.’ So I sent it off and thought that he’s probably going to think I’m completely bonkers. Anyway, he did get back to me and he really liked the idea and he liked what we’d done but, to cut a long story short, he decided that he wanted to write the words for all the songs, which he did. We performed it at The Arundel Festival with a string quartet and Chris Hill, who is Jamie Cullum’s bass player. Dave thought he would be great because he can read music as he was a chorister at Winchester so he’s got that classical side to him. He writes a lot and as well as being a great jazz bass player. He was brilliant because he interpreted between Dave and the string quartet and the percussion player. My friend Dee Palmer did some beautiful new orchestrations.”
“We just really liked working with each other. We did a couple of rehearsals on our own and then he asked me to do a couple of things and I asked him to do a couple of things. I was singing at Steyning Jazz Club together and I joked that the pianist had a CD for sale, the bass player had a CD to sell and even the drummer had a CD to sell, but sadly I didn’t have a CD to sell. Tom Chapman came up to me afterwards and said ‘Well, why don’t you?’ and I answered ‘Well, I’ve never had a few thousand pounds to throw at it to make one’. So he came back to me a couple of weeks later (in fact, down The Brunswick jazz jam) and said ‘If it’s just money that’s stopping you then I’ll pay for you to do it’.”
“All these years I’ve thought about what sort of album I’d do, perhaps get together all the people that I know and it would be some sort of great big production thing. And then I realised that this big idea was going to stop me doing it. So I thought ‘I’ll go in and just do voice and piano’ because some of my favourite albums are Tony Bennett & Bill Evans, Doris Day & Andre Previn, The Intimate Ella (Ella & pianist Paul Smith). I thought ‘This is what I’d like to do. At least I’ll start there and see if anyone likes it’. So I rang Dave and it happened really quickly, as the only time we could both do was in two weeks. So I only had two weeks to think about the repertoire, get all the charts and sort it all out. With Dave, you give him a chart and he’ll pretty much ignore it. I always give him a red pen hoping that he’s going to write some magic on my chart, what he’s actually playing, but actually I’ve found that he never plays the same thing twice anyway.”
“I tried to ask him which keys he preferred to play them in but he said ‘Oh, whatever you like’, so I took loads of charts to the recording session. One of them I’d done it in four different keys. We recorded it over two days. Then came the whole process of getting it made, album covers, MCPS licence etc. I wrote about all that on a series on my website, about producing it myself – I even made my own record company. I’ll hopefully do one again soon because I learnt an awful lot and also found out things that I would or wouldn’t do.”
“My thinking was ‘Why on earth would anyone want to buy an album by me? What would be different about me singing covers of standards that everyone knew?’ I decided the only thing that I could bring to this is that maybe I can use some of my experience as a singer and try to get back to what I thought the nub of the song was about – in one whole take.”
“Another bassist, Andy Cleyndert, recorded it for us. He sent me something like 64 whole takes. Some songs we did two takes and some we did six or seven takes. Andy asked me which ones to choose. I diligently went through all the takes he sent me, chose the ones I liked and then Andy got to work on them. A couple of days later Dave sent me a text saying he’d just got the demos from Andy and we should have a call about which ones we both like. Then I thought ‘Oh dear, I didn’t realise – of course I should have spoken to Dave about it’. I called Dave and asked him which versions he preferred. Amazingly he had chosen exactly the same takes that I had.”
“Then I managed to get a distribution deal so I can sell the album in shops, on Amazon and iTunes, but made sure I can still sell it on my website. I wanted to pay back the chap who gave me the money and I’m doing that. But mainly I did that album to sell at gigs as people often want to buy a CD, but also for me it’s just something that I’m really proud of and think sounds like me. Pretty much the whole rest of my singing career, people are telling me how they want me to sound. They’re asking me to sing it straighter, with more vibrato, less vibrato or a different tone style or colour. So it’s just really good to have the opportunity to just sing as me and see if people like it.”
When you’re not in the studio, you do quite a bit of teaching. What’s your approach?
“Mainly I teach people how to get a better control of their instrument. Most of the teaching I do is getting rid of habits that people have developed. The way I like to work is to try to get an unobstructed flow of breath through the [vocal] cords, the sound coming out naturally. And usually it’s about hearing what people are doing to constrict the sound. It’s often tension that is the root of everything that’s wrong. That applies to all instruments but it’s particularly obvious in singers. You can hear if you have some tension in the back of your throat or your tongue, or in your neck. So I try to bring someone back to the natural way of singing, the natural way of letting out more sound. I don’t train people to be a classical singer, I just try and get them to find their natural voice. That’s how I work. And I have people of all standards, some people that are really great professional singers and some that are absolute beginners.”
Why do you like jazz, compared to the other things that you do?
“As a singer, all of my work is highly rehearsed. I’ll get the music, it will often be very difficult so I’ll learn all the notes at home. Then I’ll have a gruelling rehearsal with a conductor or musical director and we’ll work maybe two to three six-hour days of rehearsals. Then you go away on tour, and when you stand up on stage you know it, you’ve got it in your voice and you nail it. It’s just a case of trying not to be too nervous and hoping that your voice is in good trim, which it hopefully will be if you’re working at it all the time.”
“I like to come to The Brunswick Jazz Jam because it completely takes me out of my comfort zone. When you get up on the stage you don’t know who is going to be playing and often you think ‘Oh that group of people – I’d like to work with them’ and then you get up on stage and they’ve all changed. For me that’s quite a good thing because it takes you more to where jazz is, which is very much in the moment. It can work and it’s very transient, that thing that makes it work. Sometimes it just does. It’s quite hard to recreate that. I know that from working with Dave. We’ll do a song that hits the spot, It’ll be just great. And the next time it’ll just be different. You try and recapture that moment and you can’t, and then another song, you don’t know why, will work. And really that’s the live music experience, being there in the moment, particularly working with someone like that, who is great and will never play the same thing twice. And it forces you to really listen and just to try to be open to what you can create in the moment with that person.”
“That’s what’s wonderful about jazz. It’s hard to rehearse improvising. You can rehearse your chords. For a singer you can make sure that your charts are really good, you can practise the song, think about the lyrics, really try to get to the heart of what you’re trying to say but then in the moment when you’re in front of an audience, that’s just something that you cannot predict. And it’s scary as hell for a singer like me where most of my work is so well-rehearsed. Especially if you try to scat. For me if you expect to hear a certain chord and you set off on some melisma thinking you know what’s coming and then that particular chord doesn’t come behind you. I wouldn’t say it sounds wrong but maybe it’s not the best harmonic combination that it can be.”
Do you find it hard tackling improvisation?
“I’d like to do more of it. It’s hard to get good at improvisation unless you’re doing gigs all the time. I like trying it but I’m not sure if I’m always successful. I’ve got a good understanding of the chords underneath me and that’s a good place to start. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have to say, Dave Newton does not like singers doing improvisation! I force him to let me do at least one song a gig where I’m absolutely going to scat on that one. I’ll tell him ‘I’m doing a solo on this’ but I know he doesn’t love it and because he’s so bloody good at it, it makes me scared of doing it, but I force myself.”
“That’s what’s great about somewhere like The Brunswick, you don’t know who you’re going to work with and sometimes it’s magical. It’s not always the same people that are great. People really surprise you. Somebody who’s not very experienced will get up and do something that just works and connects with the audience. That’s what I like about jazz –you can’t fake it – it’s a lot about honesty with what you’re doing. For a singer you have to be clear about what you want to say and really try to be honest with the way you say it, then people either connect with it or not.”
Are there any questions that you’d like to be asked?
‘Why don’t I do more jazz?’
“I basically started training in a Bognor Regis holiday camp. I was a function singer and I used to do shows at school, you know, music theatre stuff. And then I got into Chichester to do the Music A-level course and I was only allowed to do that if I did maths as well (that was my Dad being strict). So I did the double music course and I never really thought I’d do it for a living but then I happened to get a teacher who encouraged me to apply for music college in London and, amazingly, I got in. From that point on I wasn’t allowed to sing any jazz at all, for three years – or any notes below middle C, just because my teacher was trying to fix the damage I’d done to my voice belting out songs. From then on I’ve been classically trained but soul and jazz have always been things that I’ve listened to for my own pleasure. It just so happens that I’ve slipped into specialising in contemporary music with orchestras. Also lots of a capella music. I specialise in close-harmony singing (10 years in the Swingle Singers) and I do a lot of session work like that. But what I really, really love to do is jazz. The unfortunate thing is, it’s very difficult to make a living as a jazz singer. It’s a notoriously badly paid part of the music industry and that’s strange because you have to be extremely, extremely good, and also well connected, to get gigs. So I do jazz singing because I love it. And I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great people and I always try to – and that’s a really good tip – always surround yourself with the best musicians you possibly can. That often means that I don’t get paid much doing jazz gigs because I’ll pay the band more so that I can have the best people working for me.”
“For my ‘job’ I do a lot of recording. Recording film soundtracks, backing singing for albums, TV things. That’s my bread and butter work, which I’m very grateful for. I also do a lot of baroque music as well. That’s another thing I’ve been lucky enough to get into quite late in my career. I think jazz and baroque music are quite similar, vocally, because they’re all about colour and there’s a surprising amount of improvisation. Often, especially in baroque music, you don’t use a lot of vibrato and that is quite true in jazz, too. I see vibrato in baroque music as an ornament that you use to colour the sound and mostly to be more expressive. So, personally, I think vibrato is something that you should be able to control, or choose to use. You hear it a lot with instrumental players when you listen to them, they hold a note straight and then warm it up towards the end of the note. A lot of singers can’t control it and many have a tremor caused by tension.”
Heather Cairncross performs at Chichester Jazz Club on Friday 21st February, 2014 with Dave Newton and Steve Thompson.
The Brunswick Jazz Jam is every Tuesday evening, hosted by guitarist Paul Richards.
Heather’s album, At Last, with Dave Newton is available from her website:
(Photo of Heather Cairncross performing at The Brunswick Jazz Jam courtesy of Mike Guest)