1 September 2019

Imogen Ryall Interview

Vocalist Imogen Ryall has been part of the UK jazz scene for a growing number of years. Here she talks to Charlie Anderson about her work as a lyricist and her latest project Anöna Trio.


When Claire Martin recorded an album with guitarist Jim Mullen last year, in tribute to Wes Montgomery,
it featured lyrics written especially by vocalist and lyricist Imogen Ryall. “It was very exciting to be asked by Claire Martin to contribute lyrics. I actually wrote about four lots of lyrics to four tunes by Wes. Some of them didn’t make the cut for various legal reasons but the one that did make the cut was a tune that was actually by his brother Buddy Montgomery called Bock to Bock, which the brothers recorded as the Montgomery Brothers in the Fifties.”

Following the success of that recording, Claire Martin asked her to write lyrics for her 2019 album, Believin’ It. “Claire asked me to write the lyrics for an Andy Bey solo. It’s actually a tune by Richard Waymans called Half and Half, but the lyric to the main body of the song was written by a fantastic lyricist and musician, Herb Jordan. Claire really wanted to do this song and she asked me if I would write a lyric to Andy Bey’s scat solo, which I very happily did. It’s what you would call vocalese, which I really enjoy doing. It’s like fitting pieces into a puzzle, to actually make the words make sense, and fit exactly with the melody. I like to really stick as close to the original phrasing as I can.”

Ryall has been writing song lyrics for a while now, and it’s something that she has done with Mark Edwards’ The Cloggz, the Julian Nicholas Band and her new band Anöna Trio. “It usually starts with the fact that I like a composition. I like singing wordlessly. I really enjoy it and I do a lot of that with Julian Nicholas’ Band and also with Anöna Trio. I really like how sometimes a lyric will present itself. A title quite often gets my imagination flowing.”

Anöna Trio have recently released their debut album, One January Morning, which has a mixture of tunes by the likes of Carla Bley, Wayne Shorter and Brad Mehldau, and two compositions by Julian Nicholas. Most of the songs feature words written  by Ryall, except for the opening track Food of Love, a piece by Julian Nicholas. “I have actually written words for Food of Love but I wrote words for it after we recorded it, so hopefully sometime I’ll be able to record those.”

Ryall’s lyric writing process involves approaching a song from different angles. “I don’t always start at the beginning, and I like to find different themes. I do search Google for a title. In fact Julian’s tune One January Morning I literally googled that title and found various things. One particular news report, an airplane collision that happened somewhere over South America. Quite a devastating thing that happened, literally the title of the piece was One January Morning. So there is some of that in that lyric, although it’s ostensibly about feeling a bit lost but having come through something and trying to make sense of where one’s been, where one is and where one is going. The phrase ‘When the sky ignites vermillion’ is actually a reference to that explosion, as well as talking about how the sun is coming up. Not that I’m trying to be too clever-clever, but I do like to have layers of different themes if I can.”

Despite her years of experience in writing lyrics, Ryall still doesn’t view herself as a lyricist. “I still
think of myself as making up words. Sometimes I find it hard to consider myself a lyricist when I think of
some of my heroes: people like Joni Mitchell, Donald Fagen, Leonard Cohen, Ira Gershwin. All amazing lyricists. Ira Gershwin was known as ‘The Jeweller’ because of his incredible capacity to fit words to mainly his brother’s compositions. He did write with other people, Fascinatin’ Rhythm being an example of that. The way he was able to stick to the melody, really trying to be true to the composition, and what the composer was trying to do. He liked it that way round, being able to fit his words so precisely and so cleverly, and with such wit and humour and pathos. Incredible.”

Ryall’s latest project, Anöna Trio, came out of her work with Mark Edwards’ The Cloggz and features Mark Edwards on piano and Julian Nicholas on saxophones. “The three of us definitely talked about having a similar taste. While we were doing Cloggz there were things that we wanted to do, that didn’t really fit the Cloggz thing necessarily.

Peter Morris, who runs the lunchtime concert programme at All Saints Church in Hove, played a role in the formation of the band. “He wanted to have The Cloggz but we couldn’t get everybody together for one of the lunchtime concerts. So I said to him ‘what do you think about doing it as a trio’ and he said ’yes, that would be great’, so we did it. We weren’t called anything at that stage. The sort of material we picked was wanting an acoustic feel, and using that church acoustic. It definitely is a nod to Azimuth, the trio with Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor. I was such a fan, so I like working in that kind of musical environment. After the gig, a few people were very complimentary and said ’there’s an album there’. So I thought, ‘well, actually, let’s record as a trio’.”

Coming from a theatrical family, it made sense to name the band after an actress. “I got the idea from the name of an actress, singer, dancer and composer from the 1920s and 30s, called Anona Winn. She was an Australian actress, but she ended up in Hollywood and then in the UK in later life. I added the umlaut over the ‘o’ just to make it really clear, because somebody asked ‘is it pronounced a-nonn-a?’. I wasn’t trying to be fancy-pants about it. We went through a few different names but that one seemed to stick.”

Ryall has plenty of ideas for future projects. “I really want to do something with Sara Oschlag. I asked her if she wanted to be involved in what I’m calling ‘Words of Winstone’, which is all the songs that Norma Winstone has written words to. So I’ve been sourcing it, and there’s really an incredible amount of stuff she’s written.”

“Also, an idea I had was ‘Strings on a Page’, which is music by guitarist composers, like John Scofield and Bill Frisell, that I’ve written lyrics to. So that’s another project but they’re just ideas at the moment.”

At Palm Court Pavilion in Worthing on Sunday 8th September, Imogen will pay tribute to Peggy Lee, Doris Day and June Christy. “I’ve called it Celebrating the Blonde Bombshells of Song. Christy is not so known but an amazing singer. They all are, actually. Doris Day did a jazz album with Andre Previn. She’s just got jazz timing, she was definitely of a jazz sensibility, and Peggy Lee obviously. June Christy had a unique sound which was quite husky. She was quite a troubled person but left a pretty good legacy. Although she was never very happy with anything she did, apparently, except for her first album Something Cool. She really liked that particular recording.”

You can also see Imogen Ryal performing at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 13th September with the Julian Nicholas Band which will also double as a belated album launch date for Anöna Trio. “We’ve had a
bit of a personnel change because Mark Edwards isn’t available. We’ve got Liam Noble, which is really good (not that Mark isn’t brilliant, he’s just busy). There’s also Mike Pickering on drums and Tim Robertson on bass, so it’ll be nice. We’ll be doing some Anöna Trio songs from the album as well.”

“I’ve got a few things lined up for Anöna. It relies quite nicely on the acoustic, and a church acoustic really is perfect. So we’ve decided to do specific venues, and most are churches. We’ve got a couple next year in March at St. Luke’s and one at St. Mary’s in Kemptown.”

When asked about what she thought of Claire Martin singing her words, Imogen is full of praise. “She toured the Wes Montgomery project last year and it really is great. My god, what an interpreter of a lyric. She’s incredible. It’s a masterclass watching her performing. It’s moving, she tells the story. She knows exactly how to deliver a lyric and giving it the full meaning and intensity and emotion. I’ve learnt so much and I’m very glad to call her a friend. We’ve worked quite closely on both those projects, and hung out and it’s been amazing. Hearing her singing my lyrics in Ronnie Scott’s, it doesn’t get much better than that, to be honest.”


Imogen Ryall: Celebrating the Blonde Bombshells of Swing

Palm Court Pavilion, Worthing

Sunday 8th September, 2019

Julian Nicholas Band

The Verdict, Brighton

Friday 13th September, 2019


Interview by Charlie Anderson

Photography by Lisa Wormsley

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