LOU BECKERMAN IN CONVERSATION WITH LIANE CARROLL
World-class jazz vocalist, pianist and composer Liane Carroll has been interviewed at length in the media and yet I received a characteristically warm response (‘Yes, yes and thrice yes, darling’) to my request for this interview from a singer’s perspective.
I went to meet her in her beloved home town of Hastings, which has witnessed the blossoming of her impressive career. I have long admired Liane, not only for her prodigious talent but also the remarkable and engaging persona behind it, and I was looking forward to gaining insights into her approach, which other vocalists /instrumentalists might find valuable.
How fortunate are we to have prize-winning Liane here on the South Coast. With equal measures of great technique, vocal agility and superb interpretation she has won many awards including Best Female Jazz Vocalist, Ronnie Scott’s Award; was twice winner of BBC Jazz Awards and more. She performs widely, collaborates with universally famous musicians and has recorded several albums to critical acclaim from her first Billy No Mates in 2003 to Ballads in 2013. She teaches in the UK, France, Portugal and Hawaii.
Liane, although you have a natural talent, this level of musicianship doesn’t just happen – you’ve obviously worked hard at your craft. Have you learned from listening mostly to vocalists or horn players and were there any particular musical influences and inspirations?
I started learning piano at three because I loved the idea of it – pianos used to make me go funny. We didn’t have one – couldn’t afford one until I was six but I started learning seriously from about five years old, learning from the really sweet John Thomson books. Very simple techniques together with harmony and my brain got it. So I had that going on parallel to listening to all sorts of singers and horn players. Lots of people influenced me early on – the singer Vic Damone. He was amazing – incredible. I loved his work. He did lots with the Count Basie Orchestra. My mum had lots of different music on all the time from Stan Kenton to Sibelius, Motown, Beatles, everything. I loved all kinds of music. But the big band stuff that I heard then was the one. I was about six and I used to stop and really listen rather than it being just background. I think it’s a really good thing to play as much different music as possible to your kids and then they might just suddenly click with one or two things. All the influences that I had were from that collection.
Did your family recognise your musical talent and encourage you?
They were incredibly encouraging. We were a musical family anyway. My nan played the piano; my mum and dad were both singers – they met playing in Eastbourne. My sister, Linda, five years older than me, was singing too. My nan was a real matriarch and like a terrier she would make sure I did my practising.
I had piano lessons to grade eight. And then when I was about sixteen I preferred playing jazz. None of my teachers were really interested in jazz so therefore they weren’t that interested in me – I wasn’t a budding concert pianist and I didn’t have the talent for that. So the jazz is self-taught. I just loved to play and I played well enough to accompany myself. Still learning that bit! I get very nervous playing the piano in front of other pianists.
You are not afraid to sing through tears or show your vulnerability. Is such raw emotion ever too much for you? Do you ever feel there is a fine line between allowing the emotion to give voice to a song and it actually sabotaging your performance?
No – though I have been in that position. About ten or fifteen years ago, when I was really quite raw, if I did a Tom Waits song I was finished – it took it all out of me. Someone said to me ‘Why do you put so much into a song?’ Why not! No matter how painful it is just keep doing it. I’ve had students who are crying and can’t get through a song so I just make them sing it again and again so it’s still there, but you can get through it. There’s a really famous scene in Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis where he finds his wife is dying with terminal cancer. He had to do this scene eleven times before he could just be crying rather than on the floor in a completely paralysed state and I think it’s like that…if a song makes you feel this way just keep playing it. I’ve managed to control it a bit now but in earlier years I didn’t want to. I didn’t really worry about what the consequences might be. I don’t think it would ever sabotage my performance. When I listen to things I want to hear someone’s heart over-spilling into the song – then the deeper it affects me.
What motivates you?
The thought of being paralysed if I don’t do something motivates me. I’ve been through my demons and had depression in the past. I’m still physically not moving as fast as I’d like to move and sometimes my brain works a lot faster than my body does and then I feel like a puppy falling over itself. Even if I feel not well physically and I feel I can’t do a gig, once I sit down at the piano and start singing I feel all right. It still might hurt but I just feel more natural to be there than not doing it.
And the actual idea of doing it motivates me – not the ambitious side of it. I’ve probably frustrated a few people along the way with my lack of ambition but I’m not swaying from that. I’m really happy with my lot. I’m happy with where I live. I love my family and my friends. I’ve been all over the world playing and I hope to do more. That’s all I hope to do – to carry on doing what I’m doing and getting better on the piano.
You’ve been a professional performer since aged 15 and you are now, at 49, at a high in your career. You have so much experience and there are still many chapters of your life and career to come. It appears the world is at your feet…
I’ve been really lucky as well as working hard. It’s a wonderful place to be and it means working with lots of different musicians which is lovely. But it doesn’t stop me getting really scared of playing in front of them which is great – I like that. I think I’d be a bit arrogant if I didn’t.
I don’t get scared to sing in front of anyone but I do get scared to play the piano. I just have a different head on when it comes to playing. With the singing I know that I can pretty much do it. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way but I know I can pretty much get to where I want to be quite quickly – through practice – through years of work. With the piano I just go blind now and then and my fingers turn into concrete.
You have an immense loyalty to Hastings. You and the town appear to have a mutual love/love relationship. Has growing up in Hastings influenced your music or you as a person?
I feel passionately protective of Hastings. It’s a beautiful and strong town with such rich history. It’s such a social as well as artistic melting pot with poets /writers/ painters / sculptors and musicians together with the fishing community – a whole celebration of a town. It’s not precious and just gets on with it in a lovely way. It’s definitely influenced me as a person and I’m proud to be part of it. I’ve been playing at Porters for an incredible twenty-five years now!
(You can hear Liane at Porters Wine Bar, 56 High Street, Hastings Old Town, on Wednesday evenings when she is in town. www.porterswinebar.com)
What’s so special to you about jazz?
Jazz is so enormous – it’s very embracing. It’s also real and you have to put the work in. The romantic notion of what jazz is isn’t how it is at all. It can be so rewarding in as much as you can improvise and play with people and create something as you’re playing whether it’s within a form or whether it’s free-form. If you can get that communication going with each other and with the listener that’s the be all and end all. THE SONG IS THE BOSS and you have to respect that. Learn it inside-out, back-to-front and upside-down. You have to work hard at a song. Why perform it if it’s half-arsed! I find that difficult to be patient about. Some people don’t realise how hard it is to work but it’s there for everyone who wants to work hard. Even if you think you have a talent and don’t have to work so much that’s rubbish – you need to work harder to get the song in a comfortable place in your heart and soul so that it’s real and feels authentic to you when you sing it. It then becomes your story – even if you think in the third person – you have to connect with the lyrics. There are certain songs like Ain’t Misbehaving where you don’t necessarily have to connect with the lyrics – some are light, airy and beautiful – but then there are deep and beautiful ballads which I think were written for people to be moved by. These songs, to be portrayed in your own way, were so brilliantly written.
Your voice has such a rich and raw quality. You can dig deep into the depths and leap to the heights. Do you have any strategies to keep your voice in shape? Is your vocal health ever a concern or have you ever considered that your voice might not always be there for you?
Yes, I have nightmares about that. It’s only recently that I’ve taken more care of my voice. I went through the nineties and the noughts quite a wild thing – burning the candle at every single end – and then some. But I enjoyed that and have no regrets and my voice got through it. I remember starting a week at Ronnie’s once – headlining – and on the Monday night I was so excited it just all came out – I shot my load – everything – the week’s lot. And then on Tuesday I had a really husky voice but I managed to get through the rest of the week and pull it off. It’s about resourcefulness. You make use of what you have got. But I don’t really want to do that any more. I do tend to have honey now and I don’t drink alcohol any more so that’s a good thing. (I have time off sometimes but I won’t stress myself about that.) I’ve noticed that I’m enjoying my singing so much more.
You are a consummate story-teller in your songs. Is the most important thing for you to tell the truth and convey the emotive content of a song?
People are looking to be moved – to have an experience and to believe you. If they can trust you that’s the best thing. That’s why I get quite frustrated if I don’t believe a singer and it unfortunately has quite a negative effect on me. I don’t like it. I think ‘I don’t believe what you’re singing’. I can tell they don’t – they’re more worried about what they sound like. Which is fair enough – I’m not expecting everyone to be like me or do exactly what I say – it’s different for everyone but I do find myself becoming a bit finicky about this.
The most important thing is to tell the truth in a song; to do it in a way that people won’t forget (not me – but the way I’ve done the song). I just respect the song so much that when it comes out it’s as honest as it can possibly be. It’s the absolute and not a show. It seems like a dichotomy. We are in a business where we have to go up on stage and there are lights and people looking at you – you have to present yourself and talk to people and I find it very easy to talk to an audience as long as I can just be honest. I can be quite funny but I don’t mean to be. I’m really comfortable as soon as the song comes along – I’m in that mode. That’s how it is.
And what is it that you wish your audiences to take away from your performances?
Whether there are three people in the audience or thirty thousand it doesn’t matter – I want them to love it – not to love me but to love the experience and to be part of it. I like people to be moved. I like people to feel quite joyous. I like them to feel happy that they’ve come out to the gig. I get quite a lot of people coming up to me saying they didn’t really like jazz until tonight and I love hearing that. They suddenly realise that jazz is much bigger than they imagined it to be. Jazz can be so pigeon-holed and there are lots of different pockets but, on the whole, the jazz experience is ongoing. It’s perpetual and it has been since the birth of the blues and jazz. The suffering throughout the history of this music – of black people struggling – is so overwhelming and can’t be ignored. If you can put some of that soul and struggle that people have had over the years into a song and someone in the audience goes ‘I didn’t realise that was jazz’ – I like that.
What do you draw on to enhance this – your own life experiences or your imagination and your obvious ability to empathise? Or all of these?
All three come into it equally and it means that it opens up to interpretation. And I love that – being given a free hand as long as you keep the respect. I read through the lyrics and then I read through them again. Then, if it’s a new song, I read through the lyrics while reading the music for the melody. And I see how the song has been written and what it means. Imagination comes into it as does life-history. Obviously I’ve had some things in my life that I can relate to – that’s usually when I start making weird noises! If I haven’t had it happen to me I know there are people who have had these things in their lives so it becomes a third party and empathy thing. I do have a very vivid, brilliantly bright imagination which I enjoy. I don’t want that to disappear. Sound and vision is the thing for me. I do some library music and I like writing for things you can see.
You are held in very high regard as an accomplished pianist.
(Liane: ‘Am I really? I don’t really understand that’.) As a singer, are you happier when accompanying yourself or when accompanied?
Both – I’m so greedy in both respects. I like to do it myself because I know where I am going and I can completely control the situation of pianist and singer. And if I decide to fly off I am lucky that my hands and brain nerve endings are all attached and work at the same time. I am comfortable enough to accompany myself and I’m not letting anyone down – or only myself if I mess up. But I am also greedy for playing with these incredible pianists, as I have done over the years, and there are so many of them. So many and too many to mention all of them. More recently I’ve sung with Gwilym Simcock, Mark Edwards and Brian Kellogg – all just incredible. That becomes a complete joy as there is a lot of trust as well. They trust me to know what I’m doing so that they can do what they want. We’ll make the good music together. So it’s about communication and trust and I trust them implicitly. Even if it goes somewhere that I wouldn’t have gone it’s ‘Ah yes!’ And then I don’t try and copy that because I don’t know their chords. But that’s fine with me. I like the fact that lots of people play different styles or substitutions. I’m greedy for different players.
You easily stand alone as a musician but how important to you is musical collaboration?
Collaboration is incredibly important. I think collaboration is a wonderful part of jazz – or any music. For instance the amazing Mark Edwards – who just sweats goodness and love and passion and beauty – has been kind enough to play on two of my albums, and it’s also been an honour to sing on his new album In Deep.
It seems to me that you are an enthusiastic champion of people’s artistic / creative endeavours and you create opportunities for them. I’ve seen you, as a teacher, draw out with loving encouragement the very best in people. I also see that you are much-loved by all from young students just about to begin their musical studies to very seasoned professionals – all happy to and feeling that they can learn from you. How important is teaching to you?
I am passionate about teaching. It’s become more important as the years go by. I’m really grateful to be able to offer something. It really matters to help. I’m not a qualified teacher; I’ve never been to teacher training college and that’s why I deal mostly with interpretation – because I know that from experience.
Speaking from a singer’s perspective, there’s been so much slightly messy history of a divide between instrumentalists and singers; bad open mics when there’s no communication. That’s what gets me. It happens equally on both sides. So I’ve been on a mission in a way to try to bridge that gap – communicating and talking about bringing everything together.
I know some stage nerves can take over but if you are prepared enough nothing will go wrong. What’s the worse that can happen? Make sure you’ve got charts for whoever is playing with you. It might be a house band that you’ve never met before. Get it off to a good start by looking them in the face. A lot of people are so nervous they become socially paralysed. They are thinking just about their song, and the pianist, bassist and drummer are just like nameless, faceless people who are just going to play their song. It shouldn’t happen and it’s not a good start. They are not going to go away thinking they’ve had the best communication. Know the song backwards. Know how to count it in and what tempo you want. Take your time with the tempo. Wait until you are comfortable. Don’t feel rushed by anyone. Just say “One minute, please – I know how I want to count it in”. Then sing it as well as you can for you, for the audience and for the people you are playing it with. They are not just backing you; you are playing with these people to make this music so it all becomes a really nice together thing. That doesn’t always happen, but it would be nice if it did.
So I keep striving to get inside the song. People have been told they can’t sing. They’ve been told to shut up in their past. I’ve noticed with a lot of women and men and it digs really deep. It stays there. I work a lot with musicians Sophie Bancroft and Sara Coleman. We love working and teaching together as a team as we have different strengths to offer in terms of general content. One project is a summer school in France which I would never dream of missing.
We are running a weekend workshop in Hastings, 7th – 9th February, 2014, with a performance at Porters Wine Bar on the Sunday lunchtime. (See details at end of article.)
There is always a buzz of energy about you; you gig almost continuously and go on tour. There must be times when you are tired and have to perform, and performing can sometimes be a lonely place. What sustains you and how do you maintain your energy?
I’m not doing as many long tours now as I used to. I’m finding as I get older I get homesick a little more quickly – which is a lovely feeling as well.
I’m very lucky – for some reason there’s a chip in me that as soon as I start the first song I’m there. Even if I’ve been crying – when I was depressed – and I’ve suffered from depression. I’d be not really sharing it with anyone but feeling so horrible and worthless to go up on stage. I’d go up and think ‘Right, let’s get this over and done with’ – really cynically – and then half-way through the first song all those negative feelings just disappeared. I was the same person but all those feelings dispersed and maybe the protective calm embrace of the music took over and I let it. That happens. I don’t want to rely on it or think about it consciously because then I might wait for it one day. It’s like if you want to get drunk you can’t get drunk. I used to find that in my Olympic drinking days (when it wouldn’t even touch the sides). My head is in a much better place now – chemically more properly balanced and I don’t mind talking about all that. I’m pretty open about all that. There might be other people out there as well who feel like this.
How do you balance your music work-load with other obligations – family/ friends? Do you keep them separate or are your music and life interwoven?
My family life is great and we all get along so well. Everyone knows I’m married to Roger (Roger Carey – bassist) but we manage to keep a very private life which is great. Obviously I’m not the sort of person that people want to intrude on. Everything else I share completely. I don’t feel worried about that. I’ve never suffered from embarrassment – not often anyway.
It’s never been straight forward though. Looking back I could have been there more. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s been hard to balance and hasn’t been perfect. We’re getting there now. My daughter and I get on really well. My mum lives just ten minutes down the road. Roger and I are learning things that I have taken twenty-six years to realise. Things are starting to get OK now with everything so I’m really looking forward to this age thing – this whole life thing that we have. I’m realising that I am enjoying getting older. I’m embracing it and really liking it. I’m feeling more comfortable the older I get. Comfortable in my skin. I was jumping out of my skin for so many years but I’m back in there now.
You are spontaneously quick-witted and can be very funny. You can make us laugh and cry in a split second. Of course laughter and tears are very closely woven…
Yes – that’s probably why I’ve done it – protecting myself and then it just became a habit. I have that awful, really bad habit of laughing at my own jokes that I think are hilarious. And even the fact that no-one else laughs makes me laugh because then I can talk tumbleweed and bring out even older jokes. So I’ve got a slightly perverted angle on humour. I can’t pretend to be anything. Maybe it was a protection thing for me when I was depressed and I hadn’t realised that yet. Now I’m not depressed and it’s funny trying to make people laugh in-between songs just with a really random joke I’d heard. And I think ‘well I’m up here and I might as well have a go at a joke’ and that makes me laugh – just the whole ridiculousness of it.
Do you ever feel the pressure to be funny or present a particular persona, or can you always be your authentic self?
If someone says to me, ‘We need you to be funny for ten minutes’ I would probably sit in the dressing room crying. I can’t do that. There’s no way I could go on stage and just be funny – I wouldn’t know how to do it. As soon as someone asks me to be funny I suddenly become a petulant teenager and I refuse to smile.
What about composing? Are you writing generally?
Not at the moment. I have a discipline problem with that. I can’t sit down and start writing. I accidentally wrote some lyrics when I was writing a lot with Tony Coleman from Hospital Records and London Elektricity. He gave me a tune and on the train I came up with these lyrics. They were just flowing out and he said “Oh these are great.” It turned out they weren’t mine – they were just from the back of my mind – subliminal – from a song I’d done fifteen years previously. That upset me so much that I don’t think I’ve written since because I’m terrified of that happening again. That’s the power of the subliminal brain. It really freaked me out. This was over ten years ago and so I haven’t really written in ten years. I’m not that interested in writing at the moment. Maybe one day I will. I like writing with people but just having to write lyrics on my own I’m so scared that’s going to happen again. It was a horrible feeling. I started thinking about everything else I’d written. I went through everything and luckily they were genuinely from me.
And the piece Billy No Mates which is piano with a tiny bit of vocal input. Such a painfully and beautifully moving piece without words…
That was just an instrumental improvisation in the studio – I just thought of a Billy no mates and it was the first thing that came out. I love it that you love it – that’s brilliant.
James McMillan of QM Recording Studio feels it is important to document, by recording, the phenomenon that is Liane Carroll for the jazz world. Do you have this sort of belief in yourself?
No – obviously I don’t. That’s very nice of him. James is wonderful and we’ve made some lovely records together. First I must say that Roger inspired me to play better and sing better both just by his being and by my being in love with him. He’s such a ridiculously talented player. And the fact that we’re together I still pinch myself about it because I was really quite in love with him very early on and I just thought he was out of my league. He’s remarkable and plays all over the place and I think he’s the one that’s most talented. He’s really helped me and I’ve found him very inspirational.
What creative process do you use for your song choices? Is it primarily emotionally or musically driven? Do you have favourite song-writers?
It’s just what I like. All Cole Porter. Of course Laura Nyro – I think she’s my favourite. And some of Tom Waits. There’s some Bob Dylan I love and Jimi Hendrix. I love lots of different things in different people. I’m really glad I don’t have one particular thing. That’s why I’m greedy again. I like loads of it. It just has to touch me. I’ve got some lovely CDs at home that I haven’t even listened to yet. Just old LPs I’ve been given – Dinah Washington, Shirley Horne – I’m just trying to make some time to listen to them.
How do you handle “mistakes” in a performance? Do you ever consider that there are “mistakes” on stage?
Yes – I let them become little butterflies. They just fly around the stage like glow worms. I have no worries about it unless I’m playing with someone else and doing a professional job – then hopefully you don’t fuck up. But if it happens on my watch, as it were, with my band I quite relish it. I think it’s fun. It’s part of the process.
You appear equally at ease in both intimate and enormous gig settings.
Absolutely I don’t know where that confidence has come from but yes, it’s calmness. That’s absolutely fine.
Do you have a preference?
No there’s the old greed again – I love doing everything. Porters is my favourite gig in the world. I’m so comfortable there and there are always amazing people.
Are you ever shy or nervous and what do you do to handle nerves?
Nerves can suddenly kick in when just don’t expect them. Those are the ones I hate. I don’t get it often now and I’ve had lots of people ask me how I deal with it and there are certain ways. Breathing helps (just breathing – not even deep breathing – don’t fall over!). Realise what you’re nervous about and go over the positives of why you’re there and why you’re doing it. Think ‘You wanted to do this…why are you feeling nervous about it…’. If the nerves are in my tummy – like butterflies in the stomach – I’d use that and just imagine it’s a ball of sound that’s just whirring round. It might sound daft but I use this whirring ball of sound and it does work. Then there are four or five bars of the highest vibrato you’ll ever hear but then it all just calms down. Again once you’re in the song, that’s it. It’s just the bit before that’s so horrible – lots of clenching and trying to smile and your face goes a bit funny. So the nerves can hit me – out of the blue – not related to anything relevant. It hits everyone and would be surprising if it didn’t. It’s good to get nervous and work out ways of getting over it. Because I’ve been nervous so many times I’m better at getting over it now I think.
Advice to give an aspiring jazz vocalist?
It’s being disciplined enough to do the ground work in order to achieve that freedom within a song. To do as much work as you can – doing the right sort of work – really making sure that you’re singing in tune. Listen back to yourself all the time even if you hate doing it. You might not want to do it but do it – it’s important. I listen to my singing to improve. Doing enough work so that you get to this position (which I’m still aiming for as well) where you have this utter freedom when you start singing this jazz music which has evolved from music from around the world. It’s evolved from suffering and slavery. It’s like a magnet and it’s collected so much along the way. It’s all sticking to it and it’s all brilliant and I love the diversity of it. It’s so enormous for such a tiny word and if you just want to sing it it can be like a cry to the wind. It’s such a glorious thing to do that I think if you are prepared enough and to let yourself go with it– open your heart a bit – which can be exposing – but think ‘I’m going to do it anyway’ and take that step – that’s that. As long as you’ve got the groundwork done. And the groundwork isn’t boring – it’s just as glorious. It’s brilliant because you’re getting to learn a song and what can be better than that. So you can just fill your time learning all the aspects of the song and then you suddenly think ‘right – I’m ready to sing this now’ – and that’s the moment when it’s the most free. It’s beautiful.
For details about the upcoming workshop in Hastings, 7th – 9th February, 2014, visit http://www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops
Liane’s website: www.lianecarroll.com
Lou Beckerman is a Sussex-based jazz vocalist currently working on her new album, Into the Blue which will be available early in 2014.
[Photo: Liane Carroll at Porters in Hastings, where she has played for twenty-five years. Parts of the original piano were used by local artist Lee Dyer to make this work of art which hangs on the wall. Photo courtesy of Lou Beckerman.]