Simon Wallace and Sarah Moule Interview
Lou Beckerman in conversation with Simon Wallace and Sarah Moule, prior to their gig at The Verdict, Brighton on 4th November, 2017.
Simon Wallace is a seasoned composer, pianist, arranger and producer. He has performed all over the world and it’s been said that ‘when he plays the piano it’s as if there’s a whole orchestra playing’.
Sarah Moule has a long-established reputation as one of our most exciting jazz vocalists. With her rich sound and eloquent song interpretations she has sung with many of Britain’s foremost jazz musicians.
Sarah and husband Simon’s twenty year musical collaboration has seen them appear together at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Club, the Southbank Centre and in theatres, festivals and jazz clubs all over the UK.
It was a delight to meet with these two open, thought-provoking, witty and warm musicians with a wealth of insight and interest. This is an abridged version of our interview that day at their East Dulwich home and studio.
I first met Simon Wallace with Fran Landesman [Spring Can Really Hang You up The Most] in May 2010 at London’s Purcell Room. Simon then, extremely generously, sent me the music for some of his and Fran’s yet unpublished songs to try out. We met once again, soon after Fran’s death (she died in 2011), when he was playing a gig with Barb Jungr at the Brunswick in Brighton.
I remember you saying then, Simon, that you had bin bags full of lyrics and songs by you and Fran that hadn’t yet seen the light of day. I’m guessing these were some of the songs subsequently recorded by you and Sarah on your 2014 album ‘Songs from the Floating World’? Can you tell us about that album and its Japanese influence?
Sarah: When you start an album you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. The way we approached the project was to let the songs dictate. We weren’t trying for a certain stylistic box but what emerged was something that had a certain kind of ‘floating world’ vibe. Although ‘floating world’ is a Japanese reference it’s the milieu that, as artists, we all live in – a jazzy nightclub world. We felt that fitted and all of those songs hung together. I really enjoyed recording it and we felt that it just was of a piece.
Simon: It was a mixture of songs that we had recorded before, some standards and seven new ones which I’d written with Fran.
For me it has a very beautiful impressionistic feel and I particularly love the arrangements and breathy sound of the Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flute on Hell’s Angel and Men Who Love Mermaids.
Simon: I love the shakuhachi. I did a lot of work with a Japanese percussionist in my three years with the Lindsay Kemp Company. We toured all over the place playing a strange mixture of Japanese and improvised free music. He was playing shakuhachi. But the way I got into it was through a TV show called Japanese: Language and People by Clive Bell (who plays shakuhachi on the album). Through meeting him I toured the world, including Japan, playing Japanese music or a form of music incorporating Japanese elements called onnagata.
It’s an amazing culture and you truly have something of that in your album.
Sarah: That’s why we gave it that title – which came right at the end.
It seems, Sarah, that everything I read about you contains the words ‘class’ and ‘soul’. Sarah: ‘That’s nice.’ And about your voice: ‘a spectrum simultaneously tough and tender, warm and cool, sweet and salty’, and that you ‘live a lyric’. To me your phrasing is immaculate. You have a broad repertoire but what has to speak to you first when you pick your songs?
Sarah: Difficult to say why a song resonates with you. It either gets you or it doesn’t. When I met Si [Simon], I had just started dipping my toe into singing jazz. The fact that his and Fran’s songs were contemporary really appealed – I love singing contemporary lyrics. When learning songs, especially ballads, I’m often moved to tears and sometimes think ‘well, why is that making me cry?’ But it’s not the lyric that gets me first; it’s always the tune and sometimes it’s something in the harmony. I think the lyric works in a different way though it is important. I’ve always related to Si and Fran’s songs but I do sing other material like Great American Songbook. We’re just about to do five Ella shows out of town and we’re purely picking songs that we like.
One of the things I’ve loved about doing new songs that no-one has ever performed is not worrying about imitating anybody – to be completely free to just be myself and focus on getting the meaning of the sound and lyrics across.
It seems to me that Fran and Simon virtually wrote the songs for YOU to sing and that you have a particular empathy with them.
Sarah: What I think is so great about Si and Fran’s songs is that I find so many layers – like an onion. I hope that people can revisit them and find something new. Quite often I’ve got two meanings of a lyric in my head; so many lines are ambivalent. I think that’s why their songs clicked for me. They satisfy something in me that I want to do artistically. I’ve had the privilege of introducing a lot of them but I also want other people to sing them. Then I’m really happy.
During six years as featured vocalist with The John Wilson Orchestra, Sarah steeped herself in the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald singing arrangements of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
Do you still sing with big bands? ‘Sound of Seventeen’?
Sarah: In the summer I did my last official Sound of Seventeen gig. I had wanted to sing with a big band and the chance to do this regularly doesn’t come up that often. I did it for three and a half years and learnt such a lot from them.
I guess fitting in with a big band arrangement is a different craft altogether.
Sarah: It is – it’s really specific – to do with the type of music and arrangements – and how you phrase.
Do you have a preference… big band or smaller ensembles?
Sarah: Well, with a concert or symphony orchestra you feel time in a different way and it’s really beautiful. I love singing with full orchestra – to be surrounded by that sound. I sang with the BBC Concert Orchestra after I left John’s [Wilson] orchestra. John’s orchestra back then was basically a rhythm section with strings. It’s much bigger now but at that time it was 20-piece. Last year in Wales I sang with a symphony orchestra – a mixture of John’s charts with a rhythm section, and symphonic charts that Si had written with no rhythm section. It was fantastic – a totally different feeling of rhythm and time – nothing that you get when playing with a trio. I had this moment of ‘Oh, I love this!’ I really enjoyed it, and still do. I would love to do more but you can only do one thing at a time and I just have to do other things.
You grew up in Sussex?
Sarah: I was born in Bexhill and was there until I was 18. It’s quite groovy now, in its own sleepy way.
Can you tell our readers how you first got into jazz…
Sarah: I always knew I wanted to sing but didn’t really know any musicians when I moved to London after university. We always sung at home but I got into publishing and started working with songwriters. Then eventually I joined a soul band as a backing vocalist. The guitarist was sharing a flat with Tim Garland and he put this amazing 8-bar sax break on our first demo. I was not exactly shy, but lacking confidence and I was moaning about my voice being very sweet. He said ‘if you want some dirt in your voice go and see this girl Claire Martin’. I did and Claire also introduced me to Si.
Simon: It’s all her fault.
Sarah: Yes, it’s all Claire’s fault!
And the rest is history…
Sarah: Yes – well, it took a while. I was just working duos then. I didn’t work with Si, I worked with Christian Vaughan, Matt Skelton and Jez Brown – the first trio. That’s how I met John Wilson and joined him…But we’ve been working with Mick Hutton [bass] and Paul Robinson [drums] since the first album. They’ve been my band.
Sarah also created two biographical shows: ‘A Portrait of Peggy Lee’ and ‘When Peggy Met Ella’. Also ‘Songs for Scarlet Women’ – the story of the Femme Fatale.
Simon: We’ve been doing a lot just touring as a duo which is great.
What would you say is the special quality about a duo format?
Simon: It’s funny because working as a duo can give you as much freedom as with an orchestra because it’s much more dynamic. When you work with drummers the dynamic range is generally slightly less or sometimes hugely less. Most of the work I did with Barb Jungr for years was as a duo. Occasionally we’d augment it. I discovered you can be much louder as a duo because as soon as you bring in drums and amplified music, you have to consider the level of feedback and the feedback threshold is actually lowered. So working with just piano and voice, you intuitively think ‘oh, it’s a bit small; it’s quiet’ but it’s the complete opposite. You can be really, really loud and really, really quiet – can go from loud to quiet just like that and then back again.
Sarah: Drama. You can get incredible drama with it.
Simon: With Barb we did things like the Purcell Room but also a tour of Australia in big concert halls. And we never missed having a band at all. I remember one gig in Melbourne or Adelaide where we had an 8-piece band – and they were great. There was nothing wrong with the band (and a fabulous arrangement that I’d written!!) but it wasn’t as dramatic as with just piano.
Is there perhaps something about a spaciousness that you can achieve?
Simon: No, we don’t allow her any space. [laughter] The two piano players I’ve always really admired are Bill Evans and Duke Ellington – both in very different ways. With Ellington it is his sense of space. Silence in music…again it goes back to the Japanese thing. With Japanese music, silence is louder than the notes.
Sarah: And also there is a freedom which is great. Si and I work together a lot now so it’s really relaxed.
And that quality of listening that you have between you…
Sarah: Well, I hope so…
Sarah, along the South Coast we’re blessed with many talented jazz singers. As a vocalist interviewing another vocalist I’m interested (on behalf of them all) in whether you do anything in particular for your vocal health…
Sarah: Steam. I’ve started steaming daily at the moment because of winter, and, with a heavy schedule of all kinds of voice work this month, I want to look after my voice. If you steam you’re not supposed to talk for half an hour afterwards and not sing for about four hours so you’ve got to do it really early in the morning. People advise different things but it’s definite that you don’t steam and sing; you steam and shut up for a couple of hours. I always warm up and warm down. The warm down is as important, if not more so. It sounds like a puppy whine – for 2 or 3 minutes.
And the warm up?
Sarah: Always. But not hours – you don’t want to take all the energy needed for singing and put it in your warm up. Five minutes of tongue trills. Just like a stretch before you go running, and just as you stretch out when you’ve run, you must do a warm down. It’s the difference between your voice feeling cranky and feeling okay again very soon, especially if you’ve sung on a cold. Also I drink loads of water.
And have there ever been issues relating to your voice?
Sarah: When I got asthma in 2009 my voice disappeared. I wasn’t very well and I couldn’t sing. Apart from that I haven’t had anything induced by poor technique. I do revisit my technique pretty thoroughly because the pedagogy around voice production changes and moves on. You’ve got to keep interested and keep learning. I teach so it’s really relevant and I’m interested in the mechanics of how we produce sound. Some people just cross their fingers and do what they’ve always done but I want to be a bit more in charge partly because of the asthma which is cruddy for singing.
Simon, I understand you studied classical music at Oxford. How did you first get into jazz… was it your first love?
Simon: I came out of Oxford – which was totally classical – as quickly as I came in, to be honest, and moved to London to try and work as a piano player. All I wanted to do was play jazz and luckily, within a couple of weeks I got a job at the Blitz Club in Covent Garden with Rowland Rivron and Erica Howard. I found out, after I got the job, that I was the musical director, which had never been my intention. I’d thought ‘I’ll just play jazz in a nightclub’ which was complete fantasy but it led to a kind of epiphany when I was 24. I was sitting in a bar called Bradley’s in New York – this incredible jazz bar just north of Greenwich Village. It was 2am; I was somewhat worse for wear listening to the piano player, thinking ‘if you put a pin in a map, I’m exactly where I want to be in the world’ except I’m sitting at the bar and he’s playing the piano. And everything he played was what I played. I was thinking ‘why is he playing it and not me?’ The reason? He was much, much better than me. He was Tommy Flanagan. There was no way I would ever be as good as him. The next day I bought a copy of Village Voice and in it were the Oscar nominations. A film score that I’d written with Simon Brint, which I’d forgotten about, was nominated for an Oscar. So I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be a film composer – do that instead’ like you do at that age. In fact I didn’t get into film music but TV music instead.
Hearing African American music first got me into jazz. At school I heard a music teacher playing something and I asked what it was. He said, ‘It’s jazz, it’s called jazz’. So I went out and bought an album which was reduced (at three and sixpence) in Smiths called Great Jazz Pianists: Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. Later at interviews for Oxford I met Adrian Ellis and we got talking about music – we were both into jazz and completely obsessed with this music. We traced it back to this same record that we had both bought at exactly the same time. He ended up being executive director for Lincoln Centre Jazz.
Simon has a host of hugely successful long-term collaborations to his credit. During thirty years with musician Simon Brint he composed for many British best-loved TV comedy and drama programmes including ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Murder Most Horrid’, ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘London’s Burning’, ‘French and Saunders’ and so many more.
I played some of your TV clips and just listened to the orchestra musically interpreting the mood through sound. It’s not something we generally do – we focus on the performance in front of us. I guess your job is to make the music subtle enough not to intrude…
Simon: It’s quite a craft. The first thing Simon [Brint] and I ever worked on was the film A Shocking Accident with Rupert Everett which won the Oscar for best short film. Until then it had never crossed my mind to write film music. Simon had been doing musique concrete, before samplers, with tape loops. So he had an amazing flat in Islington and there’d be pieces of tape going round pencils and old Revoxes. He’d done something called Chance, History, Art which was quite an art school hit – all tape loops and weird sounds. The director went on to make this film and asked Simon to do the score. Simon then asked me to help him so we did it together. That’s how I got into film and TV music. With Simon I had about three projects on the go at any one time.
Sarah: It was manic. I used to worry. They just worked. They used to do 20-hour days. It was really…life-threatening.
Simon W. and Simon B. were also musical directors for TV appearances by Kylie Minogue, Boy George and just too many others to mention here! Collaborations with jazz vocalists include Clare Teal, Barb Jungr, Nicki Leighton Thomas, Ian Shaw, numerous others, and, of course, his wife and musical partner Sarah Moule. He was also commissioned to write two symphonic works for the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. He is Head of Composition at the London College of Creative Media.
What have you been working on recently?
Simon: I’ve been doing music for talking books. I composed a lot for Emma Thompson with her reading of the new Peter Rabbits. It’s interesting getting music to fit behind voiceover. We did some stuff recently with David Tennant called Sprites.
Your work spans so many genres. I think whatever you write has a clean, spacious and uncluttered quality though at the same time gorgeously textural. Is there a genre that is nearest to your heart?
Simon: Jazz. Which then begs the question: What is jazz?
Can you tell us?
Simon: African American art music of the twentieth century. What we play now is not really jazz; it’s a reaction to jazz. We’re not in the 20th century; we’re not African American. But jazz is the greatest inspiration. And there’s now a lot of great music which has come out of that, and continues to do so. I think it’s a mistake to think of yourself as a jazz musician because you have to be much more than that now. You have to be a performer; you have to assimilate.
To me jazz is music that’s got improvisation at its heart. What I loved about Ronnie Scott’s was that people would be booked for three weeks. You went to see someone on a Monday, then back on Wednesday and you’d see how it was going, then go back the next week. Or in New York you’d go to the 8 o’clock set and then back for the 3 o’clock set. Environments where things would interact, evolve and grow. If you have improvisation at your heart then you can’t say that you’re on for one night at 8pm to do a concert. We need come up with another way of describing what that is.
Jazz was always on the fringes – was never the mainstream. It was what happened after hours – Minton’s Playhouse and those incredible clubs in the forties on 52nd Street – and Birdland. But that whole culture was very, very short-lived. It blossomed and created this incredible music which changed the way people make music – and it sort of fizzled out. It was of its time.
I’ve never lost interest in the Great American Songbook. There’s this fantastic mixture that came out of African American music, European Jewish music and European classical music all melted together. And it’s all there in Gershwin and Jerome Kern and all the rest of them.
We do need to be open to what’s going on around us musically and culturally. If all you listen to is jazz, you’re not open to it. Look at what Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker listened to. It wasn’t jazz. Gillespie was very into African and Afro-Cuban music. One of the things that made me realise how important European classical music was to those guys was when I was looking at New York gig posters. One said Charlie Parker, then another would say Stravinsky, then Bartok. But it was Stravinsky conducting his own works and it was Bartok’s first performance of Concerto for Orchestra – things like that. And looking at the dates it would be Charlie Parker on a Monday, Stravinsky on a Tuesday, Thelonious Monk on a Wednesday. If we talk about Charlie Parker being influenced by Stravinsky, it wasn’t that he was buying the records – he was working in the same venues. Stravinsky went to hear Parker play and they were living in the same place, playing in the same settings. Bartok was writing; Paul Hindemith was writing. It was all happening at the same time in New York in the forties. And that’s why Parker was so great, because he was taking in all those influences. He didn’t think of himself as a jazz musician. Ellington never thought of it as jazz. And if you look at Ellington’s influences, they were ongoing. That’s why I keep going back to Ellington, because it’s always different.
Sarah: I think lots of people are thinking ‘what is jazz’ but that’s alright, because the music keeps moving on.
In 1994 Simon met the legendary American poet and lyricist Fran Landesman – a Beat Generation survivor who had moved with her family to Islington in 1964. For over eighteen years the Landesman/ Wallace collaboration gave rise to Simon’s settings to her lyrics for over 300 songs. The Observer once called them ‘one of the finest song-writing partnerships alive’. Together, Simon and Sarah have introduced and recorded many of these songs to critical acclaim and their work has been described as a ‘trio of talents’.
How would you describe your creative partnership with Fran?
Simon: Obviously it was a very long one. We’d talk about art and the relationship of it. You don’t want the listener to see you in the work of art; you want them to see themselves. So when you write a song it’s not to express yourself. When you listen to Fran’s songs there’s a lot of her in there but you don’t learn anything about Fran, you learn about yourself. She was putting herself into the songs not just so someone else would understand it but so she would understand herself.
I guess that’s what makes them so accessible. They’re everybody’s story.
Sarah: Yes, theme-wise they’re universal – not always about love – sometimes big themes or stupid themes.
How often did you meet?
Simon: Every Thursday.
Was it always productive?
Simon: Yes, it was. Unbelievably so.
Sarah: She was never boring.
I can’t imagine her ever being boring.
Simon: Occasionally we’d go round there socially but she’d usually go off into a corner and start writing even then.
The creative process never stopped…
Simon: She used to say about writing: ‘It’s the most fun you can have’. That’s what we were doing up until two hours before she died.
Sarah: Which is exactly how she would have wanted it. And she’d gigged the night before which is fantastic.
It was the essence of who she was.
Simon: Yes. I feel the same way about music as well.
Sarah: There she is, by the way [showing me a painting]. Can you see it properly, behind that big jug?
Simon: It’s by quite a well-known painter. He was staying with them and painted her while he was there.
It’s amazing. I haven’t seen one like that – of a young Fran Landesman.
Simon: The big jug was a wedding present from her.
Sarah: I think she bought it in Islington.
Simon: Fran left me the lyrics in her will. So if we don’t do something with them, and if she was wrong about there not being an afterlife, she’ll be back to haunt us, which would be a fate worse than death!
It’s wonderful that you have those – a legacy that will just go on living.
Sarah: She does live on – in her words. We’re still doing songs that haven’t been recorded yet.
Simon: But as she used to say ‘bringing a great deal of pleasure to remarkably few people…’
Can you tell me about your own working process here – do you work separately on musical ideas or stay in collaboration from the off? The results speak for themselves that you work hard.
Sarah: It’s much easier now but it wasn’t easy for me when we began because I was so far behind Si. He’d been working in music a long time before we met. But I really enjoy it now. At the moment we’re grabbing bits of time because there’s quite a lot going on, one way or another, for both of us individually and together.
Sarah: I seem to have lots of projects on and you’ve really got to make an album the priority, otherwise it doesn’t get made.
Simon: And we’ve got a studio at home, which ought to make it really easy. It’s the ‘builder syndrome’. If you’re a builder then you never get a new kitchen, so we are aware of that.
Sarah: We want to do too many things but one thing we do want is to carry on and finish the new album as soon as possible. I’m always excited about what the next thing is going to be. I haven’t written for a long time but that’s also something that Si and I think the time has come to do.
There are four albums: It’s A Nice Thought, 2002, Something’s Gotta Give, 2004, A Lazy Kind Of Love, 2008, Songs From The Floating World, 2014 and plans for their new collaborative album in spring 2018: About Time.
Brilliant title – ‘About Time’. Can you tell us about it and what we might look forward to? Will there be a taste of this in your gig at the Verdict?
Simon: It comprises a set of edgy, literate songs on a subject that affects us all – Time: its passing, memory, growing older, opportunities grasped and missed, and loves lost and found. Expect a bit of old, lots of new, something borrowed and some things mashed-up.
Sarah: I’m going to re-visit some of the first songs I heard when I met Si and Fran – and now’s the right time to do them. A number have quite heavy lyrics, but not in a bad way, just weighty. One called ‘Stormy Emotions’ was their very first collaboration, triggered by an article that Julie Birchill [who was married to the Landesmans’ son Cosmo] wrote about meeting Morrissey. Fran would start with something personal like that then she would go off into other stuff. We’ll do that in Brighton.
I again thank Simon for having generously shared with me those unpublished songs of his and Fran’s. Ever quick-witted, Simon replies: There are three requirements that you want in show business: good looks, genius and generosity. I don’t know if I’ve got all three – but if you’re good looking enough then you don’t have to be generous…
Is there one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring jazz musician emerging onto the scene today?
Sarah: You’re just a funnel through which the music passes. Especially for singers. When you get on stage it’s for the audience and it’s not about you. And I think that’s really sound advice.
Simon: Never leave your wallet in the dressing room.
Lou Beckerman, October 2017
Simon Wallace and Sarah Moule appear at The Verdict on Saturday 4th November, 2017.
For more information on Sarah Moule and Simon Wallace: