Posts from the ‘Performance’ Category

Covers vs Originals … ?

Many of us start life as creative, professional musicians with an absolute aversion to playing anyone else music ever at all. No way! We want to tell our own stories and have something original and unique to say that no-one else has. For others, it’s the opposite – not everyone is a natural at songwriting and composing and there is a fine career to be had just playing and interpreting what’s already been written.

 

I prioritise my own material 90%, confident to call myself in general terms a ‘jazz musician’ as the idiomatic jazz references in my work are unmistakable. Over the years I’ve found an increasingly interesting (and sometimes rocky) relationship between covers and original music and getting known for doing both.

 

Here’s my Top Ten (and somewhat random) Tips and crazy notions to navigate and have fun with the covers/originals balance.

 

  1. Never forget that what lies in your own brain, imagination and invention is your gift to the world. You have a duty to bring it forth. Original art is everything. You’ll know if you have something to say with your songs as they will write you – you won’t have a choice. Never block the flow, you will make yourself ill if you do. Trust that you have something to say and get out of the way of creation speaking through you!

  2. As a child, I was told off, (in a grudgingly admiring way) by my piano tutor for using our lessons to show her my own compositions. She wanted me to focus on the Purcell (yuk …) and Mozart (yawn …) that we had to study. In her head, this was clearly the concert pianist path. I was more interested in making up my own chord sequences, although I felt guilty for including a hooky progression from a current TV show…

  3.  It was at this point that she was more helpful and told me not to worry about little steals and derivations and that the famous composers quoted from each other all the time – both deliberately and unconsciously.

  4. One huge and obvious advantage of sticking to your own work is that the royalties and rights are yours. No need to negotiate or buy access or clear it with anyone before you record. If original work is your default process then you find yourself wanting to record a cover and then sell the resulting album, it can feel (and is) somewhat more complicated.

  5. An advantage of doing covers is that (for me) there is a blissful and much needed buffer zone of objectivity. What a relief to leave my own stories behind and put something less risky on the line! If the audience rejects it, (either the storyline or the melody) it’s so much less personal.

  6. Approaching and arranging  great popular standards can and will make you a better player and composer for your own stuff. Tackle John Coltranes ‘Giant Steps’ just for fun – it’s such a good theory lesson and can be treated and redone in endless ways. (A repertoire of classic covers also serves as ready teaching material.) Program your set so that you hit a new audience with 4 originals, then a really well known standard that shows off your skills but continues the theme. Like dominos, make sure they’re connected by something – subject matter/mood/tempo/key. If you can get your original songs mistaken for classics then this is a good thing and means you’re writing the standards of the future! I had a (not very pleasant but certainly interesting) post gig scenario once at the Isle of Wight jazz festival. A well known festival director accused me of plagiarising my own songs. He was drunk and out of order and quite aggressive. Horrible – but it was proof that my songs are strong!

  7. Unless the fee is really good, (weddings!) only choose covers that you genuinely love and will stand the test of time and endless repetition as part of your set. Be steadfast in refusing requests (to perform/arrange/prepare/record/deliver) popular songs that you honestly don’t like – it will erode your soul.

  8. Check out other musicians who’ve covered songs maybe more or less successfully than the original songwriter. What makes a great song? One that can be endlessly reinterpreted or one that is untouchable? I fell in love with Carmen McCraes version of ‘New York State of Mind’, then Oleta Adams version – long before I realised that Billy Joel wrote it. It’s a truly solid song, great melody, feel, structure and storytelling. Removed enough from the author that it can live an independent life. In my own set, I include a few K pop songs – which have been translated (into Japanese) for the (huge) Japanese market. One of these, ‘Juliette’ started off as ‘Deal With It’ released by ‘High School Musical’ singer, Corbin Bleu. Then K pop giants Seoul Media bought the rights and transformed it utterly for their top boy band ShinEE – but kept the melody and structure. (Geeks and enthusiasts, listen to the original HERE. The Korean cover/transformation HERE and the Japanese translation HERE.)

  9. Choose wisely – though if you fall on your face, that’s half the fun. I refuse to do Joni Mitchell covers, despite being asked. To ‘superfans’, she is an immortal (rightly so!) and only Joni can do Joni. Likewise Prince – if you attempt it, better do it right! When choosing a cover, have fun taking it as far away from its original incarnation as you can. Mess with the tempo and instrumentation. Strip everything back to the song. See if you can take an industrial metal number and redo it for acoustic jazz guitar. Check out Amy Winehouses version of The Beatles ‘All My Loving’ – which in my opinion is better than the original.

  10. In these days of social media and Youtube – well placed (and non copyright infringing) cover versions and treatments of other artists songs can really work in your favour by drawing fans into your world, your website, your mailing list. The next generation of music lovers is always growing up in waves, discovering the great artists for the first time – they may be led to your version first – or next – through search engines, key words and hash tags.

No one has covered my work to my knowledge. How would I feel … I think I would hate it! I want to be the unique legend that non-one else can do! (But one day I guess it might happen.)

 

Here’s a clip of me singing ‘Feeling Good’ (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly) in Trafalgar Square, with my own pre-recorded piano arrangement. (I like this song so much, I later did a different version for guitar.)

Lastly, find out what you need to know to protect your work (copyright – there’s more than one way to do it) and tread respectfully and honestly around others. If your songs are out there, live, recorded or online – there are multiple royalty avenues that you can and should access. Be clear (onstage and everywhere else) about the intellectual ownership of your own work and seek advice before recording others.

 

Resources:

 

Musicians Union – Benefits, protection, legal advice, community.

 

BASCA – British Academy of Songwriters, composers and authors.

 

Performing Rights Society – Music copyright, royalties and licensing.

 


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Collaborate! Er…or not? …

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”If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.”

(Generic truism attributed to just about everyone from Al Gore to Richard Branson. Likely to crop up in entrepreneurial self-help or business speak – oft quoted as traditional African folklore. But … is it true?)

 

I was inspired to think and write a bit about this when reading a random tweet from a jazz enthusiast. She said she sometimes felt tired of seeing musicians cropping up in each others bands all the time and felt the sound and vibe would be too samey and predictable. I thought about times in my life when collaborating felt like the right path and when it didn’t. I think both ways – solo artist and team member on others projects are great and necessary – at different times.

 

Here’s 5 advantages of each. Thoughts that might be of use to beginners and learners, (read it here my Middlesex students, since you never show up to class!) and seasoned (even jaded) semi or full professionals.

 

COLLABORATION PROS – Music is life, is communication. The more we live, breathe and play music, it becomes one more way of being. It should be as natural as breathing and creative projects should feel as organic as any other conversation. Our fellow musicians are closer than family and what we do is in some ways more intimate than partners. Even if we ARE partners. Creating art and community together, is pure strength and joy. It’s about the ‘we’ not just the ‘I’ and everyone benefits.

 

  1. Do something as a team and your other members get to shoulder some of the work. Putting on a night with a group of co-promoters? You can get to delegate roles and responsibilities and portion out tasks according to genuine areas of strength and enthusiasm.

  2. In these days of pressure to get bums on seats, a shared project means a shared demographic and shared crowd. In this way you can bring in a lot of audience through the door and hopefully keep them via a shared mailing list/data base. Funders seem to like group projects and collectives. And since funding applications are such hard work – a team environment can really help. You can pool your all your skills, labour and industry contacts and move forward as a whole.

  3. Doing things together is fun – less loneliness, more camaraderie, shared anecdotes and laughter. Including when things are going wrong or getting discouraging or where an extra viewpoint is needed. Writing songs together is joyful and playful and sharing dreams and ambitions for the future is energising. Approaching the industry together lessens some of the pressure provides a buffer – especially when the doors are slamming.

  4.  If you put in the hours, pay your dues and earn your keep as a session player or singer in other peoples bands, choirs, recordings or gigs, you will certainly improve. Nothing like instrumental session playing to get your chops (and your reputation) to the next level. Also it’s worth being that indispensably reliable person in someones teaching deputy Rolodex.

  5. Ever notice how playing other peoples music has that emotional distance that can be liberating? It’s the vulnerability of someone elses story and history on the line. All you have to do is enhance it and get the notes right. The session player can often appreciate something new and fresh that the songwriter can’t hear. Plus doing something for someone else (for wages or not) often behooves us to work in a way that it’s harder to do for ourselves.

And ….

 

COLLABORATION CONS – I’m a bandleader. I don’t share power easily and I get uncomfortable when someone mentions ‘co-creating’ or ‘community’. I don’t welcome suggestions or feedback on my songs. I can’t help the lone wolf tendency. I have a need for and a simultaneous fear of artistic intimacy. I don’t delegate well. I like defined roles. I’ll follow, (playing/composing/arranging – for a fee) or I’ll lead. Lead the band, write the songs, book the gigs, promote the gigs, pay my players, liaise with venues/media/competitions/festivals and deal with the endless run arounds and rejections. In return for shouldering those responsibilities, it’s my name on the poster and me who owns the copyright.

 

 

  1. Writing music ‘together’ can tie you together more surely than marriage and for longer, if a dispute occurs. Personally I avoid it. It’s my song or it’s your song. I don’t share. It can get too delicate with copyright and royalty issues.

  2. Time is a factor. Just as it’s a good thing to want to do your best contributing to someone elses event – imagine if you put that great, selfless, unconditional energy into your own work and creativity. Food for thought. When is it going to be time for you? Especially if the group project starts to gain momentum. You could be tied up for a while. Which is the whole point, but don’t get spread too thin with conflicting interests.

  3. Some people are just loners. We emerge and submerge and re-emerge but do most of our creative work privately. If you’re the kind of artist who doesn’t like to share the process or keeps things secret until they’re finished – group collaborations can feel weird and forming collectives can feel too much like commitment.

  4. Even in an ideal world, it’s hard to get reciprocity and know that your fellow collaborators are truly as reliable as you. Is their definition of hard work the same as yours? Is their concept of an ‘early start’ or a ‘thorough’ job, the same as yours? Do they take too long to do stuff and are you just carrying them because they’re scared (and unable) to work alone?

  5. The necessary evil that is money and that weird boundary between work and play. If I’m being paid, then I have the energy (literally the fuel) and therefore the liberty to do the job. If I’m paying someone I can expect that they’ll deliver. It comes down again to rock solid roles and responsibilities. If something is freeform play and maybe it’s professional maybe it isn’t, then the boundary is elastic – literally. Exciting and creative for sure. Potentially draining and dissipating too.

My final analysis is that creative intimacy (like other kinds of  love relationships) has an on/off rhythm to it. Too far into ‘solo artist mode’ and it’s time to play on someone elses tunes, or work as an accompanist. Time spent giving ones all in another band inevitably has to give way to going back and prioritising the individual career. The one helps the other, for sure. I come out of ‘session player’ mode burning to get back into my own stuff and often with better technique and faster memorisation. But if I don’t have my time alone in the woodshed, (days, months, years) I have nothing to give. The magic happens in the dance between the two.

 


 

 

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What is Nu Jazz?

Soho Nights 4

 

What is Nu Jazz? It’s about 15 years since I really started earnestly to make a career out of my own songwriting rather than just teaching music, or the many other randomly musical things I could have done. I fell into teaching at a high level at a very young age, whilst still learning, and could have continued with just that. I’ve had many forking life paths. Still here doing it. Having to promote, package and present what I do to the world. Sometimes I get the smallest window just to zoom back and view the journey.

In the beginning, I had much feedback telling me that what I do isn’t jazz. But I think I can safely say – I’m here to stay. I call my music Nu Jazz, as it’s the most accurate I can get. It’s definitely a kind of jazz, containing too many jazz reference points not be jazz. But really it’s just an unusual, new artistic flavour with a contemporary feel which is perfect for our times. Many of my songs, people don’t believe are original – they already sound like standards. And I hope that they will be, one day.

Born in Wales, of Irish/Scottish ancestry, I come from a folk tradition and I always thought I would write in that idiom, although life had other plans. But what is folk? (‘World Music’ is, to me also folk music – traditional instruments, stories, lineages, voices and modes of expression, ancient/modern fusions, political, social, lyrical – of every genre from all over the globe.) I started off listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan – but when I moved to London my music teachers were Gospel musicians. (Gospel is surely a musical folkway in itself) Once this influence hit my folk background, the cocktail started fizzing and it was just a steady road to where I am now.  Via Junior Mance, Duke Ellington, Santana, Chick Corea, Kirk Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Yolanda Adams, Diamanda Galas, Bjork, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jhelissa Anderson, Horace Silver, Dianne Reeves, George Duke, Dinah Washington and every big jazz diva of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s plus a nice dose of helpfully termed – and extremely jazzy – ‘Nu Soul’ tapes featuring Mica Paris, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, which made a big impression on me. Jazz is a huge genre. Acid Jazz, Jazz Soul, Latin Jazz, Jazz funk, Trad Jazz, Jazz fusion, Jazz rock, Jazz blues. Take any instrument or discipline and put ‘Jazz’ in front of it.  Jazz poetry. Jazz dance. Jazz cinema. Put it in an elevator or advert, you have an instant vibe and evocation of time and place. Classic Jazz. Modern Jazz. Free Jazz. Jazz Hip Hop. Be Bop. Doo Wop. Lindy Hop. All that Jazz.  Jazz it up. We have endless permutations and examples of where ‘jazz’ of some kind is present and the associations that it conjures.

Genre definitions can be cumbersome. One of my biggest influences, Nina Simone, hated being defined as jazz, and never chose that herself. She called herself a classical musician, generically transcendent, actually. Maybe one day her legacy will birth an entirely new word – a new definition altogether.

What is Nu Jazz? A defining moment for me was being invited by Juliet Kelly to share the bill with herself and Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the Bull’s Head, in London. Juliet had called the night ‘Nu Jazz Divas’. Who was I to argue? That’s good enough for me. The common theme amongst us was a loose jazz style – but not prescription, and original, ‘Nu’ writing.

Sometimes, in the full swing of a song, at the piano, or guitar, I feel right in the heart of my journey, held by spirits of those who went before. With enough wordplay to recall Cole Porter.  Just enough bluesy snap, crackle and heartache to evoke Etta James. Enough stride to recall Ray Charles or Scott Joplin. Enough theatrics to summon up a bit of Otis. Enough space age beatnik hyper poetry to bring some Donald Fagenish Americana into the mix. And some Judy Garland high camp. The recipe starts to cook. And it can be what I say it is. It’s right at the edge and that edge expands as I want. I can talk my creation into being.

When I tried to sell the concept of ‘fusion’ to a well-known (folk) music manager, she said she didn’t get what I was fusing.  But I do. I do have a vision. It involves quite a lot of rhythm and blues, hypnotic groove, lyrical melodic flow and interruption, lush harmonic extensions contrasted with sparse geometric furnishings and colourings. Slidey, snake-like Wes Montgomery guitar stylings, structural blocks and themes, improvisational flights, the bittersweet longing of the plucked string. The smoothest and roughest textures that the voice can make. Paradox. Nu-Vintage and retro-newness and sepia toned novelty and yin/yang alchemy.  Plus some universal but specific stories of love, loss, conflict, inspiration, struggle and redemption that I’m unafraid to tell. It’s Nu Jazz, baby. It just won’t leave me alone.


 

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What is a Lesbian Icon?

 

My recent feature in the GaydarGirls blog and my conversation with the folk there about future content, has made me think about the commodification and market appeal of gay lifestyle….

In a retrospective mood, here is a ‘celebrity cribs’ style feature in DIVA magazine, from 2008. (Photo by Emma Innocenti)

back to mine

 

Are we getting to the point where it’s not only ok to be a lesbian woman, but something marketable, loveable, motivational, aspirational…for the average citizen, male or female? Can lesbian arts, culture, lifestyle and social commentary ever become a major lifestyle export. Is there a uniquely lesbian perspective, i.e what do lesbians have that the non-lesbian doesn’t? Is it a special mixture of genders…a two-spirited approach that blurs the boundary of gender expectations, conventions or limitations? Is it a love and appreciation of women that champions, in a political sense, the achievements, dreams, stories and concerns of women? Is it a precious liberation from male approval? (many non-lesbian women have that – or do they?) Is it having the sensibility of a woman and the brass nuts of a man – or the other way round (do non-lesbians also have that?)

What is an ‘icon’, in the contemporary sense of the word? We all have our heroines and heroes, who may be sports personalities, musicians, spiritual leaders, authors, historical figures. Why do they symbolise so much for us? At what point do they just become an ‘icon’ through repeated exposure on the fabric of popular culture? You know something or someone has become a brand name once they are quoted or referenced as themselves (not as fiction) – in a fictional setting. How about lesbian icons that aren’t gay, (or even female) yet resonate, with their style or energy, for real life lesbians? How far does the media manipulate our tendency to consume and idolise such figures by just inserting someone in the public eye and telling us what they represent?

I always resisted the idea of fame for it’s own sake…but becoming more well known (at a pace that’s realistic) is a goal for anyone who has something to say or share. Especially in these days of direct artist/audience communication. Nowadays, the road to fame can be a gradual, self-governed curve, rather than an industrial process that catapults musicians into the spotlight, usually way too young, chews them to pieces and spits them out. I was brought up to believe that ‘fame’ was something that would ultimately limit, not enhance freedom. However much I may have envied the child stars of the 70’s and 80’s – Tatum O’Neal, Jodie Foster, ‘Kids from Fame’ and the Jackson family – I was sensible enough to know that I wouldn’t want that exposure or pressure. Yet.

These days, I’m very much enjoying the steady rise…I quite like the thought of being a lesbian Icon. I wouldn’t mind at all kids looking at me and thinking, ‘hey it’s obviously cool to be gay’. It is cool. Even on a bad day, it’s cool. And on a good day – well I’m not surprised it’s still illegal in so many places. It’s that good. It’s that powerful. One day, lesbian sexuality won’t be seen as something shameful, weird, laughable, unnatural, dangerous, threatening, unlawful, punishable by death or excommunication, or even remotely remarkable. And that too, will be cool with me.


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