Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My singing career started when I was three years old, when I sang at a church event. My parents realised that I enjoyed it and encouraged me to perform as much as possible; my performing career developed from there. I started playing the piano when I was five and writing songs in my early teens, although I would never sing them to anyone! That confidence to perform my own work took a while to develop and I didn’t publicly air that material until I was in my early twenties. I was playing in church bands and leading worship on my own which helped me to develop my own style and rapport with people. With songwriting, the story is as important as the song and that connection with audience is something that you learn over time.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career as both performer and composer?
Too many to mention! But probably Karen Carpenter, I do think her best work was her solo album which she recorded with Phil Ramone. We can hear the real Karen, an artist who has matured and found her own style. Unfortunately, it wasn’t released until 1997, fourteen years after her death so she never saw the public’s fantastic reaction to it.
A love of music by female singer-songwriters and finding that I had a voice of my own has greatly influenced my work. When I was 18, I fell in love with Alanis Morrisette’s lyric writing and that gave me the impetus and confidence to write my own songs. Her brutal honesty inspired me and her ability to make just about any word rhyme, makes laugh a lot!
Judith Owen is an amazing songwriter and musical interpreter. Some of her arrangements of well-known popular songs are incredible and she loves to take traditionally male genres and add a female spin to them. Julia Fordham is also an incredible performer and songwriter and knows how to take the listener on an emotional and musical journey. The two albums that she collaborated with Larry Klein are amazing and are well worth a listen.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Embracing my training and then letting go of my training… There’s great value in good musical training and as a singing and piano teacher, you’d expect me to say that! However, there comes a time when you have to park your training and musical education in order to find your own, personal technique that makes you unique. I had to find my voice and embrace it. From a creative stance, this is liberating but can also be painful. You have to be prepared make mistakes and find the find the value in them in order to progress. It’s not only a musical journey, but a personal one too.
I didn’t realise how much people’s attitudes towards me would change after I reached a certain age and had children. For women in the music industry, doors close and opportunities are sparse once you hit 40 and have a family. We’re often seen as unavailable or unreliable which isn’t the case. It seems so old fashioned and unnecessary, especially when other employment sectors came in line with the law years ago. A few colleagues and I have made it our mission to make our own opportunities and create new paths for others to follow.
Which works are you most proud of?
I released my first album Conversations With The Heart in 2004 on the smallest of budgets (ie. barely none). It was recorded in my friend’s dining room which he had converted into a studio and served with a lot of tea and biscuits. It’s the album I thought I would never make and was achieved under difficult circumstances.
Some works surprise you. I wrote Do You Seek An Answer and then put it in a draw and forgot about it. Eventually it landed up on the At Second Glance EP and went on to be number one in the New Christian Music Chart in the UK and Europe. I didn’t see that coming or the reaction to the song from the general public.
Close That Door was a real departure for me in terms of style and music maturity. After years of writing, I felt that I had composed something near the mark of what I had always hoped to achieve. For a lot of songwriters, composing is the Holy Grail, we have great ambitions of what we would like to produce but it can take decades to start writing material that is near that goal. Have I managed to write anything like that again? No! I guess creative people are never satisfied and that’s what keeps us searching for the ultimate composition.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I saw George Michael in November 2007 at Earls Court as part of the Twenty Five Live tour. His voice was out of this world and far better than any of recordings! A real loss to the musical world. He knew how to connect with the audience and despite his shyness, was a well-seasoned showman. The whole show was well crafted and he obviously picked his musicians carefully as there was a palpable intuition between all of them.
From my own performing career, the most memorable concerts are the ones where I’ve collaborated with other artists. A few years ago, I was a backing vocalist for Darren Hayman (formerly of the band Hefner) for his Chants For Socialists project. I hadn’t performed much folk material, so it was great to work with a band and quite a diverse group of vocalists, recapturing William Morris’ mission to improve life for the poor through these political chants.
Working with the saxophonist and composer, Rachael Forsyth is always amazing. We met at university and over the years, we have performed and written together. Our work has involved over time and these days is more about composition rather than performance, but who knows? This may change in the future.
As a composer, how do you work?
The way I work has changed over the years. I used to sit at the piano for hours fleshing out ideas but I began to feel restless with that way of working. Now I tend to work more “on the go” and add ideas to my phone or notebook which I can then work through later. You have to keep changing the way you do things to keep the creativity flowing and growing.
I’ve also find it helpful to have a set topic for a project. Recently I have been working with the Buckinghamshire County Archive, creating songs based on stories for the county’s World War One collection. It’s been fascinating and inspiring to bring history to life through song. It also led to some opportunities at performance events with a wide range of artists who told the stories of local people through different artistic media.
A few months ago, I decided to break away from songwriting and compose some instrumental pieces. I needed a new challenge and wanted to create music that didn’t rely on my voice. Over the years, I’ve been asked for the backing tracks for my songs as people have wanted to use them instrumentally, this gave me the confidence to start thinking about making non-vocal music and what it could be used for. I’ve also been creating short films to go with the pieces. I haven’t unleashed them on the public, but I think an instrumental project maybe something I produce in the future.
How would you describe your compositional/musical style?
That depends on the day! I never quite know how to answer this question as my style changes for each song but I definitely lean more towards a jazz, soul style of music. I’m always striving to improve and build on the previous work to see how far I can push my technique. In the past, one producer I worked with always wanted my work to have a commercial edge, but for me, I felt that it killed the music and some of my message was lost in the stylistic translation. But that’s the dilemma for all music artists, please the masses or please yourself? There’s no answer to that question…
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think success is very hard to define in music, it’s different for everyone. I try to set small levels of success as in music they can be a moveable goal! If the goals and levels are small, they are far more achievable. That’s not to say that attaining success isn’t important, but you need a high amount of realism and flexibility to work in music. Having a varied career helps, when the teaching is going well, the performing might not be as lucrative and vice versa.
I mostly ignore what the industry claims is success as everyone’s path is so different, how could we even compare each other? I found that this has made me much happier as I’m working on a route that suits me. Having supportive colleagues is a great help: we all cheer each other on and listen to each other when it’s needed.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
A flexible approach to a music career. My career has involved teaching, composing and performing which keeps things fresh but also widens the landscape for opportunities. Be prepared to take on non-music work in order to live, then you can pick and choose the projects you want to work on without the pressure of the mortgage looming over you. Do whatever you have to, to make it work. A few years ago, I went through a family crisis which pretty much brought everything to halt; I didn’t know if I would be able to continue in music, but I decided that I had to find a way that worked for me. I can’t say that I’ve recovered everything, but I made a conscious decision to not give up.
Tenacity and perseverance. You need to be steely-eyed and have a thick skin to be a musician. It’s a rollercoaster ride with many twists and turns. Some seasons you’ll be to support yourself financially through music and other seasons you’ll need to get other work. It’s part of being a troubadour and an artisan.
It also good to be inspired by other musicians, but at the same time you need to develop a musical character of your own as this is what moves an audience. I’ve seen too many acts trying to emulate someone else’s musical style – it never works. Be yourself: there’s a reason you are created as YOU. It’s also better to move the audience than to impress them; if you can take them on an emotional, musical journey they will remember that forever.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Mostly hanging out with friends and catching up. Being with people you love and make you laugh is better than therapy! I also like painting and over the last few years, I’ve been getting back into that after a break of more than 20 years. I enjoy being creative whether it’s music, art or writing a blog: it’s all cathartic.
Being active is also very important to me. I find that I can clear my mind when I’m running, swimming or walking. It’s good way to let my mind wander and begin to solve my problems, probably because I let my thoughts switch off and my mind can be calm. I’ve had some of best ideas while running on the treadmill!
What is your present state of mind?
Rather unusual for me, but I would say looking to the future. Over the last few years, my outlook has been “take one day at a time” but now, I’m starting to think more about what I want out of life and also music!