LondonJazz: How did you first get to know the songs of Dory Previn?
Kate Dimbleby: My sister heard Lady with the Braid in a charity shop in Glasgow. She was so struck by it, she asked the owners of the shop who it was. They said they longed to know but it was a compilation tape they had had for years. Eventually, she tracked it down and sent it to me – saying “I think you’ll like this: it’s kind of straight-up but quirky – kind of like you!”
LJ: And was she right that you’d take to the song?
KD: Yes! I was immediately hooked, and included it in a show which I was doing at the time. That show had songs from inspiring and ground-breaking women singers throughout the century – Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Kirsty MacColl, Nina Simone… Every night for 5 weeks it was the one song that people asked about most. Who wrote it? And why doesn’t everyone know about her? I took that as a cue to find out more and was amazed to discover these albums of extraordinary off-beat songs – a whole life really, written in song.
LJ : What’s different about Dory Previn?
KD: Dory has a unique ability to tell it like it is. Uncensored. Her songs deal with subjects that many songwriters wouldn’t go near. And where there is trauma, there is also always her sense of humour so there is a lot of depth. Her songs are like stream of consciousness (the beginning of the 70’s singer/songwriter genre) yet, she learned her craft in Hollywood in the 1950’s and 60’s writing with Andre Previn, inspired by Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin. I think it is this fusion of singer-songwriter with the throwback to the glory days of Hollywood musicals that I love.
LJ: How did you find audiences took to these songs?
KD: One of my favourite moments was when Naadia (Sheriff), my pianist and I did a few scratch shows to showcase the songs and see how they went down. We had no idea whether a new audience would relate to them or whether fans of Dory would be pleased or appalled. Luckily for us, both the new and old audiences were still captivated by the music and the stories she tells as we interpreted them. I’ve never known an audience cry and laugh at the same time in the way they do when they hear Dory.
LJ: What do you know of her as a person and does that influence how you interpret the songs?
KD: The thing I’ve learnt most from Dory is that you need to do much less than you think to sing the truth of something. Critics always said she didn’t have a great voice but it’s not true – she knew herself and that comes through her voice. There is absolutely no pretension. And that is demanding because when you sing these songs, especially as we’ve done them, very stripped down, you have to believe every word you sing otherwise it shows. Also – her life experience and her take on life is all there in the songs – so you don’t really have to go and find out about it – but you do have to find the resonances for yourself.
LJ:Any “lightbulb” moments along the way?
KD: Ever since my first album, I sort of believed that “bigger was better” and have always worked with at least a trio if not larger. The experience of just being in a room with one other musician, Naadia Sheriff and some material to play with was very exciting for me. It really distilled the whole creative process and brought things out that I didn’t know existed. In a larger group, it is easier to be intimidated into just using what you know you can do easily.
LondonJazz: And her mental problems were severe, weren’t they?
Kate Dimbleby: Dory was extraordinary in that she was basically diagnosed “Schizophrenic” and after a period of time (including many breakdowns and committals to mental hospitals) decided to “cure herself”. She locked herself (safely) in her house, stopped taking the pills and started “listening” to the voices that so frightened her – not to act on them – but to allow them to be. A kind of meditation I guess. And this is how she helped herself. I don’t think this would ever be recommended by a doctor but it is interesting that for her, it sort of worked and she writes it out through her songs and autobiographies in a very bold way. That is where the “show” came from. Because the autobiographies are just as fascinating as the songs so I wanted to find a way to include both.
Vocals: Kate Dimbleby
Piano: Naadia Sheriff