Writer, lyricist, singer, and member of The Bloomsburys Tamsin Collison interviewed singer and musician Laka D:
Tamsin Collison: Laka, tell us a bit about your background. What’s the story behind your unusual name?
Laka D: I’m the daughter of a Polish father and an English mother, so I was given the Polish name, Dorota. My family actually called me Dorotka, but my little sister couldn’t say it and came up with Laka, which stuck. My father was a refugee who came to England in 1946, and met my mother in Blackwells bookshop in Oxford. He was an academic, and was the first academic appointment at Lancaster University in 1963.
I’m the third of 10 children in an extremely musical family – we all play at least 2 instruments and everybody sings. I first learned to harmonise by ear on long family car journeys. So a career in music was a natural progression from my experience growing up.
TC: What was your route into Jazz?
LD: I began music lessons very early. I sat in on my sister’s fiddle lessons at the age of 3, and her teacher noticed my total fascination with her piano. He advised my mother to arrange classes for me and I started at the age of 5. That strong classical foundation has been invaluable to my own personal musical development.
I discovered more musical freedom while playing the guitar and singing in folk clubs as a teenager. I stopped training at 18 and ran away to London to play keyboards in a pop band, with various day jobs including transcribing folk tunes for a publisher. The turning point into jazz came when I joined a 7 piece North London band called Soulyard. The lineup included an incredible US trumpeter called Jim Dvorak who really initiated us into the dark arts of improvisation. I was attracted by the autonomy of the jazz musician – the freedom to improvise, and to let the music take you where it would. That really appealed to me.
TC: Then came the Guest Stars?
LD. That’s right. Some of the women in the band got together an all-female group called the Guest Stars, which I joined as pianist in 1981. I stayed with the Guest Stars all through the 80s and we learned and developed as jazz musicians together. We travelled a lot, going on British Council tours, and released 3 independent albums. We learned a lot from playing standards but also wrote a lot of original material, which ultimately interested me more.
At the same time I was playing in Annie Whitehead’s band and singing in an a capella group called the The Hipscats, whose lineup included Josefina Cupido, Jim Dvorak and Ruthie Smith, with Alastair Gavin on piano. This was where I started to really learn the craft of vocal arrangement.
TC: Do you have any particular jazz influences/idols?
LD: The first jazz I ever heard was a recording of the pianist/singer Mose Allison. I loved his rhythmic inventiveness, his bluesy style and the seamless connection between singer and piano. That was a big influence on me. My Dad was an Ella fan – so her music was very much in the house and was my first introduction to jazz vocals, as they should be for everyone! I went on to discover Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. So I’m a paid-up fan of the Jazz Greats, and also the great Soul icons like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. But I also love Tom Lehrer – musical wit really appeals to me. I like my music to be relatively unsentimental – I’m not a big fan of the torch song. My favourite vocal jazz album is Dianne Reeves ‘Quiet After The Storm’. One of my favourite bands is ‘Little Feat’. I’m a fan of Steely Dan and Lambert Hendricks & Ross – but I can also enjoy the melodic gorgeousness in a tune like Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs. I hope I’m not a musical snob!
TC: You have your own musical career as singer and pianist. Are you currently playing with any particular bands?
LD: Yes, I play with a dance band called The Electric Landladies. When I do solo gigs, I’ll hook up with other musicians as required.
TC: Are there any available recordings?
LD: I have just released a new album of original songs called Old Life, New Shoes. It’s available to buy via my website laka-d.com, or from the F-IRE Collective record label, and it will be up on I-Tunes very soon.
TC: When and why did you start working as vocal arranger/leader?
LD: In all the bands I’ve played with, I’ve had a big hand in arranging any vocals that were going on – right back to singing in the back of my Dad’s car! But I started as an official arranger back in 1989, when I began teaching a women’s vocal workshop at the Drill Hall. I couldn’t find any arrangements I liked that I could teach them, so I started writing my own, and discovered I really enjoy it. I used to write them out longhand on A3 18-stave manuscript, until I discovered computer software Encore and then Sibelius. Sibelius is a godsend, as you can change key on a 12-page score at the touch of a button. If for nothing else, the Finn brothers (who invented the system), should be thanked for that. It has transformed the life of the choral arranger!
TC: You’re a renowned vocal arranger. Where did you find your sound?
LD: I think it just comes from comes from what I enjoy singing myself. If you’ve grown up singing in choirs – church, school or community – you already know what it is about ensemble singing that makes you feel good. So my goal as an arranger is to try and give people a really good singing experience, while trying to include a few surprises to make them work a bit! You have to pitch the arrangement so that it’s not so easy that it’s boring, but not so hard that it’s daunting. I have taken inspiration from pianists like Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Brad Mehldau. I remember the excitement of first hearing his solo version of ‘Secret Love’, which is the musical equivalent of an Eddie Izzard anecdote – a statement, a mad development and an eventual, surprising resolution. It is my ambition to become the Eddie Izzard of vocal arrangers!
TC: What are the challenges of working with vocal ensembles?
LD: I’ve been involved in music education for many years, working right across the spectrum, from schoolkids to pensioners, small office choirs to large Community opera. You have to gauge the potential of each group and tailor your work accordingly. It’s a mistake to over-challenge a group, as they won’t enjoy it, but you don’t want to bore them either. I am always agreeably surprised by how far people will push themselves musically and how much they can achieve, often in a very short time. The energy of people achieving something together is very exciting. Every gig is different and you never know what’s going to come out. Working in community music, you have got to be in charge all the time, and there for everyone – for the ones who can’t do it as much as the ones who can. People put their trust in you, and you must be aware of that. As workshop leader, you have a big responsibility for people’s musical and emotional wellbeing.
TC: You lead Bloomsburys, best described as a Chamber Jazz Ensemble. How did this group come about?
LD: Bloomsburys began when two singers who were doing a project with me for VoiceLab, at Southbank, asked me what my ideal choral group to work with would be. I told them it would be a group of 16-24 singers, with an equal M/F split, that I could write really challenging arrangements for. Fast learners, of pro/semi pro standard. And to my surprise they just said OK and went off and organised it. I had run a serious choir in the past, for several years, called The Queer Choir, which I had to let go when work commitments became too heavy, and I really missed having my own musical laboratory. It took some time to pull the new gang together. I was adamant that we wouldn’t gig until we had discovered our sound and our identity and become a group that was able to trust each other musically. It is very exciting to have now reached the point where we’re starting to fly.
TC: Why Bloomsburys?
LD: We call ourselves Bloomsburys because we rehearse in a studio at RADA in Bloomsbury, London. And The Bloomsbury Set had already been nabbed by somebody else. It was meant to be Bloomsbury’s as in Sainsbury’s, but we lost the apostrophe somewhere along the line and I have finally admitted defeat.
TC: What is the vibe of the choir vibe?
LD: I like to think of it as iconoclastic! We’re all about having fun and mixing it up, and we perform all kinds of material everything from The Doobie Brothers to Annie Lennox to Kurt Weil. Basically, anything that appeals to me – and I come from the broadest of musical churches! The group is made up of serious musicians. We have a lot of trained singers and actors who contribute a real mix of musical styles – classical, choral, folk, jazz, pop, opera, music theatre – which makes the group a wonderful musical toybox for an arranger to play with. They are a very responsive group, who are hungry for challenging material and like to take musical risks. I can throw anything at them. And frequently do!
Tamsn Collison: The Bloomsburys make their stage debut at the Young Vic this Friday, 11th July, performing the Actors Touring Company show, ‘The Events’. Can you tell us a bit about this piece?
Laka D The Events, by writer David Greig, is a piece of theatre with music, written in response to the 2011 shootings on Utoya Island in Norway, which was a smash hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. The composer John Browne, who wrote the score, came to see a recent gig of ours and decided Bloomsburys were the ideal group to record the music for the BBC radio broadcast. We are also launching a season of the play at the Young Vic Theatre on Press Night, 11th July. A different local choir will sing on every night of the run, as is the case whenever The Events is put on. Recording the score at the BBC Maida Vale studios was very good experience for the choir, before we start putting together some recordings of our own. And performing at the Young Vic together will be another new experience. We will be a little short on tenors on Friday – most of the section have another gig in Vienna that night. So I will be joining the ranks and singing tenor myself on Friday. We’re a versatile bunch.
The Bloomsburys are on Facebook and on Twitter as @TheBloomsburys. Booking contact Julie Johnston (firstname.lastname@example.org) . “The Events” is at the Young Vic from July 8 to August 2.