|Beverley Beirne. Photo credit: Stephanie Deleng|
Singer Beverley Beirne will be at the Pheasantry in Kings Road SW3 on Tuesday 3rd March. She told Sebastian her remarkable story of Yorkshire and London, of acting and singing, of Mrs Squeezum in “Lock Up Your Daughters” …and Nnenna Freelon, by email:
LondonJazz News: For people who won’t know you where are you from and what’s your story?
Beverley Beirne: Well, I was born in Yorkshire, and I live in Ilkley, so I’m a northern lass, with Irish roots. My grand-parents moved over here when they were young on both sides. My Irish roots are quite important to me. My Nana was a very strong lady and would still have a strong Tipperary accent, mainly when she was angry. She was amazing. When she was 10 years old she was washing wool waist deep in water at Dean Clough Mills in Halifax, doing the jobs that a lot of the Irish Immigrant families did, yet I remember when I used to come home mid-term whilst studying my Drama and English degree she would discuss all of the books on my reading list and knew far more than me about any of them. She was a huge influence on me. Her strength, her courage, her faith and hope.
LJN: And your Dad?
BB: My Dad was a precision toolmaker and my Mum a housekeeper, so we lived quite simply, but Mum was the great reader and Dad the music lover. Music was always playing, Dad’s record collection was small, but all the right things, all the classical greats and the great jazz names. He was lucky enough to see Ella Fitzgerald when he was a young man and I don’t think he ever quite got over it, he told me he fell in love with her! Things were tough for a while when I was a kid and music and reading truly saved me. They brought a life and magic to my life that deeply fed a part of my soul, they still do.
LJN: How were you first drawn to jazz ?
BB: Dad playing his records, me asking questions, who’s this, why do they do that? Dad didn’t have a Phd in music, but he had his ears and truly great love and appreciation for the beauty that he heard and admired so much. I used to listen to Errol Garner and was fascinated by his playing. Way before I ever thought about actually becoming a jazz singer, just as a child, I’d sing along and make up melodies, just because I found it such great hear-warming fun. Dad’s record collection was full of all the great classical music too. Showing me his music was to him like showing me a gilded box of precious jewels, it meant so much to him. Music is still very important to him. Dad has been a great part of my own jazz journey. It’s wonderful to see him in the audience of my own gigs now. I’m not sure I ever thought I’d see that. It’s a huge thrill.
LJN: You trained as an actress , you were in musical theatre but that wasn’t your thing / not enough freedom?
BB: Yes, I did a little bit of musical theatre, profit-share mainly both in The North and after my degree in London, but though I loved the singing and the music, it was very incongruous with the kind of acting training I’d undertaken (method acting) I wanted to be all ‘believable’ and so would often undersell it and I was always getting told off for singing off the beat (on purpose as I loved to make a song my own – tell-tale sign back then I think)!
My favourite role was playing Mrs Squeezum in Lock Up Your Daughters, I had a fab piled on high hair do and it was a little bit naughty, such good fun! I love acting.
LJN: And method acting was in the mix too?
BB: I was very, very fortunate to be taught by a wonderful lady called Lottie Ward in Halifax at The Actors Studio. Lottie was taught by Lee Strasberg in New York, Christopher Walken was in the year above her. She was an amazing teacher and has turned out some of the top TV actors. When I was younger I did small theatre, which was very suitable to method acting and I loved being so close to the audience, I was never phased by it. There were some really interesting plays above pubs in Islington, Moliere, Racine, Solzenitsyn, Chekhov Three Sisters. Not exactly mainstream, but God I loved it.
LJN: And you bring all that with you to jazz singing…
BB: It was interesting when I became a jazz singer. I remember thinking, okay this is different and scary, no character to hide behind here. But I wanted to be completely authentic and genuine, completely me, I never wanted to hide behind any kind of a construct. I never wanted to create a character ‘Beverley the Jazz Singer’ I just wanted it to be about being in the song, the music, to really communicate and tell the story of the song. I still do a bit of acting, when the right thing comes along. More recently I went into Emmerdale for a while, (to fund my album mainly – the only person I know to go back into acting for the money)! But I had an absolute blast, I’d forgotten how much I loved being on set, the buzz of it and the people you meet and the craic of it. Wonderful! I’ll have to find something else to fund the next album!
LJN: And then you did other jobs?
BB: I never thought I’d make a career out of performing, well not enough to make any real money out of it, so when I graduated I worked at BBC Shepherds Bush in the Drama Department, for Simon Curtis Executive Producer and then for the Head of Drama. It was really interesting and challenging work. I then worked in Publishing House near the Post Office Tower. We moved back to Yorkshire then and I worked at what was YTV. I then worked for a Photographers Studio, organising shoots, that was great fun. I had to audition 40 Charlie Chaplins once for a shoot. I also had to audition around 50 male models for a swim-wear shoot for a famous supermarket, tough day that one!! They were all good jobs, but I’ll be honest I was never really satisified, it sounds ungrateful and I’m not, but my heart was never really in it.
LJN: Who have been the people in jazz who have helped you along the way?
BB: I’ve been so fortunate to have the help of so many people. I realised I needed academic help when I started the jazz and went on a couple of summer courses and then Professional Development courses with Lee Gibson, Tina May, Alan Barnes, Steve Waterman. They were amazing. I learned so, so much. I remember being quite terrified the very first weekend course I went on, I felt so spectacularly stupid and ignorant with regards to musical theory and the practicalities of jazz, but Lee in particular was so encouraging.
LJN: And that led you to Graham Hearn of Leeds College of Music?
BB: When I came home Lee Gibson put me in touch with Graham Hearn, a lovely man who was one of the founders of the jazz course at Leeds College of Music and a great pianist. For nearly 3 years I saw him every Monday morning and he put me through my paces. After the first year I went back on a course with Lee and was thrilled to bits when she put her arms around me and said ‘Beverley, you are a jazz singer’ I honestly cried a bit! It was quite a moment for me. I’d worked really hard and to have Lee’s approval meant the world to me. But I’ve been encouraged and helped by so many people. All the people who’ve had faith in me and given me gigs for a start. I’m grateful to all of them.
LJN: And you write lyrics ?
BB: I love writing. I’ve always written prose and poetry, but not really lyrics, but it’s something I’ve been more drawn to doing, probably quite naturally as my ability as a jazz singer and musician grows. I’ve also been drawn to adding lyrics to certain pieces and I’m working on adding lyrics to a well-known 70’s children TV programme that was a great part of my childhood, Mr Benn. It might sound strange, but that gorgeous little programme meant such a lot to people of my generation and when I was lucky enough recently to find myself working alongside Duncan Lamont who wrote this tune, it was quite an honour and it just got me thinking about it. It won’t be the same of course and It may be ready for The Pheasantry gig, but I’m tweaking it at the moment, (technical term for fannying about with something that’s already finished – not to be confused with twerking, which you can rest assured I will definitely not be doing at The Pheasantry…though I can’t of course speak for the rest of the band). Tee Hee!!
LJN: And people said nice things about your first album?
BB: More than I ever would have dreamt. I have so many people to thank for it. Graham Hearn was the arranger on most of them, though I co arranged some and had definite, strong ideas of where I wanted to go with them. He also played on the album too, alongside the wonderful Ronnie Bottomley (drums), Mike Cox (Sax) and Ian Mann and Adrian Knowles (bass). My favourite quotes from the album reviews are: ‘Finger Clicking Good! My obsession of the week.’ That was Jenny Eels (BBC Introducing, York) and “…Beirne possesses a broad, warm lower register and her boldly held sustained notes have something of Nina Simone about them…” from Jazz Journal.
LJN: You’re a fan of Nnenna Freelon?
BB: Definitely. I saw her at Ronnies about 15 years ago and I was totally in awe both of her incredible vocal skill, the tone and quality of her voice, her ability to jazz and tell a story, but also those incredible arrangements, written by her. Her version of Button Up Your Overcoat, is amazing, she turns an upbeat jolly tune into something quite menacing. She opened up my eyes when it comes to interpreting songs, I’ve definitely been influenced by that. Her ‘live’ version of tears of a clown is just incredible, check it out on Spotify. But I’ve been inspired by so many singers, Tierney Sutton is another incredible singer, not to mention the incredible singers we have in this country, Lianne Carroll of course and that ballsy, passionate voice, just stunning, but also Liz Fletcher, another wonderful singer and her warm, engaging, encompassing quality that draws you in. There are really just way too many singers I’m in awe of!
LJN: What’s the story about the “problematic second album”
BB: Well, there isn’t a problem exactly, it’s just that the second album has now become the third as when I’ve started to get into it, I’ve realised this is a long old project and I really don’t want to rush it, it means a lot to me, so I’m just going to take my time, have fun and just enjoy the journey. It’ll be done when it’s done. But meanwhile, I’ve been asked quite a bit recently when I’m releasing my next album, so I’ve decided to release one before that. So that is in process now and I’m hoping it will be ready early next year. I’m in no rush to just churn things out though, I’d rather do a good job and have something that I’m really proud of and that means something to me and hopefully then to other people.
LJN: What kind of songs will you be singing in March Don’t give all the surprises away but what can people expect?
BB: I’ve got a real mix for the gig in March. I’ll sing a couple of the top tracks from the album, but most of what I’ll sing will be new and I’ll have some fabulous new arrangements for some of the songs too. There’ll be a mix of some great standards people will know and some more unusual songs they might not have heard of, plus one of the things I love doing is taking songs from other genre’s and turning them in to jazz so there will be one or two surprises and possibly raised eyebrows!
LJN: Slade…. what’s that about?!
BB: Yep! That would be the raised eyebrows bit…! I’m not telling you which song, but I was inspired by Paul Anka’s Rock Swings (cracking album) I loved what he did there. So I’ve taken a very well known Slade song and turned into a swing number…And breathe… all you purists out there! It’s good, I promise you! Come and see…! B xx
LINKS: Review by Sarah Chaplin of Beverley Beirne at the Pheasantry from 2014
Beverley Beirne’s website