|Irene Serra. Photo credit: Carolina Mazzolari|
UK-based Italian singer IRENE SERRA of -isq talked to Alison Bentley about her background in jazz and her band’s new CD, –isq TOO:
LondonJazz News: Tell me about your singing background?
Irene Serra: I grew up in Denmark and went to International Schools – they always had good music programmes. I studied music whilst I was growing up, singing in choirs and doing lots of musicals. I was 14 when I moved back to Milan and I asked around for a music school. I wanted to study classically at the Academy of Music in Milan, but I was told I was too young. They told me there was a jazz vocal tutor, and she turned out to be Tiziana Ghiglione, one of the best-known Italian jazz vocalists. I started doing lessons with her and I just loved them straight away. She made me improvise from the word go. My mother was a huge fan of Frank Sinatra – that was always there in the background while I was growing up, even though I always listened to lots of pop stuff as well. So that’s how I got into jazz. I came to the UK, and my first degree was in music and dance. After I finished that I just wanted to study music so I went to Goldsmith’s. Then I decided to do my Master’s and specialise in jazz, and I got in at the Guildhall. I was gigging all through on the London scene 10 or 12 years ago. I got the bug and it never left me.
LJN: Which other jazz singers do you really admire?
IR: So many! I remember hearing Anita O’Day and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness….’ I was already doing a lot of rhythmic displacements- what really excited me about jazz was the fact that I could change the melody so much. And when I heard her I completely understood what she was doing. She has a unique tone, so I loved her. I also majorly got into vocalese, and I still love it. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were the seminal jazz group that I would listen to a lot, and I’ve been to see Jon Hendricks every single time he’s come to London. He’s just immense. Kurt Elling I love very much. So – lots of very broad influences from the older stuff to the newer jazz vocalists.
LJN: There are a couple of examples of you singing vocalese on your website- “Moody’s Mood” and “Now’s the Time”, and I wondered if there’s been an Amy Winehouse influence there?
IS: She did Moody’s Mood for Love as well – yes, I remember hearing Amy Winehouse and her sound, and thinking. ‘Yeah, this is good stuff, I understand her phrasing.’ This was someone who listened to the jazz tradition. Definitely, I’ve listened to her music very much. Now’s the Time has the Eddie Jefferson lyrics, the godfather of vocalese. I think it’s the King Pleasure lyrics that Eddie Jefferson sang, which I just connected with, I thought they were great.
LJN: What about jazz instrumental influences?
IS: Loads. I think Miles Davis and Bill Evans are probably my favourites. They really sang with their instruments. It’s a really difficult thing to do as an instrumentalist. We take it for granted as vocalists. It’s the only thing we can do. As an instrumentalist you have to learn your instrument and then various patterns and how to play it- and then transcend all that completely, become one with your instrument. As vocalists we already are, so I found that when you hear Bill Evans play it sounds like he’s singing.
LJN: Any rock or pop influences?
IS: I very much love Björk, Prince, Michael Jackson – I grew up in the 80s and I have an older sister so I’ve listened to a lot of pop music. An incredibly exciting artist I’m listening to at the moment is a woman called Agnes Obel. It’s singer-songwriter stuff – she plays piano with a string quartet. Everybody in her band sings harmony and it’s just beautiful. I like Laura Mvula very much. Eric Whitacre as well – he’s a contemporary Classical composer. I’m listening to FKA Twigs at the moment – she’s kind of drum ‘n’ bass and very experimental. Anything that’s exciting!
LJN: There’s a lot of eclecticism in your music. What sort of things do the other band members bring to it? It has a band sound.
IS: We were really trying to do that. I’ve done loads of Standards gigs and Brazilian gigs. One of the wonderful things about jazz is that you turn up on the night and for the most part you don’t know who you’re going to be playing with. It’s exciting because it’s like a new conversation with lots of different people and styles of playing. But I think I really missed the feel of a band, which is what they used to have in the 50s. The Miles Davis Quintet and the Bill Evans Trio sound so amazing because these guys played together the whole time. We don’t have the luxury of so many gigs any more, but I really wanted to have a band sound. Everybody in the band has completely different tastes, but it comes together and works. John Crawford [piano] has his own Flamenco trio/quintet- we came together through our love of Brazilian music. He definitely plays a lot of World Music and jazz, and he’s done a lot of pop stuff as well. Chris Nickolls [drums] also plays a lot of jazz, but he’s very into experimental drum ‘n’ bass and does production as well. Richard Sadler [bass] plays blues and jazz, and listens to lots of singer-songwriter stuff- John Martyn and Elvis Costello. We’ve always loved playing lots of different things. This band is definitely not about limiting ourselves- it’s about seeing what happens.
LJN: It sounds like some more modern styles of electronic music – the drumming certainly, and the piano – it’s sometimes like sequenced music?
IS: Yes absolutely. That’s like a lot of music that Chris, Richard and I listen to, like Aphex Twin. But we still wanted to keep the acoustic flavour. And we’re a work in progress – we keep exploring and I hope we’ll keep growing and trying to push boundaries. I hope I will always keep searching.
LJN: Who writes the songs?
IS: I definitely write all the melodies and the lyrics. Otherwise I collaborate with Richard or Chris. Lyrical content all mine!
LJN: I like the contrast between the piano hooks, which are quite high on the keyboard and your voice, which is very low. Those hooks really get into the mind.
IS: We wanted to have a wide range of sounds, and let each instrument explore, so they don’t always have to do what they should be doing. So we definitely experiment a lot – there was a lot of discussion about what we were going to do with all the tracks. Sometimes it was also just a matter of key – for the bass line it was better to stay in a particular key, and so I had to rethink what I was doing vocally. We want the music to be the best it can be.
LJN: You do a lot with a few instruments – the arrangements are quite detailed.
IS: We’re all really into movie compositions, like Ennio Morricone. It’s quite dramatic music and I think some of my lyrics can be quite intense and dramatic. I have that soundscape in my head but we’re actually only four instruments. So there’s a lot of playing around to get the most out of each instrument – lots of textures. That’s definitely something we think about.
LJN: It sounds deceptively simple – sometimes there’s quite a simple hook line and then you find it’s in an incredibly complicated time signature.
IS: Some of the tunes have uneven time signatures but feel like they just came about – they move along very effectively.
LJN: Am I right in thinking there isn’t quite as much soloing on the new album as on the first one? Was that deliberate?
IS: No it wasn’t really. There was something more simple about this album. When we went to record the tracks they didn’t demand a solo. We did try and then it just felt a bit forced. When you come to see us live, things will open up because of who we are- we are improvising musicians. With the second album everything seemed a lot easier. I wanted to keep the simplicity in the lyrics as well. A lot of it is quite complex music, but the outcome hopefully will seem quite simple. I came back to the simplicity of translating my feelings, the band’s emotions into music and then hopefully giving that to the audience, without being bogged down by what people will think. It was just like taking it back to the roots. Hopefully loads of people are gonna like it but you can’t please everyone, we are who we are! We have a video coming out of the single Zion. It combines my two loves: music and contemporary dancing. We’re already working on some new material so maybe we’ll sneak some in at the launch gig as well. Just trying to get it out there and get as many people to listen to it as possible.
CD Release March 16th
Launch gig Pizza Express Jazz Club, London 29th April
Jazz@ Future Inn, Bristol 14th May
-isq – -isqTOO
Good insight into a great vocalist