Photo credit: Andrew Lipscombe
Jazz vocalist Emily Saunders presents her Voice Mix show this coming weekend at The Other Palace in London. In this interview with Sarah Chaplin she talks about her forthcoming album, her crowd-funder campaign and her work as a broadcaster, musician and producer.
LondonJazz News: How did your concept for ‘The Voice Mix’ show come about?
Emily Saunders: I’ve performed a number of times before at The Other Place (formerly St James Theatre), which incidentally is a great central London venue – good sound and a fantastic stage – and so this is one of a series of live shows I’ve done with invited artists I’ve met and wanted to promote in some way as part of The Voice Mix. We record the show and as well as a live set by each guest artist, I interview each of them, and then later edit it all together along with some of their pre-recorded material to create a radio show for JAZZLONDONRADIO. This one will go out some time in the autumn, and my guest artists this Saturday (24 June) are Melissa James and Marcus Joseph.
LJN: Why did you choose to feature these two artists?
ES: I’ve known Melissa’s work for a while and I really like what she does and the fact that it doesn’t sit entirely within one genre of music, but cuts across several. I met Marcus up in Leicester when I did a gig there for Leicester Jazz, and I just thought what he was doing was really creative, so he’s a great person to bring along and perform with my band in London. It’s a mixture of voices and styles: jazz, blues, soul, funk, reggae, so whilst there is a strong jazz connection, it’s a format that’s open to all the other genres to come in and produce The Voice Mix.
LJN: Is it important to you not to pigeonhole music too much?
ES: Well I was initially a classical clarinettist, and in that genre your role is to be a vessel for someone else’s music to go through; you have to conform to being very much what other people want you to be, rather than as a creator and inventor of your own sound. So for me, the move to jazz wasn’t about replicating somebody else’s version of the music but about working with improvisation, and so as much as I prefer performing my own material, I love doing jazz standards too, I love that within the format of a typical jazz head, there’s so much scope to do different things with a tune.
LJN: How has your own music developed over the time since your first album Cotton Skies?
ES: I’ve always been a big fan of Latin based music – particularly the work of Airto Moreira – and I was playing a lot of his tunes, but I also had a number of compositions of my own which, when I tried them out on my band, they seemed to really like. So I played them at a gig and the audiences seemed to really like them as well, and that made me think I should record them. Cotton Skies was half a collection of songs written by some wonderful Latin composers and half my songs, and I had no idea if it would be well received as an album, but for a debut it went down really well and that was really inspiring.
LJN: Was it the same process when you recorded your second album, Outsiders, Insiders?
ES: No, it was quite different because I planned Outsiders, Insiders. I thought a lot about what I wanted it to contain, so it’s very much a concept, where it was about the inside and the outside of the music in a way – as a body of sound – it has connecting passages that became part of each tune, and it’s more philosophical so the songs are offered as a form of social commentary. I was pleased to be able to take what I’d created on Cotton Skies a step further.
LJN: You’ve just recorded your third album, can you tell us a bit about that?
ES: It’s called Broken, and it’s got a massive connection to Outsiders, Insiders but I feel that my compositional skills and my songwriting and my understanding of how to create an album has reached another level. The planning was very thorough, and I can’t wait for it to get out there! It’s going to be mixed in July and it will come out in the autumn in time for the London Jazz Festival.
LJN: Does the new album make use of the same line-up of musicians and instruments as previously?
ES: Largely yes – I’ve got such a fantastic band, and this time I’ve brought in some guitar for the recording for additional texture, but it’s pretty much fully arranged for the band and it was amazing to hear their performances and soloing on each the tracks. It’s called Broken because it reflects the fragility of society and draws from the past as well as the present musically, producing a really diverse mix of material, and in that way it’s consistent with The Voice Mix show I’m putting on and the radio shows as well. As people we’re melting pots of information and out of that comes our own voice – we absorb so many things from all around us, and that becomes our sound, whether it’s accents, philosophies, instruments, or whatever.
LJN: Why did you decide to use a crowdfunding model to finance this particular project?
ES: Absolute necessity! It costs a lot to produce an album and sales have been greatly hit by streaming. I had a steep increase in sales between my first album and my second album but since then, online streaming has had a massive impact on record sales. Even though streaming and radio play gives you exposure and it’s very immediate and obviously here to stay, the stats demonstrate that it hasn’t followed the same growth curve from the artist’s perspective, or translated into income. The PledgeMusic model has made me realise how valuable my audience is. Because without my audience it wouldn’t get played on the radio, without my audience there wouldn’t be people at gigs to buy my album, so it’s more of a journey together, and without the support of the crowd funder, the album just wouldn’t happen. It made me realise that it’s a relationship that you’re creating, so it’s been a reflective moment to really value people and their reaction to what you do. It’s similar to social media in a way: a lot of people criticise it, but it really gives artists an opportunity to connect with your audience and for them to find out more about you.
LJN: It seems that there’s more of the political aspect to your latest work – is this the case?
ES: I wouldn’t call it political but I’d say my music is socially aware and socially reflective. I think I always have been, but given what’s going on right now I can’t help thinking how can we as artists not speak up and be part of the conversation about what’s important in our society? Things are too volatile at this point in time for any of us to be quiet, we all need to articulate what’s important to make sure that our society is a positive loving, connected, developing, constructive, harmonious place to be. It will only be that if we make it so; you enable the change by being part of that change, whether through music or any other medium. I write about what I see around me, as well as how I perceive other people’s experiences. Basically I think there are innate truths in all of us, and I’m very interested in representing this through music. My new album’s got a good balance of happy-go-lucky songs and also some that are more hard-hitting.
LJN: Is this going to be reflected into the album cover design?
ES: I hope so. I’ve gone for a strong graphical look for the album. The photography is done and the cover is in the process of being designed. It’s my own label so I have the freedom to do what I want with it, which is great, including the production side. It’s something I’m hoping to expand into, maybe producing music for other artists too: I love production, there’s so much you can do with recorded sound nowadays; I love the fact that you can take the raw recordings to a whole other level and for me that’s an important part of the composition process.
LJN: So are you planning to have any time off after all this?
ES: Well I’m thinking of putting my feet up a bit in August. However, writing new songs often happens in those moments when you’ve awarded yourself some time out! (pp)