Photo credit: Adama Jalloh
London-based singer Zara McFarlane’s new album is released on 29 September. Peter Jones went to talk to her about it.
Tucked down a side street off an unglamorous north London thoroughfare is the anonymous warehouse-like building that houses Gilles Peterson’s record label Brownswood. Ducking under the half-closed steel shutter proves only mildly hazardous, and seconds later Zara McFarlane herself appears.
Like many people, I first became aware of her five years ago, when she released her quiet, sophisticated take on Junior Murvin’s reggae tune Police and Thieves (also covered by the Clash, incidentally). On that recording were tenor player Binker Golding, bassist Max Luthert, drummer Moses Boyd and pianist Peter Edwards – most of them, like Zara, alumni of the Tomorrow’s Warriors organization that has brought so much young British jazz talent to public attention. My first live encounter was a gig she performed with Nicola Conte next to the O2 – a bizarre scenario, in which the musicians had to compete with people noisily ten-pin bowling a few yards away.
Today Zara has a new album to talk about. Titled Arise, it’s refreshing in its strong Caribbean resonances and use of multi-layered vocal harmonies, all sung by McFarlane herself. And among the featured musicians are her long-time collaborators Edwards, Golding, Luthert and Boyd (who also produced it), as well as Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet and bass clarinet.
I ask whether it had been the classic ‘difficult’ third album. She laughs.
“Yeah, it was! It took me a bit longer to work on this one. We were touring quite a bit with the last one, and there were quite a few changes in my set-up. I had a manager that I stopped working with towards the end of that tour, and I was reassessing what I wanted to do next – if I wanted to make another album, or take a different direction and do other things. Although the second one was difficult, too, because I was on a two-album deal with Brownswood, so it was necessary to make another one.”
Deciding whether or not to make another album was a serious question, career-wise: Zara has fingers in many pies at present. She’s writing a musical for the Stratford East Theatre, part of a programme to involve musicians and writers not traditionally associated with musical theatre. It’s something she’s always wanted to do, and in pursuit of the project she has been researching Caribbean folk stories, exploring her own Jamaican heritage. The Jerwood Charitable Foundation has provided funds for her to go to Jamaica to research the island’s early folk music, which infuses the rhythms on the new album: these include Kumina (a Congolese style of drumming used in religious ceremonies) and nyabinghi (chants that became an influence on ska, rocksteady and reggae).
This year was also her debut season with the Royal Shakespeare Company as the featured singer in Antony and Cleopatra (directed by Iqbal Khan) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, performing music written by Laura Mvula. So yes, making an album as well could have proved a step too far, even for someone with McFarlane’s fearsome work ethic.
Aside from the vocal harmony groups like Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices or Rare Silk, vocal harmonies are relatively unusual in jazz. How did she develop that sound?
“I was listening to a lot of reggae music – people like The Abyssinians and The Congos, that area of reggae that had a lot of harmony in it. High harmonies as well, and a lot of those artists were male, singing very high, beautiful harmonies. It’s something that I’d always been interested in exploring. So I knew I wanted this album to have more of a rhythmical focus and a vocal harmony focus.”
This obviously poses questions about how the music will be performed live, whether through the use of live backing singers or recorded samples. Given the album’s personnel, I wondered how important her early involvement with Tomorrow’s Warriors had been.
“I met Jeanine (Irons) and Gary (Crosby) when I was about 21, doing my undergrad degree. I’d been working in music for quite a long time before that, but not quite at that level, because they can give you the opportunities to perform with great jazz musicians, and touring, and doing that kind of thing.
“For me the importance of Tomorrow’s Warriors was more to do with jazz specifically. I started writing when I was 11, so I was experimenting, and pushing myself to write and perform from quite a young age. But with Tomorrow’s Warriors it was the jazz focus that I got to experience, on a very high level. I wasn’t listening to a lot of jazz. I’d studied musical theatre at Brit School, so when I went to do my undergrad degree at a place called Vocaltech, which is now part of the the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (Thames Valley University at the time), I was doing a Popular Music degree. It had a jazz module on the course, and I ended up doing jazz gigs with my teacher Ian McKenzie at various restaurants and bars. He was very complimentary about my voice, and thought it was well suited to jazz. Which was very sweet of him, because he’s a singer and pianist himself, so he didn’t really need me to be performing with him.”
McFarlane knew some jazz standards through her musical theatre studies, but at home her parents only listened to reggae, so jazz was not something she grew up with. Following this new direction, she went along one evening to one of the Tomorrow’s Warriors jam sessions held at the Jazz Café. Hearing Zara’s extraordinary voice, Jeanine Irons beckoned her into the office for a serious chat. Soon afterwards she found herself working with Hugh Masekela and the Jazz Jamaica All-Stars.
Lyrically, there’s a lot on the new album about conflict, social comment, politics… and there’s a hint of the revolutionary in that red beret she wears on the cover. I ask about lyrics generally.
“[Arise] was a difficult album to write lyrically – I knew musically what I wanted to be inspired by, but I wasn’t sure early on what I wanted to say. I wasn’t in a place to write love songs or anything like that. It took me a while to work out what the music was telling me to say. And it was coming back to that idea of unrest, and things are not OK, people are unhappy in the world, but particularly in the UK. I started writing before Brexit, but there was a sense that something was happening, there were going to be big changes… and I suppose you reflect on those things, and have an opinion on them and that’s what came out in the music, to some degree.”
Live dates in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Norway and France are planned for early 2018, and before that there’s Birmingham’s Pizza Express on 26 October, followed by a date at Rich Mix on 15 November – with a 10-piece band – for the London Jazz Festival.