Photo credit: Bill Westmoreland.
“My voice could have been given to anyone,” says Suffolk-born singer POLLY GIBBONS and nominee for Best Vocalist at the 2017 JazzFM Awards. with her typical down-to-earth modesty. In this interview she talks to Tomasz Furmanek:
Tomasz Furmanek: Where does your story begin?
Polly Gibbons: I am a farmer’s daughter and I grew up in a village in Suffolk, I’m one of seven siblings – together we are six girls and one boy. My Mother is the daughter of a Baptist minister who married a local farmer from Suffolk, my Dad. My faith is an important part of my life. I went to church every Sunday as a child, but of late, I haven’t been regularly for some time. Although I would say that the issues of the soul and faith are a complicated subject, I do have a strong faith. On the other hand, when it comes to music, it never (though it seems strange) did feature in my dreams or fantasies. I remember the first time I consciously thought of music. It was when I watched the “Blues Brothers” movie and Aretha Franklin was singing “Think!” in some café! It was before I even knew I could sing. I just loved Aretha and I kept rewinding this part of the movie again and again. I admired how unmistakably and courageously she attacked the sound. Prior to that I was mostly interested in theatre – my uncle set up a theatre in Suffolk.
TF: Do you remember when you discovered your singing voice?
PG: My cousin heard me once singing a chorus of a hip hop song from the 80s and she said to me,” Polly, you have a really great voice! ” Then she made me sing in front of my family. As a result, I began to have a few lessons with a local friend who taught me how to breathe properly while singing and I later joined her son’s band.
My first public performance took place when I was 14, during a school Christmas concert, I sang I’d Rather Go Blind by Etta James and got a standing ovation. I was somewhat surprised at the reaction, but the kind of positive attention I received after the performance at school, changed things in a pleasant way and I continued to pursue it. Previously I’d had a hard time at school, the kids were pretty nasty, teasing me and calling me names. Quite suddenly, as soon as it became known that I could sing and was musical, there was an interesting change in the social dynamics of my school relationships. I was welcome, heard many compliments and suddenly everyone wanted to be friends with me!
TF: What is the story of Ian Shaw taking up your cause?
PG: Ian ran a vocal workshop near Suffolk which I attended when I was 16 years old. He noticed my voice and was very impressed with my singing. He says he had a little cry when he heard me sing! He offered to produce my first album, which he did a year later. It was Ian who introduced me to the London jazz scene and thanks to his recommendation I had my first serious concert in London. At one point I moved in with him to an apartment in Elephant & Castle, where we lived together for a year – my first year in London.
TF: Did he teach you?
PG: We didn’t really have any lessons together, but I learnt so much from spending time with him and seeing his shows. Living together, we mainly enjoyed eating delicious food and watching South Park on television! Of course, he was teaching me while not being a teacher as such. Meeting him and getting to know him was a special time and thanks to him my introduction to the London jazz scene was something wonderful.
TF: Tell us about the album Is It Me? ..
PG: This is my second record for George Klabin’s Resonance Records. I think with this album George got to know me and the possibilities of my singing a little better, because I’m not just a jazz vocalist. I am very bluesy, I like soul, gospel – many different musical influences have shaped my style and my development as a singer. George allowed me to cover many aspects of my musical personality on this recording and I have a 7-piece brass section there, so the sound is dynamic. I also recorded three songs I had written.
|Polly Gibbons in Montreal in July 2017
Photo credit: LJN
TF: And you are becoming better-known in North America…
PG: It began five years ago when someone from an internet television station asked me if I wanted to record a video for them. I agreed and they then approached George at Resonance Records regarding the internet station. He was not up for helping to fund the station but was very interested in me! He called me and as a result, four months later, I was recording an album in Beverley Hills for his label. ‘Many faces of love’ was my first American album recorded for this company. The latest, “Is It Me ..?” is the second one, and it has gathered really good reviews both in the States and here, which is very cool. This year I have been to America five times, in the previous year four, so I’m fairly regularly performing there.
TF: The awareness of having such a unique voice must be something fantastic. How does it make you feel?
PG: To be honest, I think it’s one of those things that, in a sense, happens completely without our influence or merit. My voice could be given to anyone else, so I’m not particularly excited by this and I really don’t give it too much thought. When I’m on stage I always try to focus on how I can connect with the audience, how I can best share my music and how to fully convey the content of the song, convey true emotions. Since God, whom I trust absolutely as a loving Creator, gave me a voice, it feels to a certain extent that it is my job to use it and share it as well as possible.
TF: Does faith give you more confidence and stop many doubts?
PG: Yes and no, because the so-called music industry is an indescribably difficult and quite terrible business. One of the worst! I am acting and I go forward, in a sense, in spite of this industry. I try to stand pretty firmly on the ground, I think it’s a necessary feature to try to have. As I mentioned, anyone could happen to have my voice, but as it happened to me, then I think I have a certain set of challenges to try to cope somehow and move forward. For example, I stopped singing for two years when I went through a sort of breakdown due to various accumulating things.
TF: But you sorted things out, didn’t you?
PG: More or less. It’s a weird experience really and you can’t ‘un’know, what you know! But, I went through it and I’m here! It was a period of hibernation. I think my mother and her support were the key to overcoming this state. She took very good care of me.
TF: And you were nominated at the 2017 JazzFM Awards – who were the other nominees?
PG: Carleen Anderson and Norma Winstone. Norma won the award, and it would have been odd if this award had been given to myself or Carleen and not her as she is a legend of British jazz. I remember thinking that the fact that I was placed in a row with Norma and Carleen was something wonderful and flattering. This nomination was a very nice surprise.
TF: Could you move to America one day?
PG: Never say never, but I love my family very much and I would like to be close to them. I’m obviously familiar with English culture, in general, European culture is close to me and America is very different and takes some adjusting to. There is a problem of a political nature at the moment as well, but over here, I suppose, it is not much better! Ha! However, I’ve met many absolutely wonderful people over there – very, very lovely people, so I am enjoying the trips and exploring the massive country that it is! My struggle sometimes is with a kind of hyper positivity that you can be met with sometimes, which can be hard to decipher as real or with depth.
TF: But here too, it is the same: all the pressure that everyone must always be happy, lovely, bubbly, easy going and God knows what else…
PG: Yes, you’re right. I will never forget the six weeks I spent in Tanzania. I remember how for a little while I thought that especially the Tanzanian women were super serious and that they looked like something had seriously pissed them off. But it turned out that they were absolutely happy, absolutely fine. I remember at one point one of the women, who for some reason wanted we all called her “mamma”, asked me: “Polly, why are you smiling all the time? Why do white people smile all the time? ” I began to wonder about our smiling, It’s kind of like we need this smile to pave our way. It’s a sort of defence mechanism, as in: “Do not attack me!” But, maybe it’s just ok to say “hi”, assuming everything is okay… It’s funny, it seems to be based on something a little paranoid and insecure. I suppose America has its extreme version of this, though definitely it is found in the UK too. Consumerism, our culture of vanity. I find it hard to live with because it is not what I believe in. I am more interested in the human heart and what is inside us. Things that make us who we really are.
Polly Gibbons is headlining at Ronnie Scott’s on Saturday 14 October.(two shows)