Singer, pianist and songwriter SARA COLMAN has a new album, What We’re Made Of, out on Stoney Lane Records later this year. But before that, Sara and her new band (plus strings) have two concerts coming up. Peter Bacon met her at Stoney Lane’s home in Digbeth, Birmingham. In the first of two pieces for LondonJazz News Sara talks about the many aspects of the piecemeal existence of the working musician.
London Jazz News: You came from a musical family?
Sara Colman: My father was a doctor, my mother looked after us and then did all sorts of other things – she was very artistic and creative – but they were very musical as were my grandparents. There was lots of music around the house: jazz from my dad, pop from my mum, of the ‘70s variety. So I was listening to blues and Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald, and Abba and Carole King and John Denver – quite a wide variety of music. And then a lot of classical music also.
LJN: I’m aware you did the classical course at Birmingham Conservatoire – was that because they didn’t have the jazz course then?
SC: I wasn’t particularly into jazz at that point – I just wanted to be a singer and songwriter, and I didn’t want to be a classical singer but I wanted a good musical education. And I wasn’t ever going to be a concert pianist…
LJN: How did the move towards jazz happen, then?
SC: I guess… I was playing for Live Music Now [the charity started by Yehudi Menuhin which takes musicians into hospitals, care homes, etc] at college and I learnt about a whole different audience. Because a classical audience can often feel to a young person like a whole room of judges. Whereas I was out working with people who had profound dementia or MS or couldn’t move, or a terminal illness. It was totally about how I was going to communicate better, and not down the usual path. Al Gurr (pianist) and I did that for a long time and we learnt to play jazz in that environment – I would sing these songs over and over and get a bit bored and vary them a bit… With Live Music Now the standard of the music is a given; it’s about what you do beyond that. So that was a big lesson for me. It gave me a really good grounding for what I think you do music for.
LJN: Did you benefit, do you think, from having a more general musical college education rather than a specific jazz one?
SC: I tell you what did help – being a piano player. Being a singer who could play the piano, who knew about harmony, being a musician who was happy to sing but also knew what was happening…
LJN: There can be – and it’s linked to the men in jazz/women in jazz thing – a certain prejudice against singers, that they’re not “the real deal”, from certain male instrumentalists (albeit a minority). To be blunt: Have you ever been patronised?
SC: I have been patronised, obviously, because I’m a woman… I’ve often been patronised! But, like any musician – and I don’t think this is to do with being a woman – you get into a room with people you don’t know to play music, and there’s a period of “Who is this? And what’s she like? Does she know her ‘shit’, basically”. And that happens with anybody. And they quickly realise: OK, we’re not going to have to play her note; we’re not going to have to count her back in from the solo… I guess I felt more confident. I knew about keys, I knew what I wanted for an intro, I could handle the end… All the things that I try to help people with on the courses that I run – with semi-professional or amateur singers – the things that seem to them a bit scary.
LJN: You’ve done a fair bit of educational work…
SC: I’ve been teaching since I was about 15 or 16. Teaching/learning, because I’ve been doing some teaching, especially recently, where I’ve also been learning, massively.
LJN: So, linking these two trains of thought, what is the best way to get more women into jazz?
SC: The only way to do it is to have more women in jazz, and up the profile of those who are already there. The reason that women don’t think about a career in jazz is complicated, but I guess the reason the fall-off happens at about 13/14 years old is that women don’t see other women doing it, and I think that is subliminal, and perhaps they aren’t encouraged to do it. That drop-off is a factual thing. And it seems to have been addressed in classical music because there is a 50/50 equality there. I think Jazzlines [the Birmingham jazz organisation] is doing an amazing job with the Jazzlines Ensemble and the Summer School – it’s full of girls, full of young women playing instruments.
LJN: What is a typical working week for you?
SC: Well, I’m very happy to say that my working week is never the same. I teach at the Conservatoire and at the Guildhall – singing, harmony and repertoire – and I do a little bit of private teaching… I spend some time writing music… I also do workshops with Liane Carroll and Sophie Bancroft – we run four or five residential workshops a year, I’ve just come back from Cromarty in Scotland. And I also do some songwriting workshops.
LJN: And you’ve also done vocal coaching for corporate clients?
SC: Yes, as part of a coaching team who deal with senior management, corporate bankers, disrupting their thought processes…
LJN: So it’s not teaching them to sing, as such…
SC: No, not at all. It’s a metaphorical experience… It’s very much a performance. It’s for a company called BTFI which stand for Beyond The Fuck It. It’s run by Richard Tyler who was a big West End singer and actor. He retrained as a psychologist and motivational speaker, and is a very good business coach. I met him through Al Gurr, who also works with him. They wanted a vocal coach, and the very first one I did was on Wall Street in the headquarters of J P Morgan with a group of 40 New York bankers.
LJN: How was that?
SC: It was terrifying! It was amazing also. Since then, we’ve been to Malaysia and Indonesia, and Honk Kong and all parts of America… I really enjoyed the travel, I really enjoyed the business-class travel, that was nice! It’s another part of the piecemeal existence of the working musician.
You can hear Sara Colman with the band from her new Stoney Lane album, What We’re Made Of – pianist Rebecca Nash, guitarist Steve Banks, bassist Ben Markland, drummer Jonathan Silk, plus String Quartet – and support from The Magic Lantern, in Hall Two of Kings Place, London, on Friday 11 May. The band is also playing on the stage of Symphony Hall in Birmingham on Wednesday 16 May. (pp)
NEXT TIME: Sara talks about songwriting and the new album.