Emily Saunders has a new single out and will be launching it as well as previewing her next album, Broken, in a series of performances in September and October. But before that she is at The Other Palace in Victoria. She spoke to Martin Chilton, for LondonJazz News:
Music has always been an integral part of Emily Saunders’ life – her earliest memory, she reveals, is of standing up under the grand piano at the family home in London.
Following the release of her sparkling new single All As One, and in the run-up to a series of UK gigs, the jazz singer-songwriter talked to LondonJazz about her career and her vibrant background.
“I grew up steeped in music,” says Saunders. “My whole family was focused on music in different ways, from my Nana, to my parents, uncles, sister and cousins. My dad is a classical pianist, and played jazz on the piano late at night. Recordings from Messiaen to Bach to Oscar Peterson to Miles Davis would surround the house most of the time. My dream as a little kid was to sing and play the piano like Nina Simone.”
Saunders has a formative memory of being a child in such a musical household. “My earliest memory is standing up under the grand piano, so I must have been quite small. As I grew slightly taller as a kid, floating by the piano, I would simply sit down and write songs as a way of life. My mum gave me piano lessons when I was little. I found things like aural tests a fun game, and then studied music on the Pimlico special music course.”
Saunders, who also attended the Centre for Young Musicians, and played with the London Schools bands and Orchestras, recognises the value of music education. “It was an amazing gift of state music lessons, and structures, which have enabled so many of us who are known on the scene today, to have grown up musically to become who we are today,” she says.
Her own progress as a musician has been impressive. Her first two albums, Cotton Skies (2011), and Outsiders Insiders (2015), which she also arranged and produced, brought widespread acclaim and earned the praise of stars such as Jamie Cullum, who described her as “absolutely brilliant”.
Saunders uses her voice in a very instrumental way. “To me the voice is without doubt an instrument,” Saunders explains. “My undergraduate degree was as a clarinettist, and anyone who’s heard me play clarinet says that they can hear my clarinet in my voice. I went on to explore and study my first love, jazz voice, as a Masters at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London. I love the way the voice is both an instrument and a vehicle for words. I love music and language.”
She was inspired by a variety of singers when she was growing up and they all demonstrated different qualities. “Many vocalists inspired me, from those who are potent and powerful with their use of words, such as Nina Simone, to those who are vocal gymnasts such as Betty Carter,” says Saunders. “I also admire those who are free and unbounded, such as Flora Purim. For me the voice needs to be one’s own sound, almost like your own accent, combined with artistic delivery – both inspired by others, but also exploring what’s your own innate sound, what’s important for you to say, and how you want to say it.”
Saunders has brought her own eclectic styles to her previous albums and live performances, a self-styled Latin mix that places a London twist on upbeat samba and Baião tunes. It’s a lively blend of spirited grooves, resonant basslines and sultry ballads. How would she describe her style of jazz? “It is definitely predominantly influenced by Brazilian jazz, but there’s also influences from many styles I love, such as funk, reggae, trip-hop, drum and bass. I wouldn’t say you can always hear these specific styles in my music, but that’s what I mean by listening, being influenced and then creating your own sound.”
She has always been a fan of Latin-based music. Does she enjoy the work of Astrud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim? “Astrud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim are wonderful; however, my favourite influence has been the groove and instrumental use of the voice in Brazilian music, such as Hermeto Pascoal, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim.”
All As One (Mix Sounds) contains lyrics about music “melting out the night and day”, with people dancing together “‘til the morning light”. The song celebrates connection and togetherness. Has she remained a positive person despite the bleakness of some aspects of the modern world? “Yes totally,” replies Saunders. “All As One, from its title to its words and music, is full of positive happy-go-lucky effervescent energy – and is all about much-needed connection in our society. As much as anyone, I know that life is tough, but it is also beautiful and, most importantly, it really is what we make of it, and how we deal or work with ‘our bag’, so to speak. I also feel we have a responsibility to spread positivity, love and connection as much as possible in our world today.”
Saunders has enjoyed being back cutting songs again. “I love to be in the studio recording – singing really is ‘me’, if you know what I mean,” she says. “When I sing on stage, I’m not nervous, I’m having a gorgeous time sharing sounds and words with people. We are all creating a moment in time together that means a lot to me.”
There is a fun video version of All As One you can watch on YouTube, and it certainly looks like it was fun to make a home-made mini-video for the song. “I was on holiday by the sea, where I love to take photos,” recalls Saunders. “A lovely person who is a fan of my music contacted me to make the All As One official video which was in process at the time. So I thought it would be fun to play with my camera and create the mini-video in the meantime.”
Here is the official video:
Saunders is a socially conscious lyricist and she has composed all seven songs that are due to appear on the forthcoming 2020 album Broken. What is her process for writing a song? “I love writing songs, composing music and arranging the lot,” she says. “I started writing songs as a little child and for me it’s a way of life. Sometimes I start with a bassline or chord sequences, and sometimes I start with words that come to me just walking along the road. Then I simply ‘mould the pot’, expanding and developing the material into a full composition, arranged for the band to play.”
She has an obvious musical understanding with her musicians – trumpeter Byron Wallen, pianist Carl Hudson, bass player Paul Michael and drummer Winston Clifford – and pays tribute to their input. “The guys I work with are simply amazing, in my opinion all geniuses in their own right,” Saunders says. “It’s always wonderful to work with them and we definitely have fun on stage!”
Saunders is a busy musician who is also a radio presenter – you can find her shows The Voice Mix and The Latin Mix on JazzLondonRadio.com – and she is looking forward to the forthcoming series of gigs. As well as a concert at The Other Palace in Victoria, Saunders and her band will be playing at the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury (27 September), Jazz Cafe Posk, Hammersmith, (4 October), Leggate Theatre, University of Liverpool (23 October) and La Havana Jazz Club, Southsea (25 October).
Her immediate return is at The Other Place, which seems to be one of her favourite London venues. “I love The Other Palace, it’s a fantastic stage, PA, vibe, and hugely accessible location! We’re there on Tuesday 29 August, celebrating ‘All As One’, which was released this month. We will also be playing special previews of our new singles that are coming soon ahead of my new album Broken being released next year.”
Saunders, who brings so much positivity through her music, has one final stirring message. “I’d like to dedicate this article, which reflects on my beginnings in music and family, to the memory of my mum, who passed away last week – together we played the piano and sang when I was a tiny child, giving me the foundations of who I am today.”
LINK: Emily Saunders’ website