“My quest is freedom on stage – freedom through music and expression.” French vocal artist Leila Martial won the 2020 Les Victoires du Jazz prize. She spoke to Alison Bentley about her different projects and her love of improvisation.
Have women musicians been an influence on you?
I realised that the women who influenced me are singers and the instrumentalists who’ve influenced me are men. This is changing, but in the past girls were singers. There are many: Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Bjork, Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, Maria Callas. Bobby McFerrin is a guy! There are a lot of women but they’re anonymous, because they’re from ethnic or traditional music and there’s no name on the CD.
Which jazz instrumentalists are your favourites?
I love Eric Dolphy. He’s my model in the way he goes into music, with something really different to say. He catches the universe – he goes into it but he also brings something new in contrast. Lee Konitz, Emile Parisien, Médéric Collignon, Tigran Hamasyan. I’m influenced by the legends, but also a lot by the people I grew up with.
You improvise around classical songs in your duo FiL [with cellist Valentin Ceccaldi]…
My parents used to listen to classical music so I grew up with these melodies – it’s part of my background, my intimate landscape. I’m not a fan of the classical interpretation so very often I find a piece that touches me and just go in and try something with it – Fauré, Bériot, Purcell.
Also, Bach is a passion for me. I’ve been focussing a lot on him recently. I find a lot of ways to have fun with the music, to try new stuff – and to destroy it. It’s a good way to discover things.
What about the French traditions of singing and mime?
My mother used to listen to good singers – I listened a lot to Barbara, Piaf, Colette Magny, Brel, Brassens. The language you speak and sing with modifies your voice. When I sing in French you are in the last century!
When I did my first performance as a clown, I really felt fear! My quest is freedom on stage, freedom through music and expression. It’s poetic and surrealist. Humour is everywhere all the time if you enjoy what you’re doing, like a child – it can be funny because it’s happy.
You said your voice is like a toy…
I’m not just telling a joke – it feels like a child discovering something.
You have an amazing vocal range. Do you train your voice?
Yeah, a lot. I try to imitate the stuff I hear, to find new sounds; to find new ways to extend the limits; to feel what happens. Not just aesthetic and beautiful things, but the experience of sounds. I also like speed – it’s a challenge to go fast and hear fast things.
On your first album, Dance Floor, you sing very fast bebop lines…
I was younger and closer to the tradition. I wanted to say something original, and I’m still searching. I’m included in this jazz family because of my love of improvisation. I feel that I come from this music, but from freedom and improvisation, not from swing and tradition. I used to sing it and I loved it, but as I got older I found my own sound and style.
With Anne Paceo’s Circles, you sing in extraordinary improvised languages…
They come from my childhood games. I used to imitate the languages I heard and I’ve never stopped doing that!
Do you write most of your music?
It depends on the project. With Baa Box [with Eric Perez, drums/vocals and Pierre Tereygeol, guitar] we compose together or sometimes just one of us. The “baa” refers to the sound of goats! With my solo set, for example, there are pieces of Bach, and others I composed.
Do you plan where the improvisation should come?
Yeah – we have a structure in the concerts and songs. Inside the structure we go fffffft! We are preparing new stuff with the trio, giving more space to vocals and acoustic stuff, and we’re going to have two different parts on stage: one around the microphone at the front like bluegrass style, and then we’ll go to the back of the stage with amplified instruments and more rock.
How did your style develop when you started using electronic effects pedals?
When I started with the looper it was a way for me to thicken the sound, maybe 14 years ago. Later I added some harmonisers and stuff. I use them like an extension of my principal “pedal” which is my voice. It’s an organic approach.
You’ve talked about “the ecology of living music”…
I needed to be aware that every act we do has an impact. We need to be more respectful towards nature and our ecosystem. This is a state of mind – to consume less.
What are your future plans?
I love [Italian guitarist] Francesco Diodati’s music. We are preparing our next trio [Oliphanter] CD and waiting to find the right release date.
I’m working a lot on my solo performance – there will be a new album and show. I also have a big project with Aka pygmies. I spent one month in the forest, and there’s a show and documentary. I’m really involved in this – it’s like a dream. [Project teaser video above].
Do you have any advice for women on International Women’s Day?
To love each other. When we find something, and some freedom, we find it for all the community of women. And also between the generations: I feel we are all women with the same passion from the little girl to the oldest woman.
LINK: Leila Martial’s website