Amy Sibley-Allen talks to London-based guitarist and composer Shirley Tetteh on catching up on sleep during the pandemic, the wonders of neuroscience podcasts, her dreams to play women’s football in the US and her newly discovered “creative love” for Miranda July.
Shirley Tetteh is usually extremely busy. Before the pandemic hit she was touring a lot, working with the renowned female collective Nérija, which she co-founded, afro-jazz group Maisha and Cassie Kinoshi’s 10 piece Collective, SEED Ensemble. An extremely sought-after guitarist, she was also playing with countless others and, in addition, has been fostering her own solo writing project Nardeydey, fusing jazz and left-field pop.
When I ask how she’s been doing through the pandemic she immediately replies “catching up on sleep” – referring to her busy schedule in the lead-up to the first lockdown. Definitely “too much touring and not enough sleeping,” she states. “Writing whilst doing everything else was hard. I’ve not slept well in years.”
As for many of us, the last year has provided an opportunity for Tetteh to slow down and she says it will be interesting to see if “touring comes back in the same way”. Has she now managed to catch up on sleep? Thankfully yes, and Tetteh is quick to praise the podcast from neuroscientist Andrew Huberman for his part in that: “He explores a variety of tools to help us lead a happier and healthier life, his episode on sleep and setting your body clock differently is really good.”
Besides resetting her sleep patterns last year, Tetteh was also nominated for the Jazz FM Instrumentalist of the Year award, alongside Binker Golding and Mark Kavuma, something she says she was “a bit surprised” about. Her modesty is clear but she admits “it’s a good feeling to think my playing had that impact on people.”
Life could have taken her in a very different direction to music. Until the age of 16 she was in fact set on becoming a professional footballer and her dream was to move to the US to pursue that career. Things didn’t turn out quite as expected though and an injury ultimately set her on a new path. “I did go back to football initially,” she says. “But in order to become the footballer I wanted to be I realised I’d need to do a lot of training and wasn’t sure I had the discipline. That and I didn’t know how to ask for the support to get where I wanted to be.” Does she regret giving it up? “Looking back, it was a mistake to give up like that,” she admits. “But it allowed me to focus on music. I knew what it was like to quit something when it got hard and wasn’t going to let that happen again.”
It wasn’t until aged 11 that Tetteh started playing guitar, after “messing around with a couple of other instruments” first. While it was the electric guitar that ultimately became her instrument, she started out taking lessons on classical at school. “I actually thought that the lessons were free, which is one of the reasons I did it. It wasn’t until much later I realised that in fact my mum was paying for the lessons but kept that quiet,” she says.
It was quite a few years before jazz became an interest. “Up until I was about 18 I was listening to a lot of Eric Clapton, playing acoustic guitar and working on my claw-hammer technique, which was great, but I wanted to expand the scope of my writing, I needed a new challenge, a path,” she remembers. “That’s when jazz came along for me”. In her current solo endeavour, Nardeydey, she also does vocals but when she first got into jazz she “didn’t sing for four years” as playing took over.
Something that Tetteh has revisited throughout her career to date is how to dissociate herself as a person from her ability to play. “It has taken years to figure out but has made my practice better,” she explains. “I can focus on what I still need to learn without getting in my own way.” It sounds like it has been quite transformative. “You are not how well you do the thing, whatever that is,” she says. “It’s about learning to not take criticism so personally.”
Playing and practising with Nubya Garcia and Sheila Maurice-Grey at The Southbank when she was younger really helped to explore what she was capable of. “At that stage, it could be tough playing at jam sessions when I felt like I wasn’t always good enough,” she says. “I was aware of how much more I wanted to learn and our time together gave me that safe space.”
As we are talking ahead of International Women’s Day, I wondered who Tetteh’s inspired by at the moment? Laughing, she replies she is currently “creatively falling in love with Miranda July”, the American multidisciplinary artist. “I’ve just started a deep dive into her discography. From music EPs, albums and short films to performance art and lots of movement-based stuff – her work is really interesting.” Tetteh also talks of how many inspiring women there are playing in the jazz scene today, many who play with her in Nérija, and she’s keen to highlight “what a privilege it is to know them.”
What else is Tetteh up to these days? Having been selected as one for the artists on Sound and Music’s New Voices composer scheme, she is exploring “feeding in visuals” to her music, adding: “Not just music with great visuals, but something where you genuinely can’t separate the two, where the composition is both elements and neither can be understood without the other.”
Modest and curious, Tetteh is keen to learn and grow not just in terms of her musical development but as a person, trying to understand herself and how this relates to what she produces. You get the impression that whatever she turns her hand to she will strive to excel at – and no doubt will do just that.
This article has been published in the following magazines as part of an IWD collaboration to highlight young jazz and blues female musicians across Europe: Citizen Jazz (Fr), Jazzaround (Be), Jazz’halo (Be), Jazznytt (No), London Jazz News (UK). #Womentothefore #IWD2021