Fiona Ross’s fifth album Red Flags and High Heels will be launched at Pizza Express Dean Street on 6 October. She explains the background. Interview by Sebastian Scotney,
LondonJazz News: There are some really interesting themes in the album. What is the title Red Flags and High Heels about?
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Fiona Ross: Thank you! Well, Red Flags and High Heels reflects on the emotional highs and emotional lows of this thing called life. The ‘Red Flags’ represent those things that just don’t sit right with you and although you are not always sure why and you don’t always know what to do about it. The constant analysis. People’s ignorance. Those things you know you shouldn’t do, but you do anyway and you have no idea why you did them until after it has all gone wrong. But also the good things but with the inevitable highs it brings the lows. The ‘High Heels’ represent fun, sex and strength. For many, high heels bring to mind something sexy and playful, while for others they represent power, strength and freedom.
LJN: Oscar Peterson’s daughter Céline says in the liner note that there are songs which “definitively speak of a woman who is taking her life back.” Is that an important theme?
FR: I was so honoured to have her write the liner notes and thrilled to have her spend the time listening to my music and understanding it. Being in control of your life is always a good thing! I do write about many different emotions that occur before, during and after relationships. Love is intense. But yes, I believe that reflecting on these things and coming out the other end, develops our strength and ability to handle most things. I was brought up in a world where analysis is continual, vital in fact and critically analysing myself essential. So, yes, as with all of us, I have experienced heartbreak but have learnt from it.
LJN: When did you write your first song?
FR: I started writing when I was a teenager. Always sad, piano based ballads, moody teenager type of thing. Just messing around really. But my composition work started properly when I was asked to write some music for some theatre productions and then a full musical when I was in my twenties. As a jazz artist in my own right, as such, I have only been writing for the past five years.
LJN: What comes first, a melodic idea, a verbal phrase… ?
FR: Sometimes it’s a bass line, so for example in More Time I started with the bass line. But with Red Flags and High Heels, the chord sequence for the verses came first, with the groove. Sometimes it’s a drum pattern and quite often with the latin-influenced tracks, the drums come first. The lyrics are always last to finalise but come through while the music is coming.
LJN: In More Time you sing“Time goes so fast. Before you know it’s the end of the day/month/ year…” Is that something you feel strongly?
FR:I have always been someone who finds time precious and believes it needs to be treated with care. You never know what is around the corner….I take each day at a time and try to achieve as much as I can. I have never been one for long term planning. But also, we live in a busy world and we often think we don’t have time for things, but there is always time for some things – kindness, respect, empathy.
LJN: That idea has really resonated with your sleeve-note writer who says that idea has got stronger for her in recent times ? Is that true for you as well?
FR: Yes, Céline is so right! Since COVID, I think we have all been forced to re-evaluate our relationship with time and also what we need to survive, our definition of success and what makes us happy. Success means different things to different people and for me, I take each day as it comes and try to do as much as I can in the short amount of time I have. Sometimes people put things off and say they’ll do it one day and then it never happens. It saddens me greatly when I hear that. The past few years have forced us to realise that we shouldn’t wait and we must value not only our own time and what we do with it, but other peoples.
LJN: You deal with uncertainty, confidence versus the lack of it….what drives you to want to develop that theme
FR: We all have moments of confidence and equal moments of uncertainty. Life is up and down for most people I think! I also feel that this has been highlighted for me since lockdown. As musicians we have all had to reflect on our work, our careers and our definition of success. As performers, what are we if we can’t perform? Who are we? If we don’t sell many tickets to a gig, does that mean we are not good enough or that the marketing has been poor? Or maybe the tickets are just too expensive and it’s actually not a reflection on the artist, but on the audience not wanting to come out? One person may tweet about how much they love your work and seconds later someone says they hate it. It is very emotional at times and hard and to say it is a rollercoaster is an understatement. But for me in this song, I am also reflecting on a bigger picture. All the problems in the world that I would love to see disappear, that need to disappear… I will never be enough. But I will still keep trying to be.
LJN: The Apple Trees Won’t Grow Anymore is poignant. What’s the story?
FR: I had this weird dream where there were very grey fields and my Mum kept saying the apple trees won’t grow anymore and there was a weird cheerful melody playing throughout my dream. I didn’t understand it at the time at all but it did stay with me for quite a while. She passed away not long afterwards, during Covid lockdown. In my last album, I wrote a song for my Dad who died when I was young, but for this album, I wrote one not for my Mum but about her and it felt right to reference the apple trees. My Mum published a poetry book and her introduction says ‘the apocalyptic prose of this author are evocative of the timeless images of darkness and light’ and I have reflected on this in my writing.
LJN: Tell us about the bandmembers. Who is in the rhythm section?
FR:I am so fortunate to work with so many wonderful musicians. Gibbi Bettini (guitar) Marley Drummond (Drums) and Derek Daley (Bass) have been on my last four albums now and in fact used to be my students, so we have been working together for quite a while now. They all also, of course, have their own careers and work they do. Incredible players and wonderful human beings, all bringing their own uniqueness to my music. It’s important to me when I am writing that although this is of course, my music and my sound, I want to make sure there is space for them to be them too. I cannot tell you how much I love working with them. We have so much fun. I also have another old student of mine, Warren Woodcraft on percussion along with Simon Todd.
LJN: And the brass/ wind ?
My brass work has developed over the last few albums, and although I have been playing live with Dave Boa (trumpet) for a while now, this is his first appearance of any of my albums. Loren Hignell, I have again on sax. I love working on brass arrangements and went to town more on this album. Ashaine works on backing vocals but I am thrilled it have her on sax as well now and in fact this album is her debut recording as a saxophonist. And of course, I have that incredible Kim Cypher for one track. During lockdown, we filmed a new song You Can Smile which featured 50 different people smiling and I was thrilled to receive an award for this from the Global Music Awards. It felt right to include this and some other live in lockdown bonus tracks on the new album, one of which includes Kim.
LJN: Are there plans for live gigs / tours ?
FR: I have my album launch on 6 October at Pizza Express, Soho and then a couple of London dates after that including the London Jazz Festival. And yes, a tour after that! I’m thrilled to have some special guests for my album launch, which links in with my Women in Jazz Media work too! Kim Cypher, Charlotte Keeffe and Migdalia van der Hoven are joining me on the night for some tracks and I also have Hannah Horton on sax. I am very excited!
LJN: What are your hopes for the next few months?
FR: To stay sane and alive.
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LINKS: Fiona Ross website
Categories: Features/Interviews (PP)