British singer Sara Colman is an acclaimed singer-songwriter. Her last album “What We’re Made Of” was praised by US critic Ted Gioia. She won ‘Lyricist of the Year’ in the UK Songwriting Competition. She’s worked with Laura Mvula and Mahalia. Her new album “Ink on a Pin” and tour feature her 10-piece band playing new arrangements of songs by Joni Mitchell.Feature by Alison Bentley.
“Ink on a Pin … songs are like tattoos…” runs the Joni Mitchell lyric. Joni’s songs have got under singer Sara Colman’s skin and her new album and tour is a “celebration of her music.” Colman’s love of Joni Mitchell started when she was a classical piano student at the Birmingham School of Music. “Piano just wasn’t my passion,” Colman remembers, “so I went hunting and ended up in the library. I used to take random things out to listen to that I didn’t know.” She grew up listening to jazz and singer-songwriters played at home by her parents. ”I came upon the album Court and Spark completely by accident and that was the first Joni that I heard- I must have listened to it a few thousand times.
“ I chose the songs for this album that resonated most with me,” she explains. Colman was recording artist in residence at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. and the recording sessions took place in Real World Studios for music technology students to learn from. “We didn’t have that sense of red light terror. The music just had a spirit about it.”
But at first she didn’t intend to release the recordings. “I was a bit nervous about doing Joni songs because they’re so perfect- why would you do anything with them? She’s already done new things with her own songs with Vince Mendoza, but actually I feel like they’re becoming new standards.”
The songs on Ink on a Pin span 1969 to 1976 and Court and Spark is the first track. “I wanted that to be the simplest one. I love the story- I read it was her experience with a man who believed he’d danced with her somewhere along the river. There’s something personal and universal about it- she talks about not letting go of LA. It’s about her moving on- she does the micro and the macro and it’s all in the context of her experience.”
Chelsea Morning was written duringJoni’s relationship with LeonardCohen when she had moved to New York. “I think it may have been his influence on her here. I love the way she describes a bustling busy street. The lyrics have this rhythmic drive about them- you can’t skirt around them like you can a lot in jazz.” Percy Pursglove’s flugel adds another colour, along with Jonathan Silk’s string arrangements. “ I give Jonathan some ideas and he goes away and does loads of different sketches. We look at it together- sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes we tweak it. it’s interesting that he’s a drummer so the rhythmic aspect of it is really well considered in his writing. I love Wayne Shorter’s notion of instruments representing the deeper picture, the landscape of what’s happening- I heard about it in an interview with Herbie Hancock. I think Percy does that- you can really hear that in Amelia where he matches the strings and the soaring nature of sky. Sometimes I imagine Amelia Earhart almost having enlightenment on those flights and of course it was Joni’s journey back from another broken relationship.”
This Flight Tonight is a duet with Steve Banks’ acoustic baritone guitar. “Of course Joni’s tuning is different- he had to fathom what he was hearing and then turn it into an arrangement. He came up with those licks and lines. I love singing that with him- it’s so rhythmically strong.”
Down to You features flugel harmonising with strings. “I think it’s about falling in love with someone who’s an angel and a demon at the same time”
Colman arranged the vocal harmonies in Woodstock herself. They’re sung by the string quartet. “They sing those parts live on the gigs- they’re all consummate musicians: string players and great singers as well. Joni couldn’t actually go to Woodstock because she had to do some TV, but I feel that song has become bigger and more relevant as the world has gone the way it has.”
My Old Man is a duet with pianist Rebecca Nash. “I’ve been working with Rebecca for a while and her musicality is all over this. I love the way Joni describes being alone when your partner is away: ‘…the bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide…’-she sums up the complexity of relationships.
Colman has described her band as a village where everyone contributes to the whole sound. All 10 musicians will be on the tour, but “…unfortunately Percy won’t be joining us, so we’ve got an amazing sax player called Lluis Mather. We’ll be pretty much doing all Joni- maybe a couple of Joni-influenced songs that I wrote, which I think is quite an interesting thing for an audience to hear. I would love people to be inspired to hear the music- that’s the main thing!”
6 November St George’s Bristol
18 November Marine Theatre Lyme Regis
19 November Turner Sims Southampton
25 November Lauderdale House London
26 November St Paul’s Church Birmingham