Features/Interviews (PP)

Louise Balkwill (‘First Class’ – release date 11 February 2022)

Vocalist Louise Balkwill‘s debut album First Class is released today, 11 February 2022. She has joined forces with a 12-piece ensemble to bring together influences ranging from New Orleans swing to bebop and vocalese. Profile feature by Nicky Schrire:

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Louise Balkwill. Artwork by Alban Low from a photo by Monika S. Jakubowska

One of the longest-standing clichés in the music industry is that of the “overnight sensation”. Luckily, for every musician who seems to blossom overnight, there are a myriad of talented artists who take their time coming into their own, really developing their point of view and musicianship in the process. British vocalist Louise Balkwill is an apt example of this, releasing her debut album “First Class” after more than a decade of performing professionally and honing her skills. The resulting record is a self-assured offering that bursts with personality, musicality and an immense sense of joy.

Speaking from her home in North London, Balkwill says that the album is a result of a summer spent busking on North London’s Hampstead Heath with her fellow musicians, The Mailmen. “I think music should be fun to perform and to listen to,” Balkwill explains. “One of the things about busking is that the act fosters a real sense of friendship and camaraderie. The band and I felt so comfortable together that it was a natural progression to document this music with a studio album. I felt so at ease and had something I wanted to share with the world. It was the right time.”

The warm, direct sound of Balkwill’s vocals is, in part, due to harnessing the power required to sing unamplified in a busking setting. Though studio microphones take care of amplification in a studio setting (as they would in a concert hall), she held onto that sense of inhibitionless delivery. “I had to get used to projecting and being a bit bigger in order for my voice to carry outside, over the volume of seven horn players. It broke down a wall of cautiousness and I’ve carried that sensibility with me ever since.”

The resulting ballsiness of her delivery, as evident on the opening track, a version of Erroll Garner’s Shake It But Don’t Break It, is wonderfully refreshing and unaffected in a world of increasingly pristine yet often clinical singing. The straightforward charm of voices, like those of Annie Ross and Sheila Jordan, isn’t easily found nor celebrated in current climes. It’s a pity because Balkwill proves that there’s a captivating vulnerability to being uninhibited and wholeheartedly oneself. “People really seem to appreciate honesty and respond to the approach of expressing rather than performing,” Balkwill muses. “I never would’ve had the courage to tackle a song like Long John Blues, which requires humour and a bit of brassiness on all fronts, if I hadn’t chosen to embody the attitude needed to busk. It has transformed the way that I sing. Without even thinking about it, I’ve become unreserved and sometimes a little bit loud and tongue and cheek.”

No stranger to the London jazz scene, having performed at venues like Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Pizza Express and 606 Club, Balkwill is very aware that she’s taken her time in releasing an album. “There are upsides to the slow-burn of doing things as and when you feel comfortable, figuring them out as you go along. You allow yourself time to learn skills and put them into practice properly,” she reflects. “I’ve had the space to make mistakes, learn from them, and get to the point where I can be a product of which I’m proud, musically and as a person. Because those are the same thing – I’m so being myself when I’m singing. I feel very grounded, with a solid foundation, as a result of the time it’s taken me to get to this point.”

Balkwill references British vocalists Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw as examples of jazz musicians whose careers she admires. “They’re of a generation that really appreciates the process. You can hear their entire trajectories in their recordings – all these stages of beautiful developments. They’ve really lived as well.” She pauses and adds, “When I was younger, I didn’t have any life experience. I’d never fallen in love or had my heart broken. Those life experiences make you a better musician in the end. And getting to the point where you’re happy with yourself means you’re more likely to be happy with your music.”

Admittedly, it’s taken Balkwill a long time to be happy with her music. The fear of documenting something that, down the line, she wouldn’t like was the main reason for the delayed foray into recording. “In hindsight, I reflect on the album and process and see it as something precious that helped me and my fellow musicians get through the lockdown. Biweekly busking was the first step in getting us all out of our houses and breaking any social isolation. Recording the result of those busking sessions reminds us now that we immortalised a moment in time, and a really good one at that.”

Album cover

When asked if listeners will have to wait another ten years for a follow-up album, Louise shares that there is already another recording in the works. “First Class” is peppered with jazz standards and some hefty vocalese, with lyrics by Balkwill. “I love the story that is set up by the lyrics that belong to the head of the song. That narrative becomes the jumping off point for the story I go on to tell in the vocalese,” she explains. She spins a great tale on a Scott Hamilton solo over Shake It But Don’t Break It and a Harry Edison solo on Pennies From Heaven. She promises her sophomore offering will comprise more original lyrics and she’d love to stretch out to include original compositions too.

Balkwill calls New Orleans her “spiritual home” and she visits twice a year. “Every time I go there I’m blown away by how responsive the musicians are,” she reminisces. This would explain the jubilance on the album and the tone of the ensemble playing that speaks to the exuberance of a traditional New Orleans jazz band. Balkwill collaborated with the New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones on a song that showcases her original lyrics set to a melody penned by Jones. The resulting single Sweeter Than a Summer Breeze should be out by year’s end but until then, the recorded result of Louise’s 2020 Summer, “First Class”, is available for our listening pleasure now.

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LINK: First Class at Distrokid

Louise Balkwill’s website

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