ISQ (Irene Serra Quartet) is a jazz group led by vocalist/composer Irene Serra. Originally from Southern Italy, Serra moved to London more than two decades ago, in the first instance to study music. Breaking free from the Great American Songbook 10 years ago, she joined forces with her band to start writing original pop-influenced music. As she looks forward to the group’s tenth anniversary gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club on 8 June, Serra shares her thoughts on the evolution of ISQ’s music, the challenges they’ve overcome to find a place in the industry and how much this band means to her. Interview by Lavender Sutton.
LondonJazz News: Your gig on 8 June at Pizza Express is a celebration of 10 years (and four albums) since the formation of ISQ. What does this milestone mean to you?
Irene Serra: It feels like it’s crept up on me, but 10 years also feels like a big achievement. I was talking to a friend yesterday, and she said that her first marriage lasted a lot less time than that! Releasing original music isn’t for the faint-hearted. When we released the first ISQ album, there weren’t very many jazz vocalists releasing original music, so it was quite tough at the beginning to get gigs. I think this has definitely changed in the last 10 years but I feel we’re still at the beginning of that movement. The hardest but also most gratifying aspect of being a musician is just believing in yourself and sticking to your path.
LJN: How has the band and music changed or grown over the last decade?
IS: I would definitely say our sound has evolved and grown, including the lyrical content. One of the most obvious changes was when Naadia Sheriff (piano) joined us for the third album. We decided to explore adding electronic instruments such as synths, bass pedals and electronic drums. That has really expanded our musical soundscape. I am also using a vocal effects unit which allows me to play around with my sound during live performances. This added texture has allowed us to improvise not only with the music we play but also with the sounds and musical atmospheres we are creating.
LJN: I know you’re the main composer of the band – and that you write the lyrical content yourself. Does the music evolve in the studio? How does the band join that process?
IS: ISQ is quite a collaborative project: I co-write most of the songs either with Richard Sadler (double bass) or with Chris Nickolls (drums) in the earlier albums. The fifth album is a work in progress at the moment – we’ve written about three-quarters of it and are now exploring the songs both from a performance point of view in rehearsals and live gigs, and also from a production point of view. It’s mostly songs composed by myself and Richard Sadler although Naadia has contributed an incredible piece of music that I wrote the lyrics to. I sometimes compose the songs alone but it usually works that Richard lets me hear an idea he’s been working on and I will play around with it. It’s usually quite a quick process, I get an immediate feel if something is going to work and then little by little the song unfolds the more I work on it. Then it’s a to and fro between Richard and me until we are happy with the song.
LJN: Is there room for improvisation?
IS: Definitely, especially during the live gigs. Jazz to me is an approach as well as a music genre. It’s not so much about the repertoire you are playing, although I love the Great American Songbook and still perform so many of those incredible songs when I play with my more traditional jazz outfit. You can play any song with a jazz approach – think of Brad Mehldau and his Radiohead covers or the Bad Plus, who released a whole album of pop covers. So that’s what we do with ISQ. We write pop songs essentially and then we play them like jazz musicians.
LJN: Your influences are wide ranging. (Madonna is mentioned on your website!) Can you describe the styles, influences?
IS: Too many to mention really. My music collection has a little bit of everything in it. But the artists I come back to are Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’ Day, Jon Hendricks, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and the incomparable composers Duke Ellington and Jobim. I am also really drawn to pop artists that also have that jazz approach such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Bjork and Sia.
LJN: After Requiem for the Faithful (2019), you put out an album of the same name “2.0: The Remixes” (May 2021). What’s the story?
IS: We had always wanted to do a remix of one of our songs. As it became clearer that the lockdown was going to last some time, we realised there would be time to do a remix of the whole of our last album, track for track. So we got in touch with colleagues and friends from the electronic music world, and managed to get some fantastic guests on the album, such as house music legend and producer Arthur Baker, Dave Randall (Faithless guitarist) and Vince Pope, a Bafta-award nominated composer and producer. Each ISQ band member also decided to contribute a remix track to the album so that’s how the project came to life
LJN: What is it like making music with Naadia Sheriff, Richard Sadler and Chris Nickolls in a live gig?
IS: They are a great bunch… such fantastic musicians in their own right, no ego and just all about making the music sound as good as possible. We have played a lot of music with each other that isn’t ISQ and I think this has helped shape the band’s sound tremendously. We’re all jazz musicians that love a lot of other music besides jazz and I think this shows up both in our playing and in our music making. And we’re all friends and make each other laugh, which is another bonus.
LJN: What will your audience look forward to hearing on the night?
IS: We’ll be playing fresh arrangements of our most well-known tunes and will also be previewing new material from our forthcoming fifth album. It will be hot, so come down!
ISQ will also be performing in the “Out to Lunch” series at Cadogan Hall on 18 July (LINK)