Multi-award-winning jazz artist, editor-in-chief, journalist and founder of the Women in Jazz Media organisation Fiona Ross never stops, writes Lara Eidi.
A force to be reckoned with. It appears that everything Fiona Ross touches takes flight, backed by her innate need to breathe into her art, writing and work with the kind of commitment admired and upheld by both the jazz and journalist community. So, it’s no wonder her latest album is aptly titled ‘Thoughts, Conversations and To Do Lists ’ ( out 27 April) . Before even listening to her album, one thing was clear: finally, at long last, someone decided to write an album dedicated to what happens in the everyday. It explores the vulnerability, the bold confidence, the polarity of trying to live in the present just when responsibility and desire come knocking at your door. It’s about the big and small things, and who we are, at all hours of the day. I haven’t heard an album that honest, lyrically in quite a while. Musically, Ross’s album shift-shapes its way through her mind and heart as she takes us through a day in the life, of us all. It’s one of those rare instances where something so personally written and expressed becomes instantly relatable. It’s what makes a good songwriter, and moreover, it’s what makes this album so fantastically poignant.
LondonJazz News: Fiona, every single track of the new album spoke to me personally. I want to know: how long did it take you to compose the music, and was it a conceptual process?
Fiona Ross: Thank you so much for your very kind words, Lara and I am so happy to hear it spoke to you. To be honest, the writing part didn’t take me very long at all, once I managed to find some time to actually do it, that was the bigger struggle! I allocated myself some writing time (a few evenings and the odd weekend) and wrote mostly three songs in each session as the first stage, whatever came into my head at the time. Some songs were quicker to write than others of course, depending on the arrangements. I love writing brass parts so I spent quite a bit of time on these. Normally, the themes for my album become apparent quite quickly during the writing process, but for this one, I didn’t even have a title until I had almost finished recording. It wasn’t until someone was asking me what my new album was about that I explained that it was just a collection of some of my thoughts, some conversations I had with people and to do lists and so I thought, that’s the title! But you know, this is how I am really, I very much just go with the flow and see what evolves.
LJN: There seems to be an ongoing theme of emotional and mental polarity. Do you think that this was a poignant motivation for you, with this album?
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FR: Well my goodness life is a rollercoaster isn’t it? Societal expectations, artistic expectations and our own personal goals can make life so very challenging at times. One minute we are supposed to be, quite rightly, taking time out and looking after our mental and physical wellbeing but then we also need to be working really hard to earn money to pay for rising bills and trying to not get worried about it. We also must spend time with loved ones, work on our craft, support others – I mean it is just non stop but all valid and of equal importance. But it is something we all have to figure our way through and find our balance. There are many wonderful moments within all the crazy. I am a big believer in the power of shared experiences. If you know someone else is going through the same thing, it can help you feel you are not alone and that in turn can help you get through it. At least I do hope the album does this.
LJN: Your voice takes on a beautiful speech quality, almost touching on the verge of a stripped-down singer- storyteller set at the West End. It feels like you’re encouraging that place of vulnerability as an artist, speaking directly to their audience?
FR: Thank you so much. This is something I find fascinating and discuss often with many people. As an artist, I have never actually tried to open up or make myself vulnerable. I write whatever is in my head at the time and writing can sometimes be therapy – and I know you understand this as a songwriter yourself (and a brilliant one at that!). This is something I learnt from Billie Holiday very early on. Music is the place to put your pain. It’s only really when I must perform a particular song, or when someone else has listened to it, that I realise how vulnerable I made myself and then I often wonder why I did that. I have several songs that I find very hard to sing live. In fact, there is one song on this album, that I wrote in about 20mins and recorded it in one take, just because it was all a bit much, emotionally. No idea how I will perform that song live to be honest. But as artists, we do seem to lay ourselves bare and hope that the audience connects with those emotions.
Lara: The track ‘The Best Version of Me’ spoke volumes, and the music showcases both angst, frenzy and willingness to overcome the pressure we feel to be the best version of ourselves. Is this a direct symptom of being a multi- disciplinary artist, or is this something you feel we all need to explore a little further?
Fiona: I have always been very reflective and I continually critically analyse everything I do. I think this stems from my theatre training which I began at a very young age. I have never been competitive, and I have always just worked hard to be the best I can be, on a personal level. We live in a very competitive society, full of top tens, best of lists, especially in music but I have never wanted to be ‘the best’ singer or musician and I don’t even know what ‘the best’ really is in that context. I set myself completely unrealistic expectations of what I feel I should be able to achieve and then of course I never feel good enough because I obviously can’t achieve the unrealistic expectations. It seems to be a recurring theme in my music. For me, this is born out of a combination of things, one of which is just the nature of being a creator. But we must always allow ourselves time to breathe, take a step back and recognise our achievements. And also, very importantly, we are all in this together and there is plenty of room for everyone. When you realise that we are all on the same side and support each other, it is a very beautiful thing. There is a wonderful quote, I’m not sure who said it ‘surrounded yourself with women who would mention your name in a room full of opportunities’. I love this and gender aside, something we can all reflect on.
LJN: I was thrilled to see that celebrated American journalist Jordannah Elizabeth wrote the liner notes to your album. She quite rightly pinpoints the collaborative spirit of the album, saying ‘Beyond gender, as a musician and songwriter, the album is a complete culmination of a myriad of viewpoints, thoughtful self-reflection, and collaborative music as she brings together a band that gels and has balanced chemistry.’ Is your intention to shine a light on your role as an artist and person, all at the same time with your music?
FR: I have always felt uncomfortable shining a light on myself, as many artists do, so to be honest, I am not trying to shine a light at all. I really just write about my experiences and how I am feeling at that particular moment in time. I wear a few different hats and although I have always tried to keep them separate, they do keeping crossing over. I am always humbled by the incredible people I get to work with and meet through those hats and I relish any opportunity to shine a light on them. I decided a few albums ago how wonderful it would be to have women who have inspired me write the liner notes and I have been overwhelmed and so very grateful to have such incredible women say yes. Jordannah joins Maxine Gordon & Celine Peterson in what is becoming an incredible lineage of women. I am much happier shining a light on others.
LJN: The last track of the album, ‘#Thursday Thoughts’ really blew my mind. I couldn’t’ help but feel transported by the intensely relentless piano riff that seem to swirl out of bounds with the rest of the album. I wonder- was this track a parting gift to you at the end of the day, when you’ve given it your all, and leave the rest to fate?
FR: Thank you so much and I really love playing this, so much fun. I wish it was, because that sounds amazing although playing it, is like a gift to me I guess. This track first appeared on my last album as #TuesdayThougths and was a piano solo piece. I had intended at the time to expand this and develop it into a song, but when I revisited this, lyrics just didn’t come into my head. So I simply added a section in the middle with a groove that came to mind. I am hoping that this will become a 3 part track, so in my next album, maybe it will be an actual song with lyrics, but we shall see and to reference you, yes, I am leaving it to fate. I have to say the response to this track as the piano only track was wonderful and it was nice to remind people that I am a pianist too.
Lara: Thank you so much, Fiona!
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‘Thoughts, Conversations and to do Lists’ is out on Friday 28 April on all music platforms.
LINK: Artist website