Say “singer” and the stereotypes come tumbling out of the shadows: most of them wholly unrelated to the music. Music journalists carry some of the guilt; getting stoned with Brenda Fassie made a far more colourful story than sitting through her rehearsals, as well as ramping up some writer’s in-crowd credentials.
For that reason, we don’t know half enough about the musical growth of earlier stars, particularly the women singers. But talk to London-born, South African-raised singer/songwriter Nicky Schrire and it becomes clear that becoming a vocalist – just like becoming a virtuoso instrumentalist – is a process of head as much as heart: a journey of technical problem-solving.
Schrire is back in Cape Town for a handful of concerts prior to exchanging her post-Manhattan School of Music, New York, base for one in London. She’s just released her third album, the EP To the Spring (stream it on SoundCloud), which is already receiving similar critical accolades to Freedom Flight (Circavision) and Space and Time (Magenta Records). Add to critical approval her achievements as a finalist and semifinalist in various jazz competitions, and the distinguished musical company who join her as accompanists and in projects, and it’s clear Schrire’s music is headed somewhere very interesting indeed.
But it wasn’t a straight road. Schrire’s family, first in London and then Cape Town, loved music and surrounded her with it. Her mother took her to concerts, ballets and musicals, and bought her videotapes (“Birthday number eight was Hello Dolly! Birthday number nine was My Fair Lady …”). Her father played James Taylor, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Crosby, Stills and Nash in the car. She got piano lessons at eight and started tenor saxophone with Bob Mowday at 11. Clarinet, soprano and baritone sax followed.
“When I was about 15 my mother bought me a Verve triple box-set of Ella Fitzgerald. That was the first time I heard Ella sing, and I quickly became obsessed with those recordings, to the point that even today I can sing along [with everything, including the instrumentals].”
After that, she had a brief stint studying singing with Natascha Roth. That’s where the dilemmas began. “[When singing] there was a direct, almost seamless connection, ear-to-instrument, that I didn’t have with the saxophone, because the muscular memory in my fingers seemed to get in the way. I needed more technique before I could fully express myself on the saxophone … Only later would I learn about muscular memory as it pertains to the voice and, as a result, I spent a long time bridging the gap between my untrained voice and my well-trained ear.”
Schrire started at the SA College of Music as an instrumental major, but “by second year I was still struggling to connect the dots when it came to expressing myself on the saxophone … and I begged my parents to let me switch to voice.” She credits her first classical vocal teacher, Andrea Haupt, with “quite literally helping me find my voice … it took the better part of the next three years … but I realised fairly quickly that it was the right fit and the right instrument for me.”
Later, at the Manhattan School of Music, where Schrire earned her Masters, her teachers included Peter Eldridge, Theo Bleckmann and Dave Liebman. But while she’s quick to credit these mentors – and especially Eldridge – as having a “massive impact”, she still remembers her South African teachers warmly, too. Meryl Preston, her first South African piano teacher, “taught me all about discipline and application”. Sax teacher Mowday’s “love for music, all music, was infectious”, and from his daughter Shannon, “I learnt a lot about empowerment … I still remember her telling me that the reason to improvise was because I had something worth saying.”
It’s the focus on improvisation that makes Schrire happy to situate herself as a jazz musician – but some other, more confining features of the label make her uneasy: “There are many people who don’t consider music ‘jazz’ unless it incorporates a swing groove, traditional instrumentation and sounds that hark back to Carmen McRae … especially when it comes to vocalists. There seems to be more leeway for instrumentalists to push the boundaries.” She says she’s happy to leave those more constraining expectations to be satisfied by “19-year-olds channelling Billie, Nina and Betty” while she pursues “good music – which is good music regardless of genre”.
Certainly, the music Schrire has covered extends well beyond conventional jazz standards. On the albums it included Irving Berlin, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Massive Attack, Labi Siffre, Florence Welch – but also Carlo Mombelli and Victor Ntoni. “It’s important to me to find South African repertoire – especially when I’m overseas … Nothing made me feel more South African than being away.” (As he told it, that was exactly the sentiment that inspired Mombelli’s Me, The Mango Picker). Of Ntoni’s Selinyana, she says she loved the beauty of the tune, the meaning of the lyrics – “the end of a drought and the coming of the rains I connected with both literally and metaphorically” – and the melody’s potential: “[Its structure offered] a solid harmonic baseline from which to develop new harmonies and put a fresh spin on the song.”
Some of the more popular covers she chose were selected “precisely because they border on being overplayed” and offered the challenge of creating a fresh vision. And in addition to those she simply loved the sound of, or where she admired the composer, there were those where she felt existing covers didn’t quite do the job. “It’s a pet peeve of mine when the lyrics of a song aren’t represented in the interpretation. For example, I hate hearing upbeat versions of You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You – they’re sad lyrics that are anthem for co-dependence.”
But what unites both her choice of covers and her own compositions is their narrative power. “Singing is basically just storytelling, so being anchored by and connected to the story is imperative for successful delivery or performance.”
There are some wonderful stories, especially in the songs Schrire writes herself. She doesn’t have a rigid compositional process. “I never know what musical pickle I’ll get myself into, and so I don’t know if I’ll need to use melody, words or harmony to figure out the answer.” Often she will start with a storyline that turns into a poem: “Lyrics are poetry until they meet melody.” Sometimes it’s just a combination of words or notes that appeal: “How the words sound … or an ostinato pattern or a chord progression that I like.” Wherever the idea starts – with story, words or tune – “filling in the harmonic content comes last; it’s like colouring in. But I often experiment with different bass lines in case there’s an option I haven’t considered.”
As for the old chestnut of whether her songs are autobiographical, Schrire says they’re “both personal and fiction”. Certainly, they express her opinions. A Song for a Simple Time, for example, read by some critics as a pastiche musical comedy number, is actually an exercise in irony, “touching on the fact that jazz musicians – myself included – find it so difficult to navigate ‘less is more’. Jazz is busy and often filled with an excess of notes and noise, and far from simple, so I served up a ditty that that was seemingly bubbly and positive, but is really tongue in cheek.” On her newest EP, the track Traveler is “half biographical and half inspired by the film Greetings from Tim Buckley, which looks at Jeff Buckley’s relationship with his rather absent father, Tim. At one point there’s a visual of Tim leaving his lover (young wife, perhaps) in the early hours of the morning and jumping into a car with another lady before setting off on a dust road to the next gig. That moment inspired the song, but I changed the clichéd scenario of ‘male musician leaves lady love stranded at home’ by inserting myself into the female role. What if both people are musicians? What happens when one travels more than the other? … In this song the storyteller [the woman] starts off yearning for her partner but soon realises she’d rather fulfil her own career aspirations at the cost of the relationship.” Though Schrire says she envies Randy Newman’s flair for “delivering political commentary in song”, she says her own strength lies more in making statements about societal gender clichés through her choice and treatment of material.
Schrire’s decision to move from New York to London was motivated by a craving for “more space, both physically and mentally, [but] still [with] urban energy and excitement”. London fits the bill for now, offering the kind of environment that nurtured voices she admires such as Norma Winstone and Maria Pia de Vito. The city is host to a lively, progressive young scene, but she wants to work more in South Africa, too, if the opportunity arises. “I wish I was clairvoyant. But, then again, that wouldn’t be very spontaneous or ‘jazz’ of me!”
Hear Nicky Schrire in Cape Town with the Alumni Big Band at the Baxter Big Band Festival at 7.45pm on May 30, or at the City Soirée with Card On Spokes, Galina Juritz, Reza Khota and strings at the Brundyn+ Gallery at 8pm on June 5