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Album Review: Judie Tzuke – One Tree Less

17 Jan

“If”: Judie Tzuke at Union Chapel in 2010 – still a voice to be reckoned with

Here’s a piece of advice for Adele, Jessie J, Emili Sandé and everybody else who is riding the crest of a huge wave of fascination with young female singers and songwriters in the UK: make the most of your hour in the sun. Because once you’ve hit middle age, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any kind of coverage in the mainstream music press.

A flurry of New Year articles hailed 2012 as the year of rock’s illustrious old guys. Bowie, Elton John, Meatloaf, Ronnie Wood and Mick Fleetwood will all turn 65 in the next 12 months, pointed out The Independent. While in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick hailed forthcoming new albums from Leonard Cohen (77) and Paul McCartney (69), Springsteen and the E Street Band, and rumours of 50th anniversary tours from the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The usually excellent McCormick’s crystal-ball piece did at least name check Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Lana del Rey – prime examples of contemporary young female talent, all. But the absence in any of these stories of any reference to mature women singers (Madonna aside) reveals once again the curious neglect of a significant category of talent that frequently blights the best broad music journalism. It’s as if the media suffers from an odd, sexist/ageist blind spot. Even The Guardian’s TV listing for New Year’s Eve fell into the trap, wondering vaguely what Sandie Shaw was doing in Jools Holland’s Later line-up, apparently ignorant of her well-received participation in his 2011 tour.

At least Shaw got a mention at all. Frankly, with the exception of Kate Bush (as left-field in her career management as in her approach to her music) and Annie Lennox (who is, in any case, more likely to garner column inches for her socio-political activism than her music these days), senior British female singers seem to become invisible to the press once they pass 40. Which means that a whole range of performers and recording artists – Eddi Reader, Elkie Brooks, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr and Mary Hopkin, to name but a handful – are now producing some of their finest work in their middle years, without the hope of a mainstream profile or review to remind people that they’re out there, no less creative than their male contemporaries and in many cases a great deal more active.

Let’s add Judie Tzuke to the list. Her new album, One Tree Less, is a beauty. Troubled, uneasy lyrics juxtapose natural references with smarting, visceral explorations of broken relationships, fractured trust and self-doubt. The arrangements are string-laden, echoing aural landscapes, liberally sprinkled with epic piano riffs and sparkling guitar sequences that draw you in, making the occasional sharp jab of the words all the more startling.

“Stay With Me Till Dawn”: Judie Tzuke’s slow-burning torch song is still a classy affair after all these years

Tzuke has been making records for 35 years. She had her first hit, the torchy, slow-burning ballad “Stay With Me Till Dawn”, in 1978, lifted from the album Welcome to the Cruise, while she was signed to Elton John’s Rocket label. From the start, there was an edginess beneath the ethereal voice and polished pop lyrics – a restlessness and an anxiety that hinted at more substantial themes. In the wake of its success, she was put in the same bracket as Kate Bush, simply by dint of being a new, happening female singer songwriter. Truly, the music industry’s marketing imagination has never known its own bounds.

A stellar future seemed assured as Tzuke became a much in-demand touring artist and released a series of acclaimed albums through the early 1980s (she moved from Rocket to Chrysalis in 1982). But like so many before her, she found herself buffeted by an industry that has never been great at promoting and sustaining singular female talent. Ricocheting from one record company to the next for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s with diminishing returns, and occasionally beset with management disagreements, she took time out to have her two daughters (the eldest, Bailey, is now a singer in her own right and contributes backing vocals on the new album) before returning to the fray with her own label – finally in complete charge of her own career (Elton John handed back the copyright on her first three albums in 1999).

These days, the voice has a pleasing mahogany-dark timbre that compliments Tzuke’s misty upper register. From the title track, the ominous and agitated “One Tree Less”, with its tentative discovery of hope, to brooding, thoughtful numbers like “The Other Side” and “Till It’s Over”, the album showcases the ripeness of her talents – and particularly her ability to suggest an inner life in which doubt and uncertainty are constantly preying shadows, without ever sounding trite or pretentious. In other words, she is still exploring the consequences of that first dawn.

“Joy” is a deeply personal take on a friendship interrupted by tragedy. “Humankind” favours a dramatic piano intro, leading into a bleak wonder across the face of the human condition. “The Other Side” bridges the divide between life-as-a-bitch and security – but as always, with Tzuke, that note of hesitation is left hanging in the air: “though I might be wrong…”

“I Can Wait” is an up tempo, guitar-driven ballad about the sudden discovery of passion, “A Moving Target” an urgent, self-directed plea for acceptance of the way things are.

More substantial themes, indeed. So yes, Judie Tzuke is very much alive and kicking – and apparently in her prime. And more people should know about it. She’s touring the UK throughout March – which sounds like a good opportunity to catch up with one of our foremost, lamentably unsung, female singer/songwriters.

Album Review: Livia Devereux – Night Winds Whisper

24 Dec

Devereux sings “You’ve Changed” at the Metropolitan Room: no victim, she

Night Winds Whisper: Livia Devereux on audacious form

Fascinating beats and rhythms underscore Livia Devereux’s audacious perspective on some mighty standards on her album, Night Winds Whisper. And she pulls it off with verve and the backing of a band that is as tight as a drum. The leitmotif is jazz but here is a singer who is quite happy to stray across the boundaries into pop and blues; nothing seems to hold any fear for her.

From the opening track – an up tempo, on-the-nail version of “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which takes the song a million miles from Patsy Cline’s definitive and ominous vibrato-laden country classic and turns it into a defiant challenge – to a whipped-up “Come Rain or Come Shine”,  Devereux displays an unnerving command of a rich range of material. And with that nerve comes an assurance that many singers at the peak of their game would envy.

I can’t remember hearing another version of the great, urgent Bernsten/Sondheim ballad “Tonight” that threw away the rule book with such style and transformed it into a swinging celebration of romance and anticipation.

Devereux hits the mark on each of these taught, sharply arranged tracks with similar accuracy. And just when she’s turned your expectations on their head, she dims the spot and fires up the torch, assisted on several numbers by Jisoo Ok on the cello, who adds real depth to songs such as “Welcome to My Love” and “Never Let Me Go”.

“I Don’t Hurt Anymore” becomes a thrilling anthem of survival, although there are so many layers at work in Devereux’s interpretation that the ifs and maybes ripple beneath the waves, always threatening to break the surface. Those ripples finally erupt on “Never Let Me Go” and a sweeping version of “You’ve Changed”, which in Robin Petre’s arrangement starts by evoking Gershwin and rises to a resiliant, ‘I’ve had enough’ climax. Devereux does torch songs with aplomb, but also with attitude. No victim, she.

Album Review: Lisa Kirchner – Something to Sing About

14 Dec

Rewarding and scintillating: Listen to three tracks from Something to Sing About

Something to Sing About: a cornucopia of musical genres under the art song umbrella

Tragedy, broken hearts, mortality and violence lie beneath the surface of Lisa Kirchner’s scintillating album, Something to Sing About, like bloodstained rocks. As her vocals spin and gyrate through a cycle of songs that draws on the work of the finest American composers, she covers the range of human experience from girlish hopefulness to world-weary heaviness, exposing these underlying dangers in startling moments of dissonance, shifts in meter and rhythm, and unsettling musical intervals. And all with a lightness of touch that belies the essential darkness of much of the material. These are lullabies with cruel truths at their heart.

Kirchner, the daughter of composer Leon and a doyenne of New York’s cabaret scene, has some pedigree. She has personal associations with many of the composers and songwriters represented in this rich collection, who include her father (“Lily” is one of the most poignant tracks), William Schimmel (who plays accordion on many of the numbers), Charles Ives, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici and, of course, Aaron Copeland. As she explains in her excellent notes, Kirchner met Copeland when she was just eight. His music features large, culminating in a beautiful, gentle, jazz-infused take on his arrangement of “Long Time Ago”, which hangs shimmering in the air at the end of the album.

The result of this inspiring network of connections is a tapestry of musical genres brought together under the umbrella of the art song, revealing the scope of influences on quintessentially American composers whose work often reflects a European heritage in such innovative ways.

It’s impossible, for example, to escape the Brechtian cabaret nuances of Schimmel’s pastiche, “Suicide in C Minor” (the bleak tale of a gangster’s moll); or the chanson flavour of a Ned Rorem melody that provides the setting for Robert Hillyer’s poetic take on the romantic possibilities of Paris, “Early One Morning”. The chanson also informs Kirchner’s own composition, “Crazy Love, Crazy Heart”. Even Lewis Carroll gets a look-in. His ode to Alice Pleasance Liddell finds new life underpinned by Del Tredici’s dreamlike music in “Acrostic Song”. Kirchner herself has written many of the lyrics for the album, most notably for a new version of Paul Chihara’s theme to the Sidney Lumet film, Prince of the City – a gritty paean to betrayal.

Something to Sing About is an impressionistic experience, a sequence of constantly shifting musical tableaux that blur the edges and trace intriguing connections between urban 20th century America, smoky jazz bars, Medieval Europe, Shakespearian England (courtesy of two of Stanley Silverman’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival songs), and even burlesque and casinos. It’s an endlessly inventive proposition, delivered with a streak of humour that leavens the ever-present threats and terrors with quirky songs such as Samuel Barber’s “Under the Willow Tree” and William Bolcom’s “Night Make My Day” or a masterpiece of eccentricity, Silverman’s “Photograph Song”.

At the album’s heart lies Kirchner’s intense knowledge of her material, combined with an ability to render it accessible. While the listener needs to be on their mettle, they never feel part of an academic exercise. Her musicians include pianists Joel Fan and Xavier Davis, saxophonist Sherman Irby, guitarists Ron Jackson and Vicente Archer, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Willie Jones III. Between them, they create a warm, richly textured sound that cradles Kirchner’s voice as it veers from velvety reassurance to acerbic rasp. Rewarding and fascinating stuff.

Box set review: Goin’ Back – the Definitive Dusty Springfield

13 Dec

Losing You: Dusty Springfield in her prime, with a typically big ballad

Goin' Back - The Definitive Dusty Springfield: expensive and comprehensive, with timeless hits

It’s nearly 13 years since Dusty Springfield died, yet hardly a day goes by without her voice cropping up somewhere. She’s frequently playing on the jukebox, providing a soundtrack for the latest instalment of sturm und drang in the Queen Vic or the Rover’s Return. Fittingly, she’ll often be followed by an Adele track.

It’s been a long wait but finally, in Adele, we have a British singer who is Springfield’s equal when it comes to a vocal capacity for conveying epic desolation and emotional complexity that will find and unpick the sub-text in the least promising lyrics. In a short space of time, she and the late Amy Winehouse established themselves as genuine successors to Springfield’s brand of soulful, palpable heartache, where others have flattered merely to deceive: torch singers for our times.

Goin’ Back: the definitive Dusty Springfield is a major 92-track compilation of the singer’s work and the first box set since The Legend of Dusty Springfield (released by Philips in 1994 on the back of a late flourish in her career, but with a portentously funereal design) and the posthumous, equally sombre Simply… Dusty (Mercury, 2000).

This time the theme is pink. Very pink. And the four CDs, which focus on the hits, the singer’s extensive legacy of live BBC recordings, a loosely-linked collection of film songs and show tunes, and the obligatory rarities (the most valuable part of the offering for die-hard Dusty fans), are joined by three DVDs of performances from a career that spanned more than 40 years.

The box set also includes Paul Howes’ book, The Complete Dusty Springfield, and a separate volume based on an essay by Springfield’s great friend and manager Vicki Wickham, with contributions from numerous pop and rock luminaries including Burt Bacharach and Carole King – the two songwriters whose work probably shaped the Springfield sound more than any others.

Howes, who has curated this collection, deserves special mention. His sterling work as editor of the Dusty Springfield Bulletin created a formidable archive of material and it is thanks to him that, over the years, many rare recordings have seen the light of day. The package feels comprehensive, authoritative and well produced by people who have taken their responsibility to a great artist very seriously. And with the exception of the Lana Sisters, every stage of Springfield’s career is represented, from the quintessential 1960s numbers to the soft rock of her final work (“Wherever Would I Be”, a duet with Daryl Hall) and her last recording, a short version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” which graced a television commercial and is a poignant reminder that when she chose to indulge them, she had a jazz singer’s instincts for interpreting the standards – another parallel with Amy Winehouse.

That said, it’s a mightily sumptuous and expensive set, clearly targeted at aficionados rather than the idly curious or the Dusty Springfield novice. And the trouble with any substantial compilation is the ratio of ‘new’ material to the old and familiar. Without the hits, it would hardly be definitive, but it’s difficult to imagine that any Dusty fan of substance won’t already have stacks of them in abundance. In producer Tris Penna’s remixes of “Goin’ Back” and “The Look of Love” (he returned to the original master tapes), there is a laudable attempt to bring something fresh to the table. But ultimately, these spacey, ambient versions lack the booming, lush sound that constituted so much of Dusty’s appeal.

Which really leaves the rest of the rarities as the most compelling attraction. And this is a mixed bag of alternate takes, obscure ballads (including the delightful “Summer Love” and an aching “Goodbye”) and some intriguing live performances that date back to the Springfields’ heyday – most of which sound as if they were grabbed by someone holding an unsteady mic with a noisy old reel-to-reel recorder under the table in a nightclub. You certainly get the atmosphere but when you’ve heard them once, you probably won’t be keeping them on shuffle. The hits, however, are ageless.

Album review – Margie Nelson: Hungry Girl

9 Oct

“Lost Mind” isn’t on the album but this live performance shows a fine jazz singer at work

Hungry Girl: time for Margie Nelson to set her sights further afield

There’s a lot of competition out there when it comes to albums based on the American standards. But still they keep on coming, filling your CD shelves and playlists until you’re awash in a hundred interpretations of “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Cry Me a River”. Some of them are very good, of course. But every so often, one turns up and delivers something so fresh and scintillating that it knocks everything else off the player. Hungry Girl from Californian Margie Nelson, a self-styled ‘late bloomer’ has just that effect.

Where has she been hiding, this mistress of deft phrasing, with her ear for the sardonic underbelly of a lyric, and her ability to balance comedy with moments of unadorned melancholy? In and around Santa Barbara for the last 15 years, according to her biographical notes, paying her dues in showcases, workshops and jazz clubs. It’s high time she started to set her sights further afield, because vocalists with this kind of talent deserve a much wider audience.

Hungry Girl should help. For a start, it contains by far and away the best version – with all due respect to Ms Streisand – I’ve ever heard of the Johnny Mandel/Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic “Where do you Start?” All sense of melodrama is banished. Nelson picks her way with arresting honesty through the bittersweet break-up lyrics, unravelling the bleakness as they shift from helpless uncertainty to self-realisation, ultimately finding a nugget of comfort in acknowledging the eternal hold of the departing lover. It becomes an epic tale, told with unflinching clarity. She’s great with a couple of other torch numbers – a lilting “If You Never Come to Me” and a late-night, bluesy “Don’t Go to Strangers” both stand out – revealing the intuitive gift of the best narrative singers.

Margie Nelson sings with the Montecito Jazz Project at the Environmental Defense Center's "TGIF" Benefit in Santa Barbara

There’s a dash of Julie Wilson’s artful story-telling (“I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart”) and Julie London’s laconic irony (“An Occasional Man”), as well as hints of the phrasing of the great jazz singers – Anita O’Day (Nelson’s heroine), Carmen McRae (listen to Nelson swing on “How Come?”) and Rosemary Clooney. In a nod to the technique of such illustrious forebears, when she declares “I Need Ya (Like I Need a Hole in the Head)”, not a single word of those acerbic-yet-resigned lyrics is wasted. But whatever her influences, Nelson is very much her own mistress – assured, putting a relaxed, timeless spin on such standards as “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, a swerving, slowed-down “The Best is Yet to Come” and a nicely contemporary “Be Cool”, as well her irresistible and articulate take on the title track.

She is greatly assisted by a top-flight band that includes her producer, drummer Kevin Winard, Christian Jacob and Quinn Johnson sharing keyboard duties, Kevin Axt on bass, saxophonist Matt Catingub and guitarist Stephen Geyer. The arrangements simply swing out from the speakers.

Album Reviews – Barb Jungr: Man in the Long Black Coat; Durga Rising

3 Oct

It Ain’t Me Babe: the camerawork might be shaky but here’s a real sense of Barb Jungr’s compelling technique

The Man in the Long Black Coat: Barb Jungr gets closer than ever to Bob Dylan's lyrics

There are three elders at the top of the tree when it comes to British female singers who have an instinctive ability to tell the whole story in a song: Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Barb Jungr. Forget any ungallant connotations. I use the word simply to connote wisdom and an almost forensic approach to their craft. If Waterson is the benevolent earth mother, Tabor is the cool, all-seeing and often bleak eye at the centre of life’s storm. Jungr, on the other hand, hurls herself into the maelstrom, seeking the key to the most visceral experiences in the songs and chansons of the great modern songwriters and rendering them into compelling dramas for the listener.

This summer saw the simultaneous release of two albums from Jungr. Strictly speaking, neither is actually ‘new’. Man in the Long Black Coat is a compilation of Bob Dylan recordings made since her groundbreaking 2002 set, Every Grain of Sand, with the bonus of four additional songs laid down in the studio at the start of this year. Durga Rising is the reissue of her 1997 collaboration with renowned Asian music producer Kuljit Bhamra and Jungr’s late, and much-missed, accompanist Russell Churney. Between them, these very different pieces of work showcase an unstinting commitment to innovation and exploration that runs like seams of resilient, glistening black jet through her finest interpretations. Why this important British singer is still waiting to make an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland is a mystery.

Some people have hailed Man in the Long Black Coat as Jungr’s best album yet. And there is certainly a holistic feel to the album; much of this possibly comes from the sense of a ‘journey’, in which Jungr is getting closer and closer to crystallising exactly what Dylan’s lyrics mean to her. In doing so, she becomes increasingly agile with the possibilities and nuances that they offer.

The four most recent tracks – the title track with its ominous, funereal bell, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, the bitter, ironic “With God on Our Side”, and the sublime “Sara” – were all arranged and recorded with pianist Jenny Carr. They reveal a singer at her peak, brimming with confidence in the material. Dylan purists will no doubt perceive liberties being taken. Let them get on with it. There’s an audacity and boldness about these reinvented classics that is rooted in Jungr’s sense of freedom in the world she discovers through them.

From the up tempo “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the reggae beat of “Just Like a Woman”, a spacey treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the bluesy “High Water”, Jungr pursues the truth in the lyrics with a spirit of adventure and a musicality that is always intriguing. Who else could dream of giving “Blind Willie McTell” the feel of a chanson and make it work with such flair?

Durga Rising: pain and darkness with splashes of dizzying happiness

“Willie McTell” also turns up in a different, more subdued version on Durga Rising. This album, sub-titled ‘An Indo-Jazz Adventure’ is a cornucopia of human experience; bhangra beats meet midnight soul. Jungr and Bhamra have taken it on the road recently, now with exemplary pianist Simon Wallace, to great acclaim.

Jungr’s natural territory is pain and darkness, but she can also spin tails of dizzying happiness. Both extremes are here in a collection of almost entirely self-penned lyrics (Dylan aside), and the music of Bhamra, Churney and her old partner-in-song Michael Parker.

Jungr, Bhamra and Wallace talk Durga Rising on the road

Bhamra’s percussion is ethereal and fleet-fingered, working with Jungr’s vocals in contrapuntal sequences that shimmer with energy. When things get dark, they get really dark. “How Could I Ever”, “Tears in a Bottle” and the lascerating, end-of-the-affair piece of advice, “Choose to be Alone”, offer delicious degrees of cynicism. So do the apocalyptic overtones of “Crimes Against Nature”. But there are plenty of lighter textures in the music, and the exhilarating, life affirming romance of “Bombay Dreaming” – a latin-ish, retro dance hall number – is balm for the most jaded spirit.

CD Review – Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs from End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics

20 Jun

After a short interview, Tracie Bennett sings “Just in Time” on the Paul O’Grady Show

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: never a mere impersonation

She might have missed out on an Olivier Award – and surely it was by the narrowest of margins – for her performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, but Tracie Bennett’s insightful and committed interpretation of the role will be her calling card for years to come.

Her six-month sell-out season at the Whitehall Studios will soon be followed by a UK tour and then, early in 2012, a US run in Minneapolis – on the doorstep of Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids – with Broadway the ultimate goal.

In truth, it’s Bennett’s Garland, rather than the play itself, which has generated this momentum. Her Judy, plummeting headlong into an emotional vortex, repels and compels in equal measure, a fascinating study of a legend in rapid decline. And then there are the songs, each embodying in some way the unique spell that Garland held over her audience, even when it was tainted by the lurid voyeurism that too often featured in her late performances.

In the role, Bennett’s portrayal of the Garland concert persona – the twitches, the hair tugging, the restless strutting, that flicking of the microphone lead – is an extraordinary dramatic feat. And her vocal performance, an uncannily accurate blend of Garland’s trademark tics, the on-the-edge tremolo and smudged consonants, goes way beyond mere impersonation.

All of which makes the cast album – for that’s what Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics essentially is – an interesting prospect: are we listening to Tracie or Judy?

Bennett obviously has serious vocal gifts of her own, but they are necessarily subjugated to the role in a way that doesn’t usually impact so specifically on a leading lady’s singing performance. Without its dramatic context, it would have been all too easy for the album to dwindle into mimicry, serving neither the artist nor her subject.

Happily, this is never the case. Co-producers Chris Egan and Gareth Valentine have lovingly created an authentic, contemporary, brassy sound that supports Bennett’s throaty timbre – the key to her approximation of the Garland voice – and allows her to showcase the essential emotional highpoints of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” without ever tipping into parody or sound-alike karaoke.

The handful of songs from the show are joined by a selection from the legendary Carnegie Hall concert – the reference for many of Egan’s arrangements – and the title song from Garland’s last film, I Could Go On Singing. There are also cracking versions of “When the Sun Comes Out”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Chaplin’s evergreen, “Smile”.

At times, the similarity with the real thing is breath taking. Bennett is ever respectful of the legend. But there are also occasional moments when she takes off on a little riff – or in “The Trolley Song”, a chuckle – that reminds you this is a dramatic interpretation rather than an imitation.

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Album Review: Cæcilie Norby – Arabesque

10 May

The Dead Princess: Cæcilie Norby’s haunting take on Ravel

Arabesque: contemplative and modern treatments of classic melodies, with astringent lyrics

Arabesque is an edgy, moody collection of songs to thrill the musical iconoclast. Classical purists might run for the hills but Danish jazz singer Cæcilie Norby has come up with some extraordinary settings that shed new light on familiar melodies by Rimsky Korsakov, Satie and Debussy, boldly applying her own astringent lyrical interpretations of the stories behind them.

The result is an impressionistic aural feast, punctuated by a burst of funky swing (“Bei mir bist du schoen”), a couple of Michel Legrand tracks and an inspirational take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth”. In short, Norby, who has been a pioneer of modern Nordic music, straddling the choppy territory between jazz and pop with her refusal to be categorised, has sharpened her maverick credentials and come up with an audacious concept. Just when you think you’ve pinned it down, the musical influence on each track shifts into new territory.

“The Dead Princess” takes Ravel’s haunting theme and turns it into an exploration of the character of the composer’s benefactress, Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. His “Pavane”, so evocative in any setting, is transformed into a brooding meditation on the power of music to arouse memories and sensations.

Norby isn’t the first musician tempted to take liberties with Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – prog rock band Renaissance built an entire album around it in the 1970s – but she treats it with great respect, her Arabian Nights-inspired lyrics swirling among the excellent accompaniment of musicians including pianist Katrine Gislinge, co-producer Lars Danielsson (on bass, cello and organ).

The percussion of Anders Engen and Xavier Devandre-Navarre is a crucial ingredient of Arabesque, fluid and driven, providing a great counterpoint to the fascinating texture of Norby’s voice. There is more than a hint of Berlin cabaret in her timbre – at times, comparisons with Ute Lemper are valid – but her phrasing is always contemplative and modern. Norby is more about the inner monologue than playing to the gallery.

Other highlights include “The Tears of Billie Blue”, a shimmering interpretation of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, and “No Air”, which turns Satie’s Gymnopédie into sultry, delicate soliloquy. There is also a Danish version of Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (“Hvirvelvinden”) and a bonus track, “How Oft”, a tribute to the singer’s father, Erik, who composed it. An absorbing landscape of an album.

Adele: a Torch Singer for the 21st Century

7 May

Someone Like You: Adele comes of age as a 21st-century torch singer at the Brit Awards 2011

When BBC Breakfast tackled the subject of Adele’s universal appeal and meteoric rise yesterday, the most enlightened comments came not from the ‘experts’ on the sofa but from the people interviewed on the street. One by one, they identified, easily and succinctly why her voice and lyrics strike such a chord with an extraordinary range of listeners. Back in the studio, meanwhile, the conversation got bogged down in sales figures and clichés, and an awkward segue into Cheryl Cole’s appointment as an X Factor judge in the States. What nobody identified as the root of Adele’s success is that she is, above all, the epitome of the torch singer – one of the finest of her generation – whose lyrics, combined with a voice of real range and depth, unravel the epic personal emotions of everyday heartbreak.

In the following article, a version of which appears in the current issue of Theatre & Performance magazine (with some unfortunate graphical errors), I have tried to analyse the eternal popularity of the torch singer, placing singers like Adele, Marianne Faithfull, Justin Bond and Mari Wilson – who here gives a splendid masterclass on the art of torch-singing – in this great tradition.

Marianne Faithfull: grande dame of torch singers (photo by Patrick Swirc)

Adele is dominating the pop charts with her lush, wounded ballads. Tracie Bennett is burning up the West End with her visceral performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses and High Heels is a useful reminder that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to unravelling the nuances of lyrics we thought we knew so well.

Yes, the torch song – and our appetite for its cathartic powers – is alive and well. And singers who can deliver one effectively, honestly and with integrity, will always exert a special hold on our broken hearts.

Perhaps it’s the drama: the singer alone in the spotlight, spinning a tale of loss, abandonment, loneliness and longing. Regardless of the genre – rock and pop, country, jazz, cabaret, folk or musical theatre – it’s one of the most totemic images in show business. And it’s served its exponents well since the term ‘torch singer’ was first coined in the 1920s to describe a brace of singers who plied their trade on Broadway, in revues and after-hours nightclubs, and in the early radio and recording studios, specialising in melancholy numbers that struck an emotional chord in the listener that went beyond mere sentiment.

These days, only specialists and enthusiasts will give a second thought to performers like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice Libby Holman or Lee Wiley. But they were all, in their way, trailblazers for the torch singers who have followed in their wake, and not just the great triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; three women whose influence on technique, delivery and style continue to resonate with many performers half a century and more after their premature deaths.

Piaf’s place at the top of the tree is a useful reminder that the French chanson has always been a key influence on the concept of the torch song. Brice’s signature song “My Man” – still one of the darkest and most brutal examples of this type of lyric – started life as “Mon Homme”, a lament popularised in Parisian music-halls by the legendary Mistinguett.

Broadway shows have also contributed immeasurably to the evolution of the torch-song, ever since Helen Morgan perched on a piano and delivered a tremulous “Bill” in Showboat, and Libby Holman growled “Moanin’ Low” to a delightedly scandalised audience in The Little Show just before the Wall Street Crash unleashed the Great Depression.

Many great torch songs now recognised as standards started life as stage numbers – a tradition that has been continued by great composers and lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and most recently, Jason Robert Brown.

But broken hearts have also always provided rich material for song writers and, as jazz and big band music moved over to make way for mainstream pop music in the 1950s, they discovered an even broader, global medium to explore the darker side of love. And so the torch was picked up by pop singers like Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey and Elkie Brooks, superstars Streisand and Minnelli, and later by Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor and a string of rising 21st century stars including Adele and Amy Winehouse.

It’s no coincidence that the iconic status of many of the great torch singers has been assisted by their propensity for living in a way that seemed to perfectly reflect the lyrics to which they brought such insight and emotional substance. Even today, our response to the unique vocal qualities of Piaf, Judy and Billie is complicated by our knowledge of the personal price they each paid for success and affirmation by audiences – and a music industry – who perhaps did not always have their best interests at heart.

How else to explain the contemporary appeal of a play that focuses on the traumas of Garland’s final appearances at The Talk of the Town? In End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett has been a revelation as the self-destructing star, peeling back the layers of internal conflict and drug-fogged delusion one by one. And it’s in the songs that her characterisation is rooted, conjuring the essence of Garland with “The Man That Got Away” in a way that’s had the audience mesmerised night after night.

Even playing these women in dramatised accounts of their lives exerts a tremendous physical toll that gives an insight into the close relationship between the torch singer and the material that is her stock in trade. Piaf, Pam Gems’s play, pulls no punches in its depiction of the way the singer’s voice absorbed all the abuse the Little Sparrow inflicted on it, while still emerging powerful as a bell from her wracked body. For Elaine Paige, who played the role in 1992, it was a painful revelation.

“There was something about her I felt akin to, a kind of obsessive quality,” she once recalled in an interview with this writer. “I find something and I get involved and get hooked and it becomes a bit of an obsession. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite as exhausting. I was very fulfilled and very drained. Every night. I’ve had problems with my knees ever since, from walking around with bowed legs, bent double! She isn’t the easiest character to play without suffering a bit yourself.”

There are occasional reminders that self-destructive tendencies in a singer can still fuel an uncomfortable fascination, particularly when an artist seems completely absorbed by the experiences they are singing about. Look at Amy Winehouse who has long since proved herself one of the great torch singers of our age, despite a back-story that evokes the darker excesses of Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.

Winehouse could draw some inspiration from another trailblazer, Marianne Faithfull, who has long since emerged from the chaos of her own tabloid years to become a stately grande dame of dramatic song. Faithfull’s voice testifies to self-inflicted ravages but there is a beauty and an honesty in her lyrical interpretations that remains utterly arresting.

“I’ve always loved story songs,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of my acting thing, to get into character and live the story with the person. But I think it’s got stronger, probably because I’ve got a bit more compassion now, for myself and others!”

While torch singing – and the image of the torch singer – is primarily associated with female performers, there have also been great, intuitive male interpreters capable of twisting the heartstrings in this way. From Brel, Sinatra and Scott Walker to Marc Almond and Ian Shaw, great male vocalists have also demonstrated a way with desolate lyrics that come into their own at midnight.

For New York transgender singer Justin Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v’, the best torch songs achieve their power through evocation.

“Great torch singers create a safer space for us to address our desires and heartaches,” v says. “We get to live our pain through them. When singing a torch song, my mission as a singer has always been to reveal ideas and emotions that would allow my audiences to experience things in a communal way that they might ordinarily allow themselves to deal with only in private – thereby validating them and their experiences of loss, anger, loneliness or desire.”

In the End: Justin Bond spins a torch song at Joe’s Pub in New York

But is it really necessary to have lived to the extremes suggested by so many torch song lyrics? Go to a gig by any of our finest contemporary torch singers – Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Ian Shaw, Antony Hegarty, Martha or Rufus Wainwright – and at some point in the evening you are guaranteed an emotional workout as prescribed by Bond. But in most cases, the emotional realism that they generate with a particular song is founded on an understanding of the lyric that taps into their own human experiences rather than a 24-hour commitment to excess.

“I don’t think ‘good acting’ alone can put across a torch song,” says Bond. “I was pretty much in touch with my emotions as a child, and I think I was capable of tearing up a Jacques Brel tune even in my teens. You’re never too young to understand great sadness OR sexual desire, trust [me].”

Bond cites Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as a great torch number – “written from the perspective of a louche gay man coming of age in very tenuous times” – but says the torch song is in good hands with modern song writers.

“I like some of Jarvis Cocker’s songs. “This is Hardcore” is a great torch song,” v says. “Antony [Hegarty] writes beautiful torch songs and Rufus Wainwright has written some lovely examples. My record, Dendrophile, is coming out in the States on April 5th and includes covers of what might be considered torch songs – “Superstar”, “Diamonds and Rust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”.

“The fact that they are called ‘torch songs’ implies a burning,” adds Bond. “The greatest loves and strongest desires come from a deeply spiritual need. Great torch songs evoke a kind of dissatisfaction caused by uncontrollable, even unwanted, desires that aren’t being satisfied.”

The true torch singer, then, is defined by a capacity to touch us, regardless of sexuality or age, and the extravagance of many of the lyrics they interpret is a disguise for deep, shared, ordinary emotions. A great exponent gives us permission to acknowledge those emotions. As long as we need that, the torch singer’s future is assured.

Torch Singing Masterclass With Mari Wilson

Mari Wilson: you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness (photo by John Haxby)

Choose your torch songs carefully. I was 15 when I first saw Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” in The Girl Can’t Help It. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then when I started gigging properly in 1981, I was driving along in my Austin A40 and finally it came on the radio. I started singing it in my sets and it felt right – and it still does. It’s such a well-crafted song. Every time I sing it, it’s like being on a football pitch. I’ll decide to take it over there, or stay here in the middle. That’s why you never get bored singing a song of this quality. A great torch song needs that breadth and depth.

Use your experience to tell the story. It’s lovely when people write and tell me that my recording is the best version. But to be honest, I think I sing it much better now because I’ve lived twice as long – and I’m a much better singer! Back then, I hadn’t had my heart broken in a major, adult way. You can only sing from your own experience.

It isn’t all about age. Listen to Adele. She’s only 21 but she’s obviously singing from a deep hurt. Or Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” at 14. Or Amy Winehouse singing “Love is a Losing Game”. You can have the experience to put across a torch lyric at any age. It’s about being able to be honest and vulnerable. You can’t be cynical, you have to be willing to open yourself up, because actually, when you’re singing a torch song, you’re admitting something about yourself and what the lyric means to you.

Write your own material. Trying to find the right songs is difficult. You have to be interested in the lyrics over and over again. I’ve been writing a lot of my own songs [Mari Wilson’s one-woman musical, The Love Thing, had its debut at the Leicester Square Theatre last November]. A lot of the time when you’re singing, you’re also acting. But you have to find an element of truth in the material.

Be your own age. I’m singing “My Love” at the moment and when you’re in your 50s, it’s all about how kind and dependable your love is. Because when you get older, that’s what you want! Friendship and kindness really matter. Of course sex is important but there’s more to it than being great in the sack. And pop music has always been about sex and young people. Jessie J’s “The Price Tag” and “Do it Like a Dude” are fantastic – but where is there to go after that? You need romance and love.

Understand the lyrics. Mick Jagger’s lyrics for “Wild Horses” were written about his relationship with Marianne Faithfull. They were relevant then, to a young person. But they’re equally relevant to me today – “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain…”, “Let’s do some living after we die…” – you can be singing about all kinds of unhappiness. That’s what’s so good about the words: there are so many possible interpretations and they can all have meaning, regardless of what stage you’re at.

Sing according to your venue. It really does make a difference. We did The Love Thing in the basement at Leicester Square, without a proper sound system and nothing between me and the audience. In contrast, I’ve just sung at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, which was really lovely. There’s something special about a larger room when the lights go down and the spotlight’s on you. You have some help creating the mood and it helps you to sing a torch song better. Equally, you need to be able to get up and sing at a party – like Judy Garland or, I’m told, Amy Winehouse who, by all accounts, is extraordinary in those private settings. I once sang “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” at a party. It was song that we played at my mum’s funeral, where it had everyone in a heap, so it’s a tricky one for me. But it was also very special to be able to move people in such an intimate space.