A complicated proposition: Sarah-Jane Morris talks about how Bloody Rain came about
This is shaping up into a golden autumn for the elder stateswomen of rock and popular music across the genres. From Sandie Shaw’s exciting collaboration with Davidge to Marianne Faithfull’s best album in years, from Annie Lennox’s forthcoming dip into the American standards to Betty Buckley’s Ghostlight, from Kate Bush’s extraordinary live performances to Peggy Seeger’s ageless vocals, they are each a testament to their own capacity for reinvention and boundary-pushing in a notoriously youth-obsessed business. And they are producing some of the finest and most interesting work in their already illustrious careers.
To the growing list we must now add Sarah-Jane Morris, who practically steals the show from the lot of them with Bloody Rain, an exhilarating Africa-inspired journey through intimacy and friendship, passion, the political legacy of colonialism, homophobia, industrial exploitation, child-soldiers and the fractures that explode when Western culture impacts on traditional family life.
It sounds like a complicated proposition. But Morris’s song-writing is so adept that the personal and universal perspectives, swept up in a constantly shifting net of beats and lilting melodies, are always clearly defined and accessible – and unflinching.
Given many of the subjects tackled, an underlying anger throbs through numbers like “No Beyonce”, “David Kato” and “Coal train”. Morris’s skill is to keep it subliminal, rendering the shock of the shattering lyric above a seductive rhythm all the more potent.
Don’t be misled by the Joplin-esque fierceness of the cover image, which might suggest the album is a long howl of rage. The range of textures in this most distinctive of voices gives her a wide palate of choices, from the dark, ominous growl that she deploys on “Deeper well” to her eloquent narrative on the human cost of the diamond trade on “Coal train”, to the stark beauty of “On my way to you”. There’s even an impassioned take on “I shall be released” for good measure (apparently, it’s compulsory for everyone to include a Dylan cover when they make a new album – but this ties in seamlessly with the arc of Bloody Rain).
Morris has always been a nomadic singer when it comes to style, eschewing easy categorisation and gracefully side-stepping the legacy of “Don’t leave me this way”, that gloriously excessive, soulful collaboration with The Communards which could so easily have consigned a less-resistant artist to the “eighties singers” pen.
Further evidence of that versatility can be found in the album’s several love songs and tributes to friends and family, grounding its complex themes in the powerful resourcefulness of human relationships. And on the last track, the triumphantly satirical “Men just want to have fun”, with its calypso sway, Morris unleashes a needle-sharp humour to make her point about male attitudes to sexual freedom. This is a “Man smart, woman smarter” for the 21st century, frank and utterly contemporary.
With an exceptional band of musicians and backing singers, including Courtney Pine, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Pee Wee Ellis and Ian Shaw, Morris has created an enthralling work which ultimately soothes having delivered some powerful emotional punches. That’s quite a feat.
Don’t leave me this way: gloriously soulful, but don’t call Sarah-Jane Morris an “eighties singer”
Falling Back: imperious pop from Marianne Faithfull, with a little help from Anna Calvi (Later… with Jools Holland)
Marianne Faithfull’s relationship with London has always been complicated. So it’s no surprise that the title of her staggeringly good new album is laced with irony. Give My Love to London is no billet doux of rapprochement to a city that has been responsible for a fair few of her battle scars over the years.
But as it ranges freely across the landscape of experience, the record – a truly majestic piece of art – balances moments of bleakly dispassionate observation and cold rage with flashes of compassion, tenderness and dizzying joy so effectively that it is impossible to escape a poignant underlying sense of conflicted affection.
Like so many artists before her, Faithfull has discovered in London an infinitely versatile metaphor for the betraying or exalted lover, the progress of an affair, the drug addict, or a society in crisis. But making the metaphor work so fluently is another matter, and her considerable achievement here is to render her subject with such fresh and resolutely contemporary inflections. In the title track, the city morphs from a moonlit playground to a rioting conflagration. This ambivalence is displaced by fragile hope in the moving Roger Waters composition, “Sparrows will sing”.
Faithfull’s collaborations with songwriters including Anna Calvi (“Falling Back”, a richly anthemic, imperious pop song), Nick Cave (the poignantly fragile “Deep Water”) and Patrick Leonard (the ferocious “Mother Wolf”) give the album its assured foundations. Cave has also contributed a mini classic in “Late Victorian Holocaust”, a psycho-geographical tale of child heroin addicts; almost 50 years after her introspective, faltering treatment of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”, Faithfull is back on familiar territory, older and a whole lot wiser And there are lovely interpretations of the Everlys’ “The Price of Love” and the wry Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard ballad, “Going Home”.
The musical shifts are as eclectic as the songs. Grand, baroque walls of guitar-driven rock give way to blues riffs, folk tropes, classical pianos and harps. That the album gels so perfectly is due in part to the production (take a bow Rob Ellis and Dimitri Tikovoi), and Flood’s mixes, which brilliantly define Faithfull’s vocals so that whether she is declaiming and intoning like a great 21st-century diseuse or singing in that scarred contralto, she is always a match for a band that plays up a storm.
But perhaps more than anything, Give My Love to London is a triumph for Faithfull’s own artistic conviction and self-confidence, which seem to have peaked just as she celebrates 50 years in the music business.
Faithfull has made it clear that she has no intention of coming home from the Parisian eyrie where she now lives. But as she concludes in a stark, beyond-despair reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I get along without you very well” – here, a torch-song to the city she has just dissected so eloquently – there is a bond that will always be able to reassert itself with the stabbing precision of a stiletto blade. And in Faithfull’s case, like the irritating piece of sand that leads to the creation of a pearl, it has provided the inspiration for a masterpiece.
For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London
There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.
Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.
This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.
Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.
Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover. “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.
Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.
She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.
The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.
Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.
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.
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
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.
Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!
Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.
Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.
Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.
Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.
Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.
It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.
Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.
Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.
If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.