Rigmor Gustafsson: Alone With the Music
“ It's hard to put into words exactly what I believe. It's a feeling inside. A feeling that everything is beyond our knowledge and imagination. ”
Singer/songwriter Rigmor Gustafsson is perhaps best known for her vocal interpretations of other great singers, including Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach. Gustafsson's unique songwriting style has, however, garnered her accolades and top-ranking hits; she is the recipient of gold records in both Germany and Sweden. With Alone With You (ACT, 2008), Gustafsson showcases her amalgamated sound of jazz and pop. As the title hints at, the album focuses on the audience and the listener becomes her guiding light. The inspiration is audible with just one listen to the album which features musical traces of Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand.
Alone With You features the work of Eric Harland, one of today's most in-demand jazz drummers, and bassist Lars Danielsson. Also featured are guitarist Max Shultz and pianist Jonas Östholm.
All About Jazz: How did you become interested in jazz? Was it at a young age?
Rigmor Gustafsson: I had the opportunity to start taking guitar lessons when I was eight, and the guitar teacher I had was into all kind of music where you have the freedom to improvise. So it was really the improvising that caught me, he didn't really talk about what kind of music we were playing. I understood that people called it jazz first when I was around thirteen.
AAJ: Growing up in the countryside in Varmland, Sweden, were there many people that listened to jazz or went to see jazz musicians perform?
RG: None, whatsoever!
AAJ: Who were your largest musical influences before beginning your career? Were your parents or anyone in your family musicians?
RG: My guitar teacher, Jan Johansson, was definitely my biggest influence, he helped me with everything that had anything to do with music. I grew up on a small little farm so my parents were farmers and were completely busy with that, but I can definitely tell that my dad has a very good ear and he says that my mother also was very musical. My mother died of cancer when I was seven, and my dad says that he had already seen, at that time, that I got completely absorbed whenever I heard music, so he was happy that I had a way to distract myself.
In Sweden at that time, and for quite a long time, there was something called Kommunala Musikskolan (government subsidized music school), where every kid that was interested had the chance to get music lessons for free, and I feel very, very lucky that I got a fantastic teacher.
AAJ: Apart from your great teacher, did anyone else inspire you, either personally or professionally?
RG: I discovered Stevie Wonder when I was twelve and basically became a fanatic... I still adore Stevie Wonder, but I've also listened a lot to Sarah Vaughan and Elis Regina, just to name a few if were talking about vocal artists. But since my major instrument was guitar up until I was seventen, I listened to a lot of instrumental music; Mahavishnu, Al Di Meola, Miles, Coltrane, and a lot of the other classics.
AAJ: How did studying at the Royal Music College in Stockholm and the New School jazz program in New York help to shape the artist that you are today?
RG: Wow, hard to say... I've just been trying to learn as much as I possibly can. And of course, being a Swedish country girl living in NYC was a new experience.
AAJ: You have been known for your vocal interpretations of such greats as Dionne Warwick, Michel Legrand and Burt Bacharach. When deciding which songs to interpret is it important for you to already have a connection with the lyrics or is it more about creating a connection with lyrics?
RG: Yes, I certainly feel that I need to have a connection with the lyrics, but sometimes I really love just the melody and the lyrics don't mean too much. I still feel totally okay with singing a song like that as long as the lyrics don't feel clearly wrong to me. An example is Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers." I love the tune as an instrumental and really wanted to record it on my Close to You (ACT, 2004) CD, but simply couldn't find an honest approach to the lyrics.
AAJ: You have said that you believe that music has its own existence. Can you elaborate on that?
RG: It's hard to put into words exactly what I believe. It's a feeling inside. A feeling that everything is beyond our knowledge and imagination... Maybe we live in different dimensions... who knows? Anyway, it's a feeling that music is existing always and that I (and everyone) have a chance to be a part of it in one or another way.
AAJ: One of the best things about music is the way that it affects listeners, making them feel like they're a part of the music. Alone With You is the first album in which you have written all the songs yourself. Did you decide that the time was right to show this other unknown creative side of yourself to your audience?
RG: I released three CDs that included some of my own material before I got signed to ACT, so composing has always been a part of me. When I signed with ACT I got really busy with touring and it took a whileand three more CDsbefore I felt that I had to say no to gigs and focus on my composing. There wasn't really any plan time-wise, though it's just that the need for writing got too strong after awhile.
AAJ: Alone With You really showcases your songwriting skills. How long did it take for the album to come together?
RG: We recorded it in three days, but before that I took a month off to write most of the songs. I also had three or four songs lying around that I fixed a little.
AAJ: Did you record more songs than those included on the album?
RG: Yes, maybe they'll appear on another album.
AAJ: Do you have a favorite song among the tracks?
RG: I do, but it changes all the time. Right now it's "It's All There."
AAJ: Do you find that songwriting comes naturally to you? Do the moments of inspiration flow steadily?
RG: Yes, the inspiration for writing the music flows steadily and I'm very happy about that, but it's harder with the lyrics. I really need time and space for that.
AAJ: "In My World" is a beautiful song. There is a definite haunting quality to the melody and the vocal phrasing that's indicative of what a listener can expect with the whole albuman experience reminiscent of being in an intimate jazz club. Was that your intention when recording this album?
RG: Oh, thank you. I must admit that I really didn't have any clear intention like that, but it makes me happy to hear that your experience of my music seems to be good.
AAJ: When you listen to music, what is it that you connect with a beautiful melody? Poignant lyrics, or is it a combination of things?
RG: Most of the time it's a combination of lyrics, harmonies, melody and rhythm, but it can also be specifically just one thing. Also it's kind of weird; even though I'm a vocalist I sometimes enjoy listening to instrumental music more because that lets me interpret the music in other ways.
AAJ: Yes, instrumental music can be just as communicative as vocal interpretation. When you are writing lyrics and creating your music, what do you hope the listener will gain from hearing it?
RG: I just hope that I can give something that stays, something that gives a deeper experience in one way or another.
AAJ: How do you feel your music and sound have evolved since your first album?
RG: My songs are a little easier now. On my first albums I was quite concerned about challenging my band. I was really thinking about, for instance, using chords and chord changes that I knew they thought were cool... Now I don't think so much, I'm just a little bit more concerned that my songs should feel good for me to sing and not only fun (and challenging) for the musicians to play.
AAJ: Your quintet was formed in New York in 1994. Why did you decide to return to Stockholm?
RG: I had to. My visa was running out, I didn't have any money and I got an offer to teach at the Royal Music College in Stockholm, so I simply thought it was time to go back. But I missed New York like maniac the first months.
AAJ: What is the jazz scene like in Stockholm compared to New York?
RG: There are a lot of great musicians but not so many places to play at.
AAJ: Do you have a favorite venue?
RG: I love the mood at the different clubs in New York but I also really like, for instance, the different Kultur Centers in Germanygreat stages, great sound, great audience. Actually, as long as there's good sound I'm usually quite happy.
AAJ: Do you prefer smaller venues to the larger venues?
RG: BothI think it's perfect to mix.
AAJ: You have performed with so many visionaries, including, Fred Hersch, Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson, and Avishai Cohen. In particular, what was it like to work with such an amazing bassist as Avishai?
RG: Wonderful. He's a fantastic bassist and, just like me, he loves Stevie Wonder. When we were jamming just duo, we both sanghe was playing the bass and we were playing Stevie songs... Wow, I realize I miss that time in New York...
AAJ: Is there anyone with whom you would like to work and have not yet had the chance?
RG: [I] Wouldn't mind singing with Brad Mehldau... or in Wayne Shorter's band...But I'm also very, very happy that I've had the opportunity to work with, for instance, Jacky Terrasson and Eric Harland.
AAJ: Are you currently on tour, and will you be returning to the United States any time soon?
RG: Currently [July 2008], I'm doing mostly festival gigs with my quartet. I'll basically be on tour the whole time from September to December but only in Europenothing planned in the US right now, but I'm sure I'll be there sooner or later.
AAJ: Apart from Alone With You, are you working on any other projects or collaborations with any other artists?
RG: I am. For instance, this fall I'll do a tour with Tomonao Hara and Satoshi Inoue, another tour with the Frankfurt Big Band, and concerts with the Danish Radio Band, to name some projects. The main part of my concerts is with my own quartet but I also enjoy doing other things.
AAJ: The excellence of your work has been acknowledged by your albums going gold and the awards and accolades you have garnered. Is that at all a validation to your career?
RG: Well, I get a lot of gigs nowadays, but personally I feel that my own sense of success doesn't necessarily have to do with what other people think. I can feel very satisfied with something that doesn't get much attention at all, or I get a lot of praise for something that I don't think is so special. I have my own validation scale.
Rigmor Gustafsson, Alone With You (ACT, 2007)
Rigmor Gustafsson, On My Way to You (ACT, 2006)
Rigmor Gustafsson, Close to You (ACT, 2004)
Rigmor Gustafsson, I Will Wait for You (ACT, 2003)
Rigmor Gustafsson, Rigmor Gustafsson Live (Prophone Records, 2000)
Rigmor Gustafsson, Plan #46 (Prophone Records, 1998)
Rigmor Gustafsson, In the Light of Day (Prophone Records, 1997)
Top Photo: Steven Haberland
Bottom Photo: Jörg Grosse Gelderman