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Ian Shaw: From Free Jazz to Noel Coward

By Published: December 1, 2009
"Songs are stories, aren't they? I'm an actor, a comedian, I perform. I can't just stand there with my eyes closed and hope that the audience is going to come with me, just like that. I'm not a cabaret singer either. ... I just like to show people the songs, really. I'm also a jazz singer, so the music is as important as the lyric. Every single song I've recorded, I love."

Ian ShawShaw has recorded two albums devoted exclusively to single composers: Lifejacket (Linn Records, 2008), which featured his own songs, and the self-explanatory Drawn To All Things: The Songs of Joni Mitchell (Linn Records, 2006). Of the Mitchell covers album, Shaw says, "I was itching to do that album. It's been my best seller—Joni Mitchell fans love to buy every version of her songs. I gigged the album for two years in all sorts of performance formats, from me with a guitarist, me playing piano, to a full orchestra with Guy Barker
Guy Barker
Guy Barker
arrangements of some of the songs. "Both Sides Now" is a song I'd always wanted to record. I think it's everyone's life song—beautiful, beautiful images."

Lifejacket, Shaw's album of his own songs, was "massive fun ... and really personal. That was me doing my Joni album ... my heart-on-sleeve thing which I probably won't do again for a long time. Those songs provided fodder for a great tour, because I could combine songs with stories and a little bit of stand-up, and it worked beautifully. People responded well to those songs. I don't think it sold particularly well, though."

Shaw describes Somewhere Towards Love as an album of "skewered love songs." It's proving to be a commercial success, and he attributes much of this success to one man: London radio DJ Robert Elms. "He plays a track just about every other day on his show, listened to by 800,000 Londoners. It takes just one person to pick up on an album and it makes such a difference. He plays the title track [Shaw's sole composition on the album]—that's what people ask for."

The lyrics to "Somewhere Towards Love" are printed on the album sleeve. It seems to be a very personal and intensely honest track, with its references to "a half-remembered friend" and "the child you didn't father." Shaw agrees: "Yeah, it is. I didn't want to do what I did on Lifejacket, where there are such obscure images that no one but my mother would know what they meant. In fact, the melody came first. ...The words came afterwards. That's quite odd, really, because normally I write the poem first, then the music afterwards. For that song, I wrote 20 verses, then picked four of them for the final version."

Across his albums, Shaw has recorded songs by many writers, but American lyricist Fran Landesman's songs appear more frequently than most. Shaw has been a family friend for many years, having been in a punk band with Landesman's son Miles. "She loves the way I sing," Shaw says, "and I'd love to do a whole album of her songs. Everyone does them, but no one else had done "Just Having Fun," which is one I did on the new album. I spend much of my life trawling through her poems, determined to put at least one of her songs on each of my albums. I've recorded about 8 altogether. What I'd love to do is put them all together and do a "Best Of Ian and Fran" record."

Somewhere Towards Love features songs from writers such as Rickie Lee Jones and Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
as well as Landesman—there is also a short Welsh traditional tune, "Watching the White Wheat," which closes the album. Three songs in particular stand out for their lyrical power as well as for Shaw's delivery: Noel Coward's "If Love Were All," Nick Cave's "Into My Arms" and Fran Landesman and Simon Wallace's "Scars." These are intense songs with exceptional imagery. All three are love songs, but not in the simplistic Moon-and-June style. Shaw is a great admirer of all of these writers—he refers to Nick Cave as "a genius" and acknowledges the uniqueness of these three songs.

Ian ShawShaw first heard Coward's "If Love Were All" sung by Steve Ross: "I picked up on some of the lyrics and thought, "Blimey, if I could sing it more simply..." Shaw was immediately drawn to the song's key lyrics: "If love were all, I would be lonely" and "All I have is a talent to amuse." He describes the song as "a pitiful plea for someone to love you. It's a pathetic song in many ways."

"Into My Arms," according to Shaw, "is like "If Love Were All" but deeper, almost allegorical. I decided to record it but not to make it as dark as the original, just to keep it simple." Both Cave's original and Shaw's version feature the singers accompanying themselves on piano, but Cave's interpretation is more threatening and bleak. "Oh yes," laughs Shaw, "he probably mined it from the deepest seam of his misery, I suppose. I don't really know what most of it means; everyone who has recorded it brings something different to it."

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