Lauren Kinsella: In Between Every Line
It may be that the voice is the most difficult instrument to improvise with, judging by the relatively small number of improvising vocalists out there. Jazz singers who scat are common enough, but only the best are able to breathe life into a style that has become rather formulaic over the past century. Lauren Kinsella (the stress lies on the first syllable) is one singer who is boldly carving out her own path as an improvising vocalist. The London-based Irish singer is making a name for herself in improvising circles on both sides of the Irish Sea, and the release of two distinct and highly absorbing CDs in 2012, with more to come in 2013, will no doubt help to spread the name of this highly talented individual. The first of these releases, All This Talk About (WideEar Records, 2012), introduces Kinsella's arresting improvisations in a duo recording with Swiss drummer Alex Huber. Adventurous syllabic and non-syllabic utterances and a heightened rhythmic sensibility are accompanied by Kinsella's more conventional and quite beautifully sung words. Three numbers inspired by poet Ted Hughes' "Thought-Fox" form the backbone of the albuma daring collaborative effort that amply rewards those who look for a bit of edge and innovation in their music.
Hughes' poem also provides the name of one of Kinsella's bands, the quintet Thought-Fox, and its debut recording, My Guess (Diatribe Records, 2012) is another impressive statement. Inevitably, given the group format of vocals, trombone, piano, drums and bass, there's more of a conventionalthough utterly contemporaryjazz-group feel to the music than in the free play of All This Talk About, and a great part of the album's appeal lies in the sophisticated melodic and rhythmic interplay. An improviser Kinsella surely is, but My Guess also highlights her compositional strengths and her ability to create a fine balance between the two disciplines.
Kinsella's talent for singing was spotted at an early age by one of her teachers in Dublin, and good guidance at that early stage got the budding young singer off to a great start. Her parents, however, must have had an inkling that their daughter would take to music. "My parents sent me there specifically because they knew it was a good school for music," relates Kinsella. "When I was 12, I did a school concert; I can still remember it," Kinsella laughs. "There was this lovely woman in the audience who happened to be the singing teacher, and she came up to me afterwards and said, 'You have a nice voice, but your posture is terrible, and we'll need to work on that.' I started getting singing lessons with her. I learned how to sing, and my technique was firmly embedded."
Kinsella studied the classical repertoire, from Haydn and Benjamin Britten to Handel: "I always got the solo singer's role," recalls Kinsella. "I loved being in choirs, and I was always up in front, trying to watch somebody direct sound. I was very interested in that." Kinsella's parents must take some of the credit for steering her to a music-oriented school in the first place, and although neither of her parents had a musical background, they were both influential in other ways in shaping their daughter's future direction. "My Mum and my Nan [grandmother] have lovely voices. I definitely get it from that side of the family," says Kinsella. Kinsella's father provided Kinsella with another sort of gift. "My Dad owns a bookshop. We always worked at the bookshop when we were kids," Kinsella explains. "I worked in the second-hand department, and you'd open a box of books and get to look at people's lives. We read a lot and always had second-hand books around. I collected a lot of poetry books and biographical books about authors."
In a sense, her father's bookshop would become a laboratory for the singer. "All the work I do now in improvisation and the texts that I use and base my work on all come from that source," she acknowledges. "When I started getting into free improvisation, I'd bring books along, using pieces at random, pieces of poetry, and it would come out in the sessions in my writing. I like improvising with poems because the very nature of their structure lends itself to music. Visual imagery is a very strong tool for a singerwe can't see our instrument, per se, so we have to use our mind's eye. I look at some words or passages, and it jumps back at me as sound. This could be in a letter, in a poem, in anything, really. It excites me, and I want to sing through it, play through it, understand the words and their meaning through music."
In Kinsella's poetry-inspired improvisations, sounds and rhythm flow in a stream of consciousness where flashes of lyrics are deconstructed and, in the same breath, fashioned as syllabic and non-syllabic flights of sound. In a review of Thought-Fox's performance at the 2012 Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, Alan O'Riordan of independent.ie described Kinsella as sounding "at times like Bjork singing backwards." In his colorful description, O'Riordan certainly captured one truth, and that is that Kinsella doesn't really sound like anyone singing forwards.
As Kinsella explains, the road to her very personal improvisational style has been a combination of freedom in self-expression and guidance in how to achieve that. "I think as I evolve as a person, my style is becoming more about who I am," asserts Kinsella. "I had the great fortune of having important mentors along the way who steered me towards finding myself and my own spacespending time with Lauren Newton or Sheila McCarthy, a great classical teacher in Dublin, and then pinpointing myself what I needed to explore to develop my sound."
Kinsella is the first to admit that she didn't dive in at the deep end as a composer or with a well-defined improvisational idiom. "Like most singers, I just started singing the standards," she relates. "I love singing standards, and I'll never stop singing them, but I've probably used them more as a technique to develop my instrument rather than really exploring that material as a performer." Kinsella has a healthy respect for more conventional singers' ability to carry a song with a melody: "When I first started really listening to female singers like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez and all these folk singers, I fell in love with their ability to carry songs that really meant something."
For Kinsella, the melody and rhythm of language capture her imagination, whether it springs from the printed page or from her travels: "Whenever I spend time traveling, in India or Sweden or Switzerland, I pick up something I like from those places. For example, I love how people talk in Scandinaviathe sound of the language. I like looking at the language and saying it out loud, even though I don't understand it."
It was during a trip to Switzerland that Kinsella met drummer Alex Huber, while she was on a scholarship to the renowned International Association of Schools of Jazz , where saxophonist Dave Liebman was running a week- long course. The IASJ has been held in a different country every year since 1990, and about 70 students from every which place attend and participate in workshops and attend tutorials where they present their tunes.
Kinsella picks up the story: "On the first day, everybody has to play a tune; it's like a jam, and then they put you into groups. Out of all the people there, as soon as I heard Alex I thought, 'Holy shit, this guy's good. I need to play with him.' I knew instantly that I needed to create with this person. Oddly enough, we got put in the same group, and we just played in a kind of big band for a week, and it was fun. It was fairly fixedhead-solos-head-type stuff. We knew we liked playing together, and we decided to get together again. It just kind of stemmed from there."
Huber was living in Berlin at the time, and Kinsella wasted little time in going there to rehearse and gig together. "We started working as a duo in a completely free context, and that's what we've been doing since," says Kinsella. "At the time, he was starting this record label, Wide Ear Records with some other guys, and we went into a studio just for a day and came out with All This Talk About."
It's hard to think of many examples of singer/drummer duos, but for Kinsella there was nothing unusual about the collaboration at all. "It was a very natural thing," she explains. "We never thought about it as being something unusual. We just needed to do something together. It was literally that simple."
The empathy between the two musicians on All This Talk About is pronounced. "I guess we have so much to say to each other," says Kinsella. "I am interested in how he communicates. He listens, reacts and responds so fluidly. We discuss improvisational concepts, what our habits are and how to break them, how to free ourselves from what we know and to really get into new areas of communicationthe merging of ideas together and sticking with them to see what happens next. It's fascinating, actually."
A central component of All This Talk About is the Ted Hughes poem "Thought-Fox," which Huber and Kinsella improvise around on three separate versions: "Alex and I just kept on playing the poem. Eventually it started to take form and shape, and we had a better grasp of the overall structure. No music was written, it was all improvised, but when you are working with the same text over and over again, certain passages and words start to really come alive." Kinsella has long had a deep love and respect for Hughes' writing. "My mum had a [poet/writer] Sylvia Plath biography floating around years ago," she recalls. "I suppose that's how I really got into Ted Hughes. I love his early nature poems, his poems for children and his letters. I get lost in them."
If the Hughes estate has an opinion on Kinsella's molding of the poet's words, then it's keeping it to itself, but Hughes himself would no doubt have recognized the sincerity of Kinsella's intent. "Whether I am constructing, deconstructing it, borrowing it or joining it with other music, I'm ultimately trying to communicate something through his wonderful prose with the musicians I am playing with and to the listener," says Kinsella. "Hopefully that comes across a deep respect and love for his poetry."
Kinsella's unconventional improvisational style seems to employ breathing as another articulator. "Breathing is one of the core aspects of my instrument," asserts Kinsella. "It's related to everything I do with the voice. I'll be discovering ways of understanding how to use the breath for the rest of my career, not just for technique but also for improvisation. Everything is linked in one big spider diagram: placements of notes, production of sound, resonance, carrying the energy through a phraseall of these things are dependent on the breath being used in a proficient way. Your whole body, your back, your limbs, your feet, your face, your skullthey are all involved in some way or another. Even if it's just about awareness of relaxing a certain muscle in your body, all of this awareness and understanding correlates to your sound production.
"I believe singers need to build up a visual representation of what's happening inside their body so they can utilize the breath, the posture, the vocal chords, the empty cavities in which to fill space with sound basically to play the instrument efficiently. This is my opinion, however. Some of the greatest singers that have lived have had largely untrained voices, and their natural gift is what they made their career from. Each to their own."
Huber came over to London for a series of gigs with Kinsella in the summer of 2012, further cementing their musical alliance, and with a European tour lined up in Aprilwhere they'll perform as a duo as well as in larger formatstheirs looks like a musical adventure that has legs to run. "It's gone from strength to strength," says Kinsella. "We collaborate with others, toodancers and musicians. It's lovely working in a duo and then expanding this to larger group settings."
One of the larger group settings that Kinsella works in is her quintet Thought-Fox, which released its debut recording, My Guess, in 2012, though the band first got together in 2008. "It took a while to get off the ground," admits Kinsella. Nevertheless, the wait has been worth it and perhaps even necessary for the band to attain the level of empathy that clearly resonates between trombonist Colm O'Hara, pianist Tom Gibbs, double bassist Mick Coady, drummer Simon Roth and Kinsella.
"They're all great players and improvisers," says Kinsella, "and we're developing a sound, a way to speak to each other, I guess. I think this is what any jazz group wants to achieveto build a very strong point of connection in any format, whether playing written or improvised music or improvising over written music."
Kinsella composed all, barring one, of the album's songs and acknowledges that the process of composing is still very much a work in progress. "The more I learn about music, the more the method changes, to be honest. I'm processing a lot of musical information at the moment and am therefore trying to deal with it in a compositional/improvisational/conceptual way. I think when I was writing the material for My Guess, it was the same thing.
"Composition has so many stages," Kinsella expands, "from when you initially conceive the idea about the piece to when the audience leave with a particular feeling after your gig. A great musician told me this last week, and I have been thinking about all the strands from start to finish ever since. And the thing is, a piece is never really finished."
The concept of the never-ending composition has echoes as old as jazz itself, from pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington to one of the great modern re-shapers of his material, guitarist/composer Bill Frisell. "You can expand, contract, add ideas, and you can play the piece in many ways. I am learning this as we gig the music from the album," says Kinsella. "Each gig, the songs are slightly different, and it's having the space to explore this with already-written material on stage. That's when it gets really interesting.
"Composition is a process that works well under guidelines and tasks that you set yourself once the initial idea is born. This process is constantly being revised as you learn more about music and about yourself and about how you want to express something and for what reason. It sounds very vague, but actually it's extremely specific.
"With My Guess, sometimes a rhythmic idea came first, other times it was a melody, other times a piece of text I had written or read. And then things began to emerge, and the pieces formed. With 'Celia' or 'Malin's Chai,' I was initially thinking about a specific person or place, and that drove the composition forward. 'Malin's Chai' I wrote in Sweden. At the time, I was hanging out with some lovely players, and the words and the music all came from one or two evenings of tea, chats, little jam sessions and a sunset. 'Celia' I wrote to pay homage to a lady who I was very close to for my whole life. She died, and it was my way of communicating this loss. The music reflects my time with her as a child growing up and the great influence she had on me."
The one song not written by Kinsella is drummer Simon Roth's lovely "Arrival/Departure." "It's often a favorite with the audience at gigs," says Kinsella. "Sometimes the listener just wants a beautiful song with words and music that they can attach a meaning to. It's a great gift to be able to give this to people. I love singing it. It's very introspective and has strong imagery running throughout the text. When singing these words, they carry their own meaning for me. Sometimes I find it overwhelming when you think that each audience member will perceive your music differently, and it will conjure up thoughts, feelings and imagery completely unique to that person. That's immense and potentially very powerful."
Clearly, Kinsella gives a great deal of thought to the processes and disciplines involved in improvisation and composition alike, and for the singer the two are kissing cousins: "Sometimes people think that they're at two different ends of the spectrum, but they're actually a lot more closely related than you think. Any time that I improvise, it's spontaneous composition."
Part of Kinsella's improvising technique owes something to the study she undertook with singer R.A. Ramamani in India in 2006/7. A renowned singer and teacher of vocal improvisation at the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore, R.A. Ramamani has collaborated with a number of jazz musicians over the years, including saxophonists Charlie Mariano, Lennart Aberg and Iain Ballamy, keyboardist Louis Banks, drummer Ranjit Barot, singer Maria Pia de Vito and bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Guilfoylewho toured and recorded with R.A. Ramamani, as documented on Five Cities (Improvised Music Company, 2003)is Director of the jazz department at Newpark Music Center, Dublin, where Kinsella was studying for a B.A. in jazz performance, and he provided the singer with a letter of recommendation.
"I stayed with her in the school for a couple of months," says Kinsella. "It was perfect for a musician; you could just sit in a room all day and practice. I didn't have a phone with me, I didn't have a computerI was very much focused on singing scales. Everything she showed me I am able to use in jazz, as an improvising tool and as a method for practicing scales. You take a raga in Southern Indian music, and it would have a particular intervallic structure, and you base a rhythmic exercise on the intervals. In jazz, you can look at modes in that way. For example, if I was looking at the dominant chord, I would apply the same rhythmic exercise that she showed me over that scale."
Kinsella has no doubts that her study of Southern Indian Karnatic music theory with R.A. Ramamani influences her singing today. "Absolutely. I think anywhere an artist spends time practicing, it feeds back into what they're producing, sometimes in subtle ways, like how I improvise, how I might bend a note, and other times in more concrete ways like writing a tune based on a scale. It was a very peaceful time and a very productive time," says Kinsella, reflecting on her experience in Bangalore.
In 2010, Kinsella left Dublin to try her luck in London. "For two years, I was living there and meeting people on the scene and getting involved in the community of improvisers, jazz musicians, playing some gigs and finding my feet," says Kinsella. "All of this takes time. You only realize that when you move somewhere; you have all these ideas, but it takes time for them to unfold."
Kinsella has also found the time to further her vocal studies: "I decided to take a jazz Master's, as I'm also very interested in teaching about the voice and thinking about how we can move improvisation and vocal technique into a contemporary space. I hope it will help my career as an educator." As if it weren't enough trying to balance studies and working as a professional musician, Kinsella is taking her Master's, at the Royal Academy of Music, in one year instead of two. "My metronome is on double time," she says, laughing.
Working together with the other students is a rewarding experience for Kinsella: "Some perhaps haven't worked with such an experimental vocalist before, so it's a good journey for them, and it's a very good journey for me because the standard in the academy is ridiculous. It's a given that everybody is extremely proficient on their instrument, and that level of musicianship and professionalism is very inherent to this London scene. There are a lot of people who are good, there are a lot of people who want to play jazz, and it keeps you on your toes. It's brilliant, actually."
Kinsella's quintet Thought-Fox has toured Ireland and played a number of prestigious dates including the London Jazz Festival, the 12 Points Festival, the Songlines Encounters Festival and the European Jazz Nights Festival in Oslo, so, given the band's relatively short creative life, it has done well to reach such stages. Nevertheless, Kinsella recognizes that, these days, a musician has to have a lot more strings to his or her bow besides creating music to make it. "It's always challenging," she says. "I think, as a jazz musician today, you have to be good at several different jobs. To book gigs, to write the music, to practice, to rehearse the music, to have an online presence, to sort out tours, to apply for funding, to go to live gigs and meet other musicians, to deal with agents and promotersthe list is endless."
Kinsella realizes that it's a long and continual process: "You learn as you go along. It's a career that develops over a lifetime that you create for yourself and that others help nourish and vice versa. You meet some amazing players along the way that you'll be playing with for a lifetime." Although the future is largely an unknown, Kinsella is certainly optimistic about Thought-Fox's potential: "We are going from strength to strength, and each time we play a gig, audiences are happythey smile, they ask me questions, they come up to me and let me know how particular songs made them feel. That's a very special thing for meto be able to connect with the audience in that way. I think we are onto something good."
Another challenge for Kinsella is reaching audiences that might not be aware of the type of music she performs, and this is where the media has an important role to play. "The media is a whole other issue," says Kinsella. "I have people come up to me after gigs saying they'd never heard singing like that before. Maybe one part frightened them, and another part made them cry. You know, what we're doing is not selfish, and it's not throwaway. It's important, and it's saying something deep about communication, about self-expression, about human nature. Unfortunately there's a lot of media who'll listen to the music once and then dismiss it, without really listening and trying to understand what's going on, what the intention is.
"So much media and culture is flippant," Kinsella continues. "If it's not instantly gratifying or easy to understand, then too often it's dismissed. There's a lot of really exceptional music going on in Dublin, in Ireland right now, and the media should be telling people about it in an informed way. This is why it's so great that people like All About Jazz and others take the time to really listenwho see the importance of what's going on and help promote it."
Kinsella works in a number of other settings, too. There's the vocal duo Lupo, with Swiss singer Sarah Buechi, with whom Kinsella recorded Sessile Oak (Self-produced, 2009). "She's an amazing singer," enthuses Kinsella, "and one of the only examples of a European singer who has mastered the sound of Indian language in konnakol and improvisation in ragas. She was based in New York but recently has been living in Dublin again, so we're due a sing-song. We have no immediate plans to record again, but we are eager to play some gigs soon."
Kinsella also plays in duos when the occasion presents itself, with drummer Mark Sanders, pianists Dan Nicholls and Francesco Turrisi, euphonium player Ian McLachlan and electronics musician Gwilly Edmondes; it's a format that the singer seems to find especially rewarding. "Definitely," she affirms. "There's something about a duo settingknowing when to say nothing, when to be busy, when to interact. Saying nothing in a group where there's maybe a lot going on is not the same. In a duo, saying nothing is a very big statement in itself. It's fascinating."
Then there's the quartet Blue-Eyed Hawk. "It's a great group with [trumpeter] Laura Jurd, [guitarist] Alex Roth and [drummer] Corrie Dockall improvisers based in London," explains Kinsella. "We have a lot of fun rehearsing, gigging and making meaningful music. We have plans to go to the studio in June, and I am very excited about this project. We're playing some nice gigs in London, like the Vortex and Café Oto, and it's gathering momentum. It's very exciting, altogether."
Busy, productive and gradually making waves, Kinsella seems to be in a good place right now. "I love what I do," she says. "I am constantly learning. And this valuable way of life was instilled in me from a young agekeep the brain active in what you are interested in. The challenge is to keep pushing yourself into new territories and come up with new ways of playing, teaching, improvising and composing. Every time I play a gig, I learn something about myself, about the musicians I'm playing with. I learn if I'm repeating myself, what works and what doesn't and areas I can explore further. Life is about learning. As you get older, you have a better understanding of your parents as people and your relationship with them; you have greater understanding of nature, of friendship. That's all I wantto keep on learning."
All Photos: Courtesy of Lauren Kinsella