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Chris McNulty: A Siren From Down Under

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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Chris McNulty emigrated to New York City, from her native home in Melbourne, Australia, in 1988. Since then she's released five recordings, with Waltz For Debby (Discovery, 1991) first introducing the Australian singer to American audiences. On that record, she wrote what would ultimately become the official, published lyrics to Miles Davis' classic "Blue in Green." Since 2004, she has released three records on Elefant Dreams, the independent label she shares with her husband, guitarist Paul Bollenback. Both Dance Delicioso (2005) and Whispers the Heart (2006) were the result of collaborations with Bollenback, and were pre-nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Recording Grammy Awards. Dance Delicioso was also chosen as one of the best favorite vocal recordings of 2005 by Jim Wilke, radio host of the nationally syndicated Jazz After Hours, while Whispers the Heart was included on many of 2006's Top Ten lists, in addition to being voted Top Ten Pick of the Month by Musica Jazz Italy.

In addition to encompassing unique renderings of familiar standards and re-harmonized pop tunes, McNulty has also created a substantial body of original work. Her music, recordings and story have been featured on national radio in Australia, the USA, Russia and elsewhere around the globe.

McNulty's seventh recording, The Song That Sings You Here, will be released by Holland's Challenge Records in August, 2012, and is truly an international collaboration, including drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Paul Bollenback from the USA, pianist Andrei Kondokov and saxophonist Igor Butman from Russia, and pianist Graham Wood and special guest singer Anita Wardell from Australia and the UK, respectively.

McNulty will return to Australia this winter, to perform with noted Australian pianist-composer Paul Grabowsky for a weekend stint at Melbourne's prestigious Bennetts Lane as well as performance dates in Sydney at bassist Cameron Undy's 505 Club and, in Brisbane, collaborating with vocalist-educator, Ingrid James. She will also be presenting workshops on college campuses, teaching from her recently completed advanced jazz vocals manual, Jazz Vocalist as Complete Musician.

On a more sombre note, McNulty will also be returning to Australia to manage the posthumous release of three vinyl/CD projects by her son Sam McNulty (aka Chap One), a wonderfully gifted musician-composer who passed away suddenly and tragically in July, 2011. The release event will be held at "The Order of Melbourne" on March 22nd, celebrates Chap One's extraordinary music and also coincides with what would have been his 31st birthday.

On her return to New York, McNulty immediately commences work on a large ensemble with strings project—a collaboration with Australian orchestrator-composer, Steve Newcomb.

Chapter Index
  1. Education
  2. Influences: Australia and Elsewhere
  3. Self-Producing
  4. Naïveté and Composition


All About Jazz: Do you consider yourself to be largely self taught?

Chris McNulty: Yes. I guess you'd have to say that. Certainly an opportunity for formal study in music, jazz in particular, was extremely limited at the time that I was growing up. This was more a consequence of class, culture and economics than anything else and I guess geography also played a role. It was certainly nothing like it was here in the States and nothing like it is now, either here or in Australia. Education in music, in jazz, is big money and big business now. Even with diminishing support for art and music programs in our public schools here in the States, it still seems possible to find affordable opportunities for kids to learn about jazz and contemporary music at an elementary and high school level, low income earning communities included.

It's not great, but it's a whole lot better than what was happening during the time I was coming up. I can only remember one music lesson during my entire high school and elementary years. In just that one period we learned how to read and write a short piece of music. I can still remember the combined feeling of fascination and excitement. I also remember dancing all the way home and then all the way back into the classroom the following Monday only to find a big notice on the blackboard saying that our music lessons had been cancelled indefinitely and we would be spending the time as a free period in the library until further notice.

It became obvious that this was a permanent arrangement by the end of that school year. Sadly, music lessons weren't a high priority in that working class enclave. I guess our parents were not raised within a culture of questioning or protest and nor were we. I recall feeling really disappointed, but I don't think I realized that there was anything I could do about it either. That was definitely cultural as well as economic.

So, being self taught and defining it for me is really rooted in the fact that there were relatively few opportunities for it to be otherwise. If you have limited resources through to a certain age and still manage to find your way to a creative life, then I guess you will find ways and opportunities to inform yourself and pursue the knowledge. I guess I've done that to a certain extent all my life. I would say that it's a much more difficult road to travel or negotiate. Having educational opportunities early in one's life definitely helps but if you don't have them it sure shouldn't preclude you from pursuing a career in that field.

On one hand it's a struggle, but on the other hand I also had enormous opportunities to play music in a live professional arena and make a very good living at a very young age—the road was school for me, early on anyway—it's very hard to get those kinds of experiences these days. So as long as you don't waste too many opportunities, it all works itself out in the wash I guess. I want to study orchestration and composing in a more formal setting now, so I'm looking for a way of doing that.

Going the self-taught route does have its pros and cons. I'm still dealing with all sorts of demystification issues. When you consider that so many musicians whom I work and collaborate with are also very well schooled, it can be challenging. Then again the fact that some facets of the music still remain such glorious mystery is kind of awe inspiring too—that creates its own inspiration. I write when I feel the urge and most times without an inkling of where I'm going to take it. A simple melody or phrase and something will develop or not.

It's sometimes about allocating the time to create, other times, something just grabs you—the work is about discovery and creation all at once. I rarely write past a few bars without getting into the harmony, I think that is true for many musicians, but they all feed on each other. I can't say one comes before the other, except for the lyric which in my approach always comes last. Even if the song has a vibe foe a title, writing the lyric is the very last sacred journey for me before I decide that this is it—this is my creation—final and complete. It really is for me like painting.

I guess when you're talking about jazz though, you really are talking about being here [in NYC] under the influence and tutelage of the masters, even if you haven't studied directly with one. If you managed to sit in their shadow and watch their hands press against the piano keys or against the strings of their guitar or against the keys of their horn, or see the stick flex in their hand against the skin of a drum, you know what I'm talking about.

I was lucky enough to arrive in NYC before the majority of clubs shut down. The jazz club Bradley's played a particularly educational role for me. I was at that club regularly several times a week and really got some outstanding music lessons. I was also blessed to have gotten here by the skin of my teeth on a very moderate study grant. Perhaps NYC held a significant amount of magic for me to help me get through those very rough early days and to continue down the long road of making NYC work for me.

A healthy dose of willful commitment aside, I came a very long way on a very large dream with no real plan to try to stay past three months. I certainly had no desire to be a single parent in a foreign country, little less NYC. The concept of not returning to Australia to live permanently again never entered my mind—now 20 years later I realize as painful as it is that it was all being decided right at the very beginning, very strange indeed.

Commitment and passion can be a double-edged sword. Arriving here in NYC with my then seven year-old son in tow was magical and at the same time very tough—once I made the plunge to build the mountain (sometimes it felt like digging a hole), I knew it was never going to be easy to juggle the responsibilities of raising my son on my own and pursuing both my passion for artistic freedom and in a way recognition. In the end I feel like I had to maintain a lot of pride just to validate staying here and hanging in here. My son also suffered and triumphed through the transition in a different way, though is deeply wise as a result of having lived and experienced two hugely different cultures and environs.

In the end you have to hold this work, this pursuit of a creative life in the highest esteem. I have been fortunate enough indeed to have retained some of that early passion and commitment. Maintaining the focus, inspiration and motivation while continuing the journey has and remains the ultimate challenge. Many of us, most of the time, manage to do this without the support of record labels, managers or booking agents, so that's testament in itself on how committed one has to be.

Not so much in the creative artistic realm but in surviving the constant challenge of keeping up with the way the business of music has changed and/or evolved. Of course, as is the case for just about every artist, especially the jazz musician, making enough money to pay the rent definitely ups the ante. I've gotten luckier the longer I've hung in there, not sure if that's a bit of the luck of the Irish or the old adage, keep on doing it and never give up.

It's been a very long road so it's been great to get so much support from the press and radio for my work of late. That has actually been a defining moment for me in validating the work, the commitment and the compromise. When you are self taught but even if you're classically trained and have three degrees—if you're a jazz musician trying to get to or remain at the top of your field in the year of 2006, you are competing for the smallest piece of cake that's ever been available.

You still have to find the motivation to sit down and study and learn something new every day. We are out there constantly getting our butts kicked, so there's not much room for slouching or should I say couching. I share my life with someone, Paul Bollenback, who is hugely dedicated and has a tremendous commitment for self improvement and the pursuit of his goals and dreams as a jazz musician, so I am constantly challenged or reminded to keep up. Sometimes I miss the boat, but I must say it's not that often these days. I know that the boat doesn't come in that often any more—not for no one.

One last note on this subject of self taught. For me there were two very strong indicators for finding success from the self taught journal: the creative gene and the fact that the sung voice was most present in our family life as kids growing up. There was very little of much else musically speaking as far as training is concerned anyway, but both my mom and dad loved to sing. My dad especially had a beautiful voice and sung lullabies to us as little kids before bedtime. I think a lot of us come from that kind of background. It's kind of simple but at the end of the day it has a definite impact.

I think I figured out very early that self-taught was going to be my only avenue. The creative gene was there, it was on both sides of the family. There were seamstresses, folks who could make patterns out of newspaper, design clothes, and sew them up in an evening—I followed suit. There were story tellers and writers of stores, it they came along once in a while, it was enough to remember and recall their memory into the present, which reinforces the fact that creativity is one of the most important ways to express who you are.

I found my real creative voice in the music we call jazz but the music I am writing, may very well transcend that category, though it's not for me to say. Not sure where it's leading to, that's the magic—the journey of pursuit and discovery.


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