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Christine Tobin: Romancing the Radical

Chris May By

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The jazz audience can be quite conservative when it comes to singers. They seem to appreciate far-reaching work best if it's instrumental. With singers they head for more familiar territory
Brought up in Ireland, singer/songwriter Christine Tobin moved to London in '87. She gigged prolifically before forming her own band and starting to record in the mid '90s. She is today one of the most highly regarded musicians on the British cutting edge, rooted in jazz but roaming far beyond it. One prominent commentator has described her as "the Bjork of Euro jazz," and Tobin's willingness to go her own way, schooled in the tradition but ultimately independent of it, marks her out as a rare and singular talent.

In '95 Tobin began a continuing relationship with Oliver Weindling's adventurous Babel label, a stylistic free-fire zone which hosts some of the UK's most risk-taking and significant artists. She has recorded six magnificent and critically acclaimed albums for the label, with a seventh presently in gestation.

With the exception of '00's Deep Song, which was recorded in New York with drummer Billy Hart, and features material from the Great American Songbook, Tobin's albums are built around her own original work. She writes wonderful, quirky, utterly idiosyncratic melodies, full of unexpected twists and turns and tastes of other cultures, and lyrics which work as well as on the printed page as they come across live or on record. Her music has real depth and reveals more of itself with each repeated listening.

As a side-person, Tobin has worked with a broad sweep of cutting edge UK-based artists. Soon after arriving in London, she began gigging with Jean Toussaint, and has since recorded with such A-list innovators as Django Bates, Hans Koller, Tim Garland (in Lammas), Crass Agenda and Billy Jenkins, among many others.

Tobin's recently launched seven-piece band Big Deal features her regular collaborators Phil Robson (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Dave Whitford (bass) and Thebe Lipere (percussion), plus the newly arrived Kate Shortt (cello) and Simon Lea (drums). She also works in trio, quartet and quintet line-ups featuring various permutations of these musicians.

Alongside her own performing, Tobin is a committed and resourceful facilitator on London's live jazz scene. She's involved with the governance of the artistically brave—and against all the odds, successful—Vortex club, and during '05 also presented weekly gigs in an upstairs room at the aptly named Progress Bar. The Thursday night performances featured many of the UK's most exciting and radical young talents, with a great atmosphere, and were frequently the highlight of the live music week. Very sadly, a change of ownership of the premises has ended the Progress Bar gigs—though Tobin will relish being able to concentrate more fully on her own singing and writing.

Not before time, Tobin is about to make her US debut. New Yorkers get a chance to see her live at Joe's Pub on January 11th, with a line-up which re-unites her with Billy Hart.

Tobin is a compelling and important artist, deserving of a bigger international audience, and if you can get along to Lafayette that night, you'll be glad you did....

All About Jazz: When can you first remember singing?

Christine Tobin: When I was about seven, in Dublin, where I'm from. It was mostly with amateur musical societies in local community venues and theatres. I was a bit of a show-off I think: I really enjoyed being onstage. But even though I was a child, I knew that what I was being asked to sing wasn't really what I wanted to sing. What I was doing felt like putting on the wrong size clothes. So I more or less abandoned singing when I was twelve and started getting interested in boys and all the normal teenage things.

I didn't start singing again until my early twenties. I came back to it through hearing Joni Mitchell's Mingus, the first of her albums that I bought. Then I got Mingus' Ah Um. I'd never heard anything like it before—I'd never heard any jazz really. It appealed to me a lot, it was so different, harmonically and rhythmically, to everything else I'd been listening to.

Before this I'd been a bit of a Dylan obsessive—I had twenty four of his albums. I liked Leonard Cohen too, his very early, basically acoustic stuff. I was really into Hendrix too, and John Lee Hooker, Steely Dan, Janis Joplin.

AAJ: And Irish folk music?

CT: No, I don't come from that background at all. I mean, I'm open to anything, if I like what I hear, and I'll learn it if someone asks me to sing it. I did a lot of that Irish thing in Lammas and I think a lot of people heard that and put two and two together and came up with, you know, eight. Thought I was an Irish folk singer who'd wandered into jazz. But that's not the way it was.

AAJ: How would you describe your style, if you had to label it?

CT: I'm a singer-songwriter drawing on jazz and a whole lot of other influences. That's the best I can do with categorizing it. I listen to lots of different music and I think it all comes out in the way I sing and write. It's like food. Whatever you put in your body eventually comes out on your skin.

AAJ: Have you ever had any formal vocal tuition?

CT: I went to the Guildhall School Of Music not long after I moved to London, '88 to '89. One of the first bands I had was with Simon Purcell, and just after I met him, he began teaching piano and improvisation at the Guildhall. He encouraged me to go on the jazz course there. I didn't have an exam based background, so I got in by audition. (Tobin also won a Scholarship). I used to get an hour and a half of one-to-one tuition a week. I'd do half an hour singing and an hour with Simon on piano, learning about harmony and theory.

I also learnt how to practice. Because singing doesn't involve learning an instrument, just using your own voice, you don't naturally have a concept of how to practice. I had no idea about how to practice scales for instance. I learned about all that stuff at Guildhall, how to open and extend the voice.

AAJ: Were you gigging around at this time too?

CT: Before I went to Guildhall I'd sung with Jean Toussaint. He had a band that played in Dingwalls, the Wag Club, places like that, that drew a young, hip crowd. Jason Rebello was in that band, and Alec Dankworth and Mark Taylor.

While I was at Guildhall there was Simon's band, Jazz Train, with Cleveland Watkiss and Steve Watts. And I formed another band with Simon, where I started to put words to some of his tunes. When I was doing gigs though, I wasn't getting any joy out of it. It was mostly a roasting experience in fact. I was singing a lot of Simon's music—which I really loved—but it was extremely demanding. It had very complex, instrumental type melodies, and I wanted to sing it well, but I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I could never get it up to the standard I thought it should be. So around about '90 I left singing for a second time and studied anthropology at Goldsmiths College. I did that for about two years, until I started to miss singing again.

When I came back I started my own band, with Huw Warren, Steve Watts and Roy Dodds, and I did my first two CDs (Aliliu and Yell Of The Gazelle) with them. Then I met Phil Robson, and started working with him.

AAJ: Most of your albums focus on your own original material. How do you approach the songwriting process?

CT: I'm not a systematic writer. I don't get up every morning and sit down at a desk for two hours and write. I kind of hoped I might have learnt that by now—but I haven't! I write when it comes to me. Some of my best songs have come along when I'm nodding off to sleep. I get some line from somewhere and I think, "better get the pen and paper —if I'm not feeling too lazy—because if I don't write it down there and then I know I'll forget it.

During '05 I hardly did any writing at all. It seems like the year was about other things. I spent a lot of time on the management end, and the Progress Bar, though it was only one night a week, took up a lot of time. There was always something that needed doing. This year I'm really going to get into the writing again.

AAJ: Self-management must be a very consuming thing for an artist to do.

CT: It is. It seems to get harder as you go on. You have to put a lot of energy into it, finding new ideas to market yourself and so on—and I don't want to be doing that. It takes up too much time. I'd much rather be writing songs, being a singer, not a sales kid on the phone. And when you get to a certain level and people in the business know of you, and you're still calling up on behalf of yourself, somehow it's not cool. They expect and prefer to be talking to your business representative. So I'm really, definitely, hoping to get someone to help me out with that, to take over that side of things.

AAJ: How do you find the London scene? Are there enough opportunities to perform?

CT: A really good place to work is Ronnie Scott's—I did it twice during '05—because you get to work six nights in a row. There aren't any other places like that and it's a really valuable experience, even though the British bands tend to be in a supporting role. You do two fifty minute sets a night and you keep going back to the same stage all week. It's a wonderful opportunity to develop songs and maybe take them in different directions. It always feels like a real event to play at Ronnie's.

The Pizza Express is a good venue, and I understand Pizza On The Park is re-orientating towards more of a jazz perspective. The 606 Club is important too; Steve Rubie puts on lots of bands every week, and that's really important for British artists.

The place where you can really do your thing though is the Vortex. There's no restriction on the kind of material you can do. It's a very varied programme, and there's always been an informal atmosphere there. You can try things out and if they don't go altogether smoothly you feel the audience will be OK about it. They expect to hear new music and they know there's a risk involved.

There are also groups of musicians setting up gigs and pooling their energies. They're taking more control, creating their own scene, and they've been very successful, generated a lot of interest. Like the F-IRE collective, and an even younger one, Loop, which has some really exciting young players like Alcyona Mick and Robin Fincker. When I set up the Progress Bar jazz nights I wanted it to be a venue where the emphasis was on creative music and I booked bands from both of those collectives as well as many other cutting edge artists.

There are other places to play of course, which don't have such a focused, concert type set up. A bar or grill or restaurant, where people will be talking. You can't do anything really different or subtle and get that across in those sorts of places, because even if people are talking they expect to hear things that are vaguely familiar. But you're singing and learning at the same time, so it's got a positive side. As long as you go into it knowing that's the way things are, it's fine. And you go home with the money at the end of the evening.

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