Lauren Kinsella: In Between Every Line

Ian Patterson By

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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. —Lauren Kinsella
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 album—a 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 conventional—though utterly contemporary—jazz-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 singer—we 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 space—spending 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 Scandinavia—the 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 fixed—head-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 communication—the 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."
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