Lauren Kinsella: In Between Every Line

Ian Patterson By

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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 phrase—all 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 skull—they 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 April—where they'll perform as a duo as well as in larger formats—theirs looks like a musical adventure that has legs to run. "It's gone from strength to strength," says Kinsella. "We collaborate with others, too—dancers 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 achieve—to 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. Guilfoyle—who 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 computer—I 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 promoters—the list is endless."
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