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Interview: Georgia Mancio


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Back in July, I posted on singer Georgia Mancio's exquisite new album, Songbook. On the album, Georgia was joined by pianist Alan Broadbent, who wrote all of the songs and invited Georgia to write each song's lyric. In the days that followed my post, many of you wrote asking to know more about her. Recently I had a chance to catch up with Georgia. Here's our e-conversation...

JazzWax: You grew up in Croydon in south London. Tell me about your father.

Georgia Mancio: My dad was a skilled artist and photographer, but he chose to become a technical translator. I think he was wary about his own parents' struggles to provide for a family while earning a living in the arts. His job was dull and repetitive, but his work ethic was unfailing. He dressed impeccably, even though his home office was just at the end of our garden. He also had a flamboyancy and glamour about him.

JW: And your mom?

GM: My mum is a retired Italian language and literature teacher who is beloved and slightly feared by all her students. She approached teaching with the same passion and attention to detail that a great artist strives for. I was brought up bilingual, surrounded by artwork by my dad and by others and by great food, books and music. My parents gave my older sister and me a very creative outlook and appreciation for all the arts. 

JW: Your parents emigrated to the U.K. from Italy?

GM: Yes, separately. My mum came to London to learn English and to be an au pair for six months. She left behind a fiancé and the much more innocent city of Milan. My dad was her landlord in London, and the rest is history. My dad came to the U.K. when he was 14 and picked up English quickly.

JW: Did you study music formally as a child?

GM: I studied classical flute for a while, but my teacher was very strict and there was no joy in the lessons, just a lot of pressure. Even from a young age, I struggled with formal education in all subjects and found that learning things was much easier by ear and memory. I wanted to sing but my paternal grandparents, who were both classical pianists, told me not to rush my training because the voice needs time to mature. So in all, it took a long time for me to find the confidence to make music my own—or to make my own music.

JW: Tell me about your sister.

GM: She's three years older than me and is a writer and art-history lecturer. She has this rare ability to impart information in a lean, transparent fashion that bubbles with life and passion. I learned a lot by exploring the literature, art and drama she studied.

JW: So when exactly did you start singing? What did you listen to?

GM: I took my grandmother at her word and didn't start singing until I was 19 and then didn't start singing seriously until I was 23. As for the music I listened to, I was out of step with most of my peers. British pop music in the '80s did nothing for me. Instead, I listened to my dad's classical records—Mahler, Beethoven, Liszt, etc.—and my mum's Italian '60s nostalgia albums. One day, my dad came home with Frank Sinatra's Only The Lonely album and a boxed set of vocal and instrumental gems from artists such as Betty Carter; Anita O'Day; Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; Louis Armstrong; Carmen McRae; Helen Merrill and others. I was hooked. I learned everything by heart and soaked up the songs' stories and how they were delivered by singers.

JW: Did you major in music in college?

GM: I lasted about five weeks at university studying Italian and drama before admitting that traditional study wasn't for me. I left home, traveled for a year and eventually wound up studying film-making while waitressing part-time at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London. Ronnie's was the best schooling. In my five years there, I heard the finest international and local musicians. I also learned that art was a living, breathing, sweating, messy, ugly, beautiful thing, not just the stuff of records, movies and dreams. Over the years, I learned to sing on the job, with answers to my questions provided by listening to inspiring musicians.

JW: When did you meet pianist, arranger and songwriter Alan Broadbent?

GM: About five years ago, a bassist friend of mine prompted me to write Alan. He knew I was a big fan. On a whim I did, and to my great surprise, Alan replied very promptly and charmingly. The following year, with his permission, I booked us two duo dates. The year after, in 2014, I had a chance conversation with Alan about his original songs. This chat resulted in Alan inviting me to write a lyric for his The Long Goodbye, which became The Last Goodbye. He liked what I had done, and he sent along other songs for a lyric until we had a set. We added a great rhythm section—Oli Hayhurst on bass and Dave Ohm on drums—and then played some gigs before going into the studio. That bass-player friend is Andrew Cleyndert. He produced Songbook, the album Alan and I recorded.

JW: Had you written song lyrics before?

GM: The first lyric I wrote was for the title song of my first album, Peaceful Place (2003). I went on to write quite a few more with the song's composer, Tim Lapthorn, a wonderful British pianist. Those songs were featured on my third album, Silhouette (2010). The title song on that one is by another great British pianist and composer, Kate Williams. I'm also very proud that Pat Metheny approved my lyric for his classic Question and Answer, which became Question the Answer. I've also written English lyrics to some of those Chet Baker songs he wrote in Italian, and for Osvaldo Farres' Tres Palabras. Other melodies that have captured my ear and imagination include Bud Powell by Chick Corea, Deception by Miles Davis, and Strollin' by Horace Silver. I wrote stories when I was young but never poetry.

JW: What’s the hardest part about writing a lyric?

GM: Avoiding being burdened and stifled by everything you already know. And never opting for the cliché and finding an elegant and natural way to say something new or less expected. Sometimes this means writing a lyric before there's music. A couple of years ago, Tom Cawley, an incredibly versatile British songwriter and pianist, prompted me to write some lyrics, which he then set to music. I'm also working with Kate Williams on a new concept piece where the words come first. It's a challenge.

JW: How did you work with Alan?

GM: Alan sent me sheet music and a demo recording in a key that he knew would suit me. He also sent me song titles. So straight away, I can hear the tune and I can sing it in a key that's natural and comfortable. This gave me a clue to the song's story, mood and sentiment. I started by listening to his demo over and over. Then I sang it by ear and with the sheet music. This allowed me to memorize the melody and helped me be accurate with the notation. Usually I write the lyric in a linear fashion, from beginning to end.

I like to use very specific repetition when I write, so there might be points, say at the end of an A section, that I will map out. But I try not to be too scientific about it because I don't want to sacrifice the story and the soul. On some songs, we batted a line back and forth until it sat just right—usually on the slower, sparser melodies, for which it's deceptively hard to write a lyric. I remember staring at the chart for Alan's Just Like a Child and Someone's Sun and worrying that I'd never have enough ideas to do them justice. But somehow, the words for them flowed more quickly.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Georgia Mancio's Songbook (along with sample tracks) here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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