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Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself


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I don't think I was a natural fit for Jazz. Now I see that writing more was my process to figuring out where I belong, musically speaking.
—Nicky Schrire
To follow the recordings of Cape Town-based vocalist and composer Nicky Schrire is to watch an artist evolve right in front of your eyes. With her 2012 debut Freedom Flight, Schrire demonstrated a supple soprano vocal technique and a knack for intelligent arrangements of unusual repertoire choices. Following it up the next year with Space and Time, she showed an uncanny ability to pare songs and performances down to their very essence, cutting away to reveal emotional truths in the pieces and singing them with an unvarnished and understated mastery. Additionally, canny listeners hearing each album also noted in Schrire a remarkable composer stepping to the forefront, as her albums began to allot more time to her original works.

By 2014, Schrire had released her third album To the Spring, marking a massive artistic evolution and shift, one that would ultimately find her leaving New York City for her home in Cape Town, transforming her performance style, and embracing a more Folk-driven aesthetic. Nevertheless, throughout these transitions, the core of Schrire's singing remained. Brandishing a clear, pure sound and a delivery that avoids affectation or overly stylized tactics, Schrire delivers music of astonishing expressive depth.

All About Jazz: Can you talk about your early music experiences, studying piano and saxophone while growing up in Cape Town?

Nicky Schrire: No one in my immediate family is a working musician, but my parents both love and appreciate music. I'm lucky that I grew up in a household that had a lot of music playing, mostly in the car. I'll be forever grateful for Cape Town's lack of public transport and for 17 years of being dependent on both parents for lifts to and from school. It's not only a great time for parent-child bonding, but you're also kind of captive in this vehicle and you have to listen and do active listening, which I think is quite hard for kids nowadays to do. If I look back on my parents' musical offerings, I can see clearly how my own composing and arranging have been influenced by their tastes. My mother was responsible for my Classical music—heavy on the Romantic and modern composers—and Musical Theater education. All that Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Oscar & Hammerstein musical repertoire is the basis for the American Songbook in the Jazz world, so there's a direct link there to my desire to sing Jazz as opposed to play it on an instrument. My father took care of popular music: Chicago; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Levon Helm. He also introduced me to singer-songwriters that I revere to this day, like James Taylor and Randy Newman.

After initial piano lessons from my mum, I started piano lessons with Merryl Preston at the age of seven. Merryl was pivotal in my early musical education, and she would also shape the kind of teacher I strive to be. I learned about the importance of being able to read music, to practice efficiently—quality over quantity—and to develop one's musicianship. I started saxophone when I was 11 with Bob Mowday, and that introduced me to Jazz. Playing the saxophone also opened me up to the joy of playing in bands and that sense of community and "team."

I was a sax major for my first year at the University of Cape Town, but I wasn't happy. It really didn't feel like the sax was my voice. I was a strong reader but the moment a conductor pointed at me to take a solo, I felt totally incapacitated and crippled. Because of that mental block and a real desire to sing, I changed to being a vocal major in my second year of college, and something clicked for me.

I'm not a scatting vocalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I could improvise. I could hear the melodies that I wanted to create, and I could sing them. I remember my mother saying to me when I whined about not being able to improvise on the sax, "Well, maybe if you practiced more, you'd be able to do it and you'd feel better about it." And I retorted, "Well, I need to want to practice more!" I really believed there had to be that initial pull to spend time with your instrument. And I just never had that with the saxophone. With singing, I'm very happy practicing, doing technique for hours and engaging in process. I have a different relationship with the voice than I did with the saxophone.

AAJ: So when you made that switch at UCT, who was your primary teacher during that time?

NS: When I was at UCT as a singer, the vocal department was not what it is today, which is now much more rigorous and structured thanks to Amanda Tiffin. When I was there, the singers were kind of left up to their own devices. I don't know if it's that they were seen as second-class citizens, which is often the case with Jazz vocalists. But I remember that for the singers at that time, if you were in your first year as a Jazz singer, you would go to a Classical teacher for a year of technique. Then you would go to the Jazz singing teacher for your second, third, and fourth years of study.

So, even though I was in my second year, I went to the classical teacher, Anthea Haupt. I felt very much like I was behind in the technique department when it came to singing, which I was because the muscle had never been exercised. Traversing my range without Bar Mitzvah-type vocal breaks was not something I could do! What I loved about Anthea was that although she was a classically trained singer, she didn't adhere to a single training method. She was interested in newer methods like Speech Level Singing, but also used older Bel Canto approaches. What she taught me was that the best methodology is one that incorporates different schools of thought. Dominique Eade, who's a singer and a teacher that I really revere and love, subscribes to that school of thought too, if I'm not mistaken. I'm grateful for Anthea's openness in that regard and I try to practice the same adaptability with my students now, because then you really do teach the student and not the subject.

I stayed with Anthea for all three years that I was a vocal major. In my fourth year, I also learned from Andrew Lilley who is head of the Jazz Piano Department at UCT. He is a wonderful teacher and now a dear friend. The UCT Jazz Department doesn't do a lot of instrumental crossover like they do at New England Conservatory or the Manhattan School of Music, where a voice major can learn with a drum or a sax teacher. Without knowing it was the norm in American or international universities, I kind of pushed for that. I thought, "Well, Andrew's a fantastic jazz musician and I could learn a lot from him."

AAJ: While you were at UCT, you were among a number of really remarkable Jazz students who were studying there at that time. Can you talk about that community, and about the Cape Town scene at that point?

NS: The Jazz students at the College of Music vary in strength from year to year and that often shapes the Jazz scene itself. Cape Town is so small and the school system feeds the professional scene.

I was very lucky to be part of a strong wave at UCT that turned out particularly prolific jazz musicians. Some of those people are doing brilliant work now and are not just the future of South African jazz, but are the present: if you want to hear what South African Jazz sounds like and what its influences are today, listen to them. Bokani Dyer, the pianist, was a year ahead of me when I was at UCT. Bassist Shane Cooper was in my year, and so was the trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, who now lives in Johannesburg. Chris Engel, who lives in Dublin and plays with a great Irish band called Umbra, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. The vocalist Nomfundo Xaluva and trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis were a couple years ahead of me but were very much part of that wave too.

It was a rich, varied, and versatile group of people. And of course our lecturers, like Mike Campbell and Darryl Andrews were there and were great forces in the Cape Town Jazz scene. There were many more Jazz venues like the Green Dolphin and Manenberg's, as well as corporate work, and UCT Jazz musicians fed into the local Jazz industry. It was a very vibrant time.

AAJ: You spoke about coming to folk music, rock bands, Classical music, as well as the Jazz out of America's tradition. When did you start to encounter some of the original music, particularly Jazz, going on in South Africa?

NS: There wasn't really any South African Jazz in my musical upbringing. Compared to peers like Bokani or Chris, I was very uneducated about SA Jazz. Chris grew up listening to South African Jazz, specifically a lot of the Cape Jazz players like the Dyers brothers [Errol and Alvin], Kippie Moeketsi, Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Bokani's father Steve Dyer is a South African Jazz musician, so Bokani also grew up listening to local players and was ingrained in SA Jazz. It was actually through Bokani and Chris that I was introduced to Bheki Mseleku's music. Bokani organized a Bheki tribute concert at the College. I remember Chris playing "Angola" for me in the car and saying, "Listen, I've spoken to the guys [Bokani and Shane], and we think that maybe you can come and sing with us on this song. But listen, if it's not good, if it's not up to par, we won't use you." And I remember sitting there and nodding solemnly, determined to do a good job so I could play with them and be "one of the boys."

People ask me, "Who's your favorite South African Jazz musician?" Even with my limited knowledge—although it's better now than it was when I was at university—Bheki for me is in a league of his own and so underrated. I also feel like he gets overshadowed by Abdullah Ibrahim, which is a pity.

AAJ: It's interesting you bring up Bheki, as one of your notable projects found you setting Bheki's instrumental music to lyrics. When you played at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola as part of the Carnegie Hall Ubuntu festival in 2014, I know you performed your lyrical setting of "Closer to the Source." It seems you've since added lyrics to a number of his pieces now.

NS: For the Dizzy's performance, I needed more South African repertoire, and because my mother tongue is not isiXhosa or isiZulu, the SA Jazz Vocal repertoire options are somewhat limited. So I decided to write my own English lyrics to one of my favorite Bheki tunes, "Closer To The Source." Subsequent to that 2014 performance, Nomfi Xaluva [Nomfundo Xaluva] has sung those lyrics to that song, as have several students at UCT. There was clearly a need for more SA Jazz rep with English lyrics.

When I started teaching at UCT, decolonizing the university's syllabi was very topical, and the arts is one of the places where you really can incorporate more South African artists and writers. The singers need songs to sing beyond "Yakhal' Inkomo" or "Seliyana" or "Ntyilo Ntyilo," and the minority of our current Jazz vocalists are first-language isiXhosa or isiZulu speakers. Yes, they must learn to sing in those languages the same way singers should learn how to sing in passable Portuguese. But I also wanted to give them the opportunity to engage with the material and lyrical content, so I took a bunch of Bheki's tunes and wrote lyrics to them. Then I organized an internal concert at UCT where Nomfi, trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis, pianist Andrew Lilley, and I performed the songs for the students. It's great because now the songs are on rotation and I'll get emails from people all over the country saying, "Do you have a chart for 'Adored Value'?" It's given a lot of vocalists an easy way to expand their SA jazz rep, and Bheki's music is now being explored by a new generation and shared with people who may not be so familiar with his work.

AAJ: This discussion of Bheki's music and the performance at Dizzy's highlights a pretty wide geographic loop in your career. After UCT, you came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, and you worked in New York for several years. You then relocated to London, and ultimately moved back to Cape Town. Can you talk about the initial decision to come to study at MSM?

NS: I said earlier that my influences were not South African Jazz vocalists, or even the kind of traditional American singers—Billie, Carmen, Betty—whose voices tended to be lower or more mature than mine. I was drawn to people like Jane Monheit, Stacey Kent, and Tierney Sutton. Basically, I heard the possibilities of my own instrument when I listened to them because they were also white women with soprano voices, to put it plainly! It was an era of MySpace, and I discovered Kate McGarry and Gretchen Parlato on the Internet. Geographically, it became a bit of a no brainer as to where my ears had wandered. While at UCT, I also attended Jazz in July in Massachusetts because Sheila Jordan was teaching there and I wanted to learn with her. At the same time I went to the Stanford Jazz Workshop on the West Coast so that I could learn with Madeline Eastman and Dena DeRose. I also reached out to Kate, Gretchen, and Dominique Eade for private lessons, which they agreed to. At the time, Kate was still living in New York and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and she was encouraging when I mentioned that I was thinking about applying there for grad school.

I applied to MSM to learn with Kate, and I also applied to NEC to learn from Dominique. I didn't know how long I'd be in the States and I wanted a life education too, so I chose to go to New York, because if you were a Jazz musician, that's what you did. As I accepted a place at MSM, I got an email from Kate saying that she was moving to North Carolina but that I would be in good hands learning with Peter Eldridge. Though I adore Kate, still had the opportunity to learn with her, and count her as a mentor, meeting and learning with Peter Eldridge changed my life. I don't know, maybe it was meant to be. So that's how I ended up in NYC and studying at MSM.

AAJ: In terms of the two schools, UCT and MSM, can you talk about the differences of approach in pedagogy? How did your own artistic work develop while you were at MSM?

NS: I wanted to complete my Masters through coursework, and not through writing a thesis. You can't do a Masters of Music through coursework in South African universities, so the United States' Graduate School approach appealed to me for that reason.

The level of musicianship at MSM was ferociously high because American students get such a high level of Jazz education from such a young age, as well as access to some of the best teachers and players around. I had 25 Masters classmates and there were three women—singers, obviously!—amongst them. It was an international group, a lot of kids from Germany, Austria, Australia, so a good mix and far more international than anything I would have experienced in South Africa. I was wildly out of my comfort zone in terms of being "Jazz Smart." I remember being assigned a "Giant Steps"-related assignment and realizing everyone else in the class had analyzed "Giant Steps" while they were undergraduate students. I'd been left up to my own devices at UCT and my self-devised curriculum certainly did not include "Giant Steps"!

So I felt a little underdeveloped in terms of some of the theoretical things, but I learned a lot in a short amount of time and thrived on feeling so challenged and out of my depth. I loved the balance of the vocal program. We had weekly master classes with Peter, Theo Bleckmann, and Darmon Meader, which taught me about arranging and band leading. My voice lessons with Peter covered technique, songwriting, and developing my musicianship. And artist-in-residence Dave Liebman came in once a month to regale us with tales of playing with Jazz legends and chromatic concepts. His approach to harmony and melody wasn't something I took to naturally but I let it wash over me. I ended up absorbing those sounds and feeling aurally stretched. In hindsight, it shaped me hugely.

AAJ: All of this leads nicely to 2012, when a lot of these things came together with your debut album Freedom Flight. On it, we see the music of James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Loudon Wainwright representing some of the folk music you had grown up with. We also see original works of yours, and to your point of growing up with musical theater, we hear "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot. The band also shows a community of MSM students and faculty playing with you. Can you talk about the decision to make that album, and the way you began to assemble these tracks?

NS: Freedom Flight came about in a very organic way, starting with the musicians on the recording. It's probably the closest that I've gotten to being in a working band. It was a special journey, and the product means a great deal to me as a result. I met Nick Paul, Sam Anning, Jake Goldbas, Paul Jones, and Jay Rattman because we were at MSM together. Brian Adler was the first musician I met in NYC outside of school. We played repeatedly at venues around the city, doing odd gigs while we were studying. They all played my final recital, and we recorded a lot of that material on the album. So it was a very natural progression from musicians to repertoire. I think a lot of people, especially when it's your first album, will say, "Well, that person is too young to record." But you're going to do it when you want to do it, and the truth is that it's a very expensive but necessary tool in self and musical development. The stuff that you learn recording an album you will not learn anywhere else, and those things make you a better musician. It's a labor of love, but it's kind of an extension of whatever education you've had up until that point. It just felt like a natural progression. I was out of school and so we went into the studio.

The repertoire had been honed during Grad School, largely under Peter or Theo's guidance. It's funny how Dave Liebman's influence has seeped into some of that recording too. There's some angular writing on my piece "Ode to a Folk Song," and I hear the Liebman influence on the soli on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." His "chromatic approach to Jazz harmony" wasn't going to be a natural go-to for me because I'm a much more diatonic, melody-driven person. But there's some chromaticism on that album, and it's quite nice to know that it somehow seeped in!

AAJ: There are moments on the album that really jump out in terms of your making a very clear artistic statement of self and taking risks. You open with "Blackbird," which almost demands that one think of the Bobby McFerrin recording of it. And then to take "If Ever I Would Leave You," which Sonny Rollins famously recorded as a calypso, and to really slow it down to focus on the lyrics and story is quite striking. Those are both powerful opening statements to make. Was that on your mind?

NS: I have a healthy amount of confidence, but not blind confidence! So had either of those associations occurred to me, I might have second-guessed myself. Those choices came about naturally as a "tip of the hat," so to speak. You've got James Taylor's "Shower the People," and there's a nod to my South African upbringing with Carlo Mombelli's "Me, the Mango Picker." Funnily enough, I hadn't heard Sonny do that seminal version of "If Ever I Would Leave You" until after we'd recorded it. When I heard his version at a concert at the Beacon Theatre, I really didn't like it. I don't like it when instrumentalists play a song with very little realization of what the lyrics are about and disregard for whether the song was sad or happy or romantic. Now that you mention it, that song was my acknowledgment of Norma Winstone's influence. She often sang ballads at an incredibly slow tempo, sparsely arranged, with that ECM aesthetic that has always appealed to me. But that song means a great deal to me, because I sing it accompanied by Peter on the piano, and the arrangement and reharmonization is so influenced by his aesthetic. The fact that he loved that arrangement meant a great deal to me.

I have two personal stories relating to Bobby McFerrin that inspired the arrangement of "Blackbird." As many other audience members have done, I volunteered to duet with Bobby during a live concert of his in Boston. We sat side by side on the edge of the stage and sang "Centerpiece" together, and I loved him even more after meeting him in person. My second "Brush with Bobby" was at his Circle Singing workshop in upstate New York, where I muscled my way into singing my adaptation of his a cappella rendition of "Blackbird" for him in front of the other campers. The thing is, a lot of people go up to Bobby and they do Bobby impressions for him, and he smiles politely and gives them a hug. But I think what charmed him was the fact that I was a female voice, so I had to adapt the arrangement for my range. It was a full circle kind of moment for me, because I had worked on that song for a year plus. I worked Bobby into the intro for "Blackbird" because I wasn't singing it a cappella, but I wanted his presence in the song regardless.

AAJ: When we think about 2012 and 2013, you released two albums in back-to-back years, and they are astonishingly different. Freedom Flight brings in a number of artists and plays with textures and ensemble sizes. With Space and Time, we see things pared away to an essence of vocals and piano. You lean even more into spacious readings of ballads and there is, well, so much "space and time" on the album! Can you talk about that record?

NS: I've always loved the voice-piano context: Norma and Fred Hersch, Norma and John Taylor, Maria Pia De Vito and John, Gian Slater and Will Poskitt, Randy Newman accompanying himself on piano. I like the apparent simplicity, the space for both people to shine, and that it feels very clean and clear. It can be intimate, but it can also be virtuosic. I was also doing more duo work, because it was cheaper in terms of gigging. If I was going to make a loss, it was less of a loss because I only had to pay one other person and not a full band. So the duo repertoire had already developed, and had been performed enough to warrant being documented.

Also, I think that wanting to make an album that was pared down like that was in response to feeling very overwhelmed by the loudness of New York. In hindsight, I felt quite untethered. I wasn't putting down roots and I think a lot of the time I felt lost. A lot of the time I felt lonely. That's the funny thing about New York: even though you're constantly surrounded by people, it can be one of the loneliest places. I wasn't unhappy, but now years later, I can see very clearly that I certainly wasn't happy. I didn't know how else to control my immediate surroundings and make them quieter, so Space and Time was made in response to that.

AAJ: To this idea of aiming for something small, you perform a rarely heard song that in its original version is almost a miniature. Sitting in the middle of Space and Time is your take on Labi Siffre's "Bless the Telephone." That's rarely chosen for performances. How did you choose it?

NS: A lot of people don't know Labi Siffre, but he also wrote a song that is probably better known, which is "It Must Be Love." The only reason I know "Bless the Telephone" is because my Dad knew and loved that song. He'd play it for us and he always used it as an example of a perfect love song: not too saccharine, not too glib. Labi's singing is so great and without affect, which is something I also really appreciate. All of the repertoire that I do, even though sometimes it might come to me in a random way, ends up being there for a reason. There's some sort of meaning or some person attached to it. Gerald Clayton played that song with me on the recording, and it was fun to introduce him to it. He loved discovering it and interpreted it beautifully, so the song ticked many boxes for me.

AAJ: To this idea of appreciating great songwriting, we see on Space and Time more representation of your original compositions. In fact, with each recording project you moved more and more to original works. Can you talk about adding more of your own works, as well as your process of writing?

NS: I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, and the Holy Grail search where you attempt to find "your concept." I don't think I was a natural fit for Jazz. Now I see that writing more was my process to figuring out where I belong, musically speaking. Original writing was very much encouraged when I was at graduate school. It's also very encouraged now within the South African Jazz scene. It requires a sense of discipline in putting down a first draft, chiseling away at it, getting a second opinion, and then making it better. Nowadays, students are very quick to put out original music because they think it's trendy. But that hastiness means that work doesn't get properly incubated. I've always been a slow incubator, mostly because I don't always feel that confident with my work. So I sit with songs and lyrics a long time, and if they don't leave me, then I deem them worthy of sharing with the public or—which is even more bold—recording them and documenting them.

I was writing a lot when I lived in New York, and it was a way for me to control how "Jazzy" my brand of Jazz was and to find a way to include other influences. There are singer-songwriter influences, folk influences, and pop influences in my music, including the scant originals on Freedom Flight. That first album had two originals on it, which were well received by reviewers and the musicians playing them. So the next album had four originals on it, and the following EP was all originals. It was a natural progression. Also, if you're interpreting songs by Labi Siffre, the Beatles, Massive Attack, and Irving Berlin, you don't want to put your own music on there and have it come up short. That's not to say I think I was necessarily successful in matching those songwriters—the arrogance!—but I just have to hope that if an original work moves me, then it'll have the same effect on at least one other person.

AAJ: Can you expand upon your comment that you don't feel you're a natural fit for Jazz? It seems to reflect in your third album, To the Spring, where your work definitely leans more into other styles.

NS: I had been in New York for four-and-a-half years before moving to London. While in the UK, I did a gig as a double bill with my friend Anita Wardell. Anita is an amazing swing vocalist, a great writer of vocalese, and more obviously traditional than I am. The reviewer of the gig, a lovely journalist whom I respect immensely, wrote in his review something along the lines of "Schrire did a couple of standards, though she doesn't have a natural affinity for Jazz." It was like someone had given me permission to stop trying to fit into the Jazz box. I was flogging a dead Jazz horse. I was trying to get representation on Jazz labels and Jazz boutique management rosters. I was going to Jazz Ahead in Bremen and to the trade shows. And I worked for all these really well-respected Jazz industry people, but yet I couldn't get taken on board by any of them as anything other than an assistant or an arts administrator. I was just not cracking it and I suddenly realized, "He's right."

After Space and Time, I was hit by a wave of creativity and feeling inspired, and wrote a lot of music and lyrics in a short space of time without caring too much about how the Jazz Police would categorize it. It was great, because it came out of a place of abandonment and feeling inhibition-less. Both Fabian Almazan and Desmond White were into indie music and we were friends, so it was easy to head to the Bunker Studio in Brooklyn and spend five hours laying down all the songs, with all the overdubs. If I listen to To The Spring now, some of the singing on the EP, specifically the title track, is a little wild. But in the moment, it was very freeing. Unfortunately, it took me a couple of years after doing that EP to say, "Jazz isn't a fit for me, and I'm not going to spend money on going to Jazz Ahead. And I'm not going to go and meet with the people at SiriusXM and try and peddle myself as a Jazz artist." But I can't regret having tried to drive up that cul-de-sac. And at least I drove up it at full speed with the pedal to the metal!

AAJ: It's funny you frame it this way, because given the album that follows, it seems like this can't be an accident that you called it An Education! There's also a pivot point here, when your songwriting and your performing becomes guitar driven. Can you talk about that change?

NS: When I left New York, I bought a beautiful Martin guitar. I'd been writing on the piano a lot up until that point and I needed to break out of whatever rut I was in. Not that I wasn't writing anymore, but I was feeling—the Afrikaans word would be gatvol—overwhelmed by New York and I felt like I needed to slough off that dead weight and the frustration of it. So without the shackles of "is this right or wrong or good or bad," I wrote a handful of songs on an instrument I didn't know how to play, and focused on the idea that at its core, good songwriting is good songwriting, even if simple.

I arranged the songs for cello, guitar, and voice. I have a very good childhood friend here in Cape Town named Ariella Caira who's a cellist, and I thought it'd be fun to play with her again. So I created a context in which we could play together, and we recorded this EP in one session at a Cape Town studio. By the time the album was mixed and mastered, I'd moved to London. After no success getting distribution on Jazz labels, I don't know what possessed me to shop the album around in a genre—Folk—and place—London—that were so foreign to me, but lo and behold, Polly Paulusma liked the EP and agreed to release it on her label Wild Sound Recordings! That's really the beginning of the end of the story. The label is no longer in operation, but it has been absorbed by One Little Indian Records. So the album is on their back catalog, which is nice. It didn't bring massive glory and exposure, but it was lovely not feeling so alone and being part of a roster of wonderful folk artists.

AAJ: You bring up Ariella Caira, and since your return to Cape Town, you and her have continued that collaboration. Recently you've been working with her in the Come As You Are Trio, which features some really fascinating arrangements that you've been posting. Can you talk about how that group came into being?

NS: When I moved back to Cape Town, I just wanted to play with friends, and it's so easy and joyous working with Ariella because we've known each other for over twenty years and speak the same musical language. In the past three years, we've performed countless duo shows. If the venues are bigger, we've added our friend Kevin Gibson on drums, or have used bassists to bulk up the sound. The format might expand, but the two of us are at the core and we always duet as part of the setlist even if we're playing with a full band. I even asked her to guest on cello when I performed a "Jazz" set at the 2018 Cape Town International Jazz Festival! She's my work wife and dearest friend.

We've both known violinist and composer Matthijs van Dijk for decades because we were young Classical musicians at the same time, attending chamber music workshops and camps. When I moved back to SA, I became more aware of the work Matthijs was doing with his string quartet the Shh...Art Ensemble and also his involvement in growing a contemporary classical scene in Cape Town. Matthijs is very influenced by a lot of the American contemporary classical composers like Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, and Judd Greenstein, and that was a world that I'd learned about when I lived in New York. I've really enjoyed singing classically in the past and wanted to swim in that water more, because it feels like the most honest way for me to sing at the moment. I don't have to apologize for my soprano voice, I can use ample amounts of straight tone, and I can use my entire range with curiosity and excitement.

I started composing a contemporary classical suite of music, setting Ingird Jonker's poetry to music arranged for string quartet back when I lived in London. So I was already moving into this genre, clumsily but happily! I made contact with Matthijs and he initiated things by inviting Ariella and me to play with him in a trio. It seemed to be fun for everyone, so I organized the next gig and the rest is recent history. We perform pop songs reimagined as well as original material. The name comes from Matthijs' brilliant arrangement of the Nirvana hit.

AAJ: You've referenced two paths here. There is the suite of Ingrid Jonker's poetry that you composed, and then with the trio, you've taken a second route of arranging pop music for this setting. Can you talk about the plans for this ensemble and for these projects?

NS: We performed Escape: The Ingrid Jonker Suite last year for the first time. Since then we've performed it at the 2018 Suidoosterfees and at the 2018 Franschoek Literary Festival. It's been wonderful interacting with the local literary scene and sharing the work with Afrikaans and English audiences. As a lover of words, it's been such a thrill. I'm excited to say that we are going to record it next month and then hopefully we'll perform the suite again at some point. In the interim, the trio is a smaller vessel and so easier to perform with. There aren't any major plans there, aside from continuing to enjoy playing together and exploring new repertoire. As is my way, I have no idea what I'm doing but it's never dull, and I get to figure everything out while keeping the company of extraordinarily talented friends.

Selected Discography:
Nicky Schrire, Freedom Flight, (Self Released, 2012)
Nicky Schrire, Space and Time, (Self Released, 2013)
Nicky Schrire, To the Spring, (Self Released, 2014)
Nicky Schrire, An Education, (Wild Sound Recordings, 2015)

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

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