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Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself

Seton Hawkins By

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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.

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