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Nicky Schrire: Permission to Be Yourself

Seton Hawkins By

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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.


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Here Comes The Sun

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To The Spring

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