The Art Of The Song

Bruce Lindsay By

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Simmons writes on her own and, like Jackson, finds lyric writing problematic. "I've never collaborated. I'd like to but I don't know what it would be like. I find it really hard to write lyrics." Simmons writes very personal lyrics, often very self-deprecating. "I can't really write in any other way: it is like my therapy." Despite their very personal nature, Simmons' lyrics do strike a chord in other people. "A girl once came up to me and said that the lyrics to 'Almost' were 'my life.' Another girl tattooed some of the lyrics from 'Whatever' on her back. She sent me a photo; they looked really nice."

James collaborates with keyboard player Ross Lorraine. "I met him through an ad I put on the Gumtree website. Ross lives just down the road from me: we just seemed to click pretty much straight away. I write the lyrics and melodies, form a lot of ideas in my head and he takes it on from there. I wanted to make an album for long time but the time never seemed right. I've got two children as well so everything has to be fitted in around them. After my daughter was born, she'll be five soon, my old vocal coach got back in touch and told me it was a good time to start writing. So that was the moment I started to write songs and realize that of course I'm a singer/songwriter."

The impact that songs can have is a source of obvious pride to all three singers. As James puts it, "I think there's always somebody who might connect with what we write. A lot of what we feel is shared human experience." As Simmons says, with James' enthusiastic agreement, "The best feeling in the world is when people love the songs you've written."

Master Plans or Letting It Roll

Making a career in a tenuous profession like music demands a single-mindedness and commitment—a long-term plan might also be seen as a pre-requisite. Of the three singers, Jackson is the one with the clearest long-term goals and the plan to achieve them. Simmons and James have a more laissez-faire approach although their determination is just as strong.

So how far ahead is Jackson (pictured left) planning? "Basically, very far. There is a long-term game plan to reach an international audience and the festival circuit so I'm trying to maneuver myself into position for that. I don't consider myself to be anywhere near the final product. I feel I'm still learning a lot... But if I'm going to reach that level then I have to start thinking about it now."

Jackson's trip to New Zealand saw him supporting saxophonist/arranger Bob Mintzer and leading master classes. Some forward planning enabled him to capitalize even further on the visit. "I was invited to do two Festival appearances and a couple of radio shows. My manager Sandra Marcy set up some other things including a TV appearance on a significant New Zealand morning show. With her knowledge and PR strategy she could see that this would be a trip wasted if we didn't use every opportunity. I came away with the rights to use the TV interview as part of my PR. You send something like that to promoters and they see you in a different light."

Given such foresight, it seems strange that the tracks on Jericho are too long to fit the time constraints of most music radio. Jackson agrees with this, but he's already thinking of a solution. "That's true. My producer and I decided that the tunes were that long, that they needed that much time. That's my official answer but the truth is that there are a couple of tunes we probably will edit down. We're in the position to approach radio stations now and it would be a waste of opportunity if we didn't have something to send them."

It's a refreshingly honest appraisal and the willingness to review earlier plans suggests that Jackson's strategy is likely to reap benefits. "Your job as a jazz singer or bandleader is as an artistic director," he says, "but you're also a brand manager and sometimes advertising executive, even an accountant; so you have to have a strategy in place. But there's no point if you're not creating good music."

Simmons' approach is looser, a project-by-project vision seems to be how she operates. The follow-up to Dandelion is now on her radar. "I'm thinking about the new album. I love projects, love the whole recording process. It's such fun. I know I had so much fun after I released Dandelions. I had the best gigs and I was really busy. But I don't really think about the process too much: the finished article is something to be proud of but I've never really desired to be famous even though I'd like to play the big clubs one day when the time is right."

James sits mid-way between Jackson's structured plans and Simmons' looser approach. "At this point I'm very definite about what I want to do, although I don't have it set out in stages. Someone did ask me recently what my marketing plan was," she pauses, thinks about it for a few seconds then laughs. "He sent me one; a very generic one, not related to the music business; and it frightened the life out of me. It made me think a bit more though. I've got some thoughts and at the age of 36 I'm more definite about things than I was. It's taken a long time to get to the point of being confident enough to say this is what I want. I've had a lot of jobs where I've watched people just float through life. That's not what I want to do but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself. I'm more focused on making the most of it."

A Changing Scene

The changing nature of the music scene, increasingly fluid genre definitions and the changing/worsening economic situation all impact on the opportunities for musicians and singers alike. Jackson, James and Simmons have all met with these issues.

Even the use of the "J" word itself is problematic. As James says "It's a four-letter word. My press person says that if I called Day Dawns jazz or send it to too many jazz reviewers then lots of other people just wouldn't consider it. I don't want to risk losing that wider exposure. It's very difficult to move away from being labeled as part of that jazz circle. But then I sent it to one person who wrote back to say 'I love it but it's not quite jazz.'"

Simmons' first two albums contained a selection of jazz standards, but Dandelions is all her own compositions. As a result, she says, "In one big store Dandelions was in the pop section, the others were labeled as 'Jazz.' It was a problem getting PR support too: when I was recording Dandelions I contacted one PR company but they said that it wasn't jazzy enough and they didn't have the right contacts."

Jackson extends the issue, discussing his experience of the live scene. "One of the difficulties I had when I first promoted myself in the UK scene was the clubs. The jazz clubs that liked singers didn't like me because I wasn't the typical sort of singer. And the ones that didn't like singers didn't like singers. So I was left in a kind of no man's land. It does worry me about the UK scene that the singers at the very top don't seem to have broken through to the next level, the bigger venues. That's something I'm trying to consider, how to bypass that."

Churchill (pictured above) is pleased with the strength of UK talent, but expresses his concern about the issues facing the new generation. "There are some amazing voices coming up, but I think that they are under enormous pressure. They're not allowed time to really mature. They have to make major decisions at an early stage—what repertoire, for example. But that kind of thing takes a long time to mature into."

The economic situation creates its own problems. Neither James, Jackson, nor Simmons can yet make a living as singers: Simmons is a guitar teacher; James has a day job outside music; and Jackson has his cocktail bar piano gigs. The live scene's opportunities are also contracting, as Simmons has found. "A few years ago I used to play lots of Arts Centres, but now funding is being cut it's harder to get into them unless you're a big draw. Playing overseas would be good too, but those chances are few and far between."

Does the economic situation affect the way in which they approach their music? Jackson reflects on this point and concludes that it might, at an almost subconscious level. "That's an interesting point. I'd like to say no, but I think it probably does. At the moment I'm not making any money from my writing—the album is going to make a loss which is fine, that was always going to be the case—and there's no money for me yet from publishing. The live gig scene is still vitally important for me."

Churchill's position in the UK music scene enables him to comment on the wider situation. He, too, is somewhat pessimistic about the choices open to emerging talent. "The LVP singers are representative of singers in general. They need to record and gain experience, but they need to teach and play function gigs to make a living." Churchill uses the LVP to improve members' employability. He teaches workshop techniques, helps the singers to obtain the clearance documents necessary in Britain to work with children and other potentially vulnerable groups. "I see the LVP as a small College," he emphasizes, "teaching things that to be honest, the Colleges aren't offering. The Conservatories don't want to be known as teacher training institutions so they only pay lip service to it. They still see themselves as preparing students for 'platform careers,' but 90% of music graduates are going to end up teaching. That is the reality."

Churchill's rather downbeat assessment of the business end of music is rather depressing, but honest and pretty realistic. If times ever were easy for the newbie jazz singer in the UK —or anywhere else—they aren't now. There's plenty to be positive about on an artistic level, though. Becoming a professional singer is still a career goal for many, many people. James, Simmons, Jackson and the LVP share a commendable drive and enthusiasm as well as talent. It may be a tough time to be a singer, but it's a great time to be a fan.

Selected Discography

Melissa James, Day Dawns (Slickersounds, 2012)

Theo Jackson, Jericho (Self Produced, 2012)

Kaz Simmons, Dandelions (Fast Awake Records, 2011)

Kaz Simmons, Different Smile (Fast Awake Records, 2007)

Kaz Simmons, Take Me Home (33 Jazz, 2004)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Top, Courtesy of Theo Jackson

Page 1, Bottom: Courtesy of Melissa James

Page 2: Courtesy of Kaz Simmons

Page 3: Mark Bassett Page 4: Courtesy of Pete Churchill
About Theo Jackson
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