Sweet as honey with the clarity of a sunny morning, “They Say” is Monika Lidke’s bluesy tale of undeniable love. Even when friends warn you about the dangers of getting your heart broken, it’s a pit you willingly fall into. Her voice here is whipped light, like lace; the melody dances off into the air creating a veil of gauzy emotions. “Waves and Curves” is more poppy, and Monika delivers with impeccable phrasing and stylings. You would not know English isn’t her mother tongue.
Where was your training as a musician?
It took some time for me to realize that I wanted to be a singer, which is odd, because as a child I sang all the time. One of my hiking friends even mentioned he had never met anyone who sang so much… But I was also paralyzed by shyness. So, my first singing experience was in the primary school choir.
Then I played classical guitar for four years in my teens.
It was only in my early twenties that I decided to give singing a go and started an intense performance course at École Supérieure du Spectacle in Paris. The training lasted three years but was very expensive – so I had to take breaks in studying in order to earn money for the tuition. This was happening in the late nineties, a few years before Poland entered the European Union – and the situation was very tricky for me: if I was a student I couldn’t make enough money to pay for the course, but if I stopped studying, I had no visa. So in between studying I literally went underground, and sung on the Parisian Metro and in the streets.
I have great memories of busking with my musician friends. It was also excellent preparation for the stage, and I started songwriting at that time.
When did you start guitar? When did you start singing?
I started playing guitar seriously at 16, and for a while it meant everything to me. My world literally fell apart when I got a hand injury and had to abandon my dream of becoming a classical guitarist.
It was actually a French classical guitarist Michel Rolland who first said to me I should think about singing jazz. I asked him why. His answer was simple: “Because you love it.”
It seems very obvious to me now how a mature musician would just know that you needed to love, really love, doing music to be able to communicate this wonder and excitement to your audience. He recognized there was an immense love of music within me and I am grateful for that. It took me a few more years to take his advice seriously, though.
After many years spent working with a pop-rock band, songwriting, fine-tuning my technique and feeling “not ready” to sing jazz in Paris, I moved to London in 2005. All the pieces of the puzzle came together here.
I went on a few workshops with a wonderful jazz singer Anita Wardell and had an epiphany moment listening to her performing her great album “Noted” live at a venue called The Spice of Life. It was all about communicating the flow of emotions. I suddenly felt ready in London, got a band together, started gigging and recorded my first album of original songs “Waking Up to Beauty” in 2008.
What was your first performance like?
I honestly can’t remember when it was, primary school probably? I was most likely shaking with fear and praying for it to be over and done with. Shyness! It took years of pushing through that barrier for me to actually enjoy being on the stage. But it was worth it to persevere. Now I truly love communicating with my musicians and all the different audiences we meet.
Was your family supportive?
I grew up in Poland in the 80s. Politically the country was going through massive changes and the grown-ups had their own BIG problems.
So my parents let me do what I wanted – within reason – but they never pushed or stopped me. There was a time I took piano lessons but dropped out after three months because we didn’t own a piano. I had nowhere to practice and my piano teacher, Mrs. Bucket, was a bit scary. I did spend a few years resenting the fact that my parents didn’t buy me a piano. I see it differently now that I’m a parent myself. The times were hard and the fridge was half empty most of the time. I honestly don’t know how people survived in that time of scarcity.
Singing and songwriting were the things that I really needed to do to come out of my shell. So when I meet people who are shy and lack self-confidence, I know exactly what it feels like, but I will always encourage them to do the things they love, whenever possible. Because, just like getting old, it’s a privilege denied to many.
I often think about why we lack confidence. I see it a lot in my students. I wonder how often a fear of closeness or vulnerability can be at the core of the problem. For me, music is all about closeness and vulnerability, the real strength of a performer coming from honesty. When we make a sound, we let the world in.
Is the London scene supportive of indie musicians?
I’m still trying to figure this one out. It takes a few years of active presence to gain a reputation within the jazz scene in London. But it is a very exciting scene where anything seems possible.
The challenge now in the jazz world is engaging younger audiences. Fortunately, some London promoters are beginning to recognize this.
I’m doing more and more work in Poland where I come from, and I’m beginning to get offers from other European countries and also places like the U.S. Things started getting easier for me when I fully embraced my Polish roots. A lot of opportunities appeared for me then. For example, I got signed to an American label, Dot Time Records. So I think I found my way to fit in within the London scene, but it is never easy and one has to be very resilient to keep coming back.
What attracted you to the music of American folk singers?
Firstly, it’s the sound of guitars which I have always loved. But above all, great lyrics and amazing melodies. I love a haunting melody – I can literally survive a day on just a coffee, a croissant and a good tune 😉
And then you have singers like Eva Cassidy, who make any tune sound like it’s their own and the most beautiful and authentic piece of music on Earth… or the haunting and mysterious Nick Drake, or Jeff Buckley.
Talk about your personnel and how you all mesh together.
There have been a few changes recently as my longtime guitarist Kristian Borring moved to Australia in 2016. I met Kris in 2006 and invited him to join me when I realized that performing my own music was much more urgent for me than singing standards. A bandleader and composer himself, Kris was a great support at rehearsals when my debut album “Waking Up to Beauty” started taking shape.
Chris Nickolls is an amazing drummer, musician, composer and producer – those skills bring a lot to the table in songwriting.
Tim Fairhall plays double bass. He gives a simple tune a lot of depth and there is a certain feel of mystery around him that comes through his playing which I really love.
I often collaborate with my husband, bassist and composer Shez Raja. Shez has Asian roots, reflected in the exotic sound of his music. I love his energy on stage and he has been my greatest support from the moment we met.
Kristian Borring, Tim and Chris Nickolls used to be my core band. We recorded three albums together. They are great people, very reliable, which is important when planning things or traveling together.
Recently another great guitarist, Matt Chandler, joined the band. Matt is a composer himself and I’m excited to see what we create together. We are working on some new songs at the moment.
Adam Spiers plays cello and he adds a lot to the mix. Adam travels a lot and plays and learns from the world’s best string players, so every year there are some new aspects to his playing that we love to identify and blend within the music we play together.
Another great drummer also works with me now, Adam Teixeira from Canada. He can brighten up the darkest rehearsal room with his smile and his playing is exquisite: great dynamics and amazing listening make him a very communicative player. Adam is also a guy who can improvise for two hours without interruption, and it’s always musical and beautiful.
I have a different line-up in Poland now. I’m very lucky to play with best musicians on the scene today: Łukasz Damrych is on keys, Wojtek Buliński on drums and Grzegorz Piasecki on double bass. They are great fun to work with. There is something very liberating also to use my native tongue with musicians. The Polish language has so much richness and flexibility and I learn a lot of new regional or slang words every time we meet.
What was your most memorable gig and why?
A few performances stand out: playing at the National Radio Trojka in Poland in 2014 was one of them. It’s a mythical place for Polish musicians that the audience in Poland cherishes. The performance (with an audience) was broadcast live to thousands of people and I got a lot of messages from long-lost friends and acquaintances afterwards.
The most touching messages yet were from the people who thought they didn’t like jazz and realized they loved our music. It’s wonderful to know that our music can be a catalyst for someone to discover a new territory.
Favorite venue in the UK and why?
Pizza Express Dean Street is my favorite venue in the heart of Soho, London. I love performing and listening to music there. It’s intimate, cozy and the sound is great.
Favorite venue in Poland and why?
I am only discovering Poland’s venues now, as I have spent most of my adult life in France and then the UK, but please ask me in a few years’ time.
One sure thing is the Polish National Radio has wonderful facilities around the country. I have just played a show on Radio Łódź in a beautiful intimate studio with an audience. These performances are wonderful for their unique atmosphere and artists get a great promotional boost via the national radio broadcasts.
What is “Tum Tum” about?
“If rain can give life to Earth maybe things aren’t all that bad. When I cry I feel alive. Each teardrop brings clarity and relief.”
In a nutshell, it’s about surviving difficult times and remembering that “this too, shall pass.” It’s also about seeking strength in nature:
“I’ll sit under that tree
its branches are tall
its roots go low
I’ll confess my sorrows under its crown
and it will teach me
sending ants to tickle my wounds
so I remember about laughter”
What inspired the album “If I Was to Describe You”?
The title track is a hymn to beauty. There is a beautiful version of a song Alison Moyet recorded called “Weak in the Presence of Beauty” that always comes to mind when people ask me about this song. I tried to capture that moment when we become speechless and humbled by something we truly resonate with.
Because words often fail to describe powerful emotions, I tried to put into music the immense feeling of gratitude, the wonder of recognition that is pure love, so moving it brings tears of joy with it. I think the ancient Greeks called it catharsis 😉
The album was created over a number of years starting in 2007 and was finally released in 2014.
I write a lot, so usually before a project is all wrapped up and mastered, new ideas have already been created, often even recorded. My debut album was released in 2008 by which time a lot of the new songs existed already. So I think for me it marks the transition from being a young and carefree woman to a mother; from being a songwriter trying to find her own voice, to a bandleader with a much clearer vision; from a girl who has got all the time in the world to a woman hoping not to disappear completely within the world of motherhood.
The last track on the album is a lullaby in Polish that I wrote while expecting my son John, who is now six years old. At that point I also became aware of how much I wanted my son to speak Polish. It made me want to sing and record more in Polish, and that desire recently came to fruition with my latest album.
What is your favorite track on it?
I don’t think I have one. They are all different elements of the journey. I’m always most excited by the tune that is writing itself right now. But I know the audience’s favorites are “Tum Tum Song” that I had a great honor to record with the amazing Polish singer Basia Trzetrzelewska; and “They Say” featuring bass virtuoso Janek Gwizdala, who also has Polish roots, and the title track “’If I was to Describe You.”
What language captures the nuances and emotions best when you sing: English, Polish or French?
I moved out of Poland in 1992, which is 25 years ago. I lived in Paris until 2005 and studied singing in France. So at some point I became perfectly bilingual, and sang a lot in both Polish and French.
English was always somewhere in the background – and now I’ve lived in London for the last 13 years.
I find they all have different qualities and the music I write is tightly linked to the language in which I write.
Polish is very rich and you can be creative with words.
French is a beautiful and very flexible, playful language. I’d love to do more work in French at some point.
English is probably the easiest out of the three to sing, but it can be hard sometimes for singers to remain authentic with our music when we sing in languages we don’t understand that well.
I’d find it very hard to sing in a language I don’t know enough to feel it. So I never even tried to lose my accent because for me it is part of my identity.
I feel very comfortable in all three languages with Polish taking the first place at the moment, because I have just spent the last two years creating and promoting an album in Polish. It is called “Gdyby każdy z nas…” (If every one of us…) and was released in March 2017 by Dot Time Records. Poland’s best jazz musicians guest on it and the lyrics are by an incredible contemporary writer and poet Andrzej Ballo.
Emotionally I have never been touched deeper than by lyrics, and it’s a real shame that poetry is so hard to translate, because I would just love it if you could feel what I feel when I read or sing these words. I guess music is a language above all languages and that is the whole beauty of it.
My next project will probably be mostly in English. I also love to sing tunes without any lyrics, which I do as a guest in projects like the Shez Raja Collective.
I’ll be finishing recording my fourth album at some point in 2018.
Another exciting project is also just starting for me in Poland, the line-up including a vibraphone, a marimba, bass and drums. The band needed a vocalist so we’ve joined forces to do some recording and a performance on Polish Radio Łódź. I’m really excited about this new adventure.
How do you want audiences to feel when they hear your band?
At peace with themselves and the world, energized, moved and uplifted.
Plans for your bands in 2018?
We have two performances in London in January, one at The National Portrait Gallery on January 5th, and another one at Posk Jazz Cafe on January 20th. I look forward to playing some new music at those events.
I’ll be at Jazzahead in April. Poland is the partner country this year.
I look forward to connecting with people who love jazz and I hope it will help create more opportunities for our music to be heard outside of Poland and the UK.
An album release in the second part of the year is a possibility.
I’d like to start working on a project with Takeshi Asai, a wonderful pianist and composer from Japan based in New York. We met in Paris in the summer and he invited me to play in New York. Sadly I couldn’t get the visa in time. So we are planning to start our collaboration in Europe in the summer instead.
Future goals as an artist?
My wish is to keep on learning and sharing my love of music through various collaborations, recordings and live performances with musicians who really inspire and uplift me.
I’d love to be able to create opportunities for Polish musicians to come and play in the UK and for foreign players I work with to play in Poland. I think such a cultural exchange could be very inspiring. I hope to find the support for this to happen.
One of my goals is also to share my love of the Polish language and culture outside of Poland and to bring things I have learned abroad to Polish audiences.
Yes! I was just thinking I’d spent two years concentrating on bringing my music to Poland and neglecting (sorry!) my non- Polish audiences. And then this interview materialized through a newsletter from Matt Fripp – big thanks here to Matt for his excellent work! – that I highly recommend to all jazz musicians.
It made me reflect with a lot of gratitude on my journey so far, with all the wonderful people I owe a lot to, and it helped me clarify my vision for the years to come.
One of the questions here also inspired me to Google-search for a long-lost friend – as a result I recently spoke to the French guitarist who first recognized a jazz singer within me, only to find out that his 18-year-old daughter is now becoming a jazz singer herself. The last time we met she was three, so now I can’t wait to hear her sing!
It seems like the story has made another circle. I also feel Paris and France might be calling soon.
So thank you Debbie, it’s been a lot of fun!
For more information, visit www.monikalidke.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Monika Lidke.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017