With articulation in every breath of her song “Paper Doll,” Irene Serra of ISQ (Irene Serra Quartet) tells the story of love destined to go badly. Besides the amazingly rendered animation in the video, the music is quietly fierce, with tense build-up and throbbing outrage. Irene’s voice reaches into every corner.
“Reflections” begins with chime-like keys and the gentle, organic pulse of percussion. Enter the vocals; Irene is an expert storyteller, injecting existential ache and wistfulness in every voiced thought.
A new unnamed CD is in the works for this lovely quartet. Irene is courageous, using all the inflections in her toolkit, but you can be sure she’ll come up with new ones. A clear and pure voice is at the heart of it all.
When did you become interested in vocals and why?
I was always singing as a child and basically annoying the life out of everyone around me! It’s actually one of the first things I can remember consciously doing.
Why do you feel it helps you express yourself like no other instrument?
Well, as a vocalist you are your instrument so obviously it’s about as personal as it gets. I like the immediacy of how quickly I can translate my musical ideas into (mostly strange) sounds and I like the versatility of the voice as an instrument.
The possibilities are endless as incredible vocal musicians such as Bobby McFerrin have demonstrated. I also like the fact that everybody can and does sing. It’s such a natural instinct and from such an early age there is obviously something wonderfully subconscious about singing.
What vocalists have influenced you?
So many, too many! Jazz legends like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Nancy Wilson, Betty Carter and Kurt Elling to more popular artists such as Bjork, Prince and Sia. I suppose if you look at that list, I like really individual artists and voices.
And obviously the list of instrumentalists I adore is equally long, with Bill Evans and Miles Davis at the very top.
What do you want people to take from your performances?
I want people to leave having been emotionally moved, in whichever way they choose to interpret the music. I would rather someone has a strong reaction to what I do and hates it profusely rather than just having a lukewarm reaction.
What was your early instruction like at the Milan Academy of Music?
I grew up in Denmark and we had a great music program at my school. When I moved back to Milan at 14, the school I attended didn’t offer music so I studied it externally. I had originally wanted to study classical singing but as they told me I was too young, they offered me the jazz course with this incredible Italian jazz vocalist Tiziana Ghiglione. So I tried it out and loved it! I can only imagine how terrible my first scat solo was.
How did the music there seem to differ from the jazz in London?
Besides a few gigs I performed when I was living there as a teenager, I really wasn’t that involved in the Milan jazz scene as I left when I was 18.
You can find music in so many places in London, from amazing buskers on the tube or the Southbank to some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. There was just so much more music!
I’ve always thought London to be this huge melting pot so that is obviously reflected in the many different music scenes, and particularly in the jazz world. Jazz in the UK is pretty special, so diverse and exciting.
Talk about your quartet.
We’re a pretty mixed bunch of musicians! Richard Sadler, the double bass player, likes everything from jazz to classical to country to blues and is one of the most creative musicians I have ever met. Can pretty much pick up any instrument and play it, and the way he composes really reflects that.
John Crawford is a fearless piano player, amazingly competent and with a great love of Latin music.
Chris Nickolls is such an eclectic drummer, plays jazz beautifully but also has his own electronic project and loves drum and bass.
Somehow all those various influences come together and make ISQ.
What is the biggest hardship in being a jazz musician today?
There are quite a lot of challenges, as the music industry has changed so much in these last 15 years since I’ve been a professional musician.
Internet and streaming have changed the face of music-making and music sharing, in the good and in the bad. I guess the biggest difficulty is that people aren’t used to purchasing music anymore, so selling your music isn’t a reliable income now. Although for a jazz musician that was probably always the case, since it’s quite a niche genre.
You can’t just be a musician anymore. You have to have many more skill sets, like knowing how to promote yourself and build an audience, and effectively being your own live agent as well. But it definitely pushes you to think outside the box and be so much more proactive when it comes to the business aspect of the music industry.
How much of your time is devoted to marketing and social media?
Quite a bit of my time, especially whenever we release new music or upcoming shows. I could always be doing more, but sometimes it’s more important to have time to practice and write. The break also stops you from developing Facebook fever!
What themes inspire you when you compose?
It can be absolutely anything, but they are usually based on personal experience, in something that I have seen or heard, and it stays with me. Words are especially important as most of the lyrics I have ever written are based around a word or a couple of words that came to me as I was hearing a melody, like “Zion.”
What does the song “Zion” mean to you?
I dance in the video for “Zion.” Dance has always been another very important means of expression. I studied choreography as part of my first degree in school.
The song was a co-write between myself and Chris Nickol (the drummer in ISQ) and it was written about those last few beautiful moments before an inevitable break-up.
Were you originally inspired by “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles when you wrote “This Bird Has Flown”?
No, “This Bird Has Flown” was totally unrelated to The Beatles tune and I had no idea that it was the other title for “Norwegian Wood,” which is such a great song. “This Bird Has Flown” was actually the first song I ever wrote for ISQ and it talks about the very fine and confusing line between pleasure and pain in love. Or lust.
How do you challenge yourself to learn different techniques?
I practice quite regularly and am a big believer in continuously trying to improve and evolve as a musician, both technically and creatively.
I have definitely become less concerned with making “beautiful” vocal sounds and more interested in really expressing the truth of that moment I’m in. Sometimes I’ll sing around the house making weird noises for good measure…to the joy of my flat mates!
What did you want to communicate with “Too”?
“Too” was such an important experience and we wrote it pretty quickly. It was a natural progression from the first album. I feel that “Too” really consolidated my ideas for the sound that I was looking to put out there, with a mixture of jazz, pop and acoustic musical settings within the framework of a song.
What did it feel like to win the Time Out London Critic’s Choice?
It was totally unexpected that we would have been listed as the Time Out Critic’s Choice, especially as Eliane Elias was playing that night too! But obviously it was pretty great to be chosen as the featured act.
Our sound is hard to pigeonhole so that probably made us stand out quite a bit. They wrote that we were a “melting pot of genres” which is one of the best compliments you could ever say about us!
The upcoming 2018 CD, does it have a name yet?
No, not yet. Even the title is a work in progress!
What themes are you hoping to explore?
So much has been happening in my world these past three years, both personally and politically, that it’s impossible for various themes not to have shown up in my lyrics. Shame and intolerance, the art of living in the moment, love in all its many guises, letting go. Those are just some of the many things that have been wandering around in my head.
How do you hope to differentiate it from your other work?
The writing of the third album is definitely going in another direction than the first two albums. We are exploring different sounds within our instrumentation, both acoustically and electronically, and we want to see where that takes us.
When do you hope to release it?
This coming autumn.
Will you approach new ideas in lyrics, harmony/melody or rhythm?
I don’t think about writing in those terms really. Although I do explore all those areas both as a performer and a songwriter/composer, I rarely make rigorous rules or conscientious choices when I write. There are a few instrumental interludes which I have written which I might want to include.
Talk about the single “Paper Doll” that just came out in January 2018.
“Paper Doll” was the first song Richard Sadler (double bass) and I wrote for the third album, and I had an inkling it was going to shape the rest of the music. Very honest and bare and quite unexpected in terms of style; more rock-influenced than anything we’d ever written and anything I thought we were capable of writing. That was a big surprise.
We decided we were really going to push ourselves stylistically on this album and have the confidence to go wherever the writing and production takes us.
Where will you perform this year?
The Late Night Jazz Series at the Elgar Room inside the Royal Albert Hall at the beginning of February, and also at The Bear Club in Luton in the autumn with a view to line up gigs when we release the new album.
What would you like to improve or develop as a quartet?
I’d love to have many more gigs in the UK and abroad, not only for the simple pleasure of playing the music, but also so the songs and band keep evolving. So that’s my plan for these next couple of years.
As Richard puts it, I guess you can best describe ISQ as “Four jazz musicians who love lots of other music besides jazz.”
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Irene Serra. Top photo (c) Stefano Broli; second photo (c) Carolina Mazzolari.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018