Jazz is Another Person in the Room and it “Just Wants to Have Fun,” Says Vocalist Beverley Beirne

Beverley Beirne seated

Beverley Beirne takes a pocketful of iconic 1980s songs and suw-ings on them like a woman commandeering a runaway train. Remember “Too Shy” [hush hush, eye to eye]? With vocals that are anything but the pedantic presentation of prose, Beirne’s style is a rap-like scat that skitters and runs and makes its own way. “Noize” is a cool display of her comfortable, effortless range that is both wide and deep; “Betty Davis Eyes” grooves with a few familiar melodic turns, but more than that, shows her inventiveness. Hot, heavy and thick with rhythm, “Cool Summer” is Latinized here with a scorching and prominent flute.

Beirne’s newest CD is called “Jazz Just Wants to Have Fun” – or “JJWTHF” for short. It’s fun and uplifting. And to think another CD is right around the corner.

What’s your first memory as a vocalist?

Singing along to my mum and dad’s vinyl’s.  A real eclectic mix, as Dad was a jazz fan and Mum liked 80’s pop and country.  So there’d be Erroll Garner next door to Abba and Ella next door to Barry Manilow! 

The thing I was really connecting to, though, was beautiful melodies. I loved listening to Ella and Sarah, Barbara Streisand and The Carpenters. I loved singing along with these amazing voices, seeing if my own voice could get their tone. Of course, with Errol Garner, I made up my own melodies. I enjoyed experimenting with the sounds of my voice and what I could do with it.  It was something that gave me a lot of personal joy and still does.

How do you take care of your voice?

Well, over the years I’ve learned a lot from professional courses about the voice and from other singers and also my own experiences. 

I’ve learned not to push my voice, not to over-train.  I have my own style of exercises that work for me, and I pull these tools out of the bag whenever I need them. 

Good vocal exercises and warming up is essential. Watch how you speak, make sure your speaking voice is connecting.  I swear by the steam room and also resting up too. But mainly, enjoying it. It’s amazing how when you enjoy it, the voice just opens up like a flower.

When did you start professionally?

I started singing classically when I was in my late teens around Yorkshire, plus some musical theater and profit share.  I was also in a rock band called The Last of The Houdinis! I did some music hall performances too.

What was your first public performance like?

I was very nervous. I was about 19, singing in front of the mayor at a big private function.

I sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables which went great, but I fluffed a couple of lines and I felt really bad about it.  But the mayor’s wife took me under her wing. She sat me next to her and told me what a great voice I had. She was so lovely. 

Then I got up again and sang “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles with renewed courage, to rapturous applause. I remember being so grateful to them, and it taught me a valuable lesson; that actually, the audience is willing you on, so just get out there and enjoy it. 

How would you describe your debut album in 2012?

It’s a pretty straight-ahead jazz album for the most part.  Mostly standards, some swing, Latin and a couple of interpretations, like “Something Good” by Richard Rodgers and “Walk On By” by Burt Bacharach.

How does “JJWTHF” compare with your earlier album?

I think these two interpretations above with Rodgers and Bacharach show my interest in taking songs from other genres and playing with them in a jazz context.  But we’ve taken it to a whole other level with “JJWTHF.”

I thought about doing a more straight-ahead album again and just adding one or two interpretations, but this felt so right to me.

How does it feel to be releasing a new CD?

Fantastic! After my first album, I really wanted to get out there and perform. I didn’t want to rush into the next album; I wanted to build up my live performance experience, work with lots of different musicians, develop more jazz skills and enjoy performing.

I didn’t want to turn something out that didn’t have my whole heart in it. This album does, and “Dream Dancer” does too that we recorded in the same week.  I’m really excited about both these albums. 

“JJWTHF” is a little cornerstone of my personality that’s maybe a bit stubborn; I wanted to do this, so I did.  It’s not necessarily the expected thing or even the right career trajectory, but it was the right thing for me to do musically at this moment.

This really was a labor of love and a lot of fun.

The idea of “Jazz Just Wants To Have Fun” – why do some people take jazz so seriously?

Well, I think in any art form, there’s such a lot of hard work involved in getting to a very high standard, you have to take it seriously – the work, that is.  Plus, there’s a lot of pressure, especially on young folks coming out of college to produce something amazing for their first album and then hoping that it will do well and get them to be taken seriously on the scene.

But, saying that, there’s a lot of fun out there too with people who love playing the music. Maybe in the end that’s the answer, just get out there and remember why you began singing or playing in the first place.

What were the production highlights of this album?

I love the small things, like the hand claps on “Prince Charming” and the clicks on “Waiting for a Man Like You.”  They’re subtle, but they really create a certain hip vibe.  I also totally love what Romero Lubambo did when he added guitar to “Cruel Summer,” absolutely sublime; and Dean Brown on “Girls,” amazing.  But I think what is super cool is having Jason Miles, my producer, playing Hammond on two of the tracks with incredible playing that creates this amazing vibe.

Your favorite tracks?

This is like choosing a favorite child! I love all of them for different reasons. I love “Come On Feel The Noize” because this was the initial inspiration for the album as I’d been performing it for four years at a Christmas show at Matt & Phreds in Manchester. The audience’s reaction to this was amazing and it started me down the track of creating an album of these interpretations. 

I also like the track “Prince” because I love the vibe and Sam’s piano solo. Smokey sings and Rob’s sax solo is something to behold. Flo’s bass is on everything! Ben is just so amazing on each track too. I’m a lucky lady working with such amazing musicians. “Cruel Summer” too, I can’t stop dancing to this. I just love them all!

I loved making this CD because it’s got this bluesy gospel vibe that I don’t often sing.

How did you choose these particular songs?

I started with well over 100 and I just partied with them until I whittled them down and did the real work. Figuring out if they would work musically and lyrically; and what groove I would use. Then I created lead sheets from the huge pop arrangements. 

From there I worked further on the initial arrangements with my co-arranger and pianist Sam Watts. We had a lot of fun holed up in a studio in Kings Cross, London.

It was just Sam and I with an upright piano and a small fan that didn’t work very well, but by the end of the first morning we both felt we had something special. It was a lot of fun. Sam created beautiful harmonies and the final arrangements and what an amazing job!

What do you look for in a collaborator?

Firstly, that we get on!  I want to enjoy the process as much as I possibly can. So having a team where you work hard, yes, but can also have a bit of a giggle, I think that’s all part of it. 

Talent! But then I’ve been so very lucky, I’ve worked with so many extremely talented musicians. The team on “JJWTHF” I first worked with for a gig at Pizza Express, The Pheasantry, London. It was a beautiful gig and a special team. There’s something about a group of musicians when it all just fits, the feel of it when you all play together. It’s a beautiful thing.

When is “Dream Dancer” coming out?

Everything’s been all about “JJWTHF,” but “Dream Dancer” has its own vibe. There are some fantastic songs on there, with the guys playing like demons and we have legend Duncan Lamont guesting on two of his own songs that I sing.

I’d been singing with London vocalist Esther Bennett’s project “The Duncan Lamont Songbook” and his songs are just beautiful. I also recorded David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” which was just a few weeks before he died so that feels really special, on “Dream Dancer” too. We’re just about to mix this upcoming CD for a release next year (2019).

How are you marketing “JJWTHF”?

Without a doubt as jazz. Just in case there’s any doubt and I can understand that there might be. But it’s important folks understand that although these songs are 80’s pop tunes, I don’t personally see this as being any different than interpreting Gershwin or Rodgers or other musical theater tunes that have been considered part of the jazz repertoire for eons.

Jazz purists may get a migraine reading this, but seriously, why not?  I’ve approached the songs in exactly the same way I would jazz standards and I think we’ve created some great music here. 

What is the biggest challenge for an indie vocalist today?

If you’re not with a label, it’s important to find a good way to get your music out there.  My first album I released myself through CD Baby, but I was lucky enough to get a distribution deal with Nova/Universal for “JJWTHF” which gives me the opportunity to get the music to more people. I’m totally thrilled about that.

Marketing can feel really difficult sometimes.  But it’s necessary. I’m not the best at pushing myself forward, but this is part of the job you have to deal with. 

What do you like most about the jazz scene in the UK?

Meeting lots of like-minded people: musicians, other singers and audience members. And jazz audiences really know their stuff, so you have to be on your toes. 

Where will you perform this year?

We’re planning an autumn/spring tour for “JJWTHF.”  But before that I’m recording “The Ilkley Suite” which the northern pianist and head of jazz at Leeds College of Music, Jamil Sheriff, was commissioned to write for the fifth anniversary of the Ilkley Jazz Festival. I now run this event with my husband Mark. I’m in this piece and using my voice as an instrument, with wordless vocals and improv. Then we’ll perform it at the festival this August.   

What do you most want people to know about you?

I’m fair and generous with an off-the-wall sense of humor.

Other comments?

Thank you for asking me about “JJWTHF.”  It was really great fun answering the questions!

For more information, visit www.beverleybeirne.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Beverley Beirne.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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