1. Your website suggests you still see yourself as a Yorkshire girl, even though you now live in the West Country. So how did a Yorkshire girl get into big band jazz?
It sounds a bit clichéd, but there really wasn’t much to do when I was growing up. I look back now, and if there had have been more to do, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. We didn’t have spotify, so I didn’t have unlimited access to music, so the music that entered my life, I treasured. The first records I encountred were old 78s of UK jazz bands and American big bands – UK bands like the The Squadronaires and Joe Loss, American bands like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller, that sort of thing. A bit of Nat ‘King’ Cole, a bit of early Doris Day, with Les Brown. That was my initial switch on to music, and it stayed with me, forever. It wasn’t that I didn’t like pop music, but I didn’t relate to it. It was pop music of a different era that I was drawn to cosmically.
2. On the new album, Twelve O'Clock Tales, you’ve gone from your ‘big band’ to what can only be described as a really big band, with almost one hundred people. What prompted that move?
Increasingly over the last few years I’ve been working with bigger ensembles, and I’ve always been passionate about big bands. But it’s taken me many years to have the confidence and, I don’t know, the skills you need to put a big band on the road. Only over the last five years have I had a big band and the Hollywood Orchestra with which we’ve been touring, and the mini big band, of course, which was the last album. But I’ve worked as a soloist with the Hallé Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the Liverpool Phil – people like that. And with conductors like John Wilson – and you mustn’t forget his fabulous orchestra – and Steve Bell, who conducted the new record. Maybe as a Northern girl, the Hallé has always been a well-respected musical establishment; my grandma used to talk about the Hallé, and my parents. I remember doing a gig with Steve Bell, who was conducting the Hallé, and saying, ‘wouldn’t it be good to do a recording together?’ and then, they made it happen. Initially it was going to be on their label, but it became apparent that it couldn’t be, and then the option came to have it on our label, and it was one of those things we had to do – with arrangements by Guy Barker, and musicians like Jason Rebello, Mike Lovatt, Gordon Cambell, Jeremy Brown and Matt Skelton. And with this incredible orchestra! We had to do it! The amount of love in this project – with people just wanting to help, and make it right – I will be forever indebted to everyone on that record. There are 93 musicians – so a full symphonic orchestra and a big band tagged on to the side!
3. If you think back to golden era of big bands, with orchestras like Basie and Ellington, arrangers like May, Jenkins and Strayhorn – is there still a role for big bands in 2016?
You’d be amazed at how vibrant the big band scene is. I do the radio show on Sunday nights, and when we went live – around three-and-a-half years ago – what I wanted to concentrate on was the live element. This isn’t a dinosaur – it’s happening all around us! So the gig diary has grown and grown, and the number of young big bands being put together by kids coming out of college, is so exciting. They’re being influenced by all of the things they’ve heard. They’re not just drawing from the 1920s and 1930s; they being influenced by everything they’ve heard since being on the planet! And that kind of melting pot of sounds is very exciting.
4. What does Guy Barker bring to the mix as an arranger?
He has the brilliant ability to be able to look back and really honour people like Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Billy Strayhorn, but you also get a modern edge to it, which is pointing to a new direction in the future. If you have one chance to record with a big band or an orchestra, obviously the arrangements are key. If you don’t have good arrangements, you’re not going to show them off. So we were super lucky!
5. Given the difficulties of going on the road with a big band, what are you doing to promote the new CD?
Being an independent label, you do what you can, you know? I’ve had the good fortune to go through a number of major labels; I was with Sony for a couple of albums, and Universal, and I was also on Candid for three albums before that. So I’ve worked with a lot of people and learned from that. But the thing I’ve learned about being on your own label, is that it takes a lot of the pressure of that away. Our music is pretty timeless, so whenever we have the means to promote the album, we do. But I don’t beat myself up about it if we don’t! With independent music, you have to work within your own constraints. I get to tour with other orchestras; so Guy and I went last week to Dublin to take the show version of the album to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. So that is one way of touring the album. We’ve also done a reduced version for the Hollywood Orchestra – seven strings, so you get the essence of the orchestra, and a big band, so you get the classical and jazz leads, and a bit of French horn, to cream up the brass section. So we’re trying to get the large ensemble stuff out there, because there’s definitely an appetite for it. You’re never going to get rich doing it, but it’s much more important than that, isn’t it?
6. How did you go about choosing the songs for the new album?
I always like to go a little bit left-field on records. I’m sure you’re the same yourself – there are certain songs that attract you to an album initially, that you immediately enjoy listening to, but I always like the tracks you’re not sure about at first – but as you get to learn them, become your favourite track of all time. So it was important to put tracks like Lush Life and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most on the album – lesser-known standards that are so nutritious musically. And Guy’s arrangements of those songs are just insanely good. My previous musical director was a young Australian guy called Grant Windsor, and he wrote some really great arrangements for the album as well. I’ve also been working with Tim Rice, and I’ve included one his songs that not so many people know. So it was nice to have a mixture of really well-known stuff , not so well-known stuff and originals.
7. We recently reviewed Jason Rebello’s solo album, which we love; what makes him so special to you, both as a pianist and an arranger?
That was his first orchestral arrangement (La Belle Dame Sans Regret), and it’s absolutely stunning! After Grant moved back to Auatralia, Jason and I realised we both live in the West Country, and left to our own devices, we do quite different things. But the few times we’ve met and worked together, we always have a right laugh! I thought I’d give him a call, and see if he wanted to play. He started working on gigs, and when he has time, he plays piano with us. I just think he’s a monster of music. We do a Doris Day show, and one might say that some of the material borders on the slightly twee, but when Jason’s in the chair, he turns it on his head, and it becomes completely charming and sincere. So everything he does, he makes it as beautiful as he can, or as swinging as he can – whatever’s needed. And I guess that’s why he’s so great. He cuts to the chase every time, and gives you something exceptional. I’ve done duo gigs with him, big band gigs, the orchestral album – he’s a great player, and a great accompanist – he’s very intuitive with singers – he listens to you, and supports you.
8. You’re making your debut at Crazy Coqs in London on 25th October. What can we expect from that gig?
You never know until the night! With every show, I always like to bring some flavour of what we’ve been up to, so there will be songs from the new record, but it also depends on what we’ve been working on at the time – so when you’re working with someone like Jason, it might be something we heard in the car, or if someone calls out a request and he knows it, we might do that. So it’s always a real mix of styles! After that, we're doing a lot of the Hollywood Orchestra stuff in October and November, some Christmas shows, a bit of time off in January, and then it all kicks off again – a lot of festivals and a lot of theatres. So if you want to hear what we’ve been up to, keep checking the website, because we’re all over the place.
9. Your Twitter handle mentions that you enjoy whisky, but there you are, on the cover of your new CD, sipping gin. A change in spirit?
My friend Holly made the gin (Scout & Sage) – that was to give her a plug, because we really love the gin! She’s just gone into business making her own gin, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Having just come back from Dublin, I hadn’t fully appreciated the majesty of Irish whiskey, with an ‘e’; I’d only ever tried Jameson’s. I normally drink Speyside whisky, but I was encouraged by Mr. Guy Barker to try a few, and I brought a few home with me – they were very nice! Yellow Spot is my favourite!
10. Tell us two things about you that might surprise people?
I got a badge in the Brownies for being able to say the alphabet backwards! It was probably because I couldn’t do anything else, and they felt sorry for me! The other curious things about me is that I used to be pen friends with Deanna Durbin, the Hollywood actress who retired when she was about twenty-eight, when I was about ten or eleven years old. She was regarded as the saviour of Universal Studios. So this funny little Northern kid sat in the library, writing to Deanna Durbin, and got replies! That was one of the highlights of my formative years!