1. Growing up in Birmingham, it has always had a special place in your heart but in your new album, it takes centre stage. Can you tell us how Birmingham has inspired the shape of this album?
During lockdown and like many others, I had the time to clear cupboards and sort through memorabilia, photographs and notebooks. This got me thinking about my life so far and its creative path and history. I was also having a new website made during this period and dedicated a section to my early life in Birmingham and its affect upon my musical development. The death of Brian Travers one of the founder members of UB40 had a profound affect upon me. I am from the same area of Birmingham as the band (Sparkbrook/Balsall Heath) and they were always in my hemisphere. They were SO prolific and SO big and celebrated a music that was so specific to Birmingham.
I became fascinated by the musical history of Birmingham and of the history of the Bullring shopping centre, the 1960s architecture, The 1970s pubs and the grimness of the 1980s I visited over the 2 years of lockdown (during the periods of restricted opening) exploring and revisiting home, familiar places and my past.
I took lots of photos of used, re-used and still working old factories - mainly around the canals through Digbeth which is my side of town (Birmingham South) and got in to searching the internet and YouTube for videos of old Birmingham and its night life (mainly of the early 80s). All of this informed a track (and subsequent video) "My Birmingham". An homage to my hometown and its industrial, multicultural and working-class history and of how that history has informed its music and created a Birmingham sound.
2. The new album features the music of artist and musician Didier Messidoro. Can you tell us about how that relationship began and how it is realised on the album?
Didier and I actually met at The 606 Club way back.in the 90s when I first started working there. He was also a saxophonist, musician and DJ. We connected more recently when I saw his very prolific art works on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, I chose one of his pieces for the cover of my 2021 recording Safe Places. Since his 606 days, Didier had moved to Brighton where he began a career of composing music for film and television. During lockdown I listened to a lot of Didiers compositions and felt that they were a perfect landscape for my desire to create some spoken word pieces and to utilise a couple of poems written by my mother.
3. You have been exploring your Mother’s poetry and in ‘Mother’s Yorkshire’ you integrate her work in this track. Can you tell us a bit about your Mother, her life in Yorkshire and why you felt the time was right to explore this?
My Mother died when I was in my mid-twenties and I think about her every day. She loved jazz and soul music, theatre, film, literature but most of all, she loved her children. She had an incredibly creative spirit and was probably unfulfilled career wise but never sad nor bitter about that. She'd had a pretty sad childhood. She was illegitimate. Her father was an artist and though he agreed to educate her, didn't want anything to do with her and wouldn't even acknowledge her when she attempted to visit him with her first child. Though she wouldn't admit it, it seemed to me that her mother didn't really want her either, not even visiting her on Christmas day at one of the various boarding schools she was shunted around at. There were however, very happy moments in her childhood when she was sent to Yorkshire where her Uncle was gamekeeper for Lord Derwent in Hackness near Scarborough. She loved Yorkshire and the moors and loved her Uncle, though his wife, being a city woman and driven slightly mad by the isolation of country life, would lock my mother in a cupboard under the stairs when she went in to town. Obviously for what she thought was her safety but, not the best idea really ....
As with other tracks, lockdown seemed to be a time of assessing ones life and memories. I have a private folder with letters, cards and memorabilia all to do with my parents, both now deceased. It just seems the right time to celebrate and share them, with my love.
4. Who is ‘The Maintenance Fitter’?
The Maintenance Fitter is my Father. For most of his working life he was a Maintenance Fitter at Wilmot-Breeden Ltd, motor car accessories engineers In Tyseley, Birmingham. When he was dying and in palliative care, we had a room in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham with a spare bed for the visitor so that one of his four children could always be with him. This from the NHS, he truly deserved as he had started work at the age of 12 and never stopped working even after he had retired.
As well as the intense emotional connection of being with him up until his death, I was also fascinated by the human body and its functions as one by one each organ and function stopped working and closed down. It really is an incredible machine. I figured that poetry and spoken word and using this mechanical imagery, was a way to honour him and to honour the process of him dying, without it being over sentimental and too saccharine.
5. The new album shows not only the ‘quirky’ side of you, but explores the more vulnerable side of you as an artist. Was this a conscious decision?
Possibly. I think it's more to do with age and telling your stories whilst you're still here.
I'm very outgoing but, quite candid with my private life. I prefer to share with only a few close people and I'm not mad about public sharing of ones private life and mental state. Particularly on social media. Mainly because, well, it's private. It's up to other people if they want to share, of course and that's none of my business but, I agree with my dad when he used to say 'there's such a thing as a private life' and with his 'some things are better left unsaid' mentality. I'm a very open person but, you have to have something that's yours alone or only shared with certain special people, don't you?
I have another reason for this though and it's a creative/work philosophy and practice . As an artist, I feel strongly that some deep emotions, identity traits and experiences should be expressed through your art and that discussing them freely outside of it, diminishes the quality of ones work as, well, one has already said it and that moment has gone and there's nothing more to say. I prefer to save it and say it in my art.
6. Rio De Janeiro Blue’ reminds us of your love of Randy Crawford. How and when did this connection begin?
In Birmingham and in my early clubbing days (which of course continued and increased as soon as I moved to London ). I was always what we 'townies' called a 'serious clubber' which means that you didn't go to discos to listen to pop songs (unless they were quality of course) nor to wait for the last dance with a boy. I went to the various clubs that played jazz funk/reggae/soul sometimes reggae clubs. In Birmingham at The Rum Runner everyone there owned (amongst other classic recordings) "Secret Combination" by Randy Crawford and knew every song on it off by heart and were of course great fans of the The Crusaders and of her work with them. Later of course and as a singer, I had a renewed interest in Randy and that album and a new ear for it and have finally plucked up the courage to feel that I can do one of its songs, justice!
7. Your work with Duncan Lamont and your passion for continuing his legacy is highlighted with his son Duncan Lamont Jnr performing on two tracks. What is it about Duncan’s music that connects with you?
They are great songs, basically. Incredibly well written and interesting enough, melodically and harmonically to be considered as Jazz Standards as well as American Songbook, which is important to me. In terms of lyrics, you couldn't ask for more really as a jazz singer. They speak deeply of the human condition and with great clarity. They are not overly saccharine or sentimental, often satirical and sardonic but with a sense of humour. Often brutally honest and sometimes painful. ....but beautiful.
8. You work with some incredible musicians from around the UK, in your live performances and your albums. Can you tell us how these musical relationships began?
Wow, these started way back and I'm still either working with or in touch with many of the musicians from when I began. Here are some names and places of those I still know and work with either regularly or from time to time. Early days & education at Oval House Art centre with Eugene Skeef . I also met Caroline Kraabel here (London Jazz Improvisors) and in later years joined an all-female saxophone outfit she led called "Mass Producers". Bass player Larry Bartley in Stockwell Musicworks Big band. Various musicians studying or teaching on jazz courses and summer schools at Goldsmiths, City Lit, Guildhall, Morley College - memorable tutors would be Andrea Vicari, Tim Whitehead, Eddie Harvey, Lee Gibson and I actually first met Duncan Lamont at a Guildhall Summer School in the early 90s.
After that, I have to say that every other jazz artist, friend & colleague I have met has been when working and hanging at jazz clubs gigs and venues.... Ronnie Scott's, Pizza Express, The Vortex. In particular Ian Shaw who produced my first album, Paul Pace at Spice Jazz (and now Ronnie's) but most importantly, at The 606 Club where I also work. This club is possibly one of the best music venues in Europe, if not the world with every artist who works there at the very top of their game. Can't go wrong really and massive respect to Steve Rubie for keeping it going .
I must of course mention my current musical partner, pianist Terence Collie. We've made 2 recordings together now (and a video!) as, as well as being one of our leading jazz pianists, he is also a brilliant producer.
9. You recently launched the new album at Jazz Café Posk. What are your next plans? Album tour?
Our next gig with the album is at The Verdict Brighton in January with other gigs in the pipeline to be confirmed. I have other projects - "The Duncan Lamont Songbook" with Duncan Lamont Jnr and solo gigs with trio where I perform selections from all of my recordings and jazz standards. Gigs in the book so far are Kidderminster Jazz on March 9th, Chesterfield Jazz on April 20th (both with WIJM fellow team member Wendy Kirkland on piano!) and I'll be closing a little festival run by Chris Newstead of Watford Jazz Junction on May 21st along with Irene Serra and Shireen Francis
Got some pencilled in dates for 2023 too - always a work in progress ....
10. Words of wisdom for staying sane in the jazz industry?
Work hard and enjoy every minute of that. Keep open to everything new and remain interested and open to everything that has gone before. Stay focused during the gig but enjoy the hang afterwards. Don't take yourself too seriously but make sure that others do. Have fun, dress up and have a bit of a laugh and a flirt!
I'm going to end with a quote from one of my very favourite, human beings and fellow Brummie - the late Brian Travers from UB40. "All of us start with nothing. Luckily, I've got most of that left"
Interview: Fiona Ross
Photographs: Tatiana Gorilovsky
Esther Bennett's website: link here