Jazz interview with jazz singer Katie Birtill. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?
Katie Birtill: – I grew up in a quaint little village in Buckinghamshire called Long Crendon in the UK. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing or enjoying music. My parents would always listen to classic.fm and my mum would always be playing music or singing with me in the house, apparently I was singing and performing constantly as a child.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?
KB: – I was in a choir, Oxford Girls Choir from the age of 7 and I sang with them till I was 18. We had some jazz musicians take some workshops there and for my classical grades I had to start singing songs from The American Songbook. At about 14 my mum wanted me to record one of my grade songs Summertime and there was some recording equipment at the boy’s school next to mine, Aylesbury Grammar School, and through that somehow got roped into singing for their Big Band. The first song sang for them was Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Mack the Knife. I then asked for her Gold CD for Christmas and from then on I became obsessed and couldn’t get enough of jazz vocalists and through that got into jazz in general.
I’ve had some great vocal technique teachers: Richard Vendome, Howard Milner, Lucinda Allen, Rosie Ashe, but none are specifically for jazz. I really developed my jazz vocal style through gigging with the band Down For The Count who I have sung with for over 12 years.
I love that jazz allows me to take risks and every time I perform it’s new and fresh and exciting. You ‘play’ in all senses of the word.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
KB: – As well as putting in the practice to develop my technique, my voice has matured naturally with age. Also my sound is probably a melting pot of all my influences and also of the styles I sing for my work. I trained at The Royal Academy of Music in musical theatre and since graduating have enjoyed a varied career. I work as a musical theatre actress, concert vocalist and session singer and I’m often booked for my versatility so I’ve had to sing in a whole range of styles as well as jazz: pop, rock, soul, musical theatre, classical. Being a bit of a vocal chameleon, in the past I questioned what my authentic voice really was. But now I know I just need to stay connected to myself in whatever style and although my sound rightly shifts a bit between genres I can now hear that you can still tell that it’s my voice.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
KB: – In regards to rhythm, I transcribe scat solos or instrumental solos. I have a nifty app, Transcribe, where I can change the tempo, starting slow and then increasing the speed.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
KB: – To be honest apart from sight singing I work by ear and so I don’t even know how to answer that question!
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
KB: – Music is a form of communication so I believe music should always have something to say so that the listener is moved in some way. To do this I feel that music has to be rooted in the soul and that intellect raises the calibre of composition or performance to make the message even more beautiful, disturbing, joyful or heart breaking. But if music is simply intellectual and it’s not created or performed with heart then it’s never going to reach anyone and the music stops with the creator. I think that is when people feel that certain music is exclusive. Having said that I feel that there is space for all forms of art and sometimes a more cerebral message is what the artist intends. For me however, as a listener, I want music to make me feel something.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
KB: – One of the highlights of my career was singing for the Jason Robert Brown special at The London Palladium for BBC’s Friday Night Is Music Night. It’s one of the times in my life I’ve truly felt star struck and to work alongside him rather than as a punter was such a thrill. I’ve been a fan of his since university and have been in two of his musicals so when I sang with him round a piano during rehearsals and he called us singers, Capital Voices, “sh*t hot” my teenage self was doing summersaults but I had to stay cool!
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
KB: – One of the things I wanted to do with Baby, Dream Your Dream, was to look at the musical theatre songbook beyond the classic standards that we all know and love and choose songs that have never been given the jazz treatment but adapt so well to the genre. Half of my audience are musical theatre fans so I’m hoping that the musical theatre aspect of the album hooks their interest and then the jazz pulls them in. There’s a lot of great work being made out there that crosses r&b, rap and jazz keeping it fresh and relevant to today so I think jazz is definitely not dead yet!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
KB: – Woah, that’s quite a question! Before committing to a life in the world of music and performance I was on my way to becoming a doctor. I remember when I saw my first dead body I had this moment of clarity when I was absolutely convinced in the existence of the soul or the spirit. I don’t pretend to fully understand the spirit but I can relate to Coltrane because when I lose my voice due to illness I do feel a dampness in spirit, and during my best performances I feel my spirit soar. The meaning of life?! I’d say, connection. To each other, to our environment, to ourselves. Music as I’ve said connects so is definitely a worthwhile cause!
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
KB: – To allow musicians to feel unconstrained by the pressures of money and celebrity. To see talent and artistry and the artist’s mental health be squashed by these demands is heart breaking.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
KB: – I’m enjoying listening to fantastic and versatile singer and trombonist Aubrey Logan, Vulfpeck for sheer joy and I’m loving YEBBA’s new single Evergreen, so I’m looking forward to hearing more from her.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
KB: – I’m going to be greedy and ask for a weekend at the 1957 Newport Jazz festival. Ella, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Kenton Stan Getz, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and so many more! And I love a festival.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …
KB: – What’s the best or most surprising answer you’ve had for question number 10?!
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Yesterday, sample in answer Stefano Bollani!!!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan