May 28, 2024

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Interview with Richard Shelton: Lyrics always come first for me: Video

Jazz interview with jazz singer Richard Shelton. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Richard Shelton: – I grew up in a small British town called Wolverhampton, which is as far away from the world of jazz as you can imagine. But my father was a fan of big-band and jazz, so I grew up listening to Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson. It’s where my love for that music started.

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?

RSH: – I remember listening to my father’s cassette of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ album and it was an instant fit for me, even though I was only about 14 years old. I instantly understood the shape of his voice, the lyricism and how it worked with the melody. It felt as natural as breathing – still does. Singing teachers work in so far as they can teach you technique, how to breathe and support your voice which is very important when you have a demanding schedule in order to protect it. But they can’t teach you to actually make a sound – that’s instinctive and intuitive.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

RSH: – I made a conscious decision to take a break from acting and start at the bottom of the jazz ladder when I was living in London. I put a trio together, built a small repertoire of songs and started with small gigs and slogged the jazz circuit for about 4 years, until I really started to find my own voice and had a sound worth listening to. It’s a liberating moment when you finally find out what it is you want to say with a song in your own way, how to express yourself. So, it’s only time and experience, getting it right and getting it wrong that teaches you that.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

RSH: – I sing almost every day, even if I’m not performing, just to keep my voice warmed up a little. Band wise, I have an intuitive relationship with the bass, which keeps me rooted when I’m performing. It’s a vibration thing. Sometimes I enjoy trading 4’s and 8’s with the drums, which you don’t find many singers doing. I love the freedom of it!

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

RSH: – I’d say lyricism comes first and influences where I go with the melody. I believe a melody is there for a reason and when I’m singing, it’s important to deliver what was written. I find I can improvise or use dissonance by bending a note or perhaps taking a break off the beat to enhance the mood and message as opposed to counter melody.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

RSH: – I ignore them. I just sing the truth.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

RSH: – Clever lyrics. Lyrics always come first for me. There’s a great expression in the theatre, “If it ‘aint on the page, it ‘aint on the stage”. You can’t make good art out of poor writing – it’s impossible. And the same applies with lyrics. If the words are right, if the sentiment is right, the melody and interpretation takes care of itself. That, and living life, getting bruised, getting hurt, making mistakes, being on your ass, being in love, falling out of love. When you’ve lived, you can sing about these things and really mean it. I like my music sung by grown up’s who’ve earned their stripes.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

RSH: – It’s vital. I try and reach every person in the audience and lose myself in a song. It’s liberating and exposing. If I can feel freedom and communicate it to an audience, then my job is done. It’s up to me to ‘Fly to the moon’ or be the last man standing drinking into my cups ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ in a bar at 2am. I do it to allow the audience. Performing is a two-way street.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

RSH: – I stood on stage with Ella Fitzgerald twice! She needed help coming off stage due to her poor eyesight, so I was asked to assist. I went up on stage with a rose and said, “Miss Fitzgerald, this is for you with all my love”. She replied, “Oh, thank you, darling” and held my hand for about 20 minutes back-stage just chatting to people. It was about as big a thrill as I’ve ever had and it wasn’t even my gig! Another great personal moment was performing for Prince Charles at Windsor Castle with an orchestra – that was pretty surreal. But the ultimate moment was recording in Capitol Studios using Frank Sinatra’s microphone in his studio. Pretty unbeatable!

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

RSH: – Encourage young talent and just let the work do the talking. The message of the music is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Take the movie ‘LA LA Land’ for example – it was such an exciting and vibrant message and brought the music to a modern audience. I’m always surprised at the amount of young people at my shows – it’s great. There’s a whole new generation interested in jazz and vinyl. It’s so cool.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

RSH: – Similarly, I suppose. I can’t imagine a life without music. The only thing that feeds my soul more than music is silence, which allows space for music, so it’s circular. I spend a lot of time listening to classical music too, which I find very relaxing.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

RSH: – I’d get rid of over produced modern rubbish, which I equate to being fast food music. Ask people why they’re listening to it and often times, they don’t know – they’re just following fashion. In modern mainstream music, you often can’t decipher the melody line because it’s so packed with beats and effects. And you certainly can’t tell what people are singing about or what they’re saying. I hate it.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

RSH: – If it’s classical, it’s often Mozart, Grieg, Debussy. If it’s jazz, it’s Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Eliane Elias, Madelaine Peyroux. And Frank Sinatra, naturally. I’m a romantic.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

RSH: – The 1950’s! So stylish, so optimistic, well mannered. And no social media – heaven! Not to mention great music.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself

RSH: – Where would you like to go in time machine?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. I would like to return to the 90s, of the last century, from where I would continue to live differently, more jazz, blues, and …

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

RSH: – By enjoying the moment. That’s something I struggle with and find very difficult because I have a restless soul by nature. But I’m trying to be better at it. But I’m aware that as soon as I’ve said that, I’m off into the future, wondering what the next project might be and how to improve. But that’s the nature of being an artist, I suppose!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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