I met with Clair Chapwell, a most versatile Windsor Castle Sunday Jazz SInger, on one of those cold days in early March when it seemed that Spring would never come (oh dear..it seems that way again today). We settled in to my local café, DOSE, to talk about her work as playwright, songwriter, educator, actor, jazz and musical theatre singer, and general treasure of the progressive, alternative arts movement. She was born in Minnesota, and moved with her family Ohio, and settled in London in the 1970s, as she wryly said, “As one did…” – it was indeed a time when young people radicalised through the anti-war movement found London to be something of a utopian sanctuary. Clair’s favourite singer, Nina Simone, reflects her human rights interests: “You gotta love a fighter. Mississippi Goddam! Imagine the bravery”!
But before then, Clair knew that she was a ‘broadway baby.’ Even as a 9 year-old, she ached to be a star in New York musical shows: “I loved all those old musicals, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Carousel and I grew up with Gershwin playing in the house.” And these days, when she sings “The Ladies who Lunch,” you can hear in her voice the swank of a Sondheim comic song, and the power of a sardonic grown-up woman in “I’m Still Here.”
I asked her if she had ever had singing lessons in her youth, but she said, “Like we could afford that! That would be a no. However, I am very comfortable onstage as I have been a performer for so many years. So I love to make an audience laugh. I often think, especially with jazz and blues – it’s such sad stuff – let’s give em a laugh.”
Clair has made a life of song and playwriting; working professionally and seriously. She has run a theatre group, and a singers’ chorus: “I started a musical theatre company called SPARE TYRE in 1979 based on Susie Orbach’s book FAT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE where I initially wrote songs (very musical-style) about compulsive eating and self image. Here’s one: “Why is it/Every time my mother rings me on the phone/I want a Mars Bar?/Is this the thing that Pavlov did with those dogs? (Written for a Jewish New Yorker who was in the show – the climax went: ‘Oi vei, Mom!)’
I left Spare Tyre and did other things. By this time my issue was no longer compulsive eating and self image, I was working with a lot of older people and I started a group, Bolder Voices, and started writing a lot of songs about issues affecting them – and increasingly me: TOUCH ME (about life in a care home) LOVE THAT FREEDOM PASS (self explanatory).”
It is clear that feminism and the politics of aging inform both her play- and song-writing. A few years ago at Christmas time, I was walking through Marylebone Station and came across Clair and a diverse group of singers at a piano, singing winter carols. It was both startling and moving to see the pleasure in all of the singers’ and listeners’ faces.
Clair is a member of the jazz choir, Take Twenty, which is how she came to the Sunday Jazz events at the Windsor Castle. The network of open mike singers is always growing, and when Tina Learmonth, who is the beating heart of the event, invited her along, it was Clair’s first open-mic experience. She has entered it with gusto, and has gathered the admiration of others who like her challenging and often humorous songs.
When I asked her about her practice schedule she laughed the laugh of the talented singer: “Ha …I don’t really practice. I walk the dog and sing and people think “who is the crazy lady with the dog walking along and singing?”
She does credit Ben Cox, who is the director of the Take Twenty Choir, with helping her develop her technique through his monthly ‘solo singing’ workshops: “I go to Ben’s class on a Tuesday night. That has actually made me focus a little better. I used to wing it a lot more. Now I’m a lot less slapdash. Working with Ben has been great. Almost every session I learn something. How elastic music is, and especially jazz – how you can bend and twist it and mess around with it. Also getting the right key. I always thought you were stuck with whatever key the song was written in (!)”
But her light answer belies her serious commitment to writing plays and composing music..
“My favourite way of writing a play is with a group – and I think also that is true of writing songs. I’m basically a collective person. Bolder Voices has just finished a lovely project called STORIES BY THE RIVER in Riverview Care Home in North Brent. We went in one day a week, myself, two musicians and 9 Bolder Voices. In the morning we’d speak to residents one to one on a given subject (say: what did you used to do at weekends?). We’d meet up at lunchtime and exchange all the stories and have a singsong in the afternoon. During the week I’d write a song from some of the stories. So the song I wrote on that topic was called “We Went Dancing” and it was stories about Irish girls who had to lie to get away from their dads who thought they’d get pregnant if they went dancing, but how it was a way of life, hours and hours of non stop jive, foxtrot, quick step. Amazing stories. And the tune just flowed together with the words. And the next week we’d come back and say “remember last week when we were talking about what you did at the weekend?…. well……”.
Clair had to interrupt our conversation to point out that the café was closing, and we were about to be swept out the door by the devoted baristas of DOSE. There was time only for the question of “what’s next for you?”: “A song about London with lots of different groups. Everyone has the same chorus, each group writes their own verse. Excited!” So are we!