Clare Gordon: Song Artist
It makes a lot of sense to meet up with Clare Gordon in the Friends Coffee Room at the Royal Academy, for Clare is a working artist as well as an engaging jazz singer on the open-mic circuit. Wearing a vivid diamante fez and a scarf painted in Schiaparelli pink, Clare is always alive and energized when we catch up. The organizer of the “Poem Bar Singers” and a member of “Bob’s Mob,” as well as a top soprano in the long-lived “Take Twenty” jazz choir, Clare’s repertoire, like her voice, is both quirky and mellifluous, jazzy and moving, and always a pleasure to listen to. So… “How did you come to sing jazz,”
“I‘m one of seven kids and our dad got us to sing together as a way of countering the chaos! I have always sung in choirs and done backing vocals for bands at college, but never had the courage to sing solo. I was very, very shy as a child. I discovered real jazz at art college, where I met D.J. Kulu, who opened the world of be-bop to me through his saxophone, and he was also an artist. We played in a free improvisational band, lead by a Scottish poet – Ian McKenzie. In that group I played percussion and piano. We supported the Pink Floyd in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It felt very exciting and very different to anything I had known before.
I haven’t had lessons, but I have attended lots of workshops.Liane Carroll was the one who got me started: she took me under her arm, encouraged me and gently pushed me again and again to get that voice out! I thank Liane for supporting my jazz singing: she is my inspiration.
I did study piano and theory at school, and almost went to music school, but in those days, it was a very dry, classical training and I needed to expand my horizons/break out and then I discovered ART!”
How did you get on to singing at open-mics and workshops?
“My first jazz workshop was in France about 13 years ago; I thought I was going to have a holiday and listen to lots of jazz, and I didn’t realise that I was expected to participate! The next morning I was told I was the piano player in band x. Aghhh.. I had never even seen a jazz chart before. I was plunged into the deep end. It was terrifying but I was hooked. It gave me the taste for playing jazz. I went on to take year 1 and 2 Jazz Studies (piano) at City Lit. I first started singing at open mics in about 2010.”
Having had the privilege of visiting Clare at home, I can guarantee that it is filled with her paintings and ceramics and drawing. When I asked her how she understands the relationship between her visual and her singing practices, she said, “They are quite separate practices but have similar themes, expressed in different ways. As I am a self-employed artist I can juggle my time. Those themes – of love, life death, children, beauty, travel, energy, truth, courage – are the stuff of both song and art. I like ambiguity in my painting, so the themes may begin one way, and then turning into something else.”
As for Jazz, I have a few set days and times for my jazz. I run a monthly evening at the Poem Bar and Grill for a group of 12 singers and sing in Bob Stuckey’s Jazz Mob in a pub in Kings Cross once a month and then there’s the “Take Twenty” jazz choir – I use that as my ‘vocal gym’ — and perhaps a masterclass or two. My art studio work is always on the go. I love that moment in choirs when you are all tuned in together and part of something larger than yourselves creating something beautiful. Its hard work to get there, but I love it. I use the Ireal app a lot – so I can sing the songs through again and again until I’ve really got it.
We began to talk about the vocal artists who Clare most admires, and not surprisingly, since she takes joy in all kinds of songs, including ones by Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits and others, she named a Olympus of singers, including
Ella, Liane Carrol, Abbey Lincoln, Andy Bey, Norma Winstone, Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, Tom Waits, Sarah Vaughn, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, Melody Gardot, Chet Baker, Dusty Springfield, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Jon Hendricks, Eva Cassidy, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Scott, Dinah Washington. But right now she is having a Mark Murphy Moment – discovering aspects of his singing that she hadn’t heard before, and admiring him more and more.
As the wintry winds starting blowing into the Friends Room, we turned to questions about the past and the future. I asked what was the best piece of advice you have heard about singing. Clare answered:
“Probably to find songs that you love, touch you in some way. To learn the melody inside out, listen to lots of different versions, learn the lyrics, know what they mean to you, speak the truth. Go and hear live music, so you can embody it. Also think about your audience.”
Coffee cups empty now, my final question for Clare was, what’s next?
“Well, I want to improve my singing technique – to be singing fit — I would like to record some songs, for my grandchildren. I want to go through the process, thinking which musicians? what feel? what am I trying to get across? Putting it together, all the detail. Seems like a big step up, but I like a challenge.”
Interview by Annie Janowitz