PREVIEW/INTERVIEW : Lauren Kinsella (tour dates September 4-23)

Lauren Kinsella. Photo Credit: Aga Tomaszek

Irish vocalist Lauren Kinsella starts a tour on September 4th. Sara Mitra, a vocalist herself,  interviews Lauren about her forthcoming tour, and explains what she admires about Kinsella's approach to singing and collaborating: 

The Human Voice

Every so often, a singer comes forward with a voice that shifts the vocal possibilities of the jazz tradition. Betty Carter, Bobby McFerrin, Norma Winstone are three very different examples of this class of vocal pioneer. They move art forward. Sharing their gifts, entertaining, challenging and delighting listeners, they educate their audience. They show other singers what the human body can do when improvisation flows unimpeded through the medium of song.

When I first heard the Irish singer/composer Lauren Kinsella live, I was unprepared, had no idea who this singer could be: uncompromising, marble-faced, singing in tongues. A voice in pure, exquisite flight. Responding to and directing the other musicians without drama, but with absolute authority. No simpering, no bullshit, the antithesis of a preening song-bird. My admiration was absolute, and set from that evening on.

Pioneers do not often receive their dues in their lifetimes. Kinsella has had tremendous and well-deserved recognition for her work thus far, most recently being awarded UK Vocalist of the Year at the 2016 JazzFM Awards. I know I am not alone in being moved by her music. There have been many, many others who have heard her voice and felt that same sense of individual connection, that breath of ‘yes’ to her invitation to follow her song. Through her work with groundbreaking ensembles such as Snowpoet, Thought Fox and Blue Eyed Hawk a wide cross-section of music lovers have been reached, and now Kinsella is touring her own ensemble this September across the UK, supported by PRS Foundation. I sincerely recommend that you make the trip to your nearest date and hear the future of jazz singing for yourself.

Q and A with Lauren Kinsella

LondonJazz News: You have been involved with a number of groundbreaking ensembles, with different repertoires and vocal techniques.  Do you try to keep your project repertoire separate, or on dates where you are the lead musician, do you bring songs from one group to another? 

Lauren Kinsella: Thank you that’s lovely of you to say. In general, each project that I work on or group that I’m involved in tends to have their own repertoire or language or concept. Having said that I am touring next month with my own ensemble and although we are playing my compositions, I will play / borrow with joy one or two songs that I sing in Julien Pontivanne’s Abhra – a group that I love altogether. Julien’s music is set to excerpts of Henry David Thoreau’s diaries and the words and text are glorious. Poetry is a large feature in my work but I also love to write text too.

LJN: Does it affect your own interpretation of a piece, when not with the ensemble it was conceived for?

LK: With every band or project that I am involved in I try to have a new conversation with each member. This takes time. It involves getting things right and not so right but I am interested and engaged in the process. The risk of it I suppose. And that can be in either written or improvised music for me.

>LJN: Rather than the more usual ‘vocalist as front-person’ I noticed that you favour an inward-looking circle(ish!) set-up. I noticed this in the footage of your song ‘Prime of Life’ with Thought Fox for RTE (video above). In your approach to stagecraft, is there a particular layout that you think affects band communication and dynamics, and the voice as an instrument within that?  

LK: It’s always funny to look at footage from 5 years ago! I had a lovely time that day at RTE studios in Dublin. RTE is the main radio station in Ireland and there are some wonderful presenters working there who champion and support new music including Carl Corcoran and Ellen Cranitch. This footage was from some studio time with Carl and the layout was more got to do with the fact that it was a studio rather than concert with audience if you know what I mean. But yes, certainly the layout on stage or in any physical environment will affect communication and I am interested in this. I am performing at the Dublin Theatre Festival this coming October with Ian Wilson’s The Last Siren and this is a project that involves acting the text and singing words and sound and moving around the stage accompanied by a small wooden horse as my companion. It’s a lot of fun and very exciting to redefine what the stage is for you and how your movement affects both your improvising and treatment of the text.

LJN: What is your languages background?  When you sing freely, are you using a particular set of sounds from any set of languages or is it more ‘as the spirit moves you’?

LK: That’s a lovely way of wording it. It reminds me of a Micheal O’Siadhail poem called ‘Friendship’ and begins like this

No wonder we’re happy just to meet, 
As the spirit moves us, on and off; 
An easy support of nothing to prove 
As we unwind, stretch in the light of 
Each other’s sun.

I was researching his and other poets work for a project that I did last year as a Birmingham THSH fellow and I performed with the superb musicians cellist Hannah Marshall and drummer Mark Sanders. Peter Campion, a great Irish actor also performed with us. We worked with poetry that could be acted, sung, spoken and played. I suppose this is a linguistic angle where I am really drawn too – the nature of speech and it’s movement in sound or how it transmits to sound itself whether from being sung or treating the text ie the syllables, the words, the consonants as sound themselves. Sound (pitch, timbre, resonance, syllabic deconstruction, rhythmic and harmonic information) always moves through the word for me – but it’s important that it comes first. I love working with lyrics and text of all kinds but I am fanatic about the treatment of the sound / noise / emotion through these mediums.

I have never tried to corner myself into singing just one thing or style. That would make me sad! I love singing complicated music with a lot of notes, I love singing a beautiful and simple love song based on a few chords, I love improvising freely with either sound or text spontaneously and I love both composing my own work and delving into other’s work that deals with the contemporary treatment of harmony, form and time. I am focused on the nature of the music being about communication and response to that with each other and with the audience.

LJN: And words and books are also important to you...

LK: My Dad has a second hand bookshop in Dublin and I have always been around books from a young age. My Mam and my brother are big readers and we have always shared in conversation about what each other is reading and why. I am forever indebted to my family for their encouragement and interest in what I do. And equally I am about their professions also.

LJN: As an educator with Leeds College of Music, are there any themes that keep recurring in your advice to HE-level jazz students? Do you have any tips for younger singers thinking about next steps after school, what can they do now to be conservatoire-ready?

LK: Each new student that I meet has their own interests and questions about their craft and this is an exciting part of the job – I like working with new students and students who I can work with over their three year course.

I try to encourage them as much as possible to really spend time with their instrument / voice as college life is so precious! I empathise with them too though – I know what’s it’s like to be in college and to be given a million tasks and deadlines. It can be a lot of pressure.

LJN: Any releases on the horizon you want people to know about?

LK: Chris Hyson and I from Snowpoet are writing new material and are very excited about this – stay tuned!

Lauren Kinsella UK tour dates

September 4 - Chapel Allerton Arts Festival, Leeds 3.30pm 
September 7 – The Lescar, Sheffield 8.30pm 
September 8 – Jazz North East present Women in Music @ The Black Swan, Newcastle 8pm
September 18 – Clapham Omnibus, London 8pm 

September 22 – The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen 8.30pm 
September 23 – Edinburgh house concert (message Lauren via for full details and ticket reservation) 

Personnel: Tom Challenger (sax), Dan Nicholls (piano and electronics), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Simon Roth (drums).

Snowpoet will be also be appearing at the forthcoming Cambridge International Jazz Festival on November 26th 2016. (LINK)

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