INTERVIEW: Tessa Souter (Pizza Express Jazz Club, 18 November - EFG LJF)

Tessa Souter
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TESSA SOUTER, who comes to Pizza Express Jazz Club on 18 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, talks about the life-changing personal discoveries that led to her new album, Picture in Black and White, available only as a pre-release at present. She spoke to Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: Your next album will tell the story of a discovery you made - tell us about it.

Tessa Souter: When I was 12, I was told that my father who brought me up was not my birth father and that my birth father, who had died in a plane crash before I was born, was Spanish. And that his mother had been a flamenco dancer. I guess my mum thought this was a good way to allay the teasing I was getting at school for my permanent tan. And the teasing actually did stop almost overnight. Plus this idea of being the granddaughter of a flamenco dancer was so romantic.

Then when I was 28, feeling curious to find out if I had any relations, I came across my birth father's name in the London telephone directory and, to cut a long story short, eventually met him and discovered that he was black. About four years ago I had the idea to make an album featuring songs that, in my interpretations, reflect the African diaspora experience, as well as one or two for my Celtic British ancestry. I was a giant fan of Fairport Convention and Pentangle as a youth and sang all that music in my teens.

LJN: What is the title of the album?

TS: Picture in Black and White. Because it's what I am, a kind of physical snapshot of these two people. But the whole album is also about who we think we are. I had my DNA test done recently and I discovered I am quarter African. That was a relief because, after building an album on this premise, I was suddenly a little bit worried it wasn't going to be true after all - like my flamenco-dancing grandmother, even though she very much exists in my music and on this album.



LJN: Are all the songs your own?

TS: No. Only two of the songs are my own - the title track, Picture in Black and White, and a sort of flamenco version of my song You Don't Have to Believe, which I recorded on Listen Love years ago.  I wanted the songs to be sort of familiar so they can tell this unusual story but still resonate for people who may not have had this experience. I also have Wayne Shorter's Ana Maria (with my lyric), an African song, Kothbiro by Ayub Ogada, McCoy Tyner's Contemplation, renamed Ancestors with lyrics by my friend, vocalist Vicki Burns, one of Vick's originals, Siren Song, and songs by Jon Lucien (who had planned to sign me to his own label at one time), Ornette Coleman, Milton Nascimento, Bobby Scott,  a Terry Callier and U2 medley, which I've been singing for about 15 years, and a traditional folk song, Reynardine. They all mean something in particular to me.

LJN: A Taste of Honey has a particular poignancy for you.

TS: All the songs are poignant for me. This one, because of the archaic language, makes me think of slaves being kidnapped from Africa and how it was for the loves that were left behind. Interpreting the songs like this kind of adds new stories to them. But whatever I sing - whether it's a love story, or about a newborn baby, or whatever -  I am thinking about the story. I was a features journalist! Plus, I think, singing Pentangle and Fairport Convention folk music as a young woman influenced me very strongly. Those songs are literally stories with beginnings, middles and endings.

LJN: Siren Song - what is that about?

TS: For me it's about my Garifuna great great grandmother. The Garifuna are descended from two Spanish slave ships which were wrecked off the island of St Vincent in the Caribbean and the survivors married off to the local native population. I wrote a Yoruba coda to it, thanking the gods Shango and Oshun for saving my Nigerian ancestor from slavery. Vicki told me she wrote is as a hymn to the goddess of the sea, so it was already a perfect fit.

LJN: And there is a song based on a Wayne Shorter tune... 

TS: The album that turned me on to jazz was Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer. I played it every day for about 15 years, gradually winding down to a few times a week. I don't listen to it every day anymore but it is still my number one desert island disc. I wanted to sing this song so I wrote a lyric to it, and I was absolutely blessed that Wayne Shorter liked it enough, I guess, to share the writing credit. Never in my wildest dreams when I was listening to this album in my old life as a features journalist, did I dream that one day I would sing it, let alone record it, and with a shared writing credit. It's too much!

Tessa Souter in the studio with (from left): Yotam Silberstein, Yasushi Nakamura,
 Adam Platt, Billy Drummond and Dana Leong
LJN: Who are the musicians?

TS: Guitarist Yotam Silberstein, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, pianist Adam Platt, cellist Dana Leong, percussionist Keita Ogawa, and drummer Billy Drummond, who arrived back from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on a red-eye flight the day of the recording and came straight from the airport to the studio.

LJN: The album had quite a lengthy genesis - what's the story there? 

TS: I had the idea about four years ago but I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. Out of the blue, one day, a dear friend of mine gave me a money order for a grand and said, "I think you should do a fund raiser for your next album!" The fact that he's not rich and had taken this money out of his savings made it even more meaningful. That money order lay in my bedside drawer for about six months and every time I opened the drawer, the envelope was like an accusing finger wagging at me to get on with it. So, with a lot of emotional support and cheerleading from my friends and family, I put together a Kickstarter campaign and raised $20,000 in a month. People were still contributing even after we made the deadline. I think this album just wanted to be made. It was very inspiring and actually humbling. A lot of strangers came in on it, which was amazing.

Then I went in and recorded it but was terribly sick on the day. I decided to go ahead and do scratch vocals and re-sing it later, which is quite common practice. But then I kind of lost my voice for almost two years. I had a constant frog in my throat that would come up every time I tried to record and which sounded like distortion on the recording. I saw several doctors, one of whom even diagnosed a paralysed vocal cord. This was refuted a week later by a more senior laryngologist (luckily before I threw myself off a nearby bridge), and another dear friend, vocalist and technique teacher, Kate Baker (who Mark Murphy used to call "the voice doctor"), gave me these draconian exercises which seemed to kick it. I also did a crazy anti-phlegm diet which took off so much weight, people were putting their hand on my shoulder when they saw me and saying: "How are you?"  It was a real struggle and I really despaired of ever being better enough to go back into the studio. Now I wonder if a part of me felt, "Who am I to record such a giant subject?"

LJN: When will the album be officially released?

TS: I'm not sure yet. The story is so important, way beyond my personal experience, I want it to have the best start in terms of timing and everything.

LJN: But you do have some copies that you will be bringing to London?

TS: I do and I will. I made 500 limited edition copies and have a few (not many) left over.

LJN: The discovery you made and the making of the album - has the experience changed you?

TS: The discovery itself changed me, yes. But very gradually. It was like taking off a hat after wearing it all day and still feeling it on your head. But there really are no words to describe the experience. It's huge. Flipping fathers. Flipping race. It's indescribable. Thank God I am a musician. Making the album kind of synthesized a lot for me. It was like those dexterity puzzle games which you tilt to get the little balls to fall into the right places all at once. But it also made me think much more deeply about what we inherit from our ancestors, emotionally as well as physically.

My research taught me so much about the struggles they had to have endured for me to even exist. Vicki's lyric to Contemplation really speaks to that for me. This idea of our ancestors wanting and waiting for us to remember, to acknowledge and be a witness to their experiences. But also that they loved us, and wanted us to be here, even though they didn't know us.

LINK: Tessa Souter at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Tessa's website

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