Thursday, 12 July 2012

All That Jazz

Without formal lessons, Kate Dimbleby has risen to jazz superstardom. She tells Melonie Clarke why she’s recorded a tribute to troubled artist Dory Previn

Written by Melonie Clarke
The popular jazz-vocal scene has seemingly been flooded by men over the past few years... Michael Bublé, Jamie Cullum, Curtis Stigers and Harry Connick Jr to name but a few. So it's refreshing to meet singer Kate Dimbleby, described by The Times as 'one of the most versatile singers on the jazz/ blues circuit'. She has released three albums, sold out the Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Big Band and her newest album, Beware Of Young Girls: The Songs Of Dory Previn, has just been released with an upcoming live premiere at the Hippodrome in London's Leicester Square. So it is certainly fair to say that Kate is one busy lady, but never too busy for The Lady.

Talking to Kate, we both agree that everyone has a different opinion of what jazz is. Kate herself even admits it's something 'I'm still trying to figure out,' but she does go on to say that it's 'always been about combining the story with the music for me.' Going on to talk about her own jazz sound, she describes it as 'smooth chocolate, but with a kick of whisky', which, as I listened to her album on my way to meet her, I have to agree with.

To hear someone talk with such passion and knowledge for music, it's surprising to hear that, other than her A-level studies, Kate never took formal music lessons.

'My English degree helped me because, when I write, I can think back to the poetry I have read for inspiration. I've had to learn a lot along the way, though, and sometimes I look at people who have been to music school and I'm slightly jealous of their confidence, but there is nothing like learning on the job. It's revelling in the things you are good at and not so good at – I like the fun of that.'

And talking of fun, Kate's performances are full of fun, mainly thanks to her love of cabaret.

'What makes cabaret unique and fun is that element of surprise, the live feeling. I always interact with my audience... the last show I did, I took a man up on stage and sang a Kirsty MacColl song to him.'

Kate's 1999 one-woman show Fever! The Making Of Peggy Lee, in which Kate essentially played singer Peggy Lee, was all about the cabaret 'and the costumes, so we had at least four costume changes', which is a million miles away from Kate's most recent project. Beware Of Young Girls: The Songs Of Dory Previn is a 'very organic' work. (Singer-songwriter Dory battled with mental instability, writing some of her most soul-baring lyrics after the painful break-up of her marriage in 1968 – indeed, the title song on the album, Beware Of Young Girls, expressed her feelings about the 24-year-old actress Mia Farrow, with whom Dory's husband André Previn conducted a very public affair.)

'Dory used music to write herself sane; with heart, soul and a liberal sprinkling of Mae West wit, her songs still do the same for us,' says Kate.

What started as one song 'snowballed' into a full album tribute to the singer-songwriter's work and the upcoming show at the Hippodrome. Even down to the album artwork that her six-year-old daughter designed – 'she is a great artist and it just seemed so appropriate. Dory was very childlike sometimes when she spoke and I wanted to represent that'.

Despite Kate's lack of musical studies, she has become a name in her own right on the jazz scene. But how, without the knowhow, does someone make it big? Talking to Kate about her childhood, it is clear that she was brought up around music and this has undoubtedly not only influenced her, but also helped her in the industry.

'My uncle collected 78s and he would always play stuff when we went round to his house, and his father used to play jazz piano so, while I was growing up, there was always Fats Waller on in the background,' she says. 'I remember listening to Ella Fitzgerald on a Sunday morning. Jazz was always just there.'

Interestingly, some of Kate's biggest influences are not actually jazz singers. 'My brother listened to Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, so they were a heavy influence. I put an Elvis Costello song on my first record, so I like to jumble up my influences.'

But it wasn't until Kate had her children that she realised the extent of the talent of exceptional female vocalists:

'When I had children, I started listening back to old recordings of Bessie Smith... those singers had a way of expressing being a woman in a unique, exciting and liberating way. There is something about the human voice just being able to say "this is who I am".'

When talking about musicians with whom Kate would have loved to have worked, it's an all-woman cast.

'To be in the same room as Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith would be amazing. I never met Dory. We sent the album to her in February, a week before she died, and she sent me a message saying how much she liked it, but I never met her and I would have liked to.'

Kate's career highlight so far is selling out London's Royal Festival Hall. 'It was me with the BBC Big Band singing the songs of Peggy Lee and there were 2,000 people there. It was amazing.'

But Kate is very honest about her career, saying that it's not an easy road to success. 'There are times when I've made what I do into a good career for myself, but there have also been times when it's been very fallow. Sometimes you just need to express what you need to express. Stay true to that and you will be successful.'

And when I ask what advice she would give to aspiring jazz singers, Kate is quick to reply: 'Get gigging. Find some musicians and start working with them and don't worry about anything else – just do it for fun.'

Fun is a word that sums up Kate perfectly; the whole time we are chatting, she laughs and jokes. And when she talks about her shows and her singing style, it always comes back to having fun. The diva image is not seen here.

Ivie Anderson, vocalist with Duke Ellington's orchestra in the 1930s, once sang It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). I think Kate would add 'or it ain't fun'. u

Beware Of Young Girls: The Songs Of Dory Previn will be premiered by Kate Dimbleby and Naadia Sheriff at 8pm, on 16 to 21 July at the Matcham Room, Hippodrome, Leicester Square, London SW1: www.katedimbleby.com or www.ticketmaster.co.uk 

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