Singing Songs of the Sea

The last time singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert was in Suffolk she was wading through deep snow – and that was on Aldeburgh seafront in January. She says, through a deliciously husky laugh, that she has never encountered snow drifts on a shingle beach before. She is hoping that her return to the county on July 25 for a charity concert at Orford Pavilion will be somewhat warmer.

Although Gwyneth has a reputation as a jazz singer, and her professional roots are in jazz, she has, in recent years, become very much her own woman. Her musical interests have taken her in assorted directions – everything from silent movie scores to a new stage musical to the upcoming Snape song cycle.

Although that Snape song cycle is not being officially unveiled until October, she says audiences at the Orford Jazz At The Pavilion gig may be treated to a couple of numbers – but delivered in what she describes as “very different arrangements”.

Gwyneth Herbert is an artist who likes to be in charge of her career. Talking to her about her life and career she is friendly and chatty, but you get the impression that here is a musician who is not only always busy but likes to be in charge of her own destiny.

She has been on a different label with each album release, always resisting the music industry’s attempts to pigeon-hole her. Setting up the interview proved difficult, because she was so busy.

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It turns out that in the week of our chat she was not only moving house – something that would put most people into a crazed spiral for at least a couple of weeks – but also had a visa interview for a trip to the United States and on the morning of our talk she was in the recording studio, adding the finishing touches to the score for a new musical she is writing. Not bad for an average week in the life of a jobbing musician.

Prior to her appearance at the Snape Proms last year she didn’t know a lot about Suffolk – she was born in Guildford, raised in Hampshire, went to university in Durham – so the Snape reed beds and the Suffolk coastline came as a wonderful surprise. It was a place that really moved her.

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“I did the concert as part of the Snape Proms and was just blown away by what a beautiful environment it was. Then Jonathan Reekie, head of Aldeburgh Music, approached me and said: ‘We would really love to make a home for you here, somehow.’

“He sent me away to have a think, to put some thoughts together for a project we could do. I originally thought I could write and record a new album there. But then I thought it would be much more exciting to do something about the location, about where it is, the location of the sea, so I started putting together a plan for this project about the Suffolk coastline.”

She conceived the project as a song cycle with moments of prose and theatre as well as songs. It is designed to be an hour-long self-contained piece. In performance she is planning to be joined by her own three-piece band and folk-trio The Rubber Wellies.

“It’s all written. I stayed in a cottage in Aldeburgh in January – all on my own – which was an experience. I went to all the local pubs. Got to know the area really well. It was all windy and blustery. I just squirreled myself away and wrote the majority of it then.”

It is clear Gwyneth relishes a challenge and this, she confesses, took her well away from her comfort zone, into musical territory rarely explored by singer-songwriters.

“About a month ago I rehearsed it with my band and The Rubber Wellies, just to work out the arrangements and to really get a sense of it. I hope to record it later this summer before we do the actual gig. It’s exciting and really challenging because I have never written anything on that scale before.”

She adds that she shies away from being pigeon-holed as a musician and artist. As a young university graduate with musical collaborator Will Rutter she found herself carving out a niche in the jazz world and was seen as one of the new Jamie Cullum/Norah Jones crowd.

But ask Gwyneth how she sees herself, how she defines herself as a musician, and she gives off another of her trademark chuckles, “Oh, I don’t know,” she bats away the question with good grace but the laughter masks a fairly turbulent career path, which Gwyneth has been determined to keep control of, despite persistent interference from some high-powered record labels.

“I don’t see myself as one type of singer. I like story songs, I love people and characters, so I like to do funky, bluesy, jazzy, poppy, folky story songs – but it’s difficult to put a label on what I do.

“I listen to so much stuff and, especially this year, I am writing more; and the more I write the more I discover.”

Her resistance to putting a label on her work is what led Gwyneth to walk away from a very lucrative recording contract with Universal after just a single album five years ago.

She started performing while she was still studying at Durham University. She and friend Will Rutter started busking and then became a duo known as Black Coffee. “I knew very early on that I wanted to make music for the rest of my life. We signed about six months after coming down to London; we were gigging in places like Pizza Express.

“It’s been one surprise after another. I never thought I would be signed to label like Universal, and equally I never envisaged I would walk out on my deal. I think the problem was that when I was at Universal they told me I was going to be a big poster girl for jazz in Heat magazine and I just didn’t see myself that way.

“They wanted me to be the female Jamie Cullum and I am so glad that didn’t happen, because I have complete control over what I do and I can do these project-based pieces which I find really exciting and really interesting. Who knows what I will be doing next year; but it will still be centred around making music and travelling.”

She said she received great support from her band. It wasn’t a one-woman show and she relied on them for advice and support. They have been playing alongside her for five years now. They in themselves represent a wide variety of influences. Dave Price, on percussion, comes from a theatrical background, frequently working with the Ipswich-based Gecko theatre company; Sam Burgess is a dyed-in-the-wool jazz bass player, while guitarist Al Cherry has strong folk/blues running through him. “They have all got a wonderful feel and they bring so much to the music.”

They gave Gwyneth the courage to turn her back on the potentially lucrative deal with Universal. After her intentionally low-key Bittersweet and Blue, Universal wanted her to do a large-scale, big-band album of standards, which she really didn’t want to do. By this time her song-writing was starting to take off and she wanted to explore her own take on the world rather than retread work which had been performed by hundreds of other artists.

“It was a real crunch time. I was excited about my writing and wanted to develop it but also mindful that Universal was offering me a fantastic opportunity. I spent six months trying to find a compromise. I was writing vision pictures which I would go off and deliver to a room full of accountants and by the end of it I was just mentally and physically exhausted and not really thinking about music at all – just number-crunching. Then the idea of a compromise went out of the window because the big bad boss man said it was a big band covers album or nothing.

“Then it was very easy. I really didn’t want to do that, so we parted company. It was a real weird, dark time. I was struggling to get a handle on my own voice but I am grateful for the chance they gave me.”

With independence, however, came reduced fees and fewer chances of exposure to new audiences, but she said that her band rallied round and were never less than 100% supportive. “They were great. They said it was the best decision I had ever made, which was great considering that we had left a major label behind. What we did then was go off and make a really small-scale record, a very personal record, in just three days and that turned out to be Between Me and the Wardrobe.”

Since then she has kept herself incredibly busy. You get the impression that Gwyneth Herbert is constantly working away at something or other – her mind scouring the world around her for new ways to express herself and to tell the stories she sees simply walking down the road.

As well as fine-tuning her Snape song cycle, which she has tentatively titled Song of the Sea, she is busily turning a Terence Rattigan play into a musical. “I am in the studio recording tracks from the musical at the moment. I find writing in other people’s voices a real challenge. I am putting words into other people’s mouths, which is something I have never done. I have always written for me. I’m not doing it because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed; it just sort of happened that way.

“I am continually changing or stretching myself as different opportunities present themselves. I believe if you get complacent as an artist you die.”

She said songs on her last album, All the Ghosts, were stories written about people she had met, read about or just observed, including the character with Star Wars figures “living” in his coat pockets who she used to meet on her way home from late-night gigs. There was even a eulogy to her dead, departed Mini Cooper, which finally expired on London’s north circular while returning home from a gig.

“I am absolutely fascinated by people. Everyone has a story to tell, so I suppose composing songs for a musical is the next step on from the story songs on my own albums. I am constantly listening to people, talking to random drunks in the pub, that sort of thing. I am always on the lookout for stories, trying to keep myself open to new influences. Everyone is fascinating in one way or another. I love the eccentrics of life: those who fall through the cracks and live life on their terms. So many of my songs and stories are about strange and wonderful people.”

I suggest that perhaps the inherent narrative structure in her work is leading her towards a more dramatic environment for her work. She confesses that she hadn’t really thought of it like that but agrees it is a possibility, because last year she found herself composing a soundtrack for a silent movie, to be played by a toy orchestra.

“I suppose you are right; maybe I am inherently theatrical. Because I was working with a clown and a toy maestro called Foz Foster, it led me to thinking more about the theatre. He led to me thinking about how images can enhance the music – making it much more of a multi-media experience.”

She said the spectre of Benjamin Britten did loom large when it came to writing the Snape song cycle simply because Peter Grimes and Albert Herring are tough acts to follow; but she said, in the end, she refused to be daunted, simply because her work – although it is inspired by the same sea and coastline – is completely different. “I have to say I did realise what inspired Britten, walking up and down that blustery beach. I loved seeing Maggi Hambling’s shell sculpture.”

She paused for a minute before ending with a husky laugh. “I think I was inspired rather than daunted, but now I have talked about it I will probably go home and lose some sleep!”

n Gwyneth Herbert will be playing Jazz At The Pavilion in Orford on July 25. Tickets are available from Jacki Maslin 01394 450799.

The dates for the premiere of Songs of the Sea at Snape have yet to be confirmed.

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