Joe Stilgoe: I hated musical theatre, which was my dad Richard’s bread and butter
Copyright © Scott Rylander 2016
Internationally acclaimed singer, pianist and songwriter Joe Stilgoe talks about his Bury St Edmunds gig, growing up with successful showbiz parents and why he loves East Anglia.
Truthfully, jazz isn’t my favourite sort of music. Joe – with his dry wit and easy going, down to Earth nature – is amazing. His gig with his Mighty Big Band in Bury St Edmunds this December will be unmissable.
He will play classics by the likes of Cole Porter and Louis Prima, plus hits from his five critically lauded albums, three of which have topped the UK jazz chart.
Q: Is it a bit hard to get into the Christmas spirit this early in the year?
I’m always waiting for Christmas, even in a heat wave. I always think of that story of
Mel Torme writing The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) in Palm Beach when it was 38 degrees outside, the pavements were melting. We recorded a Christmas song in September so it’s never too early.
Q: You’re looking forward to returning to Bury St Edmunds?
I always love coming to Bury, I was there earlier this year with Michael Parkinson. We did a show of his live and I was the musical light relief (he laughs). I love The Apex and I always seem to get a good crowd there. It’s great I’m there with my big band. I don’t get to get them out the garage that often because the time needed to tour a massive big band round the country is huge with everything else I’m doing. It’s a really special gig. We’re only doing two (shows) between now and the end of the year. I did Snape last year with the big band. I’ve become quite a Suffolk fan.
Q: Suffolk has a great musical heritage?
Absolutely; don’t tell anyone but I’m a massive classical music fan so the Benjamin Britten thing is always very special. I think people in Suffolk, especially on the coast at least, are very proud of the fact he lived and worked there. So much of the culture is present because of him. You go all around the country and people love telling you he’s from there and he’s inspired people and the art in the area. If you do get time touring you always try to visit places of interest - Elgar’s house or where Britten used to work… I love all of that.
Q: Your father is lyricist and entertainer Richard Stilgoe; your mother the opera singer Annabel Hunt; were you destined to go into music did you rebel?
My only protest, my rebellion, was in my teenage years when I just hated musical theatre which was kind of my dad’s bread and butter. I turned away from the family business, but I never railed against music. It was always in our lives growing up as children, we always loved it.
Funnily enough, it felt destined for me but not for my brother and sisters who all went off and got proper jobs. I think that’s a testament to my parents who were very encouraging of everything. They were lucky enough to work in music and theatre, but they know it’s a precarious business so to push your children in that way would be a bit dangerous.
We were just encouraged to do what we loved. I took to it with a bit more interest I think than the rest of the family or maybe there was a lot of secret pressure from on high and I was the last hope being the youngest in the family. If I hadn’t done it there would’ve been horrible embarrassment.
Mum and dad were a great support in both ways. Dad had a brilliant way with words and is also a great musician. My mum was a really respected opera singer so they’re a great port of call when I need advice or help.
Q: What form did your musical theatre rebellion take?
I wouldn’t listen to it (he laughs). It didn’t last long. Any time I heard Les Miserables or Grease or Phantom of the Opera… I don’t know, I suppose I got back into it in my 20s. I went off into the jazz world where musical theatre is not the favourite topic of conversation but, funnily enough in the 1920s and 1930s musical theatre begat the songs that jazz musicians played off - Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all that stuff came from the theatre so there is a link. I was silly to jettison musical theatre. You know teenagers, I was into funk and blues and soul and I just didn’t want to hear people singing angrily about the French Revolution. There’s a place in my life for it now.
I was quite a good boy really. It was a silent protest. I only told my dad later on, but I struggled with it.
Q: Both your parents were very successful, did you feel in competition with them; are you one of those people who are only in competition with themselves or it is neither?
I do feel a lot of self-motivation, but I think what they did for their careers… they were both very good at managing time and their own success. It never felt like it was all consuming. I don’t know if there was any competition to do better than them because it always seemed so relaxed. It seemed to be to have a long and sustained career… dad sometimes has advice and sometimes a tiny bit of envy creeps in occasionally when I’m talking about what I’m doing, only because he misses doing it. They’re so supportive, I can’t imagine the Trump regime syndrome affecting my family where the big boss sits at the top and everyone else shall kowtow to him.
Q: You’re a dad, has your daughter shown any interest in music yet?
We’ve lost her to it, she’s completely obsessed. Mainly musicals, actually, so she loves Oklahoma, West Side Story. It sounds a bit weird for a three-year-old but add Matilda and Oliver and all that stuff. She’s completely encyclopaediacal already.
My wife and I were discussing it the other day, thinking would we be okay with this if she becomes aged 12 on stage.
I’m just writing a show at the moment for David Walliams, I’m adapting his book The Midnight Gang and writing songs. We’ve got a cast of children who are all brilliant; they’re all 11 and 12. I just see my daughter fast forward you know, but it’s a good thing, it’s great. Children should have a childhood but if they love doing something they should be allowed to do it.
Q: Your wife’s an actress and director, does it make it easier she’s in the business too?
Yeah, she’s a complete rock and support. She’s got great taste and ideas so we chat a lot about what I’m doing next because she decided to scale back acting and working a lot more behind the scenes in theatre so she’s got more time to see the bigger picture. You worry, don’t you, about couples doing the same thing, surely that can’t be healthy both going after the same jobs. We’ve got a great mix and she’s got a musical ear as well so…
Q: You work with the national charity Children and The Arts, which tackles inequality through sustained arts experiences?
I got involved as an ambassador a few years ago. The line-up was a great, really broad mix of people from all over the arts. I worked with a school in Hackney, we did a few workshops, I told them about what I did and I really enjoyed it.
Children get a polarised view of music sometimes. Children and The Arts brings everything – theatre, music and art – to an audience who maybe don’t have the means to experience it as much as they’d like to.
Q: We hear so much about arts cuts, but it has an important part to play in a child’s development?
It’s the thing that makes me saddest really, with education, is that they think the arts is the least important and the first to go when it’s the most important. What do people do when they leave school or they need to get away from work or they relax? Almost everyone reaches for something in the arts - a book, a film, a piece of music or going to a club or see a play. To think that just happens from nowhere is absolute madness. There are some parts of the country where children don’t get any access to the arts and it’s just mad, it’s really still a problem.
Q: Do you ever look back at your career?
Oh I’m constantly comparing my diary from last year (he laughs). I never had any ambition other than to be a musician. I remember thinking I’ll be happy if I could just play the piano or sing a bit. In fact, singing came later to me as a thing I got confident enough to think I could do it for a living. It’s a very personal thing. Kids now are just so comfortable doing it, but when I was growing up there weren’t that many singers and you didn’t get the opportunity to do it that much.
Piano was the thing and maybe arranging some songs for people, just having a normal musician’s life. Then I got signed and I was playing at Ronnie Scott’s, which was completely in my wildest dreams.
Now the problem with this life – if there’s a problem, because mainly it’s lovely and fulfilling – is that whatever you’ve done, what’s the next ambition? I’m playing with my big band at The Apex, which is a massive venue most people would kill to do. I’m thinking I’d like to do that all around the world. So I suppose the ambition has grown as you look back and think “wow, I’ve done that”.
To sustain a career and hopefully keep doing it as long as I can, you look at other things. As time goes on you diversify. I’ve moved into writing for theatre and that means I get more time at home It’s lovely to be with the family and you feel a bit more grown up. It keeps you young, but it certainly keeps you young for the wrong reasons being on the road and being a touring musician. You never really experience real life, it’s just always the stage and petrol stations (he laughs, as we segue into the quality of Ginsters pasty range) which is a great life but you need other things.
Q: You’ve toured the world, from New York to Berlin to Kuala Lumpur and appeared as a featured soloist with orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra and the John Wilson Orchestra; but you spent a time performing on cruise ships?
How did that get out (he laughs). It was really unforgiving, but also the biggest education. I did practice a lot, that’s the first thing; I came back a much better piano player because you’re chained to the piano for seven hours a day.
But it’s dealing with people really, being able to cope with so many different situations and this is why I’m really interested in comedy. Having worked a bit in the comedy world, comedians always say you need to start with your toughest audience, if you can crack that… you have to learn in the wildest scenarios so people are throwing things at you and you have to grab their attention.
People on a ship, they can do anything they want. They haven’t paid exactly to go and see the performance so – and that world is probably mocked a little – but actually they’re all very skilled in keeping an audience entertained.
It’s changed actually and I’ve been asked back to do one of the Cunard ships with the big band show. It’s great, the idea you can do that now. It feels like that maybe died out in the 1930s, that you would do an ocean liner with a big band.
Q: What can Apex audiences expect come December?
I try to not make big band music stuffy and old fashioned. I love old songs and I love the old stars, I’m inspired by them. All I do is take inspiration from them. If we do something Sinatra was known for it will be a different arrangement, my own spin.
It’s going to be a great party, especially at Christmas because we’ve got loads of fantastic Christmas arrangements which I love. It’s a mixture of up-tempo party stuff using the whole range of colour and noise a big band provides.
It’s a lovely machine to have at your disposal. When you’re in front of a big band and the lights are straight down, that’s when I feel those pinch me moments, when I think “gosh, I never thought I’d do this”. Harry Connick Jr was my first relatable hero. Maybe not hero, I idolised him a bit because he was a young guy doing this old music but for me he made it sound so fresh and young, so music for all tastes.
• See Joe Stilgoe and his Mighty Big Band at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, December 12.
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