Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Talking pensions, songwriting and a magical place

Talking pensions, songwriting and a magical place -
“The Humphrey Lyttleton of our day” Jamie Cullum in conversation at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival
The morning after the live performance and simulcast, out of bed before 12 (in itself no mean feat for a jazz fan) I was privileged to be in a select group who heard Jamie in conversation with the BBC Radio 2 presenter and The Times columnist Russell Davies who (contrary to popular belief) was the first person to give Jamie’s music airplay on the radio.  Here’s some highlights of the conversation:

“When was your last piano solo concert?” RD
“I can’t remember, I always work with a band.  I haven’t really done anything like that before.  I started my career playing solo in piano bars.  I find it  hard to fill in the gaps – when playing solo you have to work harder at it.  I now realise how much more practice I have to do.”

Is there a tension between writing and practicing? RD
“Yes, because I only have so many hours each day.  The last 6 years my inclination has been to write.  I’ve started to learn to read music, which is scary.”

Do you think reading music cuts off creativity? RD
The real knowledge is heart-based.  My whole band are arrangers – for the Proms I sang them my arrangements on the back of a tour bus while watching Blackadder videos and they transcribed them into wonderful pieces.  I can read chord symbols though.  Early on I learned to use a chord chart – which is like a cheat’s sheet to playing the piano where the names of the chords are written out.”

On Lyra – now 2 months old:
“That’s epic.  My style has been massively increased by this wonderful creature, she’s increased the wonder of life.  Every day she discovers a finger – we should all be like that.”

On writing “I want to be a pop star”:
“The irony is I wrote it while I was playing in three pop bands at the time.  I played piano in one, guitar in another and backing vocals in the third – I wasn’t a very good backing vocalist!  I think I was in love with the idea of being a tortured jazz singer.  I wanted to try writing in the style of Bob Dorough or Dave Frishberg.  I never thought anyone would hear it – least of all for the next 12 years … all jazz musicians should be forced to write lyrics to songs you know will never be heard.  I played a couple at the concert  and you’ll probably never hear them again.  My career has been more defined by pop than by jazz and I appreciate that.”

On varying the  textures of solo piano with a loop machine and beatboxing:
“It’s become a part of my live show.  If I was Gwilym Simcock I wouldn’t need it – but I’m not.”

What are the reports about how the simulcast went? RD
“We had loads of messages – one from Czechoslovakia where someone said they were the only person in the cinema but they were clapping!  Another person tweeted ‘Yes we are clapping, yes it’s weird – you look tired.’ “

Your first album “Heard it all before” was self funded and you released just 500 copies.  They sell for enormous amounts of money – up to £600 on eBay. RD
“I made around 500 I think – that wasn’t a deliberate decision, it was more to due to my overdraft.  I think I’ve got 6 copies under the bed – if it all goes tits up, that’s my pension.”

In your career you’ve made surprisingly few albums – a handful plus one live one, remarkably few for someone so well known.  I’m surprised you haven’t allowed anyone to dictate your album releases.
“I’ve not had time to do them – things didn’t break in the UK first, I was away touring a lot of the time.  At the time of Catching Tales I’d been on the road for 6 or 7 years.  It’s really cemented fan bases in different countries.”

When you make an album it’s pulled together from all over – some of it is recorded in a studio, some in your kitchen and so on. RD
“I laboured too long over The Pursuit – my label steered what they thought it should be but it’s a very difficult thing, it costs a lot of money and doesn’t make the label a lot of money.  Record producers become a father figure in the studio – they can keep your spirits up.”

You have a very close relationship with your producer?  RD
“So far I’ve only worked with two and they have both been amazing.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if I was left to my own devices.”

Any prospects of working with Quincy Jones? RD
“He’s working on his bigger creative projects – he doesn’t have the time.  It’s amazing he even knows who I am.”

You took  film studies at Reading University – was that an important  part of your formative experience? RD
“I was always a geek – I liked studying.  I liked and was good at English and the more creative subjects.  But the English Literature degree felt uncreative and I got disillusioned with it quite quickly.  Reading has a film course and they were doing auditions for musicians and I thought “That’s an amazing way to meet girls!  I auditioned and he offered me a place on the course.  I didn’t plan to do it but I loved every second.”

On working with Kyle and then Clint Eastwood:
“Kyle wrote songs and sang on my brother Ben’s album.  It never occurred to me it would be an inroad to his father.  For the film “Grace is gone” Clint wrote the music for it and Kyle transcribed it to a film score.  Clint’s neighbour is Carol Bayer Sager and she contributed lyrics.  They wanted James Blunt to record it and I was asked to do a demo.  We recorded it in one take, sent it to the office, and Clint decided to use it in the movie.  He took that version – he liked the freshness of the first take.  You can hear me turning the pages as I try and figure out what to play.  I got a Golden Globe nomination – it was in the year of the writer’s strike.  I bought a tux and everything – but I didn’t get to wear it!”
“Clint thinks like a jazz artist.  I was sent the original material for Gran Torino and developed the idea from the melody.  I was nominated for a Golden Globe the year after – but you realise the pecking order in Hollywood.  The red carpet is about a mile long, Sophie was there in the dress and the shoes looking amazing and the Warner Brothers PR people shouted to the photographers “press people – this is Jamie Cullum, he’s nominated for Gran Torino.  Any takers?”  And everyone said “No thank you” …!  At the end of the red carpet I saw Fearne Cotton and she was being ignored too and we were like “yes”!  I think the only photo of me at the Globes is of me standing next to a bush … texting my brother on the phone while Sophie is standing there looking amazing.”

“Combining jazz and pop – it doesn’t please everyone.  Do the jazz police say “that’s great, but it’s not jazz”? RD
“I don’t have any problem with it – I agree.  I never set out for it to be pure jazz.  I never set out to do that, I wanted to do something different.  I’m embraced by the community of musicians – it’s about what you feel.”

“You changed your trio and Geoff Gascoyne left. Was that an upheaval?” RD
“It was a really hard decision … but there comes a point where you try out different things … the music was moving in a different direction.  Its been really successful in helping me move in the direction I want to go.”

At this stage Russell Davies handed over to the audience for questions -

“I try and put music to pictures.  Do you do it the other way around?  What do you think of when you close your eyes while you’re playing?”
“I think most singers do the movie live in your head.  There’s no rule when coming up with a song – normally I get the idea first.”

“When you listen to music for pleasure do you listen to your own stuff?”
“It’s my idea of total hell.  Just before they were playing my music and I was having my photograph taken.  Hell is being sat with bright lights on my face with a hangover listening to my own music.  I can’t watch myself back either.  It took me 4 months to watch the Proms – I was too frightened.  But you do learn from it.  I learned not to say “yeah” so much.”

How do life’s experiences influence you as a songwriter and have you written a song for Lyra yet?”
“It’s important you’re not beholden to your life’s experiences – you should be able to use your imagination.  Tom Waits, the Great American Songbook writers, Bob Dylan only lived through 10% of the experiences they wrote about.  Novelists do it.  Songs I’ve written for Lyra so far normally involve two words – one of them is nappy.”

“What was the best bit of last night’s performance for you and why?”
“It was nice for me to air some songs you haven’t heard played before.  Last night was really different in playing new things.  I write all the time and they just go in a drawer.  The songs I played last night aren’t necessarily going to be on an album.  Often the things you spend the least amount of time on people like the most.  “I’m all over it” took less than 90 minutes to write.”

“You seem to have unified our family – here’s a question from my 10 year old son.  ‘My favourite song is All At Sea.  Where did your inspiration come from to write this song?’ “
“It turned out much less sarcastic than it was going to be.  I was playing piano on a Greek Island cruise ship, aged 20, and the sea was all around me.  I’d just split up with my long-term Uni girlfriend and I realised that people got so much currency from complaining about their love life so I thought I should write a song.  But then I realised I was lonely and missed my family and my friends and it’s quite a scary time when all your previous structure has gone and you’re left all at sea.”

“What age did you start playing and did you come from a musical background?”
“In the past I’ve said I was self- taught, but I should probably put the record straight.  My brother is a musician, grade 6 on guitar, drums, bass – and he showed me stuff.  Between the ages of 6 and 10 I had piano lessons and didn’t take to it -  I would always embellish tunes.  I scraped through grades 1 to 3, failed 3 or 4 then aged 10 or 11 started playing Nirvana on the guitar.  I came back to the piano at 16.  I had a lesson with Jason Rebello, and went to a jazz summer school in France run by Clive Fenner. I picked it up along the way.  My greatest education has been listening to records and trying to copy them.  If I hear it I can more or less play it straight away.  Just need the two to meet in the middle by the time I’m 50!”

Is there a specific location where you get your ideas?
Song ideas come to me at the piano.  I’d love to say they come when I’m walking on a mountain but I sit and play whatever comes into my head.  I sit and play chords for 3 or 4 hours, or 6, and they come.  Then I slot in conversations I’ve heard and add the words.  
It comes from a magical place – but also from sitting down and getting down to business.”

With thanks to my guest blogger Sandra (@pecangirl) for this detailed transcript!

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