Beverley Beirne, jazz singer: Something Else! Interview

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Beverley Beirne is a jazz singer from the north of England – Yorkshire to be exact, very north. Her new album JJWTHF: Jazz Just Wants To Have Fun, set for release on June 15, 2018, is a joyful, jazzy escapade through some great classics – mainly popular songs from the ’70s and ’80s. She has played the wonderful 606 Club in London and Pizza Express Jazz and more. Her smoky alto voice can also soar to high notes, and she possesses just a touch of soul, too. Beirne is receiving great reviews and very positive attention from many sources, so I decided to find out a little more. Beverley agreed to do an interview, so we sat and had a good long discussion about music, her journey so far – and everything.

I asked about Beverley Beirne’s initial interest in her craft. “I came to singing because of the joy it gave me. I used to sing along to Dad’s jazz records, or Mum’s Abba collection, or to anything actually!” she said. “It’s just part of me; I find it deeply soul fulfilling. Professionally, I started singing classically, which was an excellent beginning because it gave me a real grounding in the physical elements of singing – a real understanding of how the voice works. Then I experimented: I was in a rock band, musicals, but behind all this was my innate love of jazz. I hated to sing a song straight, always wanting to put my mark on it – sing off the beat, sing the harmony, feel the music my own way, walk my own path. I think what drew me to jazz was the sense of personal identity and self-expression. That’s why picking the right tunes is so important. I want to feel it, express it, live that song for that moment. A teacher once told me that you don’t choose the music, it chooses you, and I really believe that. There is a such a sense of destiny about it sometimes.”

Any favorite moments? “I’ve had many special performances with amazing musicians. There’s nothing like being with a band when you gel together and the whole thing pulses, like a living thing,” Beverley Beirne said. “Playing with the band on JJWTHF: Jazz Just Wants to Have Fun was a great experience and playing live at the Pheasantry in London. I knew there was something special about this band the first gig we did. Being in the studio with them was amazing, too.

“With Sam Watts, I performed ‘Pieces of Dreams’ and this was a very special moment. It was one of those magic performances that, thankfully, got to be recorded. Singing with Duncan Lamont for the first time, at Pizza Express in Soho, was also pretty special. He’s such a legend and I’d never stood on stage and sung a song with the person who has written it playing sax next to me before. But Duncan is such an exquisite songwriter and such a warm, generous player, it was such a magical moment for me. All the people I choose to work with are great people. I wouldn’t work with people I don’t get on with; life’s too short. So, there are a lot of laughs, and I like that. We take the music seriously but not ourselves, and that’s a good recipe for enjoying every moment. There’s a lot of humor and great spirit.”

Asked about her musical heroes, Beverley enthusiastically cited several: “I’ve been influenced by Sarah (Vaughan), Ella (Fitzgerald), Frank (Sinatra), Mel Torme. I’m pretty sure they’re responsible my sense of timing and swing. I listen to Tierney Sutton and Nneena Freelon all the time: They’re geniuses at song interpretation.”

As for composers, she added: “I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to songwriters. I like strong melodies and harmonies, great lyrics, something I can really connect to. I like to take songs from other genres too and put my own spin on them, but I also like to dig around in the past for songs that might be a little less known. I recently did a Hoagy Carmichael set, playing with some of his tunes like ‘Blue Orchids’, ‘Skylark’ and ‘Stardust.’ When you are in the hands of a master songwriter like that, it gives you so many musical choices. I love interpreting these songs in my own way.”

I wondered if she had a favorite instrument. Turns out she does. “I love all the instruments that I sing with,” Beverley Beirne said, “but if you asked me to choose just one, I have to say it’s double bass. I’ve always resonated with the bass line and relish singing the bass line and performing in duo with double bass. Quite a few of my song interpretations either have double bass intro or a strong bass feature. There’s nothing like feeling the rhythm of a beautiful bass.”

So, given the journey so far, why this album – why now? “I get a lot of deep personal joy from taking songs from other genres and tinkering with them to see if I can turn them into a jazz tune. It’s something that I’d been incorporating into gigs for a while. The first song on JJWTHF, (Slade’s) ‘Come On Feel the Noize,’ I first did about four years ago at Matt & Phreds in Manchester at a Christmas gig. The audience’s reaction was inspirational, and it got me thinking and wondering. My last album was 2012, and I was thinking it was about time I did another. I toyed with just putting one or two interpretations on an album of standards and maybe one or two of my own, but in the end I just had this gut feeling I should just go the whole hog and do a full album. At the time I was tinkering with about 90 numbers and felt they were strong enough to do an album. Part of me sensed it was a risk, as people do like their jazz singers to sing standards, but this was in me and it had to come out – a homage to my childhood in many ways, a mixture of both jazz and ’70s and ’80s pop. I like to walk my own path and hope that some people will join me along the way.

“The songs on JJWTHF are the result of two years playing with a variety of tunes from the ’70s and ’80s. Of course, I did not use the full 90; some did not translate so well as I felt it was vital to keep the spirit of the original tune – even if it sounded quite different. The lyrics were also very important to me; these had to resonate too. I particularly love performing (Foreigner’s) “Waiting For a Girl/Man Like You.” The first time I performed this, the audience got behind it and it’s just taken on a life of its own. It’s the only song on the album where I get to sing gospel style ,and I love the free, jamming feel of it.”

I noticed Beverley’s husband Mark was often involved in her career, and I asked how this worked. “Mark has always been incredibly supportive. One of our first dates was at the jazz night at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, when we were at university,” Beirne said. “As any jazz singer will tell you, having your partner’s support and encouragement is invaluable. He’s lugged around my kit and sat and listened to as many gigs as he can. He loves jazz and really believes in me. A drummer/teacher I worked with on my first album, Ronnie Bottomley, told me once: ‘Jazz is a jealous mistress,’ and it’s so true. You commit so much time to it to do yourself and the music justice, but you need people around you who understand and support that – and I’m very lucky to have this. Mark and I set up the Ilkley Jazz Festival together too, which has gone from strength to strength, and we still manage to go to gigs together too.”

What about performing itself, I wondered. How does Beverley feel when she is on stage? “Performing is a great feeling. I love putting myself completely into a song, telling a story,” Beverley Beirne said. “Choosing the right songs is so important. It’s never just me up front on a gig. We’re all in this together: the band, audience, me. The audience are really important to me and I like to get to know them, and hope by the end of the evening they feel they know me. Without a doubt, I’m my own biggest critic. I used to give myself such a hard time when I got things wrong in the early days, though I don’t think I’m alone in this. But having such a perfectionist attitude can spoil your enjoyment of performing, if you’re not careful. These days I’m much gentler on myself – which means I’m a lot more relaxed. But I value being prepared. If I’m prepared, I’m very relaxed, which means I can just enjoy the whole gig so much more.”

Her preferred performance setting: “I’ve always loved performing in intimate venues where the audience are close. I love engaging with the audience, but I do also love big stages. There’s a whole different vibe and energy on large stages that really gets the adrenalin going.”

Beirne also discussed her immediate plans. “I have one album in the can, Dream Dancer, that was recorded in the same week as JJWTHF: Jazz Just Wants to Have Fun. It is also produced by Jason Miles, and another, very different album is being recorded this summer – The Ilkley Suite. This is a piece commissioned by Ilkley Jazz Festival to mark its fifth year, and is composed by Jamil Sheriff. There are some great musicians on it and we are using my voice as another instrument, so it will incorporate a little free jazz and more improv. I’m really excited to get my teeth into it. Also, important right now is building a tour for JJWTHF. Everyone who listens to this album seems to dig the energy and vibe of it, and it’s fabulous to perform this. I’m working on more arrangements, as I speak, for the show. Look out for my version of (David) Bowie’s tune ‘Let’s Dance,’ which was recorded for Dream Dancer just a few weeks before he died. It’s still in the can, but I will perform it live. It is really about lots of live performances, getting the music out there.”

About her studio work: “Recording an album is a real joy. You lock yourself away for a couple of days to a week, and you’re in this bubble of creativity and excitement,” Beverley Beirne said. “It’s such a great experience and I sang ‘live’ in the studio with the band, so to all extents and purposes it’s pretty much how it would sound at a gig – other than some additional instruments that were added on a couple of tracks. That is exactly what I wanted. You can’t beat that live vibe. I think being a jazz singer is all about the live performance, connecting with the musicians and audience, so you have to try to capture that in the studio and it’s not always easy.”

Beirne also discussed the state of the music business. “I won’t lie, it can be tough out there. I’m not a natural hustler, and you kind of have to be,” she said. “There are many talented people on the jazz scene today; it can be hard for promoters and venue owners putting programs together. They can’t say, ‘yes’ to everyone – and jazz is a niche market. Running a festival myself, I can see things from both perspectives. I think it’s made me a lot more understanding of how this scene really works and functions. Doing everything, plus practicing, it’s not always easy to find the time. Keeping up with the voice training is an absolute must. I like things to feel easy when I perform and hate it if I feel physically uncomfortable. I like to let my voice soar and that means you’ve got to put the work in way before you perform. It’s like being an athlete: It’s not what you do the day before or even that week, it’s what you’ve been doing the last year that really makes the difference. It’s got to be a major part of your life. I like to try out new material all the time with a simple busker’s chart first, then see if my vision for it might work before going ahead with a full arrangement. It’s good to always have at least two new ones in a set, and I also love performing new tunes for the first time.”

I asked if Beverley Beirne had one thing she could wish for the jazz industry, what might it be? “More funding! Apart from that, just one thing? For the music to reach people. For more people to really listen and engage with the wide variety of fantastic artists out there,” she said. “I come across people who tell me they’re scared of jazz: They think it’s intellectual; they’re frightened they won’t understand it. It makes me sad that people feel they can’t just listen and enjoy the music. We have to draw people in, let them feel it and love it the way we do. It saddens me people feel intimidated. I make it a challenge to try and get some people to the festival who don’t normally listen to jazz and, without fail, they love it and come back the year after, and email me asking where they can see more like this. I love that. You have to spread the word, get people into this music. There are so many great artists, so much choice out there now. We need to tell people about it.”

So, I wondered, if you had to tell someone about jazz music, how would you it? “If I talk to people about jazz music, I tell them listening to jazz is a journey. It isn’t always an instant fix. It’s slow food, not fast food!” Beverley Beirne said. “Sit in the audience, let it seep into your bones, feel and don’t intellectualize – do that later! Be in the moment with the beautiful music and let your soul soar! Don’t have expectations; go with an open mind. Don’t just listen to one style of jazz, try something else – then something else. Jazz is ever changing; it’s a living, breathing, growing scene as vibrant today as it’s ever been. Go listen to live shows and experience it. It’ll stay with you forever and hook you in, until you live and breathe it. Buy the records yes, but go and see the live shows – because nothing can top this.”

We also delved into some interesting coincidences surrounding JJWTHF: Jazz Just Wants To Have Fun. “I have to tell you” she said, “I came across Jason Miles, my producer, on Facebook. I’d been thinking I needed a producer for this next album but didn’t really know who or how. A couple of weeks later, Mark saw a post from this guy talking about the art of producing and how important it was. So, he messaged him and Jason asked about my projects, we Skype chatted and the rest is history, as they say. This chance spotting of Jason’s post led to an amazing experience, as he is a phenomenal producer.

“Then – again, another coincidence. I’d been thinking, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be great to have some of the original artists listen to what I’ve done with their songs.’ Next day, Mark spots the owner of the Cinnamon Club in Cheshire, his two daughters and (Slade lead singer and guitarist) Noddy Holder in a photo, so he pops onto messenger and asks if the guy knows Noddy and would he be happy to drop him a note with the track and see if he’d listen? A long shot, but he did; (Holder) loved it and gave me a fantastic quote to use. (‘I love the jazz version of “Noize.” Fab singer.’) Noddy’s manager told me that he started out singing jazz with his father, which is something I didn’t know. So, that was great!

“Similarly, with (Kajagoogoo’s) Limahl, it turned out that Rob, my saxophonist, had worked with him and dropped him a note, and so we were able to send him the track we used of his song (“Too Shy”) and he very kindly gave me a really great quote too – which is so fantastic! To have my versions of their songs approved by these guys meant the world to me. That sense of destiny at work again! Maybe nothing is quite as random as we think.”

Talkative, musical and enthusiastic, the joy of music oozes out of Beverley Beirne, and is infectious. I am willing to bet her effervescence and genuine passion will bring more people to jazz in the near and distant future.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein
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