Claire Martin on jamming, John Martyn and her unusual choice of repertoire

14 June 2010

Claire Martin talks to The Irish News' Trevor Hodgett: 

Many jazz singers even today exclusively sing songs from the Great American Songbook, songs written in the pre-rock'n'roll era by the like of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter.

Claire Martin, however, is a somewhat more adventurous soul, who, in addition to singing standards peerlessly, often covers rock songs and whose proud boast is that she once even sang a Status Quo song at Ronnie Scott's Club.

"I've done some stupid things," she laughs, "but, yeah, I did Sweet Caroline as an encore in Ronnie's, as a shuffle blues." Her enthusiasm for contemporary songs isn't just a gimmick, however.

"Some of the vernacular of the songs of the fifties is just not relevant now so I'd rather sing Nick Drake's River Man than Tea For Two," she explains. "I try to be honest in my singing so the more I'm in touch with the lyric, the better I can express it.

"There are contemporary writers who are as good as the Gershwins and Porters so I look at my CD collection and just try to cover things that I love. "I adore Kate Bush, for example, because the subject matter is extremely weird, just so different form the Gershwin and Porter stuff, and her music is so unusual it doesn't do what I expect it to do. And I love Radiohead and Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits."

Martin even recorded the Beatles' Help! on her 1999 Take My Heart album, with Oasis' Noel Gallagher on guitar. Her producer Paul Stacey, a sometime Oasis keyboard player, provided the connection. "We were going to do Here, There And Everywhere and although Noel obviously isn't a jazz guitar player we thought it would be good if he came and played. But Paul said, "Well, he does this really slow version of Help!" so he called in a favour and that's how that came about. "I actually gave a copy of it to Paul McCartney. I was at [composer] Richard Rodney Bennett's house and he said, ‘Stick around Paul McCartney's coming round.' Aaaaarrrgh! Paul McCartney! But he was very nice and so down to earth and we were just chatting away. And Richard was playing him some of my stuff. I was cringing; I just wanted to run. But, bless him, Richard was championing me. It was really quite a special night."

Martin also once worked with John Martyn, with whom she duetted on a version of Martyn's Man In The Station. "Ahhh, God," she sighs. "[Martyn's] Sold Air is a Desert Island Disc for me, because of his sound as a singer and because it's got a fantastic vibe. It's wonderful. I know he had his ups and downs but when you go back to those days when he wasn't p*ssed, basically, he could really put it over.

"I just phoned his agent and I was thrilled when he said he'd be up for it. He was absolutely hilarious and it was a morning I'll never forget. And even though he was p*ssing around and he fell off his chair, when he actually started singing, he flicked the switch and he was on. He was fantastic. That was really a dream come true for me."

Martin's current album, A Modern Art, which includes songs by Steely Dan and others, has been rapturously reviewed, as indeed has every album she has made since her debut, A Waiting Game, in 1992. "I very rarely listen to my own stuff," she admits. "I've sat through the mixes and I've heard every song 30 times and I don't want to hear them again!"

Martin feels her singing is continuing to improve. "The longer you live, the more life experience you can put into it," she says. "I've obviously matured as a woman and I've matured as a singer because I've spent so many years gigging and practising and learning.

"And you're always going to get better if you're lucky enough like I am to work with people like [saxophonist] Nigel Hitchcock and [guitarist] Jim Mullen. I'm always thinking whether I should even be on the same stage as them. Even though that sounds extremely humble, it's true."

Last year Martin was voted Best Vocalist in the British Jazz Awards, her umpteenth career award. "I think it's lovely," she says. "It's just nice to get recognised for what you're trying to do. I mean, awards aren't the be all and end all and I think competition in music sucks but they're always nice days out and I usually take full advantage of the free bar and get extremely p*ssed which is very nice."

 

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