The half–American, half–British musician is something of an enigma. Folk– Jazz– or Blues–singer? Yank or Limey? Artist or political animal? All of the above? She tells Michael Burland about her eclectic life and her new album Glory Days.
Sarah Gillespie's music manages to combine intelligent, passionate, sometimes humorous lyrics, clever yet rootsy musicianship and kick-ass hooks, all at the same time. Her family background may have helped.
She was born in London to an American mother and a British father who met in a pub in London. It must have been love at first sight: "My father was doing his Masters degree, and on their second date he decided to use his grant to pay her rent so she wouldn't be evicted from her flat. My mother, who was from Minneapolis, split up from her first husband, and she had family over here – my uncle was deputy head of the CIA in north Europe. She had lived in Italy for five years and fallen in love with Europe."
Life was both Transatlantic – a couple of times a year the family visited their American relatives in Minnesota – and surrounded by music. Neither of Sarah's parents was a musician, but her father had "an infectious passion" for music, and bought the young Sarah LPs of Bessie Smith, and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter.
"Most burgeoning performers or artists would listen to that and want to sing like Ella Fitzgerald. I didn't have that reaction – I wanted to write lyrics like Cole Porter!" Sarah laughs. "I was amazed by how witty those songs were, and how stylish and clever. And I listened to rock and roll, classical music, Fats Waller, and lots of Bob Dylan – who's also from Minnesota, of course. I was steeped in all of that."
That's some of the greatest songwriters, right there. Did she listen to regular pop music at all?"I really tried to," Sarah says, "but I was living a lie! I was so infatuated with the music I loved that I didn't have time for contemporary chart music, with lots of synthesizers." Instead of a Saturday job she took her guitar busking, playing on the streets for pennies.
Songwriting came easily, and early. "I was about three. I wasn't writing them down, just making songs up all the time. One day my mother picked me up from play school and asked me what the song was that I was singing. I thought I was in trouble – I thought you were supposed to learn songs, not make them up. I started writing them down when I was seven or eight, on the piano, then I got my guitar when I was fourteen. It was my dream to have a guitar, I'd been pining for one. That felt right straight away. But when it arrived, I really thought I'd be able to play it instantly, as if I could upload it into my fingertips. Of course I then had to sit and learn it. I don't play piano any more, although I've recently felt I'd like to reacquaint myself with it, to bring out different things in my writing. Playing with lots of different people, and allowing lots of different music into your life really shapes the way you compose, I think."
The musicians Sarah's mentioned so far are all American. With all the family trips to Minnesota, does Sarah feel American, or British, or both? A long pause.
"I flip between the two," she thoughtfully replies. "I often find myself talking about 'the English,' saying 'they' do this or that. It's really annoying for my band when I talk about 'the English' not being able to complain, or having to explain the concept of a salad to the waiter in a pub! I'm sure they're embarrassed by me. Other times I feel English. I'm proud to have lived in America for a few years of my adult life too. I love it, I'm infatuated with America. Who isn't? I love it very much – there's lot to love. I went round the entire country by Greyhound bus when I was 18 years old, it took a year. But I love coming back to England too. There's something about it. I think it's the humor, and the NHS (or what's left of it) and the familiarity of it. But I can live in either. I make it up as I go along. I have two passports, and two citizenships."
Does that extend to two accents? "I used to! My American grandmother did not understand a single word I said, so I would slip into an American accent for her. And everybody stared at me in grocery stores, as if I'd just arrived from Mars, so I appropriated this American accent. But when I got back to England I couldn't shake it off. My Dad would say, 'What the hell have you done with my daughter?!'"
A sophisticated Anglo-American singer songwriter would fit right into the New York scene – in fact she lived in NYC for a while – so what keeps pulling her back to London? "It's where I was born. I went to University and did my Masters degree here – having dual nationality it's much easier to go into academia in England pragmatically, because of the basic costs. My roots are here and now my career is too – I have a network here. But last summer I did a few concerts in America and I've recently played in Seattle and New Mexico and I'm planning a proper tour in the States for 2014."
Sarah's academic career involves a first class degree in Film And Literature, then a Masters in Politics and Philosophy from Goldsmiths University. She could have been a politician. "Possibly, ha ha. I was just confused by the world we live in and I thought I might become less confused if I read more books and argued with people. Obviously that didn't happen. I just came out more confused. But I wouldn't mind doing a doctorate one day. I'm very political."
That political sensitivity comes out in Sarah's art. Not just music, she also paints, performs poetry and hosts songwriting workshops as well as writing political papers published on various news websites. "I wrote a song about extraordinary rendition on my second album, In The Current Climate, called 'How The West Was Won'. It's a kind of parable that could be applied to many different narratives – British imperialism, what America is doing currently... And I did a thing about post 9/11 paranoia called 'The War On Trevor' about someone misidentified as a terrorist, which is clearly political. But I'm not a placard-waving lefty. It's hard to describe my politics because I don't believe in the binary of left and right any more. There's a liberal supremacism at play in a lot of the rhetoric and discourse around now. And yet, recently with Syria, there's talk about taking the Nobel Peace Prize away from Obama and giving it to Putin, which would be awkward! My songs are more lamenting or parodying things, rather than a list of things I don't approve of.
That is overly modest. More than simple parody, her lyrics often cleverly manipulate ideas and listeners' expectations. She's said that among her influences are songwriters like Tom Waits, Cole Porter, and Dylan, but also poets like TS Eliot, James Tate and the Beat Poets of the 1950s. "Yes, the Beat Poets were writing poetry that impacted on the ear rather than the eye. It was poetry that made noises. I'm dyslexic and that appealed to me. I like the power of alliteration and inter-rhyming and the way words can explode in proximity to each other and evoke meanings you didn't know were there. American poets were the masters of that – although Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favorite poets and he's British, and there's TS Eliot [born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot became a naturalised British subject]. Good poetry can wake you up to a new way of seeing and hearing and writing.
A regular group of musical collaborators that Sarah works with includes drummer Enzo Zirilli, Ben Bastin on double bass, Mercury-nominated composer and pianist Kit Downes, and Gilad Atzmon on accordion, clarinet & sax. Atzmon is one of the biggest jazz stars in Europe and has produced Sarah's three albums. "Gilad's amazing," Sarah says. "Imagine John Coltrane if he were born in Jerusalem, with Arabic harmonies and classical aesthetics. There's lot's of pathos and brilliance, but silliness as well. It's a lot of fun! You must see him live."
Sarah plays with her Trio & a Quartet, and has performed at the London Jazz Festival and Ronnie Scottís, all of which sounds pretty jazzy. But the new album Glory Days doesn't shout 'JAZZ'. And her guitar playing is much more interesting than standard singer-songwriter strumming, hitting the strings hard and bending bluesily at times, intricately arpeggiating at others. Is she a jazzer? A singer songwriter? A guitar player?
"Some people think it can't be me playing guitar. They have a mental block about it. I think it's because I'm a girl. They think if you're a serious artist, as a woman, you must be dowdy, you can't wear lipstick at the same time. When I started, everyone wanted me to dress all hippyish like Joni Mitchell. I thought, sod that, I want to wear high heels, not ethnic left wing jewelry because it fits their brand! And that's why I didn't get a big record deal," she laughs. "Glory Days is more of a singer songwriter album than my previous ones. I play folk clubs and regular venues, not just jazz clubs. But I like being in gorgeous, louche, basement clubs with red velvet curtains. And I like the seriousness with which jazz fans listen to the music, it's like being in church. They're appreciative and they've welcomed me into their scene."
Jazz songs are seldom as acerbically humorous, or psychedelically inventive, as Sarah Gillespie's. Glory Days features "Flamenco-dancing pigeons", a love that is "like digesting dynamite," a protagonist who "inhaled a thousand bees, spat out wings like olive pips," a man who "thinks monogamy is a kind of wood," not to mention Charlie Sheen and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. She paints pictures with words. She paints actual pictures as well. Are music and painting different things?
"They're very different to me. Painting requires a lot of premeditation, whereas I can just stroll into my living room and suddenly be writing a song on my guitar. I spend a lot of time having vague ideas for a painting, but if one takes off I'm absolutely hypnotised and I'll forget to eat or go out into the real world. It's a strong, weird feeling, especially if I'm doing abstract expressionism where I'm not trying to replicate how something looks. It's kind of like I'm at war with color. I don't know why, but I just have to have turquoise there, or that yellow is too lemony. I get lost in music, in a different way. I get obsessive, repeating a loop on the guitar until it settles in my fingers. Sometimes songs come out in a gentle way, other times they rush out of me like a freight train. The song 'Glory Days' came to me when I was buying frozen peas in the store down the road, fully fledged, in one second."
One final question: What's the best thing about being Sarah Gillespie?
"Hmmm. I feel very free. And I appreciate that increasingly."
Sarah's touring in the New Year. After a launch party for the vinyl edition of Glory Days at the Vortex Jazz Club on January 21st her UK dates are: Jan 24th Wakefield Jazz Club; February 1st St Davidís Hall, Somerset; March 27th St Austell Brewery; 28th Constantine, Cornwall, The Tolmen Centre; 29th Ivybridge, Cornwall, Watermark Arts Centre; April 10th Soho, London, Pizza Express Jazz Club; 30th Halifax, Dean Clough Arts; May 1st Durham, Old Cinema Launderette; May 2nd Banchory, Aberdeenshire, The Woodend Barn; 3rd Edinburgh, The Sound House; 15th – Chelsea, London, 606 Club; 17th Oxford, The Albion Beatnik Bookstore. In June 2014 she will be touring the USA. Check dates and order the album at sarahgillespie.com