Sarah McKenzie feels like she is just at the beginning of her journey.
This may seem incongruous from a musician with growing international profile who is releasing her second CD, but McKenzie is adamant. ‘I’m only 24 and I still have so much to learn,’ she says.
McKenzie’s first CD Don’t Tempt Me was released in 2011 and her second Close Your Eyes, is just out. She’s excited by what it represents. Chong Lim (you may know him from shows such as Australia’s Got Talent and Dancing With the Stars) is the CD’s producer and McKenzie acknowledges that she enjoys working with him because he challenges her. It was at his suggestion that Don’t Tempt Me included her jazz arrangement ‘Love Me Tender’.
‘He told me, “Sarah, you really need to branch out”‘, she says, ‘and for the last album he pushed me to choose a popular tune and turn it into a jazz tune.’ That tune was ‘Love Me Tender’ and she says she enjoyed that process, so much so that she’s at it again on this new CD. She says her producer has helped. ‘Chong saw how I responded and for this CD, suggested I check out Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – these great songwriters.’
She says she naturally fell in love with the music she was hearing. She decided to take what they’d done in the first album that one step further and throw herself in, no reservations. The search for her authentic voice is very much a focus right now. ‘I don’t want to be locked into a genre’, she admits.
After falling ‘absolutely in love with Joni Mitchell’, McKenzie included ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on Close Your Eyes. Choosing and arranging this and other songs on the CD was a process. She says that she sits down at the piano with a larger selection of songs she’d like to work with and the aim at that stage is to ‘see what happens’. She chooses songs that she loves or that have special significance. The end result for Close Your Eyes was a group of songs that she wanted to release and Mitchell’s is just one of them; there’s a mix of jazz standards, soul and pop tunes and a couple of originals.
Finding her own voice, she’s taking some risks – and she admits that not everybody is going to like everything she’s doing. With ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, McKenzie says that she wanted to keep the integrity of Mitchell’s work, but tried to bring something new to it. This ‘fresh approach’ is a theme throughout our conversation and links in with McKenzie’s sense that she’s just at the beginning of a journey. Her youth, and the experience she’s managed to cram in despite being barely in her mid-twenties, are obviously significant to her. Chong Lim has said of her that she’s very headstrong and knows what she wants. In this vein, the Nat King Cole tune ‘Too Young’ has special significance… ‘I sing love songs and because I’m so young, people wonder how I could possibly know about love. Well, I do know and that song is my way of making that statement.’ McKenzie says she has the utmost respect for Nat King Cole but again, she wanted to approach her arrangement of it ‘with musical intent and integrity, but bringing something new to it.’
‘At this point in my life, I’m trying things and some people might think my attempts succeed, and others not.’ At the base of it all, is the strong sense for McKenzie that she has succeeded in achieving these double aims of ‘freshness’ and ‘respect’.
This year her blossoming career receives a significant boost in the form of a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston in the USA. Driven to escape the cold of Melbourne’s winter and tempted by a Berklee workshop at Umbria Jazz Festival, McKenzie travelled to Italy. To her delight, she was offered a scholarship by Berklee Dean of Admissions Damien Bracken. The scholarship will provide singing and piano lessons, and McKenzie is also excited that ‘they have some great big bands to write for’.
Video: Sarah McKenzie at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2011 with David Rex on saxophone, Alex Boneham on bass and Craig Simon on drums
‘Now that I have two CDs under my belt, says McKenzie, I know what I need to do, and what I need to develop. Berklee’s going to give me the opportunity to fine tune what I do.’
She feels she’s been hard to categorise and hopes that studying at Berklee will help her cement her own identity.
‘I’ve been a hard one to place over the years’ she says, ‘because I sing, I play and I write’.
‘When I just play the piano I don’t feel that I have as much to offer as when I’m singing. And when I’m just singing, I feel like I should be playing as well. Everyone’s got their thing, and my thing is that I do everything.’
What she does may be hard to categorise but perhaps Sarah McKenzie will just create her own definitions.
See Sarah McKenzie on the web >
Close Your Eyes is available now from iTunes >
Read our interview with Sarah from May 2011 >
Close Your Eyes track listing:
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington and Bob Russell)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Got To Be This Way (McKenzie)
Too Young (Nat King Cole)
I Remember You (Victor Schertzinger)
The Lover’s Tune (McKenzie)
Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
Close Your Eyes (Bernice Petkere)
I Should Care (Sammy Cahn, Axel Stordahl, and Paul Weston)
At Last (Mack Gordon and Harry Warren)
The Way You Look Tonight (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields)