Q&A with Allira Wilson

Allira Wilson’s debut CD Rise and Fall took out the Australian Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album at the Bell Awards this year. In conversation at the awards we spoke to one of the judges, who told us that he hadn’t heard of Allira before listening to her nominated CD. ‘As soon as I heard her, I put her CD at the top of the list. She’s world class.’

Allira Wilson on stage at the Bells, in full voice
Allira Wilson performing at the 2014 Australian Jazz Bell Awards | image by Andrew Kneebone

We caught up with Allira after the Bells to find out more about this West Australian singer who has recently moved to Melbourne.

AustralianJazz.net: How old were you when you started singing?  And when did it become important to you? Is there a story around when and why you started to sing?

Allira Wilson: I started singing when I was four years old. I remember singing for adorable little put-on events at Sunday School where we were encouraged to sing. My mother and father both love music and so the house was always full of the Everly Brothers, Bobby Vee and my father’s country music collection.

I suppose that singing, for me, has always been important.

I feel as though it has always been a large part of my life; it’s just taken on different priorities and meaning as I’ve grown from just a little girl singing to where I am now.

AJN: Who has inspired you along the way – in the beginning, and now?

AW: The first really inspiring person was my high school music teacher, Mr Scott Loveday. He is a great teacher and was the first person to show me singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.

Almost more important was his infectious passion and interest in music. I think that really stayed with me. After high school the next stage of my development was the WAAPA [West Australian Academy of the Performing Arts]course where I studied with amazing teachers, in particular Victoria Newton and Jamie Oehlers. I think it was great learning from these musicians and many others who were driven, and had a clear idea of what they want.

I’ve recently moved to Melbourne and these daysI’m finding inspiration in the Melbourne jazz scene. I am constantly being amazed and surprised by all the new music I hear. There are always new projects, always new-comers, always new sounds.

AJN: You’re now based in Melbourne but you studied in Perth… what do you think it is about Perth that produces so many wonderful jazz musicians? Is it about the calibre of the teaching? Something about being over on the West Coast? Some other theory?

AW: It is true that Perth has a pretty strong musical backbone. I am in no doubt it’s largely down to the team of exemplarymusic staff at WAAPA and the high schools. The musical community in any place is very tightly knit, and in a city with a smaller population, like Perth, that close bond feels a lot stronger. Because it is such a tight community everybody knows each other quite well and people are always practicing together, writing together, rehearsing or just gigging together. I think in that spirit, as well as the stellar teaching on offer at WAAPA, lies a path certain on good musicality.

AJN: Do you prefer to sing standards, or original compositions?  Do you have a favourite composer?

AW: I wouldn’t say I prefer standards over original compositions; they’re different breeds of songs written for quite different times. Which is not to say that I don’t think standards are ‘timeless’. Music owes so much to those show tunes which dominate jazz history and jazz recordings. I think of composers like Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Billy Stayhorn (among a very long list of others), as examples of beautiful – and dare I say – perfect compositions. Strong melodies and logical harmonies leave so much room for playful interpretation of the music that I feel that those kinds of songs won’t ever retire or stop being reinterpreted.

I love nothing more than classic recordings of those ‘American Songbook’ tunes being performed basically untouched from the composers will, but as it has been done so well, and so often, I try to push myself to reinvent those kinds of songs whilst respecting their fundamental roots.

Often I’ll try find a way of finding new chords to a mostly unchanged melody, or some times as simple as tailoring a certain groove or rhythmic texture to enhance an old favourite.

As far as original compositions go, I feel as though I’m still developing as a writer/composer, and always trying to improve. I feel compelled to write music and do so often, with varying degrees of success, but when I’ve completed a song I’m truly happy with, it’s a great thrill to go to a gig and be able to perform it. It’s very interesting when I play with musicians for the first time with some of my original material, because different musicians (not having heard the songs before) bring their own idiosyncrasies to the table and often I find that long after I’ve written a song out, it still has little parts added from what good musicians bring to it.

AJN: Tell me about the band you played with at Perth International Jazz Festival. How did you meet them and what do you particularly like about them?

AW: That was Jamie Oehlers (saxophone), Karl Florrison (bass), Bronton Ainsworth (drums) and Tal Cohen (piano) at the PIJF. I met all these musicians studying at WAAPA. I love how every time I play with them, it’s different and exciting. I think that this band understands my music and I enjoy their approach to playing it.

allirawilson-rise-and-fallAJN: How did you choose the songs for your recent CD?

AW: I selected songs based on the tunes I would sing often at gigs and performances around the time I recorded Rise and Fall. They are the songs I am most comfortable with and I feel as though I can sing them differently each time. I had a bunch of arrangements and original compositions worked out that I wanted to record to showcase my style.

AJN: Do you have a favourite track, and why?

AW: If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the title track ‘Rise and Fall’. I love what the band did with my song. I love the atmosphere which those musicians brought on the day of the recording. They work so well together. I particularly like the solo section in ‘Rise and Fall’ where it can be opened up to anything, harmonically, rhythmically or otherwise.



Purchase Rise and Fallfrom CDBaby >

Rise and Fall on iTunes >

See Allira Wilson’s website >

We feature ‘Rise and Fall’ on the AustralianJazz.net podcast 1.03