Anyone living in Melbourne and interested in music – and especially the hot jazz/ swing subgenre, can’t have missed Kelsey James. As part of a restless and amazingly vivacious vocal trio, the Furbelows, she seems to be always performing someplace, much to the delight of the listeners. As she’s preparing to head to Mildura, in order to perform with her own jazz quintet, at the Jazz Food and Wine Festival, she answered some questions about her journey so far: her influences and aspirations, her love of jazz, Ella, Django, Danny Kaye, whiskey and hair dye. Not in that order.
AustralianJazz.net: How did you get involved into jazz?
Kelsey James: I grew up watching old movies and musicals, which contained some jazz standards and musicians like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. But I didn’t become interested in singing jazz until I moved to Melbourne and my sister sent me one of her amazing mix tapes. ‘Blue Skies’ by Ella Fitzgerald was on it, and she does this incredible improvisation. I learned the whole thing phrase by phrase because I’d never heard anything like it before. Around that time, a friend also introduced me to the music of Django Reinhardt. He and his father are beautiful guitarists, and invited me to sing the music of Django with them.
AJN: Who has influenced you the most?
KJ: My grandmother and a gentleman named Mister Lee. My Grandma lived a life of love, joy and a dedication to her art. Mister Lee, who I met through the thriving jazz scene in Melbourne, did the same. (He used to have these massive parties at his house and some of the greatest musicians I’ve heard would all hang out and play and dance together.) They proved to me that spending my days with the people I love and making music is a valid and beautiful thing to do.
AJN: Swing, jazz, indie-pop – what do labels mean to you?
KJ: I’ve always been uncomfortable with those kinds of labels. They make me feel a bit trapped, and I don’t think they explain music very well. When I’m asked who my favourite artists/bands are, it’s all about the people who are making/have made the music. I can love almost any kind of music if the people playing it are coming from a place of freedom.
AJN: In what way is working with your quintet different to working with the Furbelows?
KJ: The Furbelows is a beautiful, magical, well-oiled machine now. The songs, harmonies and set lists are really well arranged. The Quintet allows much more room for improvisation, and we can also choose different songs with regard to the kind of audience and space we’re in at the time. I get to sing some Edith Piaf tunes and other ballads as well, which I really love to do.
AJN: How would you describe your stage persona?
KJ: I’m really just being myself onstage. That’s very important to me and it’s my favourite thing to see when other people are performing. Although, sometimes I am tempted to push things that I don’t feel, because I want to make sure the audience is entertained and having a good time. I do that in my daily life as well! I think it’s important to know that you’re good enough as you are, exactly how you’re feeling, on and off stage, and to be honest about that. It certainly makes things more interesting! The main thing that’s not present in my daily life is all the dress ups. I used to get a lot more fancy during the day, but now I mainly work from home, so t-shirts and pyjama bottoms win!
AJN: If you could pick anyone to come join your band, who would that be?
KJ: Danny Kaye. Oh my goodness. That man was a dreamboat.
AJN: What is your greatest aspiration?
KJ: I don’t have one. If I get to keep singing and playing music with and to beautiful people, that’s enough. Oh, I guess that’s an aspiration then. To do that for as long as possible.
AJN: What is the single most important thing you’ve ever done?
KJ: What?! How can I know that? Well, I helped my sister give birth to her son. That felt pretty amazing and important.
AJN: What is your poison of choice?
KJ: Hair dye and whiskey. Not as a cocktail.
AJN: You’ll be playing at the Mildura Jazz Food and Wine Festival. If your music was a meal, what kind of meal would that be?
KJ: Hopefully something from The Flower Drum. I ate there once and could have died happy.
AJN: What song best describes your current state of mind?
KJ: ‘That Sunday, That Summer’ by Nat King Cole. A friend introduced me to the song in England and I can’t get it out of my head! It’s so good.