Kimba Griffith: “the songs invaded my dreams”

Listening to Kimba Griffith‘s album “Each time the first time”, you could easily be mistaken and look for the logo of Verve, Bethlehem, Liberty, or any other label from the ’50s on the cover. And yet, the album is a result of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign – what could be more modern than that?

Kimba herself, as an artist, is so immersed to the cool jazz sound, look and aesthetics, that she seems to be channeling the great singers of the era: June Christy, Chris Connor, Irene Kral, Anita O’Day. Rest assured, though: the voice, the phrasing, the way she sings and swings are all her own – as is the band, a magnificent septet, with her partner in crime, Ryan Griffith, providing some sparkling, Herb-Ellis-like guitar mastery. As she is getting ready to get to the stage, she talks about music, love, obsessions and lost gems. How did you get into jazz?

Kimba Griffith: It was when I was 15 and I was really taken with the film ‘Torch Song Trilogy‘. It had a brilliant soundtrack and the two standouts were Bill Evans playing ‘I loves you Porgy’ and Billie Holiday singing ‘What’s New?’ I was so incredibly taken by these songs and though I didn’t know enough to class them in a genre, I just listened over and over. The next album was Harry Connick Jr’s ‘It Had to be You’. It’s a great album, very accessible for a younger listener.

However, getting into jazz really happened when I met Ryan, back in 1998. The first night we went out, he took me to Julien Wilson‘s Festa at the old McCoppins and the next week to Paul Williamson’s Hammond Combo at the Rainbow on Monday night.Β I was falling in love with this dapper fella, seeing great music and adoring this new town. One Monday I heard a voice at the rainbow scatting like a dream over ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. I pushed my way to the front and there, seriously with a ray of light shining down on her, was Julie O’hara, singing her arse off. I began lessons with her the very next week, and this mentorship continues 18 years on!

AJN: Your artistic persona seems to evoke the golden era of swing and jazz music. What does that mean to you?

KB: I have been considering the relationship between visual aesthetics and music recently – the song and the singer. I am sure that for different instrumentalists it is completely unique, but for myself, the song and the style, the vision, the look, one can’t live without the other! I don’t want to be a cliche or an anachronism, but, at the same time, I just really love so much the 40s & 50s music, fashion, poetry, and so on. I am obsessed with Lord Buckley, with the beat poets… I watch that ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day‘ movie, from 1959. The music is sublime, but some days I just watch the crowd, what they were wearing, the way they held their cigarettes…

But the song has to come first and for me, ahead of that, the story that the song tells is the single most important thing. Within the band, the music is a beautiful skeleton. After that, everything is a delightful, evocative accoutrement.

AJN: How did you choose the songs for your album?

KG: They almost chose me. As I am not formally trained in music, I have always used recordings to train my ear, develop my faculties and for inspiration, so I hunt around relentlessly. I happened across Chris Connor‘s Bethlehem recordings, among them a ‘Good Man is a Seldom Thing’. I loved the beautiful lush horn lines, the restrained but virtuosic guitar and rhythm section, the lilting melody and her fine tone and enunciation. I searched for other versions as I do when studying a tune, only to find nobody else had ever recorded it again! It was a lost gem!

This led to a feverish search for other lost gems. The tunes that sparkled and captured my ear just happened to fall within that magic half decade of the late 1950s. The more I listened and searched, certain tunes snapped together in a symmetry of sound and intent, a collection of standards that don’t see enough playing as well as the odd lost gem. We rearranged some tunes and carefully transcribed others; a process of hommage, epilogue and a kind of living archival process. I picked songs that had to be elevated beyond museum pieces for the faithful listener.

Finally, being gifted an original song by a local songwriter, Peter Emptage, was very special indeed. The tune ‘Sickness and Health’ offers a total counterpoint to the rest of the album; it’s an incredibly beautiful tune and it also resonated for me because I have a deep nostalgia for the bygone era of lyricists, composers and singers working together on a tune. Back then, people really focused on the thing they excelled at. I really respect the modern singer/songwriter thing and I want to explore that myself, but working closely with a lyricist and composer is a tradition I’d like to bring back into vogue.

AJN: What has been the hardest obstacle you had to overcome in the album process?

KB:Ryan and I have three young children and finding a balance between being present and available parents, creatively engaged musicians and providers, is very tricky indeed. At this point, I haven’t had the time or capacity to be an innovator in my musical output. That is always a source of frustration for myself as an artist. However, I came to acknowledge that, despite these obstacles, it is still possible – no, crucial – to make and record music and in the process, this album has transcended some of those frustrations.

The album took double the time I expected. There were times it seemed like a pipe dream, but, like most performers, there is such a drive to finish an idea, that almost plagues you. The songs invaded my dreams. Once we achieved success in the crowd-funding campaign, the momentum picked up massively. After that, on a low day I’d look at all the people who were supporting my vision; it was a great kick up the arse!

AJN: What did you most enjoy?

KB: Collaborating with some of my favourite musicians, some of the best musicians and humans I know. I have certainly improved as a musician in the process, and I think that is always a natural consequence of recording an album. If only it were more affordable to do it every few months!

AJN: If you could choose any artist, living or not, to come and join your band, who would that be?

KG: If he was alive, I’d be afraid to ask him, I just couldn’t do it, but the musician I most revere above all other is Mel Torme. I just love his music so much. He is my ultimate inspiration! I heard a story that he had a card he’d hand around and it said: ‘Mel Torme – drummer and total bastard’!

AJN: Would you like to have lived in a different time and place?

KG: I’m not sure. I’d love to party with Louis Jordan, but I wouldn’t want to be around for his hangover… I’d love to have experienced the hippie movement, but not the brown acid! Being a woman has never been easy and those decades were no exception.

AJN: Are you nostalgic?

KG: I am the most nostalgic bastard I know! I keep all my old letters and diaries… I wonder about people I knew long ago, more than most! It’s no surprise one of my other current projects is called ‘The Songs that Saved your Life’ and is a jazz and improvisational take on the songs from my teenage years: The Smiths, The Violent Femmes, the David Lynch soundtracks…

AJN: Who are your heroes?

KG: Hero is a big word; it’s also a big pedestal to fill. My heroes are people who have found a way to live presently, to practice kindness in all their words and deeds, people who have focus and dedication, who have mostly transcended their ego. In terms of music, I admire musicians who just have a natural flow of music, unfettered by creative blocks. Julie O’Hara is someone I admire for her endless stream of songs; she just sits down and writes songs, killer tunes! Ryan, my musical and life companion, is another – he is more music than human, he can fall asleep playing his guitar. That amazes me. And I guess, someone like Ben Gillespie: his musicality is a major source of inspiration to me, he has been a loyal friend on the musical journey and he is the most honest person I know… I guess my heroes are pretty close to me!

AJN: What is your greatest ambition?

KG: To be a good human.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

KG: I can’t pick one song, but at the moment I can’t stop listening to ‘An American Poet’ by Jim Morrison and the Doors.


Kimba Griffith will perform atthe Eltham Jazz, Food & Wine Festival.