Chris McNulty: “I’m still driven to create and express”

There are singers who try to seduce you, flirting their way through song, until they have you at their mercy. There are those who try to reach to the highest peaks, as they sing, champion singers who never miss a chance to show their virtuosity. And there are the storytellers, who dig deep into the lyrics, in order to create an emotional connection with their audience. Chris Mc Nulty can be all of these three things, sometimes at once – and even more. She has a way to caress the listener with her warm, nurturing voice, while not being afraid to expose herself, showing a kind of frailty that brings her even closer to her audience. All this is exceptionally displayed in her latest album, “Eternal“, in which she is accompanied by a string section, arranged by the brilliant Steve Newcomb. As far as intimate artistic ventures go, this one is right there at the top. Dedicated to her late son, Sam, who passed away in 2011, it is a collection of songs that, even though are part of the jazz canon, coming from different eras, they all seem to be written in his memory. This is all due to Chris McNulty’s performance. Fearlessly baring her soul, she managed to turn this terrible experience – any parent’s nightmare – into a wonderful work of art, aimed to heal deep wounds. It works. It’s been three years since you went to the studio to record ‘Eternal’. In the meantime, the album has been received with great acclaim and glowing reviews. How has this journey been to you so far?

Chris McNulty: Every release is a journey. You never really know what the outcome’s going to be. It’s a leap; much more than a leap of faith, sometimes, and certainly a heck of a lot of work. Other musicians/ artists join the process. There was a strong vision from the get go but the real strength came from some place else. I couldn’t ask for anything more as a vocalist, than having Steve Newcomb and John Di Martino as collaborators. It was a pretty special symbiosis. ‘Eternal’ was definitely more blessed than others. Still, not without its drama. Musically speaking, it was seamless. The interactions between the musicians, Steve Newcomb, John Di Martino, my engineer, Dave Darlington, were focused and powerful. There were so many special moments and exchanges. I can’t remember one struggle, not in the creative vein at least. There’s always going to be a glitch or two, especially on the business end. I had to fight a few battles. Some you win, some you lose but you can’t help but learn something in the process. People looking in from the outside rarely see the battles fought or they think it happens a certain way, within a certain order of events. It rarely happens that way. The business side of any release is often about rolling up the sleeves and going at it hard, especially in a place like New York City. Every negotiation, every contract, every entrance into a business relationship is a mine field. And it never happens the same way twice. Crazy world this is. Always a surprise you’re not ready or prepared for. My publicist, Ann Braithwaite, has always been a dream to work with. There was a lot of love and respect and humility around this one. It came from every one. Their artistry and humanity shone bright throughout. I felt my son’s spirit present in everything we did. Sometimes a thing gets sprinkled with star dust. It’s rare. I think every one attached to this project knows this is what happened here.

AJN: How was your collaboration with Steve Newcomb? How have his arrangements complimented or contrasted with your singing?

CMcN: Impossible to answer that question honestly without also mentioning the collaboration with John Di Martino. He was as integral to the project as Steve was and his arranging contributions were substantial. As I said, the symbiosis between the three of us was pretty special. Steve was in Australia while I was in New York, putting the concept and material together. John and I began meeting pretty well immediately after I made the decision that a third person needed to be in the mix. We met half a dozen times. John’s such a gifted, organic and meticulously dedicated musician and a very special soul. We worked intensely together and after about six weeks; we knew we had the core of 10 out of 12 tracks. John sent the files to Steve and we left it in his capable hands to dress the core arrangements and motifs with his orchestrations. There was degree of trust and respect between the three of us that set the stage for the rest of the journey. We worked diligently, threw the dice and the outcome was magic. I can’t explain it any better than that. I don’t know how the arrangements/ orchestrations contrast with my singing. We were in it and it was deep and organic. We knew what this was about and we just went there.

When it comes to recording projects, I’m always in a number of roles. I’m also a producer, collaborator, composer and arranger (I think Steve and John also know something about this). You can’t create something this special without having a lot of respect and trust. I’d say that and honoring Sam came first, then the work. When the desire to collaborate is that strong each plays a part in making it better, more profound. That’s kinda what happened here.

AJN: The theme of the album is as personal as it can get. How do you prepare yourself for sharing such a private series of emotions?

CMcN: That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve been doing this a long time. Every note I sing is personal, in a way. Every performance is about the music, but it’s always personal. I don’t know how to do it any other way. This project is a tribute to my son, his life, his humanity. Nothing much worse can happen to a mother than losing her child. I’m a jazz musician but I’m also a mother who raised a son, mostly on my own, BUT with many kind and generous people in the mix and I lost him, tragically. This was always going to be personal. How could it not be? We make music because we’re driven to express, create. Human beings rise above all kinds of stuff. Sometimes as artists we get to show people a way. Sometimes we get to sit back and be shown. This is my way. I’m not trying to do anything but honor my son’s memory and try to survive losing him (and hopefully finding him again). I go on as I must and maybe I’m blessed more than others who’ve suffered profound loss. I feel lucky to be a able to continue a life where creative expression is still possible. That feels like a blessing. I see it as one anyway.

AJN: How have you come out of this experience? What did you learn about yourself (and the human condition, in general), by working on this?

CMcN: I don’t think any one of us knew just how profound an impact this album would have. I had an inkling from the beginning, in the way the music, the concept came together. The energy was pretty pure and there was a strong forward motion around everything we attempted. The same energy that was around Sam. As soon as we started working on this, that energy was there. We stayed on that path. You listen to this album and you can’t not be moved. I feel like something else was in this. Outside of the magic and the love. Something divine and very pure.

AJN: How have you personally experienced the power of music to connect people in a way that no other means of communication can?

CMcN: I try to experience that every time I walk on stage. It’s what I’m shooting for in a live or recorded performance always. I’m trying to make that connection with the audience through music whenever I perform. It’s a sacred place for me. It always will be. I go somewhere where many musicians go. We don’t talk about it much because it comes from a such an organic place. Even though there’s a huge amount of practice and dedication to the craft, the place we speak from is old and innocent at the same time. It’s a place many of us learned about when we were very young. It sustained us then and continues to. I think that’s kinda why we’re such addicts to the music.

AJN: What is the single thing that sets your creative juices flowing?

CMcN: For me I think it’s allowing myself to have that time. Saying yes, this is important. Sometimes it’s hard to allow oneself time to just be creative. We live such busy, complicated lives. I wish that for all of us and dream of a place where I’m mostly alone and quiet but still driven to write music, stories, truth, fiction, grow things. For me when it comes to music, it can only be grown with a lovely, in tune piano. And that’s my next task – to take the time and find one.

AJN: What is your motto?

CMcN: Wake up, get out of bed, pray for strength and courage, stay positive, go hard at it and try to continue to be the best that I can be. Stay motivated and committed to my art, my word by deed and action. Cherish good friends and look after them. They will look after you. Continue to be guided by the good stuff. Keep the faith. Forgive. Learn the true meaning and value of humility.

AJN: Why did you decide to move back to Australia?

CMcN: 28 years; nearly half my life I lived in New York City. It wasn’t always on the upside, that’s for sure. I spent many periods in the trenches but I still felt strong, like there was a place for me. That feeling changed in 2011. I spent another 4 1/2 years trying to figure that out. Ultimately, it lead to the only option I really had. Exit. There was no easy time to leave before that, except around 2010, after a few events happened. I kinda knew then it was time. I just didn’t make it back here in time. It’s a regret that I will carry for the rest of my days. New York City is a tough place to live, but an even tougher place to leave, as a jazz musician. You’re always either half way up the mountain or half way digging yourself out of a hole. In October 2015, I felt none of those conflicts. I knew what I’d be missing. I’ll be missing that for a long time but I can’t look back as I try to carve a new future for myself. I can only look forward. I have great friends all around the world. Many are in NYC but I have a heck of a lot here in Australia. Some I’ve yet to hook up with. I have a long journey ahead of me. I’m trying to stay in the moment and not expect too much of myself or others but I’m really focused on making a success of this part of my life. I thought I was there but you know, it only takes one massive tragedy for that to all go up in a puff of smoke. Nothing I did or accomplished before makes much sense or should I say has much meaning. All I can do is make meaning out of what’s happened. I don’t know if I can do that or not. All I know is that I’m luckier than most. I’m still driven to create and express. That to me is pretty amazing.

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

CMcN: I find meaning in every song I perform. It’s pretty well a given that, unless I do, I won’t be able to do the song justice, tell its story. I’ve been listening to Kenny Wheeler’ ‘Nu High’ and Miles’ Live with Quincy Jones (that one makes me feel particularly sad). Most of my belongings are still in my shipment, yet to arrive, including my CDs. Those two CDs I happened to pack in my bags. I’ve also been listening to Keith Jarrett’s ‘Changes’ and Bill Evans’ ‘You Must Believe in Spring’ for quite a while. They both move me a lot. I like the vibe of ‘Sometime Ago’. The lyric and melody. How Bill plays deepens it for me. The lyric changes the way I approach it but I still hear Bill Evans every time I attempt to sing it. I’m currently singing a song, a ballad called ‘Forget the Woman’ – it speaks of the love a man feels, the yearning he has for the girl he once loved but she’s no longer there. You could sing it as the woman who’s no longer there or as a friend telling this man that his girl is gone forever. It makes sense to me either way I tell it. I’ll wring it dry. Then once I’m done, I’ll never sing it again. I’m not quite done on that song yet.

Chris McNulty will be performing live at Bird’s Basement on Thursday 10 March and at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club on Friday 1st April.

UPDATE: On 19 May, she’ll play “Eternal” live at the Stonnington Jazz Festival.