Frances Madden: “I am very grateful for every day”

She may be just 25 years old, but Frances Madden is surely what some would call “an old soul”. There’s no other way to explain the ease with which she comes up with songs that seem to come from the golden age of jazz, a time when the art form was considered popular music, before the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. A sparkling pianist, with a bluesy attitude and a flair for bossa, she is also blessed with a sweet, sexy and breezy voice, not to mention a sunny disposition. Backed by a 7-piece band, she has been captivating audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for a few years now and just over a year ago, she released her first album, “If this were a dream”, in which her refreshing, original songs are paired with some perennial jazz classics, in a way that seems surprisingly natural. She explains it all, in this interview.

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AustralianJazz.Net: How did ‘If this were a dream’ came to be?

Frances Madden: Actually, its a lovely little story. I got a bit of a surprise one day when Judi Morrison, wife of James, messaged me on Facebook. She said she’d heard some of my demo tracks and asked if I would like to come into James’ studio and record a track or two. From there, one thing led to another; I hooked up with a really great producer, John Spence; I wrote some more material; and over six months or so the band and I worked with James’ sound engineer, Tod Deeley, to put together the album. We released it in December 2014 and it debuted at #5 on the ARIA jazz chart and has sold steadily since.

AJN: What is your fondest memory of the recording process?

FM: Well, meeting James was a bit of a wow moment! Likewise, working with John Spence and with Tod Deeley, both of whom are just brilliant. Actually, there isn’t a particular moment but the thing I really liked about the recording process was just being able to go into the studio and work in collaboration with really talented musos and people to make something as beautiful or as close to perfect as we could get at that time. Of course, doing that with some songs you’ve written yourself is an added bonus.

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

FM: Well, I really wanted to include as many of my originals as I could, but I was aware we had to balance that with at least some covers of timeless classics to give people a reference point. In the end we included thirteen tracks which included eight of my tunes and five covers. Actually, that was all the songs I’d written at that point.

AJN: Is there a song you’d like to include, but weren’t able to?

FM: We did actually record and mix one more track: it’s our rather unique version of the Lennon & McCartney tune ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, but at the last minute, we decided not to include it. Its actually a really popular song when we do it live. We still have it there for the next album if we need it.

AJN: If you were to start recording the album now, what would you have done differently?

FM: Well, I’ve almost got enough material for another album now, so I might have chosen different tunes. I think I’d try to have the same musicians for the whole album if possible — we had to do a few swaps depending on availability. I think I’d also try to go into the studio for a week at a time rather than doing a day or so each month. Actually, if we recorded another album now, it would be different, but I’m very happy we did what we did because it kind of lets you grow and move on to new things once you’ve recorded your material at a certain point in time.

AJN: What inspires you to write your own songs?

FM: All sorts of things inspire me to write really, but mostly some kind of intense experience or emotion. Like most people, I’m kind of a romantic, so I write songs about love. On the other hand, one of my songs called ‘I will Remember You’, has turned into a kind of universal saying goodbye song but I came home and wrote it one night after being a speaker at a high school valedictory dinner where all the kids were saying goodbye to each other after being together for so many years. Or I just write about life, like ‘Such a Beautiful Day’ which is really an expression of joy and gratitude. ‘Money Got Me’ is my kind of tongue in cheek take on our very materialistic world and how money has us all in its thrall.

AJN: How does it feel, having your own compositions paired to some of the best songs of the great American songbook, many of which were written decades before you were born? What do these songs mean to you?

FM: Well, that kind of comparison really just doesn’t compute. I mean it’s very flattering, but honestly I try not to get swept up in it if people say things like that. I really love the music of the Great American Songbook and, directly or indirectly, it has been a great inspiration to me. Sometimes you’re conscious of these things because you’ve been listening to a particular artist. Sometimes the influences are unconscious because they’ve just always been there in the musical background of our household since I was very young.

AJN: Do you think of yourself as a singer who plays the piano, or a pianist who sings?

FM: Oh, that is a very mean question to ask because I have to choose! Well, I guess I am a singer who plays piano. Although, strangely, it happened the other way round, because I started singing much more recently. But I love them both and when I write I do both at the same time, it just seems natural that way.

AJN: How did you get into jazz?

FM: Well, I got into jazz almost by accident. I studied classical piano from when I was young through into my HSC. Mainly Bach, Schubert, Mozart, Rachmaninoff. I had a wonderful but very strict classically trained Russian piano teacher who would jokingly say terrible things to me to encourage my discipline, like: ‘Frances, your playing sounds like an elephant stamping his feet across the keys’ (You have to hear that in a Russian accent to get the full impact and mirth!). Anyway, at the end of my HSC I had a kind of intuition to continue with music and to develop my singing which I hadn’t really done much of up until that point. Jazz also seemed to appeal to me more than classical. So I auditioned and was accepted into a Bachelor at the Australian Institute of Music. It was an accelerated course and I finished my degree in two years and went straight out to work. At first I played quite a bit with a pop band called Flyte who were already established and relatively successful. But after a few years, I left, formed my own band to focus on jazz and not long after that the songs just started to ‘come through’ and I began to write. I love jazz but I’m not sure why. I think it’s partly having grown up with that music, so it’s just part of my DNA. I love how swing has this irresistible lightness and freedom in the groove. And I also love the gentle feeling of beautiful ballads.

FM 15AJN: How do you feel, when you’re onstage?

FM: Well, I normally have a little nervous energy before the show, especially at a big gig. But I usually settle down during in the first song, as soon as I see people enjoying what we are playing (kind of like when you meet an old friend after a long time apart and the first moments are filled with a nervous buzz!). Normally, I just try to be in the moment as much as I can. But that’s not always easy because much of the time I have seven other people looking at me for cues and direction. But the best moments come on stage when you go with the flow. There are times when the magic flows, when the musos are all in the right place together and when you get that wonderful ‘virtuous cycle’ going with the crowd, who are loving being there, loving what you are doing and that just takes you to another level. It doesn’t always happen like that, but when it does, you feel like you are absolutely doing what you were born to do. Using your talent, playing in harmony with others and creating something beautiful and enjoyable. It doesn’t get much better than that.

AJN: What is your greatest ambition?

FM: My current objective is to be successful as an original recording and performing artist. Over the longer term, I really just hope to create a body of music that touches people, music that people can enjoy, music that has beauty within it in some way, music that brings people closer to themselves. If I can do that and make my living at it, I will be grateful and satisfied.

AJN: What does ‘crossover’ mean to you?

FM: I guess it usually means music that crosses over several genres or styles, and quite often it seems to mean crossing a particular style like jazz or country with pop music. I’m a jazz musician, but I sometimes play music that is not jazz, but rather “jazz-oriented”. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that when I write music, I don’t filter it, I just follow through with what comes out. So, while most of what I write is jazz, one of my tunes called ‘Summer’s Song’ for example has a definite country feel to it. Another one I’ve just written called ‘Change” would be at home in a dark and smokey Chicago blues club in the 1960’s with B.B. King on guitar.

AJN: What should the audience expect from your upcoming shows?

FM: Well, at the Basement, there will be eight of us including two horns and two backing vocals and we’ll be doing our full ‘Jazz, Blues and Classics’ show which has proved quite popular. We do a mix of originals and our unique take on some timeless classics. And we try to get a good mix of swing and ballads and then a little smattering of blues to provide variety. We always try to do a well rounded ‘show’ for our audiences, rather than just a gig, and people seem to enjoy and appreciate that. I’ll be down in Melbourne to play at Bird’s Basement on Wednesday 6 April. I will be bringing down two of my favourite musicians: the renowned Jason Bruer on tenor sax along with Tim Geldens on drums. And we’ll be teaming up with Melbourne’s own James Sherlock on guitar and Tom Lee on bass. It should be a great night out.

AJN: If you could choose any artist in the world to join you onstage, who would that be?

FM: Oh, that is a really good question, a really hard one. I want to say someone like Diana Krall or (the late) Eva Cassidy, but maybe that would be a bit silly because its just duplicating what we do. I’m still thinking about this one but one person I would say is James Morrison. It would be sublime to play with him live and I would love to hear him improvise through my song Haunting Melody, which is just kind of made for the horns. To sing with B.B. King, or one of the great blues guitarists would also have been wonderful.

AJN: Who are your heroes?

FM: I’m a great admirer of Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy. They are pure genius and they did it all the hard way. Diana Krall and Nina Simone are also a great inspiration. And then probably someone a bit left field in Van Morrison. I like him because he just wrote and played what he wrote and played and in a way he defined his own kind of music. His style is unique and transcends genres. I admire that. In terms of song writing inspiration, I also always seem to go back to people like James Taylor, and Rogers and Hammerstein.

AJN: If you could travel in time, what era would you visit?

FM: I’m actually very content to be right here, right now. There are a few time periods that seem very romantic or fascinating and that I would love to dip my feet into. One era would be Paris and New York in the mid 20th century, when classic art and culture seemed to be at its peak. Jazz was at the height of its popularity, timeless films and musicals such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Sound of Music were being made, and the fashion of the day was elegant and classic. Oh, and gentlemen wore gloves and hats and still opened the door for you of course!

AJN: What is the single most important thing anyone has ever said to you?

FM: “Do what you love and you wont work a day in your life”.

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

FM: Such a beautiful day! I am very grateful for every day and everything I have.

See Frances Madden live at the Basement in Sydney, on 19 March and at Bird’s Basement in Melbourne, on 6 April.