There is an old tradition in some parts of Europe, according to which if young lovers carve their names on two acorns, in a representation of themselves and the object of their affection, and place them in a bowl of water, they can predict whether they have a future together; if the acorns drift towards each other they are certain to marry. If not, it’s not mean to be. This story finds itself in Erica Bramham‘s latest project, ‘Twelve Moons’, a collection of songs weaved together in an enchanting sequence. Inspired by the Czech folklore, the songs are leaning more towards the folk singer/ songwriter tradition than jazz, although Erica’s beautiful, soothing voice is supported by the wonderful trio of Nathan Liow, Adam Spiegl and Justin Olsson. The result is extremely well balanced, inviting the listener to enter the multi-nuanced world that Erica created. An irresistible songstress, owing more to Joni Mitchell than Nina Simone, Erica has the kind of voice that you wish could be there to tuck you in each night – until you realize, that is, that the words coming out of her mouth tell stories that start with teeth biting into your flesh. Enter at your own peril, but make sure to enter.
Australian Jazz.Net: Have you done the two acorns test yourself?
Erica Bramham: I haven’t, but perhaps I should. I do throw apple peels over my shoulder whenever I peel them; my Grandma showed that to me once and it’s become a habit. The letter it makes on the ground is supposed to be the first letter of your future husband’s name, although there are only so many letters an apple peel can resemble so the accuracy of this test is questionable.
AJN: How did the idea of ‘Twelve Moons’ come up?
EB: I was looking for a theme to write to; I’d come up with a few ideas, but none really stuck. I was flipping through a Czech desk calendar I’d been given for Christmas, probably procrastinating working on music, when I realised the translations of the Czech months would be a perfect starting point. The names of the months in the Czech Slavic calendar are all directly related to their season; for example oak, sickle, leaf-fall and blossoming time, and I was really drawn to these as starting points for songwriting. Translating the months into English was quite challenging as I’m not a native Czech speaker and there are multiple possibilities for many of the months. The best references I could find were etymology dictionaries written in Czech, so I had to call on my Czech partner to help with deciphering those, as my grasp of Czech language is still pretty basic, despite chipping away at learning it for the past few years.
AJN: Did you have a specific kind of listener in mind?
EB: I suppose the specific listener is me. There are certain expectations of a vocalist in both the jazz and folk/pop worlds and I don’t really fit either, so in the end I just wrote music that I thought was interesting. Hopefully I have some clones around the world with similar taste who will find it interesting too.
I tend to approach my work more like a singer/ songwriter than a jazz composer, as I always start with lyrics. I love working with words, they’re the most interesting and exciting part of the compositional process for me,and the musical elements generally come after I have a solid lyrical idea to work with. The jazz side comes out most in my arrangements, as I find it more interesting to leave things quite open for the ensemble to interpret as they wish, with plenty of room for improvisation. I think I’ve actually made it quite difficult for myself, because my music is hanging around somewhere in the murky middle ground of several genres and can’t be slotted neatly into any of them.
AJN: How did you find your voice as an artist?
EB: I think my love of lyrics plays an important part in my personal voice, as it’s become quite clear now that lyrics, stories and poetry are what inspire me to create. While studying jazz at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, this made me feel quite inadequate, but there was a point when I stopped comparing myself to all the great bebop singers and embraced my own way of making and enjoying music. My studies still played a big part in my development, as there are so many wonderful and diverse teachers on staff at the VCA who encourage you to work on original music and find your own voice as an improvising musician.
AJN: What does ‘jazz’ mean to you?
EB: This is a really hard question. For me it’s an approach to making music from an open space, leaving room for improvisation and interpretation, preferably without being confined to any one genre or style. I don’t actually think jazz is the best word for this, as it comes loaded with stylistic expectations, but the only other term I have is the rather bland ‘improvised music’. My definition of jazz probably comes more from the European school than the American one, and although I have a particular fondness for pre-WWII American jazz, my own music is aligned more with this European idea of jazz.
AJN: What is your greatest aspiration?
EB: I don’t have any particularly great ones, but being able to play music in some other parts of the world would be nice.
AJN: If you could be anywhere at the moment, where would you like to be?
EB: Belle poque Europe is my first thought, although I think I prefer travelling there through art, literature and my imagination than I would the reality of actually living there.
AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
EB: I’ve always felt that there’s a jazz standard for every feeling and occasion (just as there is a Seinfeld or Simpsons episode), but now that I’m put on the spot, I can’t actually think of one.