Helen Catanchin: “I think the world always needs more Simon & Garfunkel songs”

Left to right Sam Lemann, Craig Fermanis, Olivia Chindamo, Helen Catanchin, Philip Rex, Hugh Harvey.
Left to right Sam Lemann, Craig Fermanis, Olivia Chindamo, Helen Catanchin, Philip Rex, Hugh Harvey.

You could try counting Helen Catanchin’s various musical projects, from her band, lena, to her regular jazz gigs, or her forays into the Romanian song tradition, but be warned – you might find yourself running out of fingers to count along. The singer is certainly keeping herself busy and now she has another project under way, pairing her captivating voice to that of another amazing vocalist, Olivia Chindamo. The two of them are reimagining the Simon & Garfunkel songbook in a series of concerts, aptly named ‘Feelin’ Groovy’. 

AustralianJazz.net: How did ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ come to be? 

Helen Catanchin: Funnily enough it was a friend’s wedding! Being great fans of the duo, an old friend and his fiancee were keen to have a Simon and Garfunkel band perform at their wedding, and since I love the music and was already performing a few of their songs on my jazz gigs, I put my hand up to put a band together for them!

AJN: Why Simon & Garfunkel? Why now?

HC: Truthfully, at a most basic level, I just love the songs, I grew up listening to their records on repeat.  As to why now, this project initially came about by chance as I mentioned, however I believe great songs like these are timeless.  Simon’s lyrics deal with eternal human struggles like love, uncertainty, loneliness, death, searching – these are things we can all relate to.  I think the world always needs more songs like these, written from the heart.

AJN: How did you first come across their music? 

HC: I think it must have been my oldest brother’s record, when I was about 5 or 6 years old.  I remember playing it over and over again.  Possibly Bridge over Troubled Water, their 1970 album, or it could have been their greatest hits album.

AJN: How did you approach their songbook?

HC: I transcribed each song from the original recordings with as much detail as possible, then approached these with an eye (or ear) for my own take, whilst remaining true to the mood or message of the songs, especially regarding lyrics.  I guess I just played extensively with each song, waiting to feel a nudge in a new direction, and then followed those ideas to explore whether the song lent itself to that new take.  

AJN: How much did you deviate from the original vocal arrangements?

HC: Some of the arrangements are strikingly different to the originals in terms of feel or groove, however certain songs, such as ‘America’, remain very true to the recordings. In my opinion this song is a masterpiece and I just didn’t feel any desire to mess with it.  The vocal harmonies often follow the original recordings closely, with changes or transpositions to accommodate our unique vocal ranges and blend, and with some new parts that Olivia and myself have worked on together.  As a band we tend to be playful and open with what we do with each song, and the arrangements have evolved along the way with some input from everyone.

AJN: How would you describe the dynamics between you and Olivia Chindamo?

HC: Well, happily our resemblance to the great duo in this regard is non-existent! We work very well together, and there have been no feuds or years of silence so far!  When this project came into being I had long been in awe of Olivia’s mastery of vocal improvisation, and she was my immediate choice for the second half of the duo.  She has incredible ears, and is able to just pick up and run with just about any idea thrown at her, which is such an asset in live performance and lends so much flexibility and fun to the gigs.  Our ranges are fairly similar too, and this makes arranging the songs easier, however our styles and aesthetics are quite different, so each of us does bring that to the table.  If I had to grossly oversimplify, I think I tend to express through the pensive and the reflective – the ballads, and Liv has a dexterity and joy in her singing that lends itself well to high-energy and upbeat numbers.  The best part of working together is getting to sing together! That can be a very rare treat for singers unfortunately.  The most challenging part would be that someone else is always depending on you.  When you are the only singer in a band, if you get lost, or forget words, you can cover it pretty easily and the band may not even know it’s happened.  When you are singing together, you really rely on each other to stay together!  Having said that, I consider us to be each other’s wingmen, and it is so reassuring and fun to stand up there with a good friend and know they have your back.

AJN: What was the first song you rehearsed?

HC: “Sound of Silence”

AJN: How ‘jazz’ is this project?

HC: This project is as ‘jazz’ as the six outstanding jazz musicians that make up the band!  While each of us admires and appreciates the original songs for their beauty and craftsmanship, we are all creative, improvising musicians, and I love the unique playing style and interpretation that each band member brings to our gigs.  There is plenty of improvisation throughout our sets, ranging from the standard jazz solo over changes, to more collective improvisation, as well as freedom with some of the arrangements and forms to give the songs spontaneity.    

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?

HC: That’s a hard one, because jazz has evolved so far from its roots, branching in many different directions and touching just about every genre of contemporary popular music since then!  The word jazz can have a wide range of meanings depending on the context or the person using it.  To me, some of the crucial qualities that define jazz are spontaneity and improvisation, and an emphasis on the live performance or interpretation of the individual over the written score.  Others include dynamic interaction between the musicians, blues elements, and finding beauty in ‘mistakes’ or soulfulness and life in the ‘ugly’.

AJN: How does this project fit in, or compete with your other projects?

HC: Ha! Compete is an apt word, as it’s very easy for me to get excited about my various musical projects and ideas and overextend myself… However, this project is an essential one for me, as it allows me to play with a band of musicians I truly love, playing music that I love, and share it with audiences who are very receptive and appreciative. I have an original music project called lena, and this is what I pour a lot of my darker side into, as well as more experimental musical forays. I also play regular standard jazz gigs, have a duo with my partner in which I play guitar and uke, and have a traditional Romanian band in the works – so I’m keeping busy! It’s wonderful to be able to play a wide range of styles, and to have varying levels of creative investment in different projects can help keep you sane too!

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

HC: “Song for the Asking”

*Helen Catanchin and Olivia Chindamo and Band will present “Feelin’ Groovy – The Simon & Garfunkel Project” on Saturday 14 January at Caravan Music Club. Get tickets here