Fem Belling: ‘Jazz is inside of me’

It’s impossible to ignore Fem Belling. Once you run into her, once you listen to her voice, see her perform, hear her speak, look at her eyes, you know you have to pay attention, to be there, take in all that she passionately and persistently has to communicate, to narrate, to share. Now the singer has a new project out; Now Thenis a time-traveling album of pop songs that she transforms into unrecognizable versions of themselves. Songs made famous by Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton-John, Pharell and yes, Eminem, are delivered with hot jazz flair and swinging perkiness, challenging our esthetic preconceptions in a delightful mind game. As she prepares for the album’s official launch, she shares some insight on its creation – and plays the game of ‘musical autobiography’.

Why should anyone buy your album?

I am so proud of what we have created; I know it will bring a smile to the faces of anyone who listens (and we sure need some more excuses to smile in this crazy world). There will be nods of awesomeness and the appreciation of the incredible musicianship but I don’t believe it is necessarily about buying my album as such; it is necessary to support artists FULL STOP. People are creating and we need to get behind the good stuff.

How did you come up with the idea of Now Then?

FB: The idea to instill the playfulness of todays pop market with a vintage twist has always been bouncing around my brain and I was having so much fun playing with genres and feels for different songs.
As anyone who has ever made an album knows, the process to get it to completion is a labour of love. I am so proud of what has been created.

How did you decide on the tracklist?

Shortlists and more shortlists, then shortlists of the shortlists songs that I love, songs that the world loves, songs that everyone loved but the songs that were musically exciting to get actually stuck in to, won out.

Which song would you like to have included, but for some reason didn’t?

I wanted to do ‘Ice Ice Baby’ by Vanilla Ice (I mean who doesn’t want to do THAT rap), but ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem won out. However, it definitely is in the mix for the live shows.

How did you proceed with the arrangements?

I knew what I wanted from the get go. I had very specific ideas on feels and interpretations. I took my ideas to John Foreman and he was MAGIC! He just got it. He is a bloody dream to work with. I have the great pleasure of bringing Jack Earle on board for the launch and future shows.

What is the appeal of these songs to you?

I feel like some of the songs are just crying out for some fun interpretations. Quite a revealing exercise as a vocalist is to slow down an up tempo song and visa versa; the lyrics take on new, added and different meanings and it makes for an insightful depiction.

Why give them a ‘jazz’ flavour?

Jazz is inside of me; I live it and love it. It is one of my most fluent languages. The jazz flavour on this album is not a gimmick, by any means. Of course the flavour of this concept album would be jazz – it’s me!

How did you get into jazz?

I didn’t get into jazz, it got into me. As cliche as this might seem, this is exactly how it happens. I grew up in a musical household; my dad, Howard, is a jazz pianist, my bro Zvi is a jazz and hip-hop bassist. The music takes root by osmosis. Jazz was always being played in my house, musicians were always around and it was as much a part of my life as lunch was. I had many years when I didn’t choose to follow the jazz route; I pursued my dreams of ballet and musical theatre. I joined a ballet company and spent seven years on Londons West End.
The spontaneous conversation of jazz will always fight for supremacy in my soul.

What was the first album that you ever acquired?

I grew up during the Apartheid era in South Africa and we had sanctions in place, which meant there was no trade with outside countries. It was 1996 before any international artists toured South Africa. A lot of music was limited until my brother’s friends from Melbourne snuck in a Mariah Carey Emotionscassette on a 1991 visit. This was my first album that didn’t come from my dads collection of jazz, soul and blues. Damn, she could sing! Oddly, all of my friends already had this album and it was only due to my jazz upbringing that I hadn’t heard of her.

What was the most recent album (or track) that you purchased?

French singer-songwriter Jain’s new single, ‘MAKEBA’, from her debut album Zanaka. A stunning new sound in pop, paying homage to an African upbringing. One of the most creative film clips I have EVER seen.

Which song reminds you of the best concert youve ever attended?

Youssou N’Dour – ‘Seven Seconds’.

I had been to several jazz festivals as a kid but this was my first, ever, festival concert that my dad didn’t play in.
So, off I skipped, independently, with my non jazz muso/ non ballet friends – HA!
We snuck a beer in and sat and watched Tracy Chapman. Supporting her was Youssou N’Dour and I was transported this non-jazz malarkey is quite wonderful!

Which song reminds you of your favourite journey?

New York City, 2009, St Nicks Jazz Pub, Harlem, Monday Night 11:30pm, a few bourbons down, myself and about 20 others, Gregory Porter and Melvin Hines – ‘Be Good’.I cried tears of beauty.

Which song reminds you of your most important rite of passage?

Two rites of passage, if I may. One as a musician, one as a teen.

  1. ‘Birdland’ – Manhattan Transfer; the rite of passage being to transcribe every line and lyric from my pink tape recorder with green speakers. That tape was trashed by the end.

2. ‘Sugar Man’. My every teenage discovery was made to that song (the album too, but we always started with that song). It wasn’t as much that I played it all the time, but it was played everywhere and was the soundtrack to my mischief.

Which song best describes your relationship to your loved ones?

‘Mannenberg’ – Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand); perhaps not a description so much as a feeling. The feeling this tune gives me is one of unity and hope and fun. That is my family.

This was probably one of the first tunes I jammed on with my dad and the legendary musicians from South Africa. I must have been all of 10 but I belonged. Not many musicians can say that they still play this music with their family.
This tune has become synonymous with South African jazz and the music of freedom. You play this intro at any show and the crowd goes mad, there is a unity between all that have been touched by it. There aren’t many pieces of music that can do that.

Which album should be on everyone’s collection?

The torture of just one choice?

First Instrumentby Rachelle Ferrell was a life changer for me.

Ella and Louis, 1956. The pure joy of sharing music is palpable in each note and accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Quartet, Phwoar!

If your life were to become a movie, which song would be heard on the opening credits?

‘Painted on Canvas’ – Gregory Porter.

Such beauty and truth in words and music. The promise of a new canvas is irresistible. Can I use the colours I choose?

Which would be on the end credits?

‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’.

Which would be on the action scenes?
‘Yakety Sax’, the theme from Benny Hill.

And the scenes would definitely be sped up; sometimes I turn around and can’t believe the adventures I have.

Which song do you wish you had written yourself?

‘Strange Fruit’.Most famously this song is performed by Billie Holiday. Abel Meeropol wrote the poem expressively describing the horror of Americas lynching, set it to music and, with his wife, singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song.

As artists we need to use our gifts to make people think, to make people feel, to make people aware, to make people accountable, to invoke change.I wish to leave my imprint on this world and I wish it to have made a difference.

Which song do you wish had been written about you?

‘Waltz for Debby’ – Bill Evans;I want to be that girl and sometimes I still am that girl.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?
‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’ – Fela Kuti.

The world is overwhelming at the moment. Hope and sorrow fight for supremacy. In the words of Fela Kuti, music is the weapon of the future.

Fem Belling launches NOW THENwith John Foreman and Rob Mills, on Sunday 26 February (7pm – 9pm) at the Stomping Ground Brewery (100 Gipps Street, Collingwood – Entry from Islington Street)