Sharny Russell: “Getting back up is as important as breathing”

To say that Sharny Russell is resilient would be an immense understatement. Her story is one of great setbacks and even greater achievements, the latest of which is about to be launched this week. Her latest album, ‘Comes a time’, a collection of high-spirited soulful songs, mostly originals, in the best ‘classic jazz’ tradition, the one that the singer/pianist knows all too well and delivers with warmth, charm and perkiness. Ready for yet another comeback, she shares her new album’s backstory and talks about her songs, her inspiration, her love of jazz – and yes, her resilience. Whats the story behind ‘Comes a time’?

Sharny Russell: After my life had taken some tricky turns over a number of years, I  moved to Byron Bay, where my musician brother Steve Russell was now living. I was lucky enough to record on ABC Classics in 2003, care of their regional production fund. It was meant to be just one, maybe two tracks for a compilation, but when the ABC producer heard all my tunes, a decision was made to do a full album. It was entitled ‘A Good Thing On Hold‘ – all originals – and I managed to win the jazz APRA award the following year, and receive some nice reviews. Unfortunately, health issues prevented me from following on the trajectory of that recording and I was struggled along for a few  years, teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium in the jazz department, and did manage to record a second album of standards with the wonderful Australian guitar icon, George Golla. My health has much improved greatly over the last couple of years, and about 18 months ago, one of my music and teaching colleagues told me it was time I recorded another album. He suggested I should not do it in my local area, as I have done before, but to go to Sydney and record with my ‘dream team’, and get myself back on the Australian jazz map. The desire was always there, of course – I just needed that prompt. The first song written was actually written over 20 years ago – a gospel song called ‘The Key’ – and as it turns out, the title of the album comes from the first line of this song: “There comes a time…” The other eight original songs have been written in the last couple of years.

AJN: How did you set up the team of musicians who play on the album?

SR: Having not played in Sydney or anywhere outside my very regional localities for many years, I found it very difficult to begin choosing the musicians! Asking bassist Brendan Clarke first was easy, as I teach with him at the Jazz Music Institute in Brisbane, and he had told me that my ABC album had been one of his favourite records for years. I had some other ideas for players, but they were either now living out of the country or totally unavailable for any of my conceivable recording periods, so it was a little depressing for a while there. I had played with wonderful drummer Gordon Rytmeister at a festival gig a few years ago and gave him a call. Amazingly, he thought I was calling to hear how my song went at the Generations In Jazz competition – a young Melbourne singer, Amelia Evans, who was the close runner up, had sung it and he had really enjoyed the song. Saxophonist Paul Cutlan was visiting Brisbane with the Craig Scott quintet a few years ago and was playing at the JMI Club. I heard him from the next room while talking to some students, and felt drawn by his musical, soulful playing. He was an obvious choice for me, and has brought so much to the record. I was wanting a versatile guitarist to play on my world-music-type song about violence against women, and heard of Jeremy Sawkins through a client of my husbands up here in the northern rivers – a lovely elder  statesman of flamenco guitar. Jeremy also played on the second track – a fast samba. I couldn’t have been more delighted. I have been suffering with a reasonable case of rheumatoid arthritis for the last 20 years and although I still play quite okay, I was a bit  nervous about fluffing around on the more demanding tunes and holding up the recording process (time is money), and eventually  called Bill Risby, whose hearty, musical playing I have admired for years – it reminds me a lot of my brother Steve’s wonderful  pianistic approach. Oboist David Nuttall, I have known since our classical Con student days. With opportunities arising to play together outside of his normal classical sphere, I have written some special arrangements of beloved standards, and one of these is on this album. He is currently in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and will be joining me at my launch gig in Hobart. As the arrangements for the tunes began to develop, I realised I wanted  some backing vocals. Having recently done a festival gig with The Idea Of North, I asked soprano/jazz singer Sally Cameron to sing BVs for me. The other singer I had on BVs was Justine Bradley – a wonderful, experienced Sydney singer who has been a friend of our family for a long time. ALL the musicians on this recording came with so much love and heart for the music, and gave of themselves in a truly creative and inspiring way. There was a real sense of connection, warmth and joy in these sessions, and I know that this atmosphere has manifested in the resulting recording.


AJN: Apart from your originals, the album includes a few covers: what is their role in the narrative you  wanted to create?

SR: I guess the narrative I envisioned was a setting to showcase all my favourite things to do musically, and these few standards which sit amongst my originals are simply a small collection of the more special arrangements I had in my repertoire. My unusual arrangement of ‘Beginning To See The Light’ happened many years ago, while I was  playing in a resort, and a little bored. It has become a favourite of my regular audiences and they expressed that they wanted to hear it on the album. ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face’ is the one that features the oboe, and again a favourite of audiences over the last few years. ‘Wild Is The Wind’ was chosen, not only because it is beautiful and haunting, but because it had become my husband Frank’s and my love song when we were first getting to know one another, nearly 14 years ago. It was also recorded by David Bowie, one of his  favourite artists. I chose ‘Stella By Starlight’ as the totally  unaccompanied vocal improv/scat, simply because it’s such a fantastic tune to blow on.

AJN: If the album was a movie, what would the plot be?

SR: Wow. There’s a question! I guess the gist of this album comes from the title… there comes a time. Time to think about how you’ve been approaching life, and whether you need to rethink some things and make some changes. It’s about having the courage to change your mind if you need to, and get on with living your best life. It’s about waking up and finding that there is a person who really loves you for who you are and is someone you can rely on to walk the path with. It’s about getting back to some deeper values, and that  includes real love that doesn’t fade away.

AJN: What should anyone expect of your upcoming tour to launch the album?

SR: I think they can expect some great, tasteful music, with some authentic, heartfelt performances. I always like to connect with my audience and involve them – even to the point of singing some lines with me, and even maybe some scat singing! I like to have  fun with them!

AJN: What do you expect from the audience?

SR: I try to never expect anything from the audience; I think it’s my job to engage them and to give them a really lovely evening they  won’t forget.

AJN: What is the best part of performing live?

SR: For me it’s having that audience right there looking at me, expecting to be entertained and touched in some way. And that engagement that I just spoke about. I like to have an intimate experience with my audience – no barriers.

AJN: As an educator, what has been the single most important thing you always tried to teach your students?

SR: To know their material top to bottom and inside out, have their instrument in reasonably good shape without being precious about it, and to go on stage, tell the story, be themselves, and enjoy it all – then the audience does too! ALWAYS use your ears – don’t stay in your head.

AJN: What is the most important thing you’ve ever learned yourself?

SR: That it’s important to learn the ropes from those that went before, aim towards excellence but not crippling perfectionism, and then communicate and play with your fellow musicians with complete trust and respect.

AJN: Your personal story is one of resilience; what does the word mean to you?

SR: Resilience is kind of a ‘no brainer’ for me – if you go down too far every time you’re hurt or kicked in the guts, you may not get back up. Getting back up is as important as breathing, because I believe we’re all here for a purpose, and we need to keep a vision of  forward movement, even if we’re not sure what it is we’re meant to achieve. One step after the other. Some steps might be slower than others, but don’t give up.

AJN: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

SR: That same sense of having stuff to achieve, to create, to give to others, to help others believe in themselves.

AJN: What is your main source of inspiration?

SR: Apart from my ridiculously overwhelming love of good music, my desire to leave a legacy for my own children, and my faith in God which holds a deep sense of purpose.

AJN: You’ve been active in a few music genres; what do you get from each?

SR: Yes, having been involved in the church with all my family from a young age, I have written a LOT of gospel and sacred music. A lot of it has been written to a brief or for a special service or event. I like writing like that. My kids music is similar. I have been  involved in kids radio, TV and also Christian Summer programs, and been commissioned to write for all of them. I’m actually a big kid myself!

AJN: What is jazz to you?

SR: Oh my! Another question to make me smile… I grew up with jazz, as my parents were both jazz musicians. Mum was one of Don Burrows favourite pianists. Whenever I ran into him over the years, he would only say: “Hows Peg?” He loved her, and wrote a beautiful letter to my Dad Noel when she passed away, 19 years ago. I guess you could say it’s in my blood and bones. It’s what I picked up easily to do, when I graduated from classical piano studies at Queensland Conservatorium as a 20 year old, to earn a living. And apparently, according to many of my gospel and kids music fans, nearly everything I write has an element of jazz in it. It’s a flavour, it’s spice, it’s warmth, it’s colour that no other music can give. Jazz is probably what I’ll still be able to do if I ever lose some of my other faculties.

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

SR: ‘Top of The World’, my one co-write EVER… Melbourne musician and friend Jared Haschek wrote this  little tune, and after I put words to it, and tweaked it a tiny bit, I couldn’t get it out of my head! The lyrics really do reflect how I feel at present – so happy with this album, touring it all over the country, and feeling pretty positive! Life is good, and I’m very grateful for all the people who have supported me so lovingly throughout my life and this project.

Sharny Russell will launch ‘Comes-a-time’ at Venue 505 on Thursday 30 March. 

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