Vivian Sessoms: ‘Strange Fruit is a song for now’

Vivian Sessoms is back – she is currently half way into her tour around Australia. She has already played in Perth and Melbourne, growing her fanbase with each performance, captivating audiences with her voice and stage presence, with her signature blend of soul, jazz, r’n’b and rock.

There is one particular song that her fans – old and new – have been expecting to hear, one that is becoming more and more important in her performances, a song that not many singers can pull off: ‘Strange Fruit’.

‘Strange Fruit’ is a very particular case of song. Everybody knows it, everybody loves it, it is one of the most important songs ever written – yet it is not that often performed, and rightly so; it can never be separated from its social context and the harrowing imagery it conveys; every performance of it is deeply political. Vivian Sessoms knows that.

“I’ve been an activist in my music for a long time and I’ve been writing about police brutality for a long time, but oddly enough, I have never went near that song,” she says.

“But I was invited to perform at a jazz festival, a couple of years back and they asked me to put on a program that honours Black History Month – which is in February – and Women’s History – which is in March. So I did a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday,” she remembers.

“I performed that song for the first time, in a massive church, with a very bad blizzard outside and it was just a moment and I said that I needed to do something with that song.”

The first thing she did was work on a fresh, dramatic arrangement – anyone who has caught her performance at COMA, a couple of years ago (or listened to the recording), surely remembers is and has felt its impact.

But if that was a stripped down version, now she has built on that arrangement, giving it an urban quality, in order to include it in her latest album, Life, released through Ropeadope records.

It’s an airtight, compact arrangement that exudes a very specific kind of urgency.

I think it is a song for now, for what is happening in America and around the world,” explains the singer.

Her approach is not one of an observer. It comes from personal experience.

“I’ve dealt with some police issues, and at the same time I have members of my family who have been on the police force,” she says.

“This is an unusual situation to be in – a situation when you are close to someone who serves or has been helped and aided by the police, but also have been fearful of the police.

“By no stretch of the imagination do I think that all police are bad, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes; I’ve seen people that I know and love be beaten by police.It’s heartbreaking and it is frightening and it affects me to the degree that I feel I need to sing about it and write about it and talk about it.”

That is exactly what she did – not only with ‘Strange Fruit’, but also with the other songs featured in Life, like her cover of ‘Sea-Line Woman’, the folk song forever associated with Nina Simone; or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superwoman’; Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’; Cole Porter’s ‘I’ve got you under my skin’; or her own compositions.

“I didn’t start out with any great plans or thought – I just started gathering things, ideas, songs that I wanted to sing,” she says. “I just wanted to perform these songs that I love. In the end, I had 45 songs for this album, quite a lot of material,” she laughs.

“Even though it is a collection of arrangements I have been working on, this particular album is very important for me, it covers different parts of life.” Hence the title. “It represents Life from my own perspective.”

The album sits between different genres, featuring an array of guest stars, some of whom are among the most acclaimed modern jazz masters – artists like Keyon Harrold and Vincent Gardner and Donny McCaslin.

But it’s not a jazz album – or is it?

“Jazz is open,” says Vivian Sessoms. “It’s what you want it to be.”

Vivian Sessoms’ next stops:

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