Steve Purcell: ‘The Pearly Shells started out as a band in a dream’

Beware of Steve Purcell – particularly if you are a singer. He will lure you to his lair, he will dine you and wine you, and then he will put you before a microphone and record you. Before you know it, you will meet the fate of a number of jazz vocalists – some of the finest in Melbourne – who have fallen victims to the bassist and bandleader’s ways. Two of them – Kimba Griffith and Julie O’ Hara – are featured in his latest album with the Pearly Shells, Went down swingin’. Julie O’ Hara – arguably Victoria’s best swing-bop-jazz vocalist – will even hit the stage with the big band next week, for the launch of the album. Here is what Steve Purcell has to say about all this.

How did the Pearly Shells come to be?

The truth is the Pearly Shells first started out as a band in a dream. They were dressed sharp in suits and hats and the stage was softly lit by their luminesicent clam shell music stands.The music was hot jumpin’ jazz and the band was swingin’ out with the dancefloor full of crazy dancers.

Then I woke up.

I was so disapointed the band wasn’t real, I set about starting one just like it. Nearly 20 years later and I’m still in that band with a great bunch of people playing festivals, clubs and dances all over and we just released our eigth album on our own record lable.

Life can be a dream, sweetheart.

Steve Purcell (left), leading the Pearly Shells.

How do you explain the perennial appeal of the ’40s and ’50s swing era sound? What is its significance in the current context?

That swing era music was designed for dancing by people who spent their whole lives playing music for dancing. The amazing bit is each new generation seems to rediscover that for themselves, learn the steps, find the bands and carry on the tradition.

How would you describe yourself as a bandleader?

Working musicians will tell you there are three things that make a good gig: ‘The Hang’ (the social side); ‘The music’; (quality thereof); and ‘The Money’. My job is to tick all those boxes as often a possible.

How did you choose the vocalists featured in the album?

Julie O’Hara and Kimba Griffith are regular guests with the band, as well as good mates. Turns out for this record Julie made it to more recording sessions and got a few more spots on the album.

Julie O’ Hara and the Pearly Shells.

Apart from the Pearly Shells, you’re also behind a series of other projects released under your Belmar label; how does that work?

Melbourne is one of the great live music cities in the world and has been for 50 years. Belmar studios began recording Melbourne music about ten years ago in the back room at my place to capture ‘snapshots’ of our huge and world class Roots music scene. The studio is set up along very old school lines in the Sun, Chess, Motown, Mussle Shoals tradition (basic room with a wooden floor, acoustic piano, play live to tape, only 8 tracks, old style ribbon mics). People come around, mostly by invation, sometimes by instigation, have dinner and record, usually with the Belmar house band, in what ever incarnation that happens to be on the night – usually that’s blues, old RnB , jazz, swing, funk, pop, country and the like.

Belmar releases share a very specific, signature sound; how would you describe it?

When you set up as described above, that’s how the sound comes out. Our guitar player calls it “Altona Swamp.”

If you could invite any swing era legend to sit in with the Pearly Shells, who would that be?

We were so fortunate to have a real legend, Gil Askey join us in the band many times and he taught us a lot about what’s important in music (not what’s written down) and how to deliver it (with joy).

You have mentioned being inspired by old cartoons, such as the Three Little Bops; if you were to do the soundtrack for a cartoon feature, what would that be?

The music from the Lion King is pretty shit, we could re do that Jungle Book style.

How did you get into jazz?

I got into jazz by accident, started with ’70s rock, went backwards to the blues and then turned left at Albuquerque.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

‘Old Man’ by Neil Young.

Steve Purcelland The Pearly Shells(featuring Julie O’ Hara) will be performing at the Hawthorn Arts CentreonFriday 1 March

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