Dianne Cripps presents Southern Comfort: ‘It’s not just barbecue sauce’

Dianne Cripps is something of a dynamo. Born and raised in Virginia, she trained as an opera singer but these days is equally at home singing pop tunes, gospel songs and jazz standards. She’s lived in Australia for two decades now, but still gets a little homesick for her life back in the South. That homesickness prompted her to put together her show ‘Southern Comfort’ for Foundry 616 on 5 March. I spoke to her about her music and what the audience can look forward to.

You trained as an opera singer but these days you sing just about anything – from pop to jazz and lots in between. Tell me a little of your back story.

As I was growing up in Virginia in the US, I heard a lot of instrumental jazz because my father loved big band music. I was also exposed to plenty of classical music and loved singing along to pop songs in my bedroom. I learned piano and when I went to university I was majoring in saxophone, but one day I heard the opera La Boheme and immediately wanted to sing opera myself, so joined a local group with a great vocal coach. Then I changed my major from sax to music and psychology. I was singing a lot, things like Madama Butterfly and other classical works. The discipline of opera singing was terrific. My coach liked to put me on the spot, saying things like sing the bass players part as an aria, which turned out to be great training for jazz, where sometimes youre suddenly asked to scat every solo.

I got into jazz at the urging of friends and one day my singing coach issued me with an ultimatum: that I had to pick opera or jazz, I couldn’t have both. But it turns out I could. With jazz, I learned a lot from the musicians I was working with, and am always learning. Sadly, I no longer have my saxophone but I’ve gone back to the piano and have even had a few lessons from the great Judy Bailey.

I still sing classical material – I’m in rehearsal for Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at the moment and I do weddings and corporates where a mixture of classics and jazz is required.

Who are your musical heroes?

One singer I always listen to is Patti Cathcart and I just love the duo work she does with her husband, guitarist Tuck Andress. Singers with interesting voices really attract my attention, people like Kristin Berardi, Rachelle Ferrell and Jazzmeia Horn because they dare to be different. I’m also drawn to full rich male voices and I’m a big fan of Gregory Porter and Kurt Elling. Among the instrumentalists I admire are Spyro Gyra, Pat Metheny and other early fusion bands. I’m always mesmerised by Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Then there’s Gilad Hekselman: I love his work.

With your background in opera, spirituals, blues and jazz, I’m interested in your view of people’s desire to put music into specific genres. Is it adequate? Does it really mean anything?

The thing is that our brains want to categorise things. If you like something, you want to find more of it, so the need for genres is real, but there will never be enough categories to cover music. It’s all about how various pieces of music are approached. For instance, I sing some bluegrass songs in a jazz style. And when the boys add their thing, like Elsen will add his ‘Elsenness’, the song moves right away from that bluegrass tag.

As well, to get yourself out there you need to give yourself a label; you have to be able to describe what you’re doing in a way that people will understand and respond to. So while genre labels are often inadequate, we have to apply them – it’s all part of the game.

You’ve assembled an awesome band for this gig: Felix Lalanne on guitar, Elsen Price on double bass and Ed Rodrigues on drums. Can you tell me a little about what each member brings to the group?

I asked Elsen and Felix to work with me a while ago when we did a gig of pop standards for a church function. They suggested we give the songs a more jazz vibe. We had a blast and I wanted to work with them more regularly. What’s great about them is that they’re both obviously incredible musicians with great ideas. Sometimes they’ll do something I’m just not expecting and it’s fantastic. I want their ideas – they’re what makes us connect. Then Ed comes in. You know, I wasn’t used to working with drummers but Ed, wow. He sounds like Irish lace: delicate and intricate things are going on that make a beautiful tapestry.

One thing about being a musician is being yourself. I want to sing how I want to sing. I don’t want to sound like Sarah Vaughan, I want to be me, occasional southern twang and all, and I want the guys to be themselves too. Elsen, Felix and Ed are genuine and they’re all very supportive of me. We all work with other bands, but when we’re together, we play off one another to achieve something special.

What can listeners expect to hear in a show called Southern Comfort?

I see lots of US-style this and US-style that with food here, but you know, it’s not really American and it’s certainly not southern. Food in the south is not just about barbecue sauce; it’s more about shrimp and grits. Growing up in the South was special and I want to share that with the audience. We’ll be performing a mix of jazz, blues, a little gospel and even some old tunes from the Civil War; and sharing something about legendary southern hospitality, a place where you’re greeted with hugs, where people would do just about anything for you. The show will reflect family, favourite places, my experiences of being here as a foreigner. Also, I have so many stories about the South – you know, I have relatives from a town in Appalachia that banned dancing. I’m not kidding.

With everything that’s going on in the world right now, I want my show to provide a little comfort, to help people feel good. I want to share that southern comfort with the audience. And joining us on the bill will be the wonderful Tim Clarkson Trio. Its going to be a great night of music.

What made you move to Australia?

I married an Australian. I met my husband when he was doing post-doctoral studies in physics in the US and we were both singing in a local choir doing opera highlights. I’ve been in Australia for about 20 years – this is my home now.

Dianne Cripps presents Southern Comfort onThursday 5 March at Foundry 616

  • Dianne Cripps, vocals
  • Felix Lalanne, guitar
  • Elsen Price, double bass
  • Ed Rodrigues, drums