Reprint: Katie Noonan

In 2009, extempore journal spoke to five Australian jazz musicians, asking them all the same set of questions… Kristin Berardi, Vince Jones and Katie Noonan were in the group we interviewed and this year all three of these outstanding Australian musicians are opening the Melbourne International Jazz Festival with a gala concert called ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, billed as an evening of great jazz standards.

We’ve reprinted three of the five interviews … and you can see more information about extempore Issue 3 over on the extempore website >

See more about the concert and book tickets on the MIJF website >

With training in opera (thanks largely to the influence of her mother, Maggie Noonan), and a love of both pop and jazz, Katie Noonan’s style is distinctive; unmistakeable. Her most recent recording, Blackbird, presented the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney interpreted in a jazz frame with the assistance of esteemed jazz musicians in New York City, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lewis Nash, saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield and Melbourne-based pianist Sam Keevers. Katie chose to answer these questions in a face-to-face interview of my favourite kind, involving a glass of red wine, some laughter and the occasional digression into discussions about shoes, men and the virtues of beetroot salad.

Image of page from extempore 3
The page from extempore 3 - photo by Natasha Blankfield 'The Shot'

extempore: Would you consider yourself a jazz singer?

katie: I don’t consider myself a jazz singer. I just see myself as a communicator; I am just trying to communicate and create an emotional experience. I do sing in a lot of different styles. My first technique base is opera, so I grew up in the Bel Canto, Italian style of singing which my mum taught me. That’s where my love of singing came from, along with my fascination with the technique, the vowel shapes, the breathing and the line of the voice. Obviously I am blessed to have grown up in a family with an incredible singer for my mother, who taught me everything, really, about technique… but then, having said that, I studied a jazz degree! I love jazz, and I love listening to Ella Fitzergald just as much as I love listening to Sumi Jo or Renata Tebaldi. For me, my absolute hero and my mentor is Vince Jones. For me, he is Australia’s greatest singer, hands down, because of his innate musicality.

Vince is a trumpeter and he knows the notes and the music. The notes he picks are very considered and his sound cuts through to my heart, straightaway. His purity of intention… he wants music to heal. And that’s exactly what I want, and for that reason he’s my mentor. His live album is just unbelievable. I still listen to it and get goose bumps, 10 years later. I actually just drove from Byron Bay to Brisbane with it absolutely cranked, top volume. So, I don’t consider myself a jazz singer, but I think the definition of a jazz singer is very misunderstood; people think that if you’re a jazz singer, you have to scat. It’s a beautiful art form and obviously noone does it better than Ella Fitzgerald or Betty Carter, or Kurt Elling or John Hendricks. People I love who do that in the Australian scene are people like Michelle Nicholle, Kristin Berardi—she’s a beautiful scatter—Alison Wedding. They really do that scat thing well. It’s not really my thing, though. I think jazz is just about freedom. I think it’s about being free and being able to communicate with the musicians.

The term ‘jazz singer’ doesn’t cause me any problems. I just call myself a ‘singer / songwriter’ because most of the songs that I sing are generally songs that I’ve written… not so much recently, because I did the Blackbird record, but generally the songs I sing are my own. I’m just trying to communicate a story and create an emotional experience and be healed by the music myself, as well as maybe trying to do that to someone else’s ears. But certainly I feel when I am singing that I am part of a much bigger picture, and that I am privileged to be a part of it.

extempore: What are the challenges and the enjoyable aspects of working with standards and original songs?

katie: Well that’s the challenge that I really love. Because I think everyone who speaks can sing, unless you’re kind of damaged in some way. So for me it’s such a universal thing, because luckily we are all blessed with this voice box.

I love the challenge of singing in different styles. For me, fundamentally, my technique is the same through all of them. It still comes back to that essentially Bel Canto style, diaphragm breathing support, the line of the voice, and never trying to push the voice beyond its natural capacity. My main thing with music is that I try to sound like myself. That’s my biggest and hardest goal, I think. Because jazz, particularly, is an art form of listening and learning and you learn from the greats. You can’t really read a book on how to sing jazz. You just have to listen to Ella and listen to Betty (Carter), listen to Louis (Armstrong) and Frank (Sinatra), Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan and just learn from them; they are the masters. And, obviously, all the instrumentalists as well:  Coltrane, Miles… I love listening to sax players because for me the sax is the most voice-like instrument, so I listen to a lot of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter particularly, to Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Jan Gabarek… they are very vocal. Jan because he has that classical overtone, which I love.

So I love the challenge… my first biggest challenge was to do that record [ARIA Award-winning Before Time Could Change Us] with Paul (Grabowsky), because he writes incredibly difficult music. That was really mixing my full opera technique with jazz. He really treats the voice as an agile instrument, which is great but it was not easy to sing. The next biggest challenge for me was touring with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and doing full Handel, Britten and Purcell; proper classical music! Even though I had studied it, I had never actually sung it except in my lessons. So that was really frightening. It stretched me, but also the ACO is the pinnacle of classical music in Australia, unparalleled for how they play. I had to get my shit together because they are
just so good. It’s much harder to do a tune that someone else has done, because it hasn’t come from within. It came from someone else’s insides. You weren’t there at the moment which led to those lyrics… I much prefer singing my own songs because I’m best qualified to sing them.

extempore: Can you describe the ideal relationship between a singer and the band?

katie: For me, the whole point of making music is collaboration and that is the greatest joy, learning from musicians who are better than me and growing from that struggle of trying to match them. Again, a time where I really learned that was the record with Paul Grabowsky, Scott Tinkler, Philip Rex, Simon Barker. I was the real babe in the woods for that record. Those guys had made a lot of music together, so they knew each other a lot better than I did, and they are all incredibly virtuosic. They are at the pinnacle of their instrument, nationally and internationally. That was very challenging, but for me the whole point is just communicating. It’s a weird thing, because to get up on stage takes a certain amount of ego but, for me, I want music to be as egoless as possible and for it to just be about pure communication with yourself, with the people on the stage, and of course with the people in the audience and the constant exchange between all these combinations.

So each orchestra… when I am with my Blackbird band, it is incredible to communicate with Simon (Barker) and Brett (Hirst) and Stephen Magnusson—who is arguably my favourite musician on the planet. He is an absolutely virstuoso freak, but he’s interested in space; he understands that less is more, and he comes from a loving place when he makes music. And that’s where I want to come from too…

But then, when I play with the ACO, I have this incredible joy of hearing Richard Tognetti’s violin 10 centimetres from my ear, and we connect over an incredible love of Vivaldi or Handel… The ACO are very much like a  band… there’s no conductor. With other orchestras the musicians just sit in their chairs, they have their roles and the conductor guides them. But in the ACO, because they don’t have a conductor, they are all communicating: it’s a band!

There are only 18 of them or something, so it’s like a big band. They have their parts and they play incredibly. They breathe as one.

In terms of choosing musicians I need to feel trust with the players on the stage, because when I am doing my music it is a pretty revealing thing. There is a real vulnerability there that I can’t share with a lot of people, in terms of the making of the musical moment. That’s very revealing. You are kind of frightened and scared of sharing secrets. You have to trust them to play the music with you and know and understand where it’s coming from. For example, I did a gig last night in Sydney where we were playing songs from my new album with my new band. Although it’s not a new band, we’ve been together for two or three years. But it’s taken me years to get the right combination of people who make music for the same reason. Those four guys are really dedicated to their craft and want to get better and aren’t just resting on their laurels. Stu Hunter (keys and bass), Cameron Deyell (guitar) Declan Kelly (drums). Stu and Cam obviously come from a jazz background, but they’re like me in that they like pop or pop-rock equally.

So it’s about finding people who make music for the same reasons, who come from a place of trust and love, and who are interested in a constant search to make it better.

With jazz, sometimes I find that we take the head and then someone solos and then they fit as many notes as they can… that is an important part of learning how to play jazz and I’ve done that… but then it’s a matter of finding more and more space and allowing the air between the notes to be important; just as important as the notes. I think it’s harder to find that in jazz. In the pop world it’s a simpler format, so space is probably easier.

extempore: Do you believe that performing artists have an obligation to address wider issues of the human condition?

katie: I see it as up to the individual. For me, it’s obviously important. I do a lot of charity work because I’m blessed to be able to be in a position where having me singing at a gig can help make them money for their cause. It’s quite easy for me to help them in that way. I am approached to do a lot of charity work and I try to do all of it. It’s hard. I work hard and my hours are long, and any spare time I have I want to spend with my family.

A few songs on my last solo record Skin were inspired by observations of society, but my music is very personal and I am really not interested or equipped to preach or tell anyone how or what to do. Any message would appear cryptically through my lyrics. It would never be direct. Like ‘Send out a little love’ was written partly in response to the treatment of Tibetan monks by the Chinese government. Other lyrics were informed by the concept of a holy war and how fighting in the name of a god is so ridiculous.

These things might come through my lyrics but I would not call myself a political singer at all. Not in the way that Vince is.

See more about the concert and book tickets on the MIJF website >

Katie Noonan website >