Hetty Kate: “I enjoy stories, emotions and melody, and I’m a romantic”

hettykate-blackdress-colourGoogle the words ‘Hetty Kate‘ and you are bound to come across the phrase ‘Peggy Lee on a vespa’. As a writer, I stand defeated by this description, there is no way I can top it. I could build on it, though, stating that the jazz singer – who has become one of the staples of the Melbourne jazz scene with her elegant swinging style, her breezy phrasing, her sweet, lime-and-pepper infused voice, is once again at it. She has done a marvellous job setting up an EP of beloved standards, supported by two amazing musicians: James Sherlock on guitar and Tamara Murphy on bass. To keep on with the analogy, it’s like Peggy Lee traded the Vespa for a Jaguar and invited Herb Ellis and a female Ray Brown along for the ride. Before the official launch of the EP, Hetty was kind enough to share the backstory of ‘Comes Love‘. 

AustralianJazz.net: How did this EP come to be?

Hetty Kate: I often work in a small group, as a trio (with guitar and double bass) or as a duo with guitar, and I came to realise that none of my releases represented that band lineup! I also love recording so much, I don’t need much encouragement to get into the studio. So, after I came back from France earlier in the year, it seemed like the perfect time to record with some friends. James and I discussed it and thought it was a good idea to record songs that I always sing at gigs, rather than make a collection of ‘new’ tunes. I popped in a couple that were indeed new and had lovely stories and melodies (My Little Boat for example), but I was not expecting to include seven on the EP! It just happened that way.

‘Comes Love’ is a snapshot of what you’ll hear at one of my gigs, favourite songs sung with two of my favourite musicians; there was no theme in mind other than sharing some lovely songs in a natural way, and I believe that’s how it sounds. This is my second EP, the first ‘Kissing Bug‘ was recorded in New York in 2009, so it’s nice to have another EP release to put beside my full-length albums.

AJN: Why did you go for a trio setting? 

HK: Well, I very much enjoy singing in smaller groups as there’s more space to move! Each person has room to add whatever they feel to a song without being conscious of being in the way or overplaying. There is less to listen to, and I love being able to hear the articulation of each instrument. I find on occasion there is more opportunity for musical discovery that way. Of course that’s not to say that there is no room for musical discovery in a larger band, but without arrangements larger bands can be less nimble, depending on the personalities of the players and a few other factors.

James Sherlock (guitar) was an easy choice for this EP, as I have worked with him for so many years in my quintet lineup (‘Dim All the Lights’, recorded for ABC Jazztrack and released through ABC Jazz) as well as smaller groups around Australia and overseas. You’d be hard pressed to find a better musician, and he enjoys accompanying singers, so to sing with him is always thoroughly enjoyable and makes for a great musical moment. Tamara Murphy (double bass) was one of the very first bassists I worked with when I began performing professionally, and I find she is generous without compromising, and that can be a rarity. We spent the entire afternoon smiling and laughing when we were recording, it was easy, it was swinging and it was a lot of fun. This is also due to Niko Schauble‘s warmth, it was so great to record at Pughouse.

Both James and Tamara are extraordinary musicians with very unique voices and approaches to the music. They both have years of experience, they compose and they have spent their careers playing with all sorts of bands as well as leading their own projects. I respect both of them very much, I love their sound and really enjoy spending time with them, as well as singing with them! They both exude a joyful lightness with music, and they swing.

AJN: You’ve been one of the most hard-working and active singers in the jazz scene, constantly touring and working with different bands. How do you adapt to each setting?

HK: For me, being comfortable singing with different bands and musicians is something I have cultivated for many years and it’s a trend that began very early for me, somewhat unconsciously. When I first began singing around Melbourne, I would book a different lineup for every gig, often meeting musicians on the bandstand! Of course, they were all fantastic musicians, and at that point everybody was far more advanced than I was, but I didn’t know many of them socially. My motivation? I like variety, and it was extremely important for me to not rely on anyone. By this I mean, if I’d booked the same pianist, who was my buddy, for every gig when I was inexperienced, he or she would naturally become my ‘lifeline’. What impetus is there to grow if you always have the same person musically helping you out and smoothing out mistakes?

Now, though, I have regular musicians I love to work with as I feel we can create something interesting together, and we have a relationship. But I’m not afraid of performing with new musicians, I still like to meet people on the bandstand and get to know them by how they play before I get to know them ‘as a person’. It can be very exciting and I enjoy experiencing the music as it unfolds with new people.

When I sing with musicians I don’t play with often, the most important thing is to listen to one another, to trust one another, and to work as an ensemble ‘for’ the music. This is not always easy, everyone has different personalities, feels differently on different days, has different motivations.. but jazz is about listening and speaking a common language. That is the goal. You don’t always achieve your goal, and sometimes that’s not the point of the performance.. but in my opinion in an ideal setting, that’s the goal.

My motivation is to one day speak the language fluently, and to enjoy the freedom and creativity that will bring. The more opportunities I have to sing, listen and interact within the music, the closer that moment will be.

AJN: What is it that you most / least enjoy about touring?

HK: I’m a Gemini through and through; I like novelty, movement, shiny things…  so, just the act of going somewhere is brilliantly exciting. I love being on planes and trains because I find the idea of being ‘on the way’ somewhere most appealing. However, I certainly was not blessed in the tolerance department, so I would say my least favourite thing by far is dealing with the other hundred people on the plane or train who are also ‘on the way’ somewhere, and then waiting for suitcases at a baggage carousel. But there is nothing I don’t like about touring, I love every second, even when I’m not at my best, grumpy, tired, frustrated. I would pick getting on a plane somewhere over most other activities I could think of. I love it. Being able to sing and travel makes me feel very lucky.

AJN: Which song that you love singing, have yet to record?

HK: I suppose I could also answer with any number of top 40 hits from the last 30 years I loudly sing along to in the car! I enjoy singing pop, rock, R&B and soul songs spectacularly badly in the car with great relish and gusto. But I can assure you nobody wants to own that album!

AJN: How did you get into jazz?

HK: I began my musical journey very early with the classical piano. It’s still a great love of mine, though I’m rusty! I grew up in England being taken to a lot of West End shows, and of course they were musicals by Cole Porter and so on… I loved musicals and the theatre, and I loved watching old movies with Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Fred Astaire. Not much of that has to do with jazz, but as a lot of the repertoire in The Great American Songbook comes from musical theatre, it is very familiar to me on a deep level due to my childhood. I love songs, and The Great American Songbook is stuffed full of wonderful ones.

I don’t recall anyone introducing me to jazz music in particular, in the sense of saying “this is JAZZ”… I loved Glenn Miller and big band music. There were show tunes, there were classical tunes and there were pop tunes (which ranged from ABBA to Supertramp to KISS – all lumped together) and that’s about it. Music was very prominent in my childhood, we listened to everything all the time. When I think back, I guess I divided music into what I liked, and what I didn’t, and how songs made me feel. Which, in my opinion is still a good ‘genre free’ way to experience music. I enjoy stories, emotions and melody, and I’m a romantic.

As far as I can tell the epiphany moment for me, was being taken to Bennetts Lane on a date sometime in my mid twenties. I didn’t have any grand designs on being a professional musician at the time, and though music was a big part of my everyday I’d never seen a live instrumental jazz gig before. The gig was Allan Browne (drums), Andrea Keller (piano) and Tamara Murphy (bass) and I don’t think I even moved a muscle during the entire gig… it was like a kaleidoscope of colour across the stage and I couldn’t believe how they were ‘talking’ to one another with music. I didn’t understand how that was happening at the time (being schooled in classical piano it seemed exceptionally magical) but I could ‘see’ the conversation, and was blown away. I still remember it vividly.
Part of the attraction when I began was the music of the 30s and 40s, the swing feel and syncopated rhythms. I love rhythm and the drums, and for me this was just like a drug. It still is mesmerizing.. swing is the thing. I now listen to a lot of different music under the broad umbrella of ‘jazz’, not just 30s and 40s music, and I’m enjoying how my palette is changing as time progresses, but swing will always be the thing.

So I guess I ‘got into jazz’ through a combination of destiny, luck, opportunity, hard-work, preparation and hopeless love. It feels like exactly the right place for me, and I feel very lucky.

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?

HK: Jazz is freedom and it is meditation. Jazz is important for it’s history as well as it’s effect on the musicians playing it, and the audiences listening to it. It can be a cruel mistress to those who love to play it. I am hopelessly in love with it, for better or worse, til death do us part.

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

HK: It’s late at night as I write this, and we’re all in the midst of such depressing twaddle on the news with all the politics going on, so I’ll choose this one,:

“Here Comes The Sun” as performed by Nina Simone. It’s pretty.

Hetty Kate and her trio with James Sherlock and Tamara Murphy will launch their EP, ‘Comes Love’ at Bennetts Lane, on Thursday 13 October. Then, on Friday 14 October they will head to Upway, to perform at the Skylark Room.



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