Cathrine Summers: smiling from the inside

I want to listen to Cathrine Summers‘ voice forever. I don’t just mean her singing voice, no, what I have in mind is her talking voice, the one I heard over the phone. It’s a voice like chestnut honey and scotch with gingerale, with just the right balance of raspiness and freshness, the voice of a teenager after pulling an all-nighter with friends at the end of school. It’s the perfect voice to sing the great American songbook and soul ballads and French torch songs and the blues. Which is exactly what Cathrine Summers does. Which is why I want to listen to her; not her talking voice, her singing voice. But first, I asked her to introduce herself. Can you narrate your journey so far?

Cathrine Summers:I grew up in England and I was actually a shy and relatively recluse child, until I was in my teens and even then struggled socially and struggled with bullies at school. I think this is where my jazz and music journey began, often escaping with daydreaming about the romantic lives of people in the movies of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly. I also loved all those Elvis and Cliff Richard movies. As soon as I was old enough to ask, I would beg my parents to take me up to London to the West End to musicals for my birthday; it was big deal for us and over years we saw quite a few of the greats, such as ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Phantom Of The Opera’. These times are so treasured. Both my parents were scientists and because music performance wasnt really an option my focus went on maths and science. My music journey at this point ceased, apart from being an avid fan and going to concerts and festivals across the UK.

As soon as I could afford to, I started to have amateur singing lessons for fun and sporadically enjoyed my one-hour sessions like they were oxygen. I was in tune but I wasn’t really any good back then, with very little technique or control. When I moved to London I started to perform casually with a guitar player and its there that I played my first ever gigs and started to work on my repertoire.

It wasn’t until I’d moved to Australia and settled in WA in 2008, that I started to experience a shift toward music being more than a hobby. Even then I didn’t have any notions of a career in music; I simply enjoyed learning wonderful songs from The Great American Songbook and I eventually sought out a keyboard player and would perform duo gigs around Perth. I had a lot of performance anxiety and really struggled before gigs but, as soon as the performance started I was flooded with a feeling of “smiling from the inside” and the lyrics and melody of songs would create something more than just words and music.

I saw June Smith (now sadly passed) perform at The Ellington Jazz Club and I guess that’s when I had my “wow, I want to be like that” moment. She had a charisma, comfort, familiarity and confidence on stage that drew in the whole room musically. She had a natural storytelling style while performing that I was mesmerised by. The music just flowed from her and people just soaked it up. I’d seen other jazz singers perform but something was different. I could see her interacting with the band as well as the audience and their enjoyment in what they were all performing together. I didnt really understand what they were musically saying to each other at the time but I was totally inspired and wanted to be like her.

At every questioning point in my non-music 9-5 career I have sought out singing and have concurrently continued to explore possible duo collaborations, just as a kind of hobby if you like, but never seeming to find the courage to go for it. However, I believe, fate played one of the biggest parts in my musical journey. I certainly have a ‘if this hadn’t happened, I would never be here’ moment. I found myself on a student visa for a year to stay in Australia and it was only because of this part time study year that I have the chance and time to sing, to work in a duo around Perth and take up opportunities to perform.

From there I just kept working hard, learning and listening to all the greats and working as much as I could, never saying no and repeating to myself that I’d keep going if people kept wanting to hear what I’m putting out into the world. And they have, and still continue to do so. I often get emails, Facebook messages and texts saying things like, “I’m playing your CD at work and it’s fabulous”, or asking me where I’m playing next, or telling me they had a great night… I received an email the other day just saying thanks for sharing my talent for their entertainment. Knowing that you are making a difference to people’s lives is the best part of what I do.

AJN: When did you realise the power of your voice?

CS:It has actually gradually become stronger and stronger. I knew I had the soulful part and I know I have many different voicings – soft, yet powerful, sultry and husky yet smooth – and I love the blues, Amy-Winehouse-style, but it wasn’t until I started singing soul and pop in my modern 6-piece band that I really started to work on building that power. It’s a lot of fun performing high energy top-40 gigs and the enthusiasm of the crowd is great. I love that one day I’ll be jumping around on stage and then the next be in a glamorous ball-gown singing ’30s swinging jazz classics. Such diversity is what keeps it all interesting and fun.

AJN: How do you see yourself as part of the Perth Jazz scene at the moment?

CS:Honestly speaking Im not 100% sure how I’d see myself within the ‘scene’, except for the fact that as a performer I lean toward performing classic popular jazz standards and often deliver odes to the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s jazz greats and the infamous swingers. I believe when you’re growing as a vocalist, you lean toward the singers you are most inspired by and for me they are the likes of Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Julie London and Carmen McRae. I’ve actually been likened to Carmen McRae by Sydney Saxophonist, Errol Buddle who worked with her in LA.

I guess I would describe myself as a Nancy Wilson-Julie London cross over mixed in with a bit of female Michael Bubl. I have a huge amount of respect for the great songs of yesteryear. I really enjoy performing complementary interpretations of these songs and often accompany my performances with a bit of history or some contextual information around the origins of the songs or the artists version or, perhaps why I perform the song or what gives the song its bounce. For example, Sinatra was about to marry the 21-year-old Mia Farrow when he put Fly Me To The Moon to disc and it is said that this gave his recording an extra spring in its step.

AJN: Who are your heroes?

CS:Nancy Wilson, Julie London, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Sia -, I have so many, that’s a really hard question.

AJN: What should anyone expect from your Paris Cat gigs?

CS:These are my Melbourne debut performances and something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I have a number of different shows. Each one ties together wonderful songs with an overarching theme bringing the collection of songs together. The two shows I’m performing at The Paris Cat Jazz Club are ‘Great Ladies of Jazz’ and ‘A Summers Night In Paris’.

‘Great Ladies of Jazz’ has a host of toe-tapping favourites from the classic ladies of jazz such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Julie London through to the velvety, playful iconic songs of Peggy Lee, Edith Piaf and Doris Day.

‘Summers Night In Paris’ is a lively, fun-filled collection of jazz standards and French songs with a narrative of the rich musical history of Paris in the ’30s and ’40s. Songs such as ‘April in Paris’, Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ plus some cheeky Cole Porter standards such as ‘C’est Magnifique’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave!’ – to name a few.

AJN: What do you get out of singing?

CS:When I’m performing, I feel like I’m smiling from the inside. I feel a sense of bringing people together and there is nothing more wonderful in human nature than feeling connected and feeling you a contributing to that connection.

Cathrine Summers will play two nights at the Paris Cat: