Jacqueline Gawler: ‘Stoneflower plays beautiful music with a little bit of chaos thrown in’

Apart from (some, not all) members of the Brazilian-Australian community, there aren’t many people in Melbourne (or even Australia overall) that may be coming close to Jacqueline Gawler’s grasp and deep appreciation of Brazilian music. Still, it would be unfair to pigeonhole her as an expert on Brazilian singing – this is only one part of her multifaceted artistic persona, there’s much more to her. For instance, the adventurous vocalist is part of what can only be considered as a true Melburnian supergroup, Stoneflower. The trio – comprised by Gawler, the ever-brilliant, lyrical bassist Tamara Murphy and guitar wizard Stephen Magnusson, has created a frisell-esque concoction of sounds that defy genres, blending jazz, pop, rock and yes, Brazilian music. Now they are about to launch their sophomore album, This Quiet Hum, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, as part of the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival. Which is a good opportunity for an interview.

Stoneflower (L-R: Jacqueline Gawler, Tamara Murphy and Stephen Magnusson)

What is the Stoneflower ‘mission statement’?

Stoneflower has historically been a collaboration between Tamara Murphy and myself. We have had the good fortune of playing with some stunning guitarists throughout the band’s history, and the line-up with Steve Magnusson is no exception. We have no mission statement, other than perhaps an unconscious desire to play beautiful music, with a little bit of chaos thrown in. We don’t confine ourselves to particular genres, or traditional interpretations of genres, and we don’t pre-determine too much about the music. All of us love pop, and have listened to loads in our time on the planet. And Brazilian tunes creep in because I find it hard to omit these from any setlist I’m involved in! Aside from that, Stoneflower creates a very gentle, magical sonic palette that doesn’t attempt to prove anything to listeners.

Jacqueline Gawler and Tamara Murphy

If you were to invite your dream collaborator to become a member of the Stoneflower quartet, who would that be?

There are so many dream musicians in the world to potentially collaborate with! But when you add something, you also take something away, and having musical space is a precious and unique place to work from.

If Bjork walked in and said she’d like to do backing vocals I’d MAYBE give her a chart to look at, and you know, let her sing in the chorus, but aside from that I’m pretty happy working with Stevie and Tam.

Stoneflower (L-R: Jacqueline Gawler, Tamara Murphy and Stephen Magnusson)

Is there any song that you want to sing, but still haven’t got to doing?

Yes! Aguas de Marco by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It has 6 million lyrics in Portuguese. I would be 90 by the time I memorised it. I’m about the worst person on the planet for memorising lyrics – pretty inconvenient for a singer, really. And that song is literally pages of a Portuguese linguistic play on words! But it’s the most divine song. On my bucket list for sure!

You’ve been singing jazz, pop, brazilian, african and world music, with equally excellent result; what is your perception of music genres and styles?

To be really simplistic, music is just music in the end. Genres are interconnected on so many levels, and to be confined to just one genre or an expression of a genre would feel incredibly limiting to me. One thing I do love is rhythm, and this is a common thread through all genres. One of the most exhilarating things I have done is get trained as a West African percussionist.

Experiencing pure rhythm from this perspective has allowed me to bring an appreciation of this incredible art form into whatever genre I am singing. Displacement, subdivision, emphasis, time and the nuance around rhythm are really exciting to me; and so many genres are influenced by or derived from African music. Jazz often specialises in odd time signatures, but I actually find the way African music treats the symmetrical time signature of 6/8 incredibly mind blowing! Finding the 1 can be a three week trek into the wilderness.

What is it about Brazilian music that appeals to you?

My love affair with Brazilian music began in my early 20s when I first heard Sergio Mendes and Astrud Gilberto recordings. I had no idea what the music was, what the language was, or where it was from. This was before households had internet, so it took a bit for me to get a hold on what I was listening to. I then found a Portuguese coach and started transcribing songs, and my first gig was two sets of Sergio Mendes hits at a cool little bar in Melbourne. Somewhere along my journey I was asked by a producer to go to Brazil to record an album in Rio with some pretty hefty Brazilian musicians.

I stayed in Ipanema for two weeks and that was it. My love affair with Brazil was cemented. I moved back for six months and Ipanema was my home; I studied Portuguese at a local language school in Copacabana, checked out stacks of music and sat in with bands in Lapa, Barra de Tijuca, and launched my album there.

Brazilian music to me represents pure joy. It enjoys the sophisticated harmony of jazz, but with the rhythmic element that sets latin music apart from jazz, topped off with what I think is one of the most beautiful languages in the world – Portuguese.

I never set out to become a singer of Brazilian music, but it makes me so utterly happy that I just gravitate to it without any effort. I have also had past lives in Brazil – that’s a fact – so it’s no surprise, really.

How did you get into jazz?

I grew up listening to jazz and my father was a hobby jazz musician. He was a multi-instrumentalist and so I grew up as a multi-instrumentalist too, training classically on piano throughout my childhood and playing saxophones. I also had a darn good crack at clarinet, flute, and was quite a snazzy glockenspielist! When I was in primary school dad used to take me along to his gigs in pit orchestras, and assign me the baritone sax parts. The bari sax was nearly bigger than me at that point.

What does jazz mean to you?

For me, jazz is just musical freedom, granted by the understanding of harmonic structures and characterised by improvisation. I think most jazz musicians would agree that jazz is not so much a genre with a set sound, but more an approach to music that can be applied to any genre.

Which of the new album tracks best describes your current state of mind?

If I would have to choose one, I’d probably choose ‘Laura’, for itsdark, alluring, slow-burn pop feel.

There is a reason that it is the song that kicks off the album.

Jacqueline Gawler and Stoneflower are launching their new album at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 6 December, as part of the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival