Hetty Kate: ‘I came to Paris to push myself out of my comfort zone’

There is a certain ‘no-nonsense’ quality to Hetty Kate‘s singing; she can strip all that is unnecessary off the song and reach deep into its essence. There is nothing redundant in her delivery, no added notes, no vocal acrobatics, no showing off, just respect for the ingredients of the song: the melody, the lyrics, the meaning and its purpose – to communicate emotions and experiences. Of course, in her latest release, Under Paris Skies, the emotions she is sharing come from her very personal experience – her relocation from Melbourne to Paris. The album sees her accompanied by just two instruments (again, a study in minimal arrangement), James Sherlock’s guitar and Ben Hanlon’s bass. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

How did you find yourself in Paris?

I never thought I would be living in Paris! France never featured in my long-term plans, and you couldn’t call me a Francophile. So, as much as I enjoy it here, I ask myself that very same question on a regular basis. “I live in Paris!?”

I began to visit Paris regularly in 2015 and 2016, for concerts and short breaks while playing festivals in Europe. I’m English originally, but it wasn’t until Brexit was announced I realised that if I never took advantage of my EU citizenship, I’d really be missing out. I realised how lucky I was, and I thought I should come here and see what life has in store for me.

So, I think that is the biggest reason. One day we’ll run out of time, we’ll run out of options, and we don’t all have the same opportunities. If you’re given an opportunity, do your best to try it. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the US, a natural fit considering the music I’ve dedicated my life to, but not so much time in Europe. So, I came here to see how my career would develop, to discover what I would learn from playing with different musicians in a new scene. But I also came to Paris to try something new, to push myself out of my comfort zone.

And so here I am.

They also have great bread.

What is the best thing about living in Paris?

I have made some lovely friends here, I’ve played with great musicians who have been so welcoming, and I’ve also enjoyed finding my feet. It’s a great hub, you can travel to many places from here and it’s a real melting pot. That’s very inspiring and fun. I have learnt a hell of a lot, about myself, about people, about life. It’s been a great period of personal growth and though there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and sometimes I’ve felt lonely and a bit lost, I also feel brave, strong and resourceful, and I’m proud of that. I am having an adventure.

They also have great bread.

How would you compare the Paris jazz scene to the Melbourne one?

There are many places to play in Paris, it’s a big scene. Dedicated jazz clubs of all shapes and sizes, and also many little gigs in bars, cafes and restaurants, which is lovely. The general Paris public, of all ages, love live music and don’t seem to be bothered by a jazz band playing a metre away from their table as they enjoy their dinner. The arts are very much celebrated and supported in France; sadly you don’t see this as much in Australia. It’s also exciting having the opportunity to see so many musicians from all over the world, as there are extraordinary touring acts playing all the time.

Hetty Kate performing at the Duc Des Lombards in Paris

Being here has also confirmed to me how special the scene in Australia is, and how unique. We have world-class local music happening there and we have our own creative ecosystem (for better or worse), which I think gives a special ‘Australian’ sound to the music we play. I’m very proud of being from Australia, and being mentored by so many incredible musicians in Melbourne. I love coming back to tour and catching up with everyone!

What do you miss the most from Melbourne?

My friends, both off and on the bandstand, I miss them very much. Uptown Jazz Cafe and Bopstretch on a Wednesday night. Uptown is still my favourite jazz club in the world. Australian humour. The sound of the birds. The coffee.

Under Paris Skies is a diary of your first year in Paris; how did you choose the songs and what is the story you’re telling?

Sometimes It’s hard to put feelings into words. Leaving Melbourne, the sparkling excitement of trying something new, the hopes and dreams for my time in Paris but also the loss as I said goodbye to friends who are closer than my family. Not really a goodbye, as that sounds very final and I come back quite a lot, but ‘a bientot’.

You know, a few years ago, I was in a musical, and as I was getting tips and advice from real musical theatre artists, one quote stood out to me: “If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it.” Now, I’m not a dancer, but I am a singer… and it seemed the most fitting way for me to share the emotions of a departure and arrival was through the songs I love the most, with the musicians I know the best.

I chose the songs specifically for people or moments that shaped my first year – some were suggested to me, some are a gift of sorts, but all the lyrics tell their own story and they paint a picture of a moment in that year. A hope, a heartbreak, a dream, the sun on my face as I walk down a boulevard, a scene from a film.

‘A Nightingale Sang’ is, of course, about London, and once again after 28 years I’m geographically close to my motherland, so it was fitting. I also included it for guitarist Sam Lemann, who was the first Melbourne musician to mentor and collaborate with me.

‘Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup’ is a nod to the struggle with learning a second language, as well as a nod to Melbourne guitarist Jon Delaney.

‘Azure-te’ is probably the most telling of all the songs on the album. That’s for someone very special.

Hetty Kate and Ben Hanlon, during the photoshoot for the ‘Under Paris Skies’ album cover. | Photo: Woodrow Wilson

This album began in 2017, originally as a smaller project with James, and then expanded in 2018 into a trio project when we asked Ben Hanlon to join us. It was a long and very organic process that happened in its own time. I wished many times it had been finished more quickly, as patience isn’t one of my strong points, but sometimes good things come to those who wait, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. I hope people enjoy it.

This is your second consecutive recording where you are backed by a guitar-bass duo; what is it about this formation that appeals to you?

I have been working with incredible guitarist James Sherlock since 2012 and he’s played for three of my albums now, the first being Dim All The Lights (ABC Jazz) in 2014. In 2016 I released an EP called Comes Love, which was with guitar and bass, being James Sherlock and Tamara Murphy. It’s interesting you asked that, as my very first band was with two guitars and double bass, so it makes sense that I gravitate towards the timbre of those instruments.

I love the sound of guitar and double bass, I feel it’s a wonderfully fluid musical pairing, spacious and rhythmic (negating the need for a drummer). For me the tonality of both instruments is so similar to the voice, and both have a warm, human sound to them. I find it comforting and inspiring, a very enveloping feeling. With only two instruments, perhaps to the uninitiated it can seem simplistic, but both musicians have to have a solid sense of time and harmony to really shine.

Under Paris Skies is a little different from traditional voice / guitar / bass trio albums. For some of the songs James Sherlock plays both rhythm and lead guitar, and for others Ben Hanlon overdubbed multiple bass parts. For the rest we play as a trio. I love hearing a jazz musician improvise and create with themselves. I find it really beautiful to discover their voices in this setting, and that curiosity inspired me.

Hetty Kate and James Sherlock performing at Morrison’s Jazz Club in 2016 | Photo: Judi Morrison

What would you say to introduce James Sherlock and Ben Hanlon to the Parisian audience?

Well, I know their beautiful playing on this album has already impressed many musicians and jazz fans over here. I’ve been asked many times who they are, and if they will come here at some point! It would be a dream to play with them here. I wish I had the funds to fly them over immediately! (They probably wish I did as well!) We have world-class, creative jazz musicians in Australia, but because it’s quite expensive and time-consuming to travel, many of them aren’t as known in other scenes around the world as they should be. It’s the same for many musicians in reverse, it’s still a big world! I’m very proud to play and create with James and Ben. It’s a pleasure and I always discover something new. I hope we can record again one day, and I can’t wait to play with them when I come back to tour in Australia.

What is your favourite French word?

Ahah! My French is very basic still, and I understand more than I am able to say! My first favourite word when I first arrived was “barbe a papa,” literally “Daddy’s beard.” It means fairy floss or candy floss. It was also a rather fun cartoon in the 70s that I watched when I was a little girl. Who doesn’t like candy floss? What a marvellous invention.

(They also have good bread).