Questions & Answers

Zara McFarlane

British jazz singer Zara McFarlane recently released her debut album, Until Tomorrow, to critical acclaim. In March, she starred alongside the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in a sell-out concert at London’s Barbican, to mark the start of Commonwealth Week. Global caught up with Zara as she was preparing for the gig and she explained why she prefers jazz to pop music and told us about her love of “sweet-smelling soapy stuff”.

Global: Do you think that music can help connect cultures?

Zara McFarlane: I think it’s a great way of bringing people together. Music lifts people’s spirits and helps them to express themselves. People can’t always put things into words and I think music allows them to express things that they wouldn’t normally be able to.

When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?

Actually, when I was younger, I wanted to be a dancer and then I wanted to be a teacher. I always thought that I would be singing in some way, shape or form, but it wasn’t until around the age of 18 that I decided I really wanted to get into singing properly.

What drew you to jazz rather than soul or pop music?

At the BRIT School of Performing Arts I studied musical theatre. I went on to do a course before my degree and there I got a bit more involved with jazz music. It was something that I seemed to have a knack for – a lot of the vocal jazz standards come from musicals, so I was quite familiar with them anyway.

I had the opportunity to work with one of my teachers – he’s a pianist – doing some jazz gigs. I got more involved with it from then on, trying to find out about jazz, going to jam sessions in London and working with different musicians.

What do you particularly like about jazz music?

I like the fact that you can improvise, be a bit more free. It’s much more of a form of expression than popular music. But the way that I see jazz is that you should write good lyrics and have strong melodies, and popular music is [also] based around strong catchy melodies. All the great jazz songs from the American songbook have that element to them – I suppose they were the popular music of the day.

You were recently signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, but before that you self-financed your own EP.How difficult was it for you to secure a recording contract?

After I did my Masters in jazz, I decided to sort myself out and get something ready to show people. That was when I decided to do the EP. Without that no one knows what you sound like. Now, I think, it is slightly easier in some ways because you’ve got YouTube and people can check out recordings that you’ve done so you don’t necessarily have to have a CD to give [out]. But I still think for me – and maybe it’s the style of music I was doing – it was important to have a CD. Without that it would have been much more difficult. Even with the EP some people were saying, “Oh, I need to hear an album.”

But I wasn’t seeking to be signed. I was trying to go for more of a live gig approach – that’s how I see myself, as a performer. I didn’t think I was ready yet. It just kind of happened. A friend of mine had a friend that knew Gilles Peterson and he passed on my tracks. Gilles liked them enough to play them on his radio show – that was at the beginning of 2010.

What did you do yesterday?

I was teaching the recorder to primary school children. It’s my day job! I work part-time for Southwark Music Service, so that’s what I do Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then I met up with a friend I haven’t seen for a long time, and after that I taught at home as well. It was a bit of a busy day, but it was nice because it was sunny.

Could you describe your home?

I’ve been doing a bit of decorating in my house so it makes me feel great to be at home these days. I’ve decorated my bedroom very nicely and a little music room/ office. The last year or so I haven’t been home very much – I’ve been out and about, running around. But in January I was at home quite a bit and [am] getting attached to my house again.

What do you do to relax?

I don’t relax very often. I feel stressed out quite a bit [laughs]. I like having nice baths. I use lots of sweet-smelling soapy stuff – I like to pamper myself in that way. And I like going to the cinema, having people over and spending time with my family.

Who would you most like to meet and why?

I wouldn’t mind meeting Barack Obama. Having a conversation with him and finding out about how he feels about his role and how people perceive him as a black president. Really, I don’t think of him being a black president, I think of him just as a president, but many people do feel that it is a big thing to have a black president. I wonder whether he thinks about it like that, if he is aware of it, and if it means something to him personally.

What is your most treasured possession?

Generally I am not very materialistic, but I suppose my phone. I’ve had it stolen a few times and it is quite liberating not to have it, but on a day-to-day basis, I need my phone. And my car, living where I live [and] doing what I do as well – having to travel around the UK singing and coming home late on my own – it’s very useful having a car. I suppose your car and your phone can really be safe havens.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be yourself and accept yourself and others as they are. I can’t think of the actual words but that’s the message.

About the author:

Zara McFarlane is a British jazz singer and recently released her debut album, Until Tomorrow, to critical acclaim.


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