Lady of jazz
From knocking out advertising jingles to a million pound record deal and singing live on national television, Yorkshire lass Clare Teal has come a long way. And soon – she tells James Goffin – she’ll be coming to Norwich.
Everybody is at it, and perhaps a man from Stoke is the one to blame. Ever since Robbie Williams decided to try and get a place in the Rat Pack and swing with a big band, pop music has been in love with jazz.
And while the ex-Take That singer pulled it off with some chutzpah, others – yes, Westlife, I do mean you – showed just how painful on the ears easy listening can be. You begin to wish that the Irish lads' video for Mack the Knife had taken on an instructional edge, with them as the victims, rather than just been a straight pop promo.
Clare Teal is part of that phenomenon, the difference being she has always sung and listened to jazz; and that her takes on the classic jazz songs, and her own numbers, are actually worth listening to.
“It was very much about being at the right place at the right time,” says Clare modestly.
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“There have always been great jazz singers in this country, but British singers have had trouble being taken seriously. It has always been more of an American songbook tradition.
“When I was younger I didn't tell anyone I listened to jazz, because it was seen as being nerdy, but now for the first time I'm cool by default.
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“Advertising picked up on it before the public did, and then Robbie did Swing When You're Winning. A lot of singers then started doing it who don't really know jazz, and that was a shame because when Robbie did it it was very tongue-in-cheek.”
That's also probably a good way to describe Clare. She is fun and self-deprecating, despite last year being the subject of a bidding war between Universal and Sony music, netting herself a multi-million pound recording contract.
She also has several well-placed friends and fans. One is fellow northerner Michael Parkinson, who has championed both Clare and her friend Jamie Cullum on his TV chatshow and BBC Radio 2 programme.
She maintains, though, that she got into singing by accident.
“I wanted to play jazz clarinet, but I realised I wasn't going to be as good as I wanted to be, and then I started singing by fluke.
“There was an exam I'd forgotten about and I had 30 minutes to put together the world's worst piano piece. Even though it wasn't that good, there was something there.
“I put together my first album at 21, but I didn't know anything about needing a manager, or plugging, so it didn't do anything – it barely left my flat.
“I gave up on it and went into selling advertising. Looking back now it was a skill that came in handy, selling myself and negotiating contracts, but I wasn't cut out for the office and was really struggling with it.
“I eventually sent a demo tape to Candid, my first label, and they liked what they heard. I was still working full-time though, working all day and singing all night.”
That, however, is all in the past now. And with her move to the bigger Sony Jazz label Clare is able not only to concentrate on music but to take more risks.
“When you're doing standards you have to think what you can bring to it, what you can do differently or there's no point. I try to pick songs that there aren't definitive versions of.
“Sometimes you think it would be really great to do a song you love, and then you realise it's because of the way that it's done that you love it.
“Being with a bigger label means I can do more things, and we can get the big bands and the string sections in; but I'm still a tight Yorkshire woman.
“We did all the big stuff for the last album in one day. I like to know that everything is organised, and I feel uncomfortable if it's not and then I can't do what I'm supposed to do properly.
“I think I'm the only person on the label that likes to come in under budget.”
Although she says she enjoys the studio – she is currently working on her next album, again writing her own songs as well as picking from the vast library of jazz standards – her real kick comes from performing live.
“I've always said that I wanted to do things properly. I love singing live because I have a great group of musicians who I know I can rely on, and we can do things at a different tempo or try a different song. That's what jazz is about – capturing a moment in time.
“I never want to mime or sing to a backing tape, and the only time I've had to use a tape was on television and I hated it.
“I got very uncomfortable which, seeing as it was on TV, probably wasn't the best thing to happen.
“I played at the Maddermarket in Norwich last year and it was really good. There are some great jazz clubs in Norfolk and Suffolk; it can be strange when you get to these places that seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but the music is really well supported.
“I'm working on the album until the end of April, and then I'm touring and gigging till the end of the year.”
t Clare Teal is performing at St Andrews Hall, Norwich, on Monday May 9 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Tickets cost £5, £12, £16 or £20 and are available in person from the Theatre Royal box office or by calling 01603 766400.