Punk to acting – and all that jazz

EMMA LEE As a teenage rebel Sophie Garner was a punk who nearly got expelled from school for having a Mohican hairstyle and playing truant. Now she’s carving out a career for herself as a jazz singer. EMMA LEE spoke to her ahead of a show in her home county of Suffolk.


Like many performers, Sophie Garner's first taste of the limelight was in a school play. “At about the age of four or five I was in Snow White and the 14 Dwarves - it had to be 14 to give everyone something to do, so new ones were added in like Angry and Colourful,” she laughs.

The 32-year-old jazz singer, who grew up in Bury St Edmunds, is giving a concert at The Cut in Halesworth on Friday.

As she explains, she found her singing voice when she took part in a radio competition.

“It was a competition to win an underwater Walkman - that shows you how long ago it was,” she laughs.

“You had to sing a song down the phone, and I sang California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas, because that was the only song I knew how to sing. And I won. When I won, my mum and dad said that I should maybe take singing seriously.”

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She started taking part in amateur dramatics and joined a theatre company in Bury St Edmunds - and had the chance to meet its honorary president David Jason.

“He came along and sat next to my mum,” she says. “I was playing a guy and afterwards he was surprised to find out I was a girl.”

During her teenage years, Sophie did the done thing and went through a rebellious stage.

“I became a punk and went off the rails a bit - as you do when you're finding yourself.

“I was nearly expelled from school. I can't believe that I could have had a Mohican and think that the school wouldn't notice. It was about four inches wide and grade one round the edge. It was pink, it was red, all colours.

“I've got a really funny memory,” she adds. “I was on stage once playing Nancy in Oliver Twist and I had a wig to wear. In one scene Bill Sykes tried to kill her - and the wig nearly fell off. The next night it was gripped on really tightly,” she laughs.

At 17 she left Bury to work in a holiday camp in Morcambe.

“That was a real eye-opener,” she says. “It was like Hi de Hi, and then some.”

She also lived in Brighton and Crete, where she ended up working as a DJ.

“I got to play the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols in an alternative club. I was in my element,” she says.

Sophie did a stint with the National Youth Theatre in London, where she became friends with Little Britain co-creator and star Matt Lucas. They starred in a farce together at Greenwich Theatre. Hannah Waterman, who went to school in Suffolk, was also in the cast.

“We stayed friends for a while and I'm hoping to catch up with him at a reunion,” she says.

However, she decided that acting wasn't for her and started to concentrate on her voice.

She felt increasingly drawn to jazz singing - her professional singing career started in 1992 performing with Sugar Ray's Flying Fortress. Passionate and determined, she formed her first band, Sophie Garner and her Swing Kings, the following year.

Backed by eight musicians she had two CD releases with the Swing Kings on the Earl Records label - Gone Bananas and On Revival Day.

“My last day job was as a make-up consultant. I went through a semi-pro phase - where you work during the day and then play at night. I would be learning songs in the loo during work and catching up on sleep in the stockroom. Then the time came when I had to decide what to do and I left the day job and have managed to make a living with some teaching on the side.”

She's played at Dublin Castle, Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham, the Edinburgh Festival and London's 100 Club and has headlined festivals across Europe. She's also performed on HMS invincible and at the House of Commons.

In 1998 she was awarded runner-up in the prestigious Perrier Young Jazz Vocalist of the Year competition.

What is it about jazz that hooked her?

“I love the music - it's so raw. It's not put together and manufactured. A lot of those people came out of hard times. I really like rawness in music, which I think is why I also like punk,” she says.

Sophie has released her debut jazz album Champagne and False Eyelashes with the Sophie Garner Band - a sextet.

As well as having a busy schedule with her jazz band, she also fronts Sophie Garner and the New Breed, which plays 50s and 60s rhythm and blues.

“Things are really establishing themselves. I went to Dubai twice last year, I've got management and I'm playing a major tour in the summer and there's a new record coming out.”

And is she looking forward to playing on home turf?

“Absolutely,” she says. “A couple of years ago I played at the Bury St Edmunds Festival in Abbey Gardens and I saw some of my old teachers. It was so funny. They said: '“Weren't you a punk the last time I saw you?'”

Sophie Garner plays The Cut, Halesworth, on Friday May 12. Tickets cost £10 and £8 concessions Box office: 0845 673 2123.

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