Had it not been for Julie Andrews and a weekly pile of ironing, Janet Seidel, who is currently touring the UK, might not have become the renowned singer and pianist that she is. The glamorous fiftysomething given the title of First Lady of Jazz by critics in her native Australia only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing.
“I’ve got four brothers – I was the only girl – and I used to listen to that record over and over again while I was ironing their shirts. So when my school said
they were going to stage My Fair Lady, I thought: ‘Gosh, I can sound exactly like Julie Andrews.’ So I auditioned and got the role, and I’m so grateful because that experience gave me the chance to conquer my shyness: I put the pancake make-up on and I became Eliza Doolittle, not Janet Seidel.”
Brought up on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel had been playing piano from an early age and was regularly “shuffled out to play pieces for my granny”. Her natural shyness didn’t prevent her from playing piano but it took a while for her to sing as she played – after all, she had to be herself, not Eliza, in that context. “It was a leap of faith, really,” she says.
In her late teens and early twenties, while she was studying classical music at university in Adelaide, Seidel formed a band with two of her brothers. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs. I had a keyboard and we’d play country dances and all sorts of gigs.” Even now, she still works with one of her brothers: David Seidel is the bass player in her current trio.
During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became all the rage – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to. Seidel explains: “I was so used to having my brothers there on guitar and bass, and to being surrounded by friends. For this solo gig, I had to expand my repertoire and learn how to interact with strangers – the idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”
To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and since then, it has interested her “almost exclusively”.
Seidel first heard jazz on the radio when she was still at school. “The ABC had a programme, Music to Midnight, which I used to listen to – and that’s how I first heard Nat ‘King’ Cole and Blossom Dearie.” Both of these great singer-pianists proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of her “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.
During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”
Peggy Lee’s recordings also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”
Seidel toured Scotland a couple of years ago with a show of Blossom Dearie songs, but she’s not the only heroine to whom she has paid tribute: Doris Day is another favourite and she takes comparisons to Day as a great compliment. “She was a very tuneful and very swinging jazz singer – she really knew how to phrase and she had a lovely light lilting kind of approach to singing.”
Recently, Seidel was hired to sing a jingle for an Audi advert, to be broadcast on British television. For that, she was called upon to sing like Julie London – with whom she bears a strong vocal resemblance. “She was a big influence on me. I love that cool, unfussed style and the timbre of her voice – it’s a very caressing sound without being forced or deliberately sexy.”
A Julie London tribute may be the next obvious step, but for this tour, Seidel is celebrating Johnny Mercer’s songbook, including the ballad Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home – a song which would be apt for any jazz musician, let alone one who’s on an eight-month house-swap ….
* Janet Seidel Trio plays Recital Room, Glasgow on Thursday, March 15, at 7.30pm. Call 0141 353 8000 or visit http://www.glasgowconcerthalls.com for tickets.