There’s a breath of fresh air on the jazz scene – and her name is Georgia Cécile. If you heard her voice on the radio, you might think you were listening to an older singer, maybe an African-American who has been round the block a few times. Yet the mighty, soulful American-sounding vocals actually emanate from a petite 29-year-old Glaswegian.
Over the last 18 months, Georgia Cécile has enjoyed a whirlwind of success. She has performed at jazz festivals up and down the country, released a single (Come Summertime) and was nominated as one to watch by Steve Rubie, the owner of the celebrated 606 Club in Chelsea where she played last July. In the last three months, her increasingly busy itinerary has included gigs in Arbroath, Aberdeen and – er – Oman, where she was invited to play a 30-minute set for royalty.
But while Cécile may appear to have burst onto the Scottish jazz consciousness from nowhere, she has in fact been slogging away for the last ten years, learning her craft through her studies and on the job. And her roots in jazz reach back to her childhood, which was steeped in the music.
“My grandfather, Gerry Smith, was a piano player in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cécile explains. “He played in clubs every night of the week, though he was a mechanic by trade. In fact, during the Second World War, while he was working as a mechanic on planes, he met my grandmother in a music shop in Italy. She played accordion, and was doing a desk job over there. He was from London but came back to Lanarkshire with her after the war. They had nine children, and every one had a musical instrument and every one had to sing at family parties.”
From her grandfather, Cécile learned the foundations of her jazz repertoire – the Great American Songbook – but it was her dad’s sister, Ann, who was the primary influence on her singing style and taste, even before she had discovered such favourite singers as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.
“My Aunt Ann was an amazing singer – a hairdresser by day and she’d sing with her dad at night. I learned a lot from her. She had a really rich, warm tone – like Sarah Vaughan’s – and her vibrato was very distinctive. I tried to imitate that. I was in awe of her. Her delivery was so emotional every time. She could be sitting on the arm of my granny’s settee belting out Body and Soul, with a cup of tea and scone, and reduce everyone to tears. The emotion and the tone and the rich texture of her voice all inspired me.”
Not only did Aunt Ann’s singing helped shape the teenage Cécile’s own singing style, but her taste in vocal jazz on record played a part too. Cécile recalls: “When I was 15, I started working behind the bar in the family restaurant – Smith’s in Uddingston. They always had jazz playing. On a Friday afternoon, Aunt Ann would come in to do a shift and she would put on her favourite CDs. She loved Ella, and Billie as well, and she knew every song. At home, I was immersed in my parents’ music – my dad is a big Stevie Wonder fan – and I also loved older funk records, as I loved dancing too.”
When, at the age of 16, Cécile announced that she was planning to enter the school talent show as a singer, her mum was quite taken aback. After all, up to that point, classical piano had been her main focus.
“I did Eva Cassidy’s version of Over the Rainbow in the talent show and got through to the final. It took a while for me to feel confident and believe I could do it, though. I was always a bit afraid I would fail or be mocked. I was bullied at high school and had to change school and that probably knocked my confidence but I drew on that experience.
“I moved to Uddingston Grammar. It was an amazing school, a nurturing school. In sixth year we did a musical production – Grease. I was Frenchie. I wanted to be Sandy but they said I had too much sass!”
After studying law at Strathclyde University for a year (“God knows why!”), Cécile dropped out in order to pursue a career in music. “I wanted to study it full time; I wanted to work on my voice, on my craft. I had started to write songs and wanted to learn vocal technique so I went to Napier University.” Cécile studied the Estill method of voice training – which teaches the science of how the voice works; the understanding of which enables students to produce different textures and tones. “It blew my mind,” she says.
The BA Hons Popular Music course required students to perform the repertoire in different contexts so she began gigging in Edinburgh as part of her studies. By this time she had she met Glasgow-based jazz pianist and composer Euan Stevenson and although they were initially introduced so she could sing the songs he had been writing with a collaborator, he and Cécile soon began writing together, inspired by their shared love of such great songwriters as Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach.
Ten years after they first met, she reckons that they now have a catalogue of over 100 original songs – though some haven’t been heard outside Stevenson’s living room. “It’s been a really organic process right from the start. We seem to have a sort of musical telepathy. We’ve grown on the same path together.”
How would she describe their music? “Our original melodies have a real jazz flavour, but with contemporary lyrics. They’re about what’s in my life now, but when we play them on gigs in between jazz standards they sit alongside them well.
“My songs often start as poems, similar to writers like Don McLean who use poetry in their lyrics. And when Euan and I come together at the piano, we transform the words, using harmony and melody to paint the lyric. Melody is everything to me, in both the songs I write and the songs I choose to sing – like recently I performed a song by Duke Ellington called I’m Afraid which has one of the most beautiful melodies in any jazz standard I’ve ever heard. It has the perfect balance of fragility and strength, familiarity and surprise! It’s spine-tingling stuff.”
For someone whose confidence took a while to emerge, how did she get to the point where she holds her own on stage? “Well, the whole stage presence thing has taken a while to conquer. We did a lot of stage craft at uni but I learned mostly from watching others, I spent hours on YouTube watching live concerts and I gleaned lots of great little nuggets of info, such as get rid of the mic stand as it’s a barrier between you and the audience. Also, I record every gig I do and critique my performance afterwards – and there is always something that I want to improve on.
“When I bring my songs to audiences, my ultimate intention is to ‘send people’ some place. The level of story telling and authentic emotion is what I love most about the great pioneers of this music. It’s like turning on a tap when I’m truly connected to the song – something can flow through me in every note. As a singer, having good technicality is important of course, but for me, if the intention of love and connection isn’t there, then you’re missing the point.
“Essentially, I want our music to be accessible and focus on quality and good old-fashioned songwriting. So much is throwaway now. I like artists whose records still sound so good 30, 40 years later. I think we’ll still be listening to Amy Winehouse decades from now. Timeless pop music – that’s what jazz is. It doesn’t date.”
* Georgia Cécile plays the Aberdeen Jazz Festival on March 21 and 22. Visit www.georgiacecile.com for more details.
(c) Alison Kerr