Liane Carroll: Romance and Redemption

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

One of the UK’s leading jazz vocalists, Liane Carroll has always worn her heart on sleeve, often matching raw emotion with jaw-dropping technique. Peter Quinn spoke to Carroll about growing as an artist and her long-standing musical relationship with multi-Grammy-nominated producer James McMillan

When, in January 2017, Liane Carroll posted on Facebook that she was looking for a couple of suggestions for songs to include on her forthcoming album – “something maybe you have heard me do, or something you think I could do justice” – she probably expected to receive a couple of dozen at most. “I had 187 within two hours,” she tells me, one of which was from the great US pianist, Chip Ojisan Crawford, a mainstay of Gregory Porter’s band.

“Chip said ‘The Right to Love’ would suit you to a tee. So we listened to it and thought, oh my God. It’s about interracial marriage, it’s about taboo, there are sexual connotations.” The ‘we’ here refers to Carroll’s long-standing friend, the quadruple Grammy-nominated producer and musician, James McMillan. “When we recorded ‘The Right to Love’ the Trumpster had just got in and was closing down all forms of humanity and art. I said to James, let’s call the album that and he said ‘yes, absolutely’.”

The album is Carroll’s fourth with McMillan, following Up and Down (2011), Ballads (2013) and Seaside (2015). “We love working together and the process is such a luxury,” she says. “I first met him about 10 years ago. I was playing on the old piano at Porter’s and I suddenly heard this saxophone. It was Kirk Whalum, who’d been doing some recording with James. We became really good friends and then James said, do you fancy making a record? And that was Up and Down. His ears are ridiculous. He’s like your own personal dresser, he starts so subtly with each layer. And his heart is as big as his ears.”

Showing the esteem in which she is held on both sides of the pond, Chip Crawford confesses his love of Carroll’s music. “Heather Taylor gave me her album, Ballads. I loved it, especially ‘Pretending to Care’. Her voice, I thought she was a young black American singer. I only had her CD in my phone, and listened to ‘Pretending to Care’ over and over. I didn’t listen to anything else. When we got to hang out we sang together a cappella, laughed, had fun, and became instant friends. I was pleased to have ‘The Right to Love’ available when Liane asked if anyone knew of a good song. I guess I won the contest!”

In addition to the title track, which features a stunning arrangement by the brilliant Chris Walden, the new album features a further nine songs penned by some of Carroll’s most cherished composers, including Hoagy Carmichael – represented by ‘Skylark’ and ‘Georgia On My Mind’ – and Tom Waits, in the shape of ‘In the Neighborhood’ from his classic 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. “Just the first line kills you,” she says of the latter. “‘Well, the eggs chase the bacon round the fryin’ pan’, you’re just immediately there. And my favourite line: ‘Well, Friday’s a funeral and Saturday’s a bride’. They were obviously brought up Catholic, a Hell’s Kitchen type area I should imagine, that New York thing.”

Of Carmichael, Carroll notes, “when I was very young I heard ‘Memphis In June’ and it beguiled me, it was so beautiful. I was probably about 13, I had very advanced tastes! I was in love with Scott Hamilton when I was 11. We’ve done a few gigs since then and he now knows – he was like my pop idol.

“We were thinking of different aspects of love – that’s the theme, it’s definitely about all different types of love. ‘Georgia’ is about the love of the home town and the beauty of it. It felt a little bit era-appropriate, in as much as it’s not the sort of thing you can sing until you’re a bit older. Quite a lot of them are like that, actually. The older I’m getting the more I fit into the songs.

“I took myself into another era in my head, to Georgia in the 1940s or 1950s, with [guitarist] Mark Jaimes laying down such a groove. I haven’t been scared of my own shadow for many years. Giving yourself that permission to do what you want, after years of worrying about what every other person on the planet thinks or feels – and then, suddenly, in your fifties, it’s liberating. When I hit 50 I suddenly felt, yep, I fit it now, that’s where I should be.”

Fittingly enough, the very first thing you hear on album opener, ‘Skylark’, is the emotive tenor-sax wail of Kirk Whalum, who had gatecrashed Carroll’s Porter’s gig all those years ago. “Kirk is so heartfelt, he’s a very spiritual man,” Liane notes, “and he brings that to it.”

Since we last met, Carroll has been busy winning yet more awards, including the prestigious BASCA Gold Badge Award in recognition of her unique contribution to music, plus Best Vocalist in the 2016 British Jazz Awards. She has also had to deal with personal heartbreak, having lost her beloved mum, Clare, to pancreatic cancer in July last year.

“It was 11 days from being told,” Carroll says. “But we knew she was ill, she’d lost weight. Abby [Liane’s daughter] had done hair extensions for a couple of nurses at the local hospice. She just phoned them and said I don’t suppose you have any spare beds going. And we got a bed in an hour, we were so lucky. I’ve done fundraising for them for 30 years and I shall carry on. They put her in this beautiful room, Andy Murray was at Wimbledon, she could see the blue sky, and she was on quite a bit of morphine by then. She was happy, laughing. I sang her ‘Here’s to Life’, because that was her favourite song, when she was just about going under – because her kidneys failed, and they said she’s going to go that night. I sang ‘May all your storms be weathered’ and her little eyebrow went up and she went ‘aaah’. So she knew I was there and I held her hand. And then, when she went, me and my daughter sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. I’ve had many a tear, obviously.”

The album concludes, movingly, with a song dedicated to Clare. “It was an honour to sing ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and dedicate it to mum, a happy opportunity to sing a song about someone that misses someone. That was with [pianist] Malcolm Edmonstone, who I love – what he’s done with the Guildhall over the last year is incredible. James said, right, we need a string arrangement. And then when we listened to it we thought it said what it needs to say. As we’ve said many times before, you and I, the song is what matters: how you can paint it or portray it.”

Album producer McMillan is forthright in his opinion regarding Carroll’s stature.

“Liane is the most affecting, the most emotionally powerful, the most honest jazz singer in the world, and that’s not just my opinion. You know how you have a handful of people whose opinion you really respect – I reach out to Chris Walden and Kirk Whalum and a few other people internationally who I know aren’t going to bullshit me.

“The slight problem with this process is that it’s me and her, on our own, a lot of the time, and then it’s me on my own a lot of the time, putting it all together and mixing it. You have up and down moments where you think, does it expose the essence of her, which is this weird dichotomy of nakedness and virtuosity?”

With forthcoming gigs including Glastonbury with London Elektricity and the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival with pianist Brian Kellock, Carroll has maintained an incredible 30-year residency at Porter’s in Hastings (“The old piano is on the wall,” she tells me), as well as tight-knit musical partnerships with fellow singers Claire Martin and Ian Shaw. “Every time I play with Ian, it ups my game. And every time I play with Claire, we both said it really ups our game – we’re clenching a little bit more! We want to do our best for each other.”

Having fought her own demons, with depression and drink, music now seems to be more important to Carroll than ever. A salvation, almost. “Oh, yeah, definitely. But I didn’t see it as such. When I was in the middle of it, it almost becomes the enemy because it’s so much in your spirit and in your heart that it’s intrusive. When you want to forget about everything, when you’ve been depressed, what you’ll do to self-medicate and make everything go away is drink your bodyweight in vodka. That’s the truth. Music is such an intrusion because, apart from your family, it’s the only thing you actually feel anything for. I know I can’t drink again, ‘cos if I do I’d just kill myself – that’s how it was. So, yes, it has been a bit of a salvation. That, and my family and friends, like James and Roger [Liane’s husband, bassist Roger Carey]. The fact that I’ve got this incredible man that I fell in love with when I was 15, who still puts up with me and plays in my trio – he inspired me to be daring, he’s quite a maverick.”

As someone who knows a thing or two about great vocalists, and having worked with Liane on the very first edition of the London Jazz Festival’s opening gala, Jazz Voice, in 2008 (when she sang ‘Lover Come Back To Me’ and ‘Midnight Sun’), trumpeter, composer, arranger and conductor extraordinaire, Guy Barker, is someone whose opinion carries a particular gravitas. “Liane is a force of nature, an astonishing vocalist, pianist and songwriter and an all-round brilliant musician. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her often, and each and every time has been truly memorable. I’ve written a number of large scale arrangements for her, and to hear her magnificent voice soar above the sound of a large orchestra is a great experience. I can’t wait to work with her again.”

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long to hear, once more, one of contemporary music’s greatest voices enveloped in a luxurious orchestral embrace. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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