Christine Tobin - celebrating Cohen with Kisses

Christine Tobin is a singer with connections. When the Dublin-born winner of this year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards Vocalist of the Year title was planning her Sailing to Byzantium album in 2012, she wanted a male Irish voice to read a few W.B. Yeats poems to complement the ones she had set to music.

Her ideal was a former teacher whose drama lessons had encouraged her in learning stagecraft and who was in possession of, not to put too fine a point on it, a rather sexy set of pipes. He took a bit of tracking down due to the career path he had followed after leaving Dublin but when Tobin’s missive finally reached him he remembered his former pupil and was only too happy to oblige by recording six Yeats poems onto MP3s and emailing them back the next day.

And that’s how Gabriel Byrne, the star of films including The Usual Suspects and Miller’s Crossing who returns to our screens as BBC TV’s Quirke this Sunday, came to be reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree to an accompaniment composed by Tobin on Sailing to Byzantium. The album won Tobin a Composer of the Year award, so she can hardly be accused of riding on a Hollywood heart-throb’s coat tails, but Byrne’s contributions were and remain a striking part of a superb recording.

“He was actually a Spanish teacher but he was working at our school while he was training to be an actor and he organised these drama sessions after school to help us put on end of term plays and shows,” says Tobin. “I don’t think any of us were surprised that he became a success in films because he was very charismatic and quite the heart-throb even then. Girls used to re-arrange their desks before he came into class so that they’d be sitting closer to him, that sort of thing.”

The connection that led to Sailing to Byzantium’s successor, A Thousand Kisses Deep, for which Tobin has been receiving unanimously approving reviews, goes back even further than secondary school. She was ten when her older sister, whose music listening played a significant part in moulding Tobin’s tastes, arrived home with an album called Fill Your Head with Rock.

This was in the golden age of vinyl sampler albums, which record companies used to release at temptingly low prices to lead record buyers towards lesser known acts. Fill Your Head with Rock was a double album that sold at around £2 and became something of a rite of passage for school age music fans. It featured leading CBS acts including Santana, the Byrds and for Tobin, fatefully, Leonard Cohen.

“I liked other tracks. I remember Laura Nyro was on there and Moondog, who sounded different to anything else I’d ever heard,” says Tobin. “But there was something about Leonard Cohen’s voice that really attracted me. It was very low and although there was a sadness about the song, it was a romantic sadness. I’ve never got on with the thing about Leonard Cohen being depressing. To me he sounded very warm, very kind.”

Through her teens Tobin developed a love of words that comes across very clearly in her utterly distinctive singing. Bob Dylan was a major interest. Then Joni Mitchell, another of her sister’s favourites, led Tobin into jazz through her Mingus album. The Celtic jazz band Lammas, in which she sang alongside guitarist, now respected poet, Don Paterson, also helped to develop Tobin’s ear for poems that can become songs. But Cohen has been a constant source of pleasure and inspiration and A Thousand Kisses Deep, on which she interprets eleven of his songs, has become her salute to him in this, his eightieth year.

She won a Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last August for its live incarnation during the inaugural British Vocal Jazz Festival and what struck then as now is the respect with which she treats Cohen’s words and music. She hardly ever alters a melody, although she has changed certain songs quite profoundly in other ways, like Suzanne for example, which becomes an African high life party.

“I remember hearing the Suzanne in the song being interviewed on the radio,” she says, “and she seemed quite different from the way Cohen portrayed her. She was very bohemian, lived in a caravan, and seemed very outgoing and I just thought I could bring her personality out more without bending the song out of shape.”

For the Scottish tour that begins in Aberdeen tomorrow [Thursday May 22] Tobin is joined by her regular accompanists, guitarist Phil Robson and double bassist Dave Whitford, although pianist Ross Stanley will deputise for Robson when Tobin appears at Glasgow Jazz Festival next month. It’s a very compact unit that has worked together a lot and often sounds as if more than three people are involved.

“It’s very instinctive for us now,” says Tobin. “We know each other so well and that allows us to be spontaneous. We’re working with great material written by a master and we want to bring these songs alive and make them breathe in the moment.”

From The Herald, May 21, 2014.


How Joni led to jazz

Christine Tobin stops mid sentence and tells herself to put her shovel away and stop digging. The Dublin-born singer had just been waxing lyrical about the power of sad songs to make both singer and listener feel better when she realised she might be setting herself up for inclusion in the miserable git school of performer.
She’s far from miserable. It’s true that, with arguably the most distinctively alluring voice on the British jazz scene, Tobin can sound like the roof’s just fallen in on her world and then some. But that’s only when the song demands it. On her latest album, Secret Life of a Girl, Tobin changes character like a jobbing actor - now the worldly, sardonic observer, now the ten year old Camille, all mischief and wide-eyed wonder – and in conversation she’s fun, effusive and full of enthusiasm for the latest gig she’s been to and the next stop, whatever it’ll be, on her constant voyage of musical discovery.
The night before she’d been to see Herbie Hancock at London Jazz Festival, and she’s still loving what she heard from a musician who played a part in her conversion to jazz, which came when Tobin heard Joni Mitchell’s Mingus album in her late teens. Here were brilliantly crafted lyrics set to tunes written, mostly, by one of jazz’s greatest composers and played by a dream band, including Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bass guitar genius Jaco Pastorius.
“For me at the time it was the unpredictability of the music, the way it twisted and turned, and the great sounds that the musicians created, and on top of that there were Joni’s words,” she says. “I already loved Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and I still do, but this was different. There was a style to Joni’s writing that just intrigued me and made me want to sing those songs.”
Before Mingus, Tobin had almost switched off from playing music. As a child growing up in Dublin she’d played Irish music, doing the rounds of socials and charity concerts with her older sister as an accordion duo. Then at the age of eleven, she auditioned for a stage version of The Good Old Days, the television programme that brought music hall and a dictionary-swallowing master of ceremonies into our homes for a good many years, and got the part, singing and playing the accordion. She loved being onstage and might even then have harboured notions of becoming a professional singer, but the music her peers were listening to – the pop music of the day – didn’t really appeal.
“I liked the stuff my sister, who’s ten years older than me, was listening to,” she says. “She was into Jimi Hendrix and Laura Nyro and Dylan, which was a bit kind of grown up for an early teenager to be thinking about playing. So I didn’t really do much until my late teens, when I heard Mingus and decided to become a jazz singer.”
Jazz quickly became an obsession as she acted on tip-offs and followed the time-honoured discovery by association process, going back to Charlie Parker and happening across Sarah Vaughan and – still a big favourite - Billie Holiday, then learning as many jazz standards as possible.
“I loved Billie Holiday the most from the start,” she says. “It was the emotional quality, and the sense of truth. It’s a mixture of an amazing humility, human frailty, yet absolute command as well, and she still sounds really contemporary, even the early recordings, with that extraordinary timing and phrasing.”
After singing around Dublin for a year or so, Tobin decided to broaden her horizons, so in 1987 she moved to London. She took the jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music, where she made full use of the record library, digging into Miles Davis’s whole back catalogue with especial relish, and where she particularly enjoyed trumpeter and writer Ian Carr’s jazz history class and being able to trace the music’s development.
Inevitably, being around the Guildhall, there were opportunities to sing and Tobin joined pianist Simon Purcell’s band, where as well as singing the pianist’s own arrangements of jazz standards, she had another door open for her, as a lyricist.
“Up to this point, I’d seen myself as an interpreter, I suppose, but Simon really pushed me to write,” she says. “He was really encouraging and although I found it pretty difficult I wrote some words to tunes he’d written. Then I got a bit overwhelmed and I was a bit confused as to which direction I should take. You know, should I continue singing standards, which is what jazz singers mainly do, or should I do my own stuff?”
In the end, she chose to do neither and instead took a course in anthropology at Goldsmiths College.
“I think I needed to step back from it all and here was something that was all about human beings and communication that didn’t involve getting up on a stage,” she says. “It was a really interesting subject and going back to college turned out to be a good move because within two years of being away from music, I could really see my way forward.”
Enter, at this point, saxophonist Tim Garland and award-winning Dundee-born poet and guitarist Don Paterson, who were putting together the folk-jazz group Lammas. They already had the bulk of their first album recorded when Garland approached Tobin and asked if she might sing on one track, the group’s own arrangement of the traditional song Black is the Colour (or Black Hair as it became listed on the CD).
“It was funny because when I got to London, everyone presumed that, being from Ireland, I was coming from a traditional music background,” says Tobin. “But apart from playing the accordion as a child, I’d had no real traditional music experience. In fact, the first time I heard Black Hair was when Tim left a recording of it on my answerphone so that I could learn it.”
Nothing daunted, Tobin made the recording, joined the band and while Lammas made a series of criminally overlooked albums through the 1990s (with Tobin, for a non-folkie, providing some great takes on Robert Burns etc), she was able to establish herself simultaneously as a singer in her own right. The seven albums she’s made for the Babel label, beginning with Aililiu in 1995, chart her progression into an assured and inspired songsmith who can also give whole new lives to songs by writers including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Milton Nascimento, Cole Porter and on Secret Life of a Girl, Rufus Wainwright.
“I still love standards and I know that not being easily categorised – is she a singer; is she a songwriter? – can make life difficult,” she says. “But music for me should take people somewhere different from their everyday lives. I love the storytelling aspect of songwriting and the whole world of words, which is something I got from working with Don [Paterson] and other poets like Michael Donaghy and Eva Salzman. But in the end it’s all about communicating the emotions and leaving people feeling that they’ve had a meaningful experience.”
From The Herald, November 27, 2009.

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