Jo Lawry - taking the Sting out of solo gigs


You’re playing a gig in a Dublin bar and you want to add some musicians to the line-up. So who do you ask? If you’re Jo Lawry you can call on Paul Simon’s band and surprise your audience.


That’s not likely to happen when the Australian singer squeezes two solo Scottish dates between finishing the Paul Simon & Sting tour and starting the latter’s next trek but it is the kind of favour you can ask when you’re the backing singer on one of the biggest rock tours of the season.


Lawry, who promotes her latest album, Taking Pictures, in Edinburgh and Perth this coming Monday and Tuesday, has been working with Sting since she was recommended to audition for his If on a Winter’s Night album and tour in 2009.


“It seemed like an odd skill set for a backing singer for a pop star,” she says down the line from Dublin where she’s just secured half of Simon’s band for her gig later at J J Smyths. “They wanted someone who could read music, who could improvise, who had a knowledge of northern folk music and had choral experience. I thought, this was made for me. I also thought it would be a one-off but Sting and I got on really well and he asked me to do his next tour, the orchestral one, and here I am, still touring with him.”


As a singer who had studied opera  - “just for a minute,” she adds – and who has worked with jazz pianist Fred Hersch as well as taking part in a Carnegie Hall choral project with the inspirational voice box that is Bobby McFerrin, Lawry ticked all the boxes. She even has a late aunt, Tina Lawton, who was one of Australia’s leading folk singers in the 1960s – and briefly studied at Glasgow School of Art shortly before dying in an aircraft accident – who left a recorded legacy of songs such as The Water is Wide, Barbara Allen and The Raggle Taggle Gypsies that Lawton learned in family singalongs at home on their almond farm south of Adelaide.


From her brief affair with opera, Lawry, who also plays violin (she played as well as singing on Sting’s Synchronicities tour), moved on to study jazz at Adelaide University’s Elder Conservatorium and won a Fulbright Scholarship to complete her Masters degree in Jazz Performance in New York. She subsequently began a doctorate so that she could stay on in New York but her singing career has got in the way of its completion.


First Fred Hersch asked her to fill the role originally filled by British jazz singer Norma Winstone in his Pocket Orchestra, a “scary challenge” that saw her using her voice as a horn. Then, as part of a relationship with Carnegie Hall that has seen her chosen as a featured artist in the legendary venue and arts centre’s Musical Connections pilot programme, came the opportunity to work with Bobby McFerrin.


“They brought together twenty singers from wildly different backgrounds and disciplines – opera singers, Tuvan throat singers, Irish traditional singers, Brazilian singers, all sorts - and they then got us to improvise an opera led by Bobby,” she says. “We spent two weeks putting together a framework but on the night it was completely spontaneous and somehow it worked. Bobby’s fabulous and he has a quality that’s almost childlike that I find really inspiring – he’s never lost his sense of wonder and he’s able to make the most obscure music accessible because of this wonder and joy he brings to everything.”


It isn’t just Lawry’s doctorate that has been interrupted by calls for her to sing and tour with musical luminaries, work that saw her featured on the recent documentary on backing singers, 20 Feet from Stardom. Talking Pictures, the follow-up to her 2008 debut, I Want to Be Happy, has been a long, drawn-out process that she finally finished during down time while Sting worked on his musical, The Last Ship, last year. Promoting it on her days off from touring with pop/rock superstars, despite the attraction of being able to enlist some of the world’s top musicians to play in a Dublin pub, can be disorienting but also exciting.


“I used to be terrified of playing solo gigs,” she says. “I’d get as many people onstage as I could afford - not to hide behind them so much as to feel safe. I’m doing these Scottish gigs with my husband, Will [Vinson], who’s a saxophonist but will be playing piano. I feel safe with him and I’m beginning to get used to switching from being a backing singer in a stadium band to being the centre of attention again. As a backing singer, you’re creating a sound and you get out of the way of sounding the final syllable because they don’t want machine gun-like consonants, whereas in my own shows it’s all about delivering a story.”


From The Herald, April 22, 2015.


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