Interview: Zara McFarlane – Jazz Is Changing (October 2017)

Savvy and oozing self-deprecating charm, Zara McFarlane is one of Gilles Peterson’s freshest jazz vocalists who has been signed with Brownswood Recordings since 2011. She has released two albums, won ‘Best Jazz Act’ at the MOBOs and is shortly due to publish her third release on 26th September.  The latest LP reaches beyond the previous two. With Caribbean rhythms inspired by her Jamaican roots, she mixes reggae and Congolese Kumina with her London jazz upbringing.  Her newest offering is also produced by close friend and drummer Moses Boyd.

McFarlane talked me through her writing process for the new album, which she approached in an unfamiliar way.

“My main focus for the album was to make it up-tempo; I wanted to make the rhythm the driving force before the songwriting.  My first recording was more straight-ahead and my second more ballad-y. Growing as an artist involves exploring new territory and I wanted to delve into my Caribbean roots.

The lyrics took a long time to come and definitely came last in the writing process. This is because I had less of a specific theme to tie the album together, so it took me a while to decide what I wanted to write about. I would say the lyrics are less about direct inspiration but instead more poetic”.

McFarlane’s compositions have previously been internally focused but her latest lyrics reveal her thoughts on wider socio-political issues.  Maturing as an artist, could this be something that is particularly important right now given the current political climate?

“I do touch on social and political issues but only lightly.  For example, Fussin’ and Fightin’ is about standing up for what you believe in and The Fire is about people’s mistrust of the government.

However, I wrote these songs before Brexit and I was just picking up on the vibes of the people around me. It feels to me like people are fed up. Ever since the 2011 London riots, I just sense a feeling of unrest.

This album actually took me three years to write because I was touring and so I guess it reflects things I’ve seen over that period of time.  I wouldn’t say there is a single theme throughout though as it is the rhythm that defines this album”.

Her first contract with Peterson’s label was a two-LP deal.  For the third album, she chose to go back to the same record company.  I asked what made her return to Brownswood and why she favours working with Gilles and his team.

“I feel so honoured that Gilles liked what I was doing originally as this is why I am here in my career today. I met him at a festival and eventually managed to organise a meeting with him and the rest happened from there.

Gilles is a busy man. He invites me round and sits me down and just asks me loads of questions about what I’m enjoying listening to and how everything is going. He just asks so many questions. Then he plays me many records and sends me long playlists for inspiration. He really is an encyclopaedia of record knowledge and can connect where you are with music I would never have heard before.  This helps to inspire my writing as I hear little bits of different songs that I think would sound good.

He doesn’t get involved in the production. I did work with Matthew Halsall on the first album and of the two tracks we worked on, one song stuck: Angie La La”.

Her first release would be considered the purest jazz of the three. I asked her if she has seen any change in the popularity of the genre over her time in the industry.

“Jazz was always seen as elitist, but maybe the scene is changing as more publications are showcasing new music. The scene is evolving as more young people are mixing the traditional US elements with their own UK/World influences.

There is a lot of excitement around lots of young artists from the UK and I’m biased as these are my friends but you should check out: Moses Boyd, Binker Golding, Camilla George, Ashley Henry and Shirley Tett.

I don’t get much of a chance to find new jazz venues in London as I’m always touring but I always love Mau Mau Bar on Portobello Rd”.

I was curious to see what else ignites McFarlane when breaking from music and how she spends her free time.

“I love drama and theatre. I’m currently doing a play with the Royal Shakespeare Company which is such an honour. The show is Anthony and Cleopatra and it will be coming to London’s Barbican this winter”.

This makes sense as you learn McFarlane had an education at the well–known BRITS theatre school before moving onto the Guildhall School of Music and schooling in jazz. It’s admirable to see an artist have a strong career and also keep diversity in their day-to-day life. She tells me about her other aspirations and goals.

“I just want to keep doing what I want in a sustainable way and making a living. I absolutely love working with independent labels and having full creative control and I don’t think I’d ever change that.  Mainly it’s important to me to keep variety in my life with new excitement and to always stretch myself as a person.

One dream I have is to play with a full orchestra”.

It’s impossible to not notice that McFarlane is a female in a male-dominated industry and I wondered if she had ever found this a challenge.

I never even noticed it when I first started out in music but it is something I get asked about a lot actually.  I think it’s good to talk about it because I’m not just a singer, I’m a band-leader, run my own company and I’m a producer.  I’m even my own manager at the moment.

With so much talent and seemingly endless dynamism, what’s in store for her in the near-future?

My album is out on 26th Sep which I’m excited about and I will be performing at Birmingham [Pizza Express] on 26th October and at London’s Rich Mix with a ten-piece band on 15th November. 

From February I will be going on a UK tour. I will be publishing my dates on social feeds and my website as soon as they are finalised”.

Zara McFarlane is part of a bubbling excitement of London musicians that are redefining jazz with a contemporary British edge, mixing conventional style with the relevance of their own voice. Join her on a cross-Atlantic pilgrimage as she gets close to the heartbeat of the Caribbean islands, unearthing the rhythms that lay the foundation of her heritage.