“I can imagine that in my life I will always perform different genres of music, because I just like all types of music. I think that jazz would probably always be an undercurrent somewhere, because I’ve got so much to develop still. Jazz is so big and there’s so much you have to learn and that you have to do to be able to do it well. So that’s all I really want to do, to continue to develop as a person and as a singer/vocalist.”
For a lady of such tender years – still in her twenties, Zara McFarlane has already built up a very impressive musical CV. After graduating from the pre-requisite vocal schools, Zara spent some quality time working with the legendary South African trumpet player and band leader Hugh Masekela; and lengthy stints with Tomorrow’s Warriors and Jazz Jamaica. Having put out a self funded and promoted EP, which has been doing the rounds over the past year, supported by intermittent live appearances, UK native Zara McFarlane has gradually began to be noticed by those who appreciate and acknowledge quality vocals when they hear them.
The Dood caught up with a bubbly and effervescent Miss McFarlane less than a week after her captivating and enthralling showcase performance at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Bar. Naturally, he was keen to delve deeper into what makes this new kid on the block tick and why music mogul Gilles Peterson was so keen to add her to his Brownswood Recordings roster and in turn promote her forthcoming album entitled “Until Tomorrow.”
The Dood: Very pleased to meet you today Zara. First of all let me congratulate you on your awesome performance at your showcase last Wednesday.
Zara: Thank you!
The Dood: Judging from the feedback I got afterwards from various luminaries within the industry, you were a big hit. Artists such as vibes man Orphy Robinson said they have enjoyed working with you in the past and look forward very much to working with you in the future. Did you enjoy yourself?
Zara: Yeah, I enjoyed it! I was a little nervous at first, but yeah, I enjoyed it! Some people say that it’s hard to enjoy those showcases, but I was just a bit nervous. I don’t really get that nervous anymore when I’m singing, but I suppose it was a big deal, so therefore I was a little bit nervous.
The Dood: I think Gilles was more nervous than you?
Zara: He was excited! He was very excited!
The Dood: That’s cool. Have you performed in front of your mother before?
Zara: I have. She doesn’t always get to come and see me all the time these days, but when she has the time, she will.
The Dood: So, let’s start on the home front. How did you start out on your personal musical journey and what influences did you have, be it your siblings or otherwise?
Zara: Musically, I suppose…well actually, when I was little I wanted to be a dancer, I didn’t want to be a singer. And I loved listening to different styles of music. My parents played a lot of Reggae, because they are Jamaican. Some Soul stuff – my dad had some old Soul vinyl records – James Brown and stuff like that. But I didn’t actually listen to that much of that type of music although he had it in his collection. Mainly it was dancing, a lot of dancing. There was my sister and my cousins and we would just get together and dance to Ragga music and Reggae music, and whatever was on TV and stuff. So my influences are more from dancing point of view I would say, than even from a singing point of view. When I started writing songs, that’s how I got involved with singing.
The Dood: What age were you?
Zara: I was about 11. This was around 1994…Then I would put myself into competitions and things. At school I got the chance to do some singing, just because I always wanted to do something in the shows. And then I put myself forward for the Repology 2000 in Croydon. It was hosted by Geoff Schumann.
The Dood: The comedian?
Zara: Yeah! I did that – that was good. So then I put myself forward for other competitions… Just to try and push myself.
The Dood: So you always had this drive, that independent attitude, that go-getter personality?
Zara: Yep! Then at my school they would do musicals every year, and at some point I would get involved in those musicals. I didn’t apply for the main roles, but liked to be involved in some capacity. Just before I left school I heard about Brit School… It was really late actually, because when I found out about it there was about a week left until the deadline to apply.
The Dood: So, how old were you at this time?
Zara: I started at Brit School at 16. I auditioned and at first I didn’t get in. Then I got offered a reserve place. I was the last person they interviewed. Then you go from the interview to the audition where you do singing, dancing and drama. But I was the last person they interviewed and I only had a five-minute interview when you’re supposed to have a 20 min interview. So I appealed in a letter and then I got another interview and I received an unconditional offer.
The Dood: You go girl!
Zara: After BRIT School, I went on to Vocaltech, and I advanced my song-writing there as well.
The Dood: What is Vocaltech for those that don’t know?
Zara: Vocaltech is a music school associated with Thames Valley University – well the degree part of it is anyway…There is a place called the Powerhouse, and within the Powerhouse you’ve got Drumtech, Vocaltech and Guitar X. And Vocaltech was the vocal department of that, but we worked with of all of them at some point to learn about being in a band. My degree was called Popular Music Performance and it was all about “Popular” music – everything apart from Classical – so we did Jazz; Rock; Soul and R&B etc
The Dood: And how did that help shape you and your vocal technique?
Zara: They taught us more about how to be a session musician really. We learnt how to do backing vocals for different ands, so that you know your craft and you know how to sing harmonies and read music and all that kind of stuff. We were all expected to do this. So I did that and got my degree. With honours! (Chuckles)
The Dood: What was the next step?
Zara: Well actually, while I was studying I got involved with Tomorrow’s Warriors, which is a jazz development company that develops young black musicians.
The Dood: Yes, I know Gary Crosby (OBE) very well. How did you make the connection?
Zara: They used to do a jam session at the Jazz Cafe. They had that for years and years and I used to go down sometimes and sing, as anybody else would have to jam session. And then one day Janine (from Dune Records) was there and she heard the singing and said, “Give me a call on the following Monday, because I like you’re singing, I like what you’re doing, and I want to get you involved with Jazz Jamaica.” She actually mentioned Tomorrow’s Warriors originally, but the first thing I ever did was Jazz Jamaica. It was Jazz Jamaica All-Stars – The Big Band with who Hugh Masekela. That was the first ever gig that I did for Dune.
Tomorrow’s Warriors Founder, Gary Crosby (OBE) Left of picture
The Dood: Wow! You must have been extremely nervous?
Zara: But the weird thing is I wasn’t! I ended up being the dep for Juliet Roberts… Well actually I was the dep for Hugh, because Hugh wasn’t in the country.
The Dood: Can you explain what the “dep” is?
Zara: Dep as in deputy is the word we use for the person who is the substitute. So basically what happened on that gig, it was a Big Band, which is a 24 piece jazz band – and there was 100 children singing with us as well. So we had to rehearse with the children to make sure they were prepared for the concert. So I wasn’t actually meant to be part of the concert at all, but I was singing Hugh’s part in rehearsals so that the children knew what was going on. But in the end when it got nearer and nearer the show, Janine and Gary were like, “She’s worked really hard in rehearsals we may as well just put her in the show as well, because she knows all the music.” So it was Mary Pearce and Juliet Roberts and then me as well that got to do the backing vocals on that gig…That was amazing! And that was the first gig that I ever did with Dune.
The Dood: Did you get to meet Hugh Masekela?
Zara: Yes I did! I’ve met him many times now. I have performed in that concert with him a few times now. I went with him to Germany as well one time. We did another gig at the Roundhouse, with another hundred children and a big band. It’s about four times that I have performed with him now.
The Dood: What is he like his personality and a musician at close?
Zara: He has done so many amazing things through his music. He knows exactly what he wants and he’ll TELL you! (Laughs) But also he’s very bubbly, when he’s in the right frame of mind. He’d be telling us all these stories and joking with us. He’s really cool!
The Dood: So who else was in this Tomorrow’s Warriors group?
Zara: When I first started working with them, it was Nathanial Facey, alto saxophone; Jay Phelps was the trumpet player; Shanie Forbes was the drummer; and back then double bass was Neil Charles and on piano Gwilym Watkins. They kind of went on to become “Empirical” which is a young jazz band that is doing amazingly well at he moment – it’s not actually all the same musicians in the a group now though.
They won a MOBO last year (2010) The Dood: And what was your next step?
Zara: After that there were two Tomorrow’s Warriors. Gary (Crosby) was fronting one and Abram Wilson was fronting one. And I was in Abram’s band. At the same time as playing with Tomorrow’s Warriors I was touring with Jazz Jamaica as well as still studying for my degree. I was with Tomorrow’s Warriors for quite a long time – with three different line-ups – for about four years in the end, and then that band split up. Then they weren’t sure what to do with me because I was a singer…The thing that kept me going was Jazz Jamaica really.
The Dood: Was it fun?
Zara: Absolutely! The most wonderful thing Jazz and reggae music mixed together. Two of my all time favourite things! (Chuckles)
The Dood: Was it like a family set up?
Zara: Very much so. Being together for two to four years you become like a family. Just learning generally how to interact with such a good band was fun. In that Jazz Jamaica band was Denys Baptiste; Jason Yarde; Soweto Kinch to name a few. They were all amazing musicians. And I was very new to jazz, in fact i was totally new to jazz at that time. I was just learning from being around them.
The Dood: Who did you learn your vocal phrasing from? Did you listen to artists such as Dianne Reeves etc?
Zara: I was introduced to Diane Reeves by Janine and Gary (Crosby) I think, so I listened to her quite a bit. A lot of her arrangements are very good.
The Dood: What about your vocal styling intonation?
Zara: I taught myself to sing when I was about eleven by listening to other people. People like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were my hero’s, I used to love them! I didn’t want to sing out of tune, so I used to practice constantly trying to get the right tone mostly.
The Dood: Pretending to sing into a microphone right?
Zara: No! I actually bought myself a mike, not a proper one, just a cheap one from Argos or something! (Laughs)
The Dood: You mentioned contemporary singers earlier. I know you also admire Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, whom you’ve met. Where was that photo of you and Erykah taken?
Zara: In Spain – Jazz Jamaica did a gig in Spain and she was in Sans Sebastian. We sneaked backstage when she was performing and I sat in a chair waiting until she came off. She finished and walked off and I was sitting in HER chair! (Laughs) The picture was actually taken later in the hall-way as she was on her way to her car. She was really nice.
Zara & Erykah Badu (Jazz Jamaica in Spain)
The Dood: One can hear the various music influences in your releases to date. The jazz and soul are quite overt; the reggae tinges a little less so. Do you agree?
Zara: Well, I hear the reggae in there, maybe a lot of other people don’t. It is definitely more of a flavour than out and out style.
The Dood: Any particular artists influenced you?
Zara: I do love Bob Marley. I know a lot of people do, but his lyrics seem effortless and so accessible. And his music is deep and moving to me! In fact a guy called Tony Platt, who produced the Jazz Jamaica album I was on, also produced one of Bob Marley’s albums.
The Dood: Really
Zara: Yeah! I also listen to John Holt and all the big reggae artists such as Gregory Isaacs…they were the artists played in my household. And when I was younger this was the sort of music that was played when I went to parties. I also used to listen to a lot of “Rare Groove” music. When I was little one of my uncles used to send me tapes. I don’t know why he started doing it actually, but for some reason he just started sending me tapes. People like Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson. I used to love Luther Vandross a lot! I used to listen to him all the time before I went to bed.
The Dood: I was fortunate enough to see him at Hammersmith Odeon and Wembley Arena – a class act.
Zara: I would have loved to have seen him live! He’s been a big influence on me vocally.
The Dood: So let talk about your forthcoming album release. It has a very spacious, airy, warm and inviting feel to it. Is that a lot to do with your writing style married with Pete Edwards’ arrangements?
Zara: I always wanted to write music that is emotive. The lyrics tend to be quite emotional; I always try to say something that has an emotional pull to it. From the writing, to the melody, through to the delivery, all of that has to come into play for you to create that emotion.
The Dood: Who did which arrangements on the EP?
Zara: “Lazy Afternoon,” I did that arrangement; On Green Dolphin Street, Pete did that arrangement, that’s an amazing arrangement. Another one that’s on the EP is “Yesterday’s,” and Gary (Crosby) did that arrangement.
The Dood: I understand you put this EP out by yourself? How did you raise the funding?
Zara: I worked part-time. I still work part-time! I also asked a few people see if they were interested in helping out for free! Obviously this was prior to the input from Gilles (Peterson), so my band helped me out BIG TIME.
The Dood: So how many copies of the EP did you have pressed up?
Zara: 500 copies
The Dood: And you sent them out to various radio stations like Radio One?
Zara: No! I was just giving them out to people.
The Dood: So what year was this?
Zara: Well, I did my EP launch in April 2010 at Charlie Wrights in London. I was also doing House music with Bopstar.
The Dood: Okay, so let’s talk about Bopstar – how did that linkup come about?
Zara: I met him through a friend of mine called Rasiyah, who is an fantastic vocalist! I think she did a little bit of work with him years before. And when I met him, he suggested that we should do some writing together. I said, “Okay! Let’s try doing something together and see what happens.” So we worked together quite slowly actually because I was very busy. I was doing my Masters at the time I met him; I was still working part-time; and I was still gigging with Tomorrow’s Warriors.
The Dood: Wow! There’s only so many hours in a day.
Zara: I didn’t have much rest or sleep for about three or four years! So I worked with him (Bopstar) slowly over a period of four years and we’ve ended up developing about four or five tunes now – which isn’t that many considering it’s such a long time, but we like to write good tunes, really good tunes that hopefully have longevity. Then with regards to my EP, Bopstar helped me to promote it by sorting out a link so I could e-mail it to various people.
Bopstar also knew a guy called Simbad who knew Gilles (Peterson) and he asked Simbad to pass on the link to Gilles…And Gilles liked it! He played “Until Tomorrow” and “Yesterday’s” on his radio show. This was in February 2010. Then I had my EP launch at Charlie Wrights in April 2010 and I gave out the EP to everybody that attended. Which I think helped as well, as I just wanted people to hear it. I didn’t mind it as long as they were talking about. Later on that year I was performing with Bopstar at Southport Weekender doing the House stuff and Gilles was DJing as well that weekend, so I got to meet Gilles in person… So I had pressed the CDs by then but I was deliberating whether to give it to him. Because I had used a quote he had said on his show to put on my EP Cover. He was totally fine with it and said that, “You must come and do a Maida Vale session for me.” So that was how it was left.
Gilles Peterson, Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards & Zara McFarlane
So I started twittering him on Twitter, asking him “When will we be able to do the Maida Vale session?” He didn’t get back to me for a long while because he went to Cuba, Japan and all over the world during that time, so I didn’t really get a chance to do the Maida Vale sessions. But in October or November of 2010 he called me or e-mailed me and said, “Would you be able to come in for a meeting because I would like to release your album?” So to date I haven’t done the Maida Vale session and I don’t know if I’d be able to do that now because of a conflict of interest. But that’s how it developed.
The Dood: So, have you signed with Brownswood Recordings?
Zara: I’ve signed! I’ve put my X!!
The Dood: And that was when?
Zara: That was March 2011.
The Dood: Excellent!
Gilles Peterson, Zara McFarlane & Mita (P.R @ Brownswood Recordings)
The Dood: So.. Do you play any instruments?
Zara: I play a little bit of piano and guitar because I write to the piano and guitar. But I’ll never play in front of an audience! (Laughs)
The Dood: Okay!
Zara: I should be able to play really well given the years I’ve tinkered on it!
The Dood: So, now you’ve got the powerhouse of Gilles and his Brownswood recording outfit behind you. Given the amount of music industry luminaries at your showcase I can confidently say that he’s pulling out all the stops for you. A lot of people have been anticipating the release of this album. Can you talk us through some of your favourite tracks which is due to be released sometime in September?
Zara: I like them all! “Until Tomorrow” was written by Pete Edwards and my self.
The Dood: Are there any stories behind the tracks on the album?
Zara: They are not always related to personal occurrences in my life. I can think quite vividly about situations even though I haven’t experienced them.
The Dood: You should be an author?
Zara: I want to write a book at some point actually. One day! Yeah, I can think quite vividly about stories and things. If somebody tells me something about their life I really put myself into their shoes and try to get a sense of what it feels like. So I don’t always feel like I need to write about something that I’ve experienced, I feel that I can relate to other people’s experiences. So the track “Until tomorrow” is the story of a woman who knows that her boyfriend or husband or partner has been doing things you shouldn’t be doing and going places he should be going. So she’s saying, when he comes in “I don’t want to deal with it right now because the children still up, so we’ll sort it out tomorrow.” So even though she knows what he’s doing, she’s hoping that over time things will get better and things will change and love will pull them through and bring them back to each other.
The Dood: Why did you choose “Until Tomorrow” track is the title for the album?
Zara: Because, it’s a positive title. It’s important to have positive titles for albums.
The Dood: Okay, I hear that. You’ve got 10 tracks on the album, and you’re no doubt proud of them all?
Zara: Yes I am. I’ve been trying to record an album for long time.
The Dood: I suppose then that since childhood you dreamt of releasing your first album and now it’s come to fruition. How does that make you feel?
Zara: Excited and a bit scared! (Chuckles) Not scared in a bad way, more apprehensive of what’s to come because obviously you don’t know whether people like it or not. You don’t know what opportunities will come from it, hopefully positive ones.
The Dood: Does this mean that you’ve got series of live dates ahead, maybe some of the summer festivals?
Zara: Hopefully! I’ve got to get the booking agent. That’s the plan – booking agent, manager and publisher. I’ve got to lock down some of those and then things will start to develop a lot bigger I suppose, once I have those things in place.
The Dood: What aspirations do you have future albums? Do you plan on staying within the same genre?
Zara: I can imagine that in my life I will always perform different genres of music, because I just like all types of music. I think that jazz would probably always be an undercurrent somewhere, because I’ve got so much to develop still. Jazz is so big and there’s so much you have to learn and that you have to do to be able to do it well. So that’s all I really want to do, to continue to develop as a person and as a singer/vocalist I want to experiment with different elements of jazz and see what’s up. So I think that will always have some bearing on what I do.
I love house, I love reggae. And I hope that with this album that as and when I release singles that there will be various remixes. So even if my albums were jazz orientated, I will always try to bring in other styles of music into what I’m doing. For instance some of the tracks on the album were actually house tracks first!
The Dood: Name some of them?
Zara: “Captured,” I didn’t write that, Bop (Bopstar) he wrote that. “Desire” we wrote together and “Chiaroscuro.” Those two we wrote together. They were all house tracks originally.
The Dood: Proof positive that the tracks work in different contexts?
Zara: For me I have to be doing all different styles of music, because I’m passionate about it.
The Dood: What advice would you give to young girls or boys aspiring to take the path that you have taken?
Zara: Know what you want. For a long time I didn’t plan to be a singer. I didn’t think I’d be a singer full-time actually – I thought I would be a teacher or something and have singing as a part-time job. I’m still a part-time teacher, I teach music to primary school children. For me, I know what I want and I go and get it! Just before I did the EP, I thought to myself that I’m a year older now and do I really want to do a whole album and my age. I’m not old but you get to a point that soon you may want a family and to go into to music, well you just don’t know what can happen to you, it’s never guaranteed.
I was at a crossroads as to whether I should continue with music or not. But I thought I’ve never even tried to do an album, so let’s just try and do it at the very least. So my advice would be, go for it! Give it a try, because without trying you’ll never know. Just to reach out for that goal, whether it’s one small track or an album – whatever it is, even if it’s not to do with music.
The Dood: Does it help to have your family backing you? Sometimes your parents prefer you to take a more traditional career route rather than pursue the arts or music. Would you agree?
Zara: I’ve been lucky that I do have my family backing me. It took awhile for my mum to totally be enthused with my choice. She was never negative about me singing, but it took a while for her to believe it was the right career move for me, because it’s a hard road. These days no jobs are easy to be honest. But I think that any mother would want her child to be a bit more secure…She knew that I can sing, but she was just a bit worried. But now she’s much more comfortable with it and thinks that I should just go for it. I suppose am lucky enough because I did do the degree, so I have got something to fall back on if it doesn’t work out. But I think I’ll always do something in music because I like teaching other people.
The Dood: The mentoring aspect?
Zara: Yeah, so I’ll always be doing something in that capacity. But family are important. For me I’m just very lucky that I’ve got family that do come to gigs when they can and are very encouraging about things. And they keep me in my place as well (laughs).
The Dood: They keep you grounded?
Zara: Yeah, definitely! I think you need people around you that know you as a person not just as a performer, and can keep you in check if you start going down the wrong path. Even if you get depressed or something you need people who can help you come back.
The Dood: Tell me about awesome musicians that played at the Showcase and on the album?
Peter Edwards (piano), Binker Golding (sax) & Andy Chapman (drums)
Zara: Again, I was very lucky! On the album, Andy Chapman (drums) and Peter Edwards (piano), those two were part of Tomorrow’s Warriors. Then we’ve got saxes – Binker Golding; Zem Audu is on one of the tracks on the album. And Camilla George, a female saxophonist, I met her through Tomorrow’s Warriors. And then Nick Walsh, I met him at Guildhall when I was studying there. He’s a great bass player! He was doing an undergraduate course and I was doing a post graduate course, and I just liked his playing and asked him if would like to come and play on my album. Max Luthert played bass at the showcase. I’m very lucky especially with the jazz musicians I know, because they are such great musicians and also really open people. And they just love to play. And that’s important to me, playing with people who are good, nice people.
The Dood: They know how to interpret the music as you’ve written it, as you can hear it in your mind.
Zara: I know how they play… For me when I write a song in its basic form, you aim for it to be a good song just on its own with the melody and the lyric, and maybe a piano or guitar or maybe not. It’s so interesting as to how it can change can be so different. Like the House tracks I’ve done are completely different to the Jazz versions. I like that, the fact that you can have variety with just one track. And that’s what I like about different styles of music, and that’s why I think I’ll always have something going on the side.
The Dood: It keeps you excited about getting up in the morning?
Zara: I get bored very easily, so I like to sample the different varieties of life! (Laughs)
The Dood: You obviously like to travel and have been to numerous destinations?
Zara: I’d love to travel more. With doing gigs you don’t get to see a lot of the country you’re in. You try to go out in the little time that you do have and do something. I don’t speak a second language unfortunately, so I want to learn another language. I didn’t really get out much in my early years, I was just focused on my music. I lived a very sheltered life (laughs)
The Dood:So you’re ready to blossom. There’s something to be said for having tunnel vision as an artist. Zara, thank you for your time and it won’t be long before we’ll be seeing you performing on stage with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra behind you! I look forward to reviewing that one! Is there anything else you would like to add?
Zara McFarlane & Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
Zara: I really do feel quite humbled and blessed that people like the music and are being really positive about it. I would just like to say a big thank you for having me.
The Dood: And now it’s coming back to you tenfold?
Zara: Yeah! Definitely!
Michael J Edwards
Until Tomorrow (Album released Oct 10th 2011, Brownswood Recordings)