Interview with Isabelle Seleskovitch: Some people are made of sheer intuition and instinct: Video

Jazz interview with jazz singer Isabelle Seleskovitch. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Isabelle Seleskovitch: – I grew up in a small town in the suburbs near Paris with my parents and elder sister. I was lucky that my parents considered it important to develop their daughters’ creative skills so I went to the music conservatory aside from school. I started choir singing from a very early age, I also learned to read music and rhythm, and practiced lyrical singing for almost 10 years in single lessons and choir. This had me discover some beautiful pieces of classical music, learn to sing in different languages and in front of an audience, develop my listening skills with an accompanist when performing solo, and grow a taste for sophisticated and demanding repertoires. My sister then specialised in lyrical singing and I was – and still am – her first fan, I would go to all the concerts and listen to a lot of music, which was a big inspiration. I also owe her because I could still some Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald compilations out of her CD library!There was also a big singing tradition in my family, we liked to sing informally altogether during a family reunion, and generally have a good time around songs, especially popular French songs. I also loved Disney movies as a kid and would learn all the songs by heart (in their French version at the time!). And later on I had my favourite pop idols on TV and the radio, I loved the Spice Girls (yes, I confess!) and folk/pop singers such as Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple… I would take their albums and just learn all of the English lyrics by heart. I loved English and always had my way remembering the melody and lyrics of any song coming to my ear. So I would sing all the time at home, basically. This was the starting point.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?

IS: – I think my choice of vocal jazz and the American Songbook is due to the fact that it represents a bridge between my classical influences and my taste for pop culture. It is a demanding repertoire, very well written that requires true respect of the tradition in a way, still enables freshness and creativity and a very relaxed attitude to it. To me, jazz is both pop and classical. Both classy and cool. Plus it is acoustic, which is the way I first learned to play music. I also love the theatrical dimension about jazz standards: they derive from American musicals and give voice to beautiful characters who tell you a story, just as in opera or classical French songs for example, and it is great to interpret them. And I get to sing in English. I’ve learned and loved English from a very early age and studied it at school, so it’s always been very pleasant and natural for me, which is a key element. Famous American vocalist Sara Lazarus pointed that out at some point when I was following her workshops in Paris: that I had a way with English. Also, English and American listeners sometimes come to me after a performance and tell me not only my voice but my English is good, which is the ultimate compliment! I try to keep t that way. Attending the Barry Harris workshops in Rome, I also found out how to not force the swing and interpretation in a jazz song. Barry makes you understand that the more simply you approach the original words and melody, the better you get at finding your way through them. I try to work on that a lot, singing the words and melodies sharp and not forcing anything when interpreting the songs. They are simply so well written that they don’t need much more than your first emotional, intuitive reaction to them. A well written jazz standard always goes straight to your heart. When I discover a new one it usually makes my cry immediately!

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

IS: – I’ve been working a lot on my vocal technique the last couple of years with my coach Marie-France Lahore, who did a career in opera and now helps all kinds of singers, from lyrical to pop, and also actors with their speaking technique. She helps me find more relaxation with my voice, broaden my vocal range and perfect my pitch while sticking to the kind of round, smooth vocality required by vocal jazz. I started to sing jazz and chanson on my own and after a while I had lost some of my abilities because I was using what I had learnt in classical singing but lacked some tricks and tools for this change of repertoire, singing in the microphone, in lower keys and everything. I had unconsciously taken some bad habits that she helped me fix. And now I feel my voice is deeper, rounder and can evolve in the right way through the years, if I keep on working on my technique of course. As I once heard Barry Harris say: “Good, better, best: never let it rest! Until your good is better, and your better is best.”

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

IS: – I’ve recently focused on tempo and how to indicate it properly when launching a song with a band. It is incredibly important to determine the right tempo otherwise your song is not gonna sound the way you want. It may seem obvious but I’m not sure I was conscious enough of that dimension even not so long ago. So I take my songs one by one and sing them at different tempos to find out what works best for me and what I want to indicate to the musicians during the next gig.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

IS: – I’d say you’re probably right, that my music generally drifts towards classicism in sound and harmony, but I have nothing against dissonance or unusual harmonic patterns. Working with my arranger (pianist Laurent Marode) on my album, I would go mostly by ear and intuition to make harmonic choices and pick among different suggestions, just trying to feel what would suit the melody and words best. There was nothing intellectual to it so the line was not drawn very consciously, at least not on my side. But if you hear some dissonance it’s probably because it’s boiling in the pan and waiting to come out! The truth is, there is a constant mix between joy and melancholy about what I have to say, I can skip quickly from major to minor moods, or feel an urge for the expression of something more twisted or unsusual according to the state I’m in. So this tension probably explains the slight, subconscious dissonance you can hear.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

IS: – If you’ve carefully read my answers to the previous questions, you might have realised that I actually love to have different, disparate influences! No borders! As a singer at the moment, aside from my own personal project, I’m taking part in a fantastic electro/hip-hop all female cast music project that evolves in a whole different context, and I love it, I find it so inspiring. Music is a universe with a lot of worlds inside that should be connected, not separated. I don’t like a snobbish attitude that rejects many types of music to the benefit of a single type. And even though I’m currently releasing in the jazz realm, I would be happy for my songs to end up in a YouTube playlist mixing all music styles, not necessarily a “jazzy” selection. I like to think that my music and style can touch people beyond chapels. And even if I stick to a certain aesthetics for now, it is not for the sake of tradition or orthodoxy, but only because it is the particular way in which I can express what I have to express right now. It is what currently gives consistency to my speech and story. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to evolve towards something else, who knows? I don’t want to put any barrier to other possible influences that might emerge and inspire me in the future.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

IS: – It is very hard to say. I think it also depends. Some people are made of sheer intuition and instinct. I have a mix of that and something very cerebral too. I used to think it was a shortcoming for an artist. I don’t anymore. I’ve come to realize that my ability to reflect and anticipate on things and analyse with my brain can be really helpful when I have a project in mind or an upcoming show. The challenge is to not forget that your guts also have something to say most of the time, and that actually they can easily communicate with the brain. And to create the right channel. I try to do that in resting, relaxation and body preparation which have proven very helpful.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

IS: – Yes, as long as it lets me go with my inner rhythm and feel. During a gig, if someone asks for a song that I don’t know well enough, I’m not gonna sing it because I don’t want to ruin a song and make myself or my band sound bad. And I think it is my prerogative as an artist to accept or reject a suggestion. The audience should respect that and not judge you about it. However, anytime I can make someone happy with some song request, I’ll do it with great pleasure because it is one of the great possibilities in jazz. One has to secure space for surprise and improvisation. Last concert I did, I had prepared charts for my musicians but was not sure we would play a song that hadn’t been rehearsed, but I felt confident and connected with the guys so we did it, it sounded great and people were charmed!

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

IS: – The first time I sang at a jam session in New-York: it was at Small’s, late in the evening. I ended up on stage with a bass player who had just come out of a concert with Branford Marsalis! I got real scared but also really excited, and everyone was so nice. The energy is really different there, unique. So challenging, still there is space for doubt, mistakes, then try it all over again. No judgment involved, only sharing the music. I enjoyed that very much in New York City, and also in San Francisco where I had the opportunity to perform recently.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

IS: – Communicate better about jazz! Stop labeling it as retro, snobbish or geeky. Stop being judgemental about it, basically. There was a time when jazz standards were big hits on the radio, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be popular anymore! And I think musicians have to do an effort as well to adapt to what people look for in music, especially live. It is not only about playing a good solo, it is about performing a show, with everything that goes with it. You have to sound good but also present well and look hip, which requires a lot of work and artistic direction. I’ve seen that more in pop music than in jazz so far… Well I’m only talking about the French scene, really.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

IS: – I’m not religious, but I think there is spirituality everywhere and especially in music. One should never forget this when playing on a stage. Whether pious or not, we artists are undeniably connected to something higher than us. Even if the ego necessarily takes a lot of space on a stage, the spiritual dimension should make us feel humble and highly vulnerable. It is the only way for beauty to come in. And the highest challenge when singing. Voice is the most naked medium and thus has a lot to do with the ego. But it can also make the audience feel the sheer magic that happens when you let it go. It is just a matter of knowing that and playing with that line. You know what you’re doing, yet you’re ready to let anything new happen. I hope I can grow through my artistry with a constantly higher degree of consciousness regarding this truth.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

IS: – Have people be more respectful and less greedy with artists, especially people who have power such as managers or club owners. I find myself spending a lot of energy on negotiation and struggle to simply get paid properly, which is really annoying. Especially when everybody knows that money is scarce and that we are happy to play anyway so we will make efforts in the end… But the efforts shouldn’t always be made in the same direction.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

IS: – The good old jazz standards, as sung by Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day or Nancy Wilson. And the George Shearing Quintet. Kind of need that inspiration right now…

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

IS: – That joy and light spirited vibes can always emerge through the veils of melancholy or nostalgia. And that any emotion has a right to be expressed.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

IS: – On a Hollywood cinema set in the fifties dressed up and curled as a diva, talking to Carry Grant or James Stewart staring at them straight in the eyes with tragic looks. Then going for a smoke and vodka laughing with the boom operator after the cut.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

IS: – Will you be coming to my next concert?

JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. No, of course!

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

IS: – I’m happy to be able to speak about my music and stand for my own personal style, which is a blessing, so thank you very much for this. I sure hope to be able to tour as much as possible with my new album because I put so much of me inside it. I wish it to be in jazz clubs or festivals but also on any stage that can welcome music and fun spirit!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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