Vocalist and composer Nicky Schrire has just released her fourth recording, Nowhere Girl.
The album is a collection of compositions that invites us to see and feel the world through her travels and experiences, from her birthplace in London, then on to South Africa, New York and now Toronto. Nowhere Girl, her first album in 10 years, serves as something of a travelogue, with songs about the places that have shaped Schrire and her music.
Schrire is also a music educator, a respected jazz journalist and podcaster, and she’ll be performing on June 26 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.
Schrire joined us to talk about her latest album and how she got here.
I’d like to know more about your influences, from when you were young up until where you are today.
I was brought up not in a family of musicians, but my mother took care of our musical education where musical theatre was concerned — which, of course, unbeknownst to her and certainly to me, that’s the bread and butter of the American songbook. We’re talking about Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, etc. My father was a self-taught guitarist and folkie in the ’60s and ’70s. He took care of making sure that we were very aware of singer-songwriters and folk artists.
That’s a good combination.
I think so. So, everyone from James Taylor and Randy Newman to John Martyn and June Tabor. The list goes on. That’s how I was raised. I came to jazz when I took up the saxophone as a second instrument when I was about 11. The saxophone introduced me to instrumental jazz and big band music. It also helped me visit the American songbook through people like Ella Fitzgerald.
Did you take up the sax in earnest, or was it just something you did when you were in school?
I took it up in earnest. I was a tenor saxophonist and later I doubled on baritone. I took up the clarinet when I was in high school and did exams on that so that I could double on it. In fact, when I was at the University of Cape Town for my undergraduate jazz degree, I was a sax major my first year — sax and classical piano.
Singing in parallel, too?
No, singing came in my second year. I loved playing the saxophone and I loved being part of an ensemble, but I had a real mental block when it came to improvising. My mother used to say to me, “Well, if you practised improvising more, you’d be better at it.” And I would say to her, “But I need to want to practise it.” Sorry, Mom. Such a handful as your middle child. As a result, I was quite envious of the singers in the jazz program. In my second year, I [decided] I’d really like to audition as a jazz vocalist.
Did you think that you would be able to improvise more easily as a vocalist?
Definitely. Look, I’m not a scatting singer. It’s something I can do and something I can teach, but it’s not a tool that I employ in performance all that often — at least not in a traditional Cyrille Aimée, Ella Fitzgerald way. But I definitely knew that I could scat and I could improvise using my voice. Part of the reason — because I see it in students now when I’m troubleshooting — is that if you can hear it, you can sing it, but if you’re an instrumentalist, you have to go that extra step which is getting it into your muscle memory, into your fingers. It just wasn’t my voice. Sometimes I’ll hear Tara Davidson or Allison Au play the saxophone, and it really does sound like an extension of them. I didn’t have that.
It seems like you’d have to know yourself very well at that age to be able to pivot and not keep grinding at a square peg.
I’d like to think so. I will say that my father said to me, “But Nicky, what makes you think you can sing?” It sounds like an absolutely horrible thing to say, but it was actually great because that was the fire [I needed]: Yeah, alright, I’ll show you. Admittedly, when I started, my instrument was fine, but it was untrained. I had to do a lot of technical work and play catch-up for many years.
Do you still play the saxophone?
Sometimes. Badly. In private.
When you listen to the new record Nowhere Girl, it’s not a swingin’ set of standards. I think the approach you’ve taken is great. It’s a little bit harder to get your hands around, which, for me, makes it something that I want to listen to. When you sit down to write this jazz album, do you have any parameters on yourself for what it needs to be in order to fit into the genre?
It really comes down to my take on what is contemporary jazz. You touched on the fact that it can make it difficult to describe, because it’s not swing, it’s not even R&B and jazz fused together, which is more commonplace. It’s jazz and singer-songwriter, it’s jazz and folk — those are much newer hybrids within the larger jazz genre. When it comes to jazz vocalists, we also have certain styles that we are used to hearing and that are popular, and this one is not really there yet. It makes it an interesting marketing experience, I’ll give you that much. But I know what my strengths are. I’m not a swinger. I’m not a big scatter. I love the Great American Songbook, but if I’m going to write my own material, it’s not going to be in the style of George Gershwin, because if I was a listener, I’d rather listen to George Gershwin than listen to something that’s kind of like George Gershwin. I think there are a lot of singers who are born to sing music from that era; they have these wonderful voices that I admire and envy — I don’t have that. My instrument is fine. I have a good, strong soprano voice. What are you going to do with that? If I’m going to write my own music, I’m not going to overthink it, but I am going to lean on the influences of people like Randy Newman and James Taylor, and maybe more European-style jazz vocalists like Norma Winstone and Maria Pia De Vito, and then American [singers like] Kate McGarry and Tierney Sutton. These are people with whom perhaps I can align myself, and that’s going to influence the music I write.
The record is all about travel. Did the concept take hold as you were going through the process, or did you begin with that theme?
The music on this record really was gathered over 10 years or more. The theme of travel and identity revealed itself after the fact. I’m very glad for it, and I wish that I was on top of things enough to say, “This is going to be the concept for the album.” It was lucky that it happened to become that. But in some ways, there’s something quite nice and meaningful about that. Maybe that’s why it took 10 years to write. Maybe that’s why this was the right time to make it. Time is our own construct. There’s no rush.
There’s sadness and melancholy in a lot of these tunes. It’s about leaving people, or about the newness of something that can feel lonely.
You’re the second person to say that, and you’re not wrong. There is a thread of melancholy that runs throughout it. I definitely have a penchant for sadder, slower songs. I love a ballad. There’s a nostalgia [to these songs]. I think that’s my personality. I am generally optimistic, upbeat and positive, but I’m also incredibly pragmatic, very cynical, and I’m a realist. Sadness, the sense of longing, of missing out, of bitterness and resentment… that’s what makes us human. It’s part of the fabric of life.
Was it restlessness or circumstance that brought you to all these different places?
I will lead with the fact that it’s good fortune, because I’m very aware of how many people would absolutely love to travel. The first move from London to Cape Town was because of my parents; both of them are South African and had been in the U.K. for 30 years and decided to go home. It was 1991, Mandela was released from Robben Island, we were going home. It was confusing for me, because I was born in London and was like, “But we are home.” I had a lovely upbringing in Cape Town, and then I moved for graduate school to New York. After five years, that ran its course. I did enjoy the city, but I did find it very overwhelming. I think I was probably depressed, in hindsight, and I was trying to chip away at being a musician at the expense of really living a full life. It was sacrificial, in that sense. Moving to London again as an adult was winding my way back to South Africa, which is where I was before I moved to Toronto. It’ll give you whiplash, but the point is I’m very lucky to have been able to move for school, to have been able to go to a wonderful music conservatory in New York to study jazz. But with all that moving, yeah, there’s also confusion. Every time you move, there are different identities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.