Louise Balkwill: jazz music means freedom

Inserted: 21.06.2023


Louise Balkwill: jazz music means freedom


Louise Balkwill is a charismatic British singer and the winner of jazz contest Riga Jazz Stage 2022. On July 7, she will perform at the Rigas Ritmi Festival on the Riga Jazz Lounge stage which will be located in the Radisson Blu Latvija Hotel.
 
In the meantime, we asked Louise to fill out something similar to a book of memories, which we call this time the Jazz Book and which we ask other representatives of the current jazz generation in Latvia and abroad to do as well.
 
What is jazz to you?
Jazz music, to me, means freedom – freedom of expression, freedom to feel your feelings and freedom to sing whatever you like! But also, and equally as importantly, it means togetherness and camaraderie. To share the stage and the musical moment with friends, and to exist entirely in that moment, is a beautiful thing. It also informs everything that I do outside of music, and has taught me to be more present and never take the now for granted. Jazz is everything to me.
 
What inspired you to become a jazz musician?
I grew up in a very musical family – my grandparents on my mother’s side were both professional musicians, my uncle was the principle double bassist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and my mother is a violinist, so it would go without saying that I would be encouraged to play as well. I started learning the violin when I was three, and went on to take up the double bass at age 14 after my uncle passed away. I was on a clear path to become a classical double bassist when I heard Liane Carroll sing for the first time – it completely blew my mind, and I thought, “I need to do that!”. So I auditioned to study jazz vocals at the top UK conservatoires in 2011 (with absolutely zero jazz knowledge and having had no formal singing lessons!), and to my surprise, got a scholarship to study at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. It definitely felt like an impulsive decision at the time, but when you find your calling, you just know.
 
And where is jazz going?
Jazz is going all over the place! It’s wonderful to see and hear how many new directions one genre can branch out into – and it certainly widens the appeal, too. Jazz is for everyone. I’m personally a big fan of what I suppose one would call “classic vocal jazz”, bebop and big band music, which I think has been under-represented in the jazz media in recent years in the wake of neo-soul and more contemporary, pop-aligned subgenres. But watching Samara Joy win two Grammys with her timeless swinging vocals this year was a really huge moment for me, as I’m sure it was for many other vocalists. It was a beautiful reminder that even in this very confusing and competetive music industry, there’s still a place in the mainstream for the music that we love.
 
What's the best thing to expect from a jazz concert?
It’s never the same twice. That’s what sets jazz apart from other music for me – when you go to a jazz gig, there’s nothing pre-recorded, no backing tracks, no song ever played the same way twice. Even if you watch the same band play the same set 5 nights in a row, it’ll be different every time, which I think is beautiful; to witness and to be a part of a fleeting moment of music that will never be heard by anyone other than the people in the room. That’s why I think that anyone who claims to “not like jazz” should really give attending a jazz concert a try. It’s a music that needs to stay live and in-person as much as possible to protect its very essence.
 
How to achieve the feeling of free flight on stage?
A combination of practise, social contentment and emotional awareness. It’s obvious that the better you know the repertoire, the more comfortable you will feel to let go and have fun with it on stage, but I’ve found that even when I’m singing the same songs I’ve sung for 10 years, a couple of things can still trip me up and weigh me down. 
The first stems from my tendancy for social awkwardness – If I don’t feel comfortable with the people that I’m playing with, it can be really hard to feel free on stage, which is challenging at this stage in my career, when I find myself flying around the world to play with an ever changing line-up of wonderful musicians! So I always make sure that I prioritise social time with my fellow musicians so that we can get to know and trust each other before a show. It really does make a big difference, and makes performing much more fun! 
The second is in my head – I need to be in the right emotional headspace to feel free on stage, and that can be a completely different challenge day-by-day. You can’t always be in control of your surroundings (especially in London!), but if you can keep a calm, balanced and emotionally self-aware state of mind, it really does help to put the day’s troubles aside and put on a great show.
 
Is it always easy for you to throw yourself into the vortex of jazz playing and is it always easy to get out of it and back into the real world?
No, but it’s definitely getting easier. I used to suffer from quite extreme performance anxiety, and then really struggle to wind down after a gig – but over the years, I’ve developed certain routines that help me to prepare and unwind. It’s not an issue anymore with gigs that I do regularly, but when I’m singing in new places with new people, I always make sure I have enough alone time and then am always very early so that nothing can go logistically wrong! Then after a gig, I like to take a walk, call my boyfriend, watch an episode of something easy… anything to calm me down.
 
What is the strangest thing that has happened to you while performing?
There was a power cut during my debut performance at PizzaExpress Jazz Club on Dean Street – we just kept playing!
 
Who would you like to record an album with or at least jam with?
So many people! But for a start, I’d love to record with Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw together. We’d have a wonderful time and make some really uplifting music. I’d also love to sing alongside Samara Joy and Cecile McLorin Salvant, and would love for Scott Hamilton to join me on tour!
 
Where do you get inspiration for creating new music?
Life! Everything that I’ve ever written (and liked) has poured out of me as a response to something meaningful that’s happened to or around me as I stumble through life’s big adventure. Falling in love? Write a song. Rough breakup? There’s a song in that too. Annoyed that it’s still raining in June? … You get the idea. I think maintaining an interesting life is incredibly important to inspire creative flow.
 
Is there a lot of jazz in the UK?
It depends where you look. In London, yes, absolutely. You can have an entire self-sustaining jazz career by just playing in London. But outside of The Big Smoke, it would be very difficult. In Leicester, where I grew up, there’s great music education and plenty of classical music, folk jams and singer-songwriter nights, but not so much jazz. The Arts Council does a great job of helping touring musicians to reach towns that don’t have as much exposure to live music, but still, London is definitely the place to be. Otherwise, the other conservatoire cities have decent jazz scenes: Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester all have quite a bit going on. Oh, and Brighton, because it’s… well… Brighton!
 
Is there such a thing as British jazz sound?
If there is, it would be quite hard to pin down in the current musical climate as there’s so many different things going on. I noticed it more when I was at conservatoire because there were definite musical trends going around – I suppose as we were all learning and growing together. I remember feeling like it was quite clear where someone was studying by listening to their sound! But I’d say the “British Jazz Sound” would be more prevalent these days in the more contemporary subgenres.
 
What would you wish and recommend for the Rīgas Ritmi Festival?
As this will be my first appearance at Rīgas Ritmi Festival, I’m not entirely sure yet. Though as the next generation of jazz musicians will come from the next generation of jazz fans, I’d love to see more family events and youth opportunities at city festivals in general – maybe a few mini gigs / Q&A’s in local schools, or a lunchtime jazz picnic for families! 
 

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