A CHAT WITH: SARA DOWLING
aaamusic | On 13, Oct 2020
Sara Dowling is one of the U.K.’s leading jazz vocalists, regularly performing at London’s legendary Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club and the 606 Jazz Club. She’s extremely gifted and deeply inspired by the American Songbook, paying tribute to the great jazz singers of the 20s and 30s. In 2019 she was voted best vocalist at the British Jazz Awards. Interviewer Anthony Weightman chatted to her in London.
Anthony Weightman: Sarah, I hope you’re in good health and keeping well.
Sarah Dowling: Absolutely, apart from not that many gigs. I’ve been keeping myself busy with practice. We do have time to be creative, though. What I’m realising is how hard it is to be creative when you’re not doing the practical side of it. You feel so disconnected from it all. It requires all of us to be stronger than we have been. It’s a learning curve.
Anthony Weightman: I understand you’ve just returned from a gig at a 4 day festival in the Touraine Loire Valley in France, described as “an essential must at the start of the school year”. How did it go?
Sarah Dowling: I thought that, if I didn’t go and do a gig, I was actually going to convince myself that I wasn’t able to do this any more. It was the best thing ever. It restored my faith in what we do. Really fun!
Anthony Weightman: In your early years you travelled with your family between Oman and Jordan through endless deserts, whilst your father’s occupation was a pilot. Do you think those experiences encouraged you to develop an adventurous spirit?
Sarah Dowling: Yes, I think so. By spending time in the Middle East you see a completely other way of life and you’re open to very different emotions. As an artist I try to find those extreme emotions that I experienced as a child. The emotion of living in the Middle East and going to a sheep farm in Cornwall was an extreme transition, to say the least.
Anthony Weightman: You’ve talked about your childhood near Lands End, growing up on a farm, listening to music and being given a cello by the nuns at your Roman Catholic school. Did you develop a love for The Minack nearby, that unique open air theatre perched on cliffs high above the Atlantic Ocean?
Sarah Dowling: Yes, I used to go quite often and watch plays. I remember the help from the nuns at the school. They were so enthusiastic about music and they gave me a cello. I was trying to get out of farm work as well. I did hours and hours of it.
Anthony Weightman: personally I think the hidden gem there is the wild beauty of nearby Lamorna Cove.
Sarah Dowling: Lamorna is so pretty, as is all that part of the coastline.
Anthony Weightman: You refer to W.H. Auden as your favourite writer. Fortunately I had an excellent teacher who explained his extraordinary poetry to me when I was a teenager. It’s both complex and very beautiful. Do you have a favourite poem of his ?
Sarah Dowling: I do love the obvious one,‘Stop All The Clocks’. Absolutely beautiful. I also liked when he spoke about a conscious recognition of something you really knew about all the time. Even though I was put through years of classical training, I always had a desire to extemporise melody. Without knowing what I wanted to do, I was already doing it.
Anthony Weightman: You’ve spoken about qualities that you look for in musicians you work with, such as presence, sincerity, intuition, fearlessness and sensitivity. If you asked them what they considered important, do you think they would come up with a very similar list or a slightly different one?
Sarah Dowling: Well, it really depends on the musician. The guys I’m currently working with would say that in a singer they’d probably like someone who’s very passionate and perhaps, at times, unpredictable. I think I’ve found the people I’m most suited to work with. That’s who I am. That’s why musicians gravitate towards each other. Some pianists I worked with before perhaps weren’t prepared to go with that level of spontaneity. But, they’re perfectionists. They play jazz in a different and wonderful way.
Anthony Weightman: You’ve spoken about the horrors of being left in a ‘black hole’ in a performance, finding yourself in a dark place and not knowing in which direction to go. To me, that sounds like one of the most horrifying things that can happen to a singer.
Sarah Dowling: That interview was definitely the most personal one I’ve ever given! When you feel that you don’t have that comradeship and someone is afraid to put their ideas forward or have their presence felt in the music, then you can feel unsupported and alone. The connection that music gives between people is so incredibly strong. It’s the level of of emotion that you’re creating collectively.
Anthony Weightman: Have you come across situations where a musician is clearly technically very competent, but somehow doesn’t seem a fit in terms of personality?
Sarah Dowling: Oh yes. Many times and those musicians may think the same of me. Musical relationships are so special when you’ve found the right one. You cannot do without them.
Anthony Weightman: A reviewer once described you as ‘enigmatic’. Personally I don’t find you particularly difficult to understand, but are there mysteries about you yet to be uncovered? Any intriguing riddles not yet solved?
Sarah Dowling: I know who wrote that about me and that is someone who has seen me perform live a lot. I think the way I perform live is very different to what you hear on the records. I think that goes for a lot of people. This person has also played with me musically and a level of “unpredictability” was perhaps there. There are things that are changing in me musically. My next album, when I’m able to do it, is going to be very different. I’m learning more and more about myself.
Anthony Weightman: You once said you had a personality that was “more like Monica from Friends”, the fictional character who is obsessive, compulsive and competitive’. Would that be accurate?
Sarah Dowling: Yes, a little bit. That’s brilliant. Probably more along the lines that I can be incredibly annoying. I’d rather vouch for that.
Anthony Weightman: You jokingly refer to “wanting to be centre of attention” as a child. Some musicians say they’re not particularly attention seekers, but are much more concerned with good interaction with their audience. Is that something you can relate to ?
Sarah Dowling: I’ll be honest. It’s true. I wanted to be centre of attention as a child. Very much so. But there are slightly complex reasons for that. I think that, growing up in the Middle East, children are not really encouraged to be artists and that’s all I ever wanted to do. My father secretly encouraged and nurtured that in his own way. The other side of my family said I should get a proper job. As a child I wasn’t always allowed to express that side of me and when I was able to do that I really wanted everybody to listen. I needed to do something really big to make my family take interest in what I wanted to do. I was doing that from a very young age.
Anthony Weightman: I think I spotted a wall poster of yours of Sophia Loren taken from Boy on a Dolphin, the first Hollywood movie to be made in Greece.
Sarah Dowling: We have a little shrine where Sophia Loren is perched on one of our shelves. It’s actually my poster. My husband is Italian. I leave it up there for him to think of the nicer side of Italy rather than any corruption he hears on the news. I leave Sophia Loren up there for him to remember the good side.
Anthony Weightman: I understand Marni Nixon sang for Sophia Loren in ‘What is this thing they call love’ and the theme song is sung by Julie London. Is it the charm of this film that appeals to you?
Sarah Dowling: It’sbeautiful. I should watch it again.
Anthony Weightman: This Friday Jools Holland interviews Robert Plant who’s had a very eclectic life as a singer. He recorded the Raising Sand album with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, became involved with the African and Arabic styles of Justin Adams and reworked Led Zeppelin classics with The Egyptian Orchestra. How do you feel about singers like him who seem to have an endless and restless need for change?
Sarah Dowling: In the artsI think it means that they’re truly artists. To learn and safeguard the traditions of the arts is a very important thing to build on. Look at any of our legendary jazz musicians that we so adore. Jackie McLean is a good example. He was crazy about Charlie Parker and his playing probably sounded exactly like Charlie Parker for a good portion of his early years. Then, if you listen to any of his later recordings, he found his own way in the music. I have done that, drawn upon other singers to find my own voice. But there has to be a point, sooner rather than later, where you find change in the music. You find yourself in that transition period. Someone like Robert Plant, who’s done all these amazing projects, all respect to him. That change is what we need in the arts. Obviously, no one is coming up with anything new. I think we shouldn’t feel like we have to, because it’s all been done before. The important thing is that it’s done in your way.
Anthony Weightman: Could you say a few words about your plans for the rest of the year?
Sarah Dowling: Everyone is saying, in light of the situation, that they can’t do this or that. Actually, I want to try to be a little more positive about this time. I’m really enjoying not having a lot of concerts at the moment because I’m writing a lot of new music. One of the new originals I actually performed in France and it gave me great hope for the future because it sounded brilliant with the band. I’m currently in a creative writing stage and I’m planning to record my third album. I’m just trying to work on the financial side of that, which is the only difficult thing. I have a lot of dates abroad next year. I’m looking to try to continue to build my audience here and abroad. I have great hope for the coming year after this rather quieter one.