Singing songs of Suffolk and the sea

The last time singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert was in Suffolk she was wading through deep snow – and that was on Aldeburgh seafront in January. She says, through a deliciously husky laugh, that she has never encountered snow drifts on a shingle beach before. She is hoping that her return to the county on July 25 for a charity concert at Orford Pavilion will be somewhat warmer.

Although Gwyneth has a reputation as a jazz singer, and her professional roots are in jazz, she has, in recent years, become very much her own woman. Her musical interests have taken her in assorted directions – everything from silent movie scores to a new stage musical to the upcoming Snape song cycle.

Although that Snape song cycle is not being officially unveiled until October, she says audiences at the Orford Jazz At The Pavilion gig may be treated to a couple of numbers – but delivered in what she describes as “very different arrangements”.

Gwyneth Herbert is an artist who likes to be in charge of her career. Talking to her about her life and career she is friendly and chatty, but you get the impression that here is a musician who is not only always busy but likes to be in charge of her own destiny.

Prior to her appearance at the Snape Proms last year she didn’t know a lot about Suffolk – she was born in Guildford, raised in Hampshire, went to university in Durham – so the Snape reed beds and the Suffolk coastline came as a wonderful surprise. It was a place that really moved her.

“I originally thought I could write and record a new album there. But then I thought it would be much more exciting to do something about the location, about where it is, so I started putting together a plan for this project about the Suffolk coastline.”

She conceived the project as a song cycle with moments of prose and theatre as well as songs. It is designed to be an hour-long self-contained piece. In performance she is planning to be joined by her own three-piece band and folk-trio The Rubber Wellies.

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“It’s all written. I stayed in a cottage in Aldeburgh in January – all on my own – which was an experience. I went to all the local pubs. Got to know the area really well. It was all windy and blustery. I just squirreled myself away and wrote the majority of it then.”

She adds that she shies away from being pigeon-holed as a musician and artist. As a young university graduate with musical collaborator Will Rutter she found herself carving out a niche in the jazz world and was seen as one of the up-coming Jamie Cullum/Norah Jones crowd.

But ask Gwyneth how she sees herself, how she defines herself as a musician, and she gives off one of her trademark chuckles, “Oh, I don’t know,” she bats away the question with good grace but the laughter masks a fairly turbulent career path, which Gwyneth has been determined to keep control of, despite persistent interference from some high-powered record labels.

“I don’t see myself as one type of singer. I like story songs, I love people and characters, so I like to do funky, bluesy, jazzy, poppy, folky story songs – but it’s difficult to put a label on what I do.”

Her resistance to putting a label on her work is what led Gwyneth to walk away from a very lucrative recording contract with Universal after just a single album five years ago. “I think the problem was that when I was at Universal they told me I was going to be a big poster girl for jazz in Heat magazine and I just didn’t see myself that way.”

With independence, however, came reduced fees and fewer chances of exposure to new audiences, but she said that her band rallied round and were never less than 100% supportive. “They were great. They said it was the best decision I had ever made, which was great considering that we had left a major label behind. What we did then was go off and make a really small-scale record, a very personal record, in just three days and that turned out to be Between Me and the Wardrobe.”

Since then she has kept herself incredibly busy. You get the impression that Gwyneth Herbert is constantly working away at something or other – her mind scouring the world around her for new ways to express herself and to tell the stories she sees simply walking down the road.

She said songs on her last album, All the Ghosts, were stories written about people she had met, read about or just observed, including the character with Star Wars figures “living” in his coat pockets who she used to meet on her way home from late-night gigs.

“I am absolutely fascinated by people. Everyone has a story to tell. I am constantly listening to people, talking to random drunks in the pub, that sort of thing. I am always on the lookout for stories, trying to keep myself open to new influences. Everyone is fascinating in one way or another. I love the eccentrics of life: those who fall through the cracks and live life on their terms. So many of my songs and stories are about strange and wonderful people.”

She said the spectre of Benjamin Britten did loom large when it came to writing the Snape song cycle simply because Peter Grimes is a tough act to follow; but she said, in the end, she refused to be daunted, simply because her work – although it is inspired by the same sea and coastline – is completely different. “I have to say I did realise what inspired Britten, walking up and down that blustery beach. I loved seeing Maggi Hambling’s shell sculpture.”

She paused for a minute before ending with a husky laugh. “I think I was inspired rather than daunted, but now I have talked about it I will probably go home and lose some sleep!”

n Gwyneth Herbert will be playing Jazz At The Pavilion in Orford on July 25. Tickets are available from Jacki Maslin 01394 450799.

The dates for the premiere of Songs of the Sea at Snape have yet to be confirmed.

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