Interview: Kate Dimbleby
‘One of the most versatile singers on the jazz/blues circuit’ – daughter of broadcaster David Dimbleby discusses inspiration, improvisation and songwriting
rawn to music from a young age, Kate Dimbleby grew up in a family where performing was the norm. Her father is the broadcaster David Dimbleby, well known for presenting BBC1’s Question Time, and her mother was a trained classical singer. Her uncle on her mother’s side played jazz piano, trumpet and blues harp, and inspired her with his collection of gramophone records.
Kate began her career aged 16 as a singer in an all-girl group called The City Charmers – the group busked in Covent Garden, where they were spotted for Sky TV’s Star Search and won a record deal. However, rather than follow a teen-pop career, she honed her jazz skills as a regular singer at Birmingham jazz clubs whilst at university and, after moving back to London, quickly established herself on the jazz scene playing many of the UK’s most prestigious venues.
As a jazz singer, Kate has released four albums, sold out the Festival Hall, toured internationally and appeared regularly on national radio. Her second album, Ain’t This Cosy, inspired by the life and music of Peggy Lee, was released in 2000 to accompany a sell-out national tour of her one-woman show Fever! The Making Of Peggy Lee. The Times went as far as to say Kate was ‘one of the most versatile singers on the jazz/blues circuit’.
In 2003, Kate moved to Canada with her husband, where she wrote an album of original songs and rediscovered her own voice. Returning to the UK, the next few years were spent writing and performing her own songs, training as an Alexander Technique teacher, having two children and recording and collaborating with other artists and songwriters.
You’ve just released your fourth album of original material now haven’t you?
“Yes. Wait there, I have to count… I think it’s the fifth actually! The first one, Good Vibrations, I did with a record label and I hadn’t started writing at that point. I only properly started writing when I had a career-break and I went to Canada.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I PRETTY MUCH SPENT EVERY DAY WALKING IN THE FOREST AND CAME UP WITH SONGS [/cc_blockquote_right] Your career was pretty successful already at that point wasn’t it?
“I had a gift of a beginning of a career, in that I got a record deal quite young, started touring and then had the success with the show about Peggy Lee. I did a gig at the Festival Hall to about 2,000 people and it was amazing, but then I didn’t know what I was going to do then. There was the obvious route of covering other jazz singers’ songs for the rest of my life, which probably would’ve been the money option! But I knew that, after the early success, I needed to spend a bit of time figuring out what I wanted to say and find my own voice.
“The opportunity come up to go to Canada for six months, so we went and I worked with musicians there. That was mind-blowing because there’s much more fluidity between jazz, blues, folk, roots and things like that. Also, with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen coming from Canada, there’s a real belief in the singer-songwriters’ approach in a free way – you can find your own thing and don’t feel like you’ve got to fit in.
What did you do to inspire your writing over there?
“I pretty much spent every day walking in the forest and came up with songs. Having played with some of the best jazz musicians in the UK, I didn’t have much faith in my own musical abilities, because I thought they were so amazing. But I had this little program called Band In A Box, which was big in Canada at the time – this was before Garage Band.”
So you play and write songs on the piano?
“Yeah I taught myself to sound out jazz voicings from chords, because it was an easy way of practicing before gigs. Then I quite quickly realized that the chords I was hitting weren’t bad! I think that tension between official training versus training on the job – I come up against that whenever I meet musicians from any area. Both sides feel they have shortcomings. People who are classically trained feel they can’t be as fluid as other singer-songwriters, and vice versa singer-songwriters who’ve learnt in their bedroom feel they don’t have the chops.
“So then I came back to England with a clutch of songs. I worked with Malcolm Edmonstone and collaborated with other musicians to make versions of these songs and we produced the album Things As They Are, which is all totally original material. Then I worked with an indie songwriter called Jay Fisher and his band’s called Apple Rabbits, and he produced kind of soundscape versions of the songs. It was a good experience because it showed me that there were many different possibilities. As an artist I think you’re always trying to push at the sides of the box.[cc_blockquote_right] I WAS LEARNING THE UKULELE… THEN THE SONG CAME OUT IN LITERALLY 10 MINUTES [/cc_blockquote_right]Do you find your creative options are restricted by the preconceptions people have of jazz as a genre?
“Yes, but I also think jazz has gone a massive turnaround in this country over the last 20 years. There are a lot of incredibly exciting young jazz musicians out there who aren’t just performing standards a certain way to please an older audience. I’m a big fan of trad jazz and I guess my heart has always there, but I’ve wrestled with the question of whether it’s better to do original music than covers. Actually what I’ve learnt through doing a lot of ‘looking back’ shows is that by connecting with the roots of those things you really find a lot of things in your own voice, so it feeds you with your original material. So I think there’s a place for both.”
Tell us about your latest album. How did that come together?
“The most recent album is Love Comes Again by Kate Dimbleby And Friends, but it isn’t on general release – we just put it out for our fans on Bandcamp. That was me and the band, including Jonty Fisher, who I’ve been playing with for 20 years. It’s a hotchpotch of songs by great songwriters like Kirsty McColl, and three originals.
“One of them, Hello Only Ends In Goodbye, I wrote with my pianist Naadia and Emily Phillips who is a Warner/Chappell signed songwriter – she’s a top-liner so does all this for a living. She’d seen me play live, called me up and wanted to write a grown-up pop song. She’d heard the Dory Previn songs and said there was something so classic about that 70s songwriter era. I come to songwriting as bit of a free-spirit, Naadia came from a harmony point of view, then Emily was almost like a disciplinarian who tightened everything up and pushed us for a better idea. I think the song shows that and, although it’s not necessarily a very personal song to me, I’m actually quite proud of it.
“One of the other original songs I wrote to a poem by Christopher Logue, who was a 1960s pacifist beat poet. It was one of those gifts of a song. I was learning the ukulele and started playing a few simple chords, then the song came out in literally 10 minutes. I’m always a bit suspicious of those kind of songs! When things come easy we don’t trust them.”
Would you say your approach to songwriting tends to be organic and improvisation based, like jazz, or do you like more structure?
“Well, the lovely thing about working with great jazz musicians is it’s given me the confidence to not adhere to a particular structure. It’s so ingrained in us that inevitably you get your verse, bridge and chorus and you hadn’t even planned it. Yet, when you’re trying to convey a mood, I think you have to be a bit more creative and listen to what that song demands of you. I think that songs have their own shape and want you to come back to them, to challenge whether it gets to heart of what you’re looking to express. Because I’m a live performer, I think that’s the test – if it feels right singing it to an audience, and I want to keep singing it, it’s probably a good sign.”
Are you still doing a lot of songwriting now you’re back in England?
[cc_blockquote_right] FOR ME, SONGWRITING HAS BECOME A PRACTICE OF FINDING OUT WHAT I’M REALLY THINKING! [/cc_blockquote_right] “I’m pleased to say that, having moved to Bristol, I’m writing masses of songs. I don’t know what that is, but place plays a huge part in my creativity. I definitely needed to go to Canada to start writing and, similarly, when I came back to London I stopped writing for years. Now I trust that if you can get to the point when something’s difficult, then you can push through.”
Do you feel you need difficult experiences to inspire your creativity?
“I wouldn’t want to suggest it’s about misery and sadness. There’s so much information being thrown at us all the time, so I think we block ourselves up because there’s too much going on. So, for me, songwriting has become a practice of finding out what I’m really thinking!”
“I went to a crazy workshop in America with Bobby McFerrin and various musicians from all over the world. He had a real faith in improvisation as a process, even starting with something that’s really rubbish and it’ll inevitably turn into something beautiful. I think it’s our judgement that cause us to get blocked.”
Has it ever been helpful to have your father working in television?
“Weirdly, my dad had Billy Bragg on Question Time and he said to Billy: ‘My daughter’s a singer and she’s writing a lot at the moment. Have you got any advice for her?’ And Billy just said, ‘Tell her to keep writing as often as she can and sing it to people, and see what they say.’ That really is the answer because if you don’t get out there and sing it yourself, you’ll never know if people will connect with it, or not.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Kate Dimbleby will be performing at Tobacco Factory in Bristol on 23 and 24 January 2015. More information about Kate, and her latest albums Love Comes Again by Kate Dimbleby And Friends and Beware Of Young Girls: The Songs Of Dory Previn, can be found on the official website: www.katedimbleby.com