ali mcgregor: interview
If you live in Canberra and are a fan of jazz, soul, and cabaret, then be sure to check out the Capital Jazz Project, on now until June 8th, at the Street Theatre. I caught up with singer and cabaret diva Ali McGregor, who has two performances at the Capital Jazz Project, Alchemy on June 5th for adults and Jazzamatazz on June 6th for kids. Ali has toured around the world and is returning to Canberra as part of this huge festival for the first time, but surely it won’t be the last time.
Can you tell me about how your music career started?
I started my musical education right here in Canberra at ANU’s School of Music! But I finished my degree on scholarship at the Royal Northern College of Music and I think my first professional show outside college was for Broomhill Opera Company in London doing a Kurt Weill show called The Silverlake (Der Silbersee). It was a pretty incredible experience as the company was taking possession of Wilton’s Music Hall which was the oldest surviving music Hall in the UK but had been in disrepair for years. We did the place up while rehearsing and it has now become a great East End London venue. I also got to work with Rory Bremner (UK Comedian) and Charles Hazelwood (innovative UK conductor).
What musicians inspire you/do you look up to?
I love Sarah Vaughan, her style, her phrasing, her sass … I am slightly obsessed with the 50s peruvian soprano Yma Sumac. Current singers like Katie Noonan, Elana Stone, Camille O’Sullivan, Lady Rizo are also high on my list of inspiring women of song.
What do you enjoy most about performing live?
I love the immediacy of interaction with the audience. I love that each night (or day with the kids show) becomes a unique conversation between the performer and the punter. I also love nothing more than playing with my band who are so inventive and fresh each time they play – I am endlessly entertained by their creativity.
I understand that you have worked across a variety of music/performance genres. What drew you to Jazz as an artform?
I had a great jazz teacher at school – Paul Rettke (jazz guitarist). He told me to go and listen to the great ladies of song – Ella, Sarah, Billie, Dinah, Nina. Theirs are the songs that made me want to sing so even though I went off to sing opera and musical theatre I have always come back to the jazz music of the 40s & 50s. I love the veneer of simplicity, the ensemble’s complicity, the ability to transform a single idea into a chorus of emotion.
Is this your first time performing at the Capital Jazz Project? Have you performed in Canberra before?
I performed by first solo show Jazz Cigarette at the Street Theatre a a few year’s ago but not as part of the Capital Jazz Project. To be honest I will always be chuffed to be seen as any kind of jazz singer. And to be in a program that features heroes of mine like The Bad Plus, Katie Noonam, Paul Grabowsky, Gian Slater … I feel like a pretender but I am pretty good at pretending so bring it on!
Who are you looking forward to seeing at the festival? Are you familiar with any of the other artists?
See above for that question although unfortunately the people I just mentioned are not in town when I am … My MD (the incomparable Sam Keevers) plays with Scott Tinkler a lot and speaks so highly of him so I can’t wait to see Hannaford/Eskelin/Tinkler/Rainey.
Tell me about Jazzamatazz. What inspired you to create a show for kids? What sort of response have you had?
I was inspired when I was in Edinburgh Fringe one year with my then 2 year old. I tried to get out and see as many shows with her as I could. I ended up seeing a lot of shows with simple songs that didn’t in my opinion really challenge the kids that much musically. They were also all wearing t-shirts and jeans … But when I took my daughter to early evening cabaret shows with great music and sparkly gowns, nice lighting etc she really lost her head. I wanted to give her and other kids a real theatrical, cabaret experience and give the kids real, top quality music. I think they are even more open to jazz than adults because it is almost a childlike form of expression being so tapped in to raw emotions. The response from everywhere from London to Roxby Downs has been incredible. We get a mosh pit! They always want to know abut the instruments and by the end even the parents are dancing and singing along. Well, at least barking like dogs which is good enough for me!
What have been your biggest challenges in pursuing your musical career?
I get bored pretty easily so I need challenges in my career to keep me going. There have been challenges every step of the way but then that is exactly what I have sought. Challenges of learning music, lyrics and my own voice. Selling tickets, selling yourself. Booking bands, venues, plane tickets. Paying people, paying yourself. Doing gigs to 4 people, no people, 1000 people who don’t know who you are … with a headache and no sleep. But every time I have survived a challenge it is a rush better than anything, well, almost anything …
Do you face any challenges as a woman in the jazz world?
I don’t think I could really say that I am in the jazz world. I sing jazz music but I couldn’t put myself in the same class of singer as Gian or Katie. I don’t think I have ever faced any challenges for my gender. I am always touring with a bunch of men who, although they may smell up a tour bus, always, without exception, treat me with the same respect as they do each other. But jeeez they really do smell.
What are your plans for the future of your musical career?
Keep jumping in front of challenges like metaphorical moving cars. Keep working with only the best musicians I can find. Keep trying to be better and smarter and wear sparklier shoes …
Anything else you’d like to add?
Nope. I have said pretty much all of the words.. Except jazz-hands and glitter and gin. They are all good words too.