The manchestermusic.co.uk INTERVIEW
Clowns, Wine and Songs from a Birdcage: An Evening with Kirsty Almeida
To those rare, fortunate souls who finally manage to make it across no-man’s land and get to sign on the dotted line with a major label, the mystical “advance” suddenly springs miraculously from the ground at your feet. Suddenly flushed after years of scraping for every penny, most people throw the cash in wild abandon at a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, or in true Jez from Peep Show style; “Drugs and Shoes”. But when Kirsty Almeida signed with Decca Records last year and the aforementioned such cheque fell into her lap, such frivolities and clichés were certainly not at the forefront of her mind. No, no, no…she had other plans.
“I had a seven foot tall iron birdcage made” she explains, laughing in the late summer sunshine sat outside the Triangle. “It’s got a seat in it, a door and a hook to hang it from”. “Apparently it got all round the Decca offices. Everyone was saying ‘Look what the eccentric has gone and bought”. She smiles and sips her wine. “It just seemed like a good idea at the time”.
No, it’s not what you’d normally do with a cash advance. But then “Normal” isn’t a word that sits particularly comfortably on Kirsty’s shoulders. In fact, it immediately tips off and smashes onto the floor. “I’m kinda Norah Jones does Sgt Pepper” she explains. “I’m just creative across the board, I want to try everything”. Having grown up in various corners of the globe (With residency stamps from Gibraltar, Venezuela, The Philippines, Chicago and Singapore) she hardly fits into the traditional urchin-in-the-gutter Camden crowd mould. And her music is a delectable and intoxicating cocktail of all of these influences, splashed over the cultural rocks of many different continents. “I’ve always had an ear for music” she says. “I love Spanish and Mexican music, South American sounds, and all sorts of different stuff. I guess it just soaked in” Relocating to Manchester after a period of time at Bretton Hall studying popular music, the past couple of years have been meteoric for Kirsty; not to mention sudden and surprising. “I’d basically come to a crossroads. I was on the scene as a jazz singer and I’d done everything I wanted to do and decided to take a break” she elaborates in her story-teller tones. “But I decided I was going to write an album first. So I moved to Sheffield to stay with a friend and spent two months in a beautiful summer house. That was when I wrote the album.
The entire process of Kirsty’s song-writing comes from the same vein as everything else she does creatively; be that designing her own stage clothes or creating the artwork that adorns her new album: ‘Pure Blue Green’. “I believe that if you’re a creative, you’re a creative across the board, even if you don’t know it” she explains. “If you put a musician in front of a canvas and left them there for five days without any instruments, at some point they would do something and it would be an interesting thing”. And it is within the creative process that she finds the most satisfaction. “The creation is the most exciting thing; you don’t know where you are going to end up. It’s like if I’m designing clothes; I won’t set out trying to make anything in particular. I’ll start with a piece of fabric and work on it for a bit. After a while, I might think ‘Hmm, that looks like a skirt’. But it could as easily have been a scarf or a top. That’s how I look at song-writing too. It can go anywhere” And once the product is nurtured and born to the world, that’s when it ceases to be a personal thing anymore. “Creating the song is the emotional part for me” says Kirsty. “Once it’s finished, it’s out there; it belongs to someone else, and to the people who hear it. It’s not about me any more; it’s about what it makes them feel”
The collected songs were sewn together into their aural patchwork by a series of talented contacts from years of playing around the local jazz scene; she assembled a bunch of skilled musicians as her backing band, who she refers to collectively as her ‘Warriors of the Light’. “I’ve got so much time for them all, they’re wonderful” she says, “We genuinely believe in magic, we believe in the power of music to change how people think and act”. And the time Kirsty feels that herself the band and truly find their niche is within the live environment. “It’s what it’s really about for us, that connection with the audience” she explains, elaborating each point with a wave of her hand. “We don’t see it as being ‘you are our fans’. We see it as a support network; the fans are part of the show. There’s no dividing line there, we’re all together” This approach leads to a show that is part gig, part carnival, part theatre. The band play off each other, cavorting on stage together while Kirsty leads from the front, goading, enchanting and teasing the audience into a telepathic bond with the music. I ask about how she developed this persona, and am amazed at the reply I get. “A lot of it was from a course I did in clowning a few years ago” laughs Kirsty. “Not the big-shoes clowning but the art of how to be stupid”. She goes on “We’re all taught that failing is wrong; shameful somehow. But when you learn how to do it with grace and style, it is a beautiful thing. It’s taking a risk; it gives you the confidence to do things you wouldn’t ever have done. That’s why I’m confident in trying things on stage. Even if it doesn’t work out, you know you can turn it to your advantage. And when it does work out, it’s amazing”. A pause; a second passes: “And it usually does work out”.
Having established a reputation as a formidable and captivating live act, Decca were swift to bring her and the band on board, only to be instantly faced with the challenge of recording the record. And of course, finding the right producer. “They sent me a list of producers and I had to meet them all…it was like Speed Producers!” she recalls. Almost by chance, she ended up paired with legendary producer Martin Glover, more commonly known as Youth. “He was the only one who I wanted to keep playing more and more songs too. But I didn’t really know him, or his stuff. It was only when I went round to his house and I was like ‘Wow! How many number one records have you had?!’” Though the recording of the album at State of the Ark studios in Richmond was a challenge (“We had to do 16 songs in 12 days”), the two of them found a synergic energy that drove the whole project. “Basically, he’s a very strong-willed man and I’m a very strong-willed woman” she comments. “We had some fights but we both fed off the energy. I think that tension comes over in the music. He’s definitely a bohemian maverick”. The result was an album that traverses a whole host of influences, from spectral, naked emotion to out-and-out voodoo night music. “I’m really proud of it” she explains. “But I’m already thinking about where to go next. I want to get some of it re-recorded with different arrangements; that’d be really interesting. And we’ve already written the second album”
Talking over drinks as the traffic hum, clinking glasses and the voices of passers-by in early evening Manchester settles into a sweet concoction of chance music around us, it becomes apparent that Kirsty has a unique, maverick mind when it comes to the idea of music production, promotion and presence. How then, I wonder; is it possible to withhold such strong beliefs and ethics while face-to-face with the colossal apparatus of a major music label spinning you around like a gyroscope? I expect some carefully prepared sound-bite, but the response I get is both fascinating and shocking in equal measures. “Being with Decca is great, you really get to know about how the music industry works” she explains carefully. “But it is so unbelievably frustrating at times to make your ideas heard. They don’t like individuals. I think a lot of people are scared about their jobs at the moment, so they’re scared to move towards something they don’t understand. If they have something original, they try to box it so they can properly managing”. Her voices rises in volume as her emotions on the issue become clear: “It’s like…they take 500 artists, chuck them all at a wall and see who sticks. Then they try to make everything just like that. And if you try and be different and stand up for what you believe, they’re not used to that. You get a reputation for being difficult”. Then with a cock of her head and a wry smile, she says “And I’ve got that reputation”.
I want to know more about the actual experiences she’s had and find some surprising examples. “Well, when we were talking about marketing, one of the guys said ‘How about if we make out that she’s from Shoreditch. I mean, I’ve lived in all these places and they wanted to pretend I was from Shoreditch. It just made me so angry”. And furthermore, it appears that the near-fanatical clamour from their recent festival shows isn’t translated into so-called mass appeal. “We played at all these amazing festivals…Glastonbury, V-Festival, Big Chill, The Secret Garden Party. Everyone was getting what we were doing; we were pulling thousands of people into the tents all over. And then Decca turn round and say they’re pulling all the radio, all the promo, all the TV. It just loses all the momentum we’ve built up and it’s so frustrating” Pausing for another sip of her wine and mulling for a second, she continues “Sometimes it can all get too much. But I keep going. I believe in what we’re doing”
It would seem so easy to be cynical and drained after such a hectic summer of shows (“We’ve barely stopped”) and such obstacles. But Kirsty is far from deterred. “I’ve got so many good people around me” she says. “And I’ve learned so much so quickly. I want this to work and so does everyone around me. That’s a lot of great energy”. And there are already plans afoot to expand the sphere of her music and performances in the next few months. “I’ve got so much planned, it’s really exciting” she explains, smiling again. “We’re going to do a tour with the birdcage. We’re going to start off in the Isle of Skye with just me in the cage, and then adding an extra musician with every show. Hopefully by the end we’ll get everyone in. And we’re going to take bets on 365.com!” And this isn’t the limit of her grand plans. “There’s a song on the album called ‘Wrong Mister Right” intones Kirsty. “It’s a waltz, and I found out that the world record for the largest waltz ever was 321 couples* I’ve applied to the Guinness Book of Records and we’re going to try and beat that. I want 1000 couples. And we’ll do it all in London somewhere; with us playing and a choir. We’ll video it too, it’ll be amazing”.
This is the sort of off-kilter; wide-angled thinking that makes Kirsty what she is; a fascinating, articulate, flamboyant artist and performer. As easy as it would be to lose heart, she seems to gain momentum despite every hurdle put in her way. As the light of day begins to fade behind the Arndale centre and our glasses drain to the bottom, I ask her about whether she has any fears for the future, any doubts. She doesn’t even stop to think. “Not at all. It’s like the clown mentality: I’m not afraid of failure. I’m not afraid of failing in the industry, I’m going to make it happen. You have the power of positivity, combined with not being afraid, combined with the quality of the product. Combine all that with so many good people who know what they’re doing…”. She pauses, considers for a second before draining her glass. “With all of that coming together, how can that fail?”
* Since conducting this interview, Kirsty has subsequently informed me that the Waltzing World Record has been broken and now stands at 1500 couples! They’re still going for it though, watch this space….
Kirsty Almeida’s album ‘Pure Blue Green’ is out now on Decca Records.
9th September 2010
(c) (p) mybigmouth for manchestermusic.co.uk 2010