Zara Mcfarlane

Reggae loving chanteuse Zara McFarlane is being hailed as one of the best new voices in jazz and beyond. We find out why the likes of Gilles Peterson are such fans…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 15 May 2014
  • min read
it's common knowledge that DJ and Brownswood Recordings head honcho Gilles Peterson is a man with impeccable music taste.

As a rewirer of dancefloors and broadcaster, his ears have unearthed many a talent, including Brownswood signing and jazz chanteuse Zara McFarlane.

Zara connected with him and the label after a chance meeting at the Southport Weekender. The power of her voice ensured she stood head and shoulders above many other artists on the bill.

It’s turned out to be a fruitful collaboration for both parties with Zara’s 2011 record Until Tomorrow receiving a MOBO nomination and top reviews. She’s since collaborated with the likes of Orphy Robinson, Denys Baptiste and Soweto Kinch and released the follow up If You Knew Her to more rapturous applause from critics and fans alike.

We quizzed Zara about songwriting, her love of reggae and why passion is key for musicians…

What are your first musical memories?

I listened to a lot of reggae music as a child. I went to Jamaica when I was younger so that’s the music I remember most. Artists like Gregory Isaacs, John Holt and old school reggae music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Music was always part of my family. They aren’t musicians but every time we had a party or gathering there was plenty of music.

When did you realise you could sing?

I asked to perform at school concerts - that’s when people first started hearing my voice at secondary school, and I began entering competitions. I started writing songs when I was 11. Before that I just used to dance to music.

What inspired you to start to writing?

Around that time, when I was in the choir, there were bombings in Ireland and London. I remember seeing a story about that on the news and took something from it. I used to go to church when I was younger too and started writing songs I would sing there.

What drew you to jazz?

I studied musical theatre at the BRIT school and did a music course after that. There was a module on jazz and I found I knew a lot of those songs from musicals. Many jazz standards come from musical theatre. My teacher was looking for singers to perform, so I started working with him there, then started attending jam sessions at the Jazz Café. I got involved with the Tomorrows Warriors touring band and Jazz Jamaica.

What was the creative process like for the first record? Was it a difficult record to make?

Probably the opposite as the first album became a collection of songs written from across many years. I worked with a pianist on the album and really focused on creating a strong sounding album with the instrumentation. Some of these songs had been in different formats but we connected them together to make a cohesive album.

The second record was different as it’s brand new music, written in the last year or so. With the first record there were no real expectations. If people like it, they like it, if you’re lucky to get someone to release it, like I was with Brownswood, then great. But with the second people have questions, expectations, they become way more intrigued with how the next album is going to be. The first was almost easier as I was doing whatever I wanted.

Did you find different themes to write about?

On the first LP, many of those songs were not necessarily personal accounts; just themes or ideas, or stories I came up with. For instance, Blossom Tree is inspired by the story of Adam and Eve. Those ideas are much grander than the more personal and reflective thoughts on the second record.

How does the compositional process work?

In the initial stages, it’s harmony, with chords, then melodies and lyrics, usually I do that on my own. If something comes to me I write it down or sing it into my phone. When it comes to melodies, I sit and explore them with chords. From time to time, I’ve written with a collaborator. It’s a new thing for me but I’m getting into it.

Are you comfortable working across different genres?

Yes originally I was doing anything but jazz – musical theatre, my under grad was in popular music – it was geared towards becoming a session musician, being able to produce, teach, harmonise, sight read, and write songs as well. Jazz is a whole different set of techniques. It’s more detailed and difficult than popular music in some ways. But I feel quite comfortable sitting between the two styles.

How did you hook up with Brownswood?

I was doing house tracks and the producer I was working with asked if it was cool to pass on an mp3 to the label. I performed at Southport weekender with a producer and Gilles was Djing at the same event so I got to meet him there.

He asked me to come on to his show to do a live session. I kept trying to get a date down, so after much tweeting we did, then he called me and said he’d like to release my album.

It’s crazy working with Gilles. He’s such a busy man, he’s one of these people who is always moving, always full of ideas. I’m not like that at all but to work with someone more spontaneous, it makes you feel a bit freer too. He’s taught me a lot about how you don’t always have to do things in a certain way, you can try new things, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. That attitude helped a great deal with the second album.

Any advice for aspiring musicians?

Having an idea of what you enjoy helps - rather than just trying to be successful. I loved singing and wouldn’t have carried on if I didn’t love it. But you need to have a lot of determination and confidence as well as be as good as you can at whatever it is you’re offering – whether that be producing or singing. If you’re passionate that will inspire others - they will see it means something to you and it’ll start to mean something to them too as a result.

Visit Zara's website for more information.

Zara will be performing at the SunSplash Festival in June. Visit the website for more info on the line up and how to get tickets.