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Karen Lane

Where were you born?
Perth, Western Australia. One of the most beautiful landscapes with miles of white sandy beach coast line, but also one of the most isolated cities in the world. So fairly restricted in terms of variety of music exposure.

Were your parents musical? did you come from a musical background?
You could tell my mum was very musical and she certainly listened to and appreciated good music, but being from a very poor family there was no opportunity to study music and despite being a grade ahead of herself at school, she was forced to leave school at 14 to work. Consequently she was determined to give us a great education, including music lessons from an early age. My father had one brother, who had 5 daughters. He was very strict about their musical studies. My cousins were all playing 3 or 4 instruments each, piano, trumpet and various saxes, because my uncle, was a closet saxophonist and music lover. He moved them to London in the 80's to study at the Royal Academy. Three of the 5 girls went on to be professional musicians and formed a band "the Fairer Sax". So I guess there were musical genes on both sides of the family.

What were your earliest musical influences?
I was the youngest of 4 children so my earliest musical memories are dancing around the room with my mum to her records while the others were at school. Things like Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and musical scores from Hans Christian Anderson stories, the Sound of Music. My mum listened to Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Ray Charles as well as more contemporary singers such as Roberta Flack and Karen Carpenter, she was my mum's favorite. Of course you couldn't go past Judy Garland a voice you could never forget. There was also a lot of mainstream big band - things like James Last orchestra, Herb Alpert, light instrumental and some popular Latin Bossa Nova records. As a school aged child of course I loved the popular music of the time. My favorite past time was singing along to ABBA records with my best friend. That was my earliest memory of wanting to be a singer, I think I was about 8 or 9.

When you went to school, did the schools have a good music program?
I first went to a small catholic school so there was no program there although we did a lot of church singing and later I realized all the cadences and familiar sounds from hymns are valuable in themselves. I did learn guitar for two years at about 11-12 and had been learning piano privately from about 6 years old. My high school had program for gifted musicians and artists, although I didn't apply for those scholarships, I was very involved in the drama, musical theatre department which was renown for putting on a great musical each year. I played the leading roll in Guys and Dolls.

Did you hang around people who were musically inclined or were your friends from a varied background?
I wouldn't really say I hung around musicians as such, although a lot of my friends were interested in music and at University there were various bands amongst friends. My older brother was in quite a high profile retro psychedelic 60's revival sounding, grunge band at the time, so a lot of my friends were impressed by that. I did get to witness their rehearsals and my brother immersing himself in music and his guitar. It was a real melting pot of mostly "indie" sounds because in a small town we tended to get only Top 40 pop music and the alternative reaction to that.

Were you in any bands growing up?
Yes, some I'd rather forget.

What was the first musical instrument you were attracted to as a child?
Piano because we had one in the house and being the youngest child I desperately wanted to take lessons and play like my siblings. I started to play by ear at about 6 and started lessons shortly after that. Unfortunately my aural skill were stronger than my sight reading and I fooled the teachers that I could read well, until the pieces became too long to memorize quickly and then I became unstuck a bit, but kept playing.

What music did you listen to growing up?
A real range of things. Obviously my mum's collection which I've already mentioned. I was heavily into dance so we performed to many light classical pieces which were amongst my favorites. A lot of the pop music mostly ABBA, 70s soul disco that was huge, things like Donna Summer, first electronic wave of new romantic music in the 80s.

Then in my later teens indie grunge and the mod ska phase was big. I was influenced by my brother and school friends there was a lot of The Cure, New Order The Smiths, The Jam, Madness and independent Australian bands. Then came Spandau Ballet, Style Council. Vocally the Eurythmics - I loved Annie Lennox her powerful vocals and sexy but in control feminist attitude. I remember Sade was huge and I loved her sultry laidback vocal style and I thought the grooves were the coolest music I'd ever heard. We didn't get a lot of soul influenced music in Perth.

It wasn't until I moved to Sydney at 21 that I first heard Soul 2 Soul and really connected with the kind of music I wanted to immerse myself in. I was singing with an original funk band so it was during that time I had my first taste of real funk and soul in its earlier form: things like Sly and the Family Stone James Brown, Ann Peeples. Then came the wave of acid jazz which I was really into, mainly from the UK - Incognito, The Brand New Heavies, which of course drew on all that earlier stuff.

About the same time, I remember becoming more interested in jazz and listening to old recordings of Sarah and Ella mostly. I listened to and copied them as closely as I could and was singing with my own jazz trio live every week in Sydney's Darling Harbor, doing it was the best way to learn.

When growing up did you watch much TV, and listen to the radio much?
My parent were quite strict about us watching TV, we weren't allowed much. Most of our out of school hours were taking up with lessons, speech and drama, music, dance, tennis and other sports. On Saturday afternoons we watched old movies and these were often musical, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby must have given me a taste for the crooners and loads of Elvis movies.

I only recall listening to radio in the car, so that was mainly popular music of the time. I remember hearing Gloria Gaynors' "I will survive" and being so mesmerized by the power of that vocal I couldn't get out of the car.

At what point did you know that you wanted to become a serious musician?
I knew I wanted to be a singer from about 9 years old, but I didn't realize at the time, I would need to take my music lessons more seriously, in order to be really good. As a rebellious teenager I wanted to quit the piano to focus on singing, probably because my piano teacher was lacking in inspiration. But my parents refused and I eventually moved to a teacher who would let me sing and play simultaneously. Unfortunately that didn't last too long as my parents had never wanted me to be a serious musician and I stopped taking lessons at about 16 to focus on getting into a University course in a more "respected" profession. After completing a Bachelor of Science and moving to Sydney at 21, I started to sing Jazz and song write more, that's when I realized I would have to improve my musicianship. A lot private mentorship with musicians and some conservatorium short courses along the way have bridged the gaps, but this is a constant challenge and I think even the most accomplished musicians would say they are continually learning.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and you only had 10 recordings to bring along with you, which ones would they be, and why?

Not necessarily in any order except the order I thought of them:

1. Me Shell N dege Ocello "Plantation Lullabies"
I got this when I was in the height of my funk stage and had my own original band and was programming and writing a lot using Cubase. This is the sexiest music it just transcends you there. The bass lines are wicked her playing is just amazing and the over all production is slick. A great combination of live playing and programming, the balance of which is a very fine line and hard to achieve. Her lyrics are poignant and thought provoking and full of attitude her delivery quintessentially cool and harmonic. Some of it is quite heavy, not for the faint hearted.

2. Chet Baker "My Funny Valentine"
A classic so relaxing - I could listen to that voice all day. So understated in delivery, a big lesson for me vocally and his gorgeous warm but tortured tone and his simple melodic and harmonically sound trumpet lines.

3. Shirley Horn "Here's to Life"
I have loads of her records and love them all but this is the favorite if you were to have just one. The string arrangements by Johnny Mandel make it in a way, but it is still her sparse delivery and wisdom she brings to this beautiful selection of songs.

4. Carmen McCrae sings Monk
This is an amazing record, with an amazingly swinging trio. Her interpretation of the Monk pieces is so "on the money" and they are not always the easiest melodies or phrasings to sing. I love the way she just goes for it. Her attitude and understanding of these unique compositions is captured in time and you can almost visualize the session being recorded.

5. Cassandra Wilson "Traveling Miles"
It took a while for this to grow on me but now I love it. The instrumentation: I love the combination of percussion and heavy use of guitars electric and acoustic, lack of piano and use of other ethnic instruments create a cohesive swampy atmosphere. Her gritty restrained well seasoned voice is the icing melting into the cake. The unique approach to some of the standards very refreshing and probably my favorite track her great lyrical adaptation of Wayne Shorter's ESP.

6. Aretha Franklin "Sings the Blues"
I love the way Aretha can take a melody and completely make it her own, give a standard a whole new slant, like her ballad treatment of "What a Difference a day makes". She is such a liberating and powerful singer and boy does she wrench the pain out of a song. This is an album of great Blues tunes and Aretha shines as always.

7. Erykah Badu "Baduism"
This is one of my favorite albums. Very sensual and sexy and again full of attitude. I love the way she has combined jazz elements in an essentially funky commercial record. The backing vocals are really clever and hip. I saw here live at the North Sea jazz festival and she was so focused and inspirational a real Diva. There is a lot of underlying harmonic knowledge there but she doesn't have to display it all at once.

8. Sarah Vaughn "Sings Soulfully"
Sarah is my favorite jazz singer and what I love about this recording is the line up which includes Hammond throughout and gives the whole record a unique feel. Loads of great ballads and the blues.

9. Marcos Valle "Samba 68" Verve
I recently picked up this reissue in Greenwich when I was doing the jazz festival there. I love "Summer Samba" (So Nice) and was doing this live a lot so looking for versions of it. It was actually written by Marcos Valle but sounds very Jobim. The album is exactly what you'd expect super smooth voices and orchestration and rather kitsch.

10.Tom and Joyce
I am really into Latin stuff at the moment and this is a new CD released in 2002. I love it. The arrangements are great and although full on at times, I like the sparseness it maintains by stripping down to acoustic guitar and percussion a lot. The mix of the gentle voices male/female harmony thing is really reflective of a lot of old Bossa Nova records. It's really well done, a relaxing and beautiful recording.

What vocalists influenced your style of singing? Discuss.
Annie Lennox - when I was about 15 I tried to imitate her vocal power/projection and use of falsetto as a contrastive device.

Sam Brown - When "STOP" was a big hit for her I was at university just dreaming of being a singer. She has a great soul voice that I used to copy a lot.

Lisa Stansfield - Again I was just finishing my degree when she became huge with "All Around the World" I could do a great impression of her. This was some of the first soul singing I had really listened to, although it was pop music and classed as "white soul" but I connected with how expressive and diverse she could be with her voice and spent hours copying it.

Sarah Vaughn- She is really my favorite of the classic jazz Divas and the first I listened to really closely and emulated. I had a very clear voice and had also had some classical training so I felt a close affinity for her pure almost operatic tone that she would sometimes have, especially in the higher register.

Aretha Franklin- I was more into her from a soul singer perspective and my role in the funk band. I had to learn very quickly to sing all those "soul licks" as that kind of music was new to me. Later I heard her singing some standards and what a revelation. I had kind of a preconceived idea that as a jazz singer you had to be all poise and considered about your voice and what you were singing, but Aretha just blew out that notion. She sings with soul and that to me is one of the most vital sensibilities a singer must have.

Ella - Well I think all jazz singers have listened to and copied Ella at some stage. She was an early influence and of course a great improviser. I didn't really connect with the harshness Billie's voice, I think mainly because some of the recordings I had were not that great and were of her later years. So it was Ella I turned to.

Shirley Horn - She is a more recent influence, it was Julian Joseph who told me to listen to all I could of Shirley. Vocally I guess it is her restraint, her phrasing and consequently her ability to deliver, so profoundly, the meaning of the lyric. It was my first year in the UK when I went to the US and saw her perform live in DC. There was a lot of emphasis in London on scatting and that is not really my thing, so I was panicking a little, until I saw Shirley perform and it restored my faith in just singing the song, as she does. The less is more concept.

Dee Dee Bridgewater - Also a more recent influence. I love the way Dee Dee scats. If I was going to get into scatting at all, I needed some inspiration and Dee Dee is it. I know she draws a lot from Ella but she has her own thing going on too. She is so care free about it, that it is liberating. The sounds she makes are crazy and soulful and not only concerned about the harmony, although she doesn't miss a trick as far as that goes. As a vocalist I like to take risks and Dee Dee does this all the time. Singers that do so are the most exciting for me. The "live at Yoshi's" album is masterful and one of my favorites.

Chet Baker - Again more recently, I have learnt from his restrained delivery and solid phrasing. His sound is beautiful so that helps.

Do you ever listen to older recordings to learn a new technique, or idea that you might want to incorporate into what you are doing now?
Right now I'm listening to a lot of old Samba and Bossa recordings because I love singing Bossas and I am thinking about recording a predominantly Latin based album, so I am checking them out for instrumentation and thinking about how I can do things differently but achieve similar effect, because its unlikely I'll have access to an orchestra!

Shirley Horn I'm amazed at how she does all those slow tempos often on Bossas and they sound great. So listening closely to the drums I pick up patterns that seem to work and often they are the simplest ideas, like an off beat ride, that are the most effective. I think as a singer and producer you have to be really clear about how you want things to sound, in order to get that out of your musicians. When you are on precious studio time there is no point saying can you play "something else" I think it is more constructive to be specific about a pattern you want to hear on the hi hat or whatever it might be.

Do you look for situations that may be musically challenging to you? I know as a Jazz musician this can be a life long quest.
There is plenty of musically challenging situations, but it easy to keep You in a comfort zone and not learn or progress much. I try to learn as many new songs as I can or write new songs and perform them as soon as possible. That is the best and fastest way to tell if you really know something. Playing straight up with new rhythm sections (no rehearsal) can be a challenge as a singer. It really tests your knowledge of the charts and ability to direct the band on the spot. I love that, it is very exciting and new players will always bring something new to an arrangement you may have been doing for a while. I think the audience can sense and get a buzz from that element of risk as much as the players.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Karen Lane
  • Subtitle: Vocalist on the Rise
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