Zara McFarlane has a unique ability to channel established influences in a fresh way.
The MOBO nominated vocalist has released two albums on Brownswood, achieving widespread plaudits in the process.
Her third LP, though, is just a little bit special. Produced by South London drummer Moses Boys, 'Arise' joins the dots between jazz and reggae, between London and Jamaica, between the deeply physical and the quietly internal.
It fuses some of Zara's most tender songwriting moments yet with some carefully chosen covers, such as a tender workout on The Congos' wonderful 'Fisherman'.
A record that is both defiantly personal and purposefully universal, 'Arise' emerges from a period of enormous creative energy within London's jazz scene, energy that pushes the vocalist's artistry to fresh levels.
Clash catches up with Zara McFarlane to find out a little more.
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‘Arise’ emerged from a period of self-discovery, of you analysing your own identity. How integral is music to your own identity, do you think? And how entwined is music with how you configure black British identity?
For me ‘Arise’ is an amalgamation of two of my musical influences Jazz and Jamaican music. Jamaican music; Roots reggae, rocksteady, ska, bashment are the music forms that I grew up listening to in my home. Music has always been there. It effects me on a deep emotional level. Identity is something that is forever evolving as we grow and evolve. Our perception of ourselves develops with every experience that we have. Music for me as a performer is something that allows me to express myself on a basic human level.
This is your third album, do you view it as a reaction to your previous work? Is this evolution, or revolution?
I definitely see it as a progression so I would have to say evolution. The sound that we have created on this record is a good reflection of something that I have always been exploring musically, using “jazz and reggae music.” I think if you listen carefully to the other albums you can hear these influences and the natural progression that has arrived at this point.
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Music has always been there. It effects me on a deep emotional level.
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Moses Boyd features prominently, a key part of London’s incredible jazz scene right now. How did you meet? What did he bring to the record?
Moses and I have been working together for a few years now. He performed on my last record and we toured together for the last album tour. We met through our associations with the Tomorrow Warriors organisation.
Moses not only performed on this record but co-produced it so he was an integral part of the process. Some songs we wrote together where Moses took my demos away and created new pieces out of them. Others stayed truer to the original demos and some were created form the vibe the in the studio.
The jazz scene in London is a pretty inspirational place right now, do you feel you brought some of that energy into the studio?
The jazz scene in London has been vibrant for some time. We have a great set of musicians from the London scene on the record who are all friends. The great thing about the scene is that everyone knows each other, everyone plays in each others bands which I think creates a certain kind of spark on stage and in the studio that is genuine and playful.
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You just need to let people do that they do, which is play!
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Jazz is an inherently improvisational art-form, how loose were the studio sessions? How do you connect tightly defined songwriting with the open-ended creativity of jazz?
Very easily. When you are working with people you know well there comes with that a lot of trust and musical understanding. You may be required to discuss a at times in terms of concept, feel, emotion, lyric or vibe or whatever in order to steer things ing the right direction sonically but mostly you just need to let people do that they do, which is play!
When you work with musicians closely you get a strong idea of what they are going to add to the music before you are in the room with them. You can hear it in your head. There was very rarely a need to overthink or discuss the music at length. You just have to play it.
‘Fussin’ And Fightin’ feels like a protest song, of sorts. Are you comfortable with that tag? What sparked the song when you wrote it?
It is a song about standing up for what you believe in. Rising above struggles. Coming together to create change. With that on mind it definitely has elements of a protest song. I will have to think how comfortable I am with any tag! It came from a general feeling of unrest, the feeling that change was coming and people being unhappy with the now.
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Jamaica is something that feels very much part of me.
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You’ve spoken about the impact Jamaica had on your songwriting, and your approach to music. What is it that impressed you most? Is it soundsystem culture, the styles of songwriting… or something else?
I went to Jamaica for the first time aged five years old to meet my grandparent for the first time. It has a deep richness to it with all of its sights and sounds that stayed with me throughout my childhood and through various trips back and forth to Jamaica.
Jamaica is something that feels very much part of me. A lot of that comes from family experiences, beautiful scenery, and definitely the bass!
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'Arise' is out now on Brownswood.
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