Born: May 14, 1973 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
It's a small word, jazz, Clare Teal says in a Yorkshire accent that vividly brings to mind Victoria Wood (which is apt, for she shares a similar sense of humor),a small word that covers a huge range of music.
She's right, and in mid-2007, jazz seems suddenly to be everywhere, enjoying a mainstream revival in all its many hues and variations. Norah Jones, of course, has taken at least the essence of jazz and spread it far and wide, likewise Jamie Cullum, Amy Winehouse and Corinne Bailey Rae. And then there is Clare herself, perhaps the most faithful exponent of them all.
Me? Oh yes, I very much come from a jazz tradition, she agrees, but my new album is actually a distinctive move away from it and into something much wider. This is my second major label album, and I wanted it to be clear that I had something distinctive to offer, perhaps even something new.
And, in Paradisi Carousel, Clare has done just that. A rich and often sublime album of succulent tunes and a voice lined with velvet, Paradisi Carousel sees Clare, for strictly soundbite purposes, elevated into a Karen Carpenter for the 21st century, a British Diana Krall. Her loyal army of fans always knew she had the best voice in the country; now everyone will.
I spent an entire year working on this, which, for me, is very unusual, she says. In the typical jazz tradition, I normally take no more than six weeks, so it would have been awful if I didn't have something to show for all those additional months, and all that extra effort, don't you think? Rest assured, her efforts have paid off beautifully. This is a peach of a record.
Let us now, for the sake of biography, state some facts.
Clare Teal hails from a tiny village near Skipton in Yorkshire, and was born 34 years ago to a mother and father with a box full of 78s, and an attic in which to play them. She came to singing early, ridiculously so, and by three could hold a note and make it flutter, although she did so in the privacy of her bedroom. By her teens, she was proving curiously impervious to the many joys of 1980s pop music - unmoved by the pleadings of Nik Kershaw, resistant to the charms of Simon Le Bon - instead turning her attentions to musical styles long since consigned to history.
I was obsessed with the singers of the 30s, the 40s and 50s, she says, eyes wide with enthusiasm, and just fascinated by voices. I would often retreat upstairs into the attic with my parents' 78s, and lose myself in them. Really, I was like the girl from the film Little Voice, a geek - though obviously an entirely adorable one. But then there wasÂ nothing else to do with my days. See, my village was tiny, nothing ever happened there. I remember we had a party once, the day they built a bypass through it. It gave us something to look at...
By 15, she was quite the singer, and a rather good mimic, which was a fun thing to be able to do, she notes, but on the downside, I wasn't able to find my own voice until I was 27 years old!
A student of the organ, piano and clarinet, she went on to study music at the University of Wolverhampton, and upon graduation entered a national competition to find the country's best Billie Holiday soundalike: Don't ask me why they wanted to find a soundalike when the original still sounded perfectly good to me, she says, but I came second.
Her near victory didn't land her an automatic deal, however, and after a bout of unemployment, she landed a job writing jingles.
I'd write these jingles, and then sing them in the manner of Julie Andrews, Madonna, my old favourite Billie Holiday and, well, anybody, really, she recalls. They were singing telegrams, effectively, and it was actually a lot of fun. I could also do Tina Turner, you know, albeit rather terribly, but then times were hard. You did what you could.
There next followed a stint selling advertising space on the phone, a career path Clare found herself singularly unqualified for. Not the job itself, but rather its clock-in/clock-out restrictions. I could never get my head around that whole 9-5 thing, she says. It wasn't for me.
At 27, fate then stepped in. A pianist she'd met years earlier during her Billie Holiday episode called, requiring a singer to perform alongside him for one night only and wondering whether Clare would be interested. Yes, she said, she would, jumping in the car and heading straight for the venue, shedding at least two stone in weight along the way with anxiety. It proved to be the night of her life, where everything suddenly felt natural and right and good.
This was my toe in the door of the industry, she says, and I was going to make the very best of it.
This entailed making a selection of demos, guesting with various jazz bands, playing locally and losing a lot of money. But she was nevertheless gradually making a name for herself, and people were beginning to take notice. In 2001, she inked a deal with independent label Candid, for whom she wrote and recorded three albums. By 2003, she had signed with the Sony Jazz label, which spawned what would become her breakthrough album, Don't Talk, an exquisite record of tender jazz that perfectly exemplified just what a talent she was. Critical acclaim poured in from the broadsheets and, if you will, jazz mags, and most persuasively from Michael Parkinson, who gave her heavy rotation on his Radio 2 programme, and invited Â her to perform on his ITV chat show. Don't Talk topped the British jazz charts and cracked the UK Top 20, shipping 60,000 copies and winning several awards, among them British Jazz Vocalist of the year 2005 + BBC Jazz Vocalist of the year 2006 not to mention the Marlborough Jazz Festival's Best Live Performer which she won two years running. At last, she was on her way.
I've been so happy with the way things have gone for me, she says. It's been a very gradual rise, but an immensely satisfying one. I'm really looking forward to whatever comes next.
Which brings us up to today, and Paradisi Carousel, the album Clare was always destined to make.
Newly confident of her flourishing abilities, she wanted to shake away all constraints of her defining genre and reveal a wealth of hidden riches. Where once I was influenced largely by jazz and classical, now I'm influenced by everything, she says. Thanks to [the album's producer] Chris Hughes, this record has enabled me to fall in love with music all over again. Previously, it was beginning to feel a little bit like a job, a chore. It doesn't anymore.
Herein, Clare proves to be a diva of the most understated kind. Across songs like Coming Home, Light Flight and the title track, she sounds elegant, regal and full of warmth, with a vocal empathy that makes each arch of every last note an arch worth savouring. Her version of The Four Tops' Reach Out (I'll Be There), meanwhile, is divine, a slow motion re-reading of the Motown classic that she makes entirely her own. It is, surely, a smash hit waiting to happen.
This album is my Baccarach period, she smiles, all big chords, nice tunes and harmonies, a bit of Carpenters here, some Dusty Springfield there. I feel I've connected to the music on an emotional level I once thought I'd lost forever. It's like all the early excitement I used to have has come back.
And it's an excitement that she delivers with an uncommon lightness of touch, evidence of the woman's confidence and proof that what we have here, in every way, is the real deal. Or, if you'll forgive the creaking pun, the Real Teal. Music is a melting pot, Clare says. And that's what I'm all about, ultimately, a melting pot with 70 years of music at my fingertips.
And what of the album's title, Paradisi Carousel? Turns out that paradisi is Latin for grapefruit, and Clare has quite a thing for grapefruit.
It's a much misunderstood fruit, she reasons, and I thought it was high time somebody stuck up for it.
She does it proud.