Music interview - Zara McFarlane: '˜Reggae was my first music, as a child that's the music that I heard at home'

Award-winning singer Zara McFarlane's new album fuses jazz with reggae and Jamaican folk. Duncan Seaman reports.

Friday, 26th January 2018, 7:30 am
Zara McFarlane is touring songs from her third album, Arise, which fuses jazz with reggae.
Zara McFarlane is touring songs from her third album, Arise, which fuses jazz with reggae.

A MOBO award for Best Jazz Act in 2014 might have found singer Zara McFarlane firmly filed under one style of music but her latest album suggests a singer songwriter keen to cross boundaries.

Called Arise, it sees the 33-year-old from east London fusing jazz tones to reggae rhythms. It’s an unorthodox mix but one that McFarlane says is something that she has “always been interested in doing”.

“When I first started working professionally in jazz was through Tomorrow’s Warriors and one of the first projects that I did with them was with Jazz Jamaica which is also run by Gary [Crosby] and Janine [Irons], both use jazz and reggae so it’s something that I’ve been exploring anyway for a long time through that band.

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Zara McFarlane recently performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“Also my parents are Jamaican so it’s always something that I’ve been interested in. Reggae was my first music, as a child that’s the music that I heard at home. Jazz was something that I got into through musical theatre – I studied musical theatre and a lot of the jazz standards are from musicals, so I was familiar with the material in that way. I started doing more jazzy things at university with one of my teachers and ended up meeting Gary or Janine at the session we had at The Jazz Cafe.”

She points to the fact that even on her 2011 debut album, Until Tomorrow, there were two songs, Blossom Tree and Mama Done, that “when I first wrote them they were like reggae songs; Mama Done was more calypso and Blossom Tree had a reggae guitar influence, so did the bassline”. Her second album, If You Knew Her, contained the Junior Murvin reggae standard Police and Thieves.

“In my head I’ve always been trying to meld the two equally but I think [Arise] is the closest I’ve got so far,” she says.

Last year McFarlane travelled to the Caribbean to research Jamaican folk music for a musical that she is developing. She discovered “it’s very rhythmical-led, it’s all about drumming and singing and there’s some dancing associated with styles like Pocomania and kumina”.

Zara McFarlane recently performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“Most of the early Jamaican styles have a lot of African influence, of course, they were also often performed in ceremonies that were in relation to death, they were like spiritual ceremonies, which was quite interesting.”

The cover of Arise features McFarlane dressed in khaki and sporting a red beret, revolutionary-style. She says the lyrics took time but when they did start to flow “the things I was talking about were slightly more socio-political”, adding: “I didn’t really sit down and think I’m going to write a heavy political album but it’s definitely got elements of that sentiment in it. I suppose it’s partly because of everything that’s been going on for the last couple of years, it stays on your mind so when you’re writing it comes out.”

With an emphasis on rhythm on the record, the choice of the drummer Moses Boyd as producer seems apt. “He was a good choice because I’d known him well anyway,” McFarlane says. “I like working with people that I know because it makes life fun and a bit easier, but for me I was really interested in working with someone that had a Caribbean background because I knew those were things that I wanted to explore. The drum element was just the icing on the cake, really.”

Alongside her own compositions are songs by 70s reggae artists The Abyssinians and Nora Dean. McFarlane says she was keen to put her own mark on them. “Whenever I explore a cover I don’t like to come away too far from the original, I don’t change the melodies, but musically I like to put my own stamp on it, definitely,” she says. “I try to bring out something new in the music, for example Police and Thieves I really wanted to get the emotion out of it. Everyone knows the track, even though it’s quite slow it’s still a danceable track, but I took it away from that and was looking more at the lyrics and the sentiment behind them; I tried to do the same thing with Fisherman as well, making it a bit more introspective.”

As well as her plans for a stage show – “I had an idea of wanting to create a musical out of a Jamaican folklore tale which I’ve moved away from a little bit” – Zara McFarlane has also had a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production of Antony & Cleopatra at the Barbican in London.

“I was singing in it,” she says. “I’m not acting but I’m the voice that is in the play, I sing with a band on stage in a costume. That was really nice, it was an unexpected thing to be offered. It was never on my mind to work with the RSC but it’s a brilliant company, they do so many different things and it’s been a great opportunity.”

Arise is out now on Brownswood Recordings. Zara McFarlane plays at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on February 9.