Spotlight On…Nicky Schrire

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

Singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire completed her Masters of Music at Manhattan School of Music, which is how she came to be in New York City, and how I came to meet her. I heard Nicky sing for the first time at one of Amy Cervini’s duet nights at the 55 bar, and was charmed by “Penguin Dance,” a song the two of them co-wrote.

Nicky released her debut recording, Freedom Flight, in 2012, establishing herself as a unique presence in the ever-shifting landscape of vocal jazz. She’s recorded Bob Dylan and Beatles covers, Great American Songbook standards, and a great deal of original music, which seamlessly fuses folk, pop, and jazz sensibilities to create a sound uniquely her own.

Nicky left the Big Apple and spent some time in London before returning to Capetown, South Africa, where she currently makes her home. She and I share a birthday (August 22, along with Dorothy Parker, in case you’re curious) and a deep and abiding love of ice cream, as evidenced by her gorgeous Instagram feed. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life in music, Nicky!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve always just loved music. It sounds rather too simplified, but it’s been part of the fabric of my life since childhood. Music was played in the house, we watched musicals both live and on the television, we listened to music in the car going to and from school, we sang songs for fun. I never discussed with my parents whether or not I should study music post-high school. I’m lucky they were supportive and they felt it as natural a progression as I did.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The decision to study music, both at the undergraduate and post graduate level, didn’t really require decision. So knowing the next course of action to develop as a musician has always come naturally to me. That streak of luck lasted up until I finished graduate school. Navigating the jazz industry after school and figuring out where I fit in has been very challenging.

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Photo: Shervin Lainez

As far as musicianship goes, I’ve always had a fairly good ear and musicality so that has helped me out when learning new repertoire or absorbing new vocal techniques. It has been difficult to really figure out what I want to say, musically speaking, through songwriting, arranging, repertoire choice and stylistic choices. Jazz is a genre that is hybridising and changing as I type this. It should make it easier to feel one has carte blanche to create whatever version of “jazz” one desires, but in fact it makes it more challenging because the musicians and the audiences and the powers-that-be who curate performance opportunities aren’t all on the same page.

How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song? The lyrical component of a song is very important to me. If I can’t relate to the story being told, I won’t sing the song, in all likelihood. Even if I’m crazy about the melody or the harmonic content or the general atmosphere of a song, I know it will be challenging to delier the lyrics honestly so I’ll forego singing that song. I also tend to favour more obscure tunes over oft-sung songs.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I love food and small businesses that celebrate local suppliers and seasonal, local ingredients. So I’d try to be involved in a profession that aligned me with that industry. I love the sense of community in jazz and I sense that exists in the food community too, where business owners know one another and there’s a great pride in what they do.

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Photo: Jonx Pillemer

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
The best piece of advice I’ve read came from Amy Poehler’s autobiography. She wrote, “Good for you. Not for me.” I love that. It helps us to acknowledge someone else’s path and then swiftly move on.

Chris Rosenberg spoke of life being a pie when I was at Manhattan School of Music. I always think of this analogy. It makes you realise that music or career are incredibly important, but they’re only one slice of the pie. Sometimes that will be the bigger slice, and at other times it’ll be smaller. This visual idea taught me to constantly question how satisfying and rich my entire “life pie” was. I found, very often, that the entire pie was career-focused and it wasn’t very satisfying because it came at the cost of family, friends, and really enjoying life.

Fun fact:
People are often surprised to learn that I was a saxophonist (tenor, soprano and baritone) for about eleven years. The saxophone introduced me to jazz and I played in big bands and did corporate gigs well into my undergraduate degree (I was as a saxophone major for the first year). I also played in the on-stage orchestra for a Cape Town production of Fosse, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. I lied about being able to double on the bass clarinet and had to both find one to rent and learn how to play it in a week or so. I don’t recommend this modus operandi to anyone! I also learnt the harp for a year while at junior school.

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