Zara McFarlane is a British jazz/soul singer and songwriter, based in East London, who is about to play at London’s Jazz Cafe in Camden on the 16th of December. In October 2014, McFarlane was awarded the title of “Best Jazz Act” at the MOBO Awards. Zara’s sound is described as “seductive and earthy”. An engaging, performer she uniquely combines jazz with a deep soulfulness, melding multiple influences from reggae to pop, folk and blues with both her originals and choice of covers. She has had three albums released on Brownswood Recordings. Zara recently appeared as a judge on the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year.
ALT: Let’s talk about your 3 albums Until Tomorrow, was released in October 2011, then If You Knew Her, was released in January 2014 (March in Germany). In 2017 you released Arise, so from the very first album to Arise what changed in terms of musical style, tell us about the title “If you knew her” and about the songs on the most recent album Arise (Brownswood, 2017). Tell us a bit about the journey, what you are most proud of etc?
ZARA: Each album has of course been very different in how they developed and were put together. I have always enjoyed exploring fusing jazz and reggae music. The first record was much more akin to a traditional jazz influenced album with regards to the instrumentation and the arrangements of the tunes. The second album became more introspective musically. There were many duets and lyrically was inspired by the strong black women in my family. I did a jazz version of the reggae classic ‘Police and Thieves’ by Junior Murvin which was received really well and for me kind of solidified this idea I had of fusing jazz and reggae music. Then the latest album ‘Arise” was able to be a bigger offering after receiving support from Women Make Music Fund (PRSF) in order to make the record. This allowed for a bigger band, bigger sound and a chance to take a few more risks and experiment with what I wanted to do musically. The last 7 years of making the music I want to make, has been a great journey. All my albums so far have been released on Brownswood Recordings. This has been a great place for me to grow and develop as an artist. As I develop, so does the music, it is a direct reflection. I anticipate my music to continue to develop in this way as it is exciting to keep pushing myself and challenging myself as a musician, artist, performer and songwriter. I guess I am most proud of the fact that I can keep, keeping on. I have been self-managed for the past 3 years now. It is hard work, but I am not afraid of hard work 😉
ALT: How did you feel when you won “Best Jazz Act” at the 2014 MOBO Awards?
ZARA: It’s always an honor to be nominated for an award. It was very special to win the MOBO as it is an award ceremony I have watched since it began when I was a kid.
ALT: When did you discover Jazz music?
ZARA: I can’t really remember when I discovered jazz music so to speak. I remember being obsessed with a Patti Austin album when I was about 10 years old called “The Real Me” which had jazz classics such as “Lazy Afternoon” and “They Can’t That Away from Me”. I remember hearing the voice of Nina Simone in a film and seeking out who she was. I can’t remember when I first heard the likes of Billie and Ella, they are voices that I feel have been with me forever.
ALT: If you have any musical influences who are they and is there anyone you would like to work with?
ZARA: I would love to work with Stormzy I think he is a great talent, jazz artist Gregory Porter although we have sung together before I would love to record a track with him, reggae artists Chronixx and Protoje who are my favs at the moment. I just saw them at their big show at Alley Pally which had me dancing all night.
ALT: Are there any songs on the latest album Arise that you are more sentimental about than others?
ZARA: It is always hard to choose a fav song from an album. The albums I have created so far are very special as they reflect a moment in time for me. This new album is very special. It has almost been like a journey of self-discovery, exploring my Jamaican heritage through music and expressing love of jazz and reggae.
ALT: How do you incorporate your musical heritage of the Caribbean and British-Jamaican identity into an album?
ZARA: This is something that I didn’t particularly set out to achieve in so many words, but I think it has been the most natural thing to do. These are the sounds I hear and the sounds I love. It is what I know so it is a matter of sharing that through my music.
ALT: Where do you call home?
ZARA: London although maybe one day Jamaica ;).
ALT: When did you write your first song, and can you remember you first professional performance?
ZARA: I wrote my first song when I was 11 years old. It was a “Heal the World” (Michael Jackson) style inspired song. I remember watching the news about the IRA bombings and felt compelled to write a song. I still remember some of the lyrics! My first professional performance I would have to say would be performing on the TV Show Stars in Their Eyes aged 14 in the adult competition. I was performing as Lauryn Hill of the Fugees and sang Killing Me Softly. I remember being very excited but kind of in a daze meeting Matthew Kelly and being on set at such a young age it was a very special moment.
ALT: What can we expect from your performance at Jazz Cafe?
ZARA: The performance on the 16th Dec is my last show of the year, it is at the Jazz Cafe (Camden) hosted by Ronnie Scotts. Expect to sing, dance, relax and have fun. There may be some older tunes from previous albums and maybe a new tune… 😉 It’s the end of the year. It has been a great year music wise. I have achieved many firsts and really am looking forward to celebrating with everyone.
ALT: What are you excited about or can tell us about in 2019, are you working on your 4th album?
ZARA: I am really excited about getting creative again. Working on some new music and collaborations. Stretching myself musically and artistically and exploring new musical avenues. I don’t want to give too much away yet as I am still in the exploration phrase, but I have started work on my new album so keep your eyes and ears open next year for something new from me.
Book tickets here for the Jazz Cafe, Camden Parkway. Please NOTE the event is hosted by Ronnie Scotts and will take place at the Jazz Cafe.
Date: Sunday 16th December 2018 Doors open time First House 19:00
Ticket Prices: £15.00 – £15.00 Where: The Jazz Cafe 5 Parkway, London, NW1 7PG. A minutes walk from Camden Town tube station. Local bus routes include 24, 27, 31, 168, N5, N28, N31, 274 and C2.
To listen to McFarlane’s music click here