Clare Teal: The new first lady of jazz

The singer Clare Teal has won a £3m record deal, but a year ago she was an unknown club singer. She tells Keith Shadwick how it all went right
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The Independent Culture

She may be the woman of the moment, but the Britjazz singer Clare Teal is the sort of person whom you'd have no hesitation in asking in for a cup of tea - she's that down-to-earth and friendly. Having recently signed a contract with Sony - although industry gossip suggests that the £3m tag attached to it in the media may have grown somewhat in the telling - and become one of the favourite vocalists of a certain Michael Parkinson (she's appearing on his TV show this weekend), Teal is refreshingly different in an industry strewn with prematurely inflated celebrities and strident displays of microscopic talent.

She may be the woman of the moment, but the Britjazz singer Clare Teal is the sort of person whom you'd have no hesitation in asking in for a cup of tea - she's that down-to-earth and friendly. Having recently signed a contract with Sony - although industry gossip suggests that the £3m tag attached to it in the media may have grown somewhat in the telling - and become one of the favourite vocalists of a certain Michael Parkinson (she's appearing on his TV show this weekend), Teal is refreshingly different in an industry strewn with prematurely inflated celebrities and strident displays of microscopic talent.

Whether she's being interviewed or on stage, the thirtysomething's gently undercutting wit and genuine warmth is unmistakable. No airs, no pretensions. "That's me. That's what you get. I've never thought of being anything else," she says, dressed in a soberly stylish black trouser-suit, and sipping a glass of white wine in a London hotel lobby. There is absolutely no reason to doubt her, so disarming is her demeanour.

This is not to say that she lacks the qualities that could well make her a major mainstream star: she has bags of stage presence, a line in patter that is self-effacing and sharp-witted, and a singing voice and technique that is of international standard, whether you're talking about jazz, popular singing, or more contemporary forms. A few nights before I met her, she'd confronted a room full of hardened media types at the launch of her new album, Don't Talk, and within seconds of arriving on stage, had broken through any barriers with a series of dry witticisms at her own expense that were both genuinely funny and pertinent to the occasion.

This sort of unforced intimacy with an audience comes naturally to her. By the time she started into her set, accompanied by her regular group, she'd already won the house over. Although she has lived in Bath for some years now, her Yorkshire roots must explain at least some of her level-headedness and her unassuming acceptance of the everyday. As she says: "Somehow, it's difficult to take yourself too seriously when you're working class and from Yorkshire. Words such as Wakefield and Huddersfield give it all away, really, don't they?"

Teal has been lumped in with singers such as Claire Martin, Gwyneth Herbert, Jamie Cullum, Amy Winehouse and a whole raft of lesser-knowns, as part of the current trend towards jazz-tinged entertainment, epitomised internationally by Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Although she appeared in a national newspaper article with many of these names (as well as a collective photograph that helped to prompt a local bidding war for her services), Teal certainly doesn't see herself as clinging to any bandwagon, even though she is treading a record-company path similar to that of her pal Cullum.

"Well, Jamie made that move and it's obviously worked for him, here and in the States," Teal says. "But that was at a very different stage to my move. There were big negotiations between Candid [their old label] and Universal [the label that Cullum signed for], and it ended up being quite a complex arrangement.

"With me, the contract was coming to an end, it was time to think about what to do, and it so happened that Adam [Sieff, head of Sony Jazz UK] and I were old friends. In fact, I'd sent him my original demo years back, before I even signed for Candid. He'd given me good advice in the past. I knew he had a genuine interest in me, so when he said that he wanted us to talk seriously about my coming to Sony, I knew that it was more than someone just saying something. It was all really simple - it's only when Universal stepped in and that bidding war started that it got a bit strange."

Still, she feels that she "went to the right label". The issues were simple. Apart from the fact that her recording budget was substantially boosted, "the most important thing for me was that Sony allowed me total freedom to choose my own repertoire, choose the musicians and generally tailor the album to reflect my musical desires. They didn't demand that I chase some idea of theirs as to what I should be doing.

"Adam just said, 'You've got to make this album count, so make it the best you possibly can.' And I think, considering everything, that's what I've done, with the enormous help of all the people involved, especially Anita Wardell - her experience and her knowledge is incredible. We had such a laugh."

More than simply having a laugh, Teal put together a combination of songs and arrangements that made this first album under her new contract easily her best and most varied to date. A thorough musician and a talented songwriter, she included a handful of her own songs as well as making a judicious choice from a wide range of greats from the past 50 or so years. She even included arresting takes on two old Duke Ellington numbers, "Mood Indigo" and "In a Mellotone", that few today would consider fertile ground for today's bright young singing things. But then, Teal has, all through her career, evinced great taste and judgement when it comes to selecting and arranging her repertoire, whether it is backed - as on Don't Talk - by a roaring big band or an intimate small group.

All this, I muse, would perhaps have come to naught - or not even happened to start with - were it not for another Yorkshire native, Parkinson. Sometimes, it seems that jazz as a popular music form would curl up and die in Britain without the chat-show host's input and enthusiasm. Yet his tastes are particular and not a little limited (as are most people's). He enthuses about big-band singing of a particular conservative stripe that thrived on television shows in the Fifties and Sixties.

As with other singers taking this road to success, Teal has no problem with this. She remarks with her usual self-deprecating humour: "I'd never heard of The Rolling Stones until a couple of years ago. They were pretty good, weren't they? I can see why they had hits."

Teal grew up in a popular-music-cum-jazz-loving Yorkshire family, and "from the beginning, I felt a natural affinity with that type of music. Even when I was little, at four or five, the jazzy style of phrasing, the swing, all sounded the most logical thing in the world to me. It made sense in my head, whereas other styles of music just didn't. I didn't get rock at all when I was a teenager. It completely passed me by. It's only now that I'm catching up with it all." Perhaps realising the implications of what she has been saying, she adds quickly, "I'm loving it!", flashing a genuinely winning smile as she does so.

I ask her about the presence of a song by Laura Nyro on Don't Talk. She freely admits that she'd not known who Nyro was until quite recently. "Adam had given me a tape of her songs some time back. I'd not listened to it at the time, but later I put it on and, although I didn't realise it at the time, something must have gone in because I found myself repeatedly singing the melody of "Stoned Soul Picnic" to myself.

"It really clicked with me. I worked at it on the piano and realised how beautifully it had been put together. Nyro was a wonderful songwriter, and so brave - fearless, in fact. She did exactly what she wanted in her songs. You can hear that clearly. The song was so strong that I stuck pretty close to the original conception in our version."

We talk about Teal's connection to her audiences, whether live or unseen. She is a performer possessed of unusual directness and warmth when on the stage. "Well, when I first started, I thought I'd hate it in front of a crowd. I thought I could never do it. But when I got up there, I realised that it was something I really enjoyed doing. I love the talking, and the feedback. The whole thing is such a good experience.

"I started up North, where audiences turn up expecting you to entertain them. You really have to be able to deliver for them. No mucking around. But if you do that, then they're fine, they're won over and they're great people to work in front of.

"People down South - well, they're probably more sophisticated or something, I'm not sure, but they go to a gig already convinced that they're going to have a good time, so they've got these open faces when you look out, rather than that 'Well, what are you going to do for me?' expression you're usually face-to-face with up North. So, over the years, I've learnt how to handle all these different situations, and feel genuinely comfortable on stage."

I ask whether being a trained musician is a plus. "Yes. Oh, yes! That's for sure. You know, sometimes, if you're playing with people you don't know too well, they can pull a swifty, change the key of a song, and suddenly you're singing badly and you can't work out why. Well, I can lean over the pianist's hand and see that he has moved it up a tone or so because he's too lazy to play it in the key I want it in, and I can say, 'You do that tomorrow night, and you won't be playing with me again in a hurry'. It shakes them up! They play things in the right key then."

This shows a flash of the no-nonsense working-class approach that is one of Teal's most winning qualities, and that comes in handy in all sorts of situations. It comes across once more in her explanation of why she became a singer in the first place: "I was taught the clarinet and the piano, and I realised at an early age that I would never be good enough to make a splash in that way. But I then discovered that I had this voice and could do things with it in jazzy types of music. So it went from there. You know, a woman's voice is at its peak in her thirties. I'm still discovering its strengths and its capacities. It's so exciting!"

'Don't Talk' (Sony Jazz) is released on 18 October. Tour details: www.clareteal.com

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