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Liane Carroll

Liane Carroll was the UK's best kept, jazz secret. Not any longer. In a week that saw her win ‘Jazz Musician of the Year’ at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, I met the multi-award winning artist and discovered that lunching with Liane is very much like hearing her play live. One moment you’re laughing along with her, sharing her joy, the next moment you're fighting back tears as she breaks your heart with the sadness of her stories.

Liane and I meet in London’s foodie hotspot, Borough Market. We were surrounded by stalls laden down with pungent French cheeses, glistening Spanish chorizo, mountains of artisan bread and coffee beans plucked from remote corners of the globe. The smell was heaven.

As we sat and admired the view from our first floor restaurant table, Liane brought me up to date with her week thus far. As well as picking up the ‘Musician of the Year Award’ at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, held in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, she had also seen her husband of eighteen years, bassist Roger Carey, play with his band, ‘Engine, Clutch and Gearbox’ twice ‘a treat for me, because I hardly ever get to hear them,’ - and had been present at the birth of her daughter Abi’s second child, granddaughter number two for a very proud Liane. All this and it’s only Thursday

Events in Liane’s professional life have been gaining momentum since the release of the critically acclaimed Billy No Mates in 2003 on the independent ‘Splash Point’ record label, although she was a regular fixture at Ronnie Scott’s throughout the nineties. It was after this that the awards started arriving like London Transport buses a bit of a wait and then five arrived all at once. "It’s been brilliant," Liane says, "I’d been asked to sing at the BBC Jazz Awards in 2005. Suddenly, I’m being given two awards. I think I was the first person to win two in one go. It was lovely. I hadn’t been expecting it at all. I got ‘Jazz Vocalist of the Year’ and the ‘Best of Jazz’ award. The following year I won ‘Best Vocalist’ at the British Jazz Awards and then in 2007, I picked up ‘Best British Female Singer’ at the first ever ‘Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Awards’. It was fantastic. I ended up getting really drunk and jamming with Jeff Beck!"

"The Parliamentary Jazz Awards were the same," says Liane. "Three years ago I played for them and last year I presented an award. This year I won one!" It was a brilliant night by all accounts. Jazz legend Jack de Johnette was playing, and Ken Clarke was there too, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and massive jazz fan. Liane’s great friend Ian Shaw was also on hand to give out the gong for jazz journalist of the year. All in all, quite a night.

Success hasn’t always come so easy for Liane. "I’m really glad it’s happened this way, that I went the road I went, learning stamina and hearing songs by chance along the way. I love hearing songs like that, in a little jazz club somewhere. In the early days, I played a place where a girl mistook the piano for the bar and sat on it while I was playing--then tried to balance her drink on the top. Another time, I was about sixteen, I got booked to play the organ for a couple of hours on a Sunday lunchtime in a Hastings nightclub. I thought it’d be a family show, when I suddenly found myself playing ‘Blue Spanish Nights’ for a stripper. I just had to keep looking at the organ stops I was so embarrassed and not nearly as worldly wise as I liked to think I was "

Then there had been a struggle with alcohol. Liane explains, "I feel very settled now within myself, just recently really, and family has done that in a way. Drinking was on its’ way to being a problem. I had such wild times at gigs whilst I was on it. Wild times, full of wild abandon and I thought that all that would go .infact, I’m having more fun. It’s actually better without the booze, and I’m so glad that’s happened. I need to feel the hurt of the sad songs. I thought that passion would disappear if I stopped drinking, but it didn’t. It enhanced it. Having grandchildren has really helped too. It’s made me grow up. I’m writing a lot of songs for them now. A lot of these songs are coming about from that kind of joy," she smiles irrepressibly, "so I’m a really cheap date now, and Smirnoff’s must be heading into receivership!" Liane pauses briefly to sip on an exotic pink and orange non-alcoholic cocktail.

Liane’s relationship with Splash Point Records has been a real strength for her too in terms of her career path. "I’ve been with Splash Point from the word go. They’re perfect for me--an outfit run by musicians, for musicians and a lovely, independent label. Over the years, I’ve had offers from bigger labels, but I’m not ready for that yet, for a ‘big name’ contract. I’m really happy with this organic company, and if that means that I don’t get my face on big posters on the underground and sell millions of CD’s, that’s fine. My ambitions don’t run to that type of thing. My ambition is to learn more songs, listen to more songs and write some more "

Liane’s life has been full of music from the word go. She was taught piano by concert pianist, Phyllis Catling, from the age of three. "She was a real, old dragon," says Liane, "She used to keep a pair of scissors handy to snip bits off your hair if you made a mistake so I used to turn up with my hair in a beret! I did all my grades on piano, but it was jazz that I loved. My parents were both semi-professional singers and the gramophone was always on with Sammy Davis, Sibelius, Stan Kenton, Aretha, Nina Simone. Their sounds made me feel different in my body, this kind of ‘fizzing up’ feeling. Jazz was the sound track of my life. I feel that momentum now with the music. One lifetime’s just not enough. I’ll have a lovely evening sitting writing stuff, feeling really inspired--and then the gremlins arrive in the middle of the night and when I wake in the morning, I’m not so sure about what I’ve written. But, I just have this feeling that I have so much work to do."

Music has seen Liane through the dark times too. She takes a deep breath, "The way it was, was like this my nan and granddad, they had a little hotel on the seafront at Hastings called Sunshine House. It’s where I was made. Then my mum got ill, and my nan and granddad being the parents they were to my mum, sold up and bought a transport cafe to be near us in Carshalton. Sadly, my dad was violent. He beat the stuff out of my mum. Terrible! I can still remember it. They split up when I was six, and that’s how my mum, my half sister and me all ended up living over the café with my nan and granddad. No one was shy in our family. Good manners and discipline were important, but you were always encouraged to express yourself and to never be afraid to do that. I’d go downstairs at age four or five and sing ‘Hello, Dolly’ to the truck drivers."

Liane continues, "My nan had the most amazing record collection. She had all the musicals and she took me to the cinema to see them--West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The King and I, all of that amazing stuff. They make me cry still. We had this little corrugated lean-to that my nan called the ‘conservatory.’ It was about 1972 or ‘73 and that crepe paper was all the rage. My nan was a little whippet of a lady and my granddad the most gentle man I’ve ever known. He looked like Stan Laurel. She turn the conservatory into a Hawaiian beach with grass skirts, pineapples, a fancy jug full of orange juice that she’d call a ‘posh cocktail’ she had such an imagination. Sound and vision for her was a visceral experience. She was always, always singing. That’s how I remember her, being wrapped in a big towel and sitting on her knee and her singing to me. And then I came downstairs on my sixth birthday and there was a piano for me in the lean-to. It looked like something out of The Munsters, with candelabras on it and everything, but it was my lifeline and they couldn’t get me off it!"

By a cruel twist of fate, Liane went on to marry a violent husband. "I got married very young to an entrepreneur who promoted music. We went up North and by the time I was twenty one, I’d had Abi [Liane's daughter], but he was really violent. He really, really hurt me a lot--badly, unbelieveable! I gave up playing completely after Abi was born. I just gave up. To have had that love that I’d experienced as a child taken away, made me feel utterly worthless. I was made to feel so worthless. I got out when Abi was quite young about eight months old. I was so frightened for her too. We escaped and went back to live in Hastings. But, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to have Abi. I have found it very hard to write about it musically, but I’m getting there "

Right on cue, our puddings arrive. We have a moment over rhubard crumble and possibly, the most lemony posset ever made. We’re sharing baby photos, talking about our children, and Liane’s joy at being a grandparent. She mentions her nan and the track from Slow Down, her 2007 album that is dedicated to her, "If I Loved You" by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I ’ve heard Liane sing it live twice and a hundred times on my much-played CD, and she tells me that it is all about her grandmother’s love for her. For once I forget my professional self. "It’s all in there, Liane," I tell her, "‘it’s just all in there." And this is her gift, that in telling her story through her songs, she makes them all of our stories.

The final surprise of the afternoon was the arrival of her long time friend, fellow artist and collaborator, the wonderful Ian Shaw. Ian plays piano on ‘If I Loved You’ for Slow Down, and duetted with Liane on Carole King’s "You Got A Friend" for the 2005 ‘Standard Issue’ album. In no time at all, we’re swapping stories about favourite seventies TV re-runs of Will and Grace, and a very special recipe for chocolate mousse - all over glasses of fresh mint tea. Lunch finally over, and I headed off towards home, glancing back over my shoulder to see Liane and Ian arm in arm in the market behind me. They were brimming over with laughter and looking every inch as if they’re about to launch into a "My Fair Lady" song and dance routine in the middle of the flower stalls. Liane’s nan would have loved it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Liane Carroll
  • Interview Date: 5/1/2008
  • Subtitle: The Generation Game
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