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Gwyneth Herbert - I suppose for as long as I can remember, singing’s always been my complete passion

Feature: Jack Foley

GWYNETH Herbert could have been many things. The new Joni Mitchell. A professional French horn player. A vet. Classically-trained front woman with a live hip hop outfit. A post-Spice Girls teen pop poppet. An actress. A drum and bass diva. A star in Poland. A really excellent waitress.

Instead, she became a singer… one of the most talked-about voices on the jazz circuit, a 22-year-old veteran of countless hardscrabble gigs in shouty pubs, and a vocalist who doesn’t just sing other people’s songs, but inhabits them.

Little wonder she refers to herself as an artist who was a musician-in-waiting even before she was born.

"‘My mum played me music in the womb," she says, with a grateful grin. "Stevie Wonder, Carole King, singer-songwriter stuff.

"Then, when I was a baby, my dad would sing me to sleep – Ray Charles, Paul Robeson - that’s when my love of jazz was born.

"I started playing piano when I was three, and started (sort of) writing songs when I was five. I knew right from when I was tiny that I wanted to be a singer.

"When I was three I did ballet. But having no co-ordination, I was plonked on the stage and sang in the performances while all the other girls danced around me.

"So, I suppose for as long as I can remember, singing’s always been my complete passion."

Herbert is a country girl who grew up in little villages in Surrey and Hampshire.

Her childhood was surrounded by music. Her dad is one of those people who can take any instrument and pick out a tune; her mum is a nursery teacher, and so there were always boxes of instruments lying about the place.

She reached Grade 5 on the piano by age nine.

The first ‘proper’ song she wrote was called Bramley Bugs’ Walk, composed on the piano’s black notes, when she was five, If pushed – or slightly sloshed – she can still play it now.

Then, ‘because I’m stubborn’, she took up the infamously taxing French horn, making Grade 8 at 15.

School was a succession of bands and orchestras. When not stepping out for Surrey County Youth Orchestra, she was furiously writing her own stuff at home.

She went through a dying-your-hair-pink phase, singing with a hormonal punk band called Wasted Minds.

Aged 14, and with the financial help of a youth music charity, she recorded a five-track demo of her own tunes at Trinity Studios in Woking.

"Embarrassing, teen angst-ridden nonsense – I-can’t-get-a-boyfriend stuff,’ she says, refusing to name names or titles.

This was 1996, the studio was keen to work with Herbert, perhaps mould her into a solo practitioner of girl power.

But Herbert was set on finishing her schooling. She knew she was going to spend the rest of her life singing, whether successfully or not – she could afford to get an education and wait a couple of years.

At sixth-form college in Alton, Hampshire, she began ‘seriously singing jazz. It was amazingly musically oriented.

"We had a big-haired avant-garde composer as a music lecturer and he was a real inspiration to me, introduced me to all sorts of great jazz writers," she recalls.

As singer with a college jazz trio, Herbert played pubs and clubs around Hampshire.

God Bless The Child was the traditional set-opener, Fever the final number.

"That always went down a storm – but no, I didn’t do moves. They came later, when I needed to grab people’s attentions in pubs," she continued.

In the meantime, she had her first ‘proper’ song under her belt. She wrote Painted Lady when she was 16; she and a violin-playing friend recorded it for an older friend’s university degree project.

She still has the tape. It’s not too embarrassing, she says, considering that she sincerely believed at the time that Hampshire in the Nineties was like Laurel Canyon in the Sixties, and that she was rural England’s answer to Joni Mitchell.

"‘But my voice was about three octaves higher," she winces.

She started at Durham University in autumn 1999, where she indulged her love of reading with a degree in English; but she always wanted to sing.

At Durham, her nascent musical career accelerated. She fell in with fellow student, Will Rutter, a Wiltshire boy who had rebelled against his musician dad’s love of folk music by teaching himself jazz guitar and getting stuck into indie and grunge.

Rutter ran a weekly live music spot called Jam Night. They began writing and performing together, pounding the streets of the north-east in pursuit of café gigs for their jazz duo, Black Coffee.

When they weren’t accompanying serious cappuccino consumption on New Castle’s thriving bar scene, they were performing with live hip-hop band Lady G.

There were soul revue-type gigs at student balls, and collaborations with breakbeat DJs and aspiring drum and bass producers.

In the summer holidays, Black Coffee sold themselves into cafes in Amsterdam, Paris and Edinburgh.

It was wildly eclectic stuff, all part of the process of Herbert finding her voice and her direction.

She learned to hold her own – and her drink – in front of rowdy, often disinterested audiences. She was on her way to becoming a mesmerising live performer.

On graduation, Herbert and Rutter decided to move to London. They would give themselves a year to make a go of Black Coffee.

One week after moving to south London, while trying to persuade a manager, in Tooting, that his dodgy boozer needed a jazz duo, they bumped into a former member of Boney M.

She was a judge at a music festival in Poland. Did they want to participate?

One week later, Herbert found herself driving herself, Rutter and a Scandinavian hip hop combo – she was the only one with a licence – from Sweden to Poland for the competition.

It was a big deal in Poland, a major show on TV. To their surprise Black Coffee won.

"Two tacky trophies and some prize money… which I lent to the organiser because he didn’t have enough money to get everyone on the ferry home! No, I haven’t seen it since."

Back in London, the duo became a fixture at Bar Sia on Wimbledon Broadway.

Their three-set Thursday nights became something of a draw across south London. Word began to spread about this preternaturally gifted singer.

In February 2003, Herbert chanced her arm and door stepped Peter Wallis, co-runner of the famed jazz joint Soho Pizza Express.

Despite receiving upwards of 300 demos a month, he played Black Coffee demo CD in his car that night. He was immediately smitten.

He and his partner, Kerstan Mackness, didn’t just want to give the unknown pair some gigs; they wanted to make an album with them.

First Songs was that album, released on Dean Street Records last October.

It was at this point Black Coffee became Gywn and Will. The CD included Herbert/Rutter originals mingled with covers of songs by Bacharach and David (Trains & Boats & Planes) and the Gershwin’s (I Was Doin’ Alright).

Jamie Cullum, whom Herbert had become friends with after seeing him perform at Soho Pizza Express, sang on Herbert/Rutter’s Sweet Insomnia.

The jazz press loved it. Jazz FM and Radio 2’s Michael Parkinson and Russell Davies were enthusiastic champions.

The weekly Bar Sia gigs became even more packed. Soon Universal Classics & Jazz, home of Cullum, came to see what the fuss was about.

Herbert was duly signed earlier this year, UCJ reissued First Songs, and work promptly began on her first major label album.

Bittersweet And Blue was recorded over the summer in west London.

After myriad musical detours in her young life, Gwyneth Herbert has arrived at something special, and something her own.

Bittersweet And Blue is the eloquent sound of a young woman keeping things pure, and simple, and true to the love of music that started when she was in the womb.

Gwyneth Herbert and her band open this year’s London Jazz Festival. After that, they’ll be all over the place.

Click here to find out more about Gwyneth Herbert!

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