Jessica Radcliffe talks about Remembrance

The singer and composer talks to Jazz Journal as she tours 'beyond the M25' with Remembrance, her powerful WWI evocation

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Tell us about your family, musical, educational background – birthdate, place. Is music in the family? How did you come to sing? Do play other instruments? Did you do jazz at Trinity or other? Have other musicians influenced you?

I was born Jessica Dowdeswell, 2 March 1992 in Stevenage. I lived in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire until I was five when my family moved to Portishead. On both sides of my family there have been many musicians and composers for generations, and my mum is an amazing music teacher. She began teaching me piano at age three and clarinet at seven. My brother and sister started trumpet and trombone early too, and by the time we could play three notes, she was writing arrangements for us to play in the church band every Sunday. 

My mum started looking into options for scholarships and bursaries for my secondary education, as the local schools didn’t have much going on in the way of performing arts. I spent most of my 10th year auditioning for different schools, and was awarded a joint specialist place as a pianist and clarinetist at Wells Cathedral School. 

‘Simon Purcell asked me “Would you be up for doing a bit of screaming down a microphone?!”‘

By the time I was 16, I had a yearning to live in London. I began running away to the capital every weekend to attend NYJO with my brother, Louis Dowdeswell, who was already playing pretty high notes on his trumpet all hours of the day and night… I started on saxophone, but quickly switched to singing – I had always had a passion for musical theatre and loved jazz standards. Emma Smith recommended that I audition for music college and I did, and was made an unconditional offer by Trinity to study jazz voice.

I trained under Nia Lynn and Brigitte Beraha, and began performing right away all over London. When I began studying I had very little experience or knowledge of jazz except for big band swing, and so every day I heard something new.

A few moments of discovery really stuck out and influenced my writing greatly. I remember watching Ambrose Akinmusire at Ronnie’s, just after the release of his album When the Heart Emerges Glistening. I lyricized one of his tracks and performed it as part of my major performance in second year. Elliot Galvin organized a John Zorn project that I was asked to participate in (Simon Purcell asked me “Would you be up for doing a bit of screaming down a microphone?!”) and loved every minute of. Brigitte introduced me to Refuge Trio, Theo Bleckmann’s project, one of my favourite albums, and also Sidsel Endesen who is, of course, fabulous.

Remembrance has been partly funded from prize money received following an appearance on ITV’s The Chase. What’s that?

Mum’s favourite TV quiz show! It’s a general knowledge game, where you have to beat the “chaser”, one of the country’s top quiz masters, as part of a team of four people who don’t know each other. I applied as a bit of a giggle when an ad popped up on my email, and walked away with a tidy sum that made all this possible. Carpe diem – it’s the way to live!

Why did you choose the WWI centenary as theme? It’s rather topical.

I had done a bit of lyricizing and lots of arranging up to my last year at Trinity, but had never managed to finish a composition. I decided to work with poetry as a way of getting started and had studied the war poets for my English ‘A’ Level (I loved English, and had almost decided to study it at uni, so was driven to exercise those brain muscles too).

Remembrance was the first piece I ever finished composing. We had a deadline to compose a portfolio of three pieces and perform them as part of our personal project. The music had to have a strong concept, so it really just made sense at the time. And this was 2014, everywhere I looked there were more exhibitions, new books, and I had been developing a taste for political history and had finished my book on Stalin and lived next door to Waterstones…

As well as this, I had started singing in dance bands with WWII veterans, so had always had a interest in the role music played in times of conflict. In 2013, I had co-run a research project as part of our CoLab module, which looked into the music of WWII and interviewed some of my old friends. One told me – “music was our life. It’s what kept us going”. This stuck with me and is featured as a quote on my album (beautifully designed by Darren Rumney).

Remembrance is described as a series of “original compositions and arrangements” – is the whole thing scored or rough head arrangements or a combination?

Every piece looks different on the page, and every musician in the band has a different “version” of each tune. This is because of my compositional approach. As I have mentioned, composition did not come easily to me. I had to develop a way of working methodically with a stimulus. The music was highly influenced by the musicians on the album. I would bring the bones of the composition to a rehearsal and we would workshop the structure in a live setting. This meant that the textures have changed and developed on the last five years, including adding more instrumental lines for new members.

‘My duty as a composer is solely to create a vehicle for the words I have borrowed from real, living, feeling humans, and to ensure I do nothing to cloud the delivery and poignancy of their voices’

My approach is completely stimulus driven; I didn’t really intend to go with any particular sound or genre, whenever I was unsure what to write next, I would always go back to my original messy annotation of the letter, poem, speech and ask myself “What else does this need musically in order to convey my understanding of x, y, z’s story?” If the answer was “nothing”, or if something I’d tried I realized was for the sake of writing more rather than enhancing the original words, I just took it out. As a result, the music isn’t complicated, gives a lot of space to the musicians and includes a lot of spoken word. It was a musical risk, (and not to everyone’s taste), but I feel very strongly that my duty as a composer is solely to create a vehicle for the words I have borrowed from real, living, feeling humans, and to ensure I do nothing to cloud the delivery and poignancy of their voices.

Tell us more about your expectations for the tour

I am so excited to share the music live beyond the M25 – it will be the project’s first trip out! We are playing at some fantastic venues, and are also introducing some new blood to the ensemble for some of the performances. The activity is running over more than three weeks, with a performance or workshop nearly every day and we’re kicking off very aptly at the Chelsea Pensioners’ Club. You can find full listings and information on my website.

I should say that teaching is a passion of mine. I’ve been at it since I was 18, tried to stop during my time at Trinity to focus on my singing, but missed it too much. I’m the vocal MD for NYJO now, and have been a classroom teacher, head of music and directed many musicals and workshops at schools across the country.

The educational programme that I am running as part of the tour is extensive, with 11 activities scheduled in 14 schools and institutions across the country. The aim is to share the compositional process we have developed over the course of the project with as many pupils and teachers from a variety of backgrounds as possible, and show that writing music is fun, collaborative and accessible to all.

Jessica Radcliffe on tour:
9 March – The Chelsea Pensioner, London
10 March – The Bull’s Head, Barnes
11 March – The Whiskey Jar, Manchester
12 March – HeebieJeebies, Liverpool
13 March – The Lescar, Sheffield
22 March – The Vortex, London
30 March – Exeter Phoenix
31 March – Ashburton Arts Centre

See Nic Jones’s review of Remembrance here.