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20 Questions With Fiona Ross

The British jazz maven talks Aretha, aliens, flamethrowers & loving Puddle of Mudd.

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Photo by Stefen Ferroll.

British jazz singer-songwriter Fiona Ross should already be familiar to regular Tinnitist readers — she’s been kind enough to share videos for her songs Don’t Say, I Followed My Heart and For My Dad with the site. Today, she was kind enough to take a swing at my ridiculous questions. Here’s what she had to say:

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base, other details you’d like to share (height, weight, identifying marks, astrology sign, your choice).
Hi! I’m Fiona Ross: Jazz Vocalist/Pianist/Composer/Producer and Journalist from London. Age? Ha, well I can’t tell lies, so I’m not going to say, but I go between feeling like I’m about 12 and 12 million. Other details? Well, I’m a redhead and shorter than people think as I always wear heels but my Mum always said the best things come in small packages — although she never said that to my brother.

What is your musical origin story?
I have been working in the creative industry all my life, with my first paid job when I was 2. I have been surrounded by a huge diverse range of music from an early age. My Mum was into classical music, my Dad was into old school Jazz, but my older brother was all about Blondie, Eagles and Steely Dan. I trained in dance and drama as well as music, so I did the whole West End musical theatre thing, performing as Annie when I was 8. I am a classically trained musician and my Mum always wanted me to be the next Julie Andrews. I however, did not and wanted to be Aretha Franklin — who doesn’t? But while I was one of those obnoxious theatre kids, I was also developing my music career too and started performing at jazz bars around London when I was 14. I also ended up working in creative arts education too and was head of the British Academy of New Music for nearly eight years (notable alumni include Ed Sheeran, Jess Glynne and Rita Ora). But for the last four years I have been focusing on my career as a jazz artist. I have only ever had one ‘normal’ job working in a china shop for three months, but apart from that, I have always worked in creative arts in some way and I just don’t know anything else.

What do we need to know about your latest project?
I released by recent album a few months ago Fierce and Non-Compliant which has been going incredibly well. It’s a mix of all sorts of music under the heading of jazz. So, a little bit of more traditional jazz, Latin, neo-soul etc. People have said I’ve created my own sound, which I guess is because there’s a mix of everything in there, but I haven’t tried to do or be anything other than myself. With the whole lockdown situation, I’m not gigging at the moment and was supposed to be during a little European tour, so I’m busy writing my next album and doing some live session videos.

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
Oh goodness, I can’t answer that question. We are all here trying to do our thing in our own way. I’m just being me. As with us all, I guess my upbringing and life experience is what I bring to the table — but don’t we all?

What will I learn or how will my life improve by listening to your music?
That is a huge question! I don’t know. I’m always honest in my music and write/sing whatever I’m feeling at the time. My latest album tackles a mix of topics. I’d like to think that it will help people realise they are not alone. I talk about heartbreak (standard) but also about how sometimes you can get up the morning and tackle the world but sometimes actually, you can’t. I write about what I am feeling at the time and although the context of my songs is personal to me, I am sure I am not alone in feeling those things. I guess the final song of my album Doing My Thing summarizes it. I talk about being true to yourself and following you own path and that ultimately you will be happier for it. Some of my songs are just fun and have a good groove and hopefully make you feel good, but others are raw and emotional and might make you cry. I’ve had that at some gigs which ha, I guess is a good thing?

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played and what you got paid.
Well, actually my first paid job as a vocalist was singing for a radio advert for tomato ketchup when I was 6. My first proper gig as a soloist was in a very dodgy pub in London when I was 14. I went there and just started playing the piano and the manager asked me if I wanted to play there every week. It went down really well, and I made quite a bit of money through tips, £100 on the first night, which to me, was a fortune! I was hugely excited to have got a gig all by myself and have my name on a little poster in the window.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you gave?
When I was 15, I was a backing vocalist for a band in the UK called Rockin’ Willie and the Y-Fronts. Sort of a ’50s rock and roll band. We worked a bit of the festival circuit and it was so much fun. Although at one gig, there was no lead vocalist, so I had to suddenly take the lead. I was not good. I’m not a Blue Suede Shoes kind of artist. I’m quite glad this was before social media as I bet I looked incredibly uncomfortable. I was too young and inexperienced. But I did learn a lot from the experience. I don’t think I have a best performance as I can always do better.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen another artist give?
So, so, so many memorable performances I could mention. I have seen Prince several times and his last gig in Paris blew my mind and is definitely the best gig I have ever been to. I am also a huge fan of Hiromi and the first time I saw her play live, I literally cried. It was very emotional. Two weird gigs I have been to that stand out. I went to see Herbie Hancock and the string on his piano snapped during a piece. Someone came rushing out of the wings, replaced the string and retuned the piano and then carried on. There was no announcement or break or anything! We were all just sitting there watching and waiting for 20 mins, staring at this poor stressed out piano tuner. Another memorable gig was seeing Rickie Lee Jones. She was quite free with her set and at one point she asked the sound engineer to come on stage and play the drums for her — he clearly was not expecting it. She was yelling out to him ‘You play the drums, I think, come on stage and play with me.’ It was so funny.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
No idea. I don’t think that far ahead. Hopefully still here doing my thing, who knows!

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
Again, so many I could mention. Dead artists, well, Prince, Oscar Peterson, David Bowie, Dexter Gordon all spring to mind initially. Current? Well, I am huge fan of Michel Camilo and I would love to work with him. I interviewed him twice and he is just incredible. I also want to work with Steve Gadd. I did discuss it for my current album, but never managed to sort it, maybe for my next album. That would be so cool.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
I really love most things to be honest, although people presume, I’m just about the jazz. I actually love Puddle of Mudd’s She F***ing Hates Me That might surprise people…

What are your favourite songs / albums / artists right now?
Esperanza Spalding, Hiromi, Michel Camilo, Prince. I play Earth, Wind and Fire daily. Rickie Lee Jones, Billy Joel, Jamiroquai, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Chaka, Sting, D’Angelo and Al Jarreau are all on my regular playlists along with, of course, all the jazz standard stuff — Oscar Peterson, Ella, Billie Holiday etc. Loving Ben Platt’s version of Vienna at the moment. As a jazz journalist, I am always loving being sent new music to listen to. Jo Harrop’s Weathering the Storm album was my most recent review — beautiful album.

How about some other favourites: Authors, movies, painters, you name it.
It’s like you are asking me to write an essay, ha. I find it very hard to pin down just a few….Anything that makes me think and feel. I love the art of Salvador Dali, I mean, what is that about?!! I am currently re-reading some essays by Robert Baldwin and doing an awful lot of research into Black History. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I read a lot and tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Film wise, well, I am a huge fan of the Alien films — Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is like my She-hero. I would love a flame thrower. She is such a good example of a strong female role model. I love the work of David Lynch, of course. I don’t do comedy really, other than Monty Python and definitely don’t do romance or the standard chick flick kind of films — nothing against them, just not my thing. I love a good true story political film. I recently watched When They See Us. I can’t even begin to describe how it made me feel. Emotional doesn’t cover it.

    ‘I would love a flame thrower.’    

Who would you be starstruck to meet?
Probably Sigourney Weaver or one of the aliens.

What’s your favourite joke?
I’m so sorry, but I don’t know any jokes…

What do you drive and why?
Mazda Mx5. I love sports car. I would love an Aston Martin.

What superpower do you want and how would you use it?
I have often discussed this one with friends. The obvious one is I would like to fly. But on a serious note, I would love to have the power to make people empathic. I think it’s one of biggest problems in the world at the moment. Lack of empathy.

What skills — useful or useless — do you have outside of music?
That’s a tricky question as I think all the music-related skills I have are transferable and applicable to all situations. I do Taekwondo, so maybe that counts as a skill that is useful? I do know how to use a soldering iron and solder things, but only ever used that skills for a month or two … but you never know when it might come in handy!

What do you collect?
So sorry again, but I don’t collect anything — unless CDs and books count?

If I had a potluck, what would you bring?
It’s all about the cake. Probably chocolate.

What current trend or popular thing do you not understand at all?
Ignorance. Don’t get me started …

Tell us about your current and/or former pets.
I’ve always had cats. Childhood cat was black and called Puss. I currently have a black cat called Kitten. Her Dad was called Gatsby and her Mum was Ripley. She’s pretty cool.

Photo by Steven Tiller.

If you could have any other job besides music, what would it be and why?
Human Rights Lawyer. Change the world to be a better place — you know, idealistic stuff. I would love to help people in a meaningful way. I’ve always wanted to know what is right and wrong and where the grey areas are.

What’s the best advice and/or worst advice you were ever given?
Well actually, the same advice works for both: Always smile. Being able to make someone smile is an incredibly powerful thing. As an entertainer, it is crucial, but it more about making people feel, which is ultimately what it is all about in the world of art — feeling something. I love making people smile. And sometimes, just telling someone they look beautiful, or that they have done something nice, makes them smile. It’s a wonderful thing when you see someone really smiling. But equally, I was brought up in a theatre world of ‘the show goes on’ and you plaster on that fake smile whatever is happening, and you know sometimes, it shouldn’t. I had a friend who was told her father died, while she was in the wings, five minutes before she had to go on stage. She went on stage and arguably gave her best performance ever. Not sure that is healthy. We are too good at pretending to be OK and that is not healthy. Yes, it shows resilience and strength, which are essential qualities, but it is OK to not be OK sometimes.

BONUS: Feel free to write and answer your own question.
Favourite quote or saying?
‘Kindness. Sprinkle that sh*t everywhere’

For more from Fiona Ross, listen to Fierce and Non-Compliant below, and connect with her via her website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Photo by Steven Tiller.