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Rita di Ghent :: I’d like people to have listened to my music
by George Jackson (September 27, 2000)
We’ve known each other for about 10 years now. Your first solo album, in 1995, was Mindin’ the Shop. Your second solo album, which you produced and performed on, was The Birth of Sprawl. What’s next for the singer Rita di Ghent in terms of recording?
I’ll be going into the studio over the next couple of months to make a standards album. I’m also in pre-production for a contemporary blues album, and then I’m also hoping to do a sequel to The Birth of Sprawl, provisionally entitled The Soul of Sprawl.
Describe for me in your own words what Sprawl represents.
Sprawl is the term I coined to describe the particular type of music I’m doing on that album. The music doesn’t neatly fit into any existing jazz styles. Sprawl is contemporary, it’s urban, it’s an attempt to bridge traditional jazz with contemporary urban music. It’s improvised music, but it uses technology as well, such as the loops created for me by 2Rude for the album.
I find that with this album you’re doing a lot more spoken word or hiphop.
That’s right. As well, whereas this album is decidedly jazz—all of us who appear on the recording are jazz musicians-- I attempted to effectively use elements that aren’t necessarily associated with jazz, such as forms other than AABA and using “hooks” to emphasize certain of the lyrics.
You have a record label, Groove Productions. Where do you see Groove Productions going in the future.
I guess the aim is to have a substantial catalogue. Within the label there would be sister labels or subsidiary labels for the release of different types of material. For example, we’re releasing a 2-track Christmas disc this November. Then there’s the standards album and the blues album.
Are you thinking of adding any new artists?
Well, you know, the idea is appealing, but then I’d have to wear a different hat. I guess Groove is really a vehicle for my recordings and will continue to be so unless I take a really different direction. But my efforts would pretty much have to be sunk in developing the label as opposed to developing my own music. And heck! I wouldn’t mind being signed to a major label. Let me be honest about that!
You talk about wearing different hats. One of the hats you wore while making this latest album The Birth of Sprawl was producer. You also had some collaboration in that. Nick Blagona is a wonderful producer. He’s done work with some very heavy artists within the industry. Give me your impression of Nick.
Well Nick and I worked very well together on this album. Nick is a real down-and-dirty, doesn’t-mince-words kind of guy, which I really appreciate. And he’s a big personality. All I can say is that we worked really well together. The greatest aspect of working with him was his respect for how I did the vocals. He didn’t say a word, except to really go overboard when he felt I’d done a good take. He put his entire trust in my judgement. So did Lisa. She didn’t say a thing. Apart from the fact that our personalities were complementary, Nick’s just got incredible ears; he knows how to mic everything. When he heard my voice he knew exactly how he was going to mic it. He knows how to mic a piano! He gets really juicy, juicy sound production.
That definitely comes through on the album. How did (co-producer) Lisa Patterson work into the equation?
Well, actually, I think I worked into their equation! Because Lisa and Nick had known each other and were having dinner one night. I had to drop something off at Lisa’s, so I parked illegally and ran up with the package and she asked me if I had a couple of minutes. I had just done some demo work in her studio and she said, “Because I’m sitting here with Nick Blagona and we’re listening to your demo and he really wants to meet you.” So I stayed for a while, got a parking ticket—it was SO worth it!
I was going to say, it had to be well worth it!
So Lisa and Nick hatched a plot after I left. They were talking about working together on a project. And they got drunker and drunker as the night went on and they said, “Well maybe Rita is the project that were going to work together on!” Lisa was a great asset on the sessions. She’s very funny, outspoken, emotive—a curiously wonderful combination of male and female energy. The feminine energy acted as a vehicle for making sure that my wants were being heard.
You’ve been very busy since we last sat down and did this. Last year you went out on a major 10-city tour to promote the new CD and then you went to Hong Kong. How would you compare audiences in the East with audiences in Canada or the U.S.?
It’s not a fair comparison because the audience members at The Jazz Club in Hong Kong where I did the one-week engagement were largely expatsThe interesting thing about Hong Kong was—first of all, to get in was a lot of money. I can’t remember the exchange, but I love the poster because the poster said “Admission three hundred dollars.” And I love that! And then someone huge like Alanis Morisette was there the next week and the ticket price was $350. So I thought “That’s okay! I’m in the same league. That’s not bad for a jazz musician!”
Another thing is, people who live in Hong Kong never seem to be at home. They live outside. They live out on the street, in their offices. They take taxis. No one seems to have a car. So they don’t buy CDs because they don’t have cars and they’re never at home. So CD sales were poor in Hong Kong. Instead of buying the CD, they would pay $300 and come again the next night.
That’s a good comparison. Whereas in Canada, people buy the CD after seeing you perform—you’ve had excellent sales here in Canada— in Hong Kong they would want to see you in person versus buying the CD.
Hong Kong is just like a totally different planet. It was so fun to be there.
Is there a future for Canadian jazz singers to sing internationally?
I think undoubtedly, because there’s a market for jazz all over the world. It’s got international appeal.
The reason I bring that up is because on the web there was a poll for new young singers and you won that poll. I’m curious to know how that affected you—being a Canadian and then suddenly having this recognition outside of Canada on this international platform
Well, of course the good thing is that a wider audience gets to hear about you. For example, I was contacted by some Italian journalists—the poll was for people’s favourite Italian-American star or something like that. So I was contacted by some Italians from the media and got some write-ups and airplay.
You had some pretty high numbers. I remember going to the website and you had something like 85% of the vote, which has to put you on a cloud 9 to have that kind of recognition form elsewhere than in Canada. Are there any plans for you to tour in Europe?
I would love to. I plan to go to Europe in the spring to do kind of a recognizance tour. But also I want to hook up with Multikulti, the people we’ve negotiated a distribution deal with in Poland. I’d love to go there and I’d like to go to Belarus and meet the folks over there. I’d also like to hook up with the Time Warp people in the U.K., who we’ve just licensed a track to. Also I haven’t really done any touring in the States and I’d love, love to go to Japan.
Well keep us informed, because I know that anyone who’s heard your CD or seen you live always comes back a third and fourth time to hear you again. One of my fondest memories was a couple of years back when Sheila Jordan, a renowned jazz singer, came to Toronto, played the Top O’ the Senator with you in a double-bill called Two Generations of Jazz. What was it like to take the stage with her?
Well, it was an incredible honour, of course! She’s one of the First Ladies of jazz singing and I was thrilled to perform with Sheila.
Where does Rita di Ghent get her musical inspiration?
You know, that’s a good question and I’m not sure it’s something people really think about and have an answer on their fingertips about. I know that the lyrical content of my songs is always inspired by my experiences. What I like to do most is tell stories because that’s deeply ingrained from my family. I come from a family of storytellers. In fact, our family wasn’t much for going on excursions or taking holidays. What we did as a family was to sit and sit and sit and sit together at the table and tell stories.
If you could, who would you like to perform with?
What are some of your most memorable musical moments?
Performing with my brother, and making music with my father... and perhaps the old days of playing string quartets with my three sisters, led by our dear, faithful, undyingly patient music teacher, Mr. Edmonds.
Let’s go back to Chicago around 1970. Your father was a very good harmonica player. How did he influence and affect you in your choice to pursue singing versus the instrument that was purchased by your mother?
Well, to tell you the truth, singing was completely my own decision. When I was seven, my father tried his best to make me play accordion and I refused flat out! I was an obedient kid but I just couldn’t get behind the accordion idea. So he said, “Well, okay, how about the clarinet?”—the “licorice stick”, he called it. He said, “You be the next Pete Fountain.” So my father, God bless him, bought me a clarinet on time--it took about 2 years of monthly payments to pay that thing off. I did marching band stuff and took private lessons, as well. So the clarinet was my instrument for about 8 years. Then I switched to violin, which was my mother’s doing. My sisters played second violin, viola and cello. It wasn’t until I injured my shoulder playing violin that I started singing.. My father’s influence and encouragement was huge. For all of my young life I remember listening to my father playing harmonica, or sitting on his knee while he played. And he was very involved in my musical education and used to stress to me all the time that reading the notes on the page wasn’t terribly important. What was important was feel. My father was a great fan of jazz and blues. I grew up listening and dancing with him to his records—Ray Charles, Ramsey Lewis...My father drove for a living and I used to go on the road with him. We'd be driving for hours, all the while my father playing ride cymbol along to the radio by striking the steering wheel with the ring on his finger. It was wicked! I hope that I absorbed my father’s keen sense of time.
It must have been fascinating to grow up with such a musical family. Your mother bought all those string instruments for you and your sisters. Tell me more about her influence on your music.
My mother loves music probably more than anything in the world. My mother steered us in a lot of directions. From the time I was little she took me to tap and ballet classes—she loves the arts. She was integral in our musical education. My mother loves to sing. I was lucky that I had a stay-at-home mom. My dad went to work and my mom stayed home. I would be hanging around the house with her, my mom would be doing the housework, cleaning, ironing—ironing! Remember that? At this point in time, there was ironing, and my mother would iron for hours. She had this little art deco radio that sat on the kitchen counter. It was on all the time and my mother really loved pop music. It seemed to me my mother knew every song. I would say something to my mother and she would take what I said and start singing it in a song. It was uncanny! And I would say, “Mom, is there a song for everything?” And she would say “yes”. “Really?” I’d say. “Well what about this?” And no matter what I threw at her, she would find or make up a song for it. I realize that even though it took me a long time to discover singing, it’s in my fabric to sing—plus there’s being of Italian heritage. My mother amuses us with stories about my grandfather who, at odds with my grandmother, would sit at the counter, his chin propped up by his hand, singing La Donna E Mobile!
I like to end all my interviews by asking what questions you never get asked but would like to get asked?
I never get asked about the content of my songs. I’d like people to have listened to my music, have listened to the stories and ask me about them.
published 14.05.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page