Talent Will Out: Singer-Songwriter Nicky Schrire on Making It in New York

South African jazz singer Nicky Schrire has made three tremendous records, but she isn't well known. That ought to change.
Nicky Schrire
To the Spring
Nicky Schrire

Above: Photo from Nicky Schrire.com

South African jazz singer Nicky Schrire has made three tremendous records, but she isn’t well known. That ought to change.

There are a few standard stereotypes about what it means to be a jazz musician. There’s that grizzled veteran, a guy who apprenticed in big bands, maybe, a bunch of white in his beard, a beautiful vibrato in his tone on an old ballad, a guy who plays fewer notes but better notes. There is the young phenom, seemingly invested with magical powers of improvisation from birth: like a Dizzy Gillespie or Ella Fitzgerald in a ten year-old’s body.

But most jazz musicians are no cliché. They’re not magical woodland creatures with saxophones. Nope. They are folks who love their art and have worked hard at it. These days, they probably went to music school. Only the precious few apprentice with a legend at a young age. Young people aspiring to be jazz musicians grew up loving pop music like the rest of us, but the craft of jazz rivets them. And investing in becoming an artist rather than a star — it isn’t easy.

Which might be story of jazz singer and songwriter Nicky Schrire.

Schrire is, by any standard, a remarkable talent, even if she isn’t the stereotypical prodigy. Her voice is a bell, a curve of pliant sound, a personality, a vessel for great songs. She bends classic songs from the “American songbook” or a more modern sensibility and she writes new songs that show the influence of Randy Newman as well as Cole Porter. She has made three astonishing records that feature A-list New York jazz players.

But you haven’t heard of her, I’d venture.

Out of Nowhere, There Is Nicky Schrire

I certainly had not heard of her, and I listen to jazz for as many hours a day as I can. But she’s got some pluck, so one day her three discs showed up at my house unannounced, got shuffled into a pile of will-eventually-listen-to-music, and through kismet later made it out of the pile, partly because anyone who is singing with pianist Fabian Almazan has got to be good.

I put on Schrire’s second outing, a set of ballads recorded with just piano and voice, and I was immediately arrested byher version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” with its entirely a cappella verse and then exceptionally sparse and mysterious piano accompaniment by Gil Goldstein. Her voice is the opposite of showy — clean and plain and yet keenly focused. She harnesses clarity and texture, but then makes interesting melodic choices, particularly at the ends of melodic lines.

When Goldstein enters, his chords and clusters open more doors for Schririe. Elsewhere, Fabian Almazan gives her a dancing and spiky counterpoint on her original “A Song for a Simple Time”, and Gerald Clayton crafts a hip, gospel-tinged piano part to back her on “Here Comes the Sun”, to which she adds some overdubbed wordless vocalizing on the introduction. Old and new standards, original songs, varying choices.

Now, Schrire had my attention. But getting the attention of a wider public is never easy.

A Jazz Musician, a Real Person

Schire is aware of how the musical odds are stacked against her. “Jazz,” she acknowledges, “is a mere speck on pop culture. The reality is that the musicians you think are very successful are living very humble lives.”

It’s just like Schrire, though, to craft a clever, catchy song that is actually about this dilemma. “The Feel Good Song” states,

I want to write a feel good song that’s catchy and so cool

The teeny-boppers and their friends will sing it while at school

I want to be on MTV with dancers scantily clad

I want my gigs to be filled with folks other than my dad

I blame on the fact that I’m a jazz musician really

If I could channel Justin Biebs, I’d sing this song more freely

I envy all those pop stars who can sing about young love until they’re blue…

But Schrire isn’t Britney or Bieber or Taylor Swift, as she well knows. “When I wrote that song, I was listening to ‘Call Me Maybe’and I was thinking about writing something that people can just sing along to. ‘Jazz’ just puts people off. Yeah, jazz musicians joke about that kind of thing.”

But what are you going to do? Scrire was drawn to jazz in ways that she probably couldn’t avoid. She is South African — born in London but brought home by her parents when she was five and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. “I had been a classical pianist and I started playing the tenor sax when I was 11, playing in a big band and learning how to swing. I didn’t have an affinity for classical music. Jazz was the sun to classical music’s moon.”

Around that time, her mother bought her a three-CD collection of Ella Fitzgerald, and the great songs came into her life. She was playing classical, a saxophone player who didn’t improvise, and a singer who “could scat through chord changes” but didn’t imagine that her voice could be her instrument. At the University of Capetown she eventually switched her major to voice, but “genre-mixing wasn’t really encouraged there.”

Summer music workshops in the United States, however, introduced her to some artists who don’t much honor barriers, such as singer Sheila Jordan, Gretchen Parlato, and Kate McGarry. McGarry asked what Schrire was thinking of doing when she finished university, and before long the youngster was working with McGarry at the Manhattan School of Music.

Jazz in the Real World

In school, Schrire met students and teachers who would become musical and studio partners. Her first recording, sdflk lkjsdlfkj sdkj ljsdf, featured her teacher and mentor Peter, as a pianist and vocal partner, for example.

“Initially I used school as a safety net — a way of fending off those whose who asked ‘How are you going to make a living?’ When I got out, I was free-lancing, doing odd jobs. The cliché of being a struggling musician comes out of New York, where there are so many artists. The reality is that it’s really tough. For some, it can kill what you really love about music and creating.”

That first recording from 2012 suggests that Schrire has the joy of lots of music very much alive and surging. It opens with an incandescent version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, that begins with a short prelude written by Schrire and then moves with pulsing rhythm. The piano solo is surely “real jazz”, with a quote from a Wayne Shorter tune that grows organically from the chord changes.

But just as good is Schrire’s version of “If Ever I Should Leave You”, the old standard from Camelot, transformed here by a chiming and simple accompaniment that turns the song from sentimental to searching, forcing you to hear the lyrics anew or maybe, truly, for the first time. The two original songs are amazingly confident for a young artist who is sandwiching them between tunes by certified masters.

“I never thought it was bold to sandwich my songs between Gershwin and Irving Berlin! If I had I probably wouldn’t have done it!” For all its excellence, Schrire describes her composing as “a slow process. The first record only had two originals, the second had four, the new one is six.”

At the Manhattan school she worked on composing with teachers like saxophonist Dave Liebman, but her songwriting heroes are more likely to be the folk and rock singer-songwriters she found in her dad’s record collection. “Randy Newman, JJ Cale, Chicago, James Taylor. I get nostalgic when I hear them. I love pop and a lot of rock music. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t allowed to incorporate music from other genres. That’s the fun thing about jazz — you can do anything unless you are bogged down by tradition or what critics want.”

To the Spring

Schrire’s 2014 recording is a set of six original songs, set in a kind of simple suite, a collection of six semi-love songs that are a kind of chamber pop played by three jazz musicians: Schrire, Almazan, and bassist Desmond White. “It wasn’t intentional that the songs sound connected, but they were all written in the same period of creativity. I don’t write every day, but these were close.”

Each song on To the Spring has a very specific melodic and rhythmic focus. “Traveler” is a plea to a lover who is on the road playing music to make it home to the narrator — set to a steady quarter note groove that ride a above a charming set of rising and falling bass figures. “Your Love” is a rolling ballad that incorporates overdubbed stacks of harmonized vocals. “Oh, your love is a playground… but soon my face is aching / I laughed one time too many, you’re exhausting me.” It’s very thoughtful writing — beautiful, structured, but with the intrigue and filigree that it couldn’t have without Schrire’s jazz pedigree adding something astonishing.

“I was inspired by an Australiain vocalist who had come to New York and also straddles the line between jazz and singer-songwriter styles,” she says.

You might hear the six tunes in this collection as a sketch of the artist that Schrire is on the verge of becoming. “Fall Apart” incorporates a dash of percussion, some doubled vocals on the chorus — making it seem almost like a demo for a very very smart pop record. “To the Spring” is a haunting, fragile art song. “Father” is an exceptional and touching portrait of Schrire’s father, a man who’s found a quiet way to nourish his family.

And then there’s “Give It Away”, which seems like a perfect song: sad and hopeful in equal measures, balanced and tender, and wise. “If you could see yourself a little older / Perhaps then you’d be wiser and not bolder / Your chest a splinter cavity seen one too many wars / You found your sweet serenity, but what was it all for?”

“I feel good about these new songs. Fabian and Des reacted well to those songs too, so I had confidence. They are personal, but not all of them. That’s why I think Randy Newman is so great. His love songs might be about father and son, not just a partner. I like that they’re not necessarily about love. People think ‘Give It Away’ is about love, but it’s about self-preservation after doing a favor for someone.”

Escaping New York

The new record comes out of Schrire’s life in New York, but it’s also part of her escape from the city and from its pressures. “In New York it’s such a struggle to make ends meet and put it all together. I thought it would be great to spend a month to write songs and then document them in a simple, inexpensive way. I knew I liked it and had something original to say, lyrically or harmonically. There was a single five-hour session, so the recording sounds particularly cohesive. We did just a few takes of each tune.”

So, it is a gem, something incredible — yet its release finds Schrire leaving New York and heading home.

“Honestly, there are some cities and countries where you have to sacrifice quality of life to be an artist. New York is one of those – space is so expensive. There are things you can’t afford. The cliché of being a struggling musician comes out of New York, where there are so many artists. The reality is that it’s really tough.

“I hate to bring gender into it, but I think it’s different for women. Men can try to balance and juggle things until they’re much older. Women will decide sooner that there are things they want, and being a musician won’t support those things. And jazz is a man’s club — a majority of jazz musicians are men. It’s really hard to stick with it. I don’t know how people do it. They tour in Eupore to support their life in New York. It’s a business.

But I know, for a fact, so many musicians are constantly thinking about it. Having a family. The reality is that even the musicians you think are very successful are leading very humble lives.”

The result of her time in New York, even though it’s a time that ends with what ought to be her break-through recording of original songs, is that she’s moving home, back to South Africa, for a period.

“I’m a product. I’m a brand. You are building it and you hope to get a return on your investment. You have to ask yourself in the end whether you’re willing to put in your time.”

Listen to the music and the product is excellent. But for now at least, New York is in the rearview mirror.

“I’m moving to London in a few months. New York taught me that I like being fast-paced. I hope London is a happy middle ground. Cape Town has a much smaller music industry, and you’re far away from everything. London will be more hustling. I have a demo recorded of all original music. I’m hoping that a label will agree to put it out. I don’t know.”

Talking to Nicky Schrire after listening to her music nonstop for a couple of weeks, all I could think of was that talent surely outs, in New York or Cape Town or London. The songs are so good, her voice is so flexible and interesting and sure, the potential is without limit. And she’s lovely and full of life.

I want to hear more for this jazz musician, as a pop star, as a singer-writer, any which way at all.