The Swingles – 20 Questions
The Swingles are very much their own thing, musically. We thought they may like to undergo one of Pete’s customised question sets. No point asking about guitars and drumkits this time around! Here is what this vocal harmony ensemble kindly provided in the way of responses… enjoy
- What so drew the original Swingle Singers to adapt the works of Bach? I’m guessing the bass register melodies?
Right around the time The Swingle Singers started, we had Lambert Hendricks and Ross pioneering the idea of vocalese singing, as well as Mimi Perrin’s Les Double Six in Paris (which also included Ward Swingle). Vocalese is a style where words are sung to melodies that were originally part of an instrumental piece or improvised solo. The idea of singing instrumental parts was new and exciting, and at this time you also had Jacques Loussier famously playing jazz versions of Bach’s music. Ward and the other members of Les Swingle Singers were session singers on the jazz scene at the time, and were surrounded by many of these cutting edge ideas. Ward’s unique take on the work of J.S. Bach was to vocalise the music of Bach, not adding words or changing the harmony or melody, but to superimpose a jazz feeling by adding a swing rhythm section, and adapting the phrasing of the singers. It was only in later iterations of the group that they chose to go a cappella.
- The radio is playing…what song would you cross the room to turn UP and what song would you cross the room to turn OFF?
Up – Any Michael Jackson favourites. Some music just isn’t meant to be listened to quietly.
But! I will absolutely break a sweat running to turn off any rendition of “Windmill of your Mind”. Doesn’t matter how cool the arrangement is, that song just turns round and round in my mind, quietly and endlessly tormenting me…
- Where are you planning to tour next?
Next we are headed to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to perform with the awesome pop choir Perpetuum Jazzile. Ward Swingle was also a patron and supporter of theirs, so we have a special connection there. We have met before, but it will be our first time sharing the stage, so that should be fun!
- You receive two free tickets to a festival – where would you prefer this to be and what three acts would you like to see?
Glastonbury, for sure. This has to be one of the best festivals in the world with so much diversity and interest. I love the singer/ songwriter vibe for the early evening, so Bon Iver or Laura Marling on the Park stage. Then later, for some dancing, Faithless on the pyramid stage.
- Name an album where in your opinion the tracks are perfectly sequenced – any artist, any style
For me, Radiohead ‘The Bends’ is a near perfect album that takes you on such journey.
As an extra, Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ (the first album I owned) is killer too – no fillers, nearly every song could be a single.
- Did you enjoy school? Whether you did or not, which songs remind you of schooldays (artist/title/source album)?
I did (mostly) enjoy school. The songs that always take me back are ‘Say it ain’t so’ from the blue album by Weezer.. ‘Sunday Shining’ from Maverick a Strike by Finley Quaye and ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out) from The Bends by Radiohead. I was quite angsty I think!!
- The third track on an album is often a gem – can you think of any? (artist/title/source album) – as many as you like!!!
I think my favourite track 3s would be
Mirrorball / Elbow / The Seldom Seen Kid
Unravel / Björk / Homogenic
Teardrop / Massive Attack / Mezzanine
Destiny / Zero 7 / Simple Things
All love songs… How very cliché!
- Suggest a song by any artist that makes you think of the coast/seaside. Please add any reasons as to why this might be
Last year we had a tour to LA and we hired cars to drive ourselves there from San Diego, so we were completely free to be our own DJs. As we drove up the coast, we listened to Lana Del Ray’s West Coast. Now every time I hear the song I think of that trip.
- Name a recording (an album maybe) that really ‘grew’ on you and has ended up as essential listening? What is it about this recording that you value?
I think the song with the biggest shift from dislike to love, for me was Radiohead’s Pyramid Song. The first few times I heard it I thought it was really boring and a bit whiny, but somehow it has ended up being one of my all time favourite tracks and I now think it’s utterly beautiful. I really like the fact that the time signature never settles and that you can’t really get a sense of the feel or groove until the drum beat kicks in. There’s something unsettling and yet oddly satisfying about it.
- Name a recorded vocal that fades too early, for you (artist/title)
Otis Redding / Try A Little Tenderness. It’s two and a half minutes of slow build to an incredible payoff that only lasts about 30 seconds!
- Name a TV series where the theme music was better than the actual shows and do you know who created or recorded it?
There’s a 1970s British comedy called Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em that used to re-run all the time over here, and I never liked it, but I recently heard the theme music again and it’s brilliant. Awesome orchestration and playing, and to cap it all, the rhythm spells out the show’s title in Morse Code! I love the totally unnecessary level of sophistication for a show that’s mostly slapstick and a guy saying “ooh, Betty”.
- Which artist did you go to see perform with low expectations but ended up impressed? Where and when was this?
Oli, Jo and I went to see Charlotte Church in 2014, at the Riverside Studios in London. She’s a singer who made her name as an angelic teenager singing crossover classical but now makes really interesting, challenging, even proggy music. It’s a very bold move and I certainly didn’t know what to expect, but we were all blown away by her vocal control.
- Where in the world in your opinion is live music best received? What venues appeal?
I think our best ever audience response was the first time we played in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the crowd noise completely deafened us. And some of my favourite audiences and venues have been in Italy, where you often get these beautiful, opulent wedding cake theatres (La Fenice in Venice was a recent favourite) and people aren’t afraid to show emotion. However, I try to be mindful of the fact that cultural norms vary hugely – just because an audience isn’t going wild doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not having a good time.
- Is there a book or novel that you would like to create songs or the score for? Why is this?
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. I did actually write some songs with the idea of adapting this as a musical… It’s all about internal turmoil so wouldn’t be easy to do on stage, but there’s so much emphasis placed on music in the novel – I’d love to make it happen some day.
- Manhattan Transfer – how does their harmonic approach to arrangements differ from yours?
Manhattan Transfer are a vocal jazz quartet, so they tend to use 4-part block voicings similar to, say, a sax section in a big band. The Swingle Singers were traditionally a double quartet singing mostly classical covers, eventually expanding to include jazz standards as well. With 7 or 8 voices available, there are more harmonic possibilities and also polyphonic options for quartets or trios to play off against each other. Today, we often write with the sound of vocal jazz in mind, but we also use less traditional, more experimental/atmospheric/dissonant approaches to create specific effects.
- Name a favourite recording including in the title 1/ When 2/ Why 3/ How (artist/title/source album for each please) and explain why these three recordings chosen
You Didn’t Know Me When – Harry Connick, Jr, Blue Light, Red Light (1991)
I was a massive fan in my youth, both as a singer and big band enthusiast. I remember the day this album came out, a friend bought it for me on cassette! It’s still one of my favourites. Harry wrote and orchestrated all of the songs, and this track is probably his best arrangement — a perfect little gem for three horns and rhythm section.
Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (2002)
This is the first and only song I taught myself to play on the piano. And has one of my favourite bass lines/chord progressions.
and a 2-for-1 bonus:
How Can I Miss you When You Won’t Go Away? – Dan Hicks, Original Recordings (1969)
Because it’s awesome.
- Name an actor or actress who made a listenable song recording – and what’s the appeal?
Robert Downey Jr: River (Joni Mitchell cover)
This is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m not sure it was considered particularly good when it came out, but it got massive radio play in Toronto (where I lived at the time), and judging by most DJ commentaries, it was because of one gravelly-voiced misheard lyric: “It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down the cheese…” To be fair, I recently heard him in a duet with Sting, and the guy can really sing. And he’s Iron Man.
- Two tickets suddenly arrive for a live performance, they are for someone you have always wanted to see…….which act or artist? Which numbers will be hoping to hear?
Tower of Power! I once heard the horn section doing a masterclass on their own, which was ridiculously good, but I’ve never seen the full band. If it happens, I’ll be singing along loudly to What Is Hip?, Soul Vaccination…probably most of their early tracks.
- Which of your own recordings show you at your most a/ lively b/ reflective c/ celebratory?
A: our new recording of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Tidings, on our forthcoming album Yule Songs vol. II). I get to call on my roots and yell and hoot and holler in the background.
B: Poor Wayfaring Stranger. I have struggled not to cry each and every time we sing this song.
C: Couldn’t Love You More feels like a rededication of my wedding vows each time we sing/listen to this. Its a celebration of true love.
Any recording that makes you laugh ….intentionally or otherwise! (artist / track / source album )
SB: The Beach Boys / You Still Believe In Me / Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys make inventive use of “non-musical” instruments (car horns and the like) in serious songs. I love that.
JGE: Stevie Wonder / As / Songs In The Key Of Life – In the extended version he breaks into a sort of Louis Armstrong voice halfway through which makes me giggle every time…
ER: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band / Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold / Gorilla
KF: Richard Cheese / Do They Know It’s Christmas / Silent Nightclub
CW: Chick Corea & Bobby McFerrin / Autumn Leaves / Play
The Swingles new album ‘Deep End’ is out now. The Swingles new Christmas album ‘Yule Songs vol.II’ features Kurt Elling and will be released in November 2015. It is available to pre-order on Itunes now: https://itunes.apple.com/album/yule-songs-vol.-ii/id1049374694?app=itunes
In addition, The Swingles will be closing The London A Cappella Festival 2016 at Hall 1, King’s Place, London on Saturday 30th January 2016. For more information and tickets visit: http://www.londonacappellafestival.com/
For more information on the band and tour dates visit: http://www.theswingles.co.uk/
(Thanks to The Swingle Singers for taking part in our 20 Questions With… series and Lewis Fromberg at Deacon Communications for helping with this article)