Zara McFarlane was born into a Jamaican family in Dagenham, East London. In 2010 she issued her self-produced EP, Until Tomorrow, catching the attention of Gilles Peterson who released her debut album the following year on his label, Brownswood Recordings. Positioned neatly between the twin worlds of modern jazz and nu-soul, it confirmed the presence of a very special artist earning Zara a plethora of rave reviews and a MOBO nomination. Her unique crystalline voice and finesse of her delivery stems from both a natural gift and years of formal study at a very high standard. After studying Music Theatre at the Brit School, she studied Popular Music & Performance at Thames Valley University and holds a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies attained at the Guildhall School of Music. Prior to the release of her debut, she made a string of impressive appearances with musicians such as Soweto Kinch, Denys Baptiste, Orphy Robinson, as well as featured vocalist in ska orchestra, Jazz Jamaica. Her tracks have been reworked by various producers including afro-funkster Osunlade. Most recently she has paid tribute to Tammi Terrell with Norwegian DJ Dalminjo and fronted Italian DJ Nicola Conte’s big band. In 2012/13 Zara toured her album in the UK and Europe, with memorable performances including support slots for the likes of the godfather of South African jazz and funk, Hugh Masekela, and a string of dates with voice of the moment Gregory Porter.
Her new album If You Knew Her will be out on January 20, 2014 and she’ll be touring from February 2014. On the occasion of her return, we had an interesting Q&A with who we consider the future of great Soul music.
Q: When did you realise you wanted to be a music professional?
A: It was while studying at the BRIT School of Performing Arts. The BRIT School was the first place that showed me that working in the arts could be a professional career. I loved performing. Though I still did not know that I would do it full time for definite until I went to university to study music and professional opportunities starting to come my way.
Q: Is there any particular artist you get your inspiration from?
A: Nina Simone is a big inspiration. She seems to be for many singers of my generation.
Q: How do you compose your music?
A: I compose either on piano or guitar. I can also produce a little bit using Logic software so from time to time I create sequences there. I also just sing the piano/bass/drum parts in to the computer to put down my ideas.
Q: How easy or hard is to make it in the music industry today?
A: I think it has always been difficult to make it big in the music industry. There are a lot of opportunities to perform and make music but as technology has developed and people can make music from home there are a lot more people trying to get into the industry. I studied music, worked with many different jazz musicians in the UK, over the years, and really took the live performing route performing in different bands as both a lead and backing vocalist. It is hard to stand out from the crowd but I do think a large part of “making it’ depends on what your personal goals are and what style of music you want to do as to how difficult it is in general. But on a whole the music industry is a totally different industry now than it was say 50 years ago or even 20 years ago. You have things like the Xfactor which is a machine that churns out ‘pop stars’ on a yearly basis then on the other hand the industry seems to expect to sign artists that have done a lot of the leg work on their own by building their own fan base. It seems to be a lot less predictable these days.
Q: How would you describe your music?
A: Words that come to mind: emotive, moody, expressive, heartfelt, soulful, jazz.
Q: How is your new album, If You Knew Her, different from Until Tomorrow?
A: The overall arc of Until Tomorrow was the instrumentation. The band was consistent through out and in some ways it could be described as having more of a traditional jazz feel to it.
This new album features a variety of musical instruments and band set-ups. Its main arc is the theme of “The strength of a Woman”, which is showcased through the lyrics and sentiment of the tunes. I would also say that I focused more on each individual song with this album and what kind of instrumentation would suit each one. So there’s a lot more variety in this sense. There are more songs that are quite sparse, and I have worked with more musicians – eg Leron Thomas on vocals & trumpet and Manu Delago on hang.
Q: Name the 3 albums you would take with you on a desert island.
A: Creole Choir of Cuba- Tande-la, Miles Davis – Kind of Blue, A random reggae compilation!
Q: You’re about to start a promotional tour. How do you like performing live?
A: I absolutely love it! Although I love making records and feel it is a privilege to be able to do so live performance is where I feel most at home.