A word or two with award-winning singer Zara McFarlane.
It’s easy to see Arise, the new album by MOBO-winning Zara McFarlane, as a political statement.
Thertee Zara is, on the front cover and in the promo photos, with a strong gaze, wearing a dark almost military looking green coat and bright red beret. Meanwhile, as the songs progress – Pride, Peace Begins Within, Allies Or Enemies – a socio-political thread seems to form ….
But as the vocalist and songwriter says, that wasn’t how Arise rose.
“It wasn’t what I sent out to do – write about political and social things,” she says. “Lots [of ideas] came from the basslines, the melodies. I was stuck with the lyrics for a long time, but things came out socio-political because of the things that were happening at the time.”
She mentions news stories featuring fleeing migrants and a background of civil unrest, but stresses: “It’s tentative … I’m not an activist. But there’s definitely an element of those thoughts in this album … though it’s not something I’ve channelled.”
Released late 2017 via Giles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, Arise is Zara’s third long-player for the label and sees her calling on her heritage to create a solid mash-up of modern urban jazz with the rhythms and sounds of the Caribbean. The album was produced by, and features, drummer Moses Boyd (one half of rising jazz stars Binker Moses) and the cream of London’s vibrant jazz scene.
“A lot of people on the album are from London and a lot of us – not all – are from a Caribbean background, which is why they’re on the record,” Zara says. “They have that understanding of Caribbean rhythms and a Caribbean sensibility. We’re all from the London music scene, so it’s natural that we’d play together, and we’ve all come up through the Tomorrow’s Warriors [jazz development programme] and through jazz, and it’s been a natural progression.”
A graduate of the famed BRIT School, Zara initially studied musical theatre before pursuing a career in music, though she’s now unexpectedly found herself working on theatrical projects. She recently joined the cast of the RSC’s Antony And Cleopatra in Stratford-upon-Avon (transferring to London for the Barbican run), and has also been developing her own musical.
“The musical is a personal project which is in the very very early stages,” she explains. “It’s through the New Musical Development Collective initiative and the sessions are at the Theatre Royal Stratford East [in London]. They’re trying to get writers from non-musical backgrounds writing for musical theatre – songwriters, composers, playwrights who’ve not worked in musicals – and see what musicals might sound like. Different people are working together but I’m working on my own. It’s great for me to be part of. I’ve been inspired by Caribbean folk stories.”
Citing The Lion King, Fela and Hair as her favourite stage musicals, she says: “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do … but there’s no deadline.”
Zara McFarlane is at the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, n Wednesday 7th February 2018. For tickets and more details, see: www.thsh.co.uk/event/zara-mcfarlane