“You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” The Wizard of Oz.
Everything, now, is chaos. In the world. In our musical tastes. In our digital freedom where we carry with us, every day, one hundred years of musical history. No wonder the sound of now is the sound of then, and then, and then, beamed through the searchlight prism of the contemporary creative mind. It’s an anything’s possible atmosphere, a yellow-brick-road of imagination which leads us to Earl, a stunning new jazz musician and bewitching vocalist with an idol in pioneering 30s jazz performer Josephine Baker. Whose irresistible bar-room cavalcades see the return – at last! – of musical jokes. Wiggly, comedy backing vocals. Campy vaudeville capers. A kazoo-like “toot toot toot”, blown through her fists.
“Jokes are all over jazz,” smiles Earl today, an Alaskan-born Londoner (via Los Angeles) whose music reflects these chaotic cultural times. “It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in. Music is all over the place. Everybody’s making music of every kind. It’s the Wild West! There’s a feeling of rebellion everywhere and jazz is the perfect music for that.”
Self-invented, self-released and newly self-assured, in 2015 Earl submitted two songs to the BBC Introducing programme – the bluesy-swing of Good Witch, the acoustic goodbye letter We Promised – and was chosen, as one of six from 200,000 entries, to appear on the BBC Introducing Stage at that year’s Hyde Park festival. The BBC DJs immediately responded. Janice Long played Good Witch. Dermot O’Leary played We Promised. Soon signed to BMG Records in the UK, their A&R guru Jamie Nelson changed everything, sensing Earl could go further, into “proper jazz”, original, old-school, authentic jazz. He wasn’t to know she’d been a proper jazz obsessive since the age of 7, when she first sang Billie Holiday’s You Can’t Take That Away From Me.
“I started rattling off all the musicians I love, Duke Ellington, big band,” she remembers. “I’d never thought about doing jazz. To me it was a specialist thing that was in my blood, but I was always trying to make modern music. And going along with other people’s plans. I said, ‘I can do this in my sleep, I can do that underwater, upside down’. He said, ‘show me!’”
With an album still forthcoming we’ve four songs, for now, to relish: I Love You is a woozy, sing-a-long, Spanish/Mexican rumba tinged with Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou. Smoke Rings is a playful, crackly-voiced calypso, erupting into a spaghetti-western roustabout to doomed romance. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, see you at the funeral of our lust,” she sings exquisitely, knowingly, as the ghost of Billie Holiday smiles on. BaddaBing, BaddaBoom is a cheeky-charleston thriller, a joyous wink through the trumpeting jazz-skits of 1920s cotton-pop. When I Kissed You is ragtime, Dixieland, syncopated swing, the sound of Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe bustin’ through saloon doors, thighs high in a can-can, for a laugh. It’s brilliant, bonkers, beautiful.
No wonder collaborators have been lining up, her proper jazz debut featuring musicians and technicians behind Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Adele and Paloma Faith, co-writes with producer Phil Thornally (co-writer behind Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn) and the New Orleans jazz collective Preservation Jazz Hall. She’s been having a blast.
“I’m resolved to enjoy it no matter what,” says Earl, by some distance our most unexpected new musical force. “I spent years writing sad stuff. I’m done being sad! I’m tapping into something joyful. It’s way harder than writing sad songs, to put that across in a way that isn’t cheesy. That’s the challenge.”
Earl’s is a jazz sort of story, a pot-holed path to creative and personal freedom through a series of calamitous challenges. A mixed-race kid born Kate Smithson in the Alaskan wilderness (Chugiak, Anchorage, population 8,300), she was raised on the live-in gas station owned by her parents, a Filipino mum and Dutch/Welsh Korean War veteran dad, 20 years his wife’s senior. Music was everywhere – Filipino dancing, Native Alaskan hypnotic drums, dad’s love of big band, jazz and the war-time canon – young Kate playing piano at four, singing in the church choir, composing classical music at 11. Her school was strictly Christian, her faith all-encompassing, a “sheltered, innocent” girl ruled by obedience to God. The teenage Kate began to dream, took a volunteering job at the University of Alaska’s radio department, helping select the DJs’ play-list. Her instinctive musical ears fast-tracked Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Eryka Badou. “I’d look at the song titles and get this itch, ‘I need to figure out how to do this’,” she recalls. “And I’d no clue!” Leaving school at 16, after a spell in Missionary School, she figured it out herself, writing her first song at college in Santa Barbara, self-financing her first CD single (the haunting, poetic Silence). The universe, now, was conspiring both for and against her, almost killed by a wayward kid driving his van. The same kid offered her a lift one day and she sang Silence to her almost-killer, a kid who took her CD to his friend, who ran a tiny subsidiary of the giant Warner Brothers label, called Record Collection. A meeting was requested.
“I went to a mansion in Malibu, the night before 9/11,” remembers Earl, then a folky, sweet-voiced singer-songwriter. “There were movie stars there. I was very scared and timid, I thought everyone who didn’t go to church was a vampire! I played the piano and this guy came up to me, just like in the movies, and said I wanna offer you a deal.”
With a name-change to Kate Earl, her debut album was released, Fate Is The Hunter, now slowly cracking free from her life-long, sheltering chrysalis. Damien Rice discovered her via MySpace, asked her to support him at a non-profit event for today’s Burma leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. At the glittering London Palladium, she sang Silence. And received a theatre-wide standing ovation. “It was magical,” she says, “like a dream.” The dream began to warp. Her first major romance ended, coinciding with a total severing of the faith she’d suddenly outgrown. Warner Brothers, meanwhile, saw her huge potential, planned to tour her throughout Europe with the newly-enormous James Blunt (the You’re Beautiful era). Record Collection blocked the idea, toured her through America, to little fanfare, instead.
“I saw my whole house of cards crumble,” says Earl today (she would soon be sold on by Warners). “I’ve never been stupid, I’d just always been subservient, I was trained to follow and serve. I should’ve fought my corner but I didn’t have the balls. I think that’s why I’m so loud now!”.
Dreams on hold, she took solace in “white magic”, studied homeopathy and spirituality, nurtured scholarly beliefs in synchronicity with nature and the elements. Soon identifying as a White Witch, she made a “magic spell”, willing the universe to “send help!” While waiting she temporarily modelled, signed to the beauty and talent division of a modelling agency and the universe duly showed up. An agent there, impressed by her musical gifts, sent her the help she needed, a connection to music industry titan Tommy Mottola. Suddenly, she was flying to New York for a meeting in a penthouse suite of Universal Republic Records.
“The first thing Tommy said to me was ‘how come I haven’t heard of you?’” she laughs. “And the second thing was, ‘would you like to make a million dollars?’” Tommy offered to both manage her and sign her, seeing “the reinvention of Joni Mitchell”, Earl now on the same roster as Taylor Swift, Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine, releasing second album Kate Earl and touring with Maroon 5. (She also co-wrote with Cee-Lo Green composer Ben Allen for a one-off song.) After a relocation to Los Angeles, a new romance flourished, resulting in her son, “my sweet child, perfect little boy”. Scandalously, her powerful new label didn’t see it that way, shelving her for the foreseeable future (claiming they’d “circle back around”, they never did). “Now, it’s acceptable to have kids,” she notes. “There’s been a good shift. But not back then.” The romance ended and she carried on regardless, now a single mum in L.A with a one year old son, soon contacted on Facebook by the independent Downtown Records via a tip-off from Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars co-writer Andrew Wyatt (he’d been impressed by a video she posted singing in the bathroom). Signing to Downtown, she released the pointedly-titled album Stronger, now a bi-coastal artist living between L.A and New York, lugging suitcases of toys back and forth, “that was interesting!”, partly living in cheap hotels. She needed a tour bus, to travel with her tiny child, which the label couldn’t provide. She turned to Pledge Music instead, her Home Sweet Motor Home scheme raising $7,000 through her growing fan-base, allowing her to tour with Matchbox Twenty.
“That was the first time I’d ever taken a stand, for my son,” she says. “When you’re responsible for another human life you realise how valuable life is and you start to understand your own worth. Because I learned to speak up for someone else, I learned to speak up for me.”
Finally, she was doing things her own way, her confidence rewarded by another kick in the head: Downtown dropped her. “They’d asked me to leave my son behind,” she notes. “As if I would.” This would be the making of the musician now only called Earl, an increasingly strident character unrecognisable from her subservient past, self-funding through fans, tours and licensing deals, connecting to collaborators herself, including Gary Noble, engineer on both Amy Winehouse albums. Together, they recorded the Ransom EP, including Good Witch, at London’s RAK Studios (where Sam Smith, Adele and Amy Winehouse all recorded), a digital-only release in 2014. Now relocated to north London she signed to BMG in 2015, where her proper jazz eureka moment led to the astonishing artist she’s finally become today, the musical force of nature she had been all along.
“I can’t believe I was sitting on this the entire time,” beams the burstingly confident Earl of 2016. “I had this hidden jewel from my upbringing I didn’t realise the public would love as much as I do. Which has now taken on a life of its own.”
She’s transformed, too, visually; from a simply-dressed brunette into a silver-blonde, dramatic siren, finally indulging her life-long passions for “glamour, romance, glitz, sensuality”, finding a kindred spirit in Florence Welch, “I think she’s delicious, she won’t be confined, that’s what I hope to do!” The video for I Love You was shot this summer in a fairytale castle in Ireland, Earl in a stunning dress “spun from silver and mist”, a video made “for peanuts”, as was all her new music, recorded in collaborators’ home studios. In these musically vast times her music, ironically, stands alone.
“It feels unique,” she decides, rightly. “I don’t know anyone else doing this exact thing. I’m so inspired, I feel so alive, like anything is possible. I don’t feel held down anymore. It took me a long time to be free and I hope I’ve earned my place by now.”
She sweeps up an image on her phone, a 1922 cover of Life magazine, a glorious illustration called Butterfly Woman, The Flapper, by Frank X Leyendecker. A flapper girl stands, arm outstretched, in a translucent, bejewelled, body-skimming dress, framed in the mustard and red-dotted wings of a 10 foot Monarch butterfly. As an image, it’s the definition of freedom.
“Isn’t that beautiful? I wanna be her!” she cackles, consumed by her own possibilities. “It says so much about how I feel. Liberation. Happiness is the greatest sign of liberty, don’t you think? If you can’t be down-trodden by the world or your own challenges, then you will be free.”
Earl: it’s a freedom thing. And that’s jazz.