Jazz singer Caro Emerald on highbrow performances and collaborative leadership
The chart-topping singer tells Tempus about singing for musical royalty and taking her time to record
Jazz singer Caro Emerald is in no rush to make her next album. It's an important point for the Dutch star, real name Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw, whose 2013 second record The Shocking Miss Emerald was a phenomenal no.1 hit in the UK. Instead, the retro chanteuse is focused on her live UK tour, which is following a summer warmup through the festival season – including the prestigious Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May.
For those in the capital, Emerald's most exciting performance is sure to be her upcoming show at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 October, complete with available hospitality packages that promise a night of smoky jazz stylings and a retreat into yesteryear. For Emerald, whose vocal inspirations range from the late, great Aretha Franklin to Rihanna, the songs are only part of the package.
"We are very visual," Emerald tells Tempus. "Our current tour is inspired by the jazz clubs of the 1930s, so it has to be very visual and atmospheric. But while we have a main theme for the tour, every show is different depending on the audience, the venue, and so much more."
Caro, how does it feel to be back on tour – and playing the Royal Albert Hall again?
It's so exciting to playing a new show. Touring is really the best thing there is in life, so to get back to the UK where we can play these huge, elegant venues like the Royal Albert Hall. There are so many elements of each show that make a big difference to how we perform – we look at what kind of venue is it, whether the concert is during the day or night, outside or inside. At a festival, are people buying tickets specifically for my show or for a wider, more general experience? We have to answer all these questions to decide what kind of show it will be. We might play the same arrangements of songs, but the set-list always changes. I also have a great light and sound team who consider the environment of the show and adapt it to the whole experience. >>
It sounds like a very collaborative process.
Yes it is, very much so. We have a person for every craft, and one of my musical partners Jan [van Wieringen, producer] is also the creative director for the show. It really helps to have someone sitting in the audience during rehearsals, listening and watching what we're doing from an objective stance. He judges the show as a whole – how my vocals, the sound team, the lighting team, everyone in the band are all working together – and it's definitely a collective effort. Every show feels fresh and new. Plus, I'm playing with very high-level musicians who, honestly, get bored quite easily – so we have to keep the arrangements interesting for them, which keeps each concert as exciting for us as it is the audience.
You also played for Quincy Jones’ 85th birthday concert at the O2. How did that come about?
Oh my gosh, I'm still not sure. It's not like we knew each other personally, but he apparently knew my music. I worked with [conductor] Jules Buckley, who directed the show, on several occasions but I'm sure Quincy Jones wouldn't have allowed anyone to perform that he didn't want to see. It's an incredible compliment. I've always been a fan of music anywhere between jazz and pop – so RnB, Soul, funk – and Quincy has been everywhere in that range. He's really influenced who I am musically, and probably everyone else in my generation, so he's like a musical god. It felt like I was performing for the teacher of all teachers, someone who knows the very best and how to do it.
Your second album in 2013 was a great success in the UK. Can we expect a new release soon?
I am working on new material, but I want to complete the tour before we begin recording. We might throw in a few new songs, because it's always lovely to play something that people haven't heard from us before – whether that's something new, something we've never played live, or a fun new cover, we love to surprise people. We aim for each tour to provide a whole experience. Our last tour, the Emerald Island (2017), took people to a desert island. We created a very exotic feel, from our percussionists to the set pieces. The core of our new show has been going back to the basics and the root of our sound – so we're thinking jazz clubs, groovy beats, bold colours and plenty of dancing. We're aiming for an old school experience, which has definitely been inspiring.
You've mentioned going back to your jazz roots, but your style blends this with more contemporary instruments, beats and styles. Who are your musical inspirations?
I'm very inspired by vocalists like Aretha Franklin, I listen to her so much. Then vocally I'm influenced by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong, to contemporary artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse. I've also listened a lot to Michael Jackson and Prince. In my teenage years I listened to Portishead, Nirvana, Beastie Boys, and so did Jan, so the 1990s are a big inspiration to us. What's great about the music itself though, is that it's not only my influences but those of my producers, so we get to collaborate from these very diverse tastes.