Melbourne, Sunday 20 May, 2018
Interview with Alma Zygier – 20 May 2018
00:00 Nick: It's a great privilege and honour to be here with Alma Zygier today on my podcast which I am tentatively calling 'The Voice Behind the Voice' in which we try to get a sense of who the person is behind the performance.
00:14 I think Alma is one of the most extraordinary voices in Melbourne, certainly in jazz. This is high praise, we'll be there but...
00:24 I think she's going to have a really special career. She's twenty at the moment which is hard to realise, hard to sort of appreciate when you actually do hear her voice for the first time.
00:32 But I first heard Alma at an Amy Winehouse tribute concert for the Jewish Museum of Australia back in February and then I saw her again at the opening of Hummingbird in St Kilda, which is a really cool new jazz club here in Melbourne.
00:48 But, yeah, so Alma very kindly agreed to do this interview today. Thank you for being here.
00:52 Alma: My pleasure. It's such high praise. I'm loving it, ha ha.
00:54 Nick: But what a great Sunday afternoon just to have someone talk about you for forty-five minutes, an hour.
01:01 Alma: I know. I love it, you know? My ego is going to explode.
01:02 Nick: Yeah, fantastic. Good, good. So, maybe in your words, you could tell me your story. You're obviously from European and a Jewish sort of background. You live here in Melbourne. How did you come to be here today? Obviously bizarrely, we have this thing…
01:15 Alma: Well, okay, it's a deep question. I grew up in Melbourne. I have two sisters who also sing as well and act and everything. And I've got two awesome parents who are both Australian musicians and have been able to make a career in this hard industry that is Australian music.
01:46 But I guess - so, I am a Jew and I feel extremely Jewish. I know that sounds silly, but it's who I am, I guess.
01:55 Nick: Your family migrated from...?
02:02 Alma: Yeah, my dad's parents both grew up in Poland and during the time of World War Two, so both of them had to escape during the Holocaust and unfortunately most of their family were murdered because it was just - it's the most horrific time in history I think that I could say, but...
02:25 Nick: But out of that obviously horror of World War Two, you had this amazing story of love and I guess escape to Australia though your Polish grandmother or...?
02:32 Alma: Absolutely, yeah. My Babcia and Dziadek which is Grandma and Grandpa in Polish - whilst they were both of the run, they met in Hungary at the Consulate and they were both actually looking for jobs. They both had falsified Christian papers and they were the only two people in the waiting room and they struck up a conversation.
02:58 She was extremely nervous because she said to him, "I've heard this man..." - they were trying to get a job off - "He's scary and I've heard really frightening things about him."
03:10 Anyway, they sort of - he comforted her, and they spoke a lot and then she was called in. And he said to her before she went in, "Meet me tonight at six at the town square," or something like that. She said, "Okay."
03:26 Anyway, six o clock, he was there, and he waited for her - five past, ten past, quarter past. And he thought, "Oh, she's not going to come," and he was going to leave because it was extremely dangerous in that time just to be sort of hovering around war-torn Hungary.
03:43 And she finally came at about quarter past or twenty past six. They walked around together, and they spoke, and I guess he felt extremely at ease with her and he said to her, "Are you Jewish?"
03:57 And she was horrified because it was the height of - you couldn't admit you were a Jew to anybody. I mean, Jews were being murdered by the millions and it was - she'd been - it was - you couldn't say that.
04:10 And she said, "No, how dare you! What are you saying?" And he recited the first half of a Jewish prayer. I guess, I don't know, he just felt something. And she recited the second half and they fell into each other's arms and...
04:31 Nick: ... and the rest is history here in Australia.
04:32 Alma: ... they escaped. They had my Uncle and my Dad. My Dad grew up in Melbourne, my Mum grew up in Melbourne.
04:40 Nick: So, they came straight to Melbourne from Hungary or...?
04:41 Alma: No, they went - I think they would have travelled around Europe for a bit and then they went to Israel and they had my Uncle, and then they came to Australia - Melbourne - and they had my father.
04:53 Nick: So, you're now part of the Jewish diaspora around the world?
04:55 Alma: Yes, absolutely.
04:57 Nick: Very cool. So, maybe you can speak a bit more about your family because obviously you were the middle daughter of two sisters - Hettie and Syd?
04:58 Alma: Syd and Hettie, yeah.
04:59 Nick: ... who are all artists and musicians as well, but you guys are a very special family. You are the daughters of Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier - Zygier, sorry. We've been over this so many times. I got it wrong, it's a disaster.
05:18 Two very, very highly regard and creative and influential Australian musicians. I said to you before, your mother was doing the Client Liaison kitsch thing like what? Twenty or thirty years before it was cool. right? Back in the 80s with a band called - what was it? Do Re Mi or something?
05:31 Alma: Do Re Mi, that's it.
05:33 Nick: Yeah, yeah. You look a lot like your mum as well.
05:34 Alma: Yeah, everybody says that. I get that a lot.
05:35 Nick: Maybe you could speak about what it was actually like growing up in such a creative household. I kind of feel like you were almost pre-destined to live a life of - in jazz because there's that line from Shakespeare, like "What's in a name?" And your name is Alma which literally means 'soul' in Spanish or Latin...
05:51 Alma: Yeah, and Hebrew as well.
05:53 Nick: And Hebrew as well. It was like destined that you were going to be a soul singer. But, yeah, how did you pick up from your parents and your sisters as well - like, I guess, music and I said to you before I guess it's in your DNA. Like, when you were in the womb, your parents would have been recording and performing and listening as well, so...
06:09 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, there's a photo on the wall of mum performing with me in her belly and she's wearing this beautiful dress and it's got a love heart over the pregnant belly and I'm...
06:18 Nick: Extraordinary, so you were performing basically before you were even brought into the world.
06:21 Alma: Ha ha, yes, I was on the stage.
06:23 Nick: You were like a back-up support.
06:24 Alma: I guess you hear all the parents saying, "You've got to be a lawyer or a doctor or something," especially in Jewish families. But I guess, you know, "You've got to be a musician."
06:35 It wasn't. They were - my parents have always been extremely supportive of whatever we want to do, but all of us - me and my two sisters, we all sort of followed their path.
06:44 I mean, from such a young age, they were exposing us to amazing music and not just one type - all this - not death metal, but a lot of different genres and a lot of beautiful, funny, great music. Musicals and, as you were, jazz and sort of rock, soul...
07:05 Nick: Fifties/sixties rock.
07:05 Alma: Yeah, sixties rock. Little Richard and Ray Charles and all that sort of stuff. And then Aretha Franklin and of course Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. And bluegrass country and classical and minimalist...
07:22 Nick: Yeah, I can see this amazing set of vinyls when you walk...
07:25 Alma: ... record collection, yeah, absolutely. And CDs. Oh, you know, we had so much fun.
07:30 Nick: Do you guys perform together? When you finish the day at school or something, you come home and...
07:35 Alma: Yeah, oh, well, I wouldn't call that a performance, but we sing together and fight together a lot.
07:40 Nick: You fight as well? Really? Okay? It seems really harmonious. I was downstairs. People were making sourdough. Everyone's in the garden.
07:44 Alma: Yeah, wholesome.
07:45 Nick: It is so wholesome.
07:47 Me and Hettie have had our fair share of fights, but I think, as we get older, things get easier. I think every family would say that - more mature. But, no, I guess I had a - we were performing with mum and dad, on stage with them from a really young age doing backing vocals. Even just when we were really little, getting up on stage and dancing.
08:09 And me and Syd and Hettie had a little band for a while called 'She Said Zed,' where we did songs in three-part harmonies and things like that.
08:20 Nick: It's not really a normal childhood like I was - I didn't have this thing with my sisters. We had a great time, but we weren't like, you know - basically preparing yourselves because you all are actors and singers and...
08:32 Alma: Yeah, but it didn't feel like that.
08:34 Nick: Yeah, oh, obviously not, no.
08:34 Alma: It just felt fun.
08:34 Nick: No, I mean that would be insane if it was some hothouse preparation to be the next Ella Fitzgerald.
08:38 Alma: You have to do it. It's like Michael Jackson's family.
08:40 Nick: Yeah, so you've avoided all those neuroses and weird dynamics. Like, it's so natural, you know?
08:46 Alma: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
08:47 Nick: Like your sister just signing in the shower. The whole house is like an artistic sort of little getaway.
08:52 Alma: Yeah, oh definitely. You haven't even seen the music room yet! We've got a music room with...
08:57 Nick: Oh, a recording studio? Yes.
08:58 Alma: Yeah, a recording studio and twelve guitars and a piano and a whole recording system.
09:01 Nick: So, you would describe yourself ultimately though as a jazz singer, right?
09:08 Alma: Absolutely. I sort of discovered - oh, it sounds a bit lame - but I sort of realised my love for jazz when I was I reckon about ten. And, you know, I was definitely played jazz when I was young but not - when I say jazz, I'm not talking about modern jazz. It's all - in our family, we love really early stuff which is the stuff that has influenced me as a performer.
09:32 Nick: This is the idea of the American Songbook, right? Like the Canon...?
09:36 Alma: Absolutely, like the Cole Porter and Jule Stein and the Gershwin Brothers and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Look, I won't go on. I could.
09:43 Nick: We will. Maybe later, we'll come back to it.
09:45 Alma: But, yeah, I guess when I started to really love it - because I loved to sing it - was about the age of ten and...
09:50 Nick: How did you discover it? Just through parents, and having it around you?
09:56 Alma: Mum and dad playing musicals which has - where all those songs are from and also YouTube was just starting really. I mean, maybe it wasn't just starting but ten-year-old me just discovered it.
10:08 Nick: ... had just discovered it, but do you realise a lot of people - like other ten-year old’s - are on YouTube watching people play video games? Like, it's amazing that you would do this.
10:12 Alma: Oh yeah, it's crazy. I mean, there wasn't even that stuff back then. It was just sort of - there was lots of music and a lot of weird videos. But I...
10:23 Nick: Yeah, the dark side of YouTube. Cat videos and...
10:26 Alma: ... all that stuff. Get lost in that.
10:29 Nick: So, it was kind of largely self-directed then. Like, you found a sound or an artist that you liked and just...
10:34 Alma: Yeah, I definitely - self-directed but also guided by my parents' love of this sort of stuff. You know, I remember my mum playing 'Tisket a Tasket' for me the first time. Ella Fitzgerald's version of 'Tisket a Tasket'. And if you hear me perform today, I'll definitely be singing 'Tisket a Tasket'. That's a song in my repertoire.
10:47 Nick: Yeah, I love it.
10:53 Alma: I remember hearing that song and being like, "What?" It’s a cute nursery rhyme but it's so cool and fun. It's hilarious, it's funny.
10:59 Nick: I think it's fantastic. So much jazz is soulful, it's sad - longing and unrequited love - and then you have this amazing flip to being so fun.
11:06 Alma: I know, and she wrote that. She co-wrote that song. Most of the singers of the day didn't write songs.
11:12 Nick: Is that right?
11:14 Alma: I believe. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the only song she wrote, and she co-wrote it and it was a banger.
11:20 Nick: Are most jazz singers - do they just perform out of the repertoire of the songbook? Or when do you become an artist who writes your own jazz soul stuff?
11:29 Alma: I couldn't speak for most jazz singers, but I know - I see a lot of jazz because I work at two jazz venues. I work at the Jazz Lab in Brunswick and the Hummingbird in St Kilda where I also perform there as well. So, it's great. I can manipulate myself up on stage.
11:46 Nick: Fantastic, yeah.
11:47 Alma: But, no, I see a lot of jazz singers and some of them do early work. Some of them do later jazz. Some of them write their own stuff. Sometimes it forms into more soul or blues or sometimes it goes really modern and kind of weird choral, minimalist, crazy...
12:05 Nick: But this is what I come back to, like you've got this set suite of songs that everyone knows, right? All the classics.
12:11 Alma: Yeah, the standards.
12:12 Nick: Yeah, the standards, that's what they're called. And you obviously perform them.
12:14 Alma: Yeah.
12:18 Nick: But then this is, I think, what many artists have - this sort of tension about how do you discover your own voice and your own articulation of that song? Because anyone could - not anyone - I couldn't. You could get up and just run through the boiler-plate version of 'Tisket a Tasket' or 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'...
12:31 Alma: Yeah, well, those I think are interesting because they're not really standards and I choose...
12:35 Nick: Yeah, I've revealed my gross lack of knowledge to the audience here.
12:37 Seriously, anything else but this subject - this period of jazz - I am just completely - I don't know anything and I pretend I do. So, no, you're fine.
12:50 But something like 'Body and Soul' or 'All of Me' - like, those songs - they're standards and they're sung - you know, 'Summertime', 'My Funny Valentine' - they're sung thousands and thousands of times by countless artists in countless different ways.
13:06 But when I like to sing them - and I try and do more obscure tunes like 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'I like Pie, I like Cake', which is my most recent find of song. It's so weird and cool.
13:18 But when I do the standards, I try and - I make them - I don't know. I try and feel them, and I try and make them as real as possible, and I think people sort of pooh-pooh the standards because like, "Oh, they're done a million times. They're so overdone. They're not - they're boring."
13:31 But I feel like if you do them - and I'm not saying I do - I don't know, I try to, but with heart and soul and you really feel them. And if you listen, they're beautiful songs. They're amazing songs. 'Summertime' which everyone...
13:43 Nick: It's stunning. It's brilliant.
13:55 Alma: It's an incredible song and if you do it and you don't try and be different for the sake of being different - if you just try and be real and genuine, I think that you can make something that people will love and people will...
13:57 You know, when you put all the slicks in - those melismas or those "aaah oh oh..." I can't do them but when you do that stuff, yes, its impressive but it sometimes feels - when it's done well, it's amazing.
14:07 Don't get me wrong. I love that stuff but, if you just do it for the sake of doing it, it doesn't feel real. But if you just try and sing the songs and just feel them - it sounds a little bit wanky but...
14:20 Nick: No, it makes sense. I think that you have to be contextual. You can't be - I think your sound is a throwback to a different time for sure. But I think the way you express it is very contemporary. We were talking how you've got your Quartet and your Dad playing Django Reinhardt swing sort of stuff and that's really fun and accessible. But your point before made me think about how Amy Winehouse did Thelonious Monk 'Round Midnight', but she did that in trip-hop. It was hip-hoppy and cool and...
14:46 Alma: You know, when you can make these songs...
15:00 Nick: ... relevant.
15:01 Alma: ... accessible and relevant, it's amazing. And I think when you have these ideas and you go, "Oh, I can see it." And I feel like - obviously I don't know - but I feel like when Amy does it, I feel like she has these ideas and then she's just able to execute it. And I think that's amazing.
15:08 What I don't love is when people go, "Oh, I'm going to do this song like this and for the sake of doing it, so people will think it's impressive." No, I'm not...
15:15 Nick: Yeah, and they just go through the motions, like they're reading a script or something.
15:31 Alma: Yeah, exactly. But when Amy does it, it's just real. It's amazing and it's bringing these songs into light, making them relevant, but also being very true to the songs which is such a difficult skill to have, to be able to bring these songs and to feel them and just do them like she does. It's - oh - it's hard to articulate what - how it feels sort of when you hear it.
15:46 Nick: But then my question for you is how you kind of communicate that in your voice when you're a happy - well, I don't know you. I literally met you two weeks ago, but what do you draw on to infuse your voice with that because...?
16:00 Alma: It's interesting, like I read and I especially - I think about a lot of this stuff when I was doing acting at school. I did some really challenging roles - Medea and Ophelia.
16:10 Nick: In Sophocles or something?
16:12 Alma: Yeah, Medea. I played Medea.
16:14 Nick: 'A Stranger in a Strange Land', yeah.
16:15 Alma: Yeah, I played Ophelia from Hamlet. I played Polly Peachem from Threepenny Opera by Kurt Vile. He did the music. It's a very famous - you know, that's where 'Mac the Knife' which is a big song came from.
16:28 I did some more lighter roles, but I did Fontaine from Les Mis. So, I did these roles that were big and women who were crazy or powerful or - I don't know. And so, I'd always read stuff about actors - method acting or finding something - you'd draw from this or something like that. And I never was able to do it, but I'd just get on stage and then I'd just sort of do it.
16:55 Nick: Do you know there's an actor called Alma Zygier as well somewhere?
16:55 Alma: Alma Zygier?
16:57 Nick: Yeah, I was looking it up on Google. There's another one.
17:00 Alma: No way.
17:00 Nick: Literally, your name. I was like, "Oh my god, you're an actress as well."
17:03 Alma: That's crazy.
17:06 Nick: Yeah, I think she was in one film in 2016 called Emo Kid or something.
17:08 Alma: No, that's me.
17:06 Nick: Oh, that is you? That's actually you?
17:10 Alma: That’s me. I was in 'Emo the Musical'. Oh my god.
17:12 Nick: That's hysterical. So, you are an actress? Yeah, okay.
17:20 Alma: Well, no, no, I was in - oh god, that's funny. So, that was - I was asked to - I didn't have to audition or anything for that because it was - our neighbour is the one who was casting it and she knew I could just do acting and I was just like Christian Girl Number Two which is clearly the opposite of me in this movie which I didn’t particularly love, but that's okay.
17:40 Nick: Was it an Australian film or...?
17:41 Alma: Yeah, an Australian film called 'Emo the Musical' which is just - I couldn't even tell my friends - it was so - the title.
17:45 Nick: 'Emo the Musical'. We've unearthed this dark secret of yours now. You are Christian Girl Number Two.
17:51 Alma: Yeah, so I was the opposite of the Emos, as a Christian.
17:52 Nick: Were you cast as an Emo or...?
17:54 Alma: No, cast as a Christian. I was just in it for one scene - 30 seconds, didn't have a line or anything because you'd have to audition for that.
18:03 Nick: A brief but impactful career on the screen.
18:08 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I forgot about that. It actually recently came out on Netflix.
18:10 Nick: Actually?
18:12 Alma: That's funny that you thought it was another Alma Zygier. No, that's me.
18:16 Nick: Obviously you do - you have a gift with your voice.
18:18 Alma: Thank you.
18:20 Nick: And it's good, but my question is - and then the same thing with the jazz - you kind of step into this voice because there's such a discord between who you are on stage and who you are in person.
18:23 Alma: Well, yeah, I would agree with that. I find that sometimes...
18:25 Nick: It's performance based.
18:30 Alma: Yeah, it's a performance. I see a lot of music because I work in two music venues and the best performances always have someone putting on, I think, more of a show. And jazz can be something that can be quite sort of - I don't know - inward which I think can be a bit isolating for the audience.
18:53 And I think that the most important thing is to try and make this music accessible. Not the most important thing, and I think a lot of people disagree with that. You know, for them, it's about the music but for me, I want to connect with people who are there and be able to show them this music.
19:11 Nick: But this is the thing about you - and again it's not up yourself to acknowledge this or whatever - but in the same way that, for me, Amy Winehouse got me into a little bit of jazz and soul music. Literally she was - I call her like a 'gateway drug', a gateway artist. When I saw you at the Amy Winehouse tribute concert, then again at the Hummingbird, that's the only reason I have listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and others as well
19:34 Alma: Well, that's great. And that's something that makes - that's sort of like a goal. I love that music and I love those recordings. I want people to listen to them.
19:46 Nick: But that's why when you were saying, "Oh, well jazz maybe is a tough one to have a future." I think if you can kind of have the fun like Django Reinhardt stylings to it, as you do with your dad with the quartet - I don't know - like, I think that there's a potential to...
19:57 Nick: It's insane that I am on a run this morning listening to 'Tisket a Tasket' - you know?
20:00 Alma: That's great.
20:01 Nick: But that's cool. I think there's a thing there where you can kind of communicate that -
20:09 Alma: Yeah, that's why I feel like some people are like, "Oh, I hate jazz, it's so boring." Because they think of jazz as something that's very for the musicians -they're playing for themselves or the other people on stage - which isn't a bad thing.
20:22 I understand that, and I see a lot of gigs that are like that but, for me, I don't feel like I can connect with them. I feel isolated as an audience member and so something that I strive for is to make it accessible for the audience and exciting and a story and a show. And by making it a show, I tend to sort of act in it.
20:45 Nick: Yeah, that's what I'm picking up. I didn’t realise how much of an actress you were.
20:47 Nick: When you are on stage, you have a really strong presence.
20:49 Alma: Thank you.
20:57 Nick: Like, you sort of stand there and you hold the room. Look, lots of people do it, but do you reckon that's a big part of the fact that you've done the theatre work as well? And you have a lot of vivid sort of hand gestures and things as well?
21:10 Alma: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you saw me a few years ago - even when I watch videos of a few years ago - I think there's one on YouTube of my year twelve concert. I'm singing 'Can't Help Loving Dat Man'.
21:18 Alma: But I'm already there, much more subdued. I'm so nervous. I was so - it's taken me a lot of - a few years, you know? If you looked at me in year five, my first musical audition, I couldn't even - I had hunched shoulders like this. I couldn't - I wasn't a confident...
21:33 Nick: So, when did you come out of that person and then...?
21:36 Alma: It's taken me years and it's not - it's never been like...
21:37 Nick: How did you do it? Was it just practice?
21:39 Alma: Yeah, just doing shows. I had a lot of dud ones. I did some - I guess I started doing sort of performances in 2016 at the end, not really though. More 2017, but I did some - because most of the ones in 2016 were just horrible. Like, I just was so nervous, and I just couldn't. And I'd stand there and there was just like - each performance was different. There was never a moment where I'm like, "Aha." It was sort of - each performance got a little bit easier, a little bit better.
22:07 Nick: It's like that 10,000 hours rule of success. Success just literally comes through putting work in.
22:11 Alma: Oh yeah. I mean, I don't know if I've done 10,000 hours. I should practice more.
22:14 Nick: You probably would have since you were what? Ten or eight? Young.
22:18 Alma: Yeah, I guess that's true.
22:20 Nick: Plus, just listening to it from the age of - what? Your parents are both musicians. In the womb, you'd be listening and hearing this stuff. It's part of you, really. It's incredible actually to think about.
22:26 Alma: All that stuff. But it's not just jazz, you know? It's all sorts of beautiful music they exposed me to. Not even a lot of jazz. They like the jazz I like, but we all sort of agreed that modern jazz is less of our thing, but they showed me amazing bluegrass country music which is amazing. That sort of white soul and then the black soul which - oh, is amazing. Sixties - fifties and sixties - and you know? I said fifties rock, but I meant to say sixties rock before when I was talking about Little Richard.
23:01 Nick: That's okay. Nobody noticed, it's okay. I just nodded in agreement, pretending I knew, but I really didn't.
23:09 Alma: But, yeah, all that sort of stuff - Beatles and Rolling Stones. Even that stuff which I...
23:17 Nick: Coming back to you, you obviously loved Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. When you were listening to these people on YouTube and, on your vinyls, and I guess with your mum and stuff, how much was it you looking to sing like them? And at what point do you think you developed your own sound?
23:38 Because when I listen to you compared to Ella or Billie or whoever, you have your own voice. You even have a bit of gravelly Louis Armstrong in there as well, which we spoke about.
23:46 But at what point do you say, "I'm actually my own artist and I'm my own voice now. I'm not just trying to be like a student doing a grade eight musical exam." And you are an artist now, you know?
23:55 Alma: It's very tricky. I mean, I grew up really listening to this stuff. So, a lot of those - their voices sort of became ingrained in me and then I did a year twelve music subject, music investigation. I investigated Ella - Ella Fitzgerald's vocal techniques and the way she influenced other musicians and jazz.
24:20 And so, when I finished year twelve, I think I'd really picked up a lot of her stuff. Not nearly as good, mind you, but I definitely picked up some of her quirks. And I remember going to university and my university teacher saying, "It's great, but you've also got to move a little bit away from it and find something that's more you." And I guess listening to...
24:44 Nick: Moving away from mimesis? Not saying that you were -
24:48 Alma: Yeah, moving away from mimicking someone.
24:52 Nick: Mimicking, yeah, exactly.
24:55 Alma: And just trying to find you - your own voice. And I guess by doing a lot of performances and listening to not just Ella, but a lot of different singers and a lot of different jazz and a lot of different instrumental jazz and just really - when I first - that's when I really started going into it, when I got to uni.
25:11 Like, I'd done a lot of jazz all through high school, but it was specifically sort of Ella that I'd done. But now I sort of - and Louis and Billie - but now I really ranged out into Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter and even earlier, like Memphis Minnie.
25:25 Nick: Really?
25:27 Alma: Yeah, that really early 1920's nearly jazz but not quite. All of that sort of stuff - and then Fiona Apple, who's modern, who's still - I don't know if you know Fiona.
25:37 Nick: No.
25:41 Alma: She's an American jazz singer right now and she's wonderful and she's a singer/songwriter. Anyway, I guess by listening to a lot of stuff and seeing a lot of different stuff, I began to find really my own voice.
25:54 But I actually - something that I don't do, I haven't performed - I love to sing musical theatre as well. And I know all those American songbooks come from musicals...
26:02 Nick: Because you said that you loved Chicago or Cabaret or something?
26:08 Alma: Chicago. I love Cabaret. I love Chicago, and those songs are quite jazz.
26:10 Nick: It was from the film, the Renee Zellweger one?
26:16 Alma: Yeah, oh, it's great. But I mean even Fiddler on the Roof which isn't quite jazz.
26:12 Nick: Oh, it's amazing.
26:15 Alma: And I love to sing the...
26:17 Nick: "If I were a rich man..."
26:21 Alma: Yeah, I love that stuff. But even those more classical nearly, the really high stuff - I love doing this. I've never really performed it.
26:29 Nick: You spoke at the start of the interview about your Jewish background and how you're not so super religious, it's more of a cultural community thing.
26:38 Alma: Yeah, I don't believe in God actually, I believe in Judaism and Jews. I believe in Jews. And I think that actually really influences my singing.
26:45 Nick: I was going to say, yeah.
26:47 Alma: Because if you look, all of the songs - all of the American songs in the American Songbook are written by Jews.
26:58 Nick: Is that right? Gershwin and...?
27:00 Alma: Oh, all of them. Pretty much - well, not Cole Porter. But there's a famous quote from Cole Porter saying, "I'll tell you the secret to writing a hit song, it's to be Jewish."
27:05 Nick: Why do you think that? Why do you think that comes through? My portal, my connection to making this connection with you and your background, was when I heard you do 'Go down Moses’, the Louis Armstrong one. I thought that was just fabulous.
27:20 Alma: It's a great tune. It's wonderful.
27:24 Nick: It's outstanding, but how do you pour the history of the Jewish people into the song? Why do you think so many writers of the Standard were Jewish?
27:30 Alma: Well, I think to answer your second question first...
27:33 Nick: That's alright, I've already forgot my first one, so...
27:35 Alma: Many of these Jews - and it's the same in Hollywood, Broadway and Hollywood, you see it's a lot of Jews that began this sort of culture. Coming from Russia, the Pogroms - the Pogroms in Russia was around the turn of the century, the 19th to 20th century I mean.
28:00 And it's all these Jewish towns were ransacked in Russia. Jews were killed, and it was scary for them. It was very frightening, and a lot of Jews left and came to America on boats. And amongst these people were a lot of talented musicians - vastly talented. And these Russian Jews sort of - I don't really know. There’s a beautiful documentary on it.
28:28 Nick: It gave expression to what great pain and suffering and what they had endured.
28:31 Alma: Oh, yeah, but also love. Also, these light songs about love and happiness. I don't know how. It's amazing, but they formed - they met on Jewish camps and things like that - summer camps.
28:35 There's a beautiful documentary called Broadway, a Jewish Legacy and it goes through all this stuff. But anyway, they created the Tinpan Alley which is where all these old standards are from that we all know and love - the Gershwin’s and a lot of others.
29:00 Anyway, they wrote all these wonderful songs and I think subconsciously - on some level, although they are so accessible, and they were so accessible to the Americans and to just the normal American family, they have a Jewish meaning.
29:20 Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' which is, as we all know - I hope you know - is from Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland sings it. But if you really listen to the lyrics, it could be about the Jewish story about somewhere over the rainbow.
29:35 Nick: The promised land, the exile and returning home.
29:37 Alma: Yeah, the promised land, exactly. It really has that underlying meaning and you can really hear that in it and it's amazing. So, when I sing those songs, I really feel that history.
29:44 Nick: You're in communion with 5,000 years of history of your people, basically.
29:52 Alma: Yeah, of trying to be annihilated over thousands of years in every century.
29:54 Nick: That's quite extraordinary. Everywhere, yeah.
29:55 Alma: They try and annihilate us. That's in the Haggadah which is the Passover book. Anyway, all that stuff, I don’t' even mean to but subconsciously I feel like I channel it when I perform just because it's so important to me.
30:10 Nick: I reckon that comes out, absolutely.
30:15 Alma: And as I get older and I understand what being Jewish means, it becomes more important to me.
30:18 Nick: This answers my other question. I didn't know where to fit this into this interview and I didn’t write any notes, as we know, and I'm horribly...
30:26 Alma: That's the best way to do it, I think.
30:30 Nick: How bad were my panic attacks at that cafe? It was too noisy, trams, coffee machines happening.
30:32 Alma: Little kids.
30:34 Nick: Oh, little kids. Not my kids. But I wanted to know how, at twenty, you were able to sound like someone like Ella or Billie Holiday or whatever it is who have lived - they have lived multiple lives, they've had very traumatic lives. Sometimes...
30:53 Alma: I'm blushing. I really am. I wouldn't say that I sound like them.
30:55 Nick: Yeah, you do. Absolutely.
30:57 Alma: That's beautiful, thank you.
31:00 Nick: But my question is stylistic, do you have to have had - not a hard life - but when you say it now in the context of channelling your people's history, you can understand where you can put feeling and emotion into your voice, right? It's emotive.
31:11 Yeah, I've had - without sounding like a weirdo - I've had a blessed life. I have a beautiful loving family. I mean, obviously there's trials and tribulations like in every family and there's been bad ups and amazing downs - sorry, great ups and amazing downs - you know what I'm saying.
31:28 Nick: Shit. That's quite poetic. What's it called? An oxy-moron?
31:33 Alma: Yeah, oxy-moron. No, great ups, bad downs. That's what I mean. But, you know, I have had a really overall great life. When I sing those sad songs, it's not that I'm channelling things that have happened to me. It's more about channelling what the song writers wanted to say. It's what it means to me, those songs.
32:01 Nick: That idea of empathy, getting into the song and understanding what the song really means - in terms that you understand and elucidate as an artist - how do you do that basically without - you've got a boyfriend of two and a half or three years. Life's good. How do you then sing something like 'Body and Soul' which is about aching for someone to notice you and reciprocate your desire? How do you sing about heartbreak and stuff?
32:28 Alma: I've never had heartbreak or anything like that. Exactly what you're saying, I've never experienced anything like that.
32:30 Nick: And that's lucky, that's good. Nobody wants that.
32:40 Alma: Thank god. But again, for me, it's very subconscious or unconscious - I don't know which one. For me, it's not a conscious effort, it just really happens, and it always has. Even from a young age, I'd perform my shoulders up to my ears and I was an anxious performer. I got teased from it. Not bad, just from my friends, but I had this face. I couldn't control it. I had these crazy facial expressions when singing. It's been there for years and I don't...
33:12 Nick: What is it?
33:14 Alma: Just so expressive...
33:16 Nick: Is it emotions? Like how you sing with your hands, like an Italian sort of thing? Your whole body starts singing as well.
33:22 Alma: That's actually a more newer thing with my hands.
33:23 Nick: Is it?
33:24 Alma: Yes, because I used to...
33:25 Nick: Gesticulation...
33:30 Alma: ... hands by my side because I was so nervous and then when I suddenly realised I could be free, I went a bit overboard and now I'm just like "Woohoo." I guess I've always had a very expressive face, but it's mostly just about - I can't quite articulate what it is, but I really feel the song when I'm singing it. It's the music in something like 'Body and Soul', the music is heartbreaking. The lyrics are heartbreaking, and you can feel it. Even if you haven't been through it, you can feel empathetic and you can understand. You can hear. Who knows what Johnny Green who wrote 'Body and Soul' - I don't know if he - he might have gone through terrible heartbreak but who knows? Maybe he just knew how to write beautifully.
34:17 Nick: I come back to the Donnie Hathaway thing with 'A Song for You.' They are the most beautiful lyrics I have frankly read ever. "A love you in a place where there's no space or time." You can only really write about that stuff when you have lived a life with someone and maybe you've experienced a deep loss of your partner. My question is more looking forward do you see yourself creating your own music or is it...?
34:35 Alma: Yeah, well, that's another thing.
34:37 Nick: Is that the uncharted territory or...?
34:40 Alma: Maybe because I've had such a beautiful life, it's one of the reasons why I find it really hard to write songs. At this point, I haven't written a song. I've tried a few times. I find it really hard.
34:57 Nick: But your parents write songs all the time, do you speak to them about that process?
34:59 Alma: Oh yeah, they're amazing song writers. Yeah, a little bit, absolutely. And dad said he'd help guide my way through it. They've been writing songs...
35:05 Nick: You don't need to rush. At twenty, it doesn't matter. Who cares, right?
35:07 Alma: Exactly but that's another territory, as you said. But my parents have been writing songs and the genres they started - my mum started as rock, my dad started as jazz in the eighties. And then they met, and they did rock but sort of indie, at the time. You'd consider that indie rock now. Indie rock has got a whole new meaning. But weird electronica, all this stuff, and now they've come out of it and they do Jewish cynical folky sort of music. I guess that's one way I would describe it.
35:42 They're actually writing an album right now, but they're last two albums - Stories of Ghosts which was released in 2013 and Everybody's Begging which was 2016 - those two albums are amazing - Jewishy folky. And they definitely inspire me because it's about not reinventing but being able to keep with the times.
36:07 And I think if my mum was still doing rock now, it might be less - people that love rock are young and they want a young person doing that. Not that - you should do what's true with you - but I think as she becomes older, what becomes true to her is more about her beliefs and her way of life and her cynicism.
36:32 Nick: So, if you had to today look forward - this is a bit trite but looking in twenty years and say you made it in jazz in Melbourne, Australia, wherever - what would it look like to you, to have a career? Where would you like to be?
36:48 Alma: Well, to make it in jazz is a funny thing because jazz - as I have said, it's not a very big genre. I mean, compared to pop, rock, classical, country, death metal even, jazz is way, way, way less popular and has much less of a following.
37:05 So, I remember my dad saying he was in New York in the eighties and he saw Bill Evans who is a very famous American jazz pianist. And he saw Bill Evans, and nobody was there.
37:15 Nick: Really?
37:20 Alma: That was in New York and that's when he realised, "I don't think I want to be a jazz..."
37:25 Nick: He was doing that in the eighties, you were saying, and now he's come back and doing it with you on stage...
37:27 Alma: Yeah, so that's when he stopped doing jazz, because he realised there's not that much of a future. Now, I don't want to sound negative, but making it in jazz - especially in Australia - is an interesting thing.
37:37 I think a lot of my teachers and stuff have to teach as well as perform because it's not the most reliable career, just because there's not much of a following. But I think in twenty years - it was twenty years you said?
37:53 Nick: It could be thirty, it could be forty.
37:55 Alma: Whenever. I'd love to be able to write my own music. I'd love to be able to make jazz - the jazz I do which is really early specific sort of stuff. I'd love to make it more accessible.
38:00 Nick: Just like how you make 'Tisket a Tasket' and 'Go Down Moses' a bit more accessible and punchy and swingy.
38:11 Alma: Well, I don't. And the thing is with my act - my show - I don't just do jazz. 'Go Down Moses', I guess, is jazz but not quite. But even I do 'Lonely at the Top' by Randy Newman. Randy Newman is an amazing songwriter. He writes music for - I think he's won or been nominated for ten Oscars or something for all his movie music. 'You've Got a Friend in Me' in Toy Story.
38:34 Nick: Is that him?
38:36 Alma: Yeah, he's amazing. You've got to check him out. Randy Newman is an incredible...
38:40 Nick: The funny lilting piano along with it as well. I think there's a Family Guy episode with Randy Newman there and they couldn’t shut him up...
38:48 Alma: I love that episode. I've seen all of Family Guy. That's season two. So nerdy that I know that.
38:54 So, I do a few Randy covers which is a bit jazz, but not quite. But I also do Patsy Cline which is country, but old sort of country which is nearly jazz. Well, it's sort of all amalgamated into one. I don't know if that's the right word.
39:10 And so, I think making that stuff more accessible and branching out even further and doing some folk stuff, I'd love to do that stuff. And really working on my voice, my instrument.
39:25 Nick: But that's the interesting point to depart from, talking about earlier in our first botched interview attempt at the cafe, was how voices change when their young until when they're seventy. When I think about you singing now, it's like a mature voice. That's what a lot of people say. Where do...?
39:45 Alma: I guess. My personality isn't mature, mind you.
39:50 Nick: It actually is. But it's exciting to think about what your voice could sound like in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time after you've been married with kids and...
39:58 Alma: Babies and addicted to cigarettes.
40:00 Nick: Yeah, exactly.
40:01 Alma: Oh, no, I'm not a smoker.
40:02 Nick: Well, it's good for the voice though. I get a great voice after I've had a cigarette.
40:08 Alma: A few darts, yeah. Husky.
40:10 Nick: Oh, it husks me up. It's great. Not that I sing.
40:12 Alma: But speaking voice.
40:14 Nick: Yeah.
40:56 Alma: I mean, yeah, the journey - as they say - it's all about the journey. It will be interesting, and we'll see. I mean, I don't know what it will be like in twenty years. I mean, the goal would be to still be singing definitely, to be doing things that make me happy, to sharing my music with people who maybe don't listen to this type of music. I love when that's there, the people that I love to reach out to, the people who don't usually listen to this type of music but can sort of understand it when seeing it live and then go on to listen to all the amazing recordings that I've tried to emulate at times. We'll see what happens.
40:57 Nick: That's all a long way away. You've got to take it one day at a time and I think I'm super excited to see you next Saturday at the Hummingbird.
41:03 Alma: Oh yeah, I'm at the Hummingbird again. Yeah, absolutely. That's going to be a good gig.
41:11 Nick: What have you got lined up?
41:14 Alma: There's two bands performing, just because it's a big room. I'd love to be able to sell it out all by myself. I have been selling out some gigs but this one is a big one.
41:22 Nick: Lido, yeah.
41:24 Alma: Yeah, Lido, I sold out. That was great.
41:26 Nick: I couldn't get a ticket. Disaster.
41:34 Alma: I love that. But this one, they thought it would be great to have two women and their own bands do it. The other woman who's performing, her name's Amelia - that's her stage name. Emily Schnarle is her name and she's a soul singer and she's wonderful. I studied with her at Monash. I didn't finish my degree. She did. I'll get to that later.
41:52 Nick: You'll get your diploma, good.
41:58 Alma: She's great. She's got a soul band and they'll be performing first, and then I'll do a set with my band second. And some American Songbooks and some really weird obscure tunes that I found trawling on You Tube and just have decided to - me and my dad arrange all the songs. There's a lot of work that goes into all the performance that you see.
42:20 Nick: Well, thank you very much for your time. It's been an absolute pleasure to interview you.
42:26 Alma: Oh, my pleasure.
42:28 Nick: It's been a good 90 minutes of podcasting.
42:29 Alma: Great. I know how to talk.
42:30 Nick: Yeah, you're very good at it. So, well done and thank you.