I arrived for my interview with Alma Zygier at Elsternwick’s Cocorico café in a state of disrepair. The ill-fated combination of a triple-shot latte and Red Bull (fuel for my last-ditch attempt to write questions for this profile) had brewed into a churning storm of anxiety in my stomach. Nothing was going right. The venue I had suggested – a bustling café on a Sunday afternoon – turned out to be an appalling place to host a podcast. After spending 30 minutes fumbling around trying to get my microphone to work, our voices were drowned out by a cacophony of hissing coffee machines and cutlery clashing like cymbals. Memories of all my botched job interviews and first dates rose up over my shoulders like ghosts from the Greek Underworld, threatening to drag me down into Hades and obscurity. Was my “Voice Behind the Voice” music podcast over before it had even begun? How could I have been so careless with my preparation? Would she walk away from the interview?
After all, I had only met Alma just two weeks prior, brazenly introducing myself after her sell out gig at the launch of the brilliant new St Kilda entertainment venue The Fyrefly. I apologised for my review of her performance at a February Amy Winehouse tribute concert. Being a dilettante and arriviste in the world of jazz, I failed to fully appreciate just how good her rendition of Back to Black really was and offered to make amends by writing this profile. I was only able to do so after we retreated from the café to the redoubt of her home and the tombic silence of one of its many recording studios. What I wanted was to know was how this extraordinary voice had come to be in one so young (she’s only 20!). Was it real? What was the personal story behind the voice? And what did she want to do with her gift?
I have never written a profile piece before and have found it uncomfortable to do so. It’s unnatural and even awkward to ask such intense and deeply personal questions of someone you’ve just met, and then pull together a piece in which you attempt to paint a portrait of words depicting who you think they are. She’s a happy young woman doing what she loves, and I’m not even a professional writer or someone who understands music. Because of this, I suggest that it’s more instructive to listen to the podcast and read the transcript, which allows Alma to speak for herself. I think the whole interview is a fascinating biographical snapshot in time which might be instructive to look back on one day. She’s a highly intelligent, articulate, thoughtful and empathic woman. I decided to publish this profile and the accompanying interview to let her tell her story, and to share her gift with as many people as possible.
My overarching impression of Alma is that she is complex but uncomplicated, like many of the words one could use to describe her. Nice, kind, calm, gentle, humble, and caring (she helped me through my caffeinated panic attack, after all). I think it’s this unassuming authenticity which strikes me most about her and her music. I cast a bemused glance at her as we sped away from the café when she said despondently “I really hope it works out for me in music, because I don’t really have anything else to fall back on”, or something to that effect. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because I was so certain that I was in the presence of someone who was on the brink of a very brilliant career as a singer in whichever genre she directed her voice and efforts towards, and that I – an upstart amateur writer – had managed to scoop her first interview.
Much of this lightness of being radiates through her performance. She isn’t weighed down by the heavy expectations that must go with being compared to Ella, Billie, or Amy. She’s just Alma, and both her voice and story are her own. It is extraordinary to listen to her sing and to hear how she’s developed and developing her own original articulation. It’s impossible to fully relate to the experience of her voice without seeing her live. It is a vintage sound from a different time, layered with the dusty textures of a vinyl record, but which is still accessible and contemporary in its delivery, energy and versatility. Listening to her is like stepping back into the Jazz Age in the 1920s and 30s, almost as if her voice is coming through the filter of a phonograph. Think Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, with discernible Jewish contours and feeling, and a little more raw power and youthful pizzazz which breathes life into the old jazz standards, and makes the music contemporary and relevant.
The swingy tracks with the Alma Zygier Quartet are punchy and fun, especially when combined with brassy, tootling horns and throbbing bass. It wouldn’t be out of place in one of Gatsby’s Prohibition Era garden parties, the opening credits of a James Bond film, or perhaps in Johnny Depp’s rendition of Django Reinhardt’s Minor Swing in Chocolat. This transportive quality is the special thing about her voice. It takes you out of yourself to different times, places and memories. It’s a big, liquid and velvety voice which soars and fills the room, and which sometimes evokes the timbre and smoky sultriness of Amy Winehouse. She has a great control over the weight and intensity of her voice. Sometimes it’s full and even; sometimes it’s thin and fluttery; sometimes it threatens to fray and break; and sometimes it’s gravelly, raw and powerful like Louis Armstrong. Whichever form it takes, her voice’s best quality is how well it understands and supports words and music across genres, extracting their essence for the audience’s pleasure.
It’s exciting to see how much she’s improved as a singer and performer since finishing high school in 2015, and how the standards of her performance are inevitably rising to meet the quality and experience of her supporting musicians. This came through at the Amy Winehouse tribute concert, where Jazz Party’s Darcy McNulty and co helped her to step into to the stabbing pain and anguish of Back to Black, but also into its unending strength and defiance. How is she able to so convincingly inhabit such an extraordinarily diverse range of emotions and genres – truly feeling the meaning of the lyrics and music – and then beam it out to the audience to experience for themselves?
In the interview I kept coming back to the fact that she’s done a lot of acting on stage, which had her routinely understanding and then stepping in to complex and emotionally deep roles like Ophelia in Hamlet, or Medea in Medea. This idea of authentically feeling the music is something Alma refers to a lot in our conversation. Much is made of an artist’s vocal stylings and stage presence, but the ability to empathically feel any song is something very rare indeed; it is certainly a valuable commodity at a time when people are looking for things which are real and unique and not confected or boilerplate. It's tantalising to think about how far her voice could go with continued coaching and experience, and how her voice could be utilised by various bands around Melbourne.
I think her most compelling performances are with her father Willy Zygier, one of Australia’s finest guitarists. There’s a familial closeness and synergy in their rendition of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” or “Body and Soul” that only a father and daughter – who have spent two decades living and breathing music together – could communicate. The timing and feeling is impeccable, and the twin instruments of Willy’s guitar and Alma’s voice gel together seamlessly.
This is another important insight which came through in the interview. Alma is very much a by-product of her creative and musical family. One of the best vignettes was how she first performed on stage with her pregnant mother - Deborah Conway, a respected Australian singer-songwriter and model - before she’d even been born. Her talent didn’t spring up overnight. It’s been fashioned and refined through the hinterland of her 20 years: through all the music she’s been exposed to, singing with her parents and sisters every night, and the nourishing and supportive creative familial environment she has flourished in. In many ways her entire life has been one big and ceaseless rehearsal for each performance she does. Music is in her DNA, and it’s not hard to see why it comes so naturally to her.
Towards the end of the interview, Alma mentioned that she has had a “blessed life with a beautiful loving family”, which is undoubtedly true. But I also believe that Alma’s voice is a blessing and a gift, and one which I hope many more come to experience and share over the course of her life. My writing is often effusive, but in this instance I think it’s entirely justified and not a stylistic fig leaf to cover up my inability to temper my expression or write critical and unkind reviews. People sometimes refrain from articulating emotional responses to beautiful things like art, music and everyday experiences. Not because we don’t feel what it’s like to be moved by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or to be reinvigorated by Spring’s first blush of colour and perfume, but because it is difficult to throw a language lasso around something as intangible and elusive as a voice or a feeling, wrestling it to the ground to fully interrogate and understand it.
Much of everyday life oscillates between boredom and stress. Deadlines, traffic jams, unkindness, and never-ending thickets of bureaucratic requests for information and money. So when we stumble upon one of those great oases of beauty – like Alma’s voice – it’s important to celebrate it and savour it. I hope you go and see her perform, and that you enjoy feeling for yourself the different times, places and memories her voice transports you to. It really is surreal and special; there are no other words for it. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know Alma and her voice through this profile and interview as much as I did. ♦
Listen to the podcast and read the transcript of our interview here
Follow Alma on Facebook here