Celia Slattery

Shaun McNamara, Metronome Magazine — May 2009

Celia Slattery has had a storied career of mixing music and monologue into exuberantly theatrical form. She’s taken many creative avenues on more than one continent, and focused her musical prowess and ability to entertain into her latest CD – aptly named – Cast of Characters. From standards by Leonard Cohen and nuanced mixes including Burt Bacharach and the Beatles, to covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” and choice selections from David Rotheray’s Homespun band (Rotheray was also a member of the Beautiful South), Celia mixes similarly well lit originals and works with her long time collaborator, Mark Shilansky, to offer a production-rich delivery on her new CD. Together they define fresh Jazz elements with an old yet reemerging world view and tone.

Metronome: Your new album, Cast of Characters, seems to wrap Jazz around a Lounge aspect and incorporate pop elements that bring to mind some memorable TV show themes as well as stage productions. I’m also hearing a lot of influence from 60s and 70s folk icons like Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, and Rikki Lee Jones. Did you embrace that full spectrum intentionally or was it just an incorporation of all your loves and influences?

It was more of an incorporation because I grew up with the folk tradition, listening to Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention, which would be more folk rock, and Bob Dylan, and people like that. Then I started hanging out with a bunch of Jazz musicians, learning to sing standards and playing with them. So the music evolves from a cross pollination of those different influences.

Metronome: I loved how you threw in a nod to Burt Bacharach at the end of your original composition, “Sea Glass.”

Mark Shilansky, who’s been my accompanist, producer, and songwriting partner for over a decade, did all the arrangements for Cast of Characters, and he’s responsible for incorporating a lot of those special touches like the Hal David/Burt Bacharach song, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” as well as the Beatles “All You Need is Love.”

Metronome: Your voice transitioned so well from the original song, “Sea Glass,” into those songs and back again that it took me a second to ponder where I’d heard those lines before. Speaking of Mark, you do an awesome rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I was intrigued by your vocal range, and then mixing that together with Mark’s voice really captured my attention. You’re a mezzo-soprano, right?

I do tend to sing more in a Mezzo range, even though technically I’m a Soprano.

Metronome: He takes the high part in “Hallelujah,” though, which put an interesting twist on the song.

He can do a really cool Falsetto. The two of us have been studying a particular kind of vocal technique, which I also teach in my studio. It’s called Somatic Voicework. A woman from New York named Jeannie LoVetri created this technique. She works with a lot of people at Berklee and New England Conservatory. Mark and I have studied with her over the last several years, and it’s cool to hear the development of my own voice, and to see how Mark’s range has increased so much.

Metronome: In addition to “Hallelujah,” you have so many other great backing vocal elements throughout the album. Did you come with a set pan for incorporating the backing vocals or did they evolve?

Again, that’s Mark’s genius. He teaches Ear Training at Berklee, but he does a lot of vocal arrangements for Acapella and Jazz pieces too.

Metronome: I was psyched to see Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull) listed as playing drums and percussion on Cast of Characters. I just did an interview a few months ago with Karen Ristuben and he played drums on her album too. I guess Dave continues to be a hot commodity these days.

Mark had met Dave when they did some Jazz gigs together, or something similar to that, and Mark felt that he would be the right one to play the kind of music that’s on Cast of Characters. When I realized that Dave had played with Fairport Convention, which was one of my favorite bands growing up, we decided to put Fairport’s “Farewell, Farewell” on the album.

Metronome: That must have been a surreal experience, being so into Fairport Convention, and then not only meeting Dave and having him play on your album, but also doing a rendition of a Fairport Convention song?

I just felt so honored. He’s such an amazing drummer, and he brings such a commitment to everything he does. He doesn’t classify people based on how seemingly important they are. He puts 100% into all of his projects. I definitely felt that he brought that kind of commitment to Cast of Characters. What was really cool about his playing on the “Farewell, Farewell” track on my album was that he used the same drum from the original recording with Fairport Convention, when it appeared on their album, Liege and Lief, in 1969. It’s a snare drum made by Gretsch that’s called the Round Badge. That drum is one of only two drums he kept from that period.

Metronome: I’ve always thought of Dave as not only a great drummer, but an equally great percussionist. Did he play all the percussive elements I’m hearing on various songs, like “Distant Thunder” and “Bamboo Bar”? I’m thinking specifically of the outro on “Bamboo Bar” where the song seemingly stops, the shaker begins, and then it flows back into the song after you’ve done some great singing.

Thanks very much. Dave played on about half the album tracks and Bertram Lehman played everything on “Distant Thunder” and a few other tracks. He’s a great player as well, and especially good at the percussion stuff. Also, for “Bamboo Bar,” while Dave did play on that song, there are some samples that Mark produced. There’s a drum at the beginning that has such an Asian feel to it. Mark came up with that sample. It’s actually called Bamboo drum.

Metronome: Tell me about the story behind the “Bamboo Bar.” You actually went to Thailand and performed in a bar with that name, right?

I got a gig in 1991 to sing at the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental Hotel, which is often cited as the world’s #1 hotel. It’s a five star hotel and also the oldest Western hotel in Bangkok, over one hundred years old. Somerset Maugham stayed there, as well as Joseph Conrad. It’s very historic and first class all the way. So, it was a fabulous opportunity for me. It was a lot of fun and I got really pampered, and I had the opportunity to sing six nights a week for 3 or 4 sets, which gave me a lot of experience. I worked with a local Thai band, and they were great. It was a magical experience.

Metronome: You tell that story in a very real way through the song, where you’re talking about how the guitarist learned how to play during the Vietnam War.

I wanted to paint a vivid picture of the whole place. I played with a trio. The piano player’s name was Pat. Thai people often have these really long names, but they have these nicknames, sometimes just one syllable nicknames. So, Pat was middle-aged and he didn’t have any formal training, but learned to play in the clubs during the Vietnam War for the American GIs. Bangkok was a big place for GIs to go to when they were on R&R, so they had a lot of clubs that played American music and he just picked it up. He was great. I’ve played with a lot of musicians and he was really good. So, there was Pat, and then there was this young bass player who had a really bad attitude. There was also a 70-something sax and clarinet player who was just a real sweetheart, and was the best sax and clarinet player in Thailand, literally. He had actually taught the King to play, and members of the royal family would come into the hotel and he’d be whisked away to perform a private concert for them behind closed doors. But he used to fall asleep on the bandstand and just wake up for his solos. There were just so many stories that I could tell, but I just picked a little bit to give a flavor to the song.

Metronome: How did you get that gig?

I got it though an agent in Massachusetts.

Metronome: You’ve also done a theatre tour as well.

I’ve been kind of schizophrenic about my music career. I started out studying acting and theatre, and then I got into writing songs and performing on the Folk music circuit. Then I went back to school and continued studying music. That’s when I started getting the jazz gigs, Lounge, and other general business gigs. That’s what brought me to Bangkok. I had this desire to bring the elements of all this together – the theatre and the writing – so that’s when I did the one-woman show (theatre tour), and that’s also when Mark and I connected. He accompanied me as musical director during that tour. We performed that show around New England, in New York, and up in Montreal. It ran its course and I found that I really wanted to tell more of those stories through music, because I had been telling them through the monologues and the songs during the show. That led to the creation of this CD, Cast of Characters.

Metronome: You have a previous CD from 2001, Movin’ On, which I’m unfamiliar with. Could you tell me what the biggest difference is between that release and Cast of Characters?

That was my first CD and I think Mark, as a producer, and I had less experience. Also it came directly out of the one-woman show, so there was a theme that made sense if you had seen the show. If you hadn’t seen the show, I’m not sure how much sense it made. The show was primarily about the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, so there are songs by Cat Stevens, Jesse Colin Young, and Joni Mitchell. We followed that theme and then threw in some originals toward the end, and I had just started writing again. With Cast of Characters, I think it’s more original and the arrangements are better.

Metronome: What are your thoughts about the contrast between playing the 70s and 80s as opposed to the 1990s and up to now?

I started doing the Folk thing at the end of the 70s and into the 80s. I was just playing coffee houses where a really cool Folk thing was going on. It’s been resurrected since then, but there were less people doing it then, so it was less of a mass market. I loved that intimate connection with people. I got to the point, though, where I felt limited by my lack of instrumental skills and the simplicity of the music. I love the communication of Folk music, but that’s around the time I started moving more towards Jazz and then did the one-woman show, and then moved on to the development of this Cast of Characters album.

Metronome: Do you still incorporate elements of that one-woman show into your current live shows at all?

I don’t bring it out to the level of the one-woman show anymore, but what that experience did for me was to force me to get into the emotions of what I was singing and talking about. Now I do that much more easily in the delivery of the songs from Cast of Characters, and I think it provides a good setting for interacting with the audience, but in a much more casual way.

Celia offers a wealth of information and thought, not only on her CD, but in resplendent form throughout her web site, www.celiaslattery.com. From the ability to buy Cast of Characters to voice and performance studio information and onto further bio information and her concert programs, Celia brings her professional and personal life to you in fine form.