With a background in musical theatre and circus and 20 years of music industry experience, Libby Hammer is one of Western Australia’s most popular and respected jazz entertainers. She has cultivated a silky-smooth croon that can turn raw as guts and her concerts range from cabaret and kid’s music to soul-drenched blues and virtuosic scatting. And don’t get her started on Burt Bacharach…
What music gets your heart racing?
Music that feels good and is fun! Music I dig will generally feature a wicked groove or a really driving ‘in the pocket’ swing beat. It could be Motown, Latin, or badass old jazz like Count Basie. This is the kind of music you crank up when you’ve got to clean the house.
What calms you down?
Pretty music with interesting chord progressions and poetic lyrics. I’m not much of a poet myself, so I’m always very impressed by lyrics that paint a vivid picture and take me to another place or time.
What do you sing along to?
I don’t sing along to music nearly as much as I did when I was younger. I use my voice so much now that I rest it whenever I get a chance. But occasionally I find myself wanting to bust out a tune or two and in that case, I can’t go past Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse. Or Norah Jones, if I’m feeling a bit more chilled out.
You have three vastly different shows coming up at Fringe World: Bringing Back Bacharach, Dirty Gents with the Anatomically Incorrect Gentlemen and Crazy Hat Day. How are you preparing for your gigs?
This is an easy Fringe season for me as I only have one new show – Dirty Gents with the Anatomically Incorrect Gentlemen (myself and Jessie Gordon). I have been working on Dirty Gents for several months, finding the repertoire, researching it, writing the charts and lyrics sheets, making sure I can play it on the ukulele or piano. Jessie (I mean, Charles Winston Spaffington, Esquire) has been away until recently, so the last thing for us to do is learn some vocal harmonies and buy new suits! Bringing Back Bacharach and Crazy Hat Day I have done before, so that’s a cinch. The band and I will have a quick run-through and voilà!
You have a soft spot for Burt Bacharach. Your first Bacharach show was with Ali Bodycoat and Tim Minchin in the mid nineties – you must have sung Do You Know the Way to San Jose so many times! Why is he your favourite composer?
When Burt Bacharach was enjoying something of a comeback in 1997 with his cameo in the Austin Powers movie, we put together a Burt Bacharach Tribute and performed it at the Greenwich Nightclub which used to be where Downstairs At The Maj is now. Yes, Tim Minchin was in the group! We were studying music together at the time. I even gave Tim some singing lessons but I’m pretty sure that I learned more from our lessons than he did.
Burt Bacharach is one of my favourite composers (and let’s not forget lyricist Hal David) because he writes complex music that doesn’t sound complex. I like the way his music drops a beat here or there if it’s not required. How Hal David wrote such great and natural-sounding lyrics to Burt’s compositions, I’ll never know. The chorus of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ is brilliant because it changes time signatures regularly but still bops along without the listener even realising. Mind you, it would probably be easier to sing if there were somewhere to breathe in the chorus*! (*shakes fist at Burt)
There is one thing in common in all your gigs whether with long-standing big band Hip Mo’ Toast or your kids concerts with the WA Symphony Orchestra: they are always full of fun. It’s a bit unique in the jazz world where musicians can be very serious about their art form. Why did you decide to go down the fun route?
This is a very sweet question, Rosalind, thank you. To be perfectly honest, I have loved the idea of ‘fun performance’ from the very beginning. My parents would take my sister and me to the theatre a lot when we were young and I always loved the performances that made me laugh the most. With regards to my own career path, it has only been in the past few years that I have started to feel ok with and embrace being an ‘entertainer’ as well as a singer. Early on in my career, I decided it would be hipper to be serious, hardcore and ‘purist’, but the longer I live, the more I am letting myself just be who I already was. I love corny music. I love novelty music. I love comedy music. I don’t know why, I just do. It helps that I now have amazing people around me who are also fun entertainers. Watching them all get on with their careers making audiences laugh, dance and have a wonderful time gives me confidence to pursue the genres and types of performing that I love too.
A lot of your work is with children – both teaching and performing. What is the appeal in making music with the next generation?
I tried for a long time to write music for adults. Serious, tricky, modern, deep jazz music. I haven’t loved much of what I’ve written for my ‘serious’ jazz groups. When our daughter was born, ten years ago, I started hearing what was out there for kids. Much of it is crap, but some of it is amazingly fantastic, and the good stuff inspired me to try to write songs for kids. Perhaps because I felt less pressure to make the music impressive to adults, I actually found it very easy to write songs for children. Simplicity was key, and the ideas were right there in front of me as a result of my own parenting experience. Having written so many songs for kids is now helping me to feel more confident about returning to some of my unfinished ‘grown-up’ songs. Stay tuned!
In terms of teaching music to youngsters, it is important to me to spread the message to kids that it is possible and achievable to be a musician or performer when they grow up, if that’s what they want. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about choosing the arts as a career.
What do you hope the kids and adults will experience at your Fringe gigs?
I hope that people will feel happiness. When I’m writing a show, I spend a lot of time quietly giggling to myself. I am absolutely blessed that I get to spend a large portion of my life chuckling to myself in this way. Rehearsals are always filled with laughter too. So I hope that my audiences can experience that too. As Tom Lehrer once said, “I’d like to take you now on wings of song, as it were, and try and help you forget perhaps for a while your drab, wretched lives.” See? Chuckles. I hope the adults will chuckle and I hope the kids will jump up and down and shout out answers to all my questions.
You started in circus and theatre work; what made you choose jazz in the end?
I always knew I wanted to perform. I didn’t even care which discipline. Singing and acting came pretty naturally, so I went with that at first. After high school I was presented with a circus opportunity due to my having gymnastics skills from childhood and though I worked in circus for a few years, I know deep down that I couldn’t hold a candle to my brilliant colleagues who were so much better at their craft than I could ever hope to be. I was having no luck getting into the Musical Theatre or Acting courses at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (I auditioned four times for each) so I started casting about for something else. I had recently discovered jazz music, so I thought I’d try for the Jazz Course at WAAPA. I was accepted right away and welcomed with open arms into the jazz scene. So I stayed!
Composer Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
I had to have a good long think about this question. It raised many more questions for me, such as, ‘Is it ok for music to be boring?’ ‘How do we judge whether music is good or bad?’ ‘Is it all just down to personal taste?’ Music can have so many varied, and valid, qualities. On one level, music doesn’t have to be anything. It’s an artform. But in the consumer world, what music ‘should be’ depends on what the music is for. And given the many roles that music plays in our lives, I think that ‘above all else’, music should express and evoke emotions.
Who listens to music because it’s interesting? Of course, I do find music interesting, particularly when I transcribe it or learn it. I’m interested in how the chord progression or the melody works, and how the rhythmic elements tie the song together. I’m interested in why a song is appealing or why it isn’t, but that’s not why I love music.
An important word for me when discussing music and performing is the word ‘joy’. There is joy in the feel of a great rhythm and there is joy in music that expresses unutterable heartache. In all the music I love, there is joy. Maybe the joy is in feeling all the emotions, whatever they may be.
You have multiple concerts coming up this summer including a Morrie’s gig in Margaret River on Jan 19th, a Sunset at Subi on the 21st, Bunbury Fringe with Ali Bodycoat on Feb 21. Where did you learn the skills to be such a versatile singer and band director?
For much of my career I felt like I was only ever barely hanging on my a thread to whatever ability I needed to complete the tasks with which I was presented. Firstly, in the early days I said yes to everything, even when it scared the daylights out of me. That’s a surefire way to learn quickly! I was less concerned about being perfect and more concerned with getting as much experience as possible. I said yes to teaching before I felt ready, yes to sitting in at Helen Matthews’ gigs although I was shaking like a leaf, yes to joining jazz committees and arts boards, yes to writing the musical arrangements and harmonies for tribute shows, yes to playing ukulele in a mermaid costume. A lot of it I didn’t feel ready for at the time, but saying yes back then is what has led me here, and is why I have those skills today. I just recently said yes to a gig accompanying myself on piano for the very first time. I didn’t feel ready. Guess what I’ll be good at in a few years’ time?
I remember swing dancing to your band at the Universal bar in the nineties when you were already well established as the songstress of Perth. How have you managed to sustain a hard-gigging career over decades? What is your strategy for protecting your voice?
I still struggle with vocal fatigue to this very day. My biggest defence against vocal problems is having spent many years learning to use my voice better. I’ve had classical lessons, speech therapy, I’ve even had surgery. I don’t have the most resilient voice in the world so I do have to be careful with it. I have to keep myself healthy, nourished, rested, hydrated and fit. I have to be diligent with warm ups, cool downs and sound checks. And if my voice happens to be a bit tired and I can’t hit the high notes, then it’s lucky that I’m an improvising jazz singer and can just change the melody to suit me on the day (shh, don’t tell anyone I said that!). And though having a slightly husky-sounding voice in the jazz field is acceptable, I personally wish my voice were fresh and clear all the time. But I have to live with the reality of it and just do the best I can with what I’ve got.
Singing is about story telling. What strategies do you use to take the audience on a journey?
When learning a song, I think very consciously and realistically about the lyrics. I relate them to a situation in my life, and sometimes I change that situation in my mind every time I sing the song. That way the song has fresh meaning every time I sing it. And I try to feel the joy in the song.
What’s the thing you love most about your work? The amazing outfits? The adrenalin? The teamwork? The groove? The craft of putting together a songlist? The accounting (ha ha!)?
I had rather hoped that accounting wouldn’t figure in the life of a jazz singer, but alas, it does. The thing I love most about my work is when the band and I are in the present moment and we get the audience in the moment with us and then everybody’s all there together. It’s the togetherness I like. And the authenticity of that moment. That’s why I love improvising. I try not to work too much out beforehand. I’ll write the set list. I might have an idea about a story that I might tell but I never prepare the actual words I am going to say because for magic to happen you have to go with the flow and be prepared to react to anything that happens in the moment. I also try to be really aware of my surroundings and the audience. You can often find in your immediate surroundings wonderful fodder for comedy to bring into the performance to make each performance unique. I do also love playing dress ups!
Libby Hammer Trio, Quartet and Quintet
How do you recharge after such an extroverted work day/night?
The most important recharge time for me is before a performance. The bigger or more important a performance, the more time I need beforehand. I don’t need much, but if I don’t take that time, I won’t be in the right head space on stage. I call it my ‘gathering in’, where prior to a performance, I need to be introverted for a while. I need to spend time gathering my energy and gathering my sense of self and identity so that when I get on the stage I am ready to give generously of myself and to be in the moment.
These days I have no problems winding down after a gig. Read into that what you will. After the show, I like to have a glass of wine and socialise. The routine of taking my makeup off, having a midnight snack and looking at tomorrow’s diary is generally all I need. If I am really wound up, I’ll do some Alexander Technique or read in bed.
What is your favourite place in Perth?
Apart from home, the Ellington Jazz Club takes my number one spot for favourite place in Perth. There’s the excitement of being there to perform or to watch my friends perform, contrasted with the comfort of my own lounge room, surrounded by friends – musicians, staff members and audience members alike. After the Ellington, I’d have to say Kings Park. Cottesloe Beach is pretty awesome too. And Fremantle. How many am I allowed to put on this list?
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I have a soft spot for the natural world. Mountains, clouds, trees, flowers, the stars, the universe, science. I also love sewing and photography.
A huge thank you to Libby Hammer for participating in Celebrity Soft Spot. For more info on Libby head to her gorgeous website http://www.libbyhammer.com/. Libby is performing in the Fringe Festival in the following shows:
Crazy Hat Day Feb 17, 18, 24, 25. Bringing Back Bacharach Feb 13-17 Anatomically Incorrect Gentlemen Dirty Gents Jan 30, 31, Feb 1-3. She also has gigs coming up at Morrie’s in Margaret River on Jan 19th, a Sunset at Subi on the 21st plus Bunbury Fringe with Ali Bodycoat on Feb 21.