Fiona Ross Interviews…Kim Cypher
Kim Cypher is one of the UK’s most exciting female saxophonists, vocalists and composers, having developed her own unique ‘funky’ style of saxophone playing, built upon influences by great players such as Gerald Albright, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Andy Sheppard, Dean Fraser, Courtney Pine and Grover Washington. Kim trained alongside American saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (saxophonist with James Brown and Van Morrison) and internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Kim’s vocal style has been influenced by the great Billie Holiday together with a wide range of vocalists including Imelda May, Caro Emerald and Liane Carroll.
FR: Can you talk us through your background and what brought you to the place you are at now?
KC: I was lucky enough to be brought up with music. My Dad in particular loved Big Band music. He had been a drummer in the Boys Brigade and he loved nothing more than having music playing as he tapped along to the beat and even conducted the band from his own living room! My sister and I were both encouraged and supported to learn musical instruments from recorder, piano, clarinet and ultimately developing a love for the saxophone. It is fair to say that the saxophone is a love and a passion for me. I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t play for a day or two! In my teenage years I joined the Gloucestershire Youth Jazz Orchestra which was where I met Mike (my husband and drummer). We both shared this passion for music and we ran our music alongside professional careers for many years (myself as Head of Music in a primary school and Mike as a Regional Bank Manager). However, this became increasingly difficult and frustrating as we wanted to take our music to the next level. So, one day we made a brave decision to give up our day jobs, our regular incomes and our stability and follow our musical dreams. It is a decision I will be forever grateful for. I think the main catalyst for me realizing the importance of following your dreams in life was losing my Mum to cancer at such a young age. It really made me live my life by fate, making decisions based on what is right for your happiness. Following our musical dreams was definitely the right decision for us. Many years later, we are working harder than ever but we are totally content and 100% committed to our music.
FR: You have some new music coming out soon – can you tell us about your project and what it means to you?
KC: So, releasing my debut album ‘Make Believe’ at the end of 2016 was a dream come true for me. It had been such a long time coming but the time was right. I am incredibly proud of that album, the incredible musicians I worked with and all the success it has achieved. I am also really enjoying my ‘Make Believe’ UK album tour that is running until the end of this year. I had absolutely no intention of working on a new music project so soon after my debut but, as I mentioned earlier, I live my life by fate. I believe everything happens for a reason and I make every decision based on what feels right at the time. So, development of my 2nd album this year came about when I met an incredibly inspiring lady called Karen at a gig recently. She really loved my music and we chatted for ages. It was as though I had known her for years. Right at the end of our conversation Karen told me she is battling cancer. It really shocked and moved me as I couldn’t believe that such an amazing lady, so full of life, could be so ill. I couldn’t get Karen out of my mind and I decided I wanted to record her favourite track for her. A few days later I found myself composing a song about her (all my original tracks are spontaneous like this). So, the decision was made. Album number 2 was on it’s way and the song I composed about Karen called ‘Maybe’ is due for release on 30th April, with The Jazz UK having exclusive first play. It has been recorded with phenomenal musicians David Newton on piano, Clive Morton on double bass and hubby Mike Cypher on drums. As well as this imminent single release, I will be recording the remaining tracks for my album with some other great musicians including New York guitarist B.D. Lenz plus my regular band personnel including Lee Jones (guitar), Chris Cobbson (guitar), Alex Steele (piano), Rory McInroy (piano) and Tom Clarke-Hill (double bass).
FR: A common preconception in the Jazz industry, is that most female performers are vocalists – as there are more ‘known’ female vocalists than instrumentalists, composers, producer etc. As a saxophonist, composer and a vocalist, what has your experience been?
KC: This is an interesting question. As I was originally solely a saxophonist, I suppose there could be no misconception. Having decided to branch out as a vocalist and composer alongside playing the sax, I would say that in the main I am still regarded as a saxophonist (which is how I want it to be) but the vocal aspect definitely gets equal attention. People will generally comment on a vocal track they have enjoyed rather than a sax solo but I mainly get requests for specific saxophone tunes. I guess as long as my performance is being enjoyed I don’t really mind if people want to focus more on the sax or the vocals. Personally though, I am definitely a saxophonist who sings. As for the composing side of things, I am still working on gaining recognition for this as it is relatively new for me compared to my saxophone playing and singing. However, I have received some great reviews for my original music and it has been widely commented upon in terms of how well my original tracks compliment the rest of my music. I am always very happy when people enjoy my original music. So, hopefully I can be regarded as a saxophonist, vocalist and composer.
FR: It is well known that the Jazz Industry is male dominated although things do seem to be changing. What has your experience been?
KC: I think, as a woman, there is definitely a degree of male domination, especially in proving your worth and credibility in the industry. Many times following a performance I have had male audience members coming up to me with the comment “so, you actually can play!” Well, yes of course I can play. Why would you even expect me not to be able to? Having said that, I work with many, many male musicians (my fabulous jazzy boys) and they treat me with the utmost respect. I couldn’t ask for a nicer group of people to work with. Like anything, I guess it depends on the individual.
FR: Can you tell us about your saxophone and your preferred equipment?
KC: My family of saxophones is forever growing! My husband has a bit of an obsession with them and so many of my saxes have been surprise gifts from Mike. I love a funky sound on my Alto saxes so I gig on my Selmer Super Action 80 saxes with a handmade Guardala ‘King’ mouthpiece. The mouthpiece changed my life! It took a long time and a lot of testing but I absolutely love the Guadala ‘King’ mouthpieces. I have a lovely old Selmer Mark 6 Alto too but don’t gig this. My Tenor sax is an Andy Sheppard Autograph Series (limited edition). I have the Monte Carlo sax. I cannot express how much I love this instrument. It is truly a phenomenal sax and just gets better and better with age. Again, I use a handmade Guardala ‘King’ mouthpiece on my Tenor. I also have a beautiful Selmer Mark 6 Tenor that was owned by one of my saxophone heroes Courtney Pine. It was bizarre that he just happened to pop into the shop when I was trying it out. How could I not buy it? It is a beautiful instrument. I play Yanagisawa sopranos and have literally just bought a stunning solid silver S9930. It was owned by saxophonist Tim Garland and it plays like a dream together with a Theo Wanne Durga 3 mouthpiece. For vocals I have just upgraded to a Neumann 105 microphone which is crystal clear and beautiful to sing with. It is so inspiring when you have such wonderful equipment to use. Sadly though, I will never be able to turn up to a gig with just one bag!
FR: What is your practice routine?
KC: My practice routine should be better if i’m honest. I most definitely have the drive to learn more and improve my playing, hence why I recently trained alongside American saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and internationally acclaimed Jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard. I learnt so much from them and will always be grateful for that opportunity. However, with gigging so much I find it hard to find the energy sometimes to do daily practice. I am forever singing and writing music ideas down but my saxes tend to come out for practice once or twice a week, during which time I do a mixture of technical exercises and playing for pleasure. I think so much gigging alongside amazing musicians over the past few years has really helped my progress and development of my style which I describe as ‘funky saxophonist meets 1940’s jazz singer’.
FR: Do you have any pre-gig rituals? Or any do’s and don’ts before performing?
KC: Not really. Every gig and venue is different so it all depends really on what facilities and how much time we have. Usually it is a mad rush to get set up, sound checked and gig ready with hair and makeup etc. So not usually much time for anything else. On the very rare occasion when I have the luxury of bringing along my stylist, it is lovely as it allows me time to relax before the performance as she styles my hair and sorts out my makeup. This is very rare though and usually it’s just me and my jazzy boys so i’m on my own getting myself gig ready.
FR: Who/what are your biggest inspirations and why?
KC: Musically my inspirations are fantastic sax players like Andy Sheppard, Pee Wee Ellis, Gerald Albright, Maceo Parker, Grover Washington, Dean Fraser and Courtney Pine to name just a few. I also love the great jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as well as incredible performers like Liane Carroll. Personally, my inspiration is always my Mum who would be so proud of me (as my gorgeous Dad is) as well as my wonderful husband and family. I am so incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so much love and support. I am truly blessed and forever grateful to be following and fulfilling my dreams. Life’s too short everyone. Strive for what makes you happiest in life! I also gain so much inspiration from my amazing followers and supporters. It means the absolute world to me when people enjoy my music and when people believe in me. There can be no greater inspiration than that.
FR: Most memorable gig?
KC: My most memorable gig is such a tricky question to answer. I cannot really narrow it down to one. But, if I had to, it would be performing in New York with my jazz quartet. It was a very proud moment for myself and my jazzy boys. The fact that one of my followers actually flew us to New York because they wanted my music at their event was truly overwhelming. Very special indeed. Beyond that, I have several gigs that have meant the absolute world to me because people have really shown belief in me and my music. That is so important to me. So, for that reason I have to include my first performance at Baker Street in Swindon. This was a venue I worked really hard to get a gig at because the music there was run by the lovely late David Knight. He was so well respected and highly regarded in the Jazz world and he only ever gave gigs to the VERY best musicians. He made me work really hard to get that gig (bless him) but, when he finally invited me along to Baker Street and really enjoyed my performance, it was the most incredible, proud moment for me. I will never forget David Knight for that reason. He truly believed in me. Thankfully, his amazing work is now in the very capable hands of Evie Em-Jay who does an incredible job. As well as those two very memorable gigs, I’d also have to include my London debut at The Pheasantry Chelsea because that was massive for me and once again really showed belief in my music by Richard Douglas Productions. Performing a private event for the Prime Minister Theresa May because I was honoured to have that trust and responsibility given to me. That was quite a memorable night! I could go on and on…Pershore Jazz Club for the incredibly warm welcome and the special sparkly backdrop they hung in my honour! All my gigs really because of the wonderful people I meet. However, maybe my most memorable gigs are yet to come as I am thrilled to have a date booked at the highly prestigious Pizza Express Dean Street (Soho venue) in London. I have been striving for this gig for many years. I still can’t quite believe that I will be performing there, following in such incredible footsteps. Wednesday 1st August folks….i’d love to see you all there! Plus, I am so excited to be performing on the same festival bill as one of my jazz inspirations, the amazing Liane Carroll. I love Liane’s music and performance style. When I was offered the gig I couldn’t get it secured quick enough. Now i’m just counting down the days until Guiting Music Festival on Sunday 22nd July. It will be awesome so don’t miss it everyone!
FR: Living and working as a musician, can be hard. What drives you to do what you do?
KC: Quite simply, Mike and I have music in our souls. We live and breathe it. The first thing I do when I wake up is sing. I need to have this creative, musical output to be happy in life. It is an honour to share music with others as it allows such a strong connection with people. I love meeting my audiences and I truly value their support. I feel a responsibility to these people who enjoy my music, to share special moments together, to evoke all kinds of emotions, to connect in a way that only music allows and ultimately have a positive effect on people’s lives. That is so special. So, despite the hard work, late nights, travelling, quirky life etc we absolutely LOVE it. We could never imagine doing anything else. Thank goodness I found my soul mate in life who supports me in following my musical dreams. We are on this amazing musical journey together.