Nicole Henry

It should have been such a simple task. Her people had spoken to my people… OK, I don’t actually have people, but you get the idea.  All I had to do was phone New York and talk to Nicole Henry.

The number you have dialled is not recognised’ – I looked, it seemed short. Better talk to their people. There then followed an out of hours comedy – I hate being late for anything let alone an international artist gracious enough to give me some of her time.

By the time I got through it was late, she had another appointment and we had to reschedule.

And when we did it was a case of “Hi Tony, how ya doin’?” as if we were old friends, we joked about how long it had been since I last called.

International jazz singer Nicole Henry is on a short trip to the UK having last been here in 2017. She plays not one but two gigs in our region starting at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds this coming Wednesday 9th October and at The Memorial Hall in Dereham on Friday 11th October.

You did not start out as a Jazz singer, did you?

No, initially I started by singing dance music because I worked in a night club on South Beach and knew some of the DJs.  Friends of friends were looking for a vocalist, they knew I could sing. I sang in choirs but then I got this opportunity to perform four songs at a rave… I can still remember the night, I remember how it felt. It was so intriguing… so life changing. I knew something was going on, I wanted to master this, to get better at it.  Then I just needed to work out how to make a living at this… being an entertainer I guess.

And the music industry is cruel isn’t it? Making a living isn’t always possible is it?

Well, I don’t know if I’s say cruel but it definitely keeps some jokes up its sleeve!  You have to recognise that… and I forget which book I read this in, but when an opportunity doesn’t work out its just a ‘no’ for now.  You have to believe that something will eventually happen.  It’s just life, if you really go for the things you want you have to work hard.

As an entertainer or an actor or a painter – you run your own business. Unless you have the comfort of having a huge team around you.  Even so, you are running the business.

You have a degree in advertising and theatre – have those skills been useful to you in your career?

Its hard to say, its like saying: these are your parents, did they do a good job?  You never know because you never have another set of parents!  Yes, to a degree advertising has helped, as has theatre.  Back in the early 2000’s when I started singing I was the one creating my flyers, sending out mailshots, managing my calendar – that idea of ‘you gotta market yourself’ you gotta let people know who, what, where, when and why – the five Ws.  Not everyone, I think, gets that.  Somethims the most difficult thing is to market yourself; it can be really challenging.

You strike me as someone who simply loves to perform.

I really do.  I love that feeling and I love the lyrics – they can bring about actions in your body.

You’ve not been back in England since you opened the 2017 London Jazz Festival. What has taken you so long?

I think its because time speeds up, the older you get!  Its not my fault, trust me.  It feels like I was there only last year.  But I must thank everyone involved for making this happen, especially John at JBGB Events – it’s not often that you get a promoter willing to bring you over for not one show but for four shows with a sort of ‘nobody knows you but I am going to make them know you’ attitude. I am so grateful for that.

We are really blessed that of the four shows you play, two are in our region with the opening show at The Apex on Wednesday 9th and then at Dereham Memorial Hall in Norfolk on Friday 11th. You sing a lot of other people’s songs. Do you write yourself?

I have written a few songs. I think only about three have I ever recorded.  I am not one of those people who wake up and say ‘oh I have this idea I want to share with the world’ – I wouldn’t call myself a singer songwriter but I have written.

On tour you have Nick Fitch as musical director but you are essentially coming over and playing with a session band.  How does that work, will you get time to rehearse?

Yes, we will get together and rehearse for a few days but of course, having selected the music we have been communicating over the phone but really the ball is in Nick’s court as far as arrangements.  I’m putting a lot of faith in him, but I know he will deliver.

Without naming names, have you ever turned up to do a tour when you and the session musicians haven’t gelled?

Oh yes…. It does happen!  Prior to the invention of MP3s and the ability to exchange stuff on the internet I would just travel, turn up and you don’t know who you are playing with.  Before YouTube you couldn’t tell the skill of guitarist or the sound of the pianist or even the suitability of the drummer.  They might be great, but they might not be the one you’d choose.  When you mesh at least three people together with the vocals you just never know what you are going to get.

I’ve had promoters think they know what sort of band I can work with and they have booked the band and it has been… challenging!  But those days are pretty much over thankfully.

Jazz is a fairly universal style; do you find there are differences in audiences across the world?

Oh definitely. My style of jazz is not as standard as other styles, I definitely infuse elements of pop and soul.  Jazz purists might not necessarily be my audience.  Different rooms in different venues can produce different responses – there can be different types of listening practice that  a venue may promote or encourage.  Not everyone understands the listening culture when thy buy tickets.

We have not yet spoken about the show itself – The Music of Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul – sadly we lost Aretha last year, did you ever get to hear her sing?

No, never live.  But I grew up listening to a handful of female vocalists and Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album is one of the few I can remember singing along to and knowing all the lyrics to.  That album taught me how to feel, how to sing, how to emote.  I feel I am more familiar with Aretha Franklin’s voice than any other voice.

How do you go about choosing what to sing?

Well, obviously there are the most popular songs – you include the big hits. And of course, her style changed from the sixties to the eighties and we try and cover all the decades. And yes, we had to leave somethings out – otherwise it could be a four hour show!

Thank you Nicole for taking the time to talk to GrapevineLIVE

Nicole will tour with Nick Fitch, acclaimed 23 year-old guitarist, musical director & arranger, Nick Fitch, leads his 6-piece band of some of the UK’s best Soul, R&B & Jazz musicians:

  • Michael Underwood – Saxophones
  • Freddie Gavita- Trumpet
  • Joe Hill – Organ/Piano  
  • Jack Tustin – Bass
  • Luke Tomlinson – Drums

You can catch Nicole playing live in the UK at the following venues: