“I am hugely inconsistent, in a lot of ways. Everything is a mad melting pot with me, because I do lots of different things.”Claire Victoria Roberts
Claire Victoria Roberts is a Welsh composer, violinist, and jazz vocalist. Claire’s multi-dimensional musical practice blurs the boundaries of jazz, contemporary classical, and singer-songwriter genres, drawing upon her diverse influences from folk, chanson, and classical musics in her compositions. Claire was a recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composers’ Prize 2019-20, the PRS Foundation Composer Award in 2021, and the Welsh Music Guild’s Young Composer Award in 2022, and she has received commissions from Cheltenham Music Festival, Presteigne Festival, and Wigmore Hall, among others. Following her recent relocation to Barcelona, Claire is releasing her debut album – the orchestrally-tinged Inconsistent – on the 2nd June, produced by David Coyle and featuring a mixture of jazz songs and instrumental interludes.
Ahead of the release of Inconsistent, we caught up with Claire over Zoom, talking about moving to Barcelona, channeling musical inconsistency, schmaltzy sound worlds, writing “cheesy” music, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Claire! Hope you’ve been keeping well. I’ve seen that you’ve moved to Barcelona recently — was there any decision that spurred the move?
Claire Victoria Roberts: It was all a bit strange! Last year, I came [to Barcelona] for three months, from February to May. It was a bit of a mixture of reasons. It was the sort of “real end” of lockdown; I went to Barcelona, got a bit of sun… [I] was out of the UK for the first time in a while. I’d been practicing quite a lot of jazz in lockdown — doing transcriptions and stuff — but hadn’t been playing with other people. So I came here, was going to loads of jam nights, I was going to some lessons at the Conservatori Liceu — it was such an adventure, and I absolutely loved it! I came home in May, and was like “I’m gonna come back, I’m gonna live there” — and I’ve been trying to live here ever since.
Since January , I’ve been back more properly. I’ve been singing with a choir here — the Cor de Cambra del Palau — which is a nice job to have. There’s times where I’ve been like “oh, god… the dream versus reality has not quite worked out.” -laughs- There’s times when I’ve been really poor, or when I’ve had language barriers, huge amounts of paperwork with the Brexit stuff — [it’s] been mind-numbing. But now, I’m getting into the swing of it. I’m singing with [the] choir, teaching a little bit — I teach some adults singing, and some little kiddies the violin — and I’m working on commissions, which are mostly from the UK, but in the sunshine!
That sounds dreamy — it really sounds like you’re starting to settle in. What are the commissions you’ve been working on?
At the moment, I’m working on a project which is celebrating 150 years of Aberystwyth University. The director Marc Rees was like “I don’t want this to be a concert” — so we’re making an experience, for the audience to follow around the university. It’s based on melodies from Aberystwyth, and associated with the history of the town; so lots of Welsh folk melodies. The audience are being led through various ensembles. There’s some folk singers, there’s an orchestra, a choir, a childrens’ choir, a brass ensemble, [and] the audience themselves are singing and making different noises! It’s an experience.
I’m also writing for Presteigne Festival. I kept seeing people working on commissions for Presteigne, and they were my age, doing the same kind of things as me. So I was like “how can I do this? I’m Welsh, I’d like to get involved with the festival…” — and then somebody actually recommended me from the Cheltenham thing that we did! I’m writing a flute, clarinet, and harp trio for that. I [also] finished the two commissions for National Youth Choir last year, as well, which was lovely. I’ll [then] be back in July and August, because it’s too hot here. -laughs-
Let’s talk about your upcoming album release, ‘Inconsistent’. When and how did the concept for this record and its tracks come together?
I guess in the lockdown. I was practicing so much jazz, and also writing commissions that were contemporary classical. It felt really separate, and always has — [so] I was like “right, now’s the time I need to bring these things together.” I started off by doing a lot of listening to orchestral albums that have got amazing orchestrations, but feature a singer-songwriter or a jazz musician. There’s some really great albums that Gwilym Simcock has done with orchestra, there’s the amazing Laura Mvula album with the Metropole Orkest, there’s a really nice Joni Mitchell album with orchestra, [and] also lots of Melody Gardot — who has these beautiful Vince Mendoza arrangements. I started listening to these things, and then I started listening to jazz musicians who stretch the genre into singer-songwriter or classical territory… people like Esperanza Spalding.
I got these different sound worlds in my head, and then thought I wanted to take this one step further again, in terms of textures and timbres — because that’s what I like to work with as a composer. So having a bowed cymbal, or vocal effects, or a mini-choir, or whatever it was that was changing the textures and timbres to be a bit more contemporary classical, within the context of this type of music I was listening to. Thinking about how I can combine these rich, orchestrated tracks that feature singer-songwriters, improvisers, [or] jazz musicians, with a slightly more contemporary classical edge. And then I started thinking about how I could record it on this very small budget I had! -laughs-
How did you then go about putting the album together?
An amazing engineer — David Coyle — mixed it, and produced it, and basically made it sound like everyone was in the room at the same time. Like it would be at Abbey Road, or whatever. There’s some orchestral tracks which sound like there’s a full orchestra in the room. But they 100% weren’t — my goodness…! We had a strings day, a wind day, a brass day… The bass trombone was recorded in a tiny vocal booth in a friend’s studio, and that was slotted in. I was really, really lucky to have David record and produce.
Thematically, where did you start with this album? What were you trying to convey within the tracks?
I started off with this idea of the inconsistency within my output as a composer. I was thinking purely musically; I was making playlists, and listening to different things, and [I realised] the stuff I make, the music I make, is inconsistent. If somebody approached me and said “could you write a piece for this festival”, you don’t know what you’re gonna get with me — it could end up being some kind of classical, contemporary thing, it could be more jazzy, it could be folky. I am hugely inconsistent, in a lot of ways. That’s not good for things like branding, labels, business, selling yourself; all these things, what they need is a consistent voice. But it’s just not me. Even with my imagery — trying to market things, having an image on your website — everything is a mad melting pot with me, because I do lots of different things. So I was thinking about that, and I was thinking: well, being inconsistent could be my thing.
Outside of your compositional aesthetic, were there other ways you conveyed inconsistency within the tracks?
I started to think about other things we can’t really help, and have to pretend that we don’t do in life when we’re trying to be adults. One of the tracks is [called] ‘Jealousy’ — obviously it’s about jealousy, something that I’m sure all of us have streaks of now and again. There is a bonus track, which is kind of a bit silly, and it’s called ‘Bad Decisions’… And then the single, ‘Swooping of Swallows’. It’s about how people are lonely, and busy — nobody ever has the time to do things, when actually, every night you could go stargazing and it would be amazing. Just not realising that. Myself, last night, I was on my laptop trying to finish a deadline — the night before this song comes out1, which is about how we should live in the moment. -laughs- So that was [what] I was thinking about — not only combining the inconsistency in the musical output, but also more human failings.
On the album, the more traditional “songs” are broken up by instrumental interludes — what was their function within the record?
I almost wanted the interludes to “introduce” the sound world that was gonna be in the next song. ‘Inconsistent’ is the first “track”, and it’s quite groovy, but there’s these dark layers of strings. The layers are quite cinematic. So I was like, I’m gonna create this cinematic intro to welcome you into the sound world before I introduce the song. ‘Swooping of Swallows’ has this birdsong fluttering section in the middle — so there’s a fluttering second interlude. I’ve got these fluttering trills, and strings that are doing tremolos and such. And the third interlude is a vocal harmony piece, which I actually wrote at Cheltenham…
Of course — I knew I recognised that piece from somewhere! -laughs-
That [introduced] the ‘Jealousy’ song, which has got layers upon layers of my vocals. ‘Jealousy’ ends with an almost Renaissance-style vocal harmony. It was so funny recording that, because I was like -Claire puts on a really gruff, low voice- jealousyyyyy, for the bottom parts… -laughs- Ed Phillips, this amazing bass, [also] came to sing some low notes. There’s one soprano who came to help out. I wanted a really pure top note at one part, so she came and sung a note for me and that was that.
So each interlude is introducing the sound world of the track in some way — or the more unusual elements of it.
Let’s talk about your practice as a vocalist. What kinds of genres were you listening to when you were growing up, and how did those impact your practice?
When I was really little, I wanted to be in a band so bad, I wanted to be a singer so bad. I would sing songs to my grandma. I wrote these pop songs. I made my friends be in a band with me in primary school, and wrote a song called ‘Sweet Sensation’. My dad is a gypsy jazz violinist, and my mum was a classical singer — so there was always music in the house. I would always be helping at school concerts, and generally being annoyed at having to do it!
I got a feel for all the different music that was happening in the house. I also used to compete in Eisteddfod2 stages singing Welsh folk song, and would have singing lessons for that; and trained my voice classically as I got older. I went to do a choral scholarship at uni, but actually didn’t like it at first; I was like “oh, there’s too many rehearsals, it’s boring”, I wasn’t into it.
The main thing that changed my track towards jazz was [that] I started touring with a swing band, and really enjoyed the style. Ever since then, I’ve been delving a bit deeper into the genre than the tunes that we did with the swing band; finding vocalists that I really love now, and learning all their solos. For example, Veronica Swift, Jazzmeia Horn, Samara Joy, Cyrille Aimée, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan… vocalists that I love and copying all the things that they do [that] influenced me.
It’s more than just copying, right? The fact that you have so many influences means you’ll naturally have your own spin on their styles.
Yeah. It’s a huge part of the tradition, to transcribe and learn peoples’ solos. That’s a big practice of jazz — moreso than getting a book of sheet music and learning a symphony would be on a classical instrument.
‘Inconsistent’ isn’t the first record you’ve explored your jazz vocal practice on — you’ve explored similar themes on your debut EP ‘NOIR’…
Yeah! It was the first time I’d written my own songs for a release, and performed them. [But] logistically, I’ve been planning this album for years and years, and had done three rounds of funding applications, until I finally had some joy with PRS Foundation and Help Musicians UK. That is quite important to highlight — I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their funding — but it was the third round of applying. It had been years upon years.
Production-wise, what’s made this album different from what you were exploring on that first EP?
David, the engineer and producer, was obsessed with this engineer called Al Schmitt, who engineered loads of big jazz tracks, and lots of Melody Gardot albums. [David’s] recorded classical stuff [as well], like Classic FM, and he’s recorded lots of orchestral things; he loves this big, schmaltzy Hollywood string sound that Al Schmitt does. And [he] kind of got me onto it, too. I kept listening to Melody Gardot, and being like “yeah, I could totally imagine singing over loads of schmaltzy strings…” — but it would be so cheesy! I would either need it to be released as a big commercial record, and have a huge record deal, and make millions selling it [as] a Christmas CD or something… Whereas what I wanna do is write contemporary music. So I was thinking more and more: but I like cheesy music! Why should it be cheesy? I can infuse it with other music that I listen to… -laughs- The kind of things I was listening to like Nico Muhly, Edmund Finnis, they have loads of elements of these lush sound worlds; lots of different divisi strings, bowed crotales and cymbals, fairytale touches. I could totally imagine these sound worlds coming together, and make it my own.
Compositionally, how did you find the process of writing for jazz musicians?
I definitely had lots of help. The guitarist and the pianist on the album [are] jazz players, they’re improvisers, and they work with lead sheets all the time, and I write with notation. I was quite new to [it]. I would write my songs, and then show the block chords; or sometimes, I’d have a really unusual chord I wanted and I was like “I don’t know the name of this chord.” I did have lots of help from them on those things. Whereas the ‘NOIR’ EP [was different]; I’d written string quartet arrangements for classical players, I wrote a classical piano part, I’d written much more with a classical head on. While for [these] songs, I was writing out lead sheets for jazz musicians who were gonna be patient with me. -laughs-
That’s always wonderful — being able to work with players who can be fluid in their approach, as well.
Yeah — even for the classical players. On ‘Swooping of Swallows’, I notated a semi-improvised birdsong section by giving them little boxes of different riffs that they could choose to play. Getting people to start and stop playing when they felt, listening as a group. Doing improvisation, but totally within their comfort zone. I wasn’t gonna push classical players to improvise over a lead sheet — that’s a totally different tradition. And then doing the opposite with the jazz musicians; notating more passages than they would normally have.
Like you’re meeting everyone in the middle!
Exactly. The piano player — Tom Harries — was saying “how precise do you want this section where you’ve fully notated [it]?” and I was like “I want you to play exactly what I’ve written down.” And then eight bars later, do a solo, or do whatever you want. But some parts were fully notated.
Tell me about your composition process; how do you first start approaching your work, and does it vary depending on your style of instrumentation?
Even when I compose classically, I work a lot at the piano, or at my violin, or with my voice — making voice notes and things. So in some ways, it was an extension of that. With the vocal interlude, for example; I wrote that as a classical piece, but I was improvising different sounds, and different riffs. I started coming up with this scatty thing — and that will have come from transcribing scat solos. I’m just using those same sounds, but I was thinking along the lines of different vocal layers, and then I wrote it out into a classical, eight-part choir piece. In some ways, I’ve always been doing that.
When I write a melody — even if it’s for an orchestra — I will quite often write on my violin, come up with ideas, record a few things on my phone, be like “no, don’t like that”… change it, input it into the computer and then change it again. I was carrying on with what was my practice, anyway, but being a bit more brave about not caring if things are: a) inconsistent — because it’s the name of the album; and b) cheesy. Normally, I’ll have a bit of fear if I’m writing something for a contemporary music ensemble — I’ve worked with some lovely ensembles like Psappha, and UPROAR in Wales — they program really contemporary things. So I guess I was a bit more brave about incorporating other things than I am normally, because it was only for me. The ensemble performing it were me and my friends.
Have there been any moments compositionally where you’ve felt completely able to lean into your influences?
This was the first time, really, with the album, where I felt like I fully did that. There have been times where I’ve been able to explore more jazz or more folk styles, writing for specific ensembles. I wrote with members of the National Youth Folk Ensemble, and was writing folk music for them — music that was influenced by some traditional melodies, and also incorporated chances for them to improvise in a way they normally would with an AABB melody. There were also the confines, there, of the opposite side of things; [I] didn’t want to push it too far on the contemporary side. This [album] was the first time I really felt there were no limits.
How do you see your compositional and performative practices developing, following this album?
What I’d really like to do is collaborate with other ensembles, as a performer and [as] a composer. Going on from the album, I’d really love it if I could write similarly for a contemporary ensemble, but for me to be able to include my practice as a vocalist and an improviser alongside them. Be more of an artist who does both things. That’s what I’d love to do, I guess.
Have you done much of that kind of performance with ensembles before?
I sang with the Camden Symphony Orchestra, through a project that was through Sound and Music. I was really excited; I wrote an orchestral piece with some improvised vocals that I did myself. It was really, really fun, and I really liked it — it would be nice to give that piece another outing sometime. That was for the Adopt a Composer scheme, actually; they’re a leisure-time orchestra. It was the first time I’d performed with an ensemble.
It all started because I asked the orchestra if anybody had some kind of interesting hobby: “I’d love the music to be inspired by something within the orchestra, are any of you photographers, are any of you poets, painters?” A lady in second violins said “oh, I run a creative writing group for victims of torture called Write for Life.” So I used some poetry that had been written in this creative writing group on the theme of celebration, because it was an anniversary celebration for the orchestra. There were all these really cool poems about celebrating. I was setting the text of these poems, and I decided I’d set it for myself to sing; and then I decided if I’m gonna sing, I may as well scat a bit as well, because that’s how I sing.
Are you planning on touring ‘Inconsistent’ following the record’s release — and do you have any performances in the books at the moment?
I’m gonna be performing in Wales in June, for Carmarthen Arts and Llantilio Festival, in Tŷ Pawb in Wrexham, and in Fishguard, as well. So I’m doing a little Wales tour that will hopefully feature some of the tracks. But also, I’ve had some funding to develop my practice, [and] I’m gonna use that funding to put in the time towards writing a small-scale version of it. I’d really like to write a version for a little harp, another string player, guitar, bass, percussion, and everybody chipping in on some vocals, and to tour that. But I guess that’s much further down the line. I wrote the stuff in lockdown, and wasn’t even thinking about performing because it was so deep in… -laughs- It’s almost like doing [it] the reverse way round.
Are you planning on touring these pieces in Barcelona, as well — do you have a band that’s being formed out there?
I don’t speak any Catalan yet, I need to learn — so it’s difficult to make connections in a new place. I’ve sung a bit with a really nice guitarist. I guess I’ll have to wait and see! So many in the Barcelona scene influenced the music that I was listening to before I even went out there. I’m a really big fan of Rita Payés and Sílvia Pérez Cruz; I’m constantly robbing their ideas, and material, and their whole vibe. I just love it. And I hadn’t even seen them live until I came out here! So I do feel really inspired by the scene; at the moment, I feel so new here, and so much of a language barrier sometimes.
Finally: tell me about a project you’ve done recently that you’ve had a swell time with…
Singing with this choir in Barcelona is kind of mad. It’s a classical choir. We did a ‘Messiah’ in December, which we performed in France and in Barcelona, and then last month we did Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ in two different places in Tenerife. I just auditioned for this choir, and they actually [had] some work available for altos! The rehearsals are in Catalan, so I can just about understand what’s being said. I can’t imagine having that kind of work in the UK.
I feel like with choral music in the UK, it did feel like there were tons of amateur choirs, [and] some real top-level choirs that perform really good contemporary or early music. I used to sing mass with an oratory, but it was not really a salary that you could live off. Whereas here, it’s almost like there’s more of an appreciation for the middle ground. Just performing a Messiah in a big concert hall, and getting a standing ovation, is so cool. It’s not unusual [for] a small town to have an annual festival, or a Saints’ festival, and because of the weather, people can sit outside [and] look from their balconies. A small plaça might just have a jazz band playing, and people who haven’t gone to see jazz — who aren’t jazz fans — [still] have an appreciation for live music. It doesn’t have to be the new, most cutting-edge choral performance, and it doesn’t have to be the coolest-ever hip jazz band. Any kind of live music has an audience here, and an appreciation for it.
Claire Victoria Roberts’ album Inconsistent releases on the 2nd June – learn more about Claire at the links below:
- Gwilym Simcock – Instrumation (2014)
- Laura Mvula – Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest (2014)
- Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now’ (2000)
- Melody Gardot – ‘My One and Only Thrill’ (2009)
- Betty Carter – ‘Once Upon a Summertime’, live in Cannes, 1968
- Sarah Vaughan – ‘Misty’, live in Sweden, 1964
- This interview was conducted on the day Claire’s single ‘Swooping of Swallows’ was released.
- Eisteddfod: a Welsh institution and competition for poetry and music.