Ask A Sheroes Stan: Chris A. Cummings Finally Answers Super Important Nina Simone Q’s
Earlier this year, we were proud to launch our Sheroes Stan residency, a program that connects aca-fan knowledge and wisdom to the vastly growing motley crew of international and local artists that are regularly involved with Sheroes each month.
Related: [sheroes stan] Ask A Sheroes Stan: Jeanette Lynes Finally Answers Super Important Dusty Springfield Q’s
For Sheroes #12: Nina Simone, we were so glad to invite Toronto-based indie songwriter Chris A. Cummings (AKA Marker Starling, the artist formerly known as Mantler, who will also be headlining our arts & music festival Virtual Season.)
Originally a home-recording project, Marker Starling has become a regular presence on the local indie music scene for his indie-meets-R&B chunes.
He has released 4 albums: Doin’ It All (Le Systeme, 2000), Sadisfaction (Tomlab, 2002), Landau (Tomlab, 2004) and Monody (Tomlab/Tin Angel/Blocks Recording Club, 2010).
Click below for the full interview, in which Cummings illuminates on the unfairness of “Supper Club Songstress For The Elite”, Nina’s rep as a sublime interpreter, what freedom means, & more.
Georges Jacotey’s GIF for Sheroes #12.
What’s your favourite Nina song?
It’s hard to say, and I haven’t listened to absolutely everything she’s ever done, not by a long shot, but I think Four Women is the most affecting song of hers that I’ve heard. The melody is just so good, and the way her voice changes as she does the four different characters is spellbinding. Also, that’s where Peaches got her name from!
Nina first came to nat’l attention w/her 1959 hit “I Love You Porgy”. What are your thoughts on that era of her catalogue when she was a “Supper Club Songstress For The Elite”? (This was actually a criticism levelled at her pre-black activist-tinged work.)
Obviously, I think that’s an unfair criticism…her fifties stuff is just as radical as anything she did. As Robert Wyatt once said about Jimi Hendrix, some people are just political without having to make overtly political statements in their work, and just by watching some of these Youtube clips as I have over the past few days, you can see that she was injecting a note of anger and struggle into the performances - even what was perceived as supper club music - as were many other jazz musicians in the 1950s. The Miles Davis/Gil Evans 1958 Porgy and Bess album, for example, has a lot of anger in it, but it’s painted in Technicolor.
Jennifer Chan’s GIF for Sheroes #12.
You’re a dude that likes to tickle the piano keys. (In particular, a wurlitzer.) Can you provide to us non-pianists any insight into Nina’s playing style?
I guess the thing that most musicians want to transmit, even more than technical ability, is personal style, and I think a large part of it is trying to wring as much emotion as possible out of every note you play, to wring emotion almost unconsciously. And when you watch Nina Simone play, she’s obviously got the technical side down, and was an accomplished classical pianist before embarking on her career as a singer/player, but the emotional side, the “feel” of it, is what really puts her across.
Something we’re super excited about is your special “League of Legendary Ladies” tribute at Virtual Season on July 29. Nina, of course, is recognized as being a truly sublime interpreter. (That version of “Rich Girl” you posted in our Facebook group was amazing!) As a musician yourself, what intrigues you about her approach to covering songs?
It’s said that the best interpreters can take any song and make it their own, and this is particularly true of Nina Simone. Her voice and whole way of approaching a song are so distinctive and instantly recognizable. I like the fact that she would refuse to play a song if she wasn’t feeling like it at that exact moment (she famously broke off songs midway through - both in concert and in recording sessions - if she wasn’t feeling it 100%). So she must have been REALLY feeling that Hall & Oates song. Which, as odd a choice of song as that may have seemed in 1978, is very cool now. I also really think she kills it in her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Save Me” - I wish she had done a bit more stuff in that ultra-funky style.
Both you and Nina were trained in classical piano. How do you see that training — after all, her first inspiration was Bach — emerge in her own songwriting & arranging?
Apart from Nina Simone’s amazing ability to interject a seemingly off-the-cuff Bachian section in the middle of a song, I’m not sure that classical training does or doesn’t have any bearing on jazz playing. They are both so different - if you had learned to play classically, you would have to unlearn a lot of that in order to play jazz. But Nina Simone didn’t like to call herself a jazz artist, she preferred to call it folk. As an interesting side note, Herbie Hancock was also classically trained before he turned to jazz, and his style of playing is completely different from Nina Simone’s.
You’ve been called an “elder statesman of the Toronto music scene”, and have been frequently cited as an inspiration to younger performers like Diamond Rings and Owen Pallett. How would you describe your relationship to Toronto?
I grew up here, so I’m a Toronto boy, and it’s been nice to witness the maturation of the music scene here over the past decade or so. It’s gone from being a city with a serious inferiority complex to a city with confidence and pride in itself. And visibility internationally. During the 80s when I was growing up, it always felt like we were an afterthought. Yet here we were in this seemingly sprawling, huge city that was a bit isolated. Now we’re not. So, that’s been a nice thing.
Manuel Fernández’s GIF for Sheroes #12.
What are your thoughts on Nina’s later catalogue? I liked a lot of the cuts you posted, especially from the Fodder on My Wings album. Do you think that era of her output has been overlooked?
I haven’t heard a heck of a lot of it, and I want to thank my friend Ernest Agbuya for pointing me in that direction, but I do love exploring the later eras of many artists. Blossom Dearie being one example (and here I have to thank Thom Gill for exposing me to this stuff) - she completely changed her sound in the 70s and 80s, wrote really bizarre lyrics and ran her own record label. Also, Ella Fitzgerald’s funked-out late 60s covers of Sunshine of Your Love and Sunny - somehow her voice is just the perfect match for them, and she could sing completely “in the pocket” funk-wise (and here I have to thank Michael Thorner, who also knows way more about Nina Simone than I do). I like to hear what artists from the forties and fifties did with the music of the later eras. Sometimes they did their best stuff and no one noticed.
Nina defined freedom as “no fear”. What does freedom mean to you?
No fear would be a good definition of freedom, especially if you lived with bi-polar disorder as Nina Simone did all her life. I would agree with that definition 100%!
If I may, I’d like to end off with a quote from Nina herself, from a letter to one of her brothers:
“Did you know that the human voice is the only pure instrument? That it has notes no other instrument has? It’s like being between the keys of a piano. The notes are there, you can sing them, but they can’t be found on any instrument. That’s like me. I live in between this. I live in both worlds, the black and white world. I am Nina Simone, the star, and I am not here. I’m a woman. My secret self is between these worlds.”
Don’t forget! Sheroes #12: Nina Simone (our LAST. ONE. EVER!) is tonight at the Beaver (1192 Queen St. W.) featuring Tenderness, Bahia Watson & many more. Click here for more information.| tags: