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Interview: Sarah Gillespie

PUBLISHED: 16:58 06 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:39 29 October 2010

Rob Garratt

Norfolk-born Sarah Gillespie is acclaimed for breaking down the barriers between jazz and pop with a band fronted by be-bop professor Gilad Atzmon. ROB GARRATT talked snowstorms and cabbage picking.

Further listening: Sarah Gillespie

Norfolk-born Sarah Gillespie is acclaimed for breaking down the barriers between jazz and pop with a band fronted by bebop professor Gilad Atzmon. ROB GARRATT talked snowstorms and cabbage picking.

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For a jazz musician, you can't do much better than being dealt the surname Gillespie. While Norfolk-born songstress Sarah's bloodline may be a long way off the late, great Dizzy's, she is imbued with the same restless experimentation and desire to blend cultures and styles.

Making waves in both the jazz and pop worlds, she combines offbeat chatty lyrics delivered in a Lily Allen style London drawl with upbeat jazzy struts and lush middle-eastern landscapes, with a few smoky ballads thrown in for measures.

I spoke to Gillespie at the height of this week's snowstorms. Complaining about being stranded in her London home, I reminded her of the last time she was left trapped in a blizzard - “I was snowed in at this Bob Dylan concert in Wisconsin, so I skulked about near the backstage quite drunk and ran into members of the support band, and ran off to do a couple of dates with them.” Those gigs were the first of the 18-year-old's life, who had picked up a guitar for the first time just three years earlier.

She must have a habit of opportunistic meetings - bumping into Israeli jazz star Gilad Atzmon lead to her debut album becoming the unique melting pot it is, with Atzmon producing the work and lending it his trademark Arabic-infused flourishes.

“I was supporting the late Ian Dury's band the Blockheads and I bumped into Gilad Atzmon - bizarrely he's a bebop explosion and a block head - he's into philosophy and we struck up a conversation and became friends. He's a jazz musician and I'm singer-songwriter so I never imagined playing with him. But we started making a record and it really hit off. My music is lots of folk and blues, and he gives it jazz and sections of tango. And he plays a lot of ethnic music with his own band so there elements of that that comes in.”

Between those two strokes of good luck were years of hard work. Growing up with anglo-American parents, she spent her youth in Kings Lynn with sporadic visits to the US whetting her appetite for the music she ended up playing, and giving her the inspiration to start writing music on piano when she was nine.

“I grew up in Norfolk, I was born in London but my father was principle of the big college in Kings Lynn, so I stayed to do my A-levels there and the escaped. I used to work the land but I've just about managed to shed my Alan Partridge twang. I would go to Norwich for my adolescent outbursts. It's a beautiful place, I love the city.”

Her escape led her back to America, where she cut her meat as a performer after spontaneously getting the bug for busking.

“I lived in Key West in Florida and me and my friend were playing music one night and a neighbour got annoyed with the noise so we just went out and did it in the streets, and we ended up making so much money we travelled around America doing for a couple of years playing in restaurants, clubs and streets. It got to the stage where I wasn't making enough money so I came back to go to university in London.”

But throughout her four years of study, which culminated in a first class degree in film and literature and a Masters in politics and philosophy from Goldsmiths, she kept playing live.

And this week sees the biggest landmark of her career to date, with her debut Stalking Juliet launching at London's prestigious Pizza Express Jazz Club - the same place Norah Jones launched her debut. And just a day later, she'll be treating a city audience in the Arts Centre to the same set. As well as Atzmon, who will be dabbling with accordion as well as sax and clarinet, on stage with her will be jazz drummer Joshua Blackmore and double bassist Ben Bastin.

She added: “It's weird coming back to play in Norfolk when I used to grow up there picking cabbages I my summer holidays, and working in a pea factory. I played Norwich Arts Centre a year ago but I was opening for another band and it was great, it's nice to be coming back and headlining.”

t Sarah Gillespie plays Norwich Arts Centre on February 10.

Further listening: Sarah Gillespie

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