wed 17/07/2024

'The Pain Swallowed Her Up' – Rebecca Ferguson Sings Billie Holiday | reviews, news & interviews

'The Pain Swallowed Her Up' – Rebecca Ferguson Sings Billie Holiday

'The Pain Swallowed Her Up' – Rebecca Ferguson Sings Billie Holiday

X Factor soul-pop star on her new album to celebrate the jazz singer's centenary

Rebecca Ferguson: "I relate to her just getting on with it"

Platinum-selling singer Rebecca Ferguson has released two acclaimed albums, Heaven (2011) and Freedom (2013), though she broke through (in?) to the heart of the music-listening public on The X Factor (2010), when she came in runner-up behind Matt Cardle. Her voice oozes warmth and sincerity, and in only a few years she has acquired a passionate following. She’s also known for a troubled private life, which has become increasingly public.

Last year she collapsed during a live episode of Loose Women; soon after she discovered she was pregnant; not long after that the baby’s father left her.  

Ferguson spoke to theartsdesk about her new album of Billie Holiday songs, Lady Sings the Blues, which is released this week to celebrate the centenary of Holiday’s birth. Holiday’s life, on paper a desperate concatenation of abuse and addiction, also produced sublime vocal musicianship, and Holiday is still, in most estimations, the best jazz singer ever, her ability, despite no formal training, to improvise and harmonise like an instrumental player still unparalleled.

Matthew Wright: Why Billie Holiday? Where did the idea for this album come from?

Rebecca Ferguson: I was approached, which was brilliant. I’m very interested in Billie’s life story, it’s really troubling. I’m fascinated by hard lives. I love that she achieved so much, despite a terrible start.

Listening to Freedom, it strikes me you have a similar voice to Billie’s. Did you listen to her own performances in preparation?

I only listened twice – once through, then in sections, that’s all. I don’t like imitating other people, and I didn’t want to re-create her versions. I sing the songs fresh – it’s my version of them.

Billie Holiday is best known for slow, depressing songs, like “Lover Man” or “Gloomy Sunday”, which she sings as if pain is a kind of drug she’s hooked on. Your tone sometimes sounds more defiant. Is that a conscious change?

I couldn’t believe the freedom I had, performing with jazz musicians

I believe in not letting life beat you. Her life was so sorrowful, the poor woman couldn’t catch a break. It was such a sad, tough life. I respect her because she only sings songs she wanted to sing. She knew her talent despite everything, and I really respect her pushing through.  

You didn’t include "Strange Fruit", though it’s on Billie’s album Lady Sings the Blues. Why is that – it’s one of her most famous?

It’s too dark for me. It has a lot of attachment to suicide, which I want to stay away from. It was done so well by Billie because she lived and breathed what was going on then. I haven’t seen that, and it wouldn’t be true. I can empathise and look back, but since I haven’t lived through time, I feel it would be cheeky to attempt it, and I didn’t want people to listen and feel I wasn’t sincere.  

How did you approach her songs musically? How do you feel about improvising?

I love just getting on stage with a piano. I couldn’t believe the freedom I had, performing with jazz musicians. The pianist Jason Rebello said, “Becky, you do what you want!” How fun’s this? He encouraged me to experiment and improvise.

I’m in love with “Them There Eyes”: she sounds like a younger Billie when she’s singing it. She does something with the note that’s so hard to do, and when I do it sounds wrong!

You had to work hard yourself to build a musical career. Does that outsider’s edge and struggle and determination come through in your approach to singing?

Singing has to come from the heart. You bring all your struggles into music, and they cut through to the audience. They love to hear a singer who’s had a hard time. It’s about telling a story of what’s going on in your life, but it’s also meant to be fun, and it’s sad with artists who don’t want to do it for fun. You only get one life, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. It’s not about nominations and gold albums, it’s about, do I enjoy this?  

The album was recorded at Capitol Studios, where Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald all recorded, and produced by Troy Miller. What was that like as a place to sing? Does the history have any effect on the performance?

The atmosphere made me want to sing better. Using Frank Sinatra’s mic made me want to be better, it made me disciplined. Troy Miller (the producer) was lovely and down-to-earth. He did most of the instrumentation too, to give me a bit more R&B.

The Liverpool Echo describes you as a “Scouse soulstress”. Is that how you feel? What does it mean to be a singer from Liverpool these days?

There are so many singers from Liverpool, and it’s the city that made me. It’s a tough city, and it shapes you for life. When people think, why hasn’t she caved, it’s because I come from a tough place, it’s standard, I just get on with it. My mum was a hard-working woman who got on with it too. There’s a lot of music in the city, the music scene is cool now, with lots of trendy indie bars. It’s become cultured, so that’s where the musically educated cool kids go, but that wasn’t something I did when I was growing up.

People often mention my accent, they say, “Becky you don’t speak as you sing”. I did listen to a lot of American music growing up, and it comes out in my singing. On my tour of America they responded really well to my accent, they said, “You’re like one of us”.

Billie’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, tells her story (which other writers have questioned) of abuse, exploitation and drugs. The parallels aren’t exact, but you’ve had well-known problems of your own. Does that help you understand her?

I relate to her just getting on with it, and not letting life beat her, though I understand Billie turning to drugs and music after what she went through. I feel like the pain was all-encompassing and swallowed her up, so she used drugs to take away the pain. She wanted to escape. She had no solid roots. Your mother should be your anchor – I have a really strong mum, but even Billie’s mum betrayed her.

Overleaf: watch the video "The Making of Lady Sings the Blues"

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