If Gwyneth Herbert were dull, or cared more about money, she could very easily have become England’s answer to Norah Jones. That was what the suits at Universal had in mind when they signed her to a record deal in 2004, but fate had other plans.
Herbert’s path from would-be jazz canary to eccentric wonder has been a winding one, but it all started out when she and a guitar-playing pal from Durham University decided to conquer the Big Smoke, one dive bar at a time.
“Basically, we were kids, and we came to London with no contacts, no money, no gigs, no nothing,” Herbert relates in a Skype interview from her comfortable, instrument-strewn home in picturesque St. Leonards-on-Sea. “We decided that we would choose an area of London a day, and we walked round into every café, bar, restaurant, hotel, a couple of strip joints, and some really dodgy pubs and said, ‘Hi! Um, could you turn off the racing and stop the fight? We’d love to play you “Fly Me to the Moon”.’ And somehow we managed to get enough gigs to survive.”
The 34-year-old singer’s imitation of a bubbly ingénue is hilarious. But her talent is equally acute, and it wasn’t long before the music industry began to take notice—something that, counterintuitively, could have devastated a less determined artist.
“I’m very glad that happened, but pretty quickly I realized that world of the music business—where it’s all about the business and not about the music—was not for me,” she says. “I made a record for Universal that took three months to make, and the track listing was decided by a room full of industry people working to a formula: ‘We need a track for TV advertising; we need a track for [BBC Radio host] Michael Parkinson.’ There were meetings about my haircut! And that record came out, and it had no heart. It was all played brilliantly by some of the best session musicians in the country, and produced by a phenomenal producer, and I felt like a guest vocalist on my own album.”
Herbert walked away from her deal and settled for the larger gratification of art—lots of art, ranging from self-released CDs to community-based projects to writing for the theatre. Local listeners might find it useful to compare her to a more extroverted Veda Hille—she has a similar blend of innate musicality and quizzical intelligence, and where Hille has written about Emily Carr and the sexual practices of the Japanese, Herbert has penned a song cycle about sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and is working on a musical about contraception. But her 2013 release The Sea Cabinet proves that, like her Canadian counterpart, Herbert is more properly described as a truly singular talent.
Sonically, the record blends Weimar cabaret and English music-hall stylings, with disquieting touches of avant-garde jazz. Lyrically, it’s a suite of linked songs about memory, obsession, love, and the sea.
“In the live-show version, I worked with a great novelist called Heidi James on an interlocking prose narrative about a woman who walks by the sea every day,” Herbert explains. “And she collects absolutely everything that she finds—an empty crisp packet, a rusty ship’s bell—and she takes them back and puts them into her ‘sea cabinet’ and mines them with the rigour of an archaeologist. Each object sings a secret sea story, and each song kind of transports us into another era.”
And each, she adds, is a link to the woman’s drowned lover.
It’s a brilliant concept, brilliantly realized, from an artist who deserves to be far better known.
Gwyneth Herbert plays a free Robson Street Stage concert next Saturday (June 25), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.