If you prefer your music automated and ephemeral, you can pick any of the current chart fly-by-nights. If, on the other hand, you admire passionate but down-to-earth artistry, Sophie Garner’s got a few things to sing to you.
After coming through a career-threatening operation on her vocal cords, she’s happy to be able to sing them at all. The English singer-songwriter has put a lifetime of blood, sweat, tears and inspiration into her new album ‘Genes,’ and can’t wait to unveil it on record and on stage. “I’m a live performer,” she says, delighted that the chance to share her new songs has arrived. “I like it up close.”
Up close and, indeed, personal. ‘Genes’ contains songs whose poignant lyrics, arresting melodies and surprising, inventive arrangements are distilled both from her own singular life, and from day-by-day settings we can all relate to. It’s imbued with more than 15 years amassed by the Suffolk-born Sophie on the front line as a respected performer and recording artist, and many years of acting work even before that.
Now she has an album that she’s so proud of, she and her partner and co-writer Paul Hannon have funded it themselves, committed to completing a document they can look back on in the decades to come. It draws inspiration from everything and everyone, from Hitchcock to Hybrid, and from a deep and eclectic record collection that stretches from Jethro Tull to Siouxsie and the Banshees. But the spirit is uniquely Sophie’s. “I don’t have any hang-ups,” she says. “I’ve gone through quite a lot in the last couple of years.”
That’s an understatement. Long-resigned to the dysfunctionality of her relationship with most of her family, Sophie then endured the end of a marriage, but another unexpected hurdle was lurking. She’d already started recording the album when, in 2008, she found out she needed a vocal operation. Viewers of her YouTube video blog then got a unique chance to follow a scary journey, with a happy ending.
“I was doing a gig, and started thinking ‘Something’s not right here,’” she remembers. “I had a three-octave range, and I couldn’t get up there. It really showed up in the studio, so we had to stop for a while. My approach isn’t the ‘robotic auto tune and post-production to hell,’ I come from a jazz-blues background of ‘live, breathe, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald,’ so it was really hard.”
Thankfully, it worked out for the best. “It’s better. It’s weird, it’s easier now,” she says, adding that the range is there, just in case she needs it. “It’s like being in a car on a village road, you don’t need fifth gear, but it’s there.” Always determinedly upbeat, she sees the funny side: the first song Sophie sang when she came out the other side was ‘Rehab.’
Her very first time on a stage was at just four, playing Snow White. “Then I did amateur dramatics, met David Jason, played a madman in Sweeney Todd when I was 14, played Nancy in Oliver, then I joined the National Youth Theatre and I worked with Matt Lucas.” Then came the moment when she knew that the call of music was getting louder than the call of acting. She got a band together, and headed out with typical fearlessness on the Pizza Express jazz circuit.
Sophie, who also has the distinction of being the first artist to perform at London’s 02 Arena, had started singing professionally at the age of 20, with a gig at Camden’s famous Dublin Castle. “I’ve got a video of it,” she smiles. “It’s really good that it wasn’t in some dodgy working man’s club playing second fiddle to bingo. I’m dressed quite ’40s, I was doing the big band thing.” Her first CD ‘Gone Bananas,’ by Sophie Garner and the Swing Kings, came out in the mid-1990s, all jump jive, old-school rhythm and blues, and she prospered on the live circuit, especially in London and across Europe.
But some of the disciplines of her earlier work have served her well in the way she now tackles vocal performance. “It’s a method acting approach,” she says, “I live the songs I perform, and it gets quite emotional at times.”
In many cases, she really has lived them. “There are stories to every song, and that’s been quite cathartic for me,” she says, never afraid to illustrate her own background with such simple but hard-hitting motifs as “I don’t like my genes.”
Sophie explains: “I wrote a song on that first album, and then didn’t write anything for years. It was only when I came out of that massive break-up, everything started to come to fruition. ‘Self Storage’ was inspired initially by self-storage units, after I read a report on the macabre and weird things people hide in them. One news report said some people have them and never visit them, but continue to pay the monthly bill for years on end. It made me think about how people just hang on to things and don’t chuck them away.”
“‘Too Big For Me’ was about the dross of having to get on the tube, almost like a ‘Lazy Sunday’ with a bit of Madness.” And ‘Lose Yourself’ actually came to life on a real lazy Sunday. “That was written looking out of the window on a Sunday afternoon in my flat, I’d had a gin and tonic, the sun was setting and I was so chilled, and it just came.”
Inspiration like that is now a regular visitor at Sophie Garner’s place. “I’m writing the second album already,” she says. “I’ve written five songs for it, I’m in a very creative place and I’m happy. This is about being true to myself, and I love it.”