Ellen Birath - Interview

Ellen Birath, a young Swedish singer who sets Parisian club nights on fire 

Ellen Birath

You are from Lund, South Sweden, practically in front of Copenaghen, the European jazz capital. I remember that in Falkenberg, South Sweden too, the first discotheque of the country was opened. You grew up deeply surrounded by music. What are you first musical memories? And when did you write your first music/song?
Wow there are so many memories to pick from. But a really early one is my grandfather playing the piano. He was incredibly passionate about classical music and a talented piano player, so the piano was like a magical presence from very early on. My dad used to play sometimes too and it always felt like a special moment when he dropped what he was doing and just played the piano for a while.
I think I wrote my first real song at about 15, on the piano in my parents’ living room, but I was so shy about it that I don’t think anyone ever heard it. I can still remember it, it’s quite sweet! Haha. It took many more years for me to start writing regularly and to lose the fear of not being good enough. But that’s something that I think all writers struggle with more or less constantly. It’s hard to learn to just put your pen to the paper and let stuff out, but so important!

Listening to the cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” realized with The Shadow Cats, one really understands how deep the “jazz roots” in contemporary pop(ular) music are. That’s the same feeling I felt the first time I listened to Amy Winehouse. What’s your opinion?
I definitely agree. Jazz is in everything. I don’t think there’s a single music genre or song even that doesn’t have some sort of connection to jazz, it’s everywhere! Unfortunately at least in Europe, jazz is often considered an elitist genre that’s hard to access. It’s a shame, but I can understand why. There’s this preconceived notion of jazz and jazz musicians as humourless, serious and a little introspective. That exists too! But to me it’s not the spirit of jazz. I guess that’s why I like the idea of blurring the lines between jazz and other genres, moving from soul to rhythm and blues to rock n roll, to make it more accessible. As you say, the jazz roots flow through almost everything.

Your love for 1970s music – as one can read from your biography – helps you keep alive your instinct for strong pop melodies. What are your musical references? And how does your well balanced mix of jazz and pop music help you and the band fire up the night in the clubs, have you a special memory you can share with us?
I grew up as a glam rock fanatic. I was absolutely obsessed with Bowie, Queen, T Rex, Thin Lizzy etc. from a young age, and my father would listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. So I guess I was raised on a solid base of rock n roll, and I think it has massively influenced my stage show. The Jazz came in later, my mother had a Billie Holiday compilation and I became obsessed with this version of ’Them There Eyes’. My piano teacher at the time realised how bored I was with playing, so he made me sing jazz standards during our classes instead. He saw something in me and I’m very grateful for that now! I listen to literally everything, but have a huge love for Jamaican music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. I love old rocksteady and ska music, both genres that have their origins in jazz and rhythm and blues by the way! 

Haha we do tend to come in and stir things up a little in the jazz clubs. It’s all that rock n roll from my childhood I guess. I have many fond memories from the Coolin, this beautiful but kind of dirty Irish bar where I did my first ever concert with the Shadow Cats. It was a very special place and a special time because I was super shy on stage at first, it was really scary. It took about a year of concerts and then everyone was kind of just dancing on the tables and I was crawling around on my knees, haha.

Now you live and work in Paris. What did you find in France that wasn't there in Sweden? Regular live acts in famous venues help! Paris has been the capital of jazz from the end of the WWI while in the recent decades it has become the forge of electronic music and of electro-swing in particular. The right place to create a perfect musical melting pot – the teaser of your new single “Little Closer”, seems to me to be a clue. In the music scene/business, how important are fortunate encounters?
I think Paris gave me a sense of anonymity, the feeling that nobody was watching me so I could do whatever I wanted. I think that’s what I needed to dare to dream bigger. Paris is a tough place to live, but it’s my home. The city will make you fight really hard for everything, but there’s always the sense that everything is possible!
And the lucky encounters are a huge part of this. I met my band mates who I now consider some of my best friends and family almost through total luck. I was working in a bar that had live music on Sundays. The singer Paddy Sherlock eventually had me up on stage to sing a song, and after that he took me under his wings and introduced me indirectly to all the musicians I play with today. It’s a clear divider in my life. Before and after meeting Paddy. He lead me to Thomas, Matthieu, Manu, Marten and Thomas! And he brought me to Ascona the first time in 2012! So much happened since then.

MATTEO CESCHI