Sara Oschlag is a Danish vocalist resident in Brighton, East Sussex.
She has been a professional singer since 2003, performing live music with her jazz bands all over the UK, Europe and America.
She has a boat, and I had the privilege to practise with her in that lovely boat in Brighton.
The year they recorded ‘My Little Boat’ was also the year she bought and moved into her little boat with her boyfriend Dan Sheppard, whom she also plays in several bands with.
Sara Oschlag is not working at all right now, except for the new album, which is a project born out of this lockdown.
She admires singers who are also instrumentalists like, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie & Diane Schuur.
When I asked what has her biggest challenge been as a band, she answered that the personal differences are the hardest for her.
In Brighton, Oschlag’s favourite jazz places to go are The Hand in Hand, The Verdict & The Paris House. When she went to New York, she also fell in love with Smalls.
The places she loves to go to regularly are the ones that are welcoming and down to earth.
When you look at your jazz career, what’s happening right now, do you feel it’s a good place for you?
Looking at my working career right now, I feel very detached, in a way. Without Covid-19, I would’ve been working pretty full-on, right now. As it is, I’m not working at all, except for the new album, which is a project born out of this lockdown. This year especially, I was starting to get invited to sing in quite a few jazz clubs around the country, which was very exciting. This development has only been postponed & I’m looking forward to fulfilling my bookings when it’s safe to play in clubs again.
I get very inspired on stage, by the musicians & the atmosphere & I find that’s when I develop the most as an artist. At home, I listen to music a lot but I’m hopeless at doing prolonged practices. I get very easily distracted & restless so I usually work on a few different things at one time that I can dip in & out of throughout the day. What I’m trying to say is that the gigs are so important to our development as musicians & I can’t wait to get out there again. I think the energy is gonna be incredible for the first many gigs. A lot of pinching yourself to see if you’re really out of the house, playing music with & to actual people.
How do you define “swing feeling”?
In a theoretical sense, the swing is syncopation but it’s more than that, of course. The swing feel is a conversation. We swing when we talk. Different rhythms & melodies that we don’t even think about. For singers starting out in jazz, there’s fear & a sense of not having any idea about how to swing. The written melody is being clung to for dear life, yet when we talk in a conversation, there’s no fear or deep analysis going on about how to create the rhythm & flow of the sentences. With any genre of music, there’s a deep history. The first thing I stress when teaching about swing feel is how important it is to absorb it through your ears. Listen to jazz if you want to swing. Copy phrases you hear. And remember it’s just a conversation.
What does the word “phrasing” mean to you?
The phrasing is incredibly powerful. You can really tell a story with phrasing & create a clear emotional interpretation. Dynamics, vocal texture, rhythm, silence are all part of bringing the story to life in a very powerful way.
How important are the lyrics for you? Any memories with songs?
I connect to melody & harmony more. You can say a lot without words, using phrasing & delivery. Lyrics can be very important when you can really see yourself in them or relate to them but not all lyrics are relatable. You can still tell a story from them but you’ll need to find your angle. I remember Cecile McLorin Salvant saying that she would pick the most sexist song she could find & try to get her own message across, which is quite the opposite. She sang Wives & Lovers managed to create a sense of defiance. Her delivery was strong really created a sense of questioning the lyric. I think that’s so cool.
What are the advantages does a singer have in terms of her/his role in the band? Any disadvantages?
We have the lyrics, which create very direct communication with the audience. It’s a very direct form of expression, just using your voice. The disadvantage is that we don’t have a spare. If we’re ill or have vocal issues, we don’t have our instrument. If your instrument breaks, you probably have a spare or can borrow one, while yours is being fixed. Another possible disadvantage is being the only female in a male-dominated environment. There are not enough male singers & not enough female instrumentalists on the scene. It would be nice to see a more balanced bandstand.
How did you decide to choose your instrument?
I’ve always been singing. Growing up, I didn’t necessarily believe that singing was gonna be my full-time job but I’m very, very happy & feel very, very lucky that it turned out that way.
What was the first tune(s) you learned?
The first jazz tune I performed was ‘Watermelon Man’ from Headhunters. I played keys & ocarina! That was my introduction to high-level music studies. Then I worked my way back & fell in love with modern jazz from the ’50s & the ’60s. I remember trying to learn ‘Joy Spring’ at Chichester College, where I studied for two years & really got into jazz & swing. ‘Joy Spring’ is not an easy tune, let alone for someone who’s just embarked on their jazz studies! There are so many tunes, you can keep learning forever, it’s very inspiring, energising & comforting to know that the journey ahead can be never-ending if you want it to be.
Who are you inspired by?
Pretty much everybody! I’m inspired by my peers, colleagues & friends in the business for various reasons. Someone’s work ethic, someone’s interpretation, someone’s focus, someone’s tone or phrasing. I’m inspired by my idols, of course. By their abilities but also who they are as people. What inspires them… What they’ve overcome to be where they are. I admire singers who are also instrumentalists like, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie & Diane Schuur. I envy the control & freedom that gives & I wish I’d learnt the piano growing up.
What do you think about the musical conversation?
The musical conversation is brilliant. It’s the height of creativity for me. Being on stage, using my ears & eyes to go with or have a musician follow me. You can create such a powerful emotive space. Depending on what you do, you can make the whole room stop breathing & break out in belly laughs. The live performance is the holy grail of music.
When did you form your band(s)? What inspired you to make music together?
I formed bands in college & straight after too. I got together with people I liked & who’s influences I found inspiring & wanted to learn from. When you start out, you’ll join any band that wants you & you learn so much from being in bands & performing. My reasons for showing certain bands now are the same – I get together with people whose company I enjoy, who’s the musical style I like & whose skills I admire & find inspiring.
What has been your biggest challenge as a band?
When you’ve been in a band together for a long time, you’ll probably have several arguments & disagreements. Personal differences are the hardest for me. To save the friendship but also keep the band going can be very challenging.
In your album “My Little Boat” how did you decide the tunes? Any memories?
The year we recorded ‘My Little Boat’ was also the year I bought & moved into my own little boat with my boyfriend Dan, who I also play in several bands with. The title track was my friend Matt Wall’s idea. He’s a great 7-string guitar player/arranger & always full of good ideas. It was the perfect way to celebrate my new life on the boat. For the album, I just picked tunes I wanted to do. That was my only guide. I wanted to make a different album & deliberately added a few obscure numbers as well as some old favourites. ‘Blood Count’ was the biggest challenge. I fell in love with Marian McPartland’s version from the radio series she used to do. They were made into albums. This one was with Shirley Horn & she plays the tune for Shirley, explaining that it was the last tune Billy Strayhorn wrote & that he wrote it in his hospital bed whilst dying of cancer. The instrumental version was so beautiful & perfect, it was very difficult to live up to. I used Elvis Costello’s lyrics. Andy Bey also wrote some lyrics for it but I related to Elvis Costello’s lyrics. ‘This Is Always’ was an obvious choice for me. It’s still one of my favourite ballads. ‘Monk’s Dream’ is kooky & rich. ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’ is an ode to Coltrane. I wanted to create an album that flowed through various levels of intensity & energy, bringing out a myriad of styles & I think we succeeded in that. ‘My Little Boat’ is available to download on Amazon & Bandcamp.
How do you decide to record your YouTube videos? How was the recording process?
The videos we make are aimed at the wedding & corporate market. We try to pick well-known tunes. We always make at least five videos at a time & make sure there’s a variety of styles, tempos & arrangements. We always record live to get the feel of a live performance.
When you solo, how do you feel? Do you have a special technique?
When I solo, I like to trade fours/eights. I like the conversation—to respond to what the horn/piano/bass/drums just “said”. You can quote each other or tease each other. It can be very humorous, super inspiring & very educational. I try to use vocal texture & dynamics when I improvise. The phrasings can get very intense & loud/busy if you’re not careful. By allowing space or quieter moments, the music has time to breathe & the audience will get even more absorbed in the story.
What do you think about online performances during corona days?
I’m enjoying some of the performances very much. It’s lovely to put a date in the diary for when someone’s gonna go live & it’s definitely given me something to look forward to. I haven’t done it myself. Partially because I’ve been having some minor vocal irritations, partly because I don’t imagine anyone would want to listen to me & Dan drone on for an hour.
What are your favourite jazz venues? Why?
I love a lot of venues for different reasons. I love the variety of different venues. The atmosphere, the culture… In Brighton, my favourite places to go are The Hand in Hand, The Verdict & The Paris House. They are all run by people who know how to make you feel welcome & create whole community around the venue. I have been meaning to go to Patterns for ages but never managed, so that definitely on the agenda as soon as we’re allowed out again. I went to New York for two weeks a few years ago. We went to gigs every single night & I fell in love with Smalls. The places I love to go to on a regular basis are places that are welcoming & down to earth.
What do you see as the future of the music?
I think & hope that with the recent constraints of Covid-19, live performances & the whole buzz of experiencing live music, will be appreciated & needed even more. Live-streaming has been great under quarantine but it is a poor replacement compared to being out amongst people, to be able to choose your band & be together on stage. I worry that because the venues have suffered financially, the musicians will feel the pressure too. Perhaps less bookings or lesser paid bookings, but I’m really hoping that a surge of celebration will explode when we can go back on the scene, helping the clubs & musicians to recover.
How can we follow you and your (online) performances?
I’m in the process of recording an album with friends & musicians around the world. Remote recording from our living rooms/bedrooms/studios, of course. It’s a slow process due to the nature of the recording, layering each track, learning how to use the software & how to go about each tune/arrangement in the best way. I’m hoping to raise some money for two charities: UK national health system charity & to create awareness & raise funds to fight the rise in domestic violence under Covid-19 quarantine.
Any last words?
I wish everyone good health & a positive mindset through these strange & uncertain times. I hope the care & kindness I’ve seen under Covid-19 quarantine will continue when life goes back to normal. If you want to have a chat or have any questions please contact me on my Facebook page: Sara Sings Jazz.
Sara Oschlag’s album is available to download on Bandcamp: