Rachel Sutton is a British vocalist known for her collaborations with prominent Jazz musicians. She has performed as a lyricist, alongside notable musicians such as Liane Carroll and Lance Ellington, amongst others.
Born and raised in the Kent countryside, she “grew up listening to the romantic ballads of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, the soulful sounds of Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel and the haunting beauty of Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Judy Collins.”
A theatre student at Glamorgan University and The Welsh College of Music and Drama, she has also acted in Shakespearean plays, while touring the UK and Europe. She got commendations for her role in ‘Lansky: The Mob’s Money Man’ at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank and Cadogan Hall.
Her various compositions have been described by music critics as exciting and moving.
She performs at top London Jazz clubs and has featured at music festivals across the UK and other nations.
She speaks with PREMIUM TIMES on the prospects of Jazz music and also her new album, ‘A Million Conversations’, which is currently creating exciting ripples in the world of jazz.
PT: How will you describe Rachel Sutton?
Rachel: Oh, I wish someone else could write this about me! Ha ha! Rachel Sutton takes people on a musical journey with her eclectic repertoire of songs that communicate many of the rich patterns of life. Her performances are theatrical – she inhabits the song and expresses the lyric as an actor would. As a songwriter and lyricist, Rachel’s music is both haunting and uplifting, melancholy and bright, achingly tender yet jubilant. She has great sincerity as a performer – you can believe in every word she is singing. She might make you cry, but she’ll make you dance too!
PT. Tell us a bit about your background, most memorable moments?
Rachel: I was brought up in the Kent countryside, in the South East of England surrounded by nature. I was an avid reader as a child and music and art were early passions. I was encouraged to explore all of these and I spent a lot of my childhood being creative and performing. I studied theatre at university and drama school and from there moved to London where I spent a lot of time auditioning and doing lots of jobs I hated in order to survive!
In terms of my career as a performer, I have many memorable moments which I am so grateful for but two, in particular, stand out. The first was touring as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. We arrived in Germany, very late, on our knees with exhaustion but we had to go straight to the theatre to rehearse and then perform. I wondered how we’d ever do it. But the adrenaline kicked in and it was one of the best performances we did on that tour and the sound of the stamping of feet and the standing ovation was both magical and uplifting – as was the party afterwards! I’ve never forgotten it.
My second most memorable moment was performing in Roland Perrin’s music drama ‘Lansky: The Mob’s Money Man’ at The Southbank. My daughter was very young – around 3 months – and it was the most challenging role I’d ever had. I had to play the roles of eight different women – it was a dream to be singing with an orchestra and using my acting skills at the same time. I worked so hard on that job and was delighted to do it again at Cadogan Hall two years later.
PT: Why did you choose jazz as a genre to delve into? What’s the story behind this decision to become a songwriter?
Rachel: As a child, I grew up listening to my mother’s wonderful record collection. I always felt as if I belonged to another era (I’m not sure which one!) and the world of Jazz seemed perfect to me. I felt swept away by it. When I decided to become a performer, I found that my voice suited Jazz well.
Songwriting has only come to me in the last few years. I began writing lyrics for other people and I think that was a stepping stone. Something shifts in you as you mature and I think with a lot of listening and playing and life experience, you begin to get ideas which take hold. I’m so glad I found it as a medium – it makes me very happy and I get great fulfilment from it.
PT: Do you think jazz has received the same acclaim it has in the other parts of the world just as in Europe? If not, why is this so?
Rachel: No, I don’t think it has received as much acclaim in other parts of the world and I think the reason for this is hugely complex and warrants a Phd as a reply! Let’s just say that there are many historical and cultural reasons for this.
Jazz is the grandfather of so much contemporary music that there’s no reason why with wider exposure it couldn’t be much more popular across the world. And it’s also vital that we understand how and why Jazz music came to be in the first place.
PT: Give us an insight into the most prominent tracks you wrote and were released in recent years and their perception/reception.
Rachel: The track closest to my heart is ‘A Million Conversations’. When my mother died in 2016, the song poured out of me. It says everything about the loss I feel every day and the pain of my daughter growing up without her grandmother. But I hope it also tells of other people’s sadness as well – losing a parent is a universal pain and I wanted to communicate that. I’m very proud to say that I get a lot of comments about this track in particular and I think it’s because grief is something we all have to go through as human beings – I’ve had people say to me ‘that’s it! That’s exactly how it feels’.
The first track on the album ‘When Love Was New’ is about the end of a long term relationship. Instead of writing about the anger, bitterness or resentment that can come at the end of a relationship, I wanted to write about a couple who still love each other and wish each other well, understanding the fact that things just sometimes don’t work out and that it’s no-one’s fault. It’s interesting how my listeners tend to pick one of the above songs as their favourite on the album.
PT: You schooled at the Royal Welsh college of music, drama. What role does education/training play in harnessing talent. Illustrate this.
Rachel: My teachers at college took something which was already there and helped me release it. Your job when you train is to let go of preconceptions and to hone your craft, to challenge yourself and to explore. But it’s so important to find the right teacher who is truly committed to helping you do that.
My acting training has been vital in helping me become a better singer, in terms of communicating a story or a character. Your technique as a singer is important but in my opinion, you also need to be in the moment whilst singing the song and you need to pull on your life experience to inhabit the song and communicate the lyric effectively. A performance should evoke feelings in people, not just admiration at technical prowess.
PT: Tell us about your new album: A million conversations…
Rachel: This album has been a labour of love for me. I was so lucky to have the incredible Roland Perrin: composer, pianist, arranger and educator by my side during this project. Without him, this album would not have been possible. And I am also grateful to Paul Jolly of 33 Records, who loved my songs and took me on.
I wanted to put together an album of songs I’d written which reflected different moments in life, as well as covers that I love performing and that really speak to me. This album marks a seminal moment in my life – it shows my emergence as a songwriter, as well as a singer. My mother wasn’t alive to see this happen, so I’ve dedicated the album to her memory.
PT: AP Reviews described you thus: “her background as a dramatic actress clearly feeds into the expressive detailing that illuminates the seven songs on this album, the majority of which are, musically and lyrically, self-penned. And it’s no surprise to read that Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Billy Joel and Judy Collins are amongst her long-time inspirations….”
What/who inspires you?
Rachel: Although I’m inspired by other artists I admire, I think it’s important not to muddy the waters of your own creativity by aspiring to be like someone or trying to copy what they do. It’s vital to know what your message is, to unlock your creativity and individuality.
I’m inspired by the stories of life: tragedy, joy, triumph and failure. All the complications. I find great inspiration in nature too and also in Folk music as well as Jazz.