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A chat with vocalists, part 1

Evilena Protektore

Inese Bērziņa about her 13 years in teaching and a turn towards a free artist’s life

Evilena Protektore

One sunny July day gave me a rare opportunity to meet for a long chat, not with one but two jazz singers, who have been rapidly grasping the attention of Latvian music enthusiasts. The mood was uplifting since we finally could meet in person instead of through computer screens, as it has become our norm during these times of pandemic. The sun was shining, and the company was terrific, so what more could one want from life? In the beginning, the plan was to meet with Inese and chat with her and then spend some time doing the same with Kristīne, but the first conversation was so exciting that it lasted longer. Kristīne arrived slightly earlier, and since everyone was well acquainted with one another, a coffee for two turned into a coffee for three. I have decided to divide this conversation into two parts nonetheless.

So, my conversation buddies in this interview are Inese Bērziņa and Kristīne Liede. Both have their own experiences, and both are awaiting the release of their albums. As I’ve already mentioned, my first conversation was with Inese; our chat led us towards education and different musical ways; when Kristīne joined, we continued talking about all above mentioned, and the conversation continued, this time between the three of us talking about different sources of inspiration, composition and yes, again about education! And even though Inese had to step out several times to attend to her own things, when she did engage with us, it was very insightful and valuable, because let’s face it — when three singers gather together, they will always find things to talk about!

I remember the first time I met you as if it was yesterday — it was in 2006, during the «Saulkrasti Jazz» festival. That day we had a session for all vocalists led by Inga Bērziņa and Janet Lawson, everybody gathered in the great hall, and we could come forward to sing a song a then get comments from both teachers and also other participants. I didn’t go to sing myself then because I was too new to jazz and frankly — scared witless! But I remember you — this ball of energy that conquered the stage with some samba tune. Then someone near me said: «Do you know who that is? That’s Inese Bērziņa!»

Goodness! It was such a long time ago! I think it was one of the first festivals I ever attended. Although maybe my first was in 2005 or 2004 when I graduated from high school.

Which high school was that?

100! I studied with Tālis (Gžibovskis)! Andris Buiķis graduated from the same school, also the core of «Latvian Blues Band”, Māris Plūme… There was something special about that school. But getting back to «Saulkrasti Jazz» — yes, it was amazing, in fact, it’s a fabulous place to be, especially if you’re a beginner — you get a chance to get acquainted with this music, get to know people. Never have I ever met so many people at the same place. Of course, the excitement fades a bit after a few years when you get tired from the same place year after year. I think I’ve been to Saulkrasti some six or seven times in a row. Same story with «Rīgas Ritmi». In fact, I was pretty active in my «younger» days — I went everywhere, participated in everything, did everything I had to do because I had the appropriate company — RPIVA gave me some kind of a taste in jazz music; it challenged me. Now I’m a calmer person, I don’t go to workshops that often, don’t do clubs so much, but I guess it’s time to do my own thing now.

So tell me, what led you to this School Nr.100? Did your parents send you there or was it your choice?

No, my parents never pressure me into anything, usually I know what I want for myself, and I do exactly that. Actually, it was an interesting story — in the beginning, I wanted to go classical, and after I graduated from middle school, I went to take entry exams into JMRMV. Truthfully my voice was quite… weak and untrained at the time. So I got only four out of ten for singing, and it was quite a traumatic event for me, I was very distraught. When I got the results, I was stunned; I was walking down the street thinking to myself — so what am I going to do now? Am I really that worthless? And then I look at myself with all the experience I have now, and I know that I did a poor job. Because all I had then was the basics of music school but no training in solo singing at all. And then my cousin said: «Hey! There’s this school Nr.100, and there’s an excellent voice teacher — Ludmila Janušane»’ Well, ok, I decided to give it a try, because if there’s a good teacher, it doesn’t really matter where she is. And also my cousin only had good things to say about that school. So I have to admit that it was one of the best choices I made. When I didn’t get into JMRMV, I was at a low point. And then when I got into that school, it was a high point, it was the best school for me, it wasn’t a big school, thus had a more personal approach to students, everybody knows everyone, everybody loves musicians and music, I enjoyed it and my time there a lot. So when I graduated from that school, I had the feeling that I could go at it again! Just because I felt at home there! Then my classmates and I went to RPIVA together, and during my second year of Bachelor studies, I was invited to become a teacher in Bolderāja music school.

If I remember correctly, School Nr.100 concentrated more on rock music, but RPIVA on jazz and pop?

Yes, because the teachers there were Muravej [Aleksandrs Sircovs], Pēteris Liepiņš, Romāns Vendiņš, Armands Alksnis, Tālis Gžibovskis, and all of them are rockers. Of course, Tālis made us play jazz standards, and it was because of him that I got that interest in jazz, because when I enrolled, I had this attitude towards jazz, that — no, never ask me to sing THAT! I had no idea what that was and no experience in that, but then the way Tālis taught us the history of modern music when you have to learn the songs as well, it develops your musical background, so somehow he got me singing jazz standards when I was in my last year. And then I saw Inga Bērziņa, and my brain exploded — bam! Then I enrolled in RPIVA to study with her, which sucked me in — I constantly translated some articles about jazz musicians and studied the «Real Book». Also, all the teachers are mainly from the jazz world — Andrejs Jevsjukovs, Inga, etc.

Evilena Protektore

And then you started working in Bolderāja school and soon became head of the department!

Well, it didn’t happen in a day! Instead, in ten years… All in all, I have spent thirteen years there. They found me because of Inga, but I also worked at a music school in Ventspils, and then I had to get my bachelor’s degree… Teaching is in my blood — both my grandmothers are teachers, one taught Latvian language and literature, then became the principal of the school, another one taught household studies and dancing. And in the beginning, I was in doubt; I couldn’t decide who I was — a teacher or a musician. Then I felt how cool it is when your student gets something when I manage to explain something in a way a student understands, and then I realized that, yes, teaching is my thing! Life leads me in the right direction.

School in Bolderāja was like a home to me, it was an ideal place for practice for me — I didn’t have to look for students myself, the school gave them to me, and then I had to figure out what to do with them on my own.

And how did you become the head of the jazz department?

Irina Kozjura, the woman who started the department, never wanted to be the head of it, but at the time, she was the only teacher who could. Then she involved me and at one point also Andrejs Jevsjukovs, Indriķis Veitners, Matīss Veigulis, and Zigmunds Žukovskis, bet all of them were more guest teachers. The number of actual teachers on staff was tiny, and because Irina was the one who brought everyone together, she became the head of the department. Then after some ten years, she said: «Inese, I don’t want to do that anymore, can you please take over?…» So she persuaded me to do just that. We spent one more year and then she left for Sweden to get married. That’s how I became the head of the department and got closely acquainted with all the bureaucracy… On the inside, it looked as if the people were doing just as much as was required on paper and not the tiniest bit more. If you want to do more — that’s on you. I tried fighting it for some three years but soon realized that I didn’t want to deal with that anymore. I also noticed that this particular type of laziness somehow drew me in as well, I lost all my enthusiasm for work. I decided I didn’t want to be in such a toxic environment anymore. My decision to leave (at least in my head) made me think that maybe now I’d have more time and energy to spend on my own career, projects, and albums. So after a year, I’ve asked myself — well, what did I manage to achieve? Nothing? Hm… [laughs] But oh well, things come in their own time.

I still teach privately, I enjoy teaching a lot, but when you work in an official institution, it has an aftertaste of all your efforts being for nothing, and then the philosophy begins — why do I even try?…

Evilena Protektore

But now, when you’re a freelancer, don’t you have this feeling of insecurity? Because when you work «for a man», you know that you’re getting your pay at the end of the month. It’s especially relevant now when we’re in such an unstable situation with this pandemic.

Well, when I left the school a lot of people asked me about my plans — how? Why? What will I do now? I never stopped working with my pirate students, I had some concerts. Not during the lockdown, but then I saved some money as well, when you have nowhere to spend it, I managed to take control over my freelancing and embrace the waviness of it — if I don’t have work today, I’ll have some tomorrow. I am a dynamic person, I like doing something all the time, and I also enjoy some uncertainty. I don’t fear that, I know I can survive. Also, the school pays per lesson way, way less than private students do. So I figured — when did I start underestimating myself? I juxtaposed the wage I got in the school with all the accompanying factors like stress and dull, mundane bureaucracy, and, well…

But I never noticed that your time in school was uncreative — you were always involved in some projects, like your quartet, «The CocoNuts»…

There’s the thing — the more you do, the more you can achieve. But at the same time — what is it that you manage to achieve? I had more commercial duo projects, and then coconuts were like a thing for the soul…


Yes, we parted ways a year or so ago because… well, I had an urge to change something. I spent some seven years with that project, and it took some of my time and some mental energy. I also had my own projects alongside «The CocoNuts» — «Kvinteri», which fell apart. Then there was «No Rain Today» with Otto Kovči and Ilmārs Gekišs — I wanted to do so much, but it was so hard… Then I formed my quartet, and now I have more time to dedicate to that one; thus, my leaving «The CocoNuts» meant freeing time and space for myself, to do something for me, because I’ve wanted my own album for some ten years now! For a while, I was battling with this unsupportive feeling like what I was doing wasn’t good enough. Then I managed to turn away from the «Snarky Puppy» unattainable ideals, expectations. And then things changed again; the lineup changed, something was stopping me all the time. But finally, I managed to free myself from the people who slowed me down, and found the ones I could work with. And in fact, the number of those people is as high as you have it in you because you can’t work with just anyone, people don’t always go together like bread and butter. If Inese Bērziņa is a perfect teacher, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be perfect for you. Each of us has his own people, and it takes time to find those. So all these ten years gave me all these experiences.

So what creative things have you planned?

I have recorded an album, and there are only two tracks left to mix. I also started exploring music video making! So the album is coming soon! In my head I have already done so much, wrote other songs, I want something new! But I’m still kind of stuck mixing old tracks… But then I say to myself — no, stop! Finish this thing, and only then move on!

What will this album be about?

At some point, I just gathered my songs in a pile and started thinking of what I could do with these songs. In the beginning, there was the song «Noktirne» that we recorded with Marika Šaripo. Then we recorded some songs that were arranged for my quartet. And then there were a few songs that didn’t sound right with the band, so I thought — hey, our tubist works with wind orchestras! Maybe he could write an arrangement? And he did! And I heard so much more in this tune, the things I couldn’t hear when performed with a band! The album consists mainly of my songs, except for one by Miķelis Dzenuška, and there was a funny story about that one: one day I thought that I could write something, and then I figured — why not base the song on some person? Then I thought of Miķelis, and he is quite a character, right? So I wrote a song and called it «M» and sent it to him. A couple of days later, he says, — hey, Inese, I wrote a song about you! And he took some «Vulfpeck» harmonies as a basis for his song, wrote a melody, only the lyrics were missing. I started writing and soon realized that it’s challenging to write about myself because it’s not easy to see yourself from the side, with somebody else’s eyes. So I contacted Aleksandra Line, asked her to write me some lyrics, and it was done — the song has lived on since 2017, it turned out really great! This is the only song in the album that is not actually mine. All the rest is mine, except for some texts — one piece has poetry by Imants Ziedonis, another by Elīna Zālīte. The music is not that easy listening or grand, but it is my music; there’s definitely something there that speaks to me, and I believe that it will speak to others as well.