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A chat with vocalists, part 2

Evilena Protektore

Kristīne Liede about a dark winter, inspiration, and ideas that stay in your head for years

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 (now Cīrule). 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!

We talked about lots of different things with Inese, also about education, because she had a lot of experience in that field!

I also have some experience in that! I have worked in RDKS for a whole year. There’s this project called «Pumpurs» — the EU gives some money to support groups of children that are less successful in their studies, and they get to have private lessons for free, which is incredible! So that year, I had to teach a lot of solfeggio classes. There were some kids from the musical theater department, some from the jazz department; all in all, there were some eight kids in the group.

So you’re a solfeggio guru?

Not a guru, but I do enjoy some music theory. I come from Dārziņš school, so my basics in music theory are solid. My teacher Mrs.Kurme, for example, was strict but legendary! She taught all of my family.

So you have other musicians in your family?

Yes, all of them! My mom and dad graduated from Dārziņš school — my father was a composer, and my mother teaches compulsory piano at the Academy of Music and plays accompaniment in opera classes. She’s been working there for the last 25 years or so! My sister had graduated from the musical theater department in RDKS, she’s two years younger than me, and she also was in that first year when Annija Putniņa had just opened the department. And my brother Artūrs plays the guitar and is one of the owners of a private music school «ģitārspēle.lv». So we are all in one boat.
To tell you the truth, I have wanted to play the piano since I was three years old; I started attending piano classes when I was four and a half and solfeggio lessons when I was five. Then I had those nine years in Dārziņš school. The piano was good, but… there was this teenage crisis somewhere along the way, when I wanted to quit everything, but my mother said that I could if I still wanted to quit after ninth grade. And then, after that ninth grade passed, I still wanted to quit, so I did. But I didn’t get very far — I went to RDKS to study jazz vocals.

Why suddenly vocals? How did you come to that?

I had this problem with the piano, I always had the feeling that I had to always pretend, that I couldn’t be myself, that I can’t say anything, I can’t sing anything, I’m always hiding behind something. As if I had to exaggerate everything even when I didn’t want to. And then classical music makes you always play precisely as written, and my teacher would always demand more! And when you have a type of personality as I do — a shy one, it gets tricky.

But isn’t it easier to exaggerate if you have an instrument?

Well, yes, I also think so, and I would like to know how to play the piano or another instrument on such a level that would allow me to perform professionally, but…

I just meant that you’ve mentioned that you were shy, but the teacher demanded more, so I had this thought that maybe it’s easier to give more when you have an instrument that you can hide behind and pretend that it’s that instrument that is exaggerating, not you. But since our vocalist’s instrument is our voice, we have nothing to hide behind, and it’s just us.

Inese: True, I had this problem up until high school, I was like a statue, no one could persuade me to start moving while singing; that was a never-ending battle…

Kristīne: Yes, it was tough for me as well to get over it in RDKS; there was some kind of stress during exams, it was something insane like a fever! And I had this stress all the time, but while singing, it was easier because when I used to play the piano, I had the feeling as if I was trying to speak a different language. So I had my ups and downs with singing, it’s hard when you have the feeling of being judged, and that’s when a thought that it would be easier if you had an instrument creeps in.

Inese: I know a pianist who once told me that singers are the most genuine of all musicians because they can’t lie; whatever comes out of them is what comes out. A pianist can learn to play all the tricks, and he can play his tricks without understanding what it is that he’s doing, a mechanical motion of sorts. Singers cannot do all those tricks without understanding what it is exactly they are trying to do.

Kristīne: But vocalists also copy a lot, and they have no way of telling whether the singer is genuine or a clone of another singer. But getting back to jazz music — why did I choose jazz? It was because of my mother, she used to play Natalie Cole’s album «Unforgettable» before going to bed, and I thought that her voice was like honey, I fell in love with those sounds, and still, this album is like a cloud of feathers my soul can rest on.

Inese: By the way, Natalie Cole was also my door to jazz music; just imagine making someone who’s not acquainted with jazz listen to Charlie Parker straight away, they would be like «Naaaah», but here you have vocals, some words, something closer to your pop music and you don’t really want to listen to this instrumental madness. Then Natalie shows you that you can go even further, do more complicated things, and then in time, you move on to Coltrane.

In my case, it was Diana Crall.

Kristīne: Well, she is jazzier; I like her a lot.

It’s a mystery to me why the «Jazz Police» doesn’t have a very fond opinion of her. In my mind she’s a very talented pianist and a good singer, she doesn’t do crazy things, but the way she sings is intelligent and very pleasant.

Kristīne: That’s because she’s rich. Very successful. She’s one of the rare jazz musicians who’s a «superstar».

Inese: Dee Dee Bridgewater is another one.

Ok, let’s get back to RDKS!

Kristīne: Ok, so it took a while to prepare for the entry exams because I’ve never sung solo before. I consulted with Inga, but she basically told me I was a lost cause… [laughs] Later, she told me that her first impression of me was that of some girl who was miawing something, very weak. Un I believe her, it was logical. So I did my best, studying like crazy for those exams. I realized that if I give into stress, then it will all go to hell. So I created a sort of a wall; I told myself that under no circumstances can I start worrying. I have no idea how I managed that! But starting from that point, I never had that, but I also didn’t have such stressful situations. Somehow I managed to get into RDKS, and I have fond memories of time spent there. You know how in middle school you’re still a dreamer, everything seems so interesting, important, it’s hard to explain. Everything was exciting to me.
Dārziņš school’s background was a huge help; of course, I never had any problems with solfeggio after the classes I took there, and I still don’t! I also enjoy sight-reading, transcribing, and writing musical dictations. But I also hadn’t played with a band before, that was something new to me, and then there were compulsory bass and drums — I was overjoyed! I have always liked to study, I’m one of those people! [laughs] I still enjoy it, I have thoughts of learning to play other instruments, but that takes time… I have a ukulele! But I can’t say that I know how to play it very well… I didn’t get very far with that, I always seem to have other pressing matters to attend to. But in time, maybe.

So you graduated from RDKS together with Līva Dumpe?

Yes, with her, and then Elīza Baķe and Māra Vidiņa joined us to form a band «she’art», But after a while, we’ve split up, because each went her own way. But it was a lot of fun, I truly enjoyed singing acapella…

And then you went away to study abroad?

Yes, to Finland to study at Sibelius Academy. I guess I was the first one in the jazz department from Latvia. Maybe someone else had been there on an exchange program, I don’t know. But it was fantastic. What I didn’t enjoy was the darkness. So I didn’t study there for all three years. Instead, I finished everything in two because I wanted to go away faster. It is possible to arrange all your classes there to graduate more quickly, so I squeezed as many courses as I could into my first year to compensate for the credits I’d need in my third year, and I could concentrate only on my singing classes.

But why so?

The darkness… The winter brought me down, I was depressed. And I’m also the kind of person who enjoys being in Latvia. I’ve missed my family, and all in all, there were few Latvians there, so it was hard for me to fit in. Only in my third year, I started feeling like I could. Finns are… They are open people, but at the same time, they are not. I have a lot of good friends there now, but maybe it’s because I wasn’t very mature then and I had a different view on things, I don’t know. But I did graduate, so everything is fine.

Why did you choose Finland in the first place?

Because I wanted to study improvisation deeper, and there were rumors that traditional jazz is on a high level in Finland, which turned out to be true. It is the perfect school for that, to learn how to hear the band, learn about rhythm, all the lines. Also, there were a lot of hardcore teachers. Some were harsh; some classes made me want to cry afterward.

That sounds intense, and not in a good way.

Yes, I needed a break, I didn’t see the point in music at all. I’ve studied music non-stop since I was five. Now I understand that the thing in Finland was good, in fact, a lot of constructive criticism. But now I’m here, and the last year was very productive — we [together with Edgars Cīrulis] are recording an album, and I think that’s truly amazing!

Fantastic! Tell me about it!

We’ve been recording this album for a year now; initially, we thought we would go into the studio, but with all the restrictions, everything went to hell, and in the end, everyone just recorded their parts at home and sent them to us. A «remote» album! Rubiks [Jānis], Dankfelds [Rūdolfs] have already sent everything to us, Svens [Vilsons] and other instruments — Ēriks Miezis on vibraphone, there will be accordion in some tunes, flute, multiple voices, Līva [Dumpe] also will sing something, Māra Vidiņa, viola, cello, violin…

It sounds like a whole orchestra!

Well, not everyone is going to be in all the songs! But… I can’t wait, I think it’s going to be grand! It’s more of a «singer-songwriter» stuff, some folk, blues.

That’s interesting, and I was also a bit surprised that you’ve mentioned Sibelius Academy and traditional jazz because I’ve never heard you in such a setup.

Really? I used to sing jazz standards a while back, I love it a lot! Nowadays, everyone always tries to change things up, but I often think it’s too much. And it was Sibelius Academy that taught me to love this music. Because you can sing the head so beautifully when you keep it simple, you don’t even have to sing a solo, and sometimes it’s too much even. However, I enjoy soloing a lot as well! In fact, it’s been a while…

This year everyone sings too little because of the pandemic… But the time wasn’t wasted — do you compose more?

Well, yes, and we record. In fact, we are recording the final vocal tracks this week!

Also, at home?

Actually, no! I have my own studio now; we’ve spent months renovating it. There was a painter named Oskars Vīndedzis, and currently, his grandson leases me the house where he used to have a studio. I fell in love with that place, It’s a massive event for me — my own space!

Evilena Protektore

You said that the album would have your songs, but how do you compose? What inspires you?

Kristīne: I write what I hear. A very abstract statement, isn’t it? But that’s true, the ideas usually come to my mind. Or sometimes I create a concept myself, like — now I need a fast tune, or maybe something with fourths in the comping. That’s my starting point. Sometimes the words come first; that’s the case for all the songs in this album. And I think that’s best, not when you are trying to write lyrics over some melodies. I used to do this, but I was never fully satisfied with the result. I always had the feeling that something had to be changed, adjusted, rewritten.

Inese: Because each text has its own rhythm and rhyme, that means that you’d have to be very creative to fit the text to the music, and then some particular word might not fit the meaning of the song but fit the music, and then you have a conflict on your hands.

What will the album be about? What stories are there?

Kristīne: The band is called «Dream Teller», so the album will have some visions, imaginings, something that merges with some image that came from my dreams.

Inese: Real dreams?

Kristīne: Sometimes, yes!

But how crucial, in your opinion, is inspiration? A while ago, we had a workshop by a New York-based artist who did a talk on a method when you write despite the lack of inspiration, the right mood, or anything at all because in her words, inspiration isn’t all that necessary; it’s all about the process, the discipline, the mental setup. So she talked a lot about writing the lyrics, and when you write down everything you see, all that comes to mind, then you start working with that, like a job.

Kristīne: I used to do that as well, but only when someone made me to.

Inese: Well, some people just can’t write without the inspiration; they can’t see this rationally.

Kristīne: Probably I’m the kind of person who doesn’t play nice with the system. I can, I had done systematic things at school, but it doesn’t give me that special feeling of creation when you write what comes from above; maybe that’s the inspiration that comes at that moment; the inspiration could be a feeling. To each their own, I guess.

Inese: But do you have those moments that the inspiration comes like five minutes before you have to leave, or when you’re on your way home and when you finally get there, it’s gone?

Kristīne: Yes! I had those moments!

Evilena Protektore

That’s why you need «Voice Memos»!

Kristīne: My phone is full of those! I also have had this idea hanging in my mind for several years now, and I think I’m finally ready to turn it into a song!

Inese: But do you get to use those recordings often? It’s so-so for me… It’s like — music academy you did manage to catch this idea, but it stays there, in your phone, that’s it. Imants Ziedonis has this remarkable epiphany about a mouse that runs away, and then you catch it, but it’s still gone, it’s the same as with those poems you write that seem like a good idea, but then you let them go because life happens and you don’t have time. You just have to accept that some ideas run away, and then some stay for decades.

Kristīne: The most important thing is to write about things that interest you, then other people will also be interested! And yes, always start with the lyrics!