Interview with Naomi Ferguson – Cavell Leitch New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival

Naomi Ferguson's show Teach me tonight: Lessons I learned from Billie, Nancy, and Aretha is on at the Cavell Leitch New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival, Friday, 31 May 2019, 7.30 to 9.30pm at The Piano: Centre for Music and the Arts, 156 Armagh Street, Christchurch. Book tickets via Dash tickets.

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What is your first musical memory?

Resting my head on my mother's chest to feel the vibrations while she sang during church services. 

Did you come from a musical family?

My father played the flute as I was growing up. He can play any non-reeded wind instrument by ear. He doesn't read music at all. My grandmother on my mother's side was a beautiful singer and pianist and came from a large Irish family where music was very prevalent. 

Are you a self-taught musician or did you train somewhere?

I learned piano from the age of 4, had a few singing lessons throughout school and then did my undergraduate training at the CPIT Jazz School where I did a double major in Voice and Arranging. I then did a BMus (Bachelor of Music) Hons at University of Canterbury.

This is very unfair, but what is your favourite song?

A very unfair question indeed, and one which I actually can't answer. I feel it's a bit like asking a painter to name their favourite colour! I'll give you three that I enjoy a lot, that have stood the test of time in my performance repertoire, and that I always feel are fresh: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, Amazing Grace, and the jazz standard, Cry Me a River

What musical genres do you enjoy listening to?

I really enjoy singers who write their own music (my favourite is Bob Dylan); Motown & soul; 70s funk; tango; chamber music from Baroque, impressionist and contemporary periods; minimalist or pattern music such as the music of Arvo Pärt; jazz singers from the 1930s - 60s; and bands like The Velvet Underground.

What musical genres do you enjoy performing?

Anything except classical music! I trained in jazz, I love singing gospel, folk, pop, soul, musical theatre, blues, rock - you name it!

Who do you feel are your musical influences?

Some of the classic jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O'Day, as well as Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. 

Do you have any musical heroes?

Those I mentioned above. And I'd add Prince, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. 

Have you met or performed with any musicians that you really admire?

I once did Christmas in the Park the same year as Che Fu and he complimented me on my singing. I really love his music and so I was pretty thrilled with that! But all the local and New Zealand musicians I perform with (that aren't necessarily famous) have my utmost respect and admiration. We are very lucky in New Zealand to have such a wealth of talented people making music. 

Is there something you consider the highlight of your career so far? Any lowlight (you don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to)?

In terms of highlights there have been so many. I did really enjoy my recent role of Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, and I've enjoyed international performances in Hong Kong, Seoul and Amsterdam. But I guess the biggest highlights for me are the small, intimate performances where you can see people being transported by your music.
Lowlight would have to be a summer theatre gig I did where the audience were usually trollied and one night someone yelled at me to "get your t!ts out". It was one of those things I did because I really needed the work at the time, but I still cringe.

Considering artists in all fields face all sorts of challenges, what difficulties have you faced to establish your career?

I think having to do it all - be my own manager, publicist, agent etc - that's difficult. But I think the biggest challenge in creative fields is that sometimes what you aspire to or want to create isn't fashionable or of the moment. I've chosen to make work I'm proud of and not worry too much about whether it's popular or profitable. That of course is a great privilege and one that is made possible by steady employment, a supportive family and spouse, my upbringing and education and a number of other socio-economic factors than many other potential artists would have to struggle with. So while I may not be renowned worldwide (or even nationwide) I consider myself very fortunate to be able to make work and have people appreciate it.

Anything you’d like to say about your upcoming show?

It's a lovely opportunity to pay tribute to three artists who have taught me a great deal about singing, music and life - and if people want to come they should book now as there are very few tickets left!

Thanks very much for giving up your time for this interview, Naomi, and have a great show.

The Cavell Leitch New Zealand International Jazz & Blues Festival

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