“I just start off on a song journey, humming a tune and see where it leads. It’s such an exciting period working on a tune - it’s one of the times I’m absolutely happiest and can forget about other stuff. ”
Hilary Burt interviewed by Charlie Anderson for the Sussex Jazz Magazine Dec 2018
How would you describe the music of ‘Hilary Burt’s Blue Calluna’?
My compositions come from a knowledge of jazz and jazz harmony but my writing also has elements of latin, funk and folk. I decided that the most accurate genre is ‘jazz-folk’ but even that doesn’t fit many of my tunes.
I never think about ‘my sound’ (but according to others, I have one). I just start off on a song journey, humming a tune and see where it leads. It’s such an exciting period working on a tune - it’s one of the times I’m absolutely happiest and can forget about other stuff.
I’ve started telling stories in my songs now and that has been quite a recent development. The lovely thing is, I can write something in Sibelius, print it out, take it to the band, and it blows Sibelius out of the water. They are such wonderful musicians that the piece just grows 10 fold when we all play it together.
Tell us about your new album with Blue Calluna, Step Off and Fly.
I started imagining the possibility of a new band and an album last summer (around July/August 2017). I had a few tunes that were song based and I knew I was never going to be the vocalist! So I started thinking about who I wanted in the band. Not only was I looking for musicians whose playing I loved, but also who would bring warmth and vitality to the project. It wasn’t hard to gather the names!
Step Off And Fly is a 13 song album. There are three instrumentals, Golden Animation - originally written with the Sussex Jazz Orchestra in mind; Sarah’s Hour - written in about 1999 and also scored for the SJO; and a new tune Ingrid’s Song written for a friend who visited me last summer. The other songs are mostly vocal-led (by the great Lucy Pickering) and the majority have been written specifically for Blue Calluna. The title track ‘Step Off And Fly’ was written as much for me as for anyone else, encouraging us to be brave and ‘look fear straight in the eye’. I often find myself writing about new beginnings, new chapters, moving on in life, creating one’s own change, that kind of thing. Over the years I’ve had to transform situations that weren’t working and I guess that’s part of who I am and what I want to express.
How does your latest album with your band Blue Calluna differ from your previous album, North Beach?
My previous album North Beach (2014) was my first toe in the recording water for me as an artist. I’d recorded with other bands in the 1990s when I was a full-time primary school teacher, leaving school at the end of the day and going straight to a rehearsal or a workshop. But this was the first project under my own name. Also I was never planning to perform the music on North Beach. It was a straightforward studio album just to get some of my music ‘out there’.
North Beach was a big achievement for me because in 2011, I was feeling completely left behind in the music technology world. It was really getting me down and I knew I had to learn new skills which involved a computer. I started going to a 10 week course at the City Lit in Holborn to learn about Logic. We used to live in London and the City Lit was where I met Mark (husband Mark Bassey) so I felt very comfortable there even though it was quite a trek from Brighton every Saturday morning. As I learnt more about Logic I was able to get my ideas down on the computer and let my creative juices flow. The core of that first album was me on flute, with Logic sounds and samples made to sound as natural as possible. I also invited Mark, Simon D’souza, Alex Eberhard, Terry Pack, both my brothers Nick and Gary Burt, and a number of other musicians to play on it so it was a lovely combination of technology and human warmth. It was a very exciting time!
How have you developed as a composer and what has helped you the most?
The main thing that has happened is that I am now believing in myself which was always missing before. I had enormous fears of people laughing at my music and not being taken seriously. Those feelings can take a long time to work through. They’re still there but they’re much quieter now and I can talk to the younger Hilary and be a parent to her when necessary (I was bullied at Secondary School and had endless teasing from both my brothers - we’re good friends now!). Last year I must have felt the time was finally right and the world was safe enough for me to venture out with my own group. Something had obviously shifted within me.
Also in 2015, Terry Pack invited me to join his ‘Unfeasibly Large Ensemble’ Trees and put out a general invitation for anyone who wanted to write for the band. That was really my impetus to learn Musescore and later Sibelius. Without those skills I don’t think I could have written for all those instruments. I had no idea how people would react when I first took along my tune ‘Simeon’ but the reaction was positive and I owe Terry and the members of Trees a great deal for giving me that opportunity.
The other crucial thing in my development has been my study at Berklee Online. I’d already completed a jazz degree at Middlesex in 2004 but I wanted to take my music a bit further. The very first course I did there was Reharmonisation with Steve Rochinski. This really blew me away and introduced me to so many new musical concepts. It was very intense - only 14 weeks - but we had weekly assignments that were marked (scrutinised actually) and being with other students from around the world who were part of this steep learning curve really inspired me. I also did another Logic course there as well as a mixing and mastering course. The tutors at Berklee Online gave me a lot of confidence in my writing ability.
Needless to say, living with Mark has been fantastic. He obviously knew all the reharmonisation stuff I was doing at Berklee but I needed to do it on my terms and find my own teachers. Plus I don’t think it’s that healthy having your husband check your work and teach you about modal interchange! Apart from anything else it’s not really that romantic!! Having said that, if he knows I’m working on a piece, he’ll always ask, “Have you got anything to play me?” and he’ll come up to my music room and listen. He never suggests changes. He just seems to enjoy listening to what I’ve been up to that day - and that’s really nice :-)
Are there any other projects that you are involved with?
I play alto in the Sussex Jazz Orchestra and take part in Mark’s jazz improvisation ‘carousel’ which is at our house on a Wednesday afternoon. I still teach children and am now a dyslexia specialist with my own practice, Spotty Dog Tutoring. It’s a good combination: walking the dogs, helping my dyslexic students build up their literacy skills, and doing my music. To be honest I’m looking forward to a quieter spell now. It’s been a very intense time getting the music ready for the album, writing and designing the CD, and creating the online infrastructure for the music. I have a stencilling kit sitting in the corner of my room so I might just get the paints out and start stencilling the walls of our house!
Sussex Jazz Magazine interview by Charlie Anderson December 2018