Pushing towards greater authenticity, Adams is determined to write more of her own songs.
JUNE SUNLIGHT FLARES off the white-winged, bobbing butterflies busily pollinating the crops in the front yard of a James Bay heritage house. As I ride up on my bike, Victoria jazz vocalist Susannah Adams emerges from the front door, which features hand-painted doves. She gestures for me to join her at a shaded wooden picnic table set with refreshments. This tiny gem of an urban farm is her husband’s creation; rabbits, ducks, quail, and chickens provide a steady percussive backdrop of clucks, crows, and chirps. “My husband’s vision is to see abundance everywhere,” Adams says as she pours me a glass of rose tea.
We’ve found a brief window to meet in between her teaching music, raising two kids, composing, performing, and, of course, helping to nurture the wee farm.
Adams is often on CBC Radio’s Hot Air and Saturday Night Jazz, and has graced the stage at various music festivals, including a three-night residency at Victoria Jazz Festival. Her 2018 debut album, As the Morning Light, is a collection of dazzling arrangements of jazz standards and some of her original compositions, featuring Miles Black (piano), Oliver Gannon (guitar), Miguelito Valdes (trumpet), Joey Smith (bass) and Kelby MacNayr (drums).
With her cascading red hair, calm demeanour, graceful lines—all framed by tendrils of vegetation in her yard—she resembles the Art Nouveau imagery of Mucha and Klimt. I tell her this, and she appreciates the reference; she’s studied art history.
Adams’ conversational style is genuine, and so are her performances. For me, the irresistible appeal of her recordings blossoms from the warm intimacy she creates by being very close to the microphone, tripping lightly through surprisingly acrobatic stylings, plaintive sustained notes, and phrase accents of shimmering, emotional vibrato. Like Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, or Fiona Apple before her, Adams’ technically deft, conversationally frank timbre evokes the experience of a best friend sharing the unvarnished details of her human experience—or telling you the hard truths you need to hear.
Every bit the seasoned pro at age 39, it’s surprising that music wasn’t Adams’ earliest passion. Growing up in Britain, she studied visual arts. At 24, though, going through a rough patch, she heard recordings of Billie Holiday’s “mournful, sorrowful and raw music,” and says, “I really was compelled to sing, and felt so unsure of how to do that.” Her sister was taking voice lessons. “I felt this pang of envy,” she says. “It seemed so unattainable.” Her sister shrugged and said, “Let’s just find you a teacher.”
At first, Adams recounts, the lessons were “more of a therapy session than anything. To release your voice is such an intimate and vulnerable place…[The instructor] listened to my woes; then, at the end of the session, I sang along to a recording of a song that was playing.” In subsequent sessions, Adams asked herself, “Can I sing it without the recording?” Bit by bit, she dared to reveal more of her own interpretations and authentic voice. “After six weeks of one-on-one lessons, my teacher said to me, ‘I’ve got gigs for this hotel, why don’t we get you a gig?’ I had no clue what that was about.” But, she says, “There’s only one way to learn, and that was to begin.”
With the same open-hearted, trusting quality that later led her to shed most of her belongings and travel, at times by trans-Atlantic freighter, around the globe as a WWOOFer (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)—and with her voice teacher along for moral support, she showed up at the hotel in a skirt and flip-flops. “I had written my lyrics in a rainbow notepad. I was there with a phenomenal pianist, singing my songs, reading from my notebook. It was my very elementary start. People liked it.”
There isn’t a hint of either self-congratulation or self-deprecation in her account, just a quiet awe and matter-of-fact gratitude. She calls what happened to her “luck.” But she hasn’t simply been a passive character in her musical evolution. “Along the way I have learned to refine,” she says, “the conventions and parameters around being a performing musician—understanding what it is—and [stepping] into that role.” She’s reluctant to call herself a “jazz diva,” but says she is “enjoying the stage aspect much more, letting more of my self come forth, freeing up a bit more and more. It’s a never-ending process, really.”
After her early successes as a vocalist, she moved to a new city in Britain, and “as much as I wanted to find the musicians and get back into singing again, it didn’t come together for a long time.” She and her Canadian husband Chris got married, intending to “travel indefinitely,” working on organic farms as a couple. “Performing was not part of the footloose life,” Adams says. “The music wasn’t present at all.”
In 2008, though, during a rare Christmas visit to Chris’ Victoria parents, the couple saw a coast-to-coast snowstorm as a sign that they should maybe stay on. Adams got pregnant with their first child, and “things presented to us here.” The young family decided that being neighbours with paternal grandparents, and raising kids in a city less dense and intense than London (where Adams’ parents live) had appeal. “I do think it’s a very good quality of life here,” she says. “People are very open-hearted—not quite as cynical and jaded as they are back in Britain.”
Life in Victoria has also provided new opportunities for Adams to honour her authentic passion for musical expression. After years of setting it all aside, she says, “I’ve met the right people…people who have taken me under their wings, and been generous with their time and helping me along.” Recalling a particularly important experience at a jazz workshop in Port Townsend, Washington in 2015, she becomes emotional. “That was another pivotal moment in my life. I committed to it.” She wipes away tears as she speaks. “It was a big moment of realization, that this is what I need to be doing in my life. It’s not just a hobby now; this is my path.”
Yet in any commitment, whether to path or person, there are times when it’s hard to stay the course. Adams agrees. “You go in this spiral of ‘Am I still wanting to do this?’ I reaffirm, then say, ‘How do I go on to the next level?’” Adams wants to avoid complacency and keep challenging herself; she’s decided that original compositions are the way to do this. “That’s scary. Now I’m committed to sharing my own voice at a deeper level. My aspiration is to wean myself off of singing other people’s songs—other people’s stories—and sing mine.”
Susannah Adams performs with Roy Styffe (sax), John Lee (piano), Brock Meades (bass) and Graham Villette (drums) at Hermann’s Jazz Club, July 13 at 8pm. As part of the U-Jam summer music camp, on Wednesday, July 24, 2-3:30pm, Adams leads a masterclass on jazz vocal improvisation, followed by an evening concert at 7pm. See www.susannahadams.com for more information.
Mollie Kaye started out studying fine arts and graphic design; Victoria has offered her many gifts, including the opportunity to develop her voice as a writer and singer. She thinks that was great luck.