I wanted to bring everything I’d learned back home, weave it into the culture I came from and forge a new musical identity.
Vocalist and composer Christine Tobin is one of the most original artists to come from Ireland for many years, and we were extremely lucky that the decided to settle in England.
Over a period of two decades, Christine recorded eleven albums, firstly for the Babel label and then her own Trail Belle Records, that were always a captivating blend of jazz, poetry and contemporary song.
In 2015, Christine and her partner Phil Robson left the UK for New York. After a five year stay in the Big Apple, Christine and Phil relocated to Ireland just as the pandemic swept the globe, and now we have the first new recording from Christine for nearly seven years.
Returning Weather was well worth the long wait, and it was a pleasure to catch up with Christine to talk about her travels and the new album.
Perhaps we can begin with your recent stay in the US. In 2015 you left the UK for New York; can you tell us about your decision to relocate and how you found life in NYC?
My partner guitarist Phil Robson and I had wanted to spend time living in NYC and have that experience. It was something we had talked about since we got together way back.
We made our first pilgrimage to the birthplace of modern jazz in the mid 90’s and were totally smitten. There were numerous great jazz clubs, with many of our idols playing, and all within the compact city that is Manhattan.
Around that time we used to play week-long stints at Ronnie Scotts in London, where bands would be booked from Monday through to Saturday.
Usually, it would be an American big-name band headlining with a UK band playing support. But unlike most support slots, playing at Ronnies was structured very differently. Both bands played two alternating sets each, with the support band playing their second 50 minute set ending at 12:50am.
Then the main band came on for their final set which ended at around 2:30am. It was much more of a late night culture then and we got to know a lot of NYC musicians each time we played there.
In 1999 I decided to record my fourth album Deep Song in NYC. The songs on my first three recordings were mostly originals so it felt like the right time to make an album of classic jazz standards from the American Songbook as we approached the Millennium.
I’m grateful to Ollie Weindling of the Babel Label for enabling me to do that. So myself, Phil and Ollie headed over to NYC and recorded that album with Billy Hart on drums, Mark Turner on saxophone and Peter Herbert playing bass.
After that over the years, we were back and forth playing festivals and clubs over there, so there was always a relationship with NYC and an idea that we would move there at some point.
When we finally took the plunge in 2015 it felt like the right time to do it. We set off on our adventure, settled in pretty much straight away and absolutely loved it.
We actually relocated from Margate which is a small seaside town in Kent, so the contrast of suddenly being in NYC was immense but incredibly exciting.
There was that weird thing of the city being new for us but also strangely familiar. Everyone is so used to seeing the Big Apple on film and TV, you think you know it but of course you don’t until you live there.
I found the people more extroverted and casually friendly out ‘n about on the street and that way of being resonated with me as an Irish person.
Needless to say it was amazing being able to pop into the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Standard and other clubs and hear some of the great jazz artists that you might only see once every few years at a festival in the UK.
How were you and Phil welcomed in New York? Was it difficult to break into the NYC jazz scene, or did you have some plans already lined up upon your arrival?
We were made to feel very welcome when we got there. We reconnected with musicians we’d met in London and also Phil had toured and played in the UK with people like Mark Turner, James Genus, Billy Hart, Jason Palmer, Ingrid Jensen, Donny McCaslin and many more.
So, we went to their gigs, and they would invite us to sit in when possible, introduce us to the club owners, other musicians and sometimes book us for gigs. For example Ingrid Jensen booked me to sing with her band when she played a residency at Birdland. So it was really helpful to know people.
Without those connections it would be extremely tough because most NYC musicians are in bands with the same people for years. They tend to play with the same pool of people from their age set who they would have met when they studied jazz together at one of the colleges.
Musicians keep those ties and relationships for years. I also reconnected with jazz guitarist David O’Rourke an old friend from Ireland who moved over there in the 1980’s. He was great! He was running the Jazz Discovery Programme for Kids at the Jazz Standard and booked us to do some workshops.
David invited me to play with my band at an event he was curating. He made sure the manager of the Jazz Standard, Seth Abramson was there when we played so he would hear me sing.
He did, and after my set, Seth came over and booked me for my first gig at the Jazz Standard. So, in a way, we didn’t have any set plans in place when we moved there. What we did took a massive leap of faith. We made it up as we went along and somehow we made it work with a little help from our friends!
Your very original approach to your chosen repertoire must have aroused much interest. Even when singing standards as you did on your ‘Deep Song’ album with saxophonist Mark Turner your sound and interpretation is very unique. How did the NY audiences welcome you as a musician, and were they familiar with your work at all?
Some musicians would have known of my work, but I didn’t really have an audience there so had to work hard and build that up at every opportunity.
In the various places I was working, some of the venues had a particular style of jazz they preferred. Places such as Kitano were pretty conservative in how they expected their singers to be. They wanted a kind of supper club, gown & classic jazz standards style.
Mezzrow is an intimate, bijou, serious jazz club but the singers who got booked were mostly into a retro thing, with repertoires of very early show tunes sung in a 1940’s jazz style that would be at the conservative end of the spectrum.
So, when I worked at those places, I made sure to do a programme of American songbook standards and deliver them as close to a classic jazz style as I could. Kitano, I found a challenge, but Mezzrow is a great club and I found a way of being myself when I sang there.
Places like the 55 Bar were different in that it was a jazz club but they booked a wider range of styles across the music. I felt I could sing a broader repertoire including originals and it was great having regular gigs there so I could build up my audience.
I loved playing at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, the Jazz Standard, The Cell, Joes’s Pub, the Bar Next Door and The Irish Repertory Theater. I also had a Sunday brunch jazz trio residency just down the street from Birdland for about two years and that was good for building up my audience too.
How do you feel that living and working in the United States has had an effect on your own music?
I think it’s had a huge effect on the music I’ve written since then and on the way I perform. A really significant factor that I haven’t mentioned so far is that when I moved to NY, I connected with my Irishness which is something I never really thought about in all the years that I’d lived in the UK.
Even though I made the album Sailing To Byzantium, settings of poems by Irish poet WB Yeats, and I had begun setting poems and lyrics by Paul Muldoon for the PELT album, I was absorbed with composing and how best to interpret the poems musically.
Strangely, working with those texts never caused me to reflect on my roots or my Irishness, as least not consciously. I had performed a couple of times with Paul and he invited me to bring Sailing To Byzantium to the Lewis Center Theater at Princeton University a couple of years before we moved over.
In 2015 he started his own series at the Irish Arts Center in NY called Muldoon’s Picnic. He booked me and Phil as guests for one of the shows, in fact it was our first NY gig and my introduction to the Irish Arts Center which was to prove an important place for me.
After our Muldoon’s Picnic performance, the IAC booked my A Thousand Kisses Deep show for a few nights, and we got great audiences. They were presenting excellent work across all the arts, showcasing Irish artists and culture but I noticed that they didn’t have any jazz on their programme.
I had the idea to devise a jazz series of different themed shows that would include different bands, film clips and some story telling on whichever the chosen theme was. Phil and I approached them with this proposal which we would curate together and call it, Tobin’s Run on 51, as the IAC was on 51st St. The IAC liked the idea and saw it as a welcome addition to their programme and so began our very own jazz series in a lovely theatre in Hell’s Kitchen.
It gave us the opportunity to book great musicians including, Steve Wilson, Peter Washington, Dayna Stephens, Jed Levy, Gary Versace, Kate McGary, Dezron Douglas, Alvester Garnett and many more. Also it gave me an ongoing relationship with the IAC where I got to see the best of Irish contemporary culture and glimpse some of the cutting edge work coming out of Ireland in music, literature and right across all of the arts.
Looking back on it now, I think this was the beginning of my reconnection with Ireland. Before that I had lost touch, having emigrated in 1987 and I wasn’t aware of what was going on there at all. That sort of reconnection is no small thing and affected me in a profound way.
Did you record at all when in NY, either on other musicians’ projects or your own music?
No, although I wrote some new music but didn’t record it and haven’t done so yet.
You left the US in 2020 after living there for five years. What made you and Phil decide to move back, and what drew you back to Ireland especially?
We left NY at start of Covid as everything shutdown. All of our gigs were cancelled and the city ground to a halt. It’s a very expensive place and impossible to live there without an income.
As I explained earlier, I had been a lot more in touch with Irish culture while in NY and felt a reconnection to my Irishness, plus we were lucky in that we had an offer of a place to stay in the West of Ireland in the countryside so that sounded like a good plan.
We have had to wait a long time for a new album from you, can you tell us about Returning Weather and the influences behind the words and music?
Well, if it hadn’t been for the stops and starts of Covid that just went on and on, the album probably would have come out in 2021.
In a nutshell Returning Weather is inspired by my homecoming, a nine-part song cycle charting that journey, exploring themes of finding home, reconnecting with a cultural background and reshaping a sense of identity and belonging.
The songs are set in the countryside of Northwest Roscommon and celebrate the quiet beauty of the bogs, lakes and patchwork fields of that landscape. It also marks a return to writing my own lyrics with the exception of one song ‘Still, Life’ which is a setting of a poem by Eva Salzman.
The music blends influences from Irish trad, 20th-century art song and jazz. It draws threads from all the musical experiences I’ve had in my life and makes a full circle back to my roots.
I wanted to bring everything I’d learned back home, weave it into the culture I came from and forge a new musical identity. I was commissioned to write the work by The Dock Arts Centre, with an Arts Council of Ireland Music Commissions Award.
The instrumentation is also quite unusual, and also different from your previous recordings. What drew you to using the uilleann pipes, and the idea of creating the beautiful unison passages with violin and viola?
I wanted the instrumentation to reflect the blend of musical styles so it was inevitable that it would bring musicians from diverse disciplines together. I love the uilleann pipes and their sound embodies the soul of Irish music so deeply that I felt they had to be part of the sound.
Piper David Power is a wonderful musician who I met in NY when he played the Irish Arts Center. We both had the same US agent, Liz Roth who had been saying to me that she’d love to see us work together. Cora Venus Lunny seemed the perfect choice to play the violin and viola.
She is an incredibly gifted and versatile musician. She came up through the classical music scene and performed as a soloist with many orchestras worldwide but mostly plays as an improvising musician on the contemporary scene these days. I knew she would be able to play and bring something to the range that is within this music.
Uilleann pipes and violin playing together is a combination you see a lot in Irish trad music. They blend beautifully. David also played whistles for some of the unison lines with Cora as the pipes are limited in terms of keys and note range. I wrote the unison lines to convey the magic of the light and colours that hover above the landscape.
It was always going to be Phil Robson on guitar as we’ve had a musical partnership for years plus, he’s brilliant! He got into electronics during the lockdown for a self-produced album called Portrait in Extreme.
I loved what he did on that and thought electronics would provide colour and a panoramic dimension to the sound of the Returning Weather songs. Phil also did a great job mixing this album.
I called Steve Hamiliton to play piano because like Phil, he is a jazz musician and he is also versatile, open minded, super talented and plays with an incredible touch which is very important to some of the pieces, especially ‘Gennie’s Welcome’.
One of the compositions on Returning Weather that resonated with me was ‘Still, Life’ where you have set to music the words of Brooklyn poet Eva Salzman. Why did you pick this particular poem, and how did you come to discover Eva’s poetry?
Eva is a close friend and we have known each other for a long time. I set some of her poems such as ‘Muse of Blues’ and ‘Bye Bye’ on earlier albums and we played performances together when I was in NY. She’s also read at some of my shows in the UK. She is a great poet and a joy to collaborate with because she has a deep understanding of music.
We first met through poet Don Paterson when I was in the band Lammas that was led by Don and Tim Garland way back in the last century!! I thought her poem ‘Still, Life’ would fit perfectly into the song cycle because it’s about her experience of staying in a remote old, abandoned house without electricity or running water and the effect it had on her.
So, while I was thinking a lot about home and dwelling, I noticed that were a lot of old and abandoned houses dotted around the landscape here in varying states of decay. They have a strong presence, almost like looking at old photographs of relatives you’ve never met, but somehow, all is familiar.
These deserted houses are often strangely intact with curtains still hanging and sometimes, even a cup or two on the kitchen table, but the glass might be gone from the windows and there may be a gaping hole in the roof, or some hedge slowly pushing in through a side door. They are witness to a landscape that has experienced economic hardship and mass emigration.
You have recently toured the music from the album around Ireland. Are there plans to bring the music to the UK too?
The London Jazz Festival expressed an interest in Returning Weather so a date is quite likely to happen in November this year. I would love to bring this band over to tour the UK so I’m hoping more gigs will follow.
I feel like I’ve only just got my feet back on the ground after my Irish album launch tour but I’m keen to get more tours organised for this music. If any of your readers want to help make it happen, I’m all ears!!
You now appear to be settled in your new home in Co. Roscommon, what plans do you have for the future?
While the Returning Weather album is a concise collection of nine compositions, the live shows expand upon the material with additional spoken word passages and visual effects, photographs and images that are projected as a shifting backdrop.
There is more of a performance to this work than anything I’ve ever done before, and I would like to move more in that direction of presentation. I would really like to collaborate with a set design artist and a lighting design artist or a dance company and create something new. Meanwhile, there are plans afoot for a Returning Weather US tour in 2024.