With the cold and depressing month of January now out of the way, and the new year well and truly seen in, maybe it is time to take a leaf out of Stella Bass’s book and look for the silver lining.

The title of her new album released this month, it certainly does offer a glimpse of brighter things to come and for my money highly likely to be one of the best vocal albums that you’ll hear this year. So, why I asked myself hadn’t I discovered her music before?

It turns out that Stella has been working hard at her music for a number of years. Studying formally as well as gigging, she has been in demand on the international circuit as well as her native Ireland, has kept the singer busy. So busy in fact that it has taken her a decade to get around to following up her 2014 debut album Too Darn Hot with a new recording.

It was therefore my good fortune when a copy of Look for the Silver Lining arrived for review, and after having a listen I immediately made plans to talk to Stella about her music. Since then, the album has been a regular visitor to my CD player, and before I had realised it the release date was just days away.

My thanks therefore go to Stella for taking the time out of her busy schedule and preparations for the album launch to talk to me about her new recording.

Firstly, perhaps you can tell us a bit about your new album, Look for the Silver Lining, and the special significance for you in the title?

Yes, for sure! During the pandemic, after the initial shock of my gig diary emptying itself out overnight, I got involved in all sorts of online musical endeavours and studies…from setting up a home studio, to co-writing with collaborators worldwide, to working with an excellent singing teacher online (you forget how much your technique slips when you’re singing all styles day in day out, so that was particularly lovely to get back to). But as time went by, I felt a lingering draw to record another album. Perhaps it was having the time to reflect on the story I felt I could tell living through that most extraordinary of times: as a working musician you often don’t get the time to ‘stand still’ for a bit. Perhaps it was having spent time back working on my voice, perhaps it was a feeling that I could utilise all the new-found skills I’d worked on – writing, producing, vocal technique, becoming confident in the studio etc. I’d say it was subconsciously a mix of all of these really. The title came about when in early January 2022, I came down with a nasty dose of the flu and decided there was nothing for it but to get stuck into some Netflix. I have a Sunday jazz residency gig and had entirely missed the phenomenon of Sunday evening “Downton Abbey” viewing, so it was the perfect time to finally rectify that. What a beautiful show it was, and well worth the binge! There was a particularly iconic scene towards the end of Season 2 in which the original version of “Look For The Silver Lining” from 1919 was played and referenced by the actors as part of the plot. It resonated with me immediately, both as a lovely song and with its message of hope. It just had to be the title!

You quite rightly have the reputation of being a natural storyteller in the way that you sing. How did you go about choosing some of the stunning standards that you perform on the album? Do any of the songs hold a special story for you too?

Yes, they all do actually. Each of them has a reason for being there, capturing something that happened during the pandemic. For example, while Johnny arranged all the songs, three of the those (Old Devil Moon/Change Partners/Pure Imagination) were based on arrangements my good friend and collaborator Phil Ware had written for me before he suffered a life-changing stroke mid-2020, so it was important to me to have his input…it was a continuity of sorts as Phil had produced my first album. The two originals were a marker of my own growth and self-belief as an artist, the title track was a nod to my mid-pandemic Downton Abbey binge. “Blame It” has some of the new vocal techniques I was trying…that key change was going to work come hell or high water! The others too, all touch on moments/people/situations during that time, so it really is a snapshot of *my* pandemic.

The album opens with a lovely version of ‘Being Alive’ by Stephen Sondheim. You have shown an affinity for Sondheim’s music in presenting a programme of jazz-inspired versions of some of his Broadway songs. What is it that attracts you to Sondheim’s compositions?

I think it’s his incredible powers of observation into the human condition, into human relationships. He digs DEEP! Yet, he’s able to articulate the messiness of life so eloquently, so cleverly, and write the most beautiful (or jarring!) of melodies to underscore those descriptive lyrics. His songs are a gift to singers who seek to tell a story. Many of the great American composers worked in tandem with a lyricist (Rodgers & Hart/George & Ira Gershwin etc), whereas Sondheim did it all. Some of his songs are starting to find their way into the jazz canon, and I hope that continues.

I know that Ella Fitzgerald is a big influence, and that you have presented the music of Ella and Joe Pass in a duo with guitarist Hugh Buckley. One thing that I noticed when listening to Look for the Silver Lining is that it is not easy to discern your influences. How, as a vocalist singing standards, do you go about absorbing influences and moving on to find your own voice?

I love that observation! I think that, especially as a young singer, as you listen to the singers you look up to – regardless of genre – you will adopt some of what they do into your own performances. And not least because learning about phrasing or tone from say, Ella, is learning from the master. That said, I think the confidence you get from years of experience and learning about your voice makes you want to put your own stamp on a song rather than just copying what’s been done. Wasn’t it Miles Davis who said, “first you imitate, then you innovate”? It’s often attributed to him anyway, and it’s wise!

The musicians you have assembled for the album deliver on all counts. The core of the sound is of course the rhythm section, the Johnny Taylor Trio. The music sounds so well played in, and everyone sounds so comfortable; do you regularly perform with the trio, or is the recording the start of something big (to coin a phrase)?

Johnny, Barry and Dom are a joy to work with. They are a really well-established trio in their own right: to observe the musical awareness and intuition they have with each other is a lovely thing, and they have certainly made me feel welcome as an honorary member! I had worked with them all separately over the years, and indeed Dom played on my first album, but never had all four of us played together. Around the time I decided I would do an album; we were invited to do a concert together. After just a couple of rehearsals and one performance, I felt there was a kind of magic that we created together, so I knew pretty quickly that this was the trio I wanted to work with for this album. We’ve been working together more and more since, and yes, I definitely do think it’s the beginning of something big!

In addition to the superb playing by the Johnny Taylor Trio you also have two wonderful guest soloists in Ronan Dooney on flugelhorn and saxophonist Michael Buckley who makes a welcome return from the earlier album. You appear to approach the way you perform differently with a horn present, almost as you feel part of a horn section. Is this something you are conscious of at the time, or it is happening in a more subliminal way?

A: It’s probably a little of both. You’re intuitively aware of the similarities between the voice and horns; I particularly love the rich tone of the flugelhorn and the lower breathy qualities of the sax here. In the moment, you might hear something the horn players do, and – subconsciously or not – bring a little of that tone or nuance into your next phrase. I’ve learnt over the years to stay present on a gig, keep listening and be aware of what’s going on, who’s playing what. It can give you inspiration, and you can have fun with the musical interplay. There are times on a gig I’ve tried something I’ve heard, it goes pear-shaped, and you dissolve into laughter with each other. The audience love that – it shows that you’re authentic, you’re enjoying the gig too and also that you’re not just “phoning it in”.

Look for the Silver Lining is a hugely accomplished album, but it is not your first album. That accolade goes to the wonderful Too Darned Hot recorded in 2014. Why wait so long to record again, and how do you feel your music has changed in the years between the two albums?

Thank you, and yes, the second album definitely wasn’t something I rushed into! I think a couple of factors were in play. I became involved in some wonderful projects which toured a bit – a Sondheim project, an Ella Fitzgerald tribute, an exploration of the marvellous music of inter-war cabaret Berlin, for example. I was busy touring these, as well as doing plenty of private/corporate work, so the time never really appeared when I could just sit for a while and get a clear vision on how or when to lay any of these projects down in the studio. Then there’s the financial side too. An album is, I guess, a snapshot of your career, your life at a given time – and if I were going to record, it’d have to be done properly. As an independent artist, it’s down to me to fund my album, so I was quietly squirrelling away the funds for whatever the right project would be, and to do it the way I wanted. So much has changed about me too – my first album was produced by a wonderful friend, collaborator and pianist, Phil Ware. But I really didn’t know much about what I was doing, and Phil guided me through it all. This time around, I had learnt so much about the recording process, about the music business of 2024 (yes, I’m looking at you, Spotify!), I’d worked really hard on improving my vocal technique, I had done a Jazz Masters degree in 2017. Plus, I was writing, arranging, collaborating, producing and wanted to drive the project this time. In a male-dominated music genre, it was time to stand up, and be the boss of my own work.

One of the great pleasures in the new album is that among the standards you feature two of your own compositions. They fit in beautifully with the more familiar songs, and I for one would like to hear more of your writing. What influenced to include the original material on Look for the Silver Lining?

Thank you – it really means a lot that you feel they hold their own among some great standards! They were both written during the pandemic (“Still” remotely, “Colours” in-person as it was towards the end of covid), and along with both co-writers I took the time to really craft those songs. I was away from the treadmill of constant gigging, so my mind was really able to open up and be in the creative zone, there wasn’t a time pressure to have the songs churned out. I have quite a few songs written from that time now, but these two stood out as being ideal for a standards album. It’s a little scary to have them go out in the world, but I’m thrilled with the positive feedback that has come back so far. There’ll definitely be more originals!

I was particularly taken by ‘Still’, a beautiful song that that is full of emotion. Is there a story to be told about the writing of this song?

I’m thrilled you like that one. However, I solely wrote the music, so I don’t know! My co-writer on this song is a marvellous lyricist; he’s really meticulous about selecting the right language to tell a story so whether “Still” is real or not, it’s beautifully told, which makes it easy for me to perform. We worked on 4-5 songs at the height of the pandemic, and everything was done remotely, which was yet another pandemic learning curve. So, he’d email me lyrics, I’d sit at the piano and work out a melody and chord structure, send a loose demo on MP3 back, and we’d tweak back and forth from there. It was about 5 months before we were finally able to have an in-person writing session!

Composing seems to be a natural process for you. You have studied extensively both as a vocalist and formal composition as well as holding a degree in Computer Science. Why such differing disciplines in music and computers, and how have you managed to make the two mutually beneficial?

The Computer Science thing was really my parents trying to make sure I had a decent career and job prospects. And to be fair, they were right! Music was not a sensible career choice, certainly not back in 1990s Ireland. So I fell into a 9-5 job after graduating from Uni, but all the while I was studying singing, gigging at weekends, singing at weddings, doing local musicals…at the time I didn’t know it, but I was really learning the craft by getting out there and doing it. In time, I went back and finished all my music exams, and had learnt enough about the business world so that when I eventually took the plunge fulltime into music, I was very lucky to also understand the ‘business’ side of the music ‘business’. Thankfully this seems to be something they’re teaching music students much more about these days. Music itself is quite technical: not just learning the instrument, but also forms, structure, chord progressions etc – a nerdy mind like mine enjoys figuring out the mathematics of it all! And of course, when I set up my home studio during Covid, I found the tech side of that came very easily to me. Finally, my 4 years of IT came in useful!

As well as performing in duos, trios and quartets, working with a big band and composing, is there anything you don’t do? It is hoped that the release of the new album will bring you to the attention of a wider audience. What are your plans for the future, and do have the opportunity to tour the music Look for the Silver Lining?

I don’t cook! Or rather, I cook very badly. Seriously though, I think I’ve always been a really curious person – I love learning and trying things. And I suppose, while you can’t be brilliant at everything, I’m enjoying tapping into different aspects of the work, different genres. It’s good to challenge yourself, and also good to be aware of your limitations, I think? One of my long-time influences is Barbra Streisand: I’ve just finished her really excellent memoir, and it turns out she’s a terrible cook (that makes me feel SO much better about myself!), and she of course has been successful in several genres of music as well as film. While I’m nowhere in her league, it’s helpful to look at someone who’s done it all, and think, ok, I’m on the right track, that this path has been trodden before, just keep going, keep believing. We’re booked for a couple of festivals already, and I’ll be looking to get more international bookings. I’ve always been open to the surprise phone calls that can happen in this business too, so who knows what the next steps are? Maybe Barbra Streisand and I will collaborate on a recipe book, ha!