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Issue 1084

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NATASHA PANAS: Star potential

Natasha Panas
Natasha Panas Natasha Panas Natasha Panas

While the current female Brit-soul boom could well yet lead to numerous industry-enhanced Amy/Duffy/Adele soundalikes/lookalikes, it is arguably also creating an ideal platform for more individual and seasoned talents to finally make their long-overdue entrance centre-stage. Cue this monthâs release of âYellow Flowersâ, the debut album from 33-year-old London singer/songwriter/keyboardist Natasha Panas.

Already pioneered by the big horns and thumping piano of its blues-tinged, lovestruck single âKenningtonâ (which Natasha co-wrote with long-term friend David McAlmont, who also provides backing vocals), âYellow Flowersâ finds Panas utilising her decade-plus experiences as backing vocalist and session-musician to create a mostly-self-penned, quality classic-soul-anchored set, whose live instrumentation boasts the production prowess of sometime Amy Winehouse/Sugababes/Neneh Cherry collaborator Paul Simm.

Born to a Polish-Jewish mother and Greek-Italian father who married in Italy, London-born Natashaâs multicultural background is not only reflected in her photogenic, exotic looks but also - indirectly - in a sad event which inspired her new albumâs aforementioned title: âYes, with my father being half-Italian, as a child Iâd spend all my summers in Italyâ, she begins: âAnd I had this really, really good Italian friend who lived in the house below ours. Her name was Mimosa - which is obviously a yellow flower - and she was one of the most beautiful women youâd ever seen in your life. I mean, literally traffic would stop - she was so gorgeous. But unfortunately she died in a car-crash about 10 years ago. So I ended up writing a few songs for her, and of those âYellow Flowersâ was probably my favourite. Then musically too it actually turned out to be a standout track on my album, because itâs done with a jazz trio and itâs very simply produced with no backing vocals. So, when we were thinking about what title to call the album itself, âYellow Flowersâ - while it may not have been the easiest option - definitely seemed a LOGICAL one.â

Meanwhile, mention of her albumâs consistently soulful, and often intimate, musical content finds an ever-personable, well-spoken Natasha in honest, yet quietly-confident mood: âWell, as a musician, Iâm not cutting-edge. In that I donât think I bring anything new as far as genre is concerned. But, as far as the songs themselves are concerned, Iâm hoping that theyâre a collection of classically-crafted tunes which - if weâve done our jobs properly - will prove to be quite timeless. Also theyâre very personal, in that lyrically I have to be very much inspired by mood. You know, for me itâs one extreme or the other - either incredibly happy or incredibly sad! And production-wise, I think Paul did a fantastic job. Heâs the most meticulous person Iâve ever worked with - very hard-working, very diligent. And, with him having originally been a jazz piano-player and trumpeter, my music was right up his street! He was excited at the prospect of making an album which, while not having an AMAZING budget, had enough of a budget to incorporate real live strings and horns. Because it meant he could have a bit of a field-day with the production! So overall yes, I think weâve achieved a good collection of classic-sounding tunes which have something quite current about them as well.â

With Natashaâs musical leanings being cultivated at an early age - when she was two, her family took in a lodger in the form of legendary jazz-pianist and film-score composer Roy Budd (the man behind the soundtrack to the celebrated Michael Caine movie âGet Carterâ) - by nine she was attending the respected Purcell School in Hertfordshire. Where she learned how to read music, wrote her first compositions, and discovered her singing ability: âMusic was something that just came naturally to meâ, she relates: âBecause I played by ear, Iâd hear a tune and just go and straightaway play it on the piano. I wouldnât necessarily have to try that hard. But, while I do have some regret at not taking advantage of my talent as much as I could have done early on, I like to that Iâve not done TOO badly out of it!â

âI mean, as soon as I came out of university, I just went straight into working as a professional musicianâ, continues the chatty Ms. Panas: âIn fact, Iâve actually been professional since I was 16. And one of the first places I played was Stringfellows - at a time when they used to have a piano upstairs rather than a pole with naked ladies! And yes, I was fully-clothed! You know, now - when I think about it - Iâm like âOh my God, what was I DOING?!â⦠There I was - a child of 16 years old - surrounded by these dreadful people who could have done God-knows-what to me, and just thinking âYeah, I KNOW about the world!â⦠When blatantly I DIDNâT!â

With Natasha next going on to entertain fellow singer-songwriters at various prestigious events (including The Grouchoâs annual charity event for Shelter), gigs over the last six years have included touring as Vanessa Maeâs backing vocalist plus singing on TV shows like âTop Of The Popsâ and âCD-UKâ for artists like Miss Dynamite and Darius (with whom she toured for four months). Nevertheless, she insists traditional soul and jazz has always been where her heart lies: âI grew up listening to lots of Ella Fitzgerald, Candi Staton, Nina Simone... So there was never going to be any other influence than soul and jazz in my writing. Plus I always loved the real instruments in the production on those peopleâs albums. So it was inevitable that I was going to have an album that didnât have much programming or any kind of weirdânâwacky sounds.â

âBut, while I think itâs great obviously to have these British female soul singer/songwriters doing so well right now - because I love that kind of music - I donât know if itâs so great for ME as an artist, because people might be bored with it!â, she acknowledges honestly: âYou know, it is difficult being pigeonholed. Because youâre either going to really please people, whoâll be like âOh, itâs so great that thereâs this female soul movement and youâre part of itâ⦠Or youâre gonna have other people whoâll say âOh God, not ANOTHER one!â!... But, you know, Iâll continue to just do what I do - and make no excuses for it! I am hoping the fact Iâm slightly more mature than artists like Duffy and Adele will stand me in good stead. Because, while I donât wanna say Iâm OLD, obviously I have had a bit of experience, and I am definitely ready - at this stage in my life and career - to come out with something that Iâm totally proud of.â

The album 'Yellow Flowers' is released September 15 through 3010 Records

Natasha plays Jazz Café, London September 17th and 18th
Words PETE LEWIS

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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