Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Elisa Caleb: A breath of fresh air

Elisa Caleb
Elisa Caleb Elisa Caleb Elisa Caleb Elisa Caleb

Born in March 1981 to Barbadian and Filipino parents, Elisa Caleb began singing at a young age at church before - as a teenager - becoming introduced to jazz through listening to such iconic vocalists as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

However, it was not until the autumn of 2005 - upon the encouragement of her husband and fellow musician Jo Caleb - that she finally made the decision to pursue music professionally. Since which time she has performed to considerable acclaim in Paris, Moscow, Barbados, Belgium and Italy, in addition to numerous venues across London and the UK.

Elisa’s subtly shuffling, acoustic guitar-flavoured single ‘The Wind’ meanwhile currently precedes her forthcoming debut album ‘Carry Me Home’. A sophisticated and charming fusion of classic jazz, folk and gospel, said set finds her crystal-clear, gentle vibrato charismatically delivering a range of material ranging from standards like Rodgers & Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ and Cole Porter’s ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’; to the swinging opener ‘Bring Back Spring’ and aforementioned ‘The Wind’ (both penned by her aforementioned spouse Jo Caleb). Meanwhile, with instrumental accompaniment emanating from pianist Ivo Neame, bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Troy Miller, production in turn comes courtesy of seasoned, one-time Amy Winehouse musical director Femi Temowo.

All of which a chatty Ms. Caleb discusses in an informative introductory chat with Pete Lewis.

PETE: How would you break down your debut LP ‘Carry Me Home’ musically?

ELISA: “It is quite a jazzy record and there are a lot of covers on there. But, at the same time, it’s not strictly straight-ahead jazz - simply because that wouldn’t reflect all that I’m about. For example, with me coming from a church background, we’ve done like a soul-y/gospel take on (the old gospel classic) ‘Swing Low’. Then there’s ‘The Wind’, which is more like an acoustic folk song which was written by my husband about me. So yeah, the album definitely doesn’t neatly sit in just one specific category. Because - as I said - I wanted to do something which was reflective of all the things I like, while also producing a record that people could connect with, listen to and enjoy.”

PETE: So what was the background to your husband Jo writing your current single ‘The Wind’ about you?

ELISA: “That’s something I only found out about in August of last year. You know, when I recorded the album I didn’t actually know ‘The Wind’ was ABOUT me! Because, at the time he wrote, it, Jo was in a folk band - and so I’d assumed he’d just written it for them to do at their gigs! But then last August we were doing a charity gig. And, as I was announcing the song and telling everyone he’d written it for this band he’d been playing in, Jo - who was behind me - suddenly said ‘No, I actually wrote that one for YOU!’!... So then, when I tried to sing it at that gig, I actually ended up CRYING! Because, when I thought about the lyrics, it suddenly came to me what the whole song was ABOUT - which was the process we‘d gone through when I’d been diagnosed with cancer a few years back. So yeah, it was quite hard that night for me to then sing it. Because I was like ‘Oh my goodness, this is DEEP!’!”

PETE: Let’s talk about your early musical background

ELISA: “I was born here in the UK, and then I moved to Barbados when I was a baby. And I do think that me growing up in church in The Caribbean definitely has a big effect on my singing. Because there the churches are GREAT - everybody claps their hands, everyone’s dancing, the whole congregation - as opposed to just the people at the front - sing the harmonies to all the hymns... But then, having said that, moving back to London as a teenager was ALSO great. Because it was only after I’d come here that I started listening to JAZZ! You know, in Barbados you never HEARD any jazz on the radio. Basically there it’s just Caribbean music like calypso, plus major pop acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna. So in that sense it was definitely London that introduced me to jazz. Because, as soon as I got there and I got my first stereo, straightaway I started tuning in to different radio stations and scrolling for something that I liked the sound of... And that was how my love for jazz began!”

PETE: How did you first become a professional jazz singer?

ELISA: “I’d never actually planned to have a music career. In fact, when Jo and I got married in 2003, I was actually studying Theology! But then, one day in August 2005, he and I headed down to a jam session to meet some of our friends - you know, they were all going to be playing. So I went along to hear the music… But then, when the band-leader called the musicians to come to the band-stand, I hadn’t realised he’d put my name on the list as WELL! So I got called up to sing, and it just kinda started from there really! That was actually my first public performance singing jazz.”

PETE: So how did it then turn into a full-time career?

ELISA: “The following month - September 2005 - Jo was doing a gig in Russia. He’d booked the musicians for it - two singers and a whole rhythm section. But then one of the singers wasn’t able to have her visa approved, because of where her passport was from. So he needed to get another singer to get a visa processed that same day and to fly out the FOLLOWING day. So he was like ‘Elisa, I need someone with a British passport. You’re gonna have to come and do this gig!’!... And, because I hadn’t really performed before, at first I thought he was having a laugh! I mean, this was a gig that involved singing at this prestigious private party alongside the singer who’d opened The Olympic Games in Australia! So I had visions of having my passport taken away and being in prison somewhere in Russia rotting for the rest of my life! But, because he was so desperate, I eventually ended up doing it ANYWAY. And, even though I felt like an imposter for the whole flight out, once I’d sung everyone at the party actually seemed to love what I DID! You know, a lot of people came up to me afterwards telling me how much they liked my voice! So I think from that moment I suddenly thought ‘Wow! Maybe I could DO this!’... And that’s really when I started thinking seriously about singing as a career. So shortly after that I stopped studying Theology and started singing professionally... And I guess the rest is history!”

Elisa performs at the following London venues: The Green Note, Camden (January 20); The Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston (February 22); Pizza On The Park, Knightsbridge (March 12)

Elisa’s single ‘The Wind’ is out now. Her album ‘Carry Me Home’ will follow on March 8, both through JTR

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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