NYJO singer Luca Manning is 20, studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After a two-year tenure, Luca is “graduating” from our jazz orchestra at the Ronnie Scott’s gig in January 2020.
Their debut album, When the Sun Comes Out is full of beautiful melodies, a voyage where the jazz canon is greeted with bespoke folk undertones, beautifully fused with the help of Fergus McCreadie on piano. We met Luca to talk about their album, life and inspirations. From the get-go I am met with a disarming smile that I would dare anyone not to reciprocate.
Tell us about When the Sun Comes Out and your two original songs Our Journey and Rise in particular.
Songwriting is still new to me. At NYJO a lot of the people write original music and I think that’s amazing. I see so much incredible original music coming out of the scene. I am yet to develop – or I’m developing – my own voice as an artist so with the album I thought “I just want to sing songs that I love” and I threw a few originals in there that I felt ready to put out but I think that if I had waited until I had a whole album of innovative original music I’d probably never release one, because it’s so much pressure. So even though not all songs are original, everything in the album certainly spoke to me in one way or another.
I guess that’s the most important question, what do you think the album says about you as an artist and as a person?
Well, one thing I’ve been saying recently is that I’m a jazz singer that gets distracted by a lot of good music. So, being a jazz album, I think it’s not restrictively jazz: it is jazz, but not limited to it. When I was deciding the track list for the album, I got ten tunes and some of them were kind of off the cuff things I wanted to record. This was back when I still didn’t know if I’d release it. We just went to our room in Glasgow and put up some mics, it wasn’t me blowing my budget on some huge studio record that was going to make my name, I just thought I was going to record stuff with these people I love and a bunch of tunes would come out of it, some of them I’ve been singing for years, some of them I’d never sung until the actual recording day.
The track list was very hard to decide but once I got it, it made so much sense as my own journey. I open the album with an original song, my “here I am!”, then I say “here’s some jazz” but then it morphs into something else – and that is my journey because I started by singing standards and I do still sing standards but my influences are now wider and I wanted that to be come across in the album. Listening to the tracks in a different order makes up for a completely different experience, but the reality is that not everyone is going to listen to all of it and all I can hope is that they find something that speaks to them.
Also, Fergus has a really unique voice as an improviser and as a composer, his music really brings together Scottish folk music and jazz, so I think playing and working on the album with him made that blend naturally come into play. I always wanted it to be a melting pot of things, that was important to me, because if you come to one of my gigs that’s what you’re going to get, I love a lot of things and I want to keep doing them all.
So, when did you start thinking about the album as a whole, when did it evolve from you recording tracks with your friends to you realising you were releasing an album?
Probably just about a month or two before the recording, we recorded it in April of this year – so it was all very quick – and a month or two before the recording I told one of my teachers at Guildhall, Sara Colman, that I was recording; maybe I’d do an EP, maybe I’d just do some videos to go online and she was the one who told me “Why not an album? If you’ve got enough material for an album book an extra day at the studio” and then she offered to come and produce it so that’s when it started to get serious, when I realized “ok, I’ve got an opportunity here to have these amazing people right behind me – let’s take it!” So, from that point on I was thinking about it as an album and then once we recorded it and I really liked what we had I had to start getting all the hard stuff together: the licensing, the manufacturing, the artwork, the distribution – all the stuff that a fancy big label will do for you that if you’re, like me, self-releasing becomes a real learning curve.
Does it feel empowering in a way knowing that from start to finish, it was all you?
I thought about going to a label with it but upon reflection I decided that I wanted to be fully responsible for it and be in control of it and it would ultimately benefit me to have to learn about all these things and how to do them myself. Which makes it certainly not mistake free, there is a lot that I will do differently next time but overall I am proud of it and it was empowering because once I’d done it I could look at it and say “that was me”.
It’s hard to believe this whole project was thought of, conceived and brought to life in just a few months.
I guess that’s the nature of working with great people. It was a dual record, mine and Fergus’s with one guest, Laura Macdonald on alto sax. There was barely any postproduction, all of it felt right and easy. On the recording days we did everything in three takes tops, it’s very live. We ended up with extra time, we did all the tracks we wanted and some extra stuff just for fun. It just wasn’t stressful at all.
It does come across that you were having fun. Was this the first time you’ve worked with Fergus?
We’ve been playing together for years, we’ve met in the Glasgow jazz scene and we’ve gigged a lot, we’ve played at the Glasgow Jazz Festival where we opened for Georgie Fame (which was amazing). I felt like playing with him was different from when I’d played with anyone else and doing the album has definitely brought us closer together. We listened to a lot of music together before recording, there was this back and forth of sending each other recordings of ourselves playing asking for advice, “how does this sound?”.
Was it symbolic for you to record the album in your hometown, Glasgow rather than in London?
Absolutely! Well, for one it was way cheaper! I had actually recorded in that room before, so it was a familiar space to me, and it has a beautiful piano which was part of why we chose it. It all started happening during my second year living in London and I was missing home but also really happy to be here and during that time, going home to make the album was an amazing journey in itself. We went to different locations with a friend of mine Delilah Neil, who is a filmmaker to create some visual content to come out with the tunes as an extra visual narrative – we shot in different parts of Scotland in incredible sceneries and I remember feeling really happy to be home and really proud of where I was from.
I wanted to record in familiar surroundings and Glasgow was the way to do that. The first tune in the album, Our Journey, is all about home and identity and travelling and even thought the melody feels really folky and Scottish, I wrote that in London and only later did I understand that I must have been thinking about home at that point. Maybe I’ll record in London next time but for my first album I wanted to do it somewhere special to me and that’s Glasgow.
There’s a song on the album that mentions a specific place in Scotland, do you want to tell me about the Stones of Brodgar?
Oh, it’s just so atmospheric isn’t it? So, Fergus wrote that tune and he plays it with his trio quite a lot, it’s a composition of his and the lyrics were written by our friend Fergus Hall.
It’s about these stones that have just been there for millennia and they’ve just been through it all, that music just takes you to that place instantly, this whole ambience is created. I will never perform that song with anyone else, because it’s Fergus’s and so it’s such a joy every time we get to play it.
In a way, that song was the reason the album exists, because me and Fergus played it live and our duo became that, him bringing his own songs to me and me allowing myself to be a bit more daring. I remember messing up that song quite badly on a gig and I thought I really want to do a good job singing it, to learn it properly and record it. So that’s where the whole thing came from. Because that song is so unusual, and it gripped me in such a way I had to do it. And it’s not jazz, and it’s not folk. I used it as the turning point in the album, in that journey, it’s where the straightforward jazz stops and the new stuff begins.
How’s the feedback been?
It’s quite overwhelming how positive it’s been. I wasn’t really sure how far I could go with it in terms of exposure, I didn’t know how far I wanted to go. But we’ve had an amazing review in London Jazz News, we’ve got our album launch gig at the London Jazz Festival on the 18th of November. Also, we had really good reviews from musicians I know. To me there’s no better praise than a musician’s. A lot of my friends have been in touch to say they loved it, which means a lot. It’s really scary to release something, especially your first album, it feels like it’ll be a make-or-break situation, this is a reflection of who I am in this moment and the fact that people have enjoyed it is really humbling.
Do you think the fast-paced consuming society we live in affects how we listen to music?
Without a doubt, someone said to me “I’ve listened to your album the whole way through” and I knew what he meant, you use online platforms, you use Spotify and it makes it all so fast. There’s so much that is available to us, which is amazing but it’s also really overwhelming. Now people listen to maybe one or two tunes and make up their minds, whereas back in the day you’d go through the effort of going out, finding a record shop, buying the records, taking it home, listening to it the whole way through, again and again, and people knew their music a lot better than they do now. That’s why my original Our Journey is the opening song, because I know it’s more likely that people will listen to that.
Are you already thinking about a new album?
Just the very beginnings of it, I’m trying to understand how I can best express who I am in my music. It’s not that I wasn’t doing that before but I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what I want to do and who I want to be and how music fits into that, writing more songs and maybe not be as tentative about how things are going to be received.
And would you like your next album to be a continuation of this journey or a completely different one?
I mean, it’s all the one journey, even if it was a completely different style, it’s still me. Some people change their name if they’re doing a different style of music and I think that’s important for branding but for me, if someone hears me at a wedding singing Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed or at the Vortex singing The Man Who Got Away by Judy Garland I want them to know that’s the same person, although I might sound different stylistically I’m the same human being and the same musician. I would like to explore different line ups and different instrumentation, write different tunes, maybe something a bit more contemporary but all this is just a thought right now, every day I wake up with a different idea and then never finish any of them, that’s part of it. At the same time, I’m just trying to be in college and do gigs and… there’s a lot to think about as a young musician.