Sue Rynhart has mixed feelings about being held up as a role model for female musicians in Ireland
A love of improvisation has helped ensure Sue Rynhart is now considered one of Ireland’s top jazz vocalists, writes
am who I am. I’m just doing what I love, and using my voice in a way that feels healthy and natural, and that’s my style and my sound.”
Dublin-based vocalist and composer Sue Rynhart’s first album, 2014’s
Crossings, a stripped-back collection of self-penned songs for voice and double bass, was widely lauded.
The follow-up, Signals, released last April, is anything but stripped back: with nods to early music, more than a dash of folk, and a haunting spoken-word piece, ‘The Tree’, it’s an eclectic celebration of Rynhart’s distinctive approach to music. Her voice has a crystalline quality more associated with folk singers like Joni Mitchell than the husky tones normally associated with jazz greats like Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson.
If anything anchors
Signals in jazz, it’s the space left for improvisation, Rynhart says. “When it comes to recording, a lot of the songs don’t have big extended improvisations within the songs, but sometimes in performance I want to improvise,” she says. “A lot of the songs don’t take that format unless I feel a space for it. There are little spaces in the songs where it’s possible, but it depends on the performance and the audience. That’s where the jazz comes into it, for me: working with musicians who are able to make those decisions and have those conversations on stage.”
Made on a shoestring, with some tracks recorded at home and just one day in Wicklow’s Meadows Studio,
Signals is an album of which Rynhart is justifiably proud.
“I’ve been very true to myself. I think I was very authentic, and that’s what’s most important to me, to be authentic and to keep the magic of creativity where it should be.”
Classically trained, Rynhart grew up in a musical family. Her father plays in a rock and roll band, her mother played the organ and her grandfather was a trad fiddler. As a student, she transcribed and vocalised Charlie Parker solos, and took an interest in medieval music. She listens to Prince and Dolly Parton. “It’s important not to close your mind off to any type of music or any art, because I think you are what you eat,” she says.
Rynhart is married to musician Dylan Rynhart, who founded jazz orchestra the Fuzzy Logic Ensemble. She’s currently a full-time mother to the couple’s three boys, aged eight, six and 11 months. Predictably, it’s a music-filled household.
“The baby and I trade fours,” she laughs. “I’ll look at him and go (Rynhart produces a glorious but untranscribable spontaneous little vocal trill) and he looks at me and starts laughing. It’s a conversation; he’s learning to sing before he can speak.”
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” English writer and critic Cyril Connolly once wrote, but Rynhart doesn’t subscribe to this notion.
With authenticity her aim, she weaves her creative life and her home life together, and sees this enriching to her art rather than impoverishing; most composing is on-the-go, singing into her phone as ideas hit her.
“I have to find time to sit down and transcribe what I’ve sung and tailor it, but that’s a small, practical space. What I do the rest of the time is incorporate my life and my kids into what I call writing.
“I don’t get much quiet; somewhere in my subconscious, I’m having a lot of thoughts, and big dreams as well, and when I get some quiet, there’s an awful lot there. It spills out, and I record it.”
Sultry divas made aloof by sorrow, or sassy, sophisticated bright sparks: in jazz as much as in any other musical genre, the pedestal on which female singers have historically been placed has been high but narrow.
As a musical educator and scholar as well as a composer — she lectured on the jazz degree at Newpark College in Dublin but has taken a break to focus on family — Rynhart is happy to be considered a role model for a generation of young female composers for whom any societal strictures will have been lifted.
“It would be great if I didn’t have to be a ‘woman in jazz’, if I could just be a human being creating music,” she says.
“But you can’t be what you can’t see, that’s true. I think we probably do have to get through a phase of highlighting that women are composing, and writing, and that there are women who improvise, and that we women are visible in the music.
“Any young singer who wants to write and get out there and perform, that should just be completely natural for that person.”
At the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, Rynhart will be accompanied by longterm collaborator Dan Bodwell, the double bassist with whom she recorded Crossings, as well as drummer Shane O’Donovan and pianist Darragh O’Kelly.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” she says.
Sue Rynhart appears at Triskel Christchurch as part of a double bill with the Michael Wollny Trio for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival on Sunday, October 29 at 8pm. guinnessjazzfestival.com