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A Cat Wearing Red Lipstick

In 1987, just after I’d started secondary school, I saw a video on Top Of The Pops of a tune being sung by a plasticine cat with deep, resonant tones; the like of which I'd never heard before. I realised that the voice was being overdubbed and that it was a woman singing. She sang of these seemingly glamorous characters: Liz Taylor, Lana Turner and Liberace. Of not caring for clothes, shows and high tone places...There was something in the way she phrased the lyrics: like having a conversation, it was effortless and it seemed really sophisticated and worldly compared to Tiffany, Kylie and Debbie Gibson. Not only that, it swung harder than any music I’d heard up to that point.

From then on Nina Simone was always with me. At first it was all about the voice, I mean, imagine opening your mouth and that sound coming out. Being able to take someone through pretty much every emotion in our earthly experience. Then her wonderful mixture of confidence and vulnerability. Her stance on racial inequality and the way she channelled it into her art. Her piano playing: incendiary and exquisite, combined with that voice enabled her to glide from Jazz to Folk via Show Tunes, Blues, Pop and Classical; as she does in ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. Nina’s authenticity both on and off stage has become a guide in my own life and my endeavours as a musician.

Once, on a seventeen hour bus journey in Australia, loaded on black sambuca and bush weed; Nina singing ‘Take Me To The Water’ and ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’ brought me back from the brink… In 2014 my wife and I separated. It was a strange old time.... A time when I started to reconnect with myself in ways I’d forgotten. I wandered into HMV Northampton one dreary Saturday and was thumbing the racks of vinyl, when I came across a cover with bold colourful lettering and the unmistakable majesty of Nina sat at a piano. It was a pressing of an album I was unfamiliar with: ‘Live At Town Hall’. The range of material and its execution combined with the audience’s hushed reverence was simply stunning. Not least, when I reached the end of side one, which concludes with an Irving Berlin tune: ‘I Don’t Want Him (You Can Have Him). The song unfurls like a miniature drama, with Nina sat talking to the woman who has taken her love away. She then slips into a reverie of moments from all the years they were together, as the other woman sits and listens in uncomfortable silence. The scene climaxes with Nina’s evocative sobs ascending a scale of transcendent, knowing triumph. She is free. I was too and I wept as I played the song over and over again.

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