Fiona Ross is a jazz composer, pianist, producer, vocalist and journalist. As a fellow journalist with a background in music, we connected immediately and had a lot to talk about.
A couple of years ago she left her role as Head of the British Academy of New Music to pursue a career as an artist in her own right, composing, producing and releasing her own music. She had been working at the British Academy for eight years and prior to that was Head of a creative arts centre at a mainstream further education college. Since then she released two albums, writing and producing all the material. When we spoke, she was working on her third album, Fierce and Non Compliant, which was released in April.
We start to discuss the lack of visible female producers in the jazz industry and beyond. Fiona tells me she found it difficult to find female producers, composers and songwriters specialising in jazz.
When she was producing her first album, Fiona joined the Music Producers Guild and reached out to them looking to network with female producers who work in the jazz industry and had no luck. ‘I then posted on my personal Facebook page saying I’d love to get in touch with some female music producers who specialise in jazz. A couple of people said this woman or this woman but there seemed to be very few.’
We also speak about her frustrations of the way the press talk about her in reviews or articles. ‘No one seems to want to talk about the production side at all. I had one review in a prestigious mag and they were the only one who mentioned the production of the album. ‘I am a singer, and I’m proud to be a singer, but I’m equally a pianist, producer and composer.’
We talk about her work as a journalist, interviewing women for Jazz in Europe magazine. ‘Ultimately it’s about role models, it’s about showing everyone that there are women of all ages, backgrounds and specialities that are out there doing it.’
Fiona tells me one of her most significant interviews was with Maxine Gordon. ‘She’s an amazing author, educator and activist. When I contacted her I didn’t realise she only wanted women or African Americans to interview her. Maxine is an incredible, feisty woman. She was around in the proper old school jazz days. It turned out I was the first woman to interview her.’
I asked Fiona what it was like to be Head of the British Academy of New Music and what led her to that role. ‘I had a proper stage school background so my first job was when I was around two. I trained in dance, drama, and music and did the whole stage school thing. I worked in the West End and then fell in love and had two children. I was still at school when I had my eldest son and my career took a completely different direction.’
‘When I was 16, someone said you can make a bit of money as a private piano teacher. I remember thinking, “this is crazy, a teacher at 16?” I did a couple of lessons and ended up loving it. I know it sounds cheesy but supporting and helping other people is something that’s built into me. I started off teaching musical theatre, followed by music business and was an examiner for A Level Music Technology. As far as teaching is concerned, I taught a bit of every area, I did a few master classes on vocals and the music business.’
‘Then I was headhunted for the British Academy. It all sounds kind of pretentious but the British Academy of New Music was in East London, which was a dodgy area at the time. The majority of students, aged 16 upwards, had no money or family support and had a variety of different issues, but their commonality was their passion for music. Music was what was keeping them going. That was an amazing thing. Hard but amazing. People talk about the Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora thing, but for me they were the rarity. The majority of students there were actually from hard backgrounds and needed a lot of support.’
We discuss how her own music career is developing. ‘I still consider myself quite new in the jazz industry. It’s only been a couple of years, but it’s gone crazy well. It’s been continual learning – how the business works and the politics. Social media has also been a key thing for me.’
‘Despite my performing arts background I’m actually quite introverted. I’m happiest behind the scenes, hiding behind my piano. Social media is the opposite – you can’t hide – but I’ve learnt it’s absolutely essential and I’ve made some amazing contacts. I’ve got significant gigs and work through social media.’
Fiona tells me her advice to other aspiring artists would be to ‘get on social media but do it right. Get the content right and understand it and make sure you understand the music business side of things. This, I think, is what is often lacking in education. You might learn the technical skills as a producer or instrumentalist but what you really need is to learn about the business. It’s hard, there’s a lot of game playing and you need to be strong and confident especially if you’re a woman. I think there’s a lot of issues out there for women so for me it’s important that we know what is right, what is wrong, what deals are acceptable and what to expect.’
When Fiona left the British Academy of New Music she had an album that she had recorded and hadn’t done anything with. She decided to subtly release it while she worked on her second album. ‘The feedback was amazing. I keep waiting for someone to go “no you’re rubbish, this is awful”, but the reception has been crazy.’
Fiona explains that her new album, Fierce and Non Compliant, features a lot of special guest artists which have come through her work as a journalist. ‘Maxine Gordon is writing the sleeve note for my album and there’s a Grammy winning bassist called The Snow Owl [Juan Garcia-Herreros], who’s played with the likes of Christina Aguilera and Elton John, playing bass on two of my tracks. It’s nice that this album has brought a lot of different elements together for me. It’s going crazily well but it’s terrifying and very overwhelming to be honest!’
I tell her to keep going and ride the wave! We talk about why she keeps questioning her success. ‘It sounds odd, but what I’ve worked hard at doing is being me. With social media, it’s very easy to pretend to be something else. I played at a jazz festival last year and met a fellow female musician that I had been following on social media. She was 20 years older than all of the images on her social media profiles. I was really taken aback, but also found it really sad because I kind of understood that she wanted to appear to be younger or more attractive because she thought that’s what people wanted.’
‘I’ve given that a lot of thought and a big thing about me, and I think a lot of people will tell you, is I’m just me. I am what I am and I won’t pretend to be anyone else. After my gigs I often receive feedback about how open and natural I am. On stage, I chat to my musicians and I’m just me and obviously some people like that and some people don’t… It’s really important to just be me, but that’s harder than some people would think when social media comes to play.’
‘I think for older women in particular it’s a challenge. I what I am. I can’t change who I am and how I look and I think I sit comfortably within jazz because there are no rules. There was a jazz singer who posted on Facebook, I’m going to guess she’s about 50, that she had applied to play a gig at a club and she thought she’d share the feedback from the venue manager, who said her look was not appropriate for their audience. It was interesting that the venue felt the need to say that rather than they’re just not interested. You can imagine what that did to her, there was a whole barrage of “well, am I too old? Do I not look good?” She had all these people going “no, you look amazing”, but these conversations do happen where image is discussed and there is an awful lot of pressure.’
I ask Fiona what made her decide to get into production. ‘I trained in music technology and I was an examiner for A level Music Technology for a while, so I’ve always been quite technically minded. With my second album, Nate Williams who’s worked with Jamiroquai, was mixing it for me and said, “who’s producing this?” I said, “Oh, I hadn’t got that far.” He said, “well, it looks like you are.” I was just working in the studio and mixing it. It was like, “OK, well, I’m doing that.” Then with the next one, right from the word go it was, “OK, I’m producing this album.” and I pushed myself. I tried different things. I thought, “you know what? I love this!”’
‘My last two albums had sax on them, but this time I’ve got a full brass section. I’ve put some strings in there and stepped up a gear with the instrumentation. I want to record my vocals in some different places – I’ve got some churches lined up. I love learning and trying new things. I’m not scared of trying new things or asking for help if there’s something that I want to do.’
We talked about how important role models are and I asked who some of Fiona’s were. ‘Hiromi, a Japanese pianist, has always been a huge role model for me. What I love about her is, apart from being technically phenomenal, all her compositions are incredible and when you see her perform, you can see how much she loves it. She’s so natural on the stage which stands out to me. She’s not trying to be something else. From every aspect, Hiromi has been a huge influence on me for her individuality.’
‘Esperanza Spalding is an amazing role model for many people. I think for the variety of different things that she does and also tackling the social responsibility element of being an artist. It’s absolutely OK to write music that’s personal to you about whatever you’re feeling, but once you reach a certain level you have a social responsibility to people listening to your music – she talks an awful lot about that which is inspirational.’
Fiona Ross’ third album, Fierce and Non Compliant, is out now.