A Conversation with Nicky Schrire

Nicky Schrire is a versatile vocalist and composer whose work has taken her all over the world. Her latest piece, Escape: The Ingrid Jonker Suite has required Nicky to revisit the work of acclaimed South African poet, Ingrid Jonker, and create a unique theatre experience setting the iconic poems to music. We sat down with Nicky at Alexander Bar to chat about the show and her perception on the current climate for female musicians. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I’ve just always loved the arts whether it was musical theatre or just music by itself or great authors or great illustrators. I’ve always thought it was the most fun thing. I don’t know that it was a specific person. I just never really considered doing anything else. Music became part of my life to the point where it eclipsed a lot of other things. By the time I finished High School, I never had a discussion with my parents, “Should I study something else? Would that be wise?” It was just, “Oh ja, I’m just going to carry on and study music.” There hasn’t been one inspiration but I am constantly aware of how many people I am indebted to, both people that I actually know versus people whose art I love. And also teachers along the way. Gosh, I got really lucky in a lot of respects.

In addition to being a composer, which instruments do you play?

I started on the recorder like a lot of young students do and I moved onto classical piano. Then I moved onto the saxophone which got me into Jazz. I studied Jazz and then changed to voice. For the longest time I thought of myself as a performer. I wouldn’t call myself a composer, maybe a songwriter or a dabble but now as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised it’s another muscle that I can flex…until somebody says, “No don’t flex it, it’s horrible.” But for the time being it’s another world that has given me creative satisfaction. 

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Nicky in discussion at Alexander Bar. Photo Credit: Chanel Katz

In terms of composing, where do you start when you get an idea?

This sounds like just plain stealing but usually my ideas come from hearing something that someone else has written and it sparks an idea that I’ll then go discover and develop. It could be a bar or a phrase, it could be instrumentation of something, usually that’s how it starts. In the case of this project, the words were at the core of it because I had all of these translations of Ingrid’s poems. In terms of songwriting, often I am led by lyrics. I have tons of off-the-cuff things written down, some of which will see the light of day and others which won’t but very often there will be a rhythm in the lyrics and they will read like poems and that will dictate how the music comes about. Other times I’ll sit at the piano and just doodle but I have to be in the space to write. I am not a very disciplined composer. I don’t write every day. There are people who treat it like a job and I wish I was one of those people but I think ultimately I would find it incredibly frustrating. I once had a teacher who referred to songwriting and composing as problem solving. You sit there and some of it will come easy and then you’ll get stumped on a part of it and you might have to sit with it and wrestle with it until you figure it out or you might need to take a break and have that space and then come back to it. It’s a mixed approach for me. I like to write. I am very goal-orientated so if there is a goal, like these songs belong with those songs or I don’t have a song in my repertoire which fits this mood, then I will try and come up with one but the purpose helps me drive it. 

And I read that this show has taken quite a while to write.

It’s taken a really long time which is very unlike me because I feel like I am very impatient and I lose interest sometimes fairly quickly, but it’s been about two/two and a half years since the idea of it and then the initial writing stage to trying out some of the material. We tried out three of the songs this time last year and then I only finished writing everything towards the end of last year, probably early this year if I am being honest with myself. It’s been about two and a half years and I am aware that this is an initial launch and it will come to change and I’m sure that after we’ve performed it once, notes will be made and we’ll figure out what needs to be tweaked. 

What can you tell us about the show?

So many people know Ingrid Jonker‘s work and her poems and things about her life, which is also quite fascinating from a morbid curiosity point of view because she died at such a young age and took her life in such a tragic way. I studied her poems when I was in school in my Afrikaans class but I didn’t revisit anything of her work until I read a forward of an English translated anthology of her poems that Andrè Brink and Antjie Krog put together. It’s really beautifully translated but the thing that struck me was that Andrè had written this forward which was so biographical and also so personal because he had this romantic relationship with her for a large part of both their lives. That gave me more insight into her as a person but also her personal situation and that kind of drew me in. If you speak to anyone whose first language is Afrikaans, they love her work and are so in awe of and moved by her words in Afrikaans as they were intended. It’s tricky because I read them in English and thought, “Oh I understand now the effect that her poetry can have on people.” I thought that some of them stuck out to be as working well as songs but of course I’m not the first person to think that because Chris Chameleon released what most people consider the seminal album of her Afrikaans poems set to music. My timing is great but also slightly, “Am I clashing with an influx of Ingrid Jonker related things?” It’s very topical at the moment which I think is a good thing but all the renditions of setting her poems to music have been done in other genres. As far as I know, nobody has set her words to music in a genre that is kind of folky, cinematic or art-songy. This kind of art-song is stripped down a bit and I think the cinematic element of it is linked into the fact that it is arranged with a string quartet. The songs are kind of delivered in a folky simplicity. Then we have an Afrikaans actress in order to pay homage to Ingrid’s routes. Jenna Dunster is going to read the poems in Afrikaans. It’s a dramatic reading… we’ve compiled it into a short form show. 

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Photo Credit: Chanel Katz

What genre do you feel you tend to gravitate towards as a sing/songwriter ?

It’s tricky in that I studied Jazz and now I lecture in Jazz at UCT but I no longer perform Jazz. I perform what I would call pop/folk music. It’s certainly instrumentation for that it’s drums, amplified guitar, electric guitar and electric base but on a personal level, I really like the quietness and introspection that comes from scored music whether that belongs to a film score or film soundtrack or sort of modern classical music that is arranged for strings. That sound really appeals to me. I find the degree to which it calms me down very attractive, especially living in a busy city, life can get so noisy so I kind of retreat into that space given the chance. If I’m listening to someone else, that’s the kind of music that I like to listen to often or if I’m writing I’ll go into that headspace so that I can live in that world which feels a little bit calmer and more succinct and less noise and more content.

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Photo Credit: Chanel Katz

What is your perception about the world of music for women? 

I think it’s a man’s world. In fact I’m hesitant to use the word ‘think’ because I know. I studied Jazz in a class of 21 men and 3 women. Recently there’s been some misogynistic, genderist discussion as it pertains to jazz online. Part of me likes to see that stuff because then I know that I am not sort of just living in my head. It’s like, “No. It absolutely exists.” People are still sexist. Just the other day I was with a male colleague and we were going to watch a gig and he said, “I want to be close up so [that] I can see up the singer’s dress.” I sat with that and I was angry with myself because I kind of laughed politely. I sat with it the whole week thinking, “Why didn’t I say anything?” I think I was just so taken aback. It is just not appropriate. The degree to which sexism exists, it absolutely does, I was thinking on the way to this interview what if you ask me who my favourite female composers are? And it’s a handful. It’s tricky because I don’t want to take away from the male composers and songwriters who I love and who clearly inspire and teach me a lot but I did think, “Gosh the pickings are slim.” That is not because there aren’t enough good women, it’s because the numbers are what they are. I think it’s tough for women in music. You see it a lot in the commercial industry, the hyper-sexualisation of women. It just feels like that industry preys on younger girls. I see all these men in their kind of early to late thirties having really lovely music careers with the support of labels and managers and everything. Where are the women? Where [are] the women who [are] singing in a grown up women’s voice and not some little girl’s wishy-washy baby doll voice? I don’t know where they are. I don’t know if South Africa’s musical genres allow for that. We don’t have an Americana genre. We don’t have a contemporary songwriter realm to step into. Whereas in America it is bigger, there are more sub-genres. It is just a fact. So women can sound like women and sing like women and dress like women, whatever that means to you. All of those things, to me, really do point to gender inequality certainly in music across the board. There aren’t enough female composers and I don’t know why. I think there will be more but we are undoing years and years of gender oppression and it takes time. 

What do you think can be done to speed that process up a little bit?

I think women need to be encouraged to apply for opportunities. For example, if there is a jazz festival, it is not a case of saying, “Oh you are a woman so I am going to accept your proposal. Yes you can perform.” But they need to be invited in. A point needs to be made to say, “You are a saxophonist, please will you put forward a proposal for this festival.” There needs to be some ushering of that and that is not because women need to be babied. It is just because in order to attempt to balance the scales you need to make allowances and at the moment I think that really needs to be done. I don’t feel great about women festivals. I don’t love that because I feel like it is important for men and women to co-exist on all platforms. I don’t just understand why you can’t have a festival that has an equal amount of men as it does women. You see it all the time with music festivals who release their billing. There are always way more men to women. Why don’t you take your festival and be very conscious when you are going through submissions and applications and if it means that you need to do another call specifically for female applications then you do it. At this point of time in 2017, I feel that needs to be done. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

In the drama world I think Tara Notcutt is just wonderful and lovely and clear and concise. She is so well-respected. There are a lot of actresses that I have seen that I admire. I think Emily Child is just fantastic. Also, older actresses, people I watched growing up, Diane Wilson was in so many shows that I went to see. I subsequently met her and fangirled a bit because she is a person from my youth. Knowing the work that she does, she is so underrated. She is a fabulous actress. Kate Blumberg, she doesn’t live here but she is absolutely South African and she is an actor’s actor. She is a working actor without any frills and anytime I see her in something I get so excited. I think she is fabulous. Musically I think Laura Stevens is a wonderful composer. I am very inspired by the female musicians that I get to work with. A friend of mine, Ariella Caira who is a cellist and she is playing with us. She is incredibly versatile and a formidable female presence in the arts and the music world. There’s a fabulous photographer Mareli Esterhuizen. And the obvious one is probably someone like Ingrid Jonker and the people who are in her world now because of her work like Antjie Krog. Really seminal literary figures which is a world which I am in because of her. It’s sad because her output was amazing for the life that she did live but it would have been fascinating to see what she created were she alive today. That sort of work, quite, under the radar, underrated, celebrated in a very kind of authentic way by people who really love it. Those sort of people I think are inspiring. 


Escape: The Ingrid Jonker Suite runs at Alexander Bar on April 20th and 21st at 7pm. Tickets can be purchased here.

You can find Nicky on twitter.

Special thanks to Chanel Katz and Hannah Baker.

All photos taken by Chanel Katz at Alexander Bar on April 4th 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Chanel Katz maintain copyrights over all images. For usage and inquires, please contact us.

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