Sitting In With… Kaz Hawkins by Colin Campbell
Multi-award-winning Kaz Hawkins is a singer, songwriter, actress, radio presenter and mental health campaigner. The Belfast born singer-songwriter now lives in France and is fast becoming a performing icon using her music in her own personal mental health awareness campaign.
Kaz embodies true grit and honesty and is the ultimate survivor. Kaz is currently running different projects. My Life & I (Duo), Kaz Hawkins & Her Band of Men (Quintet), and her Memories of Etta show, celebrating the life of Etta James.
I recently spoke with Kaz Hawkins, via Skype at her home in France to discuss the imminent release of her new album Memories Of… which is her interpretation of Etta James songs.
We initially talked about the move to France, she has her management team there and all her gigs are there. “The stars aligned and everything fell into place, we stayed in England with friends for eight months, and then drove in the motorhome looking to stay in France. We got an offer of a holiday retreat and fell in love with this place. We moved in as soon as lockdown finished on 1st June 2020. I need to be in the culture to learn the language; David my husband has been getting us by! ”All my shows are in France, I’ll have to learn to be able to speak to the fans”.
Kaz like other musicians has recently had her tours cancelled due to Covid-19 on the last show everything changed. Initially finding it hard to cope and feeling depressed. The “old habits” returned but she gave herself a talking to and a kick up the arse, she “Pulled her big girl panties up” and started to play more piano and is currently writing an autobiography.
When the pandemic hit she shelved this option as she needed to perform. It has brought her to better wellbeing living in France. “I’m good; shows are coming back on the road next month. The French are surprisingly obedient to the new rules post lockdown. Ashwyn Smythe from Digital Blues lives close here. The area where she lives seems a rural idyll and a chance to maybe get into gardening on their two-acre “forest”.
It seems a different life from Ireland. “France supports the Arts. It’s a big country to explore musically. The French have taken me into their hearts, I’m loving it”
A breakthrough moment recently was playing the Cognac Blues Passions Festival in July 2019. The year before she had played a duo show on a smaller stage at this festival. “The French pick certain artists they love, that was us. The organiser said, he would love Kaz to come back again, is there a special project she would like to do? They gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, we headlined the Saturday night”. This was the Memories Of Etta James show. “It wasn’t just a bunch of musicians covering songs. I had a special corset made. bookings started coming in. Now it’s a condensed touring show. You can’t take twelve musicians on the road, it’s seven now!”. “We streamlined it; you can’t get more than that number into a touring bus!”
“Etta James shaped my vocals. Everybody knows my back story. I’ve been very open about the traumas I have suffered. It was the female divas I discovered then the blues. When I heard her sing St Louis Blues which is on the new album, I didn’t hear Betty Smith or WC Handy, I heard Etta James. My skin froze in time the moment I heard her voice.
Whilst she’s not the most refined vocalist, her rawness and honesty and didn’t give a shit attitude, and having her own struggles too, the more I fell in love with her. Twenty years on the cover scene doing weddings, she has been my idol. You don’t understand a performance like that until you start writing your own music, then you perform your own music. I could not have done this show ten years ago. As long as people book the show I’ll do it. My original music is my first choice. For me, it’s a way to say thank you.
A lot of people don’t know who Etta James is, who listen to my music and I find that strange. My fans have said it’s been amazing discovering blues artists like her. I wanted to pay tribute to her and her life and times. I didn’t want it to be a cabaret show; it had to represent what it meant to me. In the middle of the show I send most of the musicians off and we do my songs as a duo. I explain it was Etta who shared my pain to let me play my own music. I changed my name in honour of her, so it couldn’t have been anyone other than Etta James I could do a concert about”
So is Kaz’s persona on stage similar to offstage? “Now I’ve dropped the boots and rockabilly style, I’m more respectful to the music. My days jumping about on stage like a madwoman are gone. Once I put the corset on it is what I’ve become. I still get nerves before going on stage”.
Yes, you’ve got to be truthful and honest and with your back story, on some of the songs you sing it is really noticeable it strikes a chord with your audience and increases your connection with them.
“I sat with my husband David about talking about my past and wanting to share this with people. I didn’t want people to think I was dishonest. His words were ‘Do it, give everything out you want, nobody can come back and hurt you with it.’ It was the best decision, now it is relevant and present. I’m overwhelmed at the response to such songs as ‘Lipstick And Cocaine’ or ‘Surviving’. I cry on stage, especially in the third verse when my mum comes to rescue me from the dead. Letting people into your heart is a sign of a good artist, you have to be. If I hit a note in a song that gives people goosebumps in the arm, that is not a lie, you can’t fake that. You can’t do what I do and not be affected by people’s stories.”
Kaz makes herself accessible to her fans but sometimes this can be overpowering emotionally, especially when people are phoning her up and feeling suicidal, she has had to learn to stand back now but is still a great ambassador for mental health matters.
So what makes a good song?
From a technical point, a good “hook” will always turn it into an earworm. Truth in the story. You have to understand the art of storytelling. When I write first, it is as a poem. If you do honest music be true to the message. Music is escapism.
As a singer I want people to get the message. I came out of the womb in tune! It was never supported. Singing was an escape for me from the abuses going on. I had no faith in my early writing. I got kicked out of music class because I was too loud, I was louder than the trumpets. On tour as long as you get plenty of rest and hydrate properly but I don’t class myself as a musician, I’m a singer. Learning music theory took away the passion I had, so I stick to my three-chord tricks!
The best advice musically from Kaz is, “Don’t listen to trolls, the negativity. When I first came onto the blues scene, I was attacked. You’re not British, voice too loud, she’s a shouter. I remember wanting to give it up. This was my original music, it was very personal. Dave Raven supported me a lot and became a big part of my life. Dave said ‘you have come through so much, don’t dim your lights just because people say they don’t like you, it’s their issues, not yours. You shine, don’t stop, for anybody.’ I realised he’s right. It frees your mind when you don’t acknowledge the trolls.”
In relation to being a woman in the music business: “I’ve done my twenty years, going to blues jams for ten years without an invite on stage. Now I have educated myself on how to deal with these situations. As an empowered woman, I would not let this happen. God help them if it does! There are women in the industry who have the monopoly; you can get hit from both ends.
For me, it’s about educating. If someone said who’s paying me now, I would say what do you do for a living, oh you’re a bricklayer. Well, would you let somebody else get paid for your work? I’ve earned the right not to be judged on my sex, it shouldn’t be an issue. I get asked about the #MeToo movement. At the end of the day, there are still women not in production. We have to explain with love and patience now. I need energy for many things.”
What does blues mean to Kaz? “It’s a feeling, a passion, an essence of life. It’s the most truthful of all musical genres. Some of the Etta songs, I wonder if I should be singing them in this day and age! It was said in those days. It’s telling a story. I like the risqué blues, that’s true blues. There is more than just pinpointing the blues. Everything has the blues in it. Look at ‘St Louis Blues’, it’s still fresh, I try to honour the truth.”
Regarding the production of the new album: “Wayne Proctor has given his dedication to this timeless era. In first discussions, Wayne said he thought we could put a hot studio album together. I had covered ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You‘ and singing ‘At Last‘ for about twenty years so how do you reinvent yourself singing another person’s song.
But Wayne said listen to the originals by Etta. Listen to the musicianship that happened then and we rediscovered the songs again. ‘I’d Rather Go Blind‘ must be the most covered. I didn’t want to do it like we did in the show. So we found that she released ‘Blind Girl’ and we renamed it the way she did it. Its Wayne’s baby, he built it up from the ground. But, it gives an idea of what the show is like. The album was made through people’s demand. We recorded the album to support the show.
Kaz Hawkins Band of Men, the duo, or Etta James style show, the preference for Kaz is “I love the space I have as a singer with the duo. I couldn’t tour that because it’s so emotionally draining. I can depend on me, whereas in a band I am the leader and that brings on a lot of responsibility. I think in intimate concerts I like to see the whites of the eyes of the audience and at festivals, I love being with the band and entertaining people. It’s for the fans!
If you do blues in the UK it has to be twelve-bar. Anything outside this, you get the big bad blues stick, thrown at you. Here in Europe, they feel blues music has contributed so much. If I do ‘Lipstick And Cocaine‘ and I do a growl in the middle, that’s blues to people in Europe. People back home don’t class that song as blues. In the UK people want to ‘pigeon hole you’ like there is only one blues.
You only have to look at The Blues Foundation in Memphis; they are trying to keep that art form alive. So they have moved into the modern era by doing live broadcasts and they are not stuck in the sixties or forties, sitting on a porch, they are trying to move the genre forward but stay true to the blues genre. Just try to be a little more open because all who love the blues want to share it.
People should just wise up and enjoy the music. You don’t like something don’t listen to it. It just pisses me off sometimes, the quarrelling. I just want to perform and sing! Fans reactions are a measure of success. Getting awards, shoot you into places, you get noticed. Money doesn’t define my success; I lost my home, making my first album! It was a massive lesson. I didn’t know how things worked from an original songwriters point of view. It was a painful process, I ended living in a van, but I won’t disrespect the album though. If you want to make money, the blues isn’t for you!”
Finally, is there anything Kaz could let Blues Matters know about herself that she may not think people know? “I’m getting into gardening. Also, I do a lot of meditating. I believe in karma, what you give you shall receive maybe people don’t know that about me. There are crystals hanging in my house. For me, I use it for overcoming trauma. I meditate before going on stage. It’s a crutch for me. Hope, belief, and love are important philosophies for me. I wake up now looking forward to the next day and feel ok with me. I have accepted my deeds and forgiven myself. I want to live the way I want. I am recreating a childhood I should have had, always laugh as well!”
By Colin Campbell.
For More Info Kaz Hawkins
Album Review for Kaz Hawkins – Memories of… Released Independently.
This is the latest release from the enigmatic powerhouse singer Kaz Hawkins. It is a homage to her musical idol and lifetime mentor Etta James. This was mixed and mastered by Wayne Proctor at Superfly Studios and is a streamlined ten-track release as a supplement to her live show of similar name.
The album was made in response to fans seeing the show and wanting a live recording. This studio recording captures that “as live” feeling and is a stunning reinterpretation of some old standards. With a seven-piece band, Kaz is very much the band leader and from the start and with tracks such as ‘Something’s Got A Hold Of Me’, you can really hear the attention to detail and the big sound.
‘Miss Pitiful’ has a sultry tone and depth. ‘Losers Weepers’ has an authentic feel. The call and response with Kaz and pianist Sam York on ‘Spoonful’, keeps the flow of musicianship going.
‘Security’ is a funky number. Kaz lets the vocals rip on ‘Tell Mama’. ‘Blind Girl‘ is sublime in presentation and is a fabulous version of the Etta James classic, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind‘ but with a twist. ‘St Louis Blues’ sounds fresh and vibrant, timeless, just like all the songs here. ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You‘ is given a rocky feel.
The final track could only be, ‘At Last‘, a pitch-perfect ending. Kaz will be touring soon with the full show, a stunning set, excellent production and true to detail, this is a winner in all kinds of ways and will garner new listeners to the Etta James musical legacy.
By Colin Campbell.
For more info & to order your copy please click here – Kaz Hawkins
Memories Of… – 2020
Live At Park Avenue – 2018
Don’t You Know – 2017
Feelin’ Good – 2016
Get Ready – 2014