Born in Wales, Claire Victoria Roberts began performing classical and folk music on the Eisteddfod stages. Her dad, a gypsy jazz violinist, gave her a taste for swing, and after graduating from Oxford with a choral scholarship she cut her teeth touring as violinist-vocalist with the Swing Commanders around the UK and Europe. Singing and fiddling on 1940s Western Swing, Claire soon began to make a name for herself as a versatile vocalist performing jazz, swing, bossa, folk and chanson.
As a contemporary composer, her music has been performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Psappha Ensemble, cellist Oliver Coates, Opra Cymru, Uproar Ensemble, Camden Symphony Orchestra, Solem Quartet, and The Carice Singers. In collaboration with producer David Coyle, she created electroacoustic works as composer-performer, playing violin, synths and virtual instruments, for Morley Arts Festival, Aberystwyth Arts Festival, and Sherman Theatre.
Hi Claire, it’s so nice speaking with you! Congratulations on your great musical career successes – collaborating and working with jazz and folk improvisers, spoken word, dance, visuals, etc. Your career has been impressive and definitely interesting throughout the years, from being broadcast on different radio stations to winning a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize 2019-2020, and much more…
With so much going on in your music life, it would be great to know how it all began and who or what has had the most influence on your musical career.
Both my parents are music teachers, so music has always been part of my life as a very normal thing, every day as a kid hearing them give lessons or going to play at school concerts. I didn’t have to think much about it, I was very lucky, but then when I moved to Manchester to study violin I really realised how much I loved to perform, to practise, to write music and to make opportunities for new music to be heard.
You’re a composer, violinist, and vocalist whose work draws on a variety of influences, including fiddle, classical music, jazz, etc. Do you consider yourself a genre-fluid artist, or is there still a greater interest in a specific genre, and why?
I enjoy learning about different musical traditions, and when I write classical music there will be elements of other styles that form a part of the language.
You’re an acknowledged multi-instrumentalist; how would you say your two musical instruments (violin and voice) complement each other?
I would say on both violin and with your voice, you are responsible for your tone in a way that isn’t quite the same perhaps on a piano, or on an amplified guitar. Singing and violin are associated with sustained textures a lot of the time, or melody, and you have to try to make the sound you want using your body, listening and responding, adjusting your tuning as you go.
Music, particularly singing, is an important element of Welsh culture, which is why the country is also known as “the land of song.” Would you say your upbringing in this environment had any influences on your compositions and musicianship in general?
Growing up in Wales there are a lot of opportunities to perform, at local and national Eisteddfods. They can be quite high pressure sometimes, performing from a young age or representing your school or area and receiving feedback. It makes you aware of the sensation of feeling nervous in front of an audience, and to have experience of that!
Congratulations on your latest E.P. ‘Noir’ that was released online just last Autumn! Please tell us more about the new E.P – how did it come about, and what was your favourite part when working on it?
So I released an album of jazz standards, swing and country blues music just for fun really with friends from Manchester. One of the tracks was a French song by Charles Trenet, sometimes performed by jazz or gypsy jazz players, and it’s a lovely tune. It became the more popular track on the album, and so I thought I would create an E.P. inspired by chanson and cabaret. The main single is a track by Barbara, called Mal de Vivre, and it was recorded with the Treske string quartet. It is an amazing song, Barbara was an iconic French singer and I fell in love with listening to her. The other tracks range from swing to fiddle music to contemporary classical arrangements of standards.
You’re the Winner of multiple composition programmes – the Winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society prize 2019 – 2020, the Winner of the Mathias Composition prize 2017, and the Winner of a Francis Chagrin prize 2019. What do these awards mean to you and your career as a young composer?
Quite often composition prizes lead to a commission, and that is the dream, to be asked to write music, sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to be offered a platform in that way.
You’re a young composer with a long list of accomplishments, including numerous composition awards already mentioned above, funding from the ‘Composers’ Fund,’ and much more. What advice would you give to aspiring composers in their early careers?
For the music I write, I think the things which have helped me the most have been playing an instrument, and getting involved with different ensembles as a player and performer. That way when it comes to writing music, the sounds and combinations and feel of the music is something more vivid and exciting to me than if I was just sat at a piece of manuscript, at the computer, or on protools or logic. I like to improvise with my voice or violin or at the piano, to listen and to go to concerts, to sense what it’s like for different players in the orchestra, thinking what kind of experience will the bassoon player have of this music, or if it’s jazz what do I want to allow space for, what will different players bring to the table. I have this sense of collaboratively making a performance from my work as a performer, but it’s how I think about composing too. My favourite outcome is when an ensemble really get the chance to know the music and play it more than once, that way letting their intuition guide them beyond the notes on the page. But that’s just me and I don’t know if it’s really advice for everyone. If you want to have your music heard, I would say don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask questions to various organisations who might be able to help. Everyone gets lots of emails and it can feel exhausting applying to every grant or opportunity, but just phoning them up and saying hey what do you think of this idea, should I apply, how might you be able to support it, that’s often more useful in my experience.
Finally, you’re working on an original album for jazz musicians and chamber orchestra for 2022, which sounds intriguing! We’d love to hear more about your upcoming project – what can people expect?
It has pretty much all been recorded now, and it’s something I am so proud of as I was able to write and record my own songs for the first time with a large scale ensemble. The music is a mixture of jazz and singer-songwriter inspired songs, as well as instrumental interludes which are more contemporary classical. The songs are each based on ways in which we can feel flawed as people, such as making poor decisions, failing to live in the moment, feeling jealous, being inconsistent. There are hopefully some big sweeping string textures as well as more intimate moments, especially working with the incredibly musical guitarist James Girling, and recording and mixing engineer David Coyle who is the absolute best when it comes to recording strings.
Listen to Claire’s music here: