Elisa Caleb: Turning Lemons To Sweet, Jazzy Lemonade

28 year old, Half-Filipina, half Bajan songstress Elisa Caleb has impressed critics so much recently that she’s been compared to the mighty Ella Fitzgerald, having deservedly caused ripples in the UK Jazz Scene.  Sounding like an old pro it’s difficult to imagine that Elisa’s vocal ability only became evident as she hit young adulthood.
West London-born but raised in Barbados, her encounter with music as a child was a world apart from where she is now.

“I came over [to the UK] just before my 13th birthday.  In terms of the music I do now I only heard jazz when I came here.  Going to church in Barbados did give me a lot of grounding in Gospel music.  Caribbean churches, I’d even say predominantly black churches here are very different, a different atmosphere.  The whole congregation sings the harmony, claps and dances;  it’s like the whole church is part of the band, which is great.”

As she came into her formative years, Elisa discovered the joys of jazz listening to the radio; “I got a stereo on my 14th birthday and that’s when I started listening to Jazz FM after school, the evening hours with Helen Mayhew… a lot of great tracks.” Later on in her teens, a chance encounter with a gaggle of gifted young musicians really kick started Elisa’s musical journey. “When I went to college at 16 I met Jo [Caleb, guitarist and Elisa’s future husband], Michael Olatuja and Amy Winehouse’s former musical director, Femi Temowo – who produced my album.  College was a different stage of music for me.

“It’s when I first heard musicians playing it live that I got into listening to and going to gigs.   [Previously] I never envisioned being a singer.  I went onto study law; music wasn’t even on the cards for me.  When I met Jo, if you had asked him if I’d become a singer he would say, ‘No, of course not!’  I wasn’t singing really much at all and I couldn’t really sing to be honest.”  Elisa’s modesty doesn’t end there.  “I’m probably a good example of someone who’s been able to practise.”  Surely practice only gets you so far; you can’t rehearse your way to being talented if it’s not there in the first place?  Elisa gives a knowing smile as she replies, “That’s a nice way of looking at it but you didn’t hear me when I was 16!”

It was in 2005, whilst attending an open mic/jam session at the famous 606 Club that Elisa’s jazz career started rather abruptly. Husband, Jo had sneakily put her down on the list to sing and when her name was called out, though unexpected, Elisa chose to seize the moment.  She was rewarded by a warm reception from the audience.  Was this the turning point in her musical ambitions? “It was probably the beginning of it. Not the turning point but a moment where I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not terrible at singing.'” Yet still… “I didn’t think about singing as a career at that point.”

As Elisa took tentative steps towards becoming a performer, it was not too long before she finally found her own voice.

“The moment that made me go from sounding less than average to something better was when I was listening to a particular album by Helen Merrill and Clifford Brown.   At this point I’d been listening to Jazz for years, gotten married… but it wasn’t until I heard that particular album- that something just clicked…made sense.   I can’t sound like Helen because our voices are completely different but imitating her style completely changed my singing. It was really inspiring for me.”

Soon there was no stopping Elisa and she seriously made up for lost time.

“I did a lot of gigs in that period.  I was really fortunate to have a musician as a husband.   I would go along to his gigs and listen and he’ll ask me to come and sing a few songs until the time when he said, ‘I’m going to book you for the gig’.  That groundwork of having loads of those things to do really helped [my] development.  I think I’ve gone on like a fast track.  A lot of singers starting off don’t get the opportunity as often as I did in that period.”

Mrs Caleb has some encouragement and advice for those who might be (by today’s standards) late-starters in the industry such as herself…

“The first thing I’d probably say is to record yourself when you practise so you can listen back to yourself and hear where you need to improve.  Really work on those sections. You want to work on the areas where you are strongest because it makes you feel better but if you work on the areas with which you really struggle it will help you improve by untold amounts.  Also I’d really advise people just to get out there and perform.  No amount of practice can really equate to the experience of doing it live. Even if you have to do free gigs just go out there.  Performing helps to develop you as an artist.”

Elisa counts Amel Larrieux, Sade, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan and pianist Bill Evans amongst those who inspire her.  Her music is unmistakeably true to her passion for jazz.  It is a wonder that she has avoided the pervasive influence of the current R&B/pop scene.  Elisa puts this down to her diverse taste. “I don’t know, I guess I’ve listened to lots of varied music.  You don’t just put one thing on your stereo all the time, which is great in the sense that you can get influence from a lot of different surroundings.  If you just listen to the music you love, whatever that is, you will develop your own sound because you love it.”

Attending an Elisa show one might be surprised to note she sings mostly original material written by Jo, as opposed to the jazz standards that are more common to the scene.  Mrs Caleb explains the source of hubbie’s ideas. “Jo takes his inspiration from a lot of different places.  He reads a lot of books; he watches a lot of movies.  I wouldn’t like to take any co-writing credits from him. He would say that I should but to be honest my input in his songs are very, very minuscule.  I know when Jo writes music he really becomes the song. For him whenever he’s in the middle of composing a piece of music that is all that there is.  It sounds very personal and that’s exactly what he wanted to create.  I guess basing it on people you know or an experience you have had makes it more realistic and more able to connect with people.”

Elisa has had her fair share of harrowing experiences, one in particular that was an unlikely catalyst for her career in music.  During her second year as a Law Student at Sheffield University she received the tragic news that she had breast cancer.  Taking time out from her course to undergo chemotherapy, on her return the University gave her a tough ultimatum; start all over again from scratch or call it a day.  Elisa wasn’t about to return to being a fresher and she quit the degree.

Nevertheless, she has no regrets and even considers the illness a blessing in disguise.  For one thing, rather than turning her away from the Christian faith with which she grew up, she claims it drew her closer to God. “Up until that period I’d grown up in a family that went to church and I’d been going to church but I wasn’t taking Him seriously at all.  When I went off to University I had more license.  God basically said ‘Stop, stop…I’m trying to get your attention here’.  He was obviously trying to get my attention before but I wasn’t really listening,” she laughs.  “That’s why I don’t see having cancer as a negative experience at all. I developed a faith in God.  A lot of things really came out of that process.”

Elisa recounts how the ordeal eventually led her to take control of her destiny, especially where her future calling was concerned.

“If I hadn’t taken time out from University to take the cancer treatment, if I had stayed, I would have finished my law degree.  I would have probably gone on to practise law and would have only done it because it was expected of me.   It wasn’t a career of my choosing.  That’s why I don’t see [the cancer] as a negative because so many positive things came out of it.”

On a personal level, the experience deepened Elisa and Jo’s bond.

“I spent a huge amount of time with Jo.  He was studying music at Middlesex University.   He was my best friend at the time; the main friend that was always, always there, came to all my hospital visits, there for all my injections.  He’s just been there through everything.”

So since her recovery, how has surviving cancer impacted Elisa‘s day to day life?

“It’s definitely helped me appreciate each day that I have.  Especially now I have a daughter, Liya. I remember when she was just born and now she’s two and she’s running around!   I think ‘Goodness, every day I have with her is such a blessing’.  It’s really helped me to realise I don’t know how long I am here for.   When I was pregnant with Liya, I thought to myself, ‘If, God forbid, the cancer comes back I don’t know whether I’m going to see her get married or whatever.  I am just going to enjoy her as she is now’. It has helped me to really be grateful for everything I have got.”

Elisa Caleb online: www.elisacaleb.com | @SweetMelodyGirl | MySpace | Facebook

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