Rachel K. Collier: Swansea, Soul & Sunshine

I’m backstage at the former Sex Pistols’ haunt, ‘Spice of Life’ in Soho, London with 24-year-old, Welsh-born chanteuse Rachel K. Collier. Her eight piece band is dotted around the venue, waiting to start their set. Currently on stage are sibling duo Qiku; a sort of half-Japanese Wendy & Lisa. As their lovely sound filters through the walls Rachel and I are trying not to get distracted. Miss Collier herself is as effervescent off stage as she is on which I’m to find out later. The languid Swansea vowels are almost at odds with her rapid speech pattern and demonstrative body language.

Rachel has been composing songs since she was 11. When I ask if she remembers the first one she wrote she goes one better and treats me to a sweet, impromptu rendition… All the blue skies, and all the trees…and all the colours, all around me…

Its overall structure is surprisingly sophisticated for something she wrote before she even hit her teens. For Collier this is merely a reflection of what she imbibed growing up; “My mum and dad played music all the time… Pink Floyd, loads of crazy different stuff. I think without noticing I was inspired by that.”

Rachel’s first exposure to performing music was through the school choir. Then she started to teach herself the piano at 11. “Literally, I started with one hand. I was really chuffed when I discovered chords! Eventually I threw in a bassline with the left hand. Then when I was about 15 or 16 I thought, I need to get some piano lessons, start reading music so I could accompany myself.”

Rachel later felt confident enough to explore the classical route and launched in at the deep end by taking her first piano exam at grade five level which she describes as, “the most nerve racking experience of my life.” She’s since taught herself guitar but reckons she’s better at the ukulele (which she mastered whilst playing every night on a month-long trip to India last summer).

Around the same time Rachel started her classical piano training she discovered jazz vocals.

‘When I was about 15 I was trying to find a genre which suited my voice, mostly to sit exams. My teachers introduced me to the blues and jazz. I really got into Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong…all the classics. I just loved the way you could be more free with it and not have to stick to a rigid rhythm. I suppose it’s the creative part of me that really loved that. It seemed to suit my voice a little bit as well.’

Whilst studying for her Music Technology degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama an opportunity to capitalise on her new found appreciation of jazz presented itself.

“I was drunk one night, picked up the guitar and was just singing. Then a jazz bass player said to me ‘Rache, you should come and do some gigs with us”…and that was it. People got to know me as the jazz singer in college. I ended up doing quite a lot of gigs… carried on learning standards.”

With all the fun Collier was having on her degree and conquering the University jazz circuit, it was only a matter of time before she put her own outfit together. Another serendipitous encounter –this time with saxophonist and future boyfriend, Fraser Smith- was to play a hand. “Basically I was always writing and producing my own music. Then I met Fraser and he said “we should totally get a band together and play songs’.”

The group went through a personnel change or two before settling on their current line up. “Fraser knew the twins Alex and Lloyd on drums and guitar. We got Joe (on keys) in later because I used to play the piano and sing but I hated it because I couldn’t dance around. And then we sort of knew the bass player, drummer, guitarist…We kept Beth [from the first line-up] on backing vocals, kept Fraser on sax and Ben on trumpet, then we got Harry on tenor sax from Fraser’s course… It all kind of naturally formed.”

Rachel is the group’s chief songwriter although the general arrangements are most certainly a collaborative effort.

“I just write the melody and chords and I like putting it to the guys to see what we can do with it. Fraser has a massive say. He’s really good at deciding on a groove and choosing where it should go. The arrangements can either be a really quick process or a really long one. I wouldn’t say there was a cosmic thing. We work at it and try and see what sounds best. I think we are quite quick [at arrangements] and we underestimate that. Plus we’re all musicians so we’ve got lots of ideas.”

The band’s sound changes from song to song, perhaps indicative of Rachel’s varied musical palate. She counts Billie Holiday, Tori Amos, Bob Marley, Jane Monheit, India Arie, Beyoncé, Nitin Sawnhey, early Amy Winehouse and the late Susan McCorkle amongst her influences and singing on drum’n’bass recordings is one of her regular side projects. “I’ve gone through phases with my writing because I’ve been inspired by loads of different things,” she explains. “It’s quite hard to put it down to one genre.”

Still, Rachel is sure of one thing. “It’s not pop – especially because of the instrumentation we use.” Categorisation aside Collier writes solid tunes; the kind that hold up well whether interpreted through more complex arrangements or stripped back and acoustic.

Nevertheless despite being the de facto band leader, Rachel’s not one to hog the limelight. She encourages the others to bring forward their own compositions. “I try and tell them, ‘If any of you have got any songs, just put them to the band,’ but they don’t really.” She pouts momentarily.

There’s a touching honesty about Rachel. It’s quite different from the pre-meditated, media savvy responses of some. She’s probably one of the few artists I’ve interviewed who isn’t cagey about revealing her age. Perhaps most endearing of all, she’s very candid about the financial and administrative struggles of maintaining a sizeable up-and-coming band.

They are yet to employ the services of a PR and management team. Half of the musicians travel down from Cardiff for gigs with Rachel shouldering the cost of coach tickets whilst the band covers their own expenses once they’re in London. Having so far done mainly unpaid gigs the group display a very admirable level of commitment to the project. Quite a feat when you consider how accomplished the individual members are. All of them are trained jazz musicians with the exception of Bethany who is a classically trained percussionist. Although being able to play such an enjoyable repertoire must be a buzz, Rachel puts the band’s dedication partly down to friendship.

“We’ve been together now for about a year and a half. The personal rapport is great.”

Rachel’s openness extends to her heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Tracks such as ‘Go, Go, Go’ ‘Can’t Let It Out’ ‘I’m Not Here Anymore’ and ‘Can’t Feel You Now’ appear autobiographical. However the origins of some of the songs are far more prosaic than expected.

Collier confides, “I find when I’m making up a melody I’ll just sing any words. Sometimes when I’m listening back, some of the phrases really work so I keep them and write a song around that.”

That’s not to say there’s no deep, personal connection to any of the songs. The title track of the band’s forthcoming EP Sunflower for instance was written following the death of Rachel’s ten-year-old cousin Cerys Potter, in a tragic rafting accident last summer. “It’s strange; when I came back from India I really felt I needed to see her. Two days later my mum came out crying and I was like, ‘What’s happened?’ My year was literally turned upside down. It was just horrific.”

Rachel decided to pen ‘Sunflower’ as a tribute, with some gentle encouragement from her mum. “We were sitting in the dining room last August and she said, ‘Rache, let’s just get it over and done with. Let’s write a song about Cerys’.”

Even before its official release, the surprisingly upbeat ska-flavoured ‘Sunflower’ has been well received. Rachel and the band have had a video shot for the single, a prize for winning the Cardiff heat of Battle of the Bands. B-Unique record label have also approached Collier expressing interest in the song for one of the younger acts on their roster. Writing for other people is something Rachel would like to pursue.

“I love writing… If someone said, ‘Oh can you write me a song?’ I would do it straight away. It sounds weird but sometimes I’ll get on stage and I feel really nervous and think, ‘Oh no, I’m just a writer, why am I singing the songs as well?’ but then I think, ‘What the hell?’ I love to sing too so might as well go for it.”

Away from the eight-piece Rachel still finds time for other musical endeavours. She is planning to work on an electro-folk project with one of her contacts at B-Unique. From time to time she’s asked by drum’n’bass producers to lend her voice to their tracks. Miss Collier has a lot of fun moonlighting as a junglist; “I’m at the live gigs singing over the D’n’B music. I love dancing so I just go mental and sing at the same time,” she smiles.

Even Rachel’s day jobs are musically infused. She teaches piano and ukulele and three times a week she sings to nursery tots; not always compatible with the unsociable hours a professional soul/jazz vocalist keeps. “It’s a cute job but it doesn’t really tie in with all the jams,” she admits. “You get in about 3am and you’ve got to be in nursery at 9am. It’s not the best.”

This summer Rachel and the band are looking forward to promoting Sunflower which follows hot on the heels of their very impressive self-titled 2010 EP, albeit in a slightly new direction creatively. It seems change really is the only constant for these musical chameleons. There are also several live dates in the offing with slots at the Birmingham Jazz Festival, Beach Break Live, the Bedford in August and supporting US artist Rachael Sage.

When asked how their live sets compare to their records, there’s one fact of which Rachel is evidently proud. “Our recording is true. We haven’t really added anything in there that wouldn’t be in a live gig.” In another moment of disarming candour she injects, rather contradictorily, “People say we’re better live. They say the recordings don’t show us off as much.” Before I even have a chance to ask if this bothers her Rachel adds, “That’s a really nice thing for them to say actually!”

Sunflower is released in June; available via iTunes and Amazon.

Rachel K Collier online: rachelkcollier.co.uk | facebook | twitter | myspace | youtube

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