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Local jazz singer says it hot

Well-known singer Sarah Fenwick also has other strings to her bow, but finds it is being in her fifties that is really liberating. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

I thought we might talk about jazz with Sarah Fenwick. She is, after all, the owner and star attraction of Sarah’s Jazz Club in Nicosia – a rare case of an artist turned entrepreneur, cutting the Gordian knot of performers struggling to perform in a handful of live-music venues – and a staple of the local scene, going back to her days at the old Cotton Club 25 years ago. She has a three-and-a-half-octave voice with, as she says, “a lot of sand” in it – though a quote on her website (sarahfenwick.com) is a bit more effusive, describing it as “the voice of a mystical angel”.

Jazz does feature briefly in our conversation. Sarah explains about ‘scatting’, and the practice of musicians “trading fours” (look it up!); reference is made to Louis Armstrong, bebop and hard bop. Jazz, as she says, is her life’s work, the one “constant thread” in her life’s uneven tapestry. All in all, however, I’d say we talk less about jazz than we do about the subprime mortgage crisis in America in 2007 – and certainly less about jazz than we do about human rights and multiculturalism. The history of Hellenism gets a brief mention too, ditto Camus, automation, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the village of Moni vs. the village of Psematismenos. Maybe she just likes to ramble, or maybe it’s a function of “the way my brain is built”, her lifelong – and recently, officially diagnosed – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We talk about that, too.

We meet in her jazz club, of course, open since April, the culmination of years of idle dreaming and a two-and-a-half-year battle to amass the necessary licences (the bureaucratic hassles placed before artists seeking to establish a cultural space are another of the things we talk about). I’m met by Sarah’s husband, TV director Savvas Hadjigeorgiou, and a big dog named Chopy (after Chopin) who sniffs at me attentively and packs a pretty fierce bark, as becomes clear later on when we’re interrupted by a peddler. Muddy Waters plays in the background. The room is simple enough, a bar, a stage, and about a dozen tables with chairs in funky colours, muted by the dim light of an overcast morning. Sarah herself waves hello from the back of the room and comes to greet me – a tall woman with short hair and a round, puckish face that could plausibly be any age.

She actually turns 52 on December 10 – and declares herself very happy to be in her 50s. “It was just a relief. It felt good, to turn 50,” she claims with a laugh, then tries to explain that surprising statement. “When you’re younger, things are very confusing. Everyone starts their families, everyone starts their careers. They buy their cars, or they buy their house. I never did any of that! I never had children, I never bought a house. I never saw marriage as a means to an end.

“I always live very much in – my mind,” she explains, hesitating as she tries to pin it down. “Very much. And a lot of times, actual life – other than music, and writing – became quite burdensome. I felt like I was constantly trying and, you know, had to make a career, and you had to do this, you had to be successful, and these constant feelings of failure because I wasn’t reaching some ideal of success or something. And then, when I turned 50, I was like: ‘OK, now I’m gonna do things exactly as I want them!’.”

The jazz was always there; her parents (her dad is English, her mother Cypriot) weren’t musicians, but the house was full of music. “Since my earliest memories I have Ella Fitzgerald’s voice in my mind, Billie Holiday’s voice in my mind. These are my earliest memories.” She always sang, but was discouraged from doing so professionally; instead she studied Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, but failed to graduate due to a lifelong learning disability with maths (which, for some reason, were a core part of the degree). You wonder if there may have been a hint of subconscious revenge in the fact that later – much later – she made her living analysing numbers, working for a financial news wire in Switzerland and covering finance in general (hence the subprime mortgage crisis) and the Swiss stock exchange in particular.

When was this? In another life – before the jazz club, before her marriage to Savvas (they’ve been married for nine years), before village life in Moni, Skarinou and Psematismenos. We’re jumping around quite a lot – which is fine for this particular profile, but a modicum of structure should at least be attempted. Let’s just say that Sarah Fenwick has always tended to live three lives in parallel: as a singer, a marketing person (!) and a journalist, the journalism often appearing on her website Cyprus News Report. Or, to quote the woman herself: “People look at me from the outside and they go ‘What on earth is she doing? In the morning she’s writing an article, in the afternoon she’s marketing a concert, in the evening she’s singing. What are you, nuts?’. [But] this is how I have to operate to stay interested in life, and to stay interested in what I’m doing in general.”

Jazz may be useful as a governing metaphor here. Jazz, after all, is about freedom – literally so in the beginning, when it sprung from the music of slaves in America, but also later, when the likes of Charlie Parker deliberately went off-key and made creative ‘mistakes’. “Jazz represents rebellion,” says Sarah (though not rage per se; that’s more the blues). Jazz is also about syncopation, emphasising weak beats to keep the music fresh, keeping two different rhythms alive at the same time – and Sarah’s is perhaps a syncopated life, not just in what she does but how she does it.

Here’s one duality: she’s a solitary person, yet also an activist. “If you left me to my own devices, I would take a book and live in the countryside and read. And do not much else. Maybe sing to myself, write and read.” (She did live in the countryside for years, only coming back to Nicosia because of the jazz club.) Yet Cyprus News Report is an activist website, promising “change-making news since 2009”, and Sarah has pursued social causes since her teens, when she joined the protests against an Ayia Napa aquarium that was keeping dolphins in a swimming pool (the dolphins were released, much to her delight and astonishment). She’s happy being quiet, more than happy, but she also has a scrappy side. She quotes DH Lawrence: “Be still when you have nothing to say – but when you have something to say, say it hot!”.

Here’s another duality, perhaps the most profound of her life. She’s a creature ruled by passions – a romantic, “trapped in the emotion,” as she puts it – yet also an observer, a thinker and perhaps over-thinker. The passions are real: her move to Switzerland, and the world of financial journalism, was supposed to be permanent (this was in her 40s when she took a lot of corporate, nine-to-five jobs; she also worked in marketing management) – yet, less than a year later, she was back in Cyprus, “risking all on a feeling of love”, in pursuit of a man who turned out to be wildly incompatible. Her first husband (Savvas is the second) was another romantic impulse, an old teenage sweetheart whom she married in 1992, soon after coming back to Cyprus; they divorced two years later, having learned the hard way that their adolescent ardour had been curdled by age.

“I believe in love,” she says – yet at the same time, like a jazz band able to express two conflicting rhythms simultaneously, some part of her knows it’s a bad idea, feeling compelled to play along out of a kind of intellectual curiosity. It’s the feeling when you know someone’s lying to you, explains Sarah ruefully, but “you don’t bring it to the forefront of your conscious mind, because you’re interested more in why they’re doing it. You wonder why. You want to understand the motivation. Then, when you reach the end of the story, and the motivation is ‘I love someone else’ or ‘I want different things from what I can get with you’, the writer part of me says ‘Observe, learn’. The singer part of me says ‘Express it’. And the rational part of me says ‘What the f**k are you doing?’.” She laughs merrily. “But it’s true. It’s true!” It’s the artist’s curse, a secret part of her that observes all the time, as if seeking raw material for the songs – even when what’s being observed is her own life, even when it means ignoring all the evidence of her survival instincts.

This is not the kind of talk I signed up for. I thought we’d be talking jazz (which we are, in a way), happy feelings, the magic of music. There’s some of that, certainly. Music – especially live music – is “catharsis,” says Sarah. She sees it in the faces of her audience, who often come in stressed and leave smiling and relaxed. She hears it in the feedback she gets: “‘I have your CD, and it really means a lot’ – or, ‘I used to play your CD to my child when she had problems sleeping, and she relaxed. And, you know, I’m a waitress, so I really needed to sleep, and thank you very much!’” (the CD in question is called Jazz Origins, a collaboration with Marinos Neofytou). Above all, she knows it from her own experience – especially in the past two years, when she’s been caring for her mum who’s ill with a rare form of gynaecological skin cancer. “If I didn’t have music, I think I would have – ended it by now. I really would have.”

As in jazz, joyful catharsis goes hand-in-hand with pricklier emotions. Her account of the illness once again brings out her ‘scrappy side’, especially when she talks of having sparred with the doctors: “I didn’t accept their initial prognosis of ‘It’s incurable, just deal with it’. I did research, I found out what had been done in other cases, I was very – let’s say forceful with the doctors”. It worked, to a certain extent: the doctors here are now in communication with doctors in Germany, working together to ensure her mother’s quality of life. Opening the club also brought out the scrappy side: she’s organised a petition calling for a more streamlined licensing process, and already has 400 signatures. “If I’m going to take on a fight, I’m going to win it,” she asserts. “Because I will find every reason, I will find every argument under the sun. I will research until I’m blue in the face”. As Lawrence advised, “say it hot”.

Sometimes the laid-back musician takes over. On a table by the stage, I note the handwritten lyrics for an old Billie Holiday song called ‘Willow Weep for Me’; Sarah sang it last night – and, with a jazzperson’s nonchalance, didn’t actually learn the words before going onstage, the better to encourage improvisation and spontaneity. Then again, it’s also notable that she worked last night – and indeed she works every night, seven days a week, whether singing or organising: “I very rarely sit down for five minutes”. There’s the club, and she also makes perfumes which she sells as merchandising, and she and Savvas also have a company doing marketing and video production. It’s not just hard work – it’s the ADHD, a lack of dopamine (she explains) meaning one is never satisfied, always seeking constant stimulation.

“When I was growing up, they didn’t pay much attention to females who had ADHD, because it was mostly reflected in boys,” muses Sarah. “I mean, boys really exhibit the symptoms, they’re bouncing off the walls. But girls are very different, they’re more quiet, maybe not very interested in what’s going on. You know, they’re dreamy – which I was, as a kid. Dreamy, and never in one place for long. And they hide – I definitely did hide, let’s say, my feelings of low self-esteem, or failure, I hid this with charm. I was sweet”.

Dreamy charm concealing restlessness and burning insecurity. Living in her mind then trying to change the world, cool then hot. A penchant for passion (part of the need for stimulation, perhaps) observed by the observer’s gimlet eye. An avowed avoidance of the usual indicators of success – no house, no kids. (Did she never want them? “Not really, no,” she admits, adding wryly: “Maybe I chose the wrong people because I didn’t want this kind of responsibility”.) All these traits have at some point described Sarah Fenwick – the only constant thread, as she says, being the music, from joining a gospel band (as the only white member) and jam sessions in Chicago blues bars during her college days, to all those years of songs sung between writing gigs and corporate jobs and now, finally, on her very own stage at Sarah’s Jazz Club.

“Every difficulty in life, every heartbreak, every emotional stress that I’ve had, in my personal or work life, I just pour it into music,” she tells me. “Do I use it to calm down? Yes. Do I use it as a catharsis? Yes. Definitely. But does it – um, make life not happen? No. It’s an accompaniment to life, it’s not like an escape. It’s part of life”. As I leave, I get a sudden mental image of Sarah onstage, in full flow, surrounded by all the detritus of her 52 years, college parties and quiet village mornings, fragile parents and bad relationships and wild romances. Love and pain, and all that jazz.

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