Gwyneth Herbert (born 26 August 1981) is a British singer-songwriter and pianist, initially known for her interpretation of jazz and swing standards, and now established as a writer of original compositions, including musical theatre. She has been described as a "sophisticated jazz-ballad artist" with a "precociously powerful chemistry of taste and meticulous care for every sound - from a whisper to an exhortation" and "a voice that can effortlessly render any emotion with commanding ease". Her songs have been described as "impressively crafted and engrossing vignettes of life's more difficult moments". Her albums have received four-starred reviews from The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times.
Herbert performs with a band comprising Al Cherry (guitars), Ned Cartwright (piano), Sam Burgess (bass) and Dave Price (percussion and fiddle).
Early life and education:
Born into a musical family in Wimbledon, London, Herbert was brought up in Surrey and Hampshire in the south of England. She began playing the piano at the age of three, achieving Grade 5 by nine, and was writing basic songs at the age of five. She also learned the French horn, achieving Grade 8 by the age of 15. Throughout her teenage years she played music with local orchestras and bands such as the Surrey County Youth Orchestra and also briefly formed a short-lived punk band called Wasted Minds. At 14 she recorded a demo tape of her own songs at Trinity Studios, Woking; however, despite music industry interest, she chose to continue with her studies.
Herbert went to Glebelands School in Cranleigh, Surrey and, for her sixth form studies, to Alton College in Hampshire, where her musical tastes moved more towards jazz music. While she was studying at St Chad's College, University of Durham, she met up with fellow student Will Rutter and together they began to write and perform in the cafés and bars of North East England as a jazz duo called Black Coffee.
After leaving university, Herbert and Rutter moved to London, where they soon met a former member of Boney M, who was shortly to judge a Polish television music competition. She and Rutter were invited to enter, and Black Coffee won the competition. Returning to London, Black Coffee continued to perform in local bars, before being introduced to Ian Shaw, a noted jazz vocalist. This led eventually to the production of a debut CD, First Songs, initially credited to "Gwyn and Will", of both original songs and standards, which was launched at London's Pizza Express Jazz Club in September 2003. The Herbert/Rutter song "Sweet Insomnia" featured guest vocals from Jamie Cullum. The album received a significant amount of radio airplay on Jazz FM and BBC Radio 2, and was promoted by Michael Parkinson.
Bittersweet and Blue:
Soon after, Herbert was signed to the Universal Classics and Jazz label and released, in September 2004, her first major label album, Bittersweet and Blue. This comprised mainly standards, but also included three original tracks by Herbert and Rutter. Herbert's version of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", taken from this album, was featured on the soundtrack of romantic comedy Leap Year, directed by Anand Tucker and starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.John Fordham, in a four-starred review of the album for The Guardian, praised Herbert's "precociously powerful chemistry of taste and meticulous care for every sound - from a whisper to an exhortation."
Between Me and the Wardrobe:
Herbert left Universal Classics and Jazz to pursue a less commercial and more personal musical direction and then self-financed a project in which she collaborated with Polar Bear's Seb Rochford in a production role.Between Me and the Wardrobe, an album of self-penned songs, was recorded in three days and was never intended for general release. The album was initially made available, in 2006, on Herbert's own Monkeywood label before being picked up by Blue Note Records, making Herbert their first UK signing in 30 years. In a five-starred review, Stuart Nicholson of The Observer said that on this album she "lets the lyrics do the work for her. They are well thought out, moving between artfully constructed soft-focus simplicities to poignant yearning".
Ten Lives and All the Ghosts:
In early 2008, Herbert was commissioned by a collaborative project between Peter Gabriel and Bowers & Wilkins to record an acoustic album at Gabriel's Real World Studios. The result of these sessions - Ten Lives - was released as a digital download in July 2008, available only from the Bowers & Wilkins website as part of their Music Club.
Remixed versions of these songs were to form the basis of Herbert's album All the Ghosts, which was released by Naim Edge in July 2009 in Europe to critical acclaim, including four-starred reviews from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian; the album was released in the United States in June 2010. This album also featured two further recordings - including a cover version of David Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" - by Robert Harder, who had previously collaborated with Herbert as recording engineer of Between Me and the Wardrobe. It was remastered for vinyl by Steve Rooke at Abbey Road Studios, London and reissued in LP format in 2010.
Clangers & Mash:
In October 2009, Herbert returned to Harder Sound Studio to record the song "Perfect Fit" which she gave away as a free download, available exclusively from Naim Edge. It was also released as a single on 7 March 2011. The track was also one of nine tracks on her EP Clangers & Mash, released on 1 November 2010, which included remixes, by Seb Rochford of Polar Bear, of some of her previously published songs.
In a four-starred review for The Guardian, John Fordham described it as a "fascinating set of variations on the familiar for Herbert regulars, or an appealing introduction for jazz-averse newcomers", saying that although her songs had been radically transformed, "Herbert's unfussy soulfulness and personal vision always glow through".
The Sea Cabinet:
In January 2010, Herbert was commissioned by Snape Maltings as artist in residence to write, record and perform a new body of work based on stories of the sea. This was performed in October 2010 at Snape Maltings. An album of this music, The Sea Cabinet, was released in May 2013 and launched in a series of concerts from 23 to 26 May at Wilton's Music Hall in London's East End. In a review of the album launch, The Guardian's jazz critic John Fordham said that "Herbert's imaginative narrative, and her casually commanding voice - whether softly nuanced as confiding speech or at full soaring-contralto stretch - were the central characters in an entertaining and often moving show that opens a new chapter in her creative story". Michal Boncza, in a review for the Morning Star of musical performances in 2013, described it as a "stand-out", admiring "a voice that can effortlessly render any emotion with commanding ease. Every song is an impressively crafted and engrossing vignette of life's more difficult moments and they grab the attention time and again".
The Financial Times' four-star review called it "a concept album about the debt British history owes to the sea". In a four-star review The Independent described it as a "cabinet of curiosities" with "a cabaret approach to storytelling, in rollicking sea shanties and waltzes", and "inventive" instrumentation "featuring wheezing accordions, warbling woodwind, tinkling music boxes and rolling bells".
Commenting on her live performance in July 2013 at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in Glynde Place, East Sussex, Nick Hasted of The Independent said: "Gwyneth Herbert sings the shanties on her The Sea Cabinet album with happy, cabaret sensuality, detailing a relationship's shipwrecked, sunken past in 'I Still Hear The Bells'".
The A-Z of Mrs P:
In 2010, Herbert won the Stiles and Drewe Song of the Year Award with her composition "Lovely London Town", from a musical she has written with playwright Diane Samuels. The musical, The A-Z of Mrs P, tells the story of Phyllis Pearsall's creation of the London A to Z street atlas. It was performed in workshop with actress Sophie Thompson in May 2011 and opened at Southwark Playhouse on 21 February 2014 starring Peep Show actress Isy Suttie. The show's original cast recording, which includes a bonus track sung by Herbert, was released in March 2014.
In April 2012, her one-act musical Before the Law, co-written with Christine Denniston, was awarded second place in the inaugural Sidney Brown Memorial Award for Most Promising New Work which is run by Mercury Musical Developments (MMD), the organisation which supports new musical theatre writing.Before the Law was adapted from A Hand Witch of the Second Stage by Peter Barnes. It is the companion piece to After Lydia, a one-act musical based on Terence Rattigan's play of the same name, which was commissioned by Sounds of England and was also a collaboration with Christine Denniston.After Lydia was given a 45-minute reading at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London on Monday 14 March 2011, starring Rebecca Caine, Andrew C. Wadsworth, Simon Green and Daniel Fraser, with Stefan Bednarczyk as musical director. Directed by Maria Friedman, it also had a staged reading at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, Berkshire in August 2012.
In March 2010 Herbert performed a newly commissioned score for Marion Davies' 1928 silent comedy classic The Patsy, at BFI Southbank's Birds Eye View Film Festival.
In July 2012 she performed, with BBC Radio 3 DJ Max Reinhardt and Paris-based singer China Moses, in a revue by Alex Webb which told the story of Café Society, New York's first non-segregated nightclub. The show had a London Jazz Festival premiere at the Southbank Centre and a successful run at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre.
In 2012, Herbert joined forces with members of the Buck Clayton Legacy Band to explore, in a series of concerts and talks, the jazz repertoire of Peggy Lee.
In 2014 she collaborated with artist Mel Brimfield in presenting The Palace That Joan Built, a celebration of the centenary of Joan Littlewood's birth, as part of the London Underground's Art on the Underground programme. This included a live performance at Stratford Underground station.
On BBC Radio 3's Jazz Line-Up on 12 February 2005, Gwyneth Herbert talked to Claire Martin about her album Bittersweet and Blue.
She was interviewed about her career on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on 28 November 2007.
On 1 February 2008, in a broadcast for BBC Radio 3's Jazz Library, she joined the programme's presenter Alyn Shipton to discuss the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald. On 23 March 2008 she joined Alyn Shipton to select the best albums from singer Anita O'Day's discography. On 23 October 2011, in another broadcast for Jazz Library, subsequently made available as a podcast, she joined Shipton to identify the best work of the saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan. On 22 March 2014 she picked, with Shipton, the essential recordings of Dinah Washington.
In 2010, 2011 and 2013 she and Thomas Guthrie sang in The Playlist, a series of BBC Radio 4 broadcasts recreating the previously unknown musical lives of famous figures from the past, discovering and recording their favourite songs - including songs they themselves had composed.
On 13 December 2013, with Frances Ruffelle, Isy Suttie and Neil Marcus, she talked with Tom Service on his BBC Radio 3 programme Music Matters about the development of musical theatre and The A-Z of Mrs P.
Gwyneth Herbert is featured on the track "A Day In The Life Of A Fool" on Konishi Yasuharu's 2011 album One and Ten Very Sad Songs - Konishi Yasuharu Is Pizzicato One (Universal Music).
She provided "vocal theremin" on the track "C.H.A.O.S. (The Third version)" on Bourgeois & Maurice's 2013 album The Third. She also produced this track and three others on the album, co-producing a fifth track with Ben Humphreys.
On Janette Mason's 2014 album D'Ranged she took lead vocals on two tracks - the Alison Moyet song "This House" and Paul Weller's "You Do Something To Me".London Jazz News described the treatment of Paul Weller's song, with Herbert accompanied only by Mason's piano, as "a haunting and affecting performance".
Gwyneth Herbert also provided vocals on Dave Price's original soundtrack digital album for The Roof, which was performed by London's Fuel Theatre during 2014.
After several years in Hackney, London, Gwyneth Herbert now lives in St Leonards-on-Sea, Hastings, East Sussex.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license