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Jazz singer Clare Teal heads to Cambridge: ‘I love finding out what makes an audience tick’

Warm and witty jazz singer Clare Teal loves a chat with the audience between her swinging tunes and has even sought out their vacuum cleaner recommendations for her mum.

The Jazz FM presenter clearly enjoys getting to know people and she likes to get them on board talking about whatever is on her mind.

Clare Teal Seven
Clare Teal Seven

She’s fascinated by what makes audiences tick and can sense the atmosphere and how to loosen people up as soon as she steps on stage.

“There’s a lot of psychology in performing. You walk into a room and basically you want the winning result, which is that everybody leaves happy,” says Clare.

”You want them to think, ‘Oh, I’m glad I bothered to come out and didn’t stay in to watch Call the Midwife’.”

But each night and each place is different. Sometimes she will walk on stage and the audience reception will be like ” a warm hug”.

“Sometimes, depending on whatever is happening in the world, you can just feel a sort of unrest,” she says.

“You can just feel that people are not happy. Or you might have a really shy audience who don’t want to kind of yell and clap and go ‘woo hoo!’ So from the second you walk out you are reading room, and trying to get to a situation where everybody’s really happy. And that is, I think, one of the most rewarding things about what we do.

“Sometimes it could happen in song three or song two or song seven. I will crack a joke or mention Dave the guitarist’s socks and then you feel a moment when everything changes. It can feel like a wave coming at you. You try all these different things. That’s sort of the job until we find what we need to unlock that room and it’s like, yeah, we’ve all won, and it’s good.”

Last year she was performing in Wakefield and the audience helped her out with a shopping dilemma.

“My mum wanted a new vacuum cleaner but she had very specific ideas of what she wanted and it had to be a plug in. It had to be chargeable and be able to deal with two types of floors, hard and carpet but it had to be light, because her hands are very bad and I thought, well, I’m in Wakefield, where would be better than that to ask the audience to find my mum a vacuum? And it was just so funny because I was talking about it and they were calling out ‘This one is what you want!’ And then there were really northern voices shouting Hoover! And Shark! And other brands really loudly, but with passion, and we narrowed it down to what would be the best. In the morning, my partner Mud said well, they seemed to think this specific Hoover would be best. So we got one for my mum, one for her mum and we ended up getting one for ourselves!”

Playing with the Clare Teal Seven, who are coming to Cambridge, is her favourite on stage experience, she says.

“When you come to a show you get to know every player, their names and their characters. I want you to know what they are like because I love being with them. I want everyone to feel like it’s a family thing we’re sharing this time. And I really feel that seven is the perfect number of musicians - you can just get to know everybody but the sound is really strong.”

Building up a relationship with her audience was important at BBC Radio 2, where Clare presented The Swing and Big Band show for 17 years. Having that suddenly come to an end was a tough experience, she explains.

“It was a massive shock. I was really proud to work for the BBC and I met some incredible people and I learned from the best,” says Clare.

”I learned from the producers and the studio managers who just had decades of skill and knowledge about how to put shows together. I learnt about timing, about flow. Those skills are so useful for your own live work or even putting an album together to get the running order right.”

Clare lost the show at the start of the pandemic.

Clare teal. Picture: Chris Christodoulou
Clare teal. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

“I know you can’t be on the radio forever,” she says. “But the timing of what happened meant I couldn’t work. As an industry, we were unable to work. So that was hard.”

At that point Clare was doing 70 shows a year on top of her weekly radio shows and it all suddenly came to an end. But she was quickly offered a new slot on Jazz FM and life changed beyond recognition.

“When it all stopped I think at the time it made me realise we were absolutely shattered. When you are working, it’s generally an 18 hours a day. And so it is a brilliant job, but it is tiring. I suppose you’re constantly living in a work mode. I remember just before lockdown, we went to a friend’s house and I was like ‘What have you been up to then?’ And they were just talking about what had been on telly. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s awful, you poor thing’. And now I’m like, ‘They were feeling sorry for me, because we were just working all the time’. And I could see the pity in their eyes. Three or four years later I’m like ‘Nah, I’m with you now. When is Shetland on again?’

“Actually, the biggest benefit was that in the past we missed weddings, we missed parties. We missed all those big events in people’s lives that happened at the weekend. So now it’s great having the opportunity to catch up with friends at weekends and spend time and not worry that I can’t drink because I’m going to have to work tomorrow.

“The biggest difference moving to Jazz FM is the sheer amount of work that was involved. I had a team at Radio Two that did everything. I had a studio manager. I didn’t have to run the desk, I didn’t have to do anything. I mean, the knowledge of those guys I worked with, I loved my team, they were absolutely wonderful. And then moving to Jazz FM - who are a brilliant bunch of people, but it’s obviously a smaller organisation – means you’ve got to do an awful lot / everything yourself.”

However, her loyal listeners followed her and send in requests or snippets of information about the music she plays.

“I have people who write in regularly and have very specific areas of expertise. I’ve learned loads from them. They’re telling you what they want to hear. And it makes the show evolve. And sometimes, if I’m into a really particular thing like New Orleans marching bands or whatever, we’ll have a lot of that over six months and people will be telling me things I didn’t know. And so if you’re up for learning, it’s a brilliant job to be in.”

The Clare Teal Seven: A Momentous Collaboration of Swing & Jazz are at Cambridge Arts Theatre on Saturday 24 February. Tickets are available at cambridgeartstheatre.com, priced £28.

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