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Meet a Singer Who's Right on Song: Christine Tobin

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christine tobin
Christine Tobin stops mid-sentence and tells herself to put her shovel away and stop digging. The Dublin-born singer has just been waxing lyrical about the power of sad songs to make both singer and listener feel better when she realises she might be setting herself up for inclusion in the miserable-git school of performer.

She's far from miserable. It's true that, with arguably the most distinctively alluring voice on the British jazz scene, Tobin can sound like the roof's just fallen in on her world and then some. But that's only when the song demands it. On her latest album, Secret Life of a Girl, Tobin changes character like a jobbing actor - now the worldly, sardonic observer, now the 10-year-old Camille, all mischief and wide-eyed wonder - and in conversation she's fun, effusive and full of enthusiasm for the latest gig she's been to and the next stop, whatever it'll be, on her constant voyage of musical discovery.

The night before, she'd been to see Herbie Hancock at London Jazz Festival, and she's still loving what she heard from a musician who played a part in her conversion to jazz, which came when Tobin heard Joni Mitchell's Mingus album in her late teens. Here were brilliantly crafted lyrics set to tunes written, mostly, by one of jazz's greatest composers and played by a dream band, including Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bass guitar genius Jaco Pastorius.

“For me at the time, it was the unpredictability of the music, the way it twisted and turned, and the great sounds that the musicians created, and on top of that there were Joni's words," she says. “I already loved Bob Dylan's lyrics, and I still do, but this was different. There was a style to Joni's writing that just intrigued me and made me want to sing those songs." advertisement

Before Mingus, Tobin had almost switched off from playing music. As a child growing up in Dublin she'd played Irish music, doing the rounds of socials and charity concerts with her older sister as an accordion duo. Then at the age of 11, she auditioned for a stage version of The Good Old Days, the television programme that brought music hall and a dictionary-swallowing master of ceremonies into our homes for a good many years, and got the part, singing and playing the accordion. She loved being onstage and might even then have harboured notions of becoming a professional singer, but the music her peers were listening to - the pop music of the day - didn't really appeal.

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