Some performers forge a career in the theatre and then decide to go out on their own and dabble in a bit of cabaret, but not actress and singer Alison Jiear. Since her late teens, when she was “hanging out” in her native Australia, it is an art-form she has embraced and continues to do so this month with a residency at London’s St James Studio.
Following two recent sell-out dates at the venue, Jiear is returning with her show Under the Influence, although she has made a few amendments to incorporate her forthcoming live album In Your Eyes – recorded back in 2009 at the much-missed Pizza on the Park at Hyde Park Corner.
Jiear’s credits are pretty impressive, ranging from session work/backing vocals for commercials, movies, television and albums (collaborating with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams) to a list of musical theatre credits which includes her memorable Olivier-nominated roles as Shawntel/Eve in Jerry Springer the Opera. But one still gets the impression that the pleasure she derives from a cabaret environment is very special to her.
She says: “I absolutely love musical theatre, it’s so much fun being someone else and being part of a company, that whole family spirit of doing a show. But I suppose I am more at home being me. I love the fearlessness of walking out onstage and, though I am a bit of a control freak and plan things as much as I can, there is still the chance that something spontaneous can pop into my head and that can turn into one of the moments that work the best.”
The actress and singer is often complimented for her versatility, the way she has tackled so many different styles of music throughout her career so far, and that is something she wants to celebrate in the gigs at St James.
As she explains: “In the show I go back to my childhood and sing The Seekers and also reflect on the early influences of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, the material I listened to as a distraught teenager! Then the focus moves to Sydney, where I was hanging around when I was 19, and there’s some Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. Plus I bring in all of my jazz influences, singers of the 1940s, and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.”
Following the news that her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago, Jiear has found herself increasingly passionate about what she terms “inspirational music. It’s the kind of music that inspires and encourages people to be positive and great. Sometimes the songs can be religious, although hymns such as ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow’ have a musical life beyond the world of worship anyway.
“But I also count ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me? and ‘Climb Every Mountain’ as inspirational songs. When I recorded David Friedman’s ‘Trust the Wind’ on a previous album, I received so many incredible comments about what an amazing song it is. I realised that it was absolutely this kind of music that I was placed on earth to sing.
“My dad’s illness spurred me on to appreciate that every day is a blessing, and that there was something I could contribute through my music.”
In December last year Jiear had a great experience performing with Jonathan Cohen as part of the Christmas Singalong Series at the Royal Albert Hall, but the artist admits that if she was ever given the chance to stand on that same stage, with an orchestra, singing inspirational music, that would be the greatest gift of all.
For now, though, there is plenty to keep her busy, including the promotion of her new live recording: “I was talking to a friend of mine about an album I would like to do later in the year, but she told me I must do the live album first. Two days later I had sorted the licensing, got a graphic artist, and an engineer.
“Pizza on the Park was such a phenomenal venue for performers. Listening to the recordings again, and making my selections, was like going home. That show was like therapy for me. I had lost four different friends that year, and when I was choosing the material I was thinking all kinds of things, about being a mum, about what it was like losing someone close to you.”
However, it is no surprise to see that alongside intensely emotional renditions of songs like Scott Alan’s Goodnight on the record, Jiear also shows off her wonderfully infectious sense of humour with a selection of tracks which include ‘Everybody Wants to Do a Musical’ and her intentionally off-key, signature number ‘One Note Samba’.
If the album and gigs at St James aren’t enough to keep Jiear amused (as well as looking after a young family), she has also “loved putting together” The Frank & Ella Show with vocalist Lance Ellington (well-known for his appearances on TV’s Strictly), a recent performance of which sold out at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.
And then there’s that song from Jerry Springer the Opera which has taken on a life of its own and has won Jiear a whole new fan base internationally. Just a quick search for the performer on YouTube will open your eyes and ears to a dance remix of ‘I Just Wanna F***ing’ Dance’ that didn’t exactly feature in the original production. During the last five years or so it has become a gay anthem, regularly taking Jiear to Sitges, near Barcelona, which is fast becoming something of a second home.
“It started out as a taster for Gay Pride in 2007, but it then led to me traveling all over the world. The song turned out to be another gift in my career for which I am grateful.”
One of the many quotes highlighted on Jiear’s website is: “You’ll never be a singer Jiear!” This was the response of the actress and singer’s secondary school teacher when she expressed an interest in pursuing a career as a vocalist and recording artist. I wonder who’s laughing now.