Emilie Conway is a jazz singer, composer, lyricist based in Dublin.
Emilie received an Arts and Disability Connect Training award in 2018.
Emilie attended the Blas programme at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in the University of Limerick to bring elements of Irish traditional song, storytelling and Sean-Nós into her professional practice.
Tell us about your art
I am a jazz singer, composer and lyricist. I love music. I also love literature, poetry; words, sound and silence and this complements my love of music and informs all my work. I sing familiar jazz standards, but also seek out rarer standards for interpretation which I blend with my own compositions, spoken word and poetry, accompanied by improvised or composed music. Lyrically and musically, I like my set to have its own literal or metaphoric narrative. I find I’m attracted to particular themes and concentrations which have proven fertile ground for inspiration; for example, Spring, which culminated in my album The Secret of a Rose; and recently the under explored work of Alec Wilder, which culminated in Dear World: Emilie Sings Alec Wilder. Both albums were very well received both at home and abroad. Dear World got particular attention from Wilder enthusiasts in the States which I was delighted about. I love Maeve Brennan’s writing and for her centenary, I created and presented You Won’t Forget Me, a Celebration of Maeve Brennan in Words and Music which followed the soundscape of Maeve’s life and work, from post-civil war Ireland to the glamour of cosmopolitan New York in the 1950s, in readings and spoken word, and in music, from traditional Irish to jazz which I performed in New York, Chicago, and at a sell-out concert in the National Concert Hall.
I sing in German, Swedish, Irish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. I have a degree in English and German literature from Trinity College. I believe, there’s a certain kind of meaning, connectedness and heart you can only access by singing the song in the original language. I’ve been particularly drawn to the very beautiful melodies, grooves, and the poetry of the lyrics of Brazilian music, and so this music too became a particular area of concentration over the years for me. My deeper study was facilitated by working with many Brazilian musicians living in Dublin: Andre Antunes, (drums), Robson Rocha (guitar), from Brazil and Ireland’s Dave Mooney, (bass). This year, I was drawn to return to this music, to re-imagine and re-visit through a different instrumentation and style with Johnny Taylor, piano and Paddy Groenland, guitar. It’s a work in progress.
As music is a collaborative art, I am very grateful and lucky to work with some incredible musicians. As human beings and artists, they constantly inspire me and I’m always learning from them: Johnny Taylor, piano, Damian Evans / Dave Fleming, bass, Dominic Mullan, drums. I also work with Bryan Mullen, piano, Paddy Groenland, Julien Colarossi and Eamonn Moran on guitar and Belfast musicians, Scott Flanagan and Linley Hamilton. I’ve also worked with brilliant musicians abroad, most recently, NYC bassist Marcos Varela
Where are you based?
Dublin – but will (and do) travel!
What are you working on at the moment?
I mentioned my love of languages above which includes Irish, of course. My Mom and Dad are from Mayo and people used to gather around the fire in my Dad’s home, to sing and tell stories. So, I suppose it was always only really a matter of time before I would want to integrate this traditional history into my music. It seems to me, that you can do this in jazz. As I see it, jazz is a uniquely restless art-form; constantly evolving, ever engaging, arguing with and including new musical ideas whether they come from a culture or place, like bossa nova from Brazil, or from an individual artist’s own searching, like Coltrane. It’s such a lively, living kind of music. So, I was delighted to receive an Arts and Disability Connect Training award to take part in the Blas International Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Dance at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick in 2018. It was an intensive introduction, which has given me lots to work on and it was great to have the chance to make connections with artists working in traditional music. My plan is to combine this new study of Irish Traditional Music with my knowledge of Brazilian music, to look at shared mythologies from both cultures in collaboration with artist Mairead de Blaca. It’s a work in progress!
I have long wished to bring jazz to children (children are natural improvisers!) and so I was delighted when my band’s proposal to create a jazz performance for kids was accepted by The Ark and Improvised Music Company as part of their Fun Size Jazz programme. Together with my pianist Johnny Taylor, bassist, Damian Evans and author and musician Ann-Lorraine Mack on flute and vocals, we created The Red Kite’s Blues based on the story entitled The Smashing Red Kite by Ann-Lorraine Mack. We’ve performed The Red Kite’s Blues in the Ark and at children’s literary and music events and it is absolutely loved by children. I hope we get to do lots more of this!
I have always practised and had a fascination for visual art. Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware and concerned about the relative lack of people with disabilities that I encounter as artists or as audience. I wanted to expand and deepen my own visual art practice and to explore how it, like music could be a collaborative explorative process. So, I devised a project to bring together people from the visually impaired and blind community with artists to develop ways to collaboratively create art. I’m delighted to say, the initial research proposal stage of this work was accepted and is being kindly supported by the Arts Council’s Artist in the Community Scheme which is managed by Create. We’re in the middle of the research with artists, Eoin Byrne and Bassam Al-Sabah and everyone is loving it. There’s such enthusiasm from the artists and openness and creativity of participants – let’s see where it goes!
In March 2019 I’ve been invited to perform in a very exciting event called Yeats and Tagore at the Lincoln Centre Library for the Performing Arts New York Public Library as part of their Carnegie Hall Migrations Festival. So I’m working on that too!
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path as an artist? How did you get to where you are now?
Discovering jazz set me on the path of finding my voice and my life’s musical work. Back in 1999, friends took me to The Green Mill jazz club in Chicago. Kurt Elling was making a live recording for the album that would become Live in Chicago, with guest Jon Hendricks! I had never heard anything like this music, and yet, I felt completely at home in it. (I’ve since written lyrics to Coltrane’s solo in My Shining Hour describing this moment.) It was a turning point for me and I immersed myself in jazz. Early on, I met very good teachers and artists who inspired and encouraged me. Kurt Elling was always very kind, very encouraging. German singer, Melanie Bong, whom I met busking on the street in Munich in 2000, taught me so much, how to put lead sheets together, how to listen deeply, leave space and to trust my voice. She also introduced me to the gentle and powerful force of nature and artistry that is Sheila Jordan. Sheila is a lifelong friend, teacher and inspiration. Closer to home, I have found a great friend and mentor in Scottish jazz singer Fionna Duncan. Among my teachers and inspirations, I have to acknowledge our own Louis Stewart. I went to hear him as often as I could and I had the privilege of singing with him once. What a beautiful human being and world class musician he was and what a beautiful and important legacy he has left us.
When I look back, I recognise that my time in Chicago was indispensably inspiring and grounding. The generosity and humility and dedication of musicians, like Von Freeman and Kurt, Sheila, guitarist, John Kregor, will always be a reference point for me.
It is also very important is have a space to practice. You grow your craft by having places to perform regularly, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre was my musical home for many years and those gigs essentially helped me to learn about how I want us to sound live, how build a set etc. JJ Smyth’s was another great place to play. Ranelagh Arts Centre also.
Is there any stand out moments in your career as an artist?
Yes, the time I heard Kurt Elling in The Green Mill in 1999. Then when I was just starting out singing, had got some lead sheets together and went down to a session in The New Apartment Lounge in South Chicago. I sang Don’t Explain. I was so clueless but I knew I loved the song. Well, it turned out that session was run by the great Von Freeman and he came up to me afterwards and said, “you can sing on my jam session anytime.” I’ll never forget that moment!
Making The Secret of a Rose, my debut album, that whole time is very dear to me. It was such a lovely process. From my musicians, to how the music grew, through rehearsal and recording, and on to final master, and the support of people like Melanie Bong and Fionna Duncan and Dave McCune… Aww!
Invitations from abroad to perform are very inspiring and exciting: Copenhagen Jazz Festival, the Dominican Republic for International Jazz day and last year, out of my Maeve Brennan work: to perform at the American Writers Museum, The Cornelia Street Cafe, The American Irish Historical Society and The Washington Square Hotel. Invitations like these are such a gift and help inspire me to keep pushing myself and growing artistically.
Who or what are the most important influences on your art?
I am constantly inspired by my friends, other artists, collaborators and colleagues. As an artist, I think we need to be very self-motivated, but I believe we are also inspired by each other, and by life around us. Courage and creativity, in all its forms, throughout life inspires me.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Financial! And, my sight in a way. I have to learn everything off. It’s no good for me to have a music stand or notes in front of me as I can’t see it. So, sometimes that’s stressful as I have to memorise a lot! But on the other hand, it means I really internalise the music, the work, which is good as I embody it.
Who is your favourite artist?
There are too many across too many genres! At the moment I’m hooked on listening to Duruflé’s Requiem. I’m in the Dublin Bach Singers and we performed this for the Armistice Centenary Celebrations in aid of Syria. It was so moving and so appropriate for the occasion, I’ve just not been able to stop listening to it.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love all the arts so what I do for work I do for fun! Music, ballet, walk, paint, write, look at water…
Chovendo na Roseria, Emilie Conway
Holding onto Autumn/You Must Believe In Spring, Emilie Conway
"Star of the show is Conway's voice," - Hot Press
Emilie Conway is an award-winning Dublin born jazz singer who made her stage debut in an impromptu session with Jon Hendricks and Kurt Elling in the famous Green Mill Jazz Club, Chicago, in 1999.
Since then Emilie has won scholarships to Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Vermont Jazz Centre and Souza Lima in Brazil. The Arts Council of Ireland supported her nationwide tour Emilie Sings Billie, a tribute to Lady Day, in 2009. She released her debut album, The Secret of a Rose, in 2012, to critical and popular acclaim. Emilie received an award in 2014 to study and present the music of Alec Wilder in a nationwide tour of Ireland, culminating in her second album, Dear World: Emilie Conway Sings Alec Wilder. She performs regularly in Dublin, and throughout Ireland and Europe: Paris, Munich, Frankfurt, etc., with memorable shows at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Emilie Conway Trio was invited to perform in Belles Artes Concert Hall in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic for International Jazz Day, 2015. Her original production, You Won’t Forget Me, celebrating Irish-American writer Maeve Brennan, has been performed in New York (Cornelia Street Café), Chicago (Writers Museum), and at a sellout concert in Dublin’s National Concert Hall.
Emilie is also a visual artist with a keen interest in collaborative arts practice with people who are blind and visually impaired. She recently won an award from the Arts Council’s Artist in Community Scheme, managed by Create, supported by the RHA Gallery to explore this work further.
“Her own vocalese to Coltrane’s solo demonstrating her abilities to their fullest, flitting through the lyrics at a tempo most rappers would be envious of.” – GoldenPlec (Ireland)
“A terrific tribute to Alec.” – review of Dear World in “The Friends of Alec Wilder Newsletter”
“Classic style.” – The Irish Times
“Splendid.” – The Sunday Independent
Albums: The Secret of a Rose & Dear World: Emilie Conway Sings Alec Wilder available in stores & online.