Quiet Is The Star interview, Back Seat Mafia (2021)

IN CONVERSATION: GEORGIA MANCIO

‘Double-Grammy-winning jazz pianist/composer Alan Broadbent (Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Pat Metheny) and multi-award-winning vocalist/lyricist Georgia Mancio (Kate Williams, ReVoice! Festival, Ian Shaw) are cited as “one of the most formidable songwriting partnerships of the 21st century” with a new album out ‘Quiet Is The Star’, and the publication of ‘The Songs Of Alan Broadbent and Georgia Mancio’ – a book of their 33 originals.

When I sat down to review their album, I decided it was best to interview Georgia about her work with Alan, and talk about the songs themselves. Songwriting is often looked at from a very technical point of view, and rarely do we look at it from the artist’s own reflections.

There are moments when we recall what it was like to be in a room full of people. You can remember what it was like to be taken in by the jubilant crowd, riding on waves of energy that arise from like-minded folk celebrating just being together. You remember that feeling of conversing, drink in hand, to a friend, apart from the group and taking great delight in talking about the more existential things in life, coming to conclusions brought about by the frenzy and decisiveness of the evening.

And that you have the those moments, where you remember your eyes surveying the room, as one does, catching a glimpse of that one person looking back at you, at the world. It’s always the quiet people in the room you think.

Georgia Mancio, award -winning jazz vocalist and and lyricist, nods her head in agreement over our Zoom chat, and says ‘Yes- it’s always that quiet person in the room you need to listen to.’ ‘Quiet is the Star’ – the majestic album, the second of original material from long time collaborators Georgia Mancio and composer/pianist Alan Broadbent (performing together since 2013) is perhaps the answer to that question.

It is an album returning to the intricacies of a music duet, allowing for Mancio’s astute and poetic lyricism to converse, the cinematic prowess of Broadbent’s compositions. It is a transatlantic musical relationship that built itself organically at first over their love of standards and then into a new realm of songwriting that started with their first album ‘Songbook’ (2017).

Georgia informed me that the process saw Alan sending over a piece of music, often pre-titled, inviting Georgia to write the lyrics. ‘Quiet Is The Star’ feels like a celebration of this artistic bond, and together with the release of their book of songs, it is truly remarkable to see artists of that calibre offer the world something to listen to, to think, to reflect, and finally, to converse with. What follows is the conversation that took place with Georgia , delving into the album, her process, and ultimately, a very authentic telling, rather than review, of this masterpiece.

Lara : Georgia, your voice and Alan’s playing are truly one and the same instrument. Having listened to your previous work as collaborators, and having read through your wonderful liner notes, I feel ‘Quiet Is The Star’ is your most intimate sound yet. It feels like conversations between you, each song talks about loss, embracing loss, love in all its forms, and ultimately, a coming of age tale. Your voice in particular renders the stories with a subtext of its own, weaving in and out of Alan’s piano. How was that achieved?

Georgia: (laughs) Oh thank you! Truly, my first thought is to give credit to our sound producer Andrew Cleyndert.  Playing as a duo allows such a direct focus and that sense of concentrated conversation. It feels like the sound is so pure that it gives you an opportunity to explore this very magical intimate space.

Lara: That’s exactly how I felt listening to the album. The opening track ‘Let Me Whisper To Your Heart’, is this sound you’ve earned a reputation for in a way. There’s a quiet intensity, and you manage to hold the space of both Alan’s musical voice as well as the audience.

Georgia: You know, recording the album itself was really intense. We had only one day in the studio and some technical issues arose with the piano that were at times really distracting. Given our different geographical locations, we had hardly performed all the songs together – just a couple of gigs in Germany and London right before recording. As a result, the first reaction to recording felt very fresh, organic and authentic. I was so happy to hear what we achieved because it can be hard to stay in that focus, holding that emotion, and saving that energy. There’s something to be said in not over emphasising a recording, which is what happened with each track, each a different approach.

Lara: I am stunned this was done in one day! Wow! To capture each mood and nuance is nothing short of remarkable. I would call this an album of the heart, given what you just said of your own work. I’d like to ask you about your journey into this. For instance – ‘When You’re Gone From Me’ (written by Alan at 16 you say?) found its way to completion 55 years later! That line: “I will try to bring you summer” translates universally to me. It begs the question – knowing that you recorded the album at the end of 2019 – I wonder if you knew your intention with how to bring the album to your audience at the time of release?

Georgia: We didn’t really set an intention to make a full album. We had been writing and writing since ‘Songbook’ and just wanted to get those songs recorded. Piecing it together much later, in spring 2021, it started to really feel
like a ‘mood’. By then we were in lockdown but having worked with Andy Cleyndert (producer) for so many years, I knew I could trust him implicitly despite not being together in the same room. He also knew our sound from producing ‘Songbook’ so that was like a shortcut too. As soon as we knew it would be an album, I began to think about the visual side of things. I find mixing hard but I love art directing and imagining how it will all look. So we worked again with the artist Simon Manfield, as we had on Songbook. He developed a stunning set of watercolours that suit the music so well. To me, the visuals are essential and go hand in hand with the music.

Lara : I completely agree, as are liner notes, something we don’t see much of anymore in today’s music releases. So the songwriting process itself, in how you work, interests me in particular. Given that Alan writes the music, how does that work with you?

Georgia: I think of myself as a lyricist, not really a songwriter. The way I write with Alan is from the music first. Sometimes they are instrumental pieces that are much older than our collaboration and then the lyrics follow. The titles are my starting point. Alan’s melodies are so complete, already full of stories that I then unearth and write my own. Having now written 33 songs together, there is a sense of continuity which developed over time, giving us all the stylistic elements and ‘sound’ we can now call our own. Our own language in a way, which in turn serves the music. We’re not trying to graft on something else, it’s more straightforward than that.

Lara : Absolutely! It’s clear that you have your own intricate language, and refreshing authenticity. There’s so many layers to your voice, not just as a singer but as a storyteller feeding off Alan’s playing . Two songs standout in particular :‘Tell The River’ and ‘If I Think Of You’ , because it made me wonder about the point of view of the story, as it stands. Going back to what you said about identity, I wonder if you were looking at it from an
omniscient point of view?

Georgia: Yes, I was. So, for ‘Tell The River’- I was inspired by the English translation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Dindi’ ‘the river that can’t find the sea – that would be me without you’, – the river came to me in this line. The story that inspired it was Sandra Bland’s- the African – American woman who was arrested unlawfully by the police and taken into custody . Two days later she was found dead, and it was ruled as suicide. What was so visceral about that story, unfortunately similar to so many other Black women and men’s, was that it was caught on camera. I watched it, and was shocked to see it played out in real time. She had a whole life to live, and we couldn’t do anything about it. In trying to imagine her stolen future ,that line in the song, ‘even when my body’s gone, you will remember me’, I wanted to show my respect and honour her. Death, grief and these horrific stories are often airbrushed, and so I felt like the song needed that honest appraisal.

Lara: Such is the power of this album, making something so dark universal, giving it the bittersweet homage it needs in a way. You are really writing from your reality, and not just in the order of your album as well. The track ‘All My Life’, it reads like a story through the looking glass, gaining wisdom and beauty through loss. Alan’s playing reminds me of a crafty Michel Legrand, telling his own story in his own voice. So in that song you had a conversation with your sister, Alan with you within a kaleidoscope of loss on a larger scale. So it feels like your stories are very much the ones we needed to hear. The song, ‘ Night After Night’ feels like a loss of identity, and I wonder if it crossed your mind that any moment in time you felt you were talking about the duality of things as well?

Georgia: Gosh, yes – that one was hard to sing. In a gig setting, you’ve got the audience, space and you can perform it in all its glory. In the studio, I felt my emotion was too big and dramatic for the room. So for me, I needed to dial down and read that intimate space. The lyric was inspired by a young friend of mine who had gone through so much, struggling with his mental health, which of course made me think outside myself.

Lara: Indeed. Listening to your friend’s heartbreaking journey made it relatable to me personally because of my father’s own journey leaving Lebanon and facing a war. That line: ‘ I’m trying to see what happened to you, and what happened to me; is kind of that inner dialogue he would have had with himself at the time, much like the protagonist of your song. One carries the trauma, it shapes you but it doesn’t have to define you. So it makes me really reflect on the whole album as a timeless story. Each track is both joyful and sorrowful, with different characters. It feels though, like the main character is an omniscient star, looking at everyone from afar whilst holding the space. I wonder, what does ‘Quiet As A Star’ mean to you , as a story and moreover, as Georgia?

Georgia: Oh, that’s a good question and hard to answer. To start with, it’s Alan’s title. When I first wrote that lyric, it was, I realise now, a pre-lyric to ‘When You’re Gone From Me’ about a family member diagnosed with dementia, and the challenges I would face dealing with it. I was thinking of it as a star, that’s there, tangible yet at once unreachable. So I started to think about the flow of life, the universality of it, how we fit into it and each other: ‘they seem to tell us, we too can find, which way to follow which ties to bind’. When we try to grasp the concept of the universe, it’s difficult to bring it into a manageable space but I guess that’s how we deal with big things in life. We have to personalise them, make them relatable. It’s in our hands to decide what things and people need letting go of; what we allow into our hearts. It’s what we do with those things that ultimately shape us. One can’t be in control of everything.

I think, Georgia, that conversing with you is ultimately a gift, an extra bonus (besides the book, ‘The Songs of Georgia Mancio & Alan Broadbent’ which is released at the same time). ‘Quiet Is The Star’, ‘Quiet’ feels very familiar, like the quiet person in the room who has such meaningful things to say. The entire album reads like a story, with a turning point and a quiet, empowering resolution of gratitude from whatever life throws at you. It’s all those things and more. We could be stargazing, listening to this album in 20 years time and still have the same experiences, the same thoughts, and ultimately, the universal which binds us all: the human story .