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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

A Conversation With Debra Salem

Debra Salem’s career is diverse, dividing her time between singing, composing, arranging, leading choirs, teaching, facilitation, and the artistic direction and production of creative arts projects. Engagement, in some form, is at the heart of the myriad of activities that define her career. Her musical style, in both singing and writing, draws from both the worlds of jazz and folk and embraces 'anything else that works'. Although based in Perth, she works between Scotland and Ireland on her various projects and performances.

Debra's latest album'IN A SMA ROOMtakes the poems of one of Scotland’s most important 20th century poets William Soutar and turns them into a CD of eighteen poignant and pertinent songs, written by Perth-based singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger, Debra Salem with Paul Harrison and Kevin MacKenzie .

The CD celebrates the poetry of Soutar bringing his early 20th century works into the 21st century with renewed meaning and strength.

The music is influenced by the folk, jazz, and classical backgrounds of the three composers. The recording ensemble includes the composers themselves along with percussionist Signy Jakobdottir, bass player Andrew Robb and Perth’s own string guru Patsy Reid who was part of the original 4-piece band from the performance.

The Sound Cafe Had A Conversation With Debra About Her Career And Inspirations

What is your “backstory”?

I’m originally from Belfast and I wrote my first song when I was about 13 – a sort of jazzy folky number about ‘The Troubles’! I still know it. I continued writing songs accompanying myself on piano or guitar – they were mostly about unrequited love or the state of the world. I studied music at Leicester as part of a performing arts course and was lucky enough to sing with my composition tutor Gavin Bryars who was also a jazz bassist and introduced me into the wonderful world of Bill Evans and Sheila Jordan.

As a career, I wrote music for theatre, played my own songs, sang in jazz combos – particularly loving ballads, and did a bit of backing vocal work mainly in the folk genre. I’ve led choirs, organized events, and with my husband (who is from Scotland) set up and ran Green Dolphin Studios – a recording studio in the centre of Belfast. He introduced me to Scottish folk bands, I introduced him to Arvo Pärt. We moved to Perth, Scotland (I say this because so many people thought we were moving to Australia and wondered why we said we would pop home at weekends) in 2003, I continued with my music leading choirs, starting one, writing more theatre music, got involved in the world of Scottish Jazz after attending some great jazz vocal residential courses run by singer Fionna Duncan, and then discovering and delighting in the Scottish Trad scene particularly when I did a stint as co-ordinator for Scottish Traditional and Gaelic Music at Horsecross Arts in Perth.

More singing with participatory choir/theatre projects in Dublin including a clown choir, and vocal teaching, and then discovering the poems of Soutar whose house was on the same street as mine. Got a Celtic Connections gig after becoming a Danny Kyle stage winner, a wee Scottish tour, took a year off ‘official’ working to be ‘creative’ with an award from the Katherine McGillivray Get a Life Fund which is when I started the Soutar project and got Kevin MacKenzie and Paul Harrison involved, sang backing with Dougie MacLean, more community choirs for health this time, toured the original music a theatre ‘In a Sma Room’ show, then Edinburgh Fringe and finally the Soutar album and book of all the songs that we originally wrote.…. all of this and more and not necessarily all in that order… oh and bringing up two children in Scotland!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m currently involved in ‘Songs of Change’ for The Civic in Dublin. This is a participatory art project working with 18 people from South Dublin County and looking at moments in our lives when change occurs. During lockdown, they worked on creating text with writer and artist in residence Veronica Coburn - a friend and long-time collaborator of mine. She worked with them on Zoom, exploring memories through poetry and prose, and getting the guts of their stories from their lives past and present. Great sessions which I was lucky enough to attend. Now, this text has been developed into lyrics which I’m now writing music for with the hope that these 10 songs will be recorded by a variety of Irish vocal artists. It’s a great project and quite challenging. I’m also working on writing songs for a new album or of my own songs, which I’m excited about and I’m really enjoying writing at the moment and don’t quite know where it is going to go yet!

Who are some of the most 'famous' people you have interacted with? What was that like?

I have to admit that I haven’t met that many ‘famous’ people, but one that does come to mind is Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I was responsible for delivering the UK National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration which that year (2003) took place in Belfast. I asked Seamus Heaney to contribute – I had a poem by another poet I wanted him to read at the event and I asked him if there was one of his that he would feel appropriate and could read also. One night he rang the office, I wasn’t there and so he left the message on the digital answerphone (the type you can’t save). He said he had a thought and he went on to recite ‘The Cure of Troy’ which he had adjusted slightly for the event and then ended the message by asking if I thought that would be alright. When I got in the next day firstly it was an amazing surprise to have this on the answerphone and I was both humbled by his question, and moved by the power of his words and the way he spoke them. He asked ‘me’ if it would be ‘alright’ – a wonderful man. It was perfect.

Doing my degree, I was introduced to the music and voice of Shelia Jordan, an amazing jazz singer and she became one of my jazz greats. I got to see her perform on a few occasions but many years later, when I moved to Scotland I got the chance to do some workshops and masterclasses with her. That was a real thrill, to hear her, meet her, watch her work with me and others. She is 92 and still incredible, has a vocal freedom that I so envy and she’s small – I like that because I am too!.

Which people in history inspire you the most and why?

I am inspired by beautiful orators whose words live on long after they do. They inspire, provoke thought, create positive change. I have a book of speeches that I like to read and imagine how it must have been to have heard them for the first time - Martin Luther King is there. Of course. But more recently Amanda Gorman who read her poem at the presidential inauguration – which I was watching from my home in Perth, floored me in its eloquence, youth, and vision. It was a moment. She was astounding and I was excited at the thought of the words she will deliver as her life progresses – and how can she be so young and be so wise. And why couldn’t I write like that! I love words – particularly when they are given life off the page in speeches, songs, poems.

I am also inspired by people who have stood up for others despite the risk to themselves. I think my work with Holocaust material brought this to my attention. Those who hid people and spoke up, did what they needed to do to save others. Many will never be known, they didn’t seek credit, they just knew it was the right thing to do. It has a lot of resonance in our world today.

What would be your advice to an aspiring artist?

· Put the work in.

· Every day is a school day – there is always something to learn

· Be your original self not a version of someone else.

· Listen to music, go to gigs - all types, listen to what others do

· I was given a piece of advice once… try and work with people who are better than you – they will inspire you. I always try and do that.

· Be professional in all aspects of your work e.g. with your audience, with those you work with.

· Be nice to sound technicians. They can make or break you and they are first in and the last out. They deserve your respect.

How have you used your music to bring goodness to the world?

I don’t know if I have brought goodness to the world – but I try! Firstly, maybe with my community choirs, I am aware that in a rehearsal the I have two precious hours of someone’s time and I try to make them the best and the most fun they can be and endeavour to have people leaving happier than they did when they came. Also, with my arrangements (which are acapella and mainly of classic rock songs) I like to bring a smile to the face of those listening when they suddenly recognize what it is they are listening to (I do the instrumental bits).

Also, with song-writing. I recently posted a little song which is called ‘Big Little Moments’. It was a one-minute song with just 29 words which I wrote about my children. It started life with me remembering them in their little yellow raincoats and appreciating that simple moment in time. Anyway, the response to it was beautiful, with people mentioning how it made them remember the grown kids, or appreciate their little ones… and it made people feel emotional, made them cry – good tears I think! But in general, it just seemed to give people a warm fuzzy feeling. It is so lovely to be able to connect with people through music. That seemed like a good thing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone had told me when I first started out”

· Be brave – if you want/ need to make music, then just do it and don’t wait for what you think is the right time

· Don’t second guess yourself – you know what feels right for you

· Don’t second guess your audience – e.g. don’t be put off by what you perceive of a being a negative reaction from an audience – you don’t know what they are really thinking and you can sometimes be wrong in how you read them… and if you are and it puts you off then you won’t have delivered the performance they deserved and paid for.

· Accept the fact that not everyone will like what you do – that doesn’t mean it is not good, it’s just not their cup of tea

· Don’t listen to anything I say – everyone has their own journey to make and things to discover!!

We have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some really cool and inspirational people in the music business. Is there a person in the world, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this!

Joni Mitchell – Blue is my all-time favourite album – I love the fact that when I listen to it, especially the title track – it immediately transports me back to being 15 or so, and the people, and the atmosphere of that time in my life, and I remember the moment I heard the album and her for the first time and where I was. It is special when music can do that. And Joni Mitchell is original, unique, with an incredible voice and interpretation that draws you in and even more so with her beautiful rich older tones which are full of life experience. What a songwriter! If I met her, I would just want to ask about her songwriting, her process, her inspiration and then sit quietly in awe, nibbling at my food and soaking it all in.

The production of this CD and the IN A SMA ROOM Songbookis the culmination of a project which began back in 2012 with a commission by the Friends of William Soutar. ‘IN A SMA ROOM’ was initially a music and theatre performance integrating songs with a script written by another Perth-based creative Ajay Close. The project introduced characters from Soutar’s life through the concept of a medium. The performance was part of the prestigious Made in Scotland Showcase at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The CD has five new songs that were not part of the original theatre performance. The desire has always been to make the songs into a CD showcasing the beauty of Soutar’s work. Finally, the fruits of Salem’s hard work are finally paying off.

Debra Salem said: “Each time we performed the show at the Made in Scotland showcase, someone would always ask if the music was available to buy. Kevin, Paul, and I had always hoped we would get the opportunity to record the songs at some point along with other five songs that we couldn’t fit within the live performance. About two years ago, we finally started to make it happen, which is when we also started to think that it would be great to produce an accompanying songbook incorporating the sheet music so others can take these songs, which are in English and Scots, and make them their own. This is our way of championing the beautiful poetry of William Soutar and sharing his words through music, with audiences old and new."

The ‘IN A SMA ROOM’ recording and songbook project was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign along with support from the Andrew Tannahill Trust for the Furtherance of Scottish Literature. Both the CD and book can be purchased from, Amazon, and Tippermuir Books with the music downloadable from most music streaming sites including Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and Bandcamp.


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