Suzanne Savage has been described as “the best voice to come out of Northern Ireland for the last 30 years”. It's a smoky soprano jazz instrument that also tackles pop, contemporary folk and just about any musical genre you care to name.
And the 27-year-old is a performer much in demand at the moment, as the Belfast Telegraph tracked her down to her latest pit stop at Karlsruhe in Germany.
The Belfast girl sounds positively bubbly as she describes finishing off the “bits and pieces” of her first solo album, Jelly Mould, that is being launched at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s next Sunday, October 16. What's the name all about?
“Well, I've had this idea for a while,” she says. “The title song's quite dark really, all about people being moulded to other people's desires and expectations.”
Suzanne, however, is professionally her own woman. Having sung and played in bands such as Giant Steps and Spree, Suzanne felt she wanted to branch out and make her own music a year or so ago and her debut solo album, Summer 2010, garnered rave reviews.
“It's scary, of course, putting your head above the parapet,” she says. “I know if anybody's head is on the chopping block, it will be mine but it's a compulsion.”
The one certainty about Suzanne's brilliant career is that it will encompass a range of influences. Musically, she likes to mix it.
“That's true, although it's important you know that it's me,” she says. “But I do like producing unusual music that uses different influences from jazz to classical music.”
Recently, Suzanne sang in a programme of Baroque music with the professional choir Resurgum in Dublin and noted on her website “Just back from rehearsing Handel's Dixit Dominus and motets by de Mondville. Seriously, this stuff ROCKS!”
So does Ms Savage's work from her delicate 2007 single Quiet Rooms, with its intriguing cartoon video, to her hammering drum and bass numbers with Giant Steps (named after a John Coltrane album) and most recently, Dizzy (out now on iTunes).
Suzanne's music-making began early at the Mercy Primary School in the Crumlin Road. She says: “I started the violin at eight and was leader of the little junior orchestra at primary school. The voice came later. When I went to St Louise's, the school singled me out at about 14. I did musicals like West Side Story and singing on stage in front of a big audience was great training.”
Then Suzanne studied for her BMus at Queen’s and won a music scholarship to Italy to work in a kind of post-modern music factory.
Although she sings soprano — “it just means you can sing high” — Suzanne is unusual in that she can sing pretty low too. An octave is eight piano notes and she reveals: “I can cover about three and a half octaves.”
Impressive but, as Suzanne points out, Billie Holiday did amazing things with an octave and a half. “It's what you do with it that counts.”
Still only a young woman, Suzanne has already performed with some of the greats. In 2003, she and her band were invited to perform at the Killyleagh Castle Festival by Van Morrison.
“Someone recommended me to him,” she recalls.
“It was totally incredible and you learnt a lot. He knows exactly what he wants.”
Another career highlight was supporting Paul Brady at the Belfast Festival last year. “He has high expectations and is inspiring. To be onstage at the Waterfront and see people singing along to his most famous song, The Island, produced a shiver.”
Although Suzanne has kept her Belfast flat, she is chalking up a lot of air miles these days. The new album, which has involved several months working in studios in Germany, is self-financed, with a little help from her friends at the Arts Council (“They've been amazing,” she says).
She believes that the new media offers a great platform for performers. “We may not have sorted out things like copyright but it opens up all music to all kinds of people. It’s a new frontier and I like the democratisation of it. With YouTube, there’s a great freedom, although it can be a double-edged sword.”
On her iPod are musicians like James Vincent McMorrow (also on the bill at this year’s Festival), Bon Iver and Bjork. It turns out that Suzanne is a great fan of the Icelandic chanteuse. “She does her own thing, which I admire,” she says.
Suzanne knows how that feels and in her eclectic career has worked as a backing singer with a BBC chat show band. “I was on the Sean Daly Show ten years ago and it was the best craic,” she laughs. “We supported everyone from Boyzone to Atomic Kitten, the song-sheet of 2000. I met Stephen Gateley and he was a really lovely guy.”
When Suzanne and the band head to the Black Box for their Festival event, she knows the front row will contain “the stalkers.” Nothing sinister, though — they’re her parents. “Because they’re great and come to everything, my band nicknamed them the stalkers.”
The woman compared to Ella Fitzgerald may well attract a few more!
Suzanne Savage is at the Black Box, Hill Street, on Sunday, October 16. For details and bookings, visit www.belfastfestival.com