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Now Hear This: Rani Singam

Singapore's First Lady of Jazz reflects on the music that has shaped her life.

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Published: 17 Jul 2020


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Dubbed “Singapore’s First Lady of Jazz”, Rani Singam has distinguished herself as one of Singapore’s leading vocalists over the course of her music career spanning over two decades. We speak with the songstress and former lawyer ahead of her performance with pianist Chok Kerong for Jazz in July, to find out more about the music that has shaped her into the performer she is today.

As a child, you were a performer in the RTS Children’s Choir (from the former Radio and Television Singapore) which led to other performing stints. Which song or artist was your earliest introduction to jazz music?

I did not realise it at that time, but I have been listening to jazz from the age of five when I used to watch the children’s show Sesame Street. The show’s theme song features the legendary Toots Thielemans!

You were a practising lawyer for seven years, what made you quit to pursue your passion for music?

Singing has been a lifetime passion. When I quit my job in the Singapore Legal Service, after becoming a mother in 2001, I had some time to do some soul searching which resulted in me making the switch. 

You have been compared to Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Who are some other vocalists that have had a major impact on you growing up, and which songs of theirs do you hold dear?

My love and appreciation for musicals began in school, when I was part of my alma mater Raffles Girls’ Secondary School’s choir productions. I used to listen to a lot of Barbara Streisand. Her rendition of the title song of the movie The Way We Were was one of my favourites. 

Your albums, With A Song in My Heart (2004) and Contentment (2011) have earned critical acclaim in the local and international music scene. What are some tracks from both albums that stand out to you the most?

Both the title tracks of the albums are my favourites. They aptly represent the concepts of the album. With A Song In My Heart, being my debut album, is a tender offering to listeners and Contentment is almost a personal statement particularly on the topic of pursuing one’s dreams and living a life beyond mere contentment. 

You recently recorded your album My Muse (Live) (2019) at the Victoria Concert Hall. Why record a live album and what was the biggest challenge in recording live vocals?

I love live albums more than studio albums. They capture so much magic which include the missteps or slip-ups which one will not find in studio albums that tend to be more heavily produced till perfection. 

There is also the dimension of the interaction with the audience, not just in terms of applause, but in other ways such as on As (Live) from that album where the audience becomes a part of the performance. Having received good feedback from the concert, which was also performed in Hong Kong, it became a natural step to release the recording. 

I’m proud of this album because it contains a body of works that is a colourful mix of not just jazz – standards and originals – but music from various genres as well as poetry! It is also my first full-length album with a larger ensemble featuring a string quartet.

You also dabble in R&B, pop and slow-rock in your performances. What are some other genres that you would perhaps like to explore, and which song outside of jazz do you most like to sing?

I love all music. I learnt Indian Carnatic singing as a child. I have also performed fusion music. My approach to music is simply whether it stirs my soul; the labels don’t matter. 

You’ve performed around the world at major events and venues including the F1 Singapore Grand Prix. What is your most memorable performance to date?

That’s a tough question. In as much as it is prestigious and grand to perform at high profile events and large concert halls, I enjoy most the intimate jazz club setting, where I feel I can truly make and sense the connection with the audience. 

I recall the pin-drop silences at our performances at a lovely venue we used to have, the Sultan Jazz Club.

Classic jazz standards are a staple feature of your setlist. What are some of your favourite jazz standards which you think will continue to stand the test of time?

For me, it will always be Ella (Fitzgerald)! Her duets album with Louis Armstrong never fails to make my day. 

Who are some of the artists that you listen to today? What’s in your playlist?

I listen to so many artists! Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dianne Reeves, Rufus Wainwright, Maroon 5, Sting, Ennio Morricone. 

Who are some of the talents in the local jazz music scene that have stood out to you, and which tracks of theirs would you recommend?

One of the main reasons I work so often with Chok Kerong is that I am a fan to begin with. When I first heard Regression from his album Tales They Told Me, I had it on loop for days! Another favourite is Vestiges, which brought me to tears. My other close collaborator, my longest in fact, is Andrew Lim. He’s got soul! There’s a lovely recording of his performance of Frame For The Blues on his YouTube Channel. 

Chok Kerong is a frequent collaborator of yours whom you will be performing with at Esplanade as part of Jazz in July. If you could pick another musician or recording artist past or present for a dream collaboration, who would it be?

Jeanne Lee. She is my newest discovery and a lesser-known great. She sings with so much awareness of the music, so much depth, finesse, control and subtlety. She is truly a master of the voice as an instrument. It would be so wonderful to sing with her and to learn from her.

Lastly, what is at the top of your recommendation list for young people discovering jazz?

I would recommend songs by the Gershwin brothers. There are many great songs with beautiful lyrics and music, for example Summertime and Embraceable You. The songs often include a verse which is not always performed. The verse is the preamble to the song which originates from musicals which the jazz song book was built on. 

Jazz in July 2020

From fresh Mosaic Jazz Fellows alumni to esteemed jazz stalwarts, Jazz in July features daily performances by 43 jazz artists who call Singapore home.

8 – 31 July
8pm daily
Streamed live from Esplanade
Free
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