When you hear singer-songwriter Nina Ferro perform, or you play Into The Light, her latest CD, should you not quite believe your ears, then put your faith in Tony Bennett’s immaculate taste. After she had supported him in concert, the great vocalist said of Nina Ferro: “She’s a fabulous performer with a knockout voice.” But you don’t need Mr. Bennett’s highly discerning musical ear to realise he is right. Once she starts to sing, even if you can’t tell an octave from an octopus, you’ll know instantly that you are in the presence of a formidable talent. Just check your vital signs. Goosebumps? Check. Spine tingling? Absolutely. Emotions uplifted? You bet.
That’s why Nina Ferro’s CV lists appearances alongside Tony Bennett, Gregory Porter, Chick Corea, Jose Feliciano, Billy Ocean, Chris Botti… that knockout voice never disappoints. Although resident in London these days – she was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia – Italy is the motherlode of Nina’s vocal gifts. Or rather, the grandmotherlode, for her Italian paternal grandmother was an amateur mezzo-soprano who doubtless contributed some vital vocal genes, and it was the maternal one who first clued in Nina’s mother that her little girl had some serious singing chops. She took up piano at the age of eight and at 14 was taking classical singing lessons, but something else was spinning around her head – the soundtrack of her home. Nina’s parents might not have been professional musicians, but they did have musical appreciation in spades and on the family record deck were albums by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, lots of Motown and Elvis Presley. Already the beginnings of Nina’s legendary eclectic range of styles – she can move effortlessly between pop, blues, standards, soul, bluegrass and country – were in place.
“When I was fifteen I was already working as a musician, mainly in the Italian scene, doing pubs and clubs and restaurants. One of my dad’s close friends, Rita Bennett, was a part-time singer and she heard me singing harmony parts to the TV. And she asked my dad if I could be her backing singer. The first gig was a baptism of fire – a combined birthday party for a father and his son, where we came on after the stripper. Mind you, she was a lousy stripper, so we were a distinct improvement as far as the entertainment was concerned. And then we hit the circuit, doing covers at weddings, clubs and so on. No more strippers, though. Thank goodness.”
But there’s jazz in there too, lots of jazz, in her phrasing, sense of time, her fresh way with a familiar lyric and above all, that elusive ability to swing, although all that came into the melting pot a little later. “I was sixteen or seventeen when my mum went to this pub with a friend and there was this jazz band playing and she said I should check them out. So I did. And there were these young guys in their twenties, with a couple of older stalwarts from the Melbourne jazz scene, playing this incredible music. And we got chatting and my mum said that I could sing and when I went again the following week, the clarinet player gave me a mixtape, which I have still got.”
For those too young to remember, a compilation or mix tape was an analogue form of file sharing on C-60 or C-90 cassettes. And what was on it? “Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith,” she says, “Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday.” That’s where the jazz comes from. The best.
“I had the banjo player rip up a chart on stage and throw it at me quite early on. But I kept it together. Cried in the bathroom later, but carried on with the show” Nina hit the road with a later version of that band, and, eventually, travelled the globe with them. But that world was not enough.
“By the time I was into my twenties I was moving away from that kind of very traditional music, doing more soulful, gospel stuff. But those years gave me an incredible musical education.”
But it was time to move on and Nina became a fixture on Australian breakfast TV, as well as performing in clubs, concerts at festivals on radio and other TV shows. She certainly had a blossoming career at that point, but like many Australians before her she was looking at the scene in Europe and wondering what it would be like to swim in a bigger pond. “And it got to the point where I thought: ‘if I don’t go and find out now, I never will.’ So, ten years ago, I came decamped to London.”
Although initially concerned that instead of swimming, she might just sink, all the above experience meant that was never going to happen. Within a year of arriving she was working at the highly coveted Ronnie Scott’s in Soho (she performed at the opening night of the ‘new’ revamped Ronnie’s in 2006), going on to do 80-some shows. Once again, Nina grew restless with the restrictions of being placed in a single box marked ‘jazz singer’. “At Ronnie’s, I was throwing in some of my own stuff in there, some originals, and eventually I decided it was time to go out and do my own thing with my own band.”
Australia wasn’t done with her yet, though. An old friend, guitarist Sam Hawksley, had re-located to Nashville as a producer and songwriter. “We’d never actually played together, but he’d send a text whenever I was on TV saying how much he liked my voice, and we kept saying we’d work together, but I moved to London and we kind of lost touch. But a while back, when I was just wondering hat to do next, and I was toying with doing something country-ish, kind of country-soul, I get an email from Sam. He said he was producing artists, and when I said I had this idea and he told me to block out four weeks and come over and start writing with him.”
The album Into The Light was written (with Sam and top tunesmiths such as Gary Nicholson, Jerry Salley and Jedd Hughes) in sixteen days, with the studio booked on the seventeenth and eighteenth for some of the top Nashville players (people who pepper the bands of Dolly Parton, Bob Seeger, Liz Wright and Joss Stone).
Such pressure could have been a recipe for disaster, but the result was a warm, loose album with an unmistakable (and tricky to capture) live feel that showcased the range of Nina’s songwriting. It’s partly a breakup album, but one that caught her on the upswing, giving the intensely honest songs an emotional heft. Into The Light moves from country-tinged Americana, through sly funk, soul and, yes, jazz. Some might say it is hard to categorize, but there is one thread running though the songs, glistening like a seam of gold in a coal mine – Nina Ferro’s voice which, as the man, said is knockout.
Into the Light was made two years ago, and Nina’s music continues to evolve. “I am very proud of the album. It’s a record in the sense that it is a snapshot of where I was then. But as an artist, I think I am only just hitting my stride.” It’ll be fun to watch where the next set of giant steps takes her.