I first came across super-talented jazz singer and pianist Anthony Strong at the 2013 Brecon Jazz Festival.
I loved the performance, describing it as “as sharp as his suit”, and since then we’ve kept in touch on social media.
If you’re not familiar with Anthony’s work, you can check his website here. But I wanted to know a bit more, so he kindly agreed to answer some questions in his downtime during a three-night run at The Pheasantry Pizza Express venue in Chelsea.
What are the biggest or most memorable or most unusual gigs you’ve done?
AS: Well it’s hard to choose because over the years there really has been so many wonderful venues. One of my earliest shows abroad was supporting BB King at La Grand Rex in Paris. It was my first ‘big gig’ – I think it’s like a 2,000-seater or something crazy like that… it was the gig that essentially got me signed. The bosses from Naïve came down and made an offer after seeing the gig. It was a really exciting time.
Since then, I’ve played the Hollywood Bowl and some amazing big band shows in Europe and Russia; in Germany with The SWR Band, in Denmark with The DR Band, The BBC Big Band, The Moscow State Big Band with Igor Butman … I always try to bring ‘a certain energy’ with me when I come on stage, (it’s ‘an event’ after all) but playing with these bands is just like: wow! The energy in the room is like x1,000.
And the best audience you’ve played to?
AS: It’s not really like that, I don’t have a spreadsheet on my laptop with audience scores on. Haha! I suppose any gig that ends with a standing ovation is awesome. I’m a bit humbled when that happens to be honest. My role when I’m on stage, as I see it, is to give people a real ‘experience’ and so an impromptu standing ovation is one of the biggest signals to me of, like, ‘oh, ok, mission accomplished, job done, nice work’. It’s an awesome feeling knowing you’ve moved people!
The live shows are something special, but how do you compare the experience of playing live, writing, and recording? Love them all the same?
AS: Yes, I really do. I can probably say that with total honesty, because my touring isn’t very gruelling! It’s lots of weekends away, two or three day trips, jazz festivals etc. Occasionally I’ll do a whole week in Germany travelling every day – which is slightly more gruelling. But even then, the project gets a massive boost in followers, and it’s a really exciting week.
And preparing and producing a new record is something I absolutely love. It can be quite a scary experience (lots of expense / work / jeopardy / expectations!) but it really is just so exciting! At the end of the day, I just totally love music, so even the longest and hardest days don’t feel like it!
What are your favourite all-time songs or pieces of music, by others and of your own work?
AS: Hmm… this changes so often, it’s hard to say. One of my favourite records is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now – incredible musicians, Mendoza’s arrangements are world class, and Joni is on top form. Painted From Memory by Bacharach and Costello is another favourite record of mine. It’s an album about breaking up and losing love, and every single track is superb.
In terms of ‘my songs’, I love anything that I’ve written with Guy Mathers! Guy is an absolute genius with words and language and I still get a kick singing his lyrics 10 years down the line. His writing is just so clever.
I also write with Tommy Antonio (we wrote Ocean and Like You Do on Me and My Radio). We have a new song in the pipeline that I’m really excited about called When You Know You Know. I wrote a song with my friend Adam Sopp on Stepping Out that I REALLY liked, called Falling In Love. It’s a kind of jazzy, romantic pop song with cross rhythms and I love the [chord] changes and the strings. I really love pop music but I’m also a harmony geek – so when I ‘go pop’ I try and write chord changes that are a little more developed than your usual pop song.
Where do you get those suits? And is this strictly your stage image, or do you favour smart wear off-stage too?
AS: Ah thank you! I used to get suits tailored for me and go for fittings in Saville Rowe, it was very swish! But it’s quite expensive and to be honest, they used to get thrown in suitcases every time I played abroad! If I see a nice suit in a shop and I have time, I’ll go in and try it on. I’m quite lucky really: my body shape is a pretty standard ’30R’. It’s less a case of ‘will if fit?’ and more a case of ‘is this different enough from my other 20 suits?!’ I’m generally quite well dressed when I’m off stage but rarely with a tie unless it’s for something special.
Now, something people may not know is that you’ve played on several pop hits with Clean Bandit. How did that come about?
AS: I was friends with Jack [Patterson] and Grace [Chatto] from Clean Bandit before they were signed themselves and they actually made a couple of my early music videos. Jack (producer and writer of Clean Bandit) is actually playing sax and riding a bike at the same time in my Too Darn Hot video.
Well, for the first track I did with them, they were in Metropolis studios. Jack wanted some live grand piano on a track they’d written called Rather Be. I was kinda called in because the perfect key for Jess Glynne [the guest vocalist on the track] was a really horrible key for the piano part! I basically went in, learnt it, transposed it, played it as loud as possible and left an hour later! I was quite smug actually, because afterwards I tweeted “This song is going to be a smash hit!” or something to that effect, and then it became the second biggest selling song in the world that year! A&R guys: call me. Haha!
Well, you were right there! A great song – and it won Jack a couple of Ivor Novello awards! Coming more up to date – how did the pandemic affect you?
AS: Well, all touring and concerts just stopped overnight which was a strange feeling. It was the longest I’d stayed home for in over 15 years. At first it was nice to stay home and take some time off, but after a while I really began to miss the live side of the job. To be honest, I was ok financially, and still doing music everyday, so really, there’s no sob story from me. It was just strange and frustrating, many others have had it much much harder.
Can you tell us about your London gigs, and what’s coming up next?
AS: Next up is Istanbul in a month, but yes, at the moment [late September 2021] we’re in the middle of three shows at Pizza Express’ fantastic The Pheasantry in Chelsea. It’s an intimate club setting and so we’re playing as a trio, and it’s so good to be back playing music on stage! Lovely audiences. The audiences seem to be just as thrilled to be back listening, as we are to be back playing. It’s amazing. We’ve been playing some songs from my previous records and trying out a few new things for the next record! We’ll be recording in November I think, so watch this space!
All photos © Anthony Strong / Facebook
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