“I’m a balladeer at heart” – interview with Matthew vanKan

Ahead of his Nat King Cole Centenary Celebration at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, we caught up with singer-songwriter Matthew vanKan to find out more about his musical influences and inspirations…..

Matthew vanKan Nat King Cole Centenary Celebration is at The Bull’s Head on Monday 24 June. BOOK TICKETS

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I grew up singing and spent years gigging through my 20’s at restaurants and bars, writing and recording my own music and hoping for a record deal that never came. I hadn’t discovered jazz then and it wasn’t until my 30’s that I did. After years of managing a travel company in Brighton I decided to pursue music again for fun and joined a community Gospel Choir. It was such a powerful experience performing again after years of abstinence so after a big concert, when the dust had settled I took to the streets of Brighton with my busking amp and backing tracks. I chose a selection of jazz songs because I felt so comfortable singing them and didn’t feel like some ‘old guy’ trying to rekindle a teenagers dream of being a pop star. It seemed to work. Passers by would pick up my business cards and then a few days later people would call to say they’d seen me singing in The Lanes of Brighton and was I free to come and perform at their wedding, birthday or garden party. I was working full time in an office back then but after a few months of gigging every Friday, Saturday and Sunday I decided to go part-time at work. A few months later I was offered a weekly residency at The Savoy hotel in London (after badgering the booking agent on a weekly basis) and decide to hand in my notice and follow my dream (again). Second time lucky I guess!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My Mum, grandmother and church… My Mum because of the look she gets in her eyes whenever she watches me sing. The same applies to my Grandmother who always used to say “you can’t hear the words” when listening to ANYTHING modern. In particular I love Nat King Cole’s articulation. When I was listening intently to his music my Grandmother’s words echoed in my head. You can always understand what Nat King Cole is singing about as his diction is perfect! Church was a big influence because I would sing with the choir there every Sunday throughout my childhood and teenage years. I can’t say I paid much attention to what the priest was talking about half the time BUT I absolutely loved the music AND the acoustics.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

That’s a really good question and not one I’ve given that much though to as I prefer to focus on moving forward rather than what’s held me back. I guess it’s all a bit of a challenge. Trying to make a living doing something you love is a bit of a double edged sword. You have to think commercially about something you’re so passionate about.  People often think that musicians are happy performing for nothing (or very little) because they’re doing something they love to do. In some cases that’s true but in order to be successful at making a career out of music I think you have to learn to treat your music like a business and not be afraid to talk money, fees for your fellow musicians, riders and reasonable performance times etc. I manage myself and think I learnt a lot when I was employed as the manager of the travel company in Brighton. I’d be lost without my spreadsheets. Ha ha!!

I guess the other challenge for me personally has been to stop caring so much about what other people think of me. It was always something I struggled with in the past (for many reasons – bullying at school one of the main factors) BUT I now truly believe that I’m pursuing something that I’m good at, it’s very authentic and honest for me and I accept that I’m not everybody’s cup of tea but that’s OK. I don’t need EVERYONE to rate me anymore or approve. I just love the fact that I’m always learning and evolving as a performer. That will never get tiring.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Mmmmmm. I hate recording and haven’t put myself in the studio as much as I should have. It’s something I need to overcome as I’ve been writing my own songs over the last year or so and feel I’m working my way (slowly) towards an album. I gig a lot in noisy bars and clubs or private events where my music isn’t the primary focus. I think I’m always most proud following a show at venues like Pizza Express Jazz Club, The Crazy Coqs and hopefully post Bulls Head. It’s such a special moment in time having the company of an audience at a venue that is focused on listening intently to what you have to say and sing about. I’m such an open-book on stage, often exposing myself emotionally far more than I had planned but it’s so exhilarating doing that. I hope my honesty adds weight to my interpretation and delivery of the songs I choose to sing. I want people to know what and how much the lyrics meant to me otherwise I’m just regurgitating a bunch of jazz standards and not adding anything of my own.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m a balladeer at heart so love to get my teeth stuck into a love song that tugs at the heart strings. There’s a tune written by Howard Barnes, Harold Cornelius and Dominic John called ‘A Blossom Fell’ that was published in 1954 and a hit for Nat King Cole in 1955 when it was released by Capitol Records. To be honest I didn’t know the song before I’d started planning this Nat King Cole Centenary Celebration. We’d only managed to run it once in a rehearsal but when I performed it for the first time at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden I got really emotional which took me a little by surprise. I think I just got lost in the lyric and it hit me how beautiful and poignant it was. I included the Prince song ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ in my last show ‘Seasons Of The Heart’. A dear friend of mine had recently taken his own life so I dedicated the song to his memory and got completely engulfed by my feelings right there on stage but somehow managed to power through and pour all of that into my performance. That’s what music and singing is all about for me. I have to find something personal that I can bring to the songs I’ve chosen.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Well this Nat King Cole Centenary Show was an obvious choice because I’ve always been such a big fan. I celebrated the music of Frank Sinatra in his centenary year back in 2015 for the same reasons. My show ‘Seasons Of The Heart’ was inspired by a song I’d written called ‘Before It’s Begun’ which is all about a father trying to make sense of and explain the reasons behind acts of terror to his young and still so innocent son. I’d also written another song called ‘Allow Me To Introduce Myself’ which was about an imaginary meeting between me and my Dad who I’ve never met. I wanted to explore all the different facets of ‘love’ and we included a string quartet into the arrangements for the first time. There’s always a personal reason behind my inspiration for any show I create.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Can I have two? Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho and The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly. They both have fantastic sound systems, good lighting, a music loving audience sat in a cabaret setting with tables and chairs and waiting staff. It’s quite an old-school concept these days as people are so used to going to larger, all standing music concerts. The audience at Pizza Express and Crazy Coqs are asked to switch off their phones and respectfully refrain from talking during the show. It all helps to set things up perfectly. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to include Ronnie Scotts and The Royal Albert Hall but I’m still waiting for that telephone call!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Tony Bennett at The Royal Albert Hall. Towards the end of his concert he put his microphone down on top of the piano, stood centre stage and sang ‘I Left My Heart In San Francsico’ a cappella. He was 90 years old at the time and his un-amplified voice filled the concert hall. Just incredible! I hope I’m still doing this in my 90s!!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Earning a living from music is an obvious one but there are so many little successes to enjoy along the way. A sold out show, completing a new, original song, a new collaboration, finally nailing the melody of a standard I might have been struggling to learn, finding new notes to sing within songs I’ve been singing forever, discovering a new part of my voice or gaining more control of it, improving, learning. It all adds up and keeps me moving forward.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question. I still feel like I’m right at the beginning in many ways. I discovered jazz in my mid 30s and I’m still a student in my eyes. Maybe I should be reading the answers to this question left by others on your blog! Ask me again in 10 years and I might have a better answer 🙂

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Making a guest appearance at The Royal Albert Hall or on Graham Norton’s sofa alongside a huge Hollywood actor or two being interviewed because a song I’ve written and recorded has been used on a movie soundtrack.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Lying by the pool in the sunshine on holiday with my beautiful family.

What is your most treasured possession?

I read this question and instantly drew a blank. I’ve got some lovely ‘stuff’ but I don’t think I treasure physical possessions particularly. I think I treasure my memories most – that’s why dementia is such a cruel disease and a cause I’m particularly passionate about.

What is your present state of mind?

Happy and excited to finally be performing at The Bulls Head after all these years!

Interview with Rick Simpson, jazz pianist

Award-winning jazz pianist and composed Rick Simpson makes his 7 Star Arts debut at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head on 26th June

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Hmm…that’s hard to say. I think by the time I knew I wanted to music I hadn’t really met anyone or seen any concerts – I just knew that I loved playing the piano and making up little tunes. It wasn’t really until I found Jazz that I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to be doing. Before that I was quite unfocused and split my time between doing the grades and playing music from musicals and coming up with my own arrangements of them. My old piano teacher used to give me hell for not playing what was on the page, but I think that I’d always enjoyed playing around with music made the transition into Jazz piano at the age of fifteen more comfortable.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

My classical piano teacher at Guildhall, Laura Roberts, has probably had the biggest influence on my musical life. She’s been a close friend and ally over the years and even though we rarely see each other now she still has a big influence over me. She pulled me out of so many bad habits at the piano – before I met her I really had very little idea of how to play the piano properly so she really turned my life around. I’m still trying to work on the simple ideas she presented me ten years ago.

For Jazz if I had to name one figure it would be Keith Jarrett. He was my first real love in music and the first pianist I ever heard. I’d never listened to any famous classical pianists before, or really even any piano music in general and when I first heard Jarrett it was mind-blowing and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. What can I say about Jarrett that hasn’t already been said! To me he’s the biggest musical genius of all time. 

Other than Jarrett there came a time in my life around the age of 21 where I felt like the African-American lineage of Jazz Piano had a greater pull for me. Before then I was quite into the Bill Evans – Brad Mehldau – ECM sound, and I still love that, but the Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock lineage really took over at some point. Its all beautiful and it ultimately all comes from the same place but I always want to keep on working on what is a Black American art form. Even though my own music comes from a lot of influences outside of Jazz I won’t ever stop trying to get together what Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were doing in the 1940s.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

I think anxiety has held me back massively. Its only been in the last two years where I’ve felt happy on stage. I used to be a nervous wreck and it showed. That’s really held me back and I feel like I need to make up for lost time but I’m generally a lot happier and settled than I was in my early and mid-twenties.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that the music I’ve written over the last four or five years has come from not thinking of tonality or chords. None of the music from my new record has any chord symbols in it. I wanted to get away from the sound that I felt that I’d heard too much of in the London Jazz scene – music which has been clearly written with a single melody line over a set of sometimes quite bleak chords. Kenny Wheeler has been a huge influence on a lot of people in London but I had to get as far away from that sound as I could. When I write music these days the composition is first and the improvising is second. At some point I’ll go back to writing very small compositions that serve as vehicles for improvising but right now with my band Klammer the music is about the compositions.

How do you work?

I work very slowly, which is of great annoyance to me. I know some people who can write several tunes in one sitting, but I don’t think that works for me. I’ll write a couple of bars and then I’ll forget about it for days on end, and then come back to it and add a few more. I’d like to get things out faster but sometimes I think leaving things can cause you to come back afresh and take the music somewhere else. 

Often I think its helpful to know what you want to write before you start. That’s worked well for me in the past where I’ve wanted to write the fast tune/the ballad/the straight 8’s odd time tune, but these days I just sit and see what comes out.

Who are your favourite musicians/bands/composers?

Modern musicians/bands that pose a huge influence on me these days are Jason Moran, Django Bates, Matt Mitchell, Steve Lehman, Steve Coleman, Radiohead, Animal Collective, Deerhoof, John Hollenbeck, Wayne Shorter, Steve Reich, Liam Noble, people like that. I love hip hop, techno, ambient, singer-songwriter music too and it all runs together.
And from the past – Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bach, Schubert, Billie Holiday, Mahler, Messiaen.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing the Wayne Shorter Quartet playing music from outer space in 2006 at the Barbican Centre. It was without doubt the most incredible music I’ve ever heard. People in the audience were screaming during the encore, it was so super-charged. There’s a recording of it out there somewhere…That band is on the farthest outer edge of what’s possible. No one is doing what they can.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Ronnie Scott’s. It took me a long time to make peace with the piano – that piano kicked my ass! I had to really learn how to play grand pianos and its only been in the last two years where I’ve felt comfortable playing one – but now I love playing there. The atmosphere and sound are perfect and I would play there every week if I could. I’ve had some great gigs there recently with Leo Richardson’s Quartet and it just feels like the perfect place for that music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be friendly. Get your social skills together. Never, ever rely on what you perceive to be as your talent, its not enough. When I was younger I didn’t feel confident in some social situations and used to hope that I could just get by on my playing. You can’t – you have to go out there and meet people and make friends.

For Jazz musicians I’d say get as much together as you can. Don’t just do one thing, get it ALL together. It’s all as equally important and the more you have in your tool box the more exciting your improvising will be. It’s not fun when you know how someone is always going to sound. Jazz should be the sound of surprise. Tape yourself. Play classical music too, its all in there.

Other than that just practice as much as you can, see as much of life as you can and don’t worry if things don’t happen straight away. Never get lazy or complacent. When I was younger I noticed that some older musicians who I used to worship had done so and I vowed I would never slack off. The only person who can help you get better is yourself.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still practicing and trying to get better. I still feel like a beginner and I still don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything and I don’t really want that feeling to go away. It keeps you moving. That said, if I’m still doing what I’ve done over the last few years in ten years time I’ll be very happy. I’d just like to do more of it and eventually move into teaching at one of the music colleges. I love this life and I just want it to last a long, long time!


Rick Simpson’s latest album with his band Klammer is available now on the Two Rivers Records label

Rick Simpson is based in London playing a wide variety of music, and leads his own group playing original jazz music. Rick is a regular performer at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Jazz Club, Pizza Express Dean Street, The Vortex, The Bull’s Head, and he has appeared at larger UK venues such as the Royal Festival Hall and the Purcell Room. In 2008 Rick won a Yamaha Scholarship Prize for Outstanding Jazz Musicians. A recording of Rick’s band was put on the front cover of Jazzwise Magazine.
Since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2008 he has performed with musicians such as Christian Scott, Eric Harland, Joe Sanders, Michael Janisch, Ernesto Simpson, Martin Speake, Earl Burness Travis, Stan Sulzmann, Jeff Williams and Brandon Allen as well as younger musicians in London. Rick plays in the ensembles of Jay Phelps, Tim Thornton, Tommy Andrews, Leo Richardson, Paul Riley, and US Jazz Singer Hailey Tuck amongst others

This interview first appeared The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog

Meet the Artist – Natasha Hardy, singer-songwriter

I just love performing wherever I have an audience

We talked to Natasha Hardy about influences, inspirations and more ahead of her Lost in Love concert at The Jazz Room on 20 May…..

Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

The thought of singing and acting appealed to me from a very early age. I was always the performer in my family and as the middle child, it was the best way to get attention! Singing was a part of normal family life. I enjoyed singing at home, (although most of the time my brothers wanted to shut me up!) My parents always had music playing and were always singing. We sang regularly at our church, so it always felt quite normal to sing. I started to write songs from the age of 13 and had piano lessons from around age 9.

Singing always made me feel good, although I hadn’t ever considered it a career choice.  When I started to pursue my acting career, I took up singing seriously. Singing was originally to add a feather to my bow as an actress. However, unexpectedly, I completely fell in love with the classical technique; I had found a medium that would let me fully express myself. I was able to use my body in a way that allowed me to channel my energy and emotions. I could pour my heart and soul into it. It felt inevitable that this was going to be my career.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

The most important influences on my career have to be my voice teacher Maryliese Happel, Mark Crayton and my mum.  Maryliese introduced me to classical repertoire and opera.  I had no idea about singing in this genre before I met her and to her I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude.  She taught me solid technique, taught me about my own voice and has always been an inspirational teacher.  She helped me ‘free the beauty of my voice’.

Mark Crayton (Roosevelt University, Chicago) who over the years helped me find my inner confidence through technique and performance master-classes. He has helped me find freedom of expression in my voice.

My wonderful mother, who calls me her little songbird, always wants to hear me sing. From the moment she wakes up, she is always singing around the house. My mother always made it feel really normal to just sing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Self-belief and self-doubt. I have done lots of work to help myself through these challenges.  My top tips that have helped me include; meditation, positive affirmations, healthy diet & keeping fit.  I am a great believer in healthy body, healthy mind.

I always come back to a couple of sayings, allowing yourself to be both a work in progress and a masterpiece simultaneously, and my favourite quote from Martha Graham:

 “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”  
― Martha Graham 

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

Puccini; I love his songs, his operas, and his characters.  On the surface they can seem simple, but underneath there is a complexity and strength to them.  The way he writes is inspiring. There is always a leading melody, and long beautiful lines.  As a songwriter, I know how hard it is to make something sound ‘simple’ and that is what I love about his compositions.  I also think I perform my own compositions pretty well, because I have written them. I know every feeling and every memory that has gone into the writing of every line, lyric and melody.  I do hope one day that other singers will want to perform them.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I try to choose pieces that are well known with the audience, combining them with unknown or rarely-performed works

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

Not really, I just love performing wherever I have an audience.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, Prince, George Michael, Faithless, Massive Attack, Andre Previn, Richard Rodney Bennet, Michael Nyman, Gabriel Yared, Hans Zimmer, Eric Serra, Puccini, Bellini, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Renee Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu and Maria Callas.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first ever concert.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Practice smart, know your words/notes, know yourself.  Get trained in the business side of things. This can take up a lot of your time!  Be determined. Don’t give up. Try to get a little bit better every day. Make time for family & friends, and most importantly, have fun!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

In my beach house in Bermuda.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Any of the following: Summer barbecues, listening to old LPs on a Sunday afternoon with family and friends, roast dinners, long beach walks, my poodle every time I look at her, getting to sleep in a bed with my favourite pillow and a duvet, waking up to another sunny day, the sound of rain, the smell of a forest, the touch of my grandmother’s hand, skiing, ice-skating.

What is your most treasured possession? 

An 18th-century French dressing table which has been ‘dipped and stripped’ about three times, it was my mum’s dressing table from when my parents first got married, and it has finally been restored and I use it everyday.

What is your present state of mind? 

Excited – relaxed – grateful.

‘Lost in Love’ is on Sunday 20 May at 7.30pm in the Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head. Tickets here


Iconoclassics at The Jazz Room

7 Star Arts announces the launch of a new series of concerts in the iconic Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head

Iconoclassics features leading, critically-acclaimed classical musicians, more at home in the world’s great concert halls than in a jazz club but all happy to break free from the conventional classical music scene. The small size of the Jazz Room creates a special connection between musicians and audience, and allows the musicians to present music in a more accessible and relaxed way.

In keeping with the main focus of The Jazz Room, programmes in the Iconoclassics series will explore links between classical music and jazz, and will include works by Ravel and Gershwin, two composers whose music crossed genres and pushed the boundaries of what we define as “classical music”.

Iconoclassics launches on 14 February 2018 with Classic Valentine – a special concert for Valentine’s Day featuring David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). This will be followed on 11 March by a solo concert by internationally-acclaimed pianist Anthony Hewitt, who has been praised for his “fine, poetic and communicative musicianship” (BBC Music Magazine).

This promises to be an exciting and intriguing new series in an intimate and friendly venue.


Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression which this music demands and offers. And David Le Page and Viv McLean create a very special intimacy of their own – these musicians work together regularly and their empathy and mutual understanding is palpable in every note they play.

  • Frances Wilson/The Cross-Eyed Pianist



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