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A Fresh Vocalist From The Same School As Adele, Winehouse


Discovering Zara McFarlane's voice is like discovering something exquisite and lush and gorgeous.


ZARA MCFARLANE: (Singing) There you are, though I cannot see your face. I feel you, your presence just entered this place...

LYDEN: Zara McFarlane's latest album is called "If You Knew Her." And she's at our London bureau to talk to us about her music and so that we can get to know here. Zara McFarlane, thank you so much for joining us.

MCFARLANE: Hello. How are you doing?

LYDEN: We're doing just fine, thank you, all the better for having listened to your work. This is just such lovely, lovely, clear, fresh stuff. Tell us about the first song on your new album, "Open Heart."

MCFARLANE: I wrote this actually quite a few years ago - about 10 years ago now. And it was about my very first love kind of thing. And once it broke down, this song came out a couple of years later.


MCFARLANE: (Singing) Did (unintelligible) tell me what to do, once I had lost you. Now, nothing's left for me...

You know, sometimes you have someone that you've given your heart to and they maybe not have been telling you the truth. They're telling you lies. They're telling all sorts of things, but you decide you're going to be willing to believe them, for whatever reason. Then you may not do that with somebody else ever again.


MCFARLANE: (Singing) An open heart is both the lock and key, couldn't squeeze the life back in. To what we were was and had been...

LYDEN: So, your work as a singer-songwriter, how does it begin? Do you write at home? Do you write in your bedroom? Where you work?

MCFARLANE: I have a little music room in my house, so I often - if I'm starting with instruments - I have a piano or guitar is what I write to generally - sometimes I literally just sing things into my phone. If I get an idea on the bus or on the train, I would just try and put it down straightaway 'cause I probably would forget it if I don't do that. And also I'm relatively good at producing basic things on the computer. So, you know, I can put in drum patterns or bass lines and things like that as well. So, I may start from that point as well.


MCFARLANE: (Singing) Police and thieves in the street, fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition. Police and thieves in the street...

LYDEN: Now, you do a cover of this reggae song on your album, "Police and Thieves," and Junior Murvin made this famous. Why did you want to reinterpret it?

MCFARLANE: This song was something that I have listened to over the years since a child. A lot of the music that I was hearing in my home or in my family's home were, or was, reggae music. And this song has just been there for my whole life really. When I was younger, I used to think that it was a woman singing this song. And it wasn't until I got quite a bit older that I saw a video of Junior Murvin performing this song.


JUNIOR MURVIN: (Singing) Police and thieves in the streets, ooh yeah. Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition...

MCFARLANE: I saw that it's this big guy singing so high and with so much emotion in his voice. And I always wanted to do a cover of a reggae song that meant something to me. And this one came up and we experimented a little bit.


MCFARLANE: (Singing) Oh, these (unintelligible), hear what I say. Police and thieves in the street, fighting their nation with their guns and ammunition...

LYDEN: Before I was reading up on you, I was thinking, wow, this young woman is, you know, she's around the same age as Adele and the late Amy Winehouse, but this is a very, very different sound. Then I read that you went to same school, I'm thinking, the Brit School.

MCFARLANE: Yes actually.

LYDEN: Which makes me wonder what on the earth is going on at the Brit School.

MCFARLANE: ...at the Brit School. Well, the Brit School, I went there probably about 15 years ago now. But Amy Winehouse was there. She wasn't there for very long but she was there when I was there. She studied musical theater like I did. But Adele came much, much later. It was one of the only music schools in the country that was free to go to; you have to audition to get in. And it's the only place really that people really took you very seriously, that you could have a career in the arts. And at 16 to go to a place like that where you're allowed to experiment and explore these things in a serious way, it was a really eye-opening place to be.

LYDEN: I'd like to talk to you about the song "Angie La La." You do some really fun things with your voice there. Would you maybe do a little with us or for us?

MCFARLANE: Oh, OK. I do this thing sometimes with my voice like this: ooooohhh.


LYDEN: It's kind of ululation that I've heard in the Middle East, but it also has feathers in it. It's really fluttery.


MCFARLANE: It's fun to do, to be able to hit some high notes and create some really different phrases that I wouldn't be able to do with my normal singing voice then.

LYDEN: It made me think of scat singing, though, a little bit.

MCFARLANE: Yeah. I try to explore with some just different sounds really when I'm scatting. In my head, I think I'm just messing around a bit really and just being silly and attempting new things and trying to change things up a little bit.

LYDEN: Which is what I think a jazz singer is known for doing. Let's listen to just a little more of this duet with Leron Thomas. He's a really great jazz singer.


ZARA MCFARLANE AND LERON THOMAS: (Singing) Suddenly your love will fill my soul. Suddenly your love will fill my soul...

LYDEN: You know, I know you're doing venues around Europe, but I was just thinking, man, I'd love to be in a club somewhere in a really nice dress listening to you guys on stage.


MCFARLANE: Hopefully, we might get the opportunity to come over to the U.S. There's no definite plans yet, but there are some things and options that may be happening. So, watch this space.

LYDEN: Well, we really hope to see you here in the United States, or if I'm on a bus on London, I'll look for the woman singing into her iPad. Zara McFarlane, thank you so much. Zara joined us from the BBC in London. Her new album is called "If You Knew Her." And now you do. It's out now. Zara, thank you.

MCFARLANE: Thank you very much, Jacki.


MCFARLANE: (Singing) They watch you patiently and quietly. They can't surround the room unknowing, if you would only take the time...

LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. Scott Simon returns next week. And you can wish him a happy birthday on Twitter: @NPRScottSimon. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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