From Belfast in Northern Ireland, Kaz Hawkins’ star is in the ascendant. With a new, young band and a change of direction musically, she is wowing audiences with her own gospel blues songs, her big personality and incredible singing. It’s all the more remarkable when she tells you about her troubled past, which she has managed to put behind her with a defiant, positive attitude to life.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Kaz after a triumphant performance recently at the Belfast-Nashville Festival.
DATC: Kaz, I was at your show a few nights ago and it felt very vibrant, very upbeat. People came away feeling that, yes, they’d had a good time, but uplifted, I think, as well. What is it that gives your music this very positive vibe; where does that come from?
Kaz: I think because of the new direction I’m taking. Up until now anything I’ve released has been ballad-y stuff, or my blues rock band, but I’ve got some new guys in now and the musical direction has changed.
I’m surrounded by amazing song-writers and have gone to great song-writing conventions, and festivals and workshops, and I’m aware that it can all get a bit stuffy – not that I want to take away from the integrity of song writing. But I have a kind of fun, quirky, crazy personality and I really want to build that into my music. I try to have a laugh with the audience but also I want people to come away inspired. Music inspires me. I came through a lot of hard times and I always say that music saved my life. All these great divas like Koko Taylor or Etta James, for example, they put everything into their performance. They didn’t walk onto stage and just sing. It came from the very soul of their being.
And that’s what I try to bring to the song writing. And also the stories of my life. But the songs don’t have to be heart-breaking all the time. So when I do a show, I try to do all the meaningful songs at the start and then break out the banter and fun later so that people leave feeling good, because that’s what it’s all about.
DATC: What I’m hearing in your music is a lot of blues and gospel (think of a song like Better Days, for example) – what is it in that music that draws you? And how does this music help you express what you feel you’ve got to say?
Kaz: First off gospel – it’s not all about music in a church. In America, gospel music is much bigger than that. And the blues – I don’t know where on earth this feeling of the blues I have in me came from, or where this big gospel voice I have came from. But for me gospel and the blues take me to a place where I feel safe, where I can explore anything. If you’re in pop, you kind of have to work to a sort of format, but with blues and gospel, you can go anywhere you want in a song. You can make it laughter or whatever you want. I know when me and the guys are performing, we don’t want it to end, because we’re feeling the vibe and, you know, three minutes isn’t long enough. It might be in commercial pop. But for me it’s the integrity of the music and for me, blues and gospel gives me that.
I’ve tried to incorporate some contemporary themes into my songs. I love my blues, and gospel and blues gives me a sort of sanity, so I don’t have to write a certain way.
DATC: When you look at the history of the blues, a lot of the songs are not just complaints about life. There’s hope there too – it’s people singing themselves into a better place.
Kaz: Exactly and that’s what saved me, when I had a drug addiction, when I suffered domestic violence – when I listened to the likes of Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, Dorothy Moore, Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, it took me to a place that was mine, my secret place. And that’s where I go when I sing the blues or write my own songs. For me the music’s a really safe haven.
But of course it has that kind of dirty edge to it as well, you don’t get that with a lot of genres of music.
DATC: The other thing I’m struck with in listening to you, Kaz, is the sense of hope, of empowerment, of compassion and humanity in your songs – both the lyrics and the music. For you music is entertainment, but it’s more than just that?
Kaz: Oh definitely. I feel like I’m giving back to music for saving me. When you lose everything – and I lost even my own children – the only thing I had left was music. You’ve got to give something back. I call it “blues karma!” If you’re true to the blues, the blues will be true to you! [laughs].
DATC: You’ve an EP available at the moment, but I gather you’re working on a full album. Tell us a bit about it – what can we expect on it and when will it be released?
Kaz: Well, those songs you heard last week are all on the new album. That’s the first time anybody had heard them. Get Ready is the title track and it’s the one we opened up with. It’s the whole ethos of the album and of myself actually. Let’s get ready for peace and love. And that song was written about the riots in Belfast last year, when I got stuck in the middle of it in East Belfast. I wrote this because I thought, if people could really get tapped into music rather than politics and debates about the rights and wrongs – if people had half the passion of songwriters and performers, maybe the world would be an easier place to live in and we wouldn’t be fighting so much.
And on this new album, I wanted to bring back a sense of fun because when people see some of my songs and videos on YouTube, they’re pretty much about the song writing and the message, memories and loss and fighting the fight, and what I wanted to do was give this album a sense of hope – that even though I’d gone through all those hard times, that music had help me close the door to the past – now I have this new vibrant attitude, I have this new band, I have a new message to tell. So half the album is about hope – there’s better days ahead, you can have aspirations, you can have dreams.
So the likes of Soul Superstar – that song is about me growing up, as a child standing in the wings, waiting for my time to shine. I want to stand as an example to those women out there, who have maybe given up on their dream. That’s why I have this crazy quirky attitude – just because I’m a grandmother now doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time! [laughs]
DATC: On the subject of women, I understand you made a video for Walking on my Own, one of the tracks on your new album which was to celebrate International Women’s Day 2014. Why, would you say, something like International Women’s Day is so important?
Kaz: The fight goes on for women. Guys have come on a long way, but things can still be difficult for women. You notice even the small things. So, for example, when we’re at a gig, I’m running the whole thing, organizing everybody, but then somebody at the venue wants to know who to pay and they go to one of my (male) band members. And they, of course say, “See Kaz.” And I’m standing there the whole time! It’s just so ingrained into men they don’t even know they’re doing it half the time.
For me International Women’s Day is very important. As a women in a male-dominated blues scene I have to fight twice as hard, ten times as hard, as men. It’s taken me 10 years to break the blues scene in Northern Ireland and we’re such a tiny place compared with the rest of the world. But it took 10 years for anybody to take me seriously. So now I tell people, when I made the decision to make blues my life, I was coming through whether anybody liked it or not!
DATC: Good for you Kaz! Now you’re starting a new tour with your band before long? Where will that take you to?
Kaz: All over England and Scotland during September and maybe a bit beyond. And it’s mostly Arts Centre type venues, which is really good. I’ve had good support from some of the magazines, like Blues in Britain, Blues Matters, and Classic Blues is giving away a copy of the EP songs, Better Days, in their next edition. Oh, and Blues and Soul Magazine have awarded me their Rising Star Award for 2014, along with Lawrence Jones.
And it’s great to be playing venues like the John Peel Centre and so on, so that my kind of blues can get played in that type of artistic environment.
DATC: Kaz, thank you. I wish you well in the tour and with the new album and hopefully we’ll get talking to you again before too long.