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Clamouring for more glamour with pop-jazz star Caro Emerald
Caro Emerald is more than just a pretty face. She tells Tim Hughes her sultry brand of jazz-pop has a thoroughly modern twist
Cutting a dash in a long, figure-hugging dress and matching blood-red lipstick, Caro Emerald is a star from a different era; a matinee idol from a more glamorous age where men were men and women were, well, like Caro.
“There’s definitely some nostalgia,” she says, when I remark on her image.
“I like the glamour and the femininity. I’ve always been a ‘dressing-up’ kind of girl. I wouldn’t want to look like a rock star in leather.”
She is taking a break from recording and performing by relaxing, not in a lavishly-appointed Italian palazzio, Parisian townhouse or luxurious Brazilian beach apartment, but at her surprisingly frugal flat in Amsterdam. Yes, despite the smouldering Latin looks, Caro, born Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw, is as Dutch as clogs and Edam, and with the accent to prove it.
“I’ve always lived here and it’s quite simple,” she says, scanning the view of other apartments from the window. “There are certainly no tulips or windmills!”
“You wouldn’t know I’m Dutch though,” she smiles. “Real Dutch people are blonde. I’m mixed: my parents are from the Caribbean and South America, but a lot of people think I’m Italian or Spanish. Even when they hear my music they wouldn’t connect me to Holland. If I didn’t know myself, I’d think the music was from the UK or US, but not from here.”
Although Caro admits to having wanted to be a star since she was a girl singing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush, it wasn’t until 2007 that she had her break, being asked to record a demo for a Dutch producer and a Canadian songwriter. The result was Back It Up – and after being aired on local TV, the buzz began.
Buoyed by success, they set out to record an album and, finding inspiration in the world of 1940s and ‘50s cinema, they came up with a masterpiece: Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor.
An instant hit, listeners latched on to its compulsive mix of big band jazz, tango, swing and mambo with a modern twist. Its Latin flavours conjured up the golden age of Hollywood, as did Caro herself. It went platinum in six weeks, remained in the UK top 10 for nine weeks and, in her home country, held the number one spot for a record 30 weeks.
Now Holland’s queen of cool is back with a follow-up, The Shocking Miss Emerald. And while it may fail to actually shock, in the way that, say Marilyn Manson might, it does charm, and is once again steeped in nostalgia for a half-imagined golden era, dating back to the 1920s.
Rooted in the heady pre-war Paris fashion scene, it couples glamour with an edgier, sexier, sound which charms and teases. It also marries vintage style with a very ‘now’ pop sound, complete with beats and samples. Consequently, it has predictably topped the charts, going gold and boosting her record sales to an impressive of 2.5 million.
The focus on fashion is an inspired one for a style icon like Caro, and tips a wink at the current penchant for retro refinement. She name checks Grace Kelly as her sartorial muse but confesses her formative musical heroine was a little more up to date.
“I was inspired by Madonna,” she laughs. “In school I used to mimic her music. Some girls were more boyish, but I was definitely more of a girl.”
She goes on: “I like to create some kind of ambience. I don’t want to pull people inside that era, just give a suggestion. Though there’s something about music that takes people out of their daily lives. It’s escapism in a way.”
On Tuesday Caro arrives in Oxford as part of a UK tour which culminates in a packed-out gig at London’s O2 arena. Considering her last tour saw her selling out the Royal Albert Hall, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that the Oxford show sold out months ago.
“We are going to have so much fun,” she says. “It’s going to be a kick-ass show.
“I hadn’t been to the UK before I played there, but it felt like home. The culture is similar and we understand each other. I have felt welcome there from the beginning. The audiences are always fantastic.”
So to what does she attribute her success? “It’s all so hard to explain,” she sighs, “I think it’s dangerous to explain why I have become so popular in Britain, as then I’d have to say why I’m not as successful in some other countries where I haven’t done it. “Everything is about timing. I’ve had some fabulous promotional gigs and play on Radio 2 which has been perfect timing for the album and tour and creates a big buzz. We seem to have been taken to the heart of UK audiences.
“It’s the music. I’m a traditional jazz singer and that music pushes a button with me. I want to create the perfect jazz atmosphere and that complements the music, and makes sense. I’ve always sung different kinds of music to other people. It’s a bit ‘old school’ but to me it’s also very contemporary-sounding. It all depends on your point of view, and how you listen to it.”
As an artist who borrows so heavily from retro style, does she wish she had been born early last century?
“Not really,” she says. “The glamorous side is very appealing but there was a war on and women didn’t have any rights.”
And it’s the latter point that bristles with this practical girl who is, beneath the lippy, an ambitious and level-headed businesswoman.
“I am practical,” she agrees. “So when I’m at home you’ll find me in jeans and T-shirts. After all, I have to function and can’t dress like that all the time. It’s fun, but it’s lots of work. And if I walked around in those heels all the time I’d be a fruitcake. I have more important things to do with my time.”
- LIVE Caro Emerald plays the New Theatre, Oxford on Tuesday. Tickets have, predictably, sold out
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