Earl's story is a modern day musical fairy story with a jazz soundtrack. Tim Hughes finds out what she's all about
IF there is any lesson to be learned from the story of sultry jazz singer Kate Earl, it's that dreams really can come true.
Born Kate Smithson in Alaska, to her Filipino mum and a Dutch-Welsh Korean War veteran dad, she dreamed, like most kids do, of making it big as a star. The only problem was, she was stuck in the frozen north, working shifts at her parents' petrol station in Chugiak (population 8,300) – a town, 20 miles out of Anchorage, for which the words 'cultural backwater' could well have been invented.
Still, a background of church choirs and a passion for the guitar kept her ambitions alive.
“I’d listen to the songs and get this itch: ‘I need to figure out how to do this’,” she recalls. “And I had no clue.”
It all became clear when she moved to Los Angeles in 2004. It took no time for her to be snapped up and landed with a succession of record deals – performing as simply Earl.
Her sultry and sexy brand of new jazz channels 1930s jazz performer Josephine Baker, and is shot through with humour.
"Jokes are all over jazz,” she says. “It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in. Music is all over the place. Everybody’s making music of every kind. It’s the Wild West. There’s a feeling of rebellion everywhere and jazz is the perfect music for that.”
Nothing if not ambitious, she released her debut album Fate Is the Hunter, just a year after arriving in LA, signing to a tiny subsidiary of the giant Warner Brothers label called Record Collection.
She recalls: "I went to a mansion in Malibu, the night before 9/11. There were movie stars there. I was very scared and very timid, I thought everyone who didn’t go to church was a vampire.
"I played the piano and this guy came up to me, just like in the movies, and said, ‘I wanna offer you a deal’.”
She became Kate Earl and was spotted by singer-songwriter Damien Rice on MySpace. He asked her to support him at a non-profit event for the then-Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi at the London Palladium, she sang Silence and received a standing ovation.
“It was magical,” she says, “like a dream.”
She fell out of love with her label when the promise of an international tour failed to materialise.
“I saw my whole house of cards crumble,” she says. “I’ve never been so stupid. I’d just always been subservient, I was trained to follow and serve. I should have fought my corner but I didn’t have the balls. I think that’s why I’m so loud now!”
Taking a break, she took solace in ‘white magic’, studying homeopathy and spirituality, and calling herself a White Witch. She admits to making a ‘magic spell’, willing the universe to send help. She didn't need it. Signing to a modelling agency, she met an agent who put her in touch with music industry giant Tommy Mottola, who signed her to Universal Republic Records in 2009.
“The first thing Tommy said to me was, ‘How come I haven’t heard of you?’” she laughs. “And the second thing was, ‘Would you like to make a million dollars?’”
Tommy offered to both manage her and sign her, seeing ‘the reinvention of Joni Mitchell’.
Now on the same roster as Taylor Swift, Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine, she released her eponymous second album Kate Earl, and toured with Maroon 5.
Romance also flourished, resulting in her son, “My sweet child, my perfect little boy”. Scandalously, her powerful new label didn’t see it that way, shelving her for the foreseeable future and claiming they would ‘circle back around’, which, she says, they never did.
“Now it’s acceptable to have children,” she says. “There’s been a good shift. But not back then.”
She carried on, shifting to another label, Downtown Records, releasing the poignantly titled Stronger with a wish-list of LA artists. Best known is the track One Woman Army.
Things were going her own way, until she received another kick in the head – with Downtown dropping her because she refused to leave her son behind on tour.
She set out alone, now just as Earl, self-releasing her follow-up Ransom in 2014.
The following year she was chosen as one of six out of 200,000 entries, to appear on the BBC Introducing Stage at the Hyde Park festival.
She was subsequently snapped up by BMG Records, moved to north London and positioned herself as a jazz singer, rediscovering her love of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and big band swing.
Her latest single, the follow up to the bluesy-swinging Good Witch and We promised and is the fast-paced Tongue Tied, which samples that annoyingly catchy new jazz riff from Professor Bobo and Bosko Slim's Disco Bob.
You might remember it from that Homebase advert.
That change in direction was down to A&R man Jamie Nelson, who encouraged her to delve further into old school jazz, not knowing she'd been obsessed with the stuff since childhood.
“I started rattling off all the musicians I love,” she says. “I’d never thought about doing jazz. To me, it was a specialist thing that was in my blood, but I was always trying to make modern music. To go along with other people’s plans, I said ‘I can do this in my sleep; I can do that underwater; upside down’. He said, ‘Show me’.”
The results include the woozy rhumba-flavoured sing-along I Love You; cheeky 1920s Charleston thriller Baddabing Baddaboom; and ragtime, Dixieland, syncopated swing number When I Kissed You.
She has won over session musicians and technicians behind the likes of Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Adele and Paloma Faith, as well as those keepers of the jazz faith, New Orleans jazz collective Preservation Jazz Hall.
“I’m resolved to enjoy it, no matter what,” she says. “I spent years writing sad stuff. I’m done being sad. I’m tapping into something joyful. It’s way harder than writing sad songs. The challenge is to put that across in a way that isn’t cheesy.”
On her jazzy background she says: “I can’t believe I was sitting on this the entire time.
“I had this hidden jewel from my upbringing that I didn’t realise people would love as much as I do. And it’s now taken on a life of its own.
“It feels unique. I don’t know anyone else doing this exact thing. I’m so inspired, I feel so alive, like anything is possible. I don’t feel held down anymore. It took me a long time to be free and I hope I’ve earned my place by now.”
Earl supports Rick Astley at the New Theatre Oxford on Saturday. Go to atgtickets.com