Some musicians aspire to awards. Many wish to walk out on the world’s biggest stages. Others hope to headline festivals one day. For recording debutante Isobel Gathercole, success simply looks like relevance beyond her youthful years. “What often happens [with female vocalists] is you get work around being glamorous, then it all dries up and disappears,” she told me on the phone from London. It’s a sad indictment of an entertainment industry which still values women in proportion to their perceived physical beauty.
But Isobel sees more cause for hope within the jazz world than in others. “There are older singers whose stories I admire—Sara Dowling, Clare Teal, Anita Wardell—singers who really made their mark on the industry and have a career which is really great to this day,” she said. “They’ve transcended that limitation—they have something more than a pretty face and a nice voice. I’d like to be considered amongst that group, one day. So that’s the dream: longevity. To have enough interest and audience to keep doing this—preferably in clubs and theaters, not just bars and hotels.”
It’s jarring to hear Isobel worrying about her later years, so early in her career. She can’t yet be 30—one never asks, of course—and has released just one album to date, despite gigging on the circuit since 2014. But in eight short years she has already earned her stripes, having sung on prestigious London stages including Vortex Jazz Club and Ronnie Scott’s. It all began at home, as evidenced by some potentially cringeworthy recordings. “My parents would put on loads of music in the house,” said Isobel. “There’s audio of me making up songs on top of ‘I Got Rhythm,’ which my parents get out whenever I’m introducing them to someone new.”
She added: “We always had Chet Baker on at dinner, but we also listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder and Motown stuff. My dad is a big Prince fan as well.” The sounds of the Swing Era also became familiar to Isobel, “particularly those Capitol Records albums—all the Ella Sings… ones,” she said. “So from an early age I was introduced to those great jazz singers like Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.” Blossom Dearie was a big influence on her vocal style as well, which is obvious when you hear debut album Day Dream (reviewed in a recent edition of TST).
Her dad, Andy Gathercole, has been a professional trumpeter for three decades. “I would sit in when he was practicing,” said Isobel. “When I was 11 I started taking proper singing lessons with [Shakatak vocalist and reeds player] Jacui Hicks. But I didn’t think about it too hard until I was about 20 when I thought, ‘I could do this for a living.’” Until that point, Isobel had been more interested in a career as an actor. She did a foundation degree at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), but this ambition began and ended with an appearance in 2014 short film The Medicine Man, according to IMDB.
While pursuing a career on screen, Isobel had also been gigging with her dad around her hometown of Harrow. “My first gigs were at a little cafe called Daisies in the Park,” she told me. “We did duo gigs there a couple of times a month, when I was about 16—it was better paid than working at the supermarket.” With both parents working as musicians, there was little risk of them opposing her acting ambitions. But acting wasn’t all it cracked up to be. “I realized that you’re waiting for the phone to ring all the time,” said Isobel. “If you’re a musician, you can go and make stuff happen in a way you can’t as an actor—and I found I enjoyed the company of musicians more than I did that of actors, anyway.”
After LAMDA, with her heart now set on becoming a professional singer, Isobel joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO, pronounced nye-joe). Billing itself as “the future of jazz,” this organization trains musicians aged up to 18 for life as a pro performer or a fulfilled amateur. “I had a lot of fun with them,” said Isobel. “You get booked for gigs, you go up and down the country doing workshops. It felt like a lot of young people who all wanted the same thing—they were hungry for the work.” At that time, in the early 2010s, it wasn’t a very diverse group, she added. Judging by their website—and Isobel’s recent contact with them—that seems to be changing.
“There were three women in total, and all but one of the members were white,” said Isobel of her time there. “Since then it’s become a more varied group—I’ve done some teaching with their vocal workshops and there are far more girls and people of color involved, which is a step in the right direction for sure. Because this is where you should be fostering the talents of people from all over.” They’re still a privileged bunch, however. “I’d say it’s still quite a well-to-do group, Isobel added. “It’s difficult to get instrumental tuition in schools if you can’t pay—but it’s good to see it’s not such a boys’ club any more. It used to be quite laddish, when I was there.”
NYJO wasn’t as bad as the young singer had been made to fear, however. “I did hear stories before going to sing with the main band that they would try to make me cry,” she said. “And that’s veiled sexism, of course. But I went in well prepared and have got quite a thick skin—or an absurd level of confidence—to bypass a fair amount of it.” Undervaluing women isn’t the preserve of any one jazz organization, Isobel hastened to add. “I don’t think you could speak to a woman in any industry who hasn’t had the odd thing here and there,” she said. “It’s just a disappointing fact of being female. But things are moving in the right direction. I think my mum probably had a much rougher time than I did.”
Later Isobel enrolled at City, University of London. She then transferred to Guildhall School of Music and Drama (known as Guildhall), where her parents had met. Like any teenager, Isobel was keen to forge her own path and wary of following in their footsteps. “I felt very unoriginal when I eventually went there,” she admitted. “But these things happen for a reason. It was the best option for me, in the end—even if it wasn’t an original thought.”
In 2019, with a degree from Guildhall, Isobel found steady work as a vocal coach as well as plenty of gigs around London—the nexus of Britain’s jazz scene. (While the rest of the UK has an awful lot going for it—something I’m obliged to point out, as a proud Northerner—London is really the place to be for live jazz.) She now fronts her own band, which plays as a trio to a quintet. Guitarist Harry Sankey and bassist Harry Evans complete the core membership. “If I’m doing my stuff I put on my quartet,” said Isobel. “It’s a more traditional set up and it’s nice to have drums. If it’s a corporate thing I tend to do a trio because they want it to be cheaper.”
For now, Isobel’s only release is Day Dream: a collaboration with her dad and his long-time friend, the award-winning Scottish composer and bandleader Colin Skinner (my chat with whom should appear in print soon). “I moved back home after Guildhall, thinking it would be a great time to set myself up,” she said. “But then of course we went into lockdown and we had no income—my dad was also fully out of work. The project became a bit of a lifesafer, in terms of keeping our minds occupied.”
Recorded remotely and multi-tracked, the album involved relatively few musicians—Andy provided half of the horn section. “It just got bigger and bigger,” said Isobel. “The whole album is kind of a love letter to the big bands of the 1950s and 1960s: the more commercial side of large ensemble playing.” She added: “Being commercial is often seen as bad. But there’s a reason people like those things—because they’re good. You just don’t get live big bands on TV any more because everything is smaller scale or electronic. There’s just no replacement for a living, breathing band.”
Replicating that sound with a handful of players and clever editing was tricky. “It took a really long time to get it to sound right,” Isobel admitted. “Dad plays all the trumpets on the album and spent ages doing his tracking. He would find he had played things too similarly and they interacted in a really weird way. We ended up spending money to get a sound engineer to help us with that, in the end. Will Purton showed us all we were doing wrong, did it ten times faster and ten times better.”
The singer says there’s a quartet album in the works. “At the moment I’m building a tribute-to-MGM thing,” she revealed. “There are a lot of brilliant singers from that time and they’re a lot of songs I’d play on gigs anyway. So that’s probably where the album will go—a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and that sort of thing.” With solid gold writing talent like that and Isobel’s delightfully sweet vocals, it’s definitely one to keep an ear out for. Hopefully it will be the second of many, over a career as long and illustrious as those of her idols.
Visit Isobel Gathercole online at www.isobelgathercole.com. Her debut CD, Day Dream, is available through isobelgathercole.bandcamp.com.