The sultry voice of young Sara Vondrášková there in the song Lay Down, which has launched her from the cafes and clubs of Prague to the silver screen, as the title song for the new Czech film noir Ve Stínu. The jazz student’s bewitching contralto and modern compositional sensibility is giving her some well earned prominence in the next generation of singer/songwriter/composers. Our guest in this edition of One on One, Sara Vondrášková tells us first of all how she’s begun to move away from her home ground in jazz.
“The reason I went to the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory was because I wanted to make jazz music, I really like jazz. But in studying there I also realised that that wasn’t what I really wanted to do, because it means always singing the jazz standards and songs that somebody else wrote. I liked it, but it didn’t feel like the right thing for me. So during the three years I was there I started trying to compose my own songs, just playing the piano and thinking songs up. And it was the best way for me to express myself – through my own songs and lyrics.”
But still, the music I’ve heard is still very ‘jazzy’. How does a young person become interested in the very sophisticated genre of jazz?
“I just started listening to it as it came to me through Diana Krall – she was the first jazz singer I listened to, and I liked that the most. I listened to rock music and folk also, but jazz, when I was 19, was the best thing I knew. So I listened to it more and more, and then I found other artists and composers. But through the years I found my own way. Now I listen more to female folk, or women who write their songs on the guitar or piano. I still listen to jazz, but not as much as in the past.”
What specific artists were you and your classmates in the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory most interested in, or influenced by?
“Well, for me, it was Diana Krall and Billie Holiday. For me it was singers, but I was in a class with all of the musicians. Today I saw some posters of Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. So the legends of jazz probably. But what we also did in school was listen to solos by, for example, Miles Davis, and we wrote them in notes, and were trying to learn how they thought and why they played the note they played in the time and place they played it. So maybe that was an influence: trying to understand how the musicians were thinking when they composed or played.”
“Well in jazz – or maybe this is my idea of it – maybe it shouldn’t be called jazz anymore. Because jazz is something that was, in the period when it came about. That was jazz. But now it’s something different, jazz is somewhere else, it’s evolved. So now I think it’s not jazz anymore. I like Avishai Cohen or Medeski Martin & Wood, but they are something else, and that’s good. It’s good that jazz musicians work more with electronic music, for example. But pure jazz I think is a thing of the past now.”
Well the name that you’ve given to your own style of music, your project, is Never Sol; how did that name come about?
“I don’t know, I was thinking of a name, and ‘sol’ kept coming up in all of the words I thought of. I don’t know why. It’s Spanish for ‘sun’. And then I put the ‘never’ before it and that just felt right. But it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s abstract. It’s more a kind of feeling that the name should give that should correspond to the music I compose, it should have the same energy.”
An atmospheric name for what is very atmospheric music.
You’ve been playing basically all your life, you started playing piano when you were…
“When I was little. Like 8. First I played the piano and through that I got to singing, which brought me to the main thing, studying at conservatory from the age of 15. Singing, but also playing the piano the whole time.”
“Sometimes I call it ‘theory of culture’, too. It’s interdisciplinary, everything from philosophy, sociology, psychology, learning about art. And my feeling of what you should get from it is a sense of why life, and everything around you, why it’s happening as it is. It’s hard to know that, probably nobody can know it. But it’s a way to find out why things work the way they work. And for me in particular, I feel like I’ve started thinking differently since the time I started studying culturology. And it helps me in music, to read different books and get different ideas about why life is how it is, and to think in a different way.”
You’ve been playing in Café V lese for a while now and you have your fans in and around Prague. Now though you’ve been thrust into the national spotlight with the title song for the new, rather big-budget detective film ‘Ve Stínu’. How did that come about?
“That came about through Jan Muchow [of Ecstasy of St. Theresa, among other things]. We started working on my songs a year ago, and we did a song for the film and the director, David Ondříček liked it.”
But was it purpose made for the film, or chosen for the film?
“Well the melody existed on the piano, but the whole arrangement and atmosphere was made for the film. Before that I just played it on the piano, and it didn’t have the mood it has now.”
I should also say that this is the film that has been chosen to represent the Czech Republic in the Ocar selection, so many English speakers will be hearing it. And you sing in English. I know you lived in America when you were a girl, but what’s the connection with music and English, for you?
“It maybe sounds weird, since I’m Czech, but for me it’s maybe natural, it’s because I am always listening to songs in English, so maybe the phrases just come out of my mouth really naturally. I just play, and sometimes not even words might come out, but when I listen to it I hear English words and then write the lyrics. Maybe I’d like to do something in Czech in the future, but it’s very hard for me. Because the Czech language is… it just doesn’t come out so easily. And I think it’s very hard to write something intelligent or something that just makes sense in Czech. For me it’s much harder, whereas it feels natural in English.”
Now you’re putting together the songs for your first, debut album. What can we expect from it?
“Well, all the songs are really… not very happy maybe [laughs]. When we play, people always say it’s so dark. I don’t feel it to be dark. When I compose I just try to find the harmony that suits the mood I’m in. And I always come up with songs when I’m not so happy, or when I’m thinking about something that makes me contemplate some issue. So the lyrics are about relationships and things I think about. For me the lyrics are very, very important, and the music just comes when I feel it’s right, I just add the chords and the melody and the songs come out like that. Some are like three years old already, some I’ve just composed now, some aren’t even composed yet. But I hope it will be, like, ‘me’. All the songs come from my feelings, so I hope it will make a compact whole.”
And ‘Lay Down’, does it have some personal significance for you?
“Yes. It is actually one of the oldest things I composed, one of the first, and it’s very important for me, maybe because people like it. When I was playing in Café V lese, I had just started and didn’t know if my songs were any good or if people would even want to listen to it. So when people come and say it’s nice and that they like it, it’s a really important sign for me to go on and to compose, and to work on it more; it makes it feel like the right thing to do.”