It’s been a long, tough road for jazz vocalist Emma Pask to get back to the stage, doing what she loves after so many months of uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’d love to be able to say, ‘Oh, I did so many things and I wrote so many songs and I sang every day’,” she says.
“I just didn’t. I was really devastated and I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
She says she found solace in listening to heavy blues and Billie Holliday.
“I listened to a lot of music. I probably didn’t listen to the most uplifting music. I probably got heavily stuck into a bit of Billie Holiday, which I hadn’t listened to a lot of since I was 20.”
But Pask is now feeling more optimistic about the future of live performance as the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival (SIWJF) gets underway.
“As we’re coming out of it, I feel like that that spark of great creativity is definitely coming back.”
It’s one of the first major live music festivals to get back on stage since the March lockdowns and will feature 30 female acts across five COVID-safe venues across the city.
Special screens will be in place for singers, and tickets will be limited with some performances also being live-streamed.
SIWJF organiser Amy Curl says it was a mammoth effort to get the festival up and running, especially being unable to bring in talent from overseas.
“It became apparent that we would have to pull together a New South Wales based program,” she says.
“But thankfully, that wasn’t a difficult task. We’ve been investing in female musicians for better part of two decades. So we had an amazing plethora of fantastic instrumentalists that we could choose from.
“There’s a number of wonderful multicultural musicians and people that have international backgrounds and heritages … certainly the flavours are there,” she says.
Among the groups performing is the Swedish-inspired Elysian Fields which features Jenny Eriksson playing the electric viola de gamba — the only one of its kind in Australia.
“I’ve actually made myself practise every day,” she says of the past few months.
“That’s the first thing I do is practice, along with a run.
“Even though it’s sort of automatic, there’s not a lot of passion there sometimes, but I’m making sure I do it.”
Eriksson says she’s only just returned to performing in public, and the experience was an emotional one.
“I did a classical music concert just a couple of weeks ago, and it was the first live concert I’d done since COVID, and I was in tears by the end,” she says.
“An online concert doesn’t do that to you. But just to have that feedback from the audience — you could feel them breathing, you can feel them enjoying the music, soaking it in, and that just feeds back to you as a performer.”
Performers including Mahalia Barnes, all-female band Pharos and soul singer Alice Terry will perform for smaller audiences given the COVID restrictions, but Emma Pask says an intimate experience is perfect for jazz afficionados.
“If I’m working with just a pianist and myself, that really lends itself to a small, intimate crowd,” she says.
“Having said that, I do obviously miss those raging big jazz festival crowds and beautiful theatres,” Pask admits.
“But it’s one of those things that I think — hopefully — we know that this won’t last.”