Incendiary UK soul and blues singer Izo Fitzroy tells Music Republic Magazine editor Simon Redley about being held up at gun point, while working on the songs for her just-released stunning debut album “Skyline”.
A “musical sabbatical” to New Orleans to write her debut album could have ended in tragedy for London singer-songwriter Izo Fitzroy, when she and her band were held up at gun point and robbed of their cash as they left a venue after a performance.
Artist and vocal coach Izo froze with fear and was “absolutely terrified”, but her American band mates told her to stay calm and just hand over the $40 in her purse. Telling her afterwards this was not the first time this had happened to any of them!
The two young robbers, one armed with a gun, fled the scene with everyone’s dollars. End of drama. Izo wondering if she had actually stumbled on to a US movie set by mistake. But this was as real as it gets. “I was in the street saying goodbye to the guys in the band and two quite young kids in their teens pulled out a gun, and we had to hand over what we had in our pockets. I am actually making it sound more casual than it was; I was absolutely terrified, but for everyone else, it had happened to them plenty of times. They told me what to do. I handed over $40.
“One of the kids was pushing one of the guys around, while the other stood with the gun, and the other grabbed the cash. I was thinking; what am I supposed to do in this situation? I stopped breathing for a second, and then another thought was, ‘Oh my God, I feel like I am in a film. This is what happens in the movies’. That was part of the shock that went through my head”.
Apart from that horrific episode, Izo spent a total of eight delightful months in the Crescent City, soaking up the musical history and singing with as many bands and musicians as she could. While out there, Izo joined the ‘St Joan of Arc’ gospel choir and got to experience traditional Southern gospel music. She hooked up with the Grammy-winning Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen too.
She had two stints living there; the first for three months before a return to the UK begin to record her album, and then a dash back across the pond to stay for another five months this time, and to tour the bars and clubs of the Deep South with her US band.
When I first heard her voice on this stunning album, it had nearly as much impact as I suspect the guy with the gun did, when he told her to hand over her dosh, back in that street in e Big Easy. She’s got some pipes on her, this gal.
Raw soul power
Raw soul power – a BIG voice. She’s been told that since she started singing at 19-years-old while at University in Glasgow and joining a gospel choir, the sole female in a tenor section with all males. As she said, with tongue firmly in cheek, “Yes, I was a tenor lady.” Say it out loud and think of the TV adverts and you’ll get it!
Izo has since been singing as part of the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir in London. She created her own choir in 2013; the Great Sea Gospel Choir. Her first public performance was with the choir at a jazz club in London. But she began her song writing craft with comedy songs; dark stuff about “the feeders” (those who get off on feeding already overly obese people) inspired by a TV documentary, and a ditty about “savage pensioners.” She was spotted on a social media site and invited to do her first solo gig in a bar in Glasgow. Singing her own comedy songs and playing piano.
She was so nervous, she threw up twice before going on stage. The thoughts of “never again,” soon dissipated when she heard loud applause and shouts for more. She was a hit. But for a couple of years yet, it was still safety in numbers and she stayed in her comfort zone as part of a gospel choir, before writing non-comedy stuff and going out on her own to perform her songs. But when she did, she always got the same “wow” reaction; ‘what a big voice you have’. She found it all bizarre, because she didn’t really know how good she actually was, and how fabulous that vocal weapon of hers is.
Izo has since built up a solid career as a top vocal and dialect coach to the West End theatre world and for other artists. She also does voice overs for commercials. Izo has been vocal coach to the cast of the hit West End musical Matilda, for the last 18 months.
Back in 2012, she was in a hip hop group and they dropped a decent single with her voice all over it, and she starred in the video. The Yesmen was the group and the song was “Waiting For The Stars.” Other than that one single, this album “Skyline” is her only other recording release. She is now 31-years-old.
The new album blew me away, literally, and I gave it a rave five-star review – the first to review it in fact. I was intrigued to speak to Izo too, and find out about this ‘best kept secret’. So ‘her people spoke to my people’….and here we are. I am speaking to Izo at her Hammersmith home on the dog and bone, one sunny lunchtime.
First question, with such a big voice, a huge talent and being a female singer, are you a Diva? “Not too much of a Diva. I always make sure my band are on time; I’m pretty strict at organising the people in my set up, but…not at all, I’m pretty laid back.
“But, I am very critical and pick up on the smallest nuances I am not happy about. That’s what made the recording process take much longer for poor Simon, the producer.” That’s Simon Ward, aka DJ, artist and producer Dr Rubberfunk, who lovingly produced the album and co-wrote 10 of the dozen songs with Izo. It took about six months to write, and up to two years to record, because of her jaunt to New Orleans for eight months. She penned the cuts “Shadowlands” and “Whisper In A Hurricane”, by herself.
The topics in her songs here cover inequality, depression, mental health and death. She draws from her personal experiences of loss, the poverty in the Deep South of U.S.A and working for a mental health charity. Skyline is a call to arms, an album of empowerment. The album looks specifically at overcoming obstacles and seeking out the positive in dark times. We could all do with some of that in these uncertain times, methinks.
So, what does the album say about Izo? “Good question. What I’d like this album to say about me as an artist, is to show that I like writing about quite deep and quite dark topics, I guess. But using gospel to bring them into a positive light, using a lot of uplifting R&B to make them a bit more positive. As a person? That I have a positive outlook on life, essentially. Looking at negative aspects of my life or people around me, I have always managed to find a positive spin through those negative times”.
And there’s been a fair few “negative times” for Izo. She has suffered from serious depression triggered by the suicide of a close family friend. She’s been through a tough break up in a relationship too. But she wants the songs to stand as a beacon of hope to anyone else going through stressful times. “This album was written when I was going through depression myself, so a lot of the tracks draw on quite a depressive, sad, raw part of myself which I definitely bring in to my own performances.
“Also, the death of a loved one came into the title track, ‘Skyline’, around my own grief of dealing with the death of a personal friend. He took his own life while I was in New Orleans. So, I did put a lot of myself and a lot of the experiences I dealt with in New Orleans into the record. I tried to keep that emotional connection when I performed.”
She suffered from depression for up to three years, at first undiagnosed. “Unknown to me at the time. I was feeling low, and managed to pour all of that emotion into the songs. Which is why the overall feeling is, that I am dealing with quite dark, negative issues. Eventually now, I am feeling a lot better, finding that positive outlook.
“I was a bit numb to emotion. Trying to crawl my way out of it was where the song writing came in. Song writing is a therapy. My way of understanding what I was going through by writing it down and using music, singing and the lyrics. Working my way away from the depression through these songs”. The suicide of her friend was the sad inspiration for the title track, trying to understand what he was going through and finding a more positive way out of that rather than suicide.
Some would file this album under blues. To some she may be Americana. For me, this is a soul album and Izo Fitzroy is most definitely a soul artist. What say you Ms Fitzroy? “I think it is soul and I think it’s blues. I grew up on The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin… A lot of these rock bands filtered down to me through my older siblings. So, I started thinking about performance with that real ballsy gravel to my voice. There’s a bit of that blues and rock and roll side to it, but deep down, inherently soul; that’s me”.
There’s a definite ‘less is more’ production value here. “Absolutely. Yes. I spoke about that with Simon, Dr Rubberfunk. To have things really stripped back, influenced by listening to a lot of old jazz records, such as David Axelrod records. “Finding out what we both loved about these records; how stripped back it all was. Bill Withers in particular. How it is all about the song writing, all about the groove. Staying in the pocket and finding that groove with each song is what we both love about all the tracks”.
Yes indeed…the emphasis across this album is on the song and the vocal. It doesn’t actually sound ‘produced’, as it is all so natural and chilled out. Intimate. It is all about the song and the singer. A life lived, in that voice, which Izo knows only too well is not just a voice, but an instrument. “The albums I most enjoy listening to are the ones that are stripped back. You can hear the nuances of the singer’s voice, and it is the story telling; that for me is what makes a good record.
“You can hear what the singer is trying to tell you. Maybe it is because of my background as a voice coach; but I do find with a lot of records these days, you can’t understand what the words are. No one’s articulating. I know that sounds a bit wanky, but you need to be able to understand what these words are that they’ve written”. Amen to that.
How did the eight month stay in New Orleans in 2014 come about? “I had always wanted to go there. I called it my musical sabbatical. Took myself over there for three months, and I started writing the album. I was soaking up all the incredible music and came back after three months to start recording with Simon, in South London. I went back to New Orleans for five months, and touring the Deep South with a band and playing with The Monster Gentleman (Jon Cleary’s famed band). After the first trip, I really started getting to know all the musicians and to get to play with them. It was an incredible experience”.
Based on a serious relationship breaking down and managing to “claw its way out of the bad times and become stronger”, she wrote “Hope You Can Wait”. “That came out of my time in New Orleans, then coming back to England and trying to find a happier version of myself. Because I did not know anyone in New Orleans when I got there, it was very much a case of finding out who I was as an artist in a very well respected music scene. I felt that was an obstacle I had to overcome”. The album is pretty much testimony to a fighter, a survivor and a beacon in the darkness to others who need hope, who may be wallowing in that dark pit and need a guiding light.
“This was primarily my hope for the songs. Wanting to write songs that dealt with very depressing topics, but really do try to lift you out of them. Trying to find songs about “here I come,” which was me feeling I was back on top and being able to deal with the world and not let things get you down. I want my songs to lift people out of those dark times, absolutely”.
The recent album launch in London was sold out. Izo tours Germany and France in March and UK dates in May, with her Gospel choir. Then summer festivals before a return to the studio to start work on “that difficult second album.” She is signed to Brighton-based funk and soul label Jalapeno Records, with label mates including Smoove and Turrell and Ephemerals.
Couldn’t resist, but I knew the answer before I asked the question to close our chat; with such an amazing voice that can stop traffic, would she ever consider appearing on The X Factor or The Voice? “No way. 100% not. It is horrible. I have friends who have done it. Horrible corporate machine. Poor singers get churned out and think they are going to be the next big thing, and they are dropped by the wayside five minutes later. That is not for me”. Yeah, she’s already been robbed once! Final question; sum up Izo Fitzroy the artist and singer in one word? “Ballsy. Are you allowed to put that in your article?” Fuck, yeah….
So, if Rudimental, Clean Bandit or the likes of David Guetta or Calvin Harris are ever hungry for a monster hit and looking for THE singer to front their next single, Izo Fitzroy would frigging smash it. Finder’s Fee c/o Music Republic Magazine please.
By Simon Redley
- Izo Fitzroy’s debut album, “Skyline,” is released on 24th February by Jalapeno Records