On a March evening in London's West End as a bitter wind swept through emptying streets, a coterie of men and women convened at the Borderline Club in the shadow of Foyles bookshop to pay respect to a burgeoning musical talent from Sweden. Jason Holmes was there to hear Jasmine Kara's debut London performance
Jasmine Kara enters stage left and stands before her seven-piece band in London's Borderline Club and urges the crowd to get closer to the stage. And then it begins. From her slight frame, barely five feet tall, comes a contralto blues-drenched voice of considerable power and control.
It's a tight 50-minute set, the band racing through a clutch of songs from her debut long player Blues Ain't Nothing But A Good Woman Gone Bad, the highlight for the crowd of soul devotees being a faithful cover of Terry Callier's Ordinary Joe which warms the toes of the record label bosses, A&R men, photographers, Mods, camcorder-smuggling soul fans and West End punters who on a whim had fancied a blast of live music. And what they heard was, as Marshall Chess [son of Leonard Chess, co-founder of legendary Chicago-based Chess Records] attests, 'the real deal'.
Days later we meet in an Italian restaurant in Soho on a copper-skied afternoon that has yet to decide whether it wants to shower rain or sun.
'I was born Karolina Khatib-Nia in Örebro in Sweden on 23 June 1988. My English is kinda bad, you have to forgive me for that,' says Kara, faultlessly.
She sips water and looks at me with eyes of a liquid green. 'I love the people here in London,' she says, gazing into the street. 'They're so polite and are always willing to help me. If you speak to someone you don't know in Sweden, they think you're drunk!
'I had a great childhood in Sweden. I've got a small family, you know, just my parents and an older sister, but I've got lots of relatives. I live in Stockholm with my cousin and best friend who's the same age as me. My mum is Swedish and my dad is from Tehran,' she says, pre-empting my next question.
Kara first heard the blues in Stockholm's Stampen club when she was 18. She says something happened to her that night. 'It was unlike anything I'd heard,' she says. 'I felt it in my stomach, in my heart. I started off as a Swedish rapper and I still love rap and hip hop, but soul and blues became such huge things for me. It began that night.
'When I heard the blues it was like, holy...' She glances at the dictaphone. 'And that's when I knew what I wanted to do. I never thought my [record] label, Cosmos, was going to be OK with it. I asked if I could go in that direction.'
So it was the freshness of the sound that captivated her? A sadness creeps into her eyes and her smile briefly fades. She is suddenly a million miles away, remembering something, but then she composes herself. 'My first relationship, when I was a teenager, was very destructive. It ended up a matter of life and death. I was 13 and weak and I fell into it.' She pauses, laughs nervously and pours more water into her glass.
'He was very violent and everything ended up in the hospital. I took pills and almost died. But today, I'm fine with it because, and I know this might sound weird, I'm almost glad it happened, because in those two years I was with him I was not allowed to sing and enjoy my music, so when I got back to the music I realised I needed it.
'I was young and didn't know any better. Had I kept with the music, I would never have allowed myself to be so self-destructive. I rediscovered my greatest passion in life.' Is she still in contact with him? 'No, no, not any more. He just got out of jail, you know. It's a crazy story,' she laughs. 'I suppose this is why I feel I can relate to blues.' But the smile again wanes and her thoughts transport her away.
'Music helped me rebuild my confidence. I got so sick that I thought the world would be so much better off without me. Music saved me, and the whole experience taught me that if you can't love yourself, then you can't love someone else.'
Kara's gig at the Borderline served to showcase her new album Blues Ain't Nothing But A Good Woman Gone Bad, released in the UK on the Acid Jazz label. 'I have a name in Sweden as I've already set my brand, but here I needed to introduce myself. We were told to tone down our act because the audience were Mods. But in Sweden, we go crazy on stage. We were quite restricted the other night.
'I was very nervous because I was told the audience would know the songs so I had to be respectful. We didn't over-style the performance because the gig the other night was for my voice to be on show.'
I ask her if she's a good woman gone bad. 'On stage, yes,' she says and bursts out laughing. 'I'm recording my second album at the moment. It was recorded in Sweden but I'm still here in London to hopefully record some background vocals and do some co-writing.
'All the songs are live recordings on the new album. I like it when music sounds dirty, messy, raw,' she says. 'My musical heroes are Aretha Franklin and Tupac [Shakur].' She laughs at the juxtaposition. 'But when I was growing up my dad listened to everything from Bob Marley to soul to Persian folk, and my mum was a huge Beatles fan, so I have a very open ear for musical genres. I used to wish my parents were musicians because it would have been easier for me, and for them, to come to terms with what I do, but then on the flip side, I also know that music is my passion, and mine alone.
'My parents have supported me very well, but in the beginning my dad wanted me to be a lawyer, not a singer. They were fearful and begged me not to go down this path, but now they're happy.'
She speaks highly of her UK label boss Eddie Piller of Acid Jazz. 'Eddie knows so much about the industry and the music I want to play. He's a great guy and has been of invaluable help. He's very open and like a brother to me.' Piller and Marshall Chess's Tri-Sound label has afforded Kara crucial exposure in the UK and the US, which is where Kara first tested her material on a discerning public. 'I loved playing in Queens and Greenwich Village in New York when I lived there for a year. The audiences there are explosive. I used to sing at open mic spots with black singers and they gave me a lot of respect. Maybe because I'm white...or short. They just didn't expect me to make a noise like that!'
So has she a manager who guides her? She shakes her head: 'I manage myself.' Her face clouds momentarily. 'I control my destiny. What sells now, sells now, but in the future, you can never tell, so I tell my record label what I will and will not sing or do. I have to follow my heart. Every record label told me to go for Idol [the Swedish franchise of the Simon Fuller TV talent show] but I refused.'
Does she find it hard to write? 'I just love writing. I wrote 153 songs last year and I want to do my own songs from now on. I get inspiration from the world around me, from anything. We always keep the takes I do live with the band because I can never get back the feeling if I just sing into a microphone by myself in a studio.
'My big ambition is to do what I love, which is music for the rest of my life. I want to reach as many people as possible, because it's priceless when you see people at gigs enjoying themselves. It's a dream come true, but I would never sell my soul to the devil to do it. I'm still me.
'I have to follow my art, even if a strayed into a genre that perhaps lost me some fans. It's a fine balancing act.'
While waiting for her first album to be released, Kara also managed to pen two books which were issued by the publishing wing of Cosmos. 'If I hadn't been a singer, I'd have been a writer. My first book was an autobiography, my second was about a friend, and the third one...' The third one? 'Yes, the third one is about the music industry. It'll be out soon.
'I wrote because I was bored. I was waiting for my CD to come out and I had time on my hands.'
A steel is discernible in her face. 'To succeed you have to follow your gut instinct. You can do whatever you want in life, as long as you fight for it and keep going. There are no end to the possibilities, so you have to go for it, for what you want.
'People have asked me how I live because I don't have a regular job, and I honestly think I get by because I don't worry about things. I'm too busy to worry! I write down my goals and aim for them, I push myself, but not too hard. Though I can be impatient with how things are progressing.
'Shit always happens, but my passion has taken me this far, and it will take me further. I've had enough trouble in my life, I don't need anymore.'
Does making good music depend on where she lives? 'Perhaps,' she says. 'I think a move to London would help me creatively. I made my name in Sweden and am very grateful for my fan base there, but sometimes I do feel like an outsider there, but in a good way, because now as an older woman I don't care about fitting in like I did as a young girl. Now I just have to be me.
'I love blues and soul but I want to explore other musical styles. The next album is me with the same band, but there are some Persian influences in there too. I like old Persian music, folk music you could say. I love my father's country of birth, Iran. The people are so genuine and down-to-earth.'
Since Kara works in an industry that has laid low frailer artists than she, I ask if she's got her head screwed on. She looks at me quizzically, so I clarify. Is she sensible? 'What is sensible?' she replies. And this time I laugh.
'I think a lot, and I dream a lot,' she says, 'but I don't like sleeping because life is for living! In terms of my career, it's either everything or nothing. I have a regular life also, and only sometimes, back in Sweden, I feel apart from other people because my home town is full of girls who never explored life. People think I'm too old to forge a career, but for me, age is just a number.
She looks out onto Old Compton Street and for a few moments watches the faces. 'Nothing will make me stop because I never get bored of music,' she says at last.
'The secret of life is positivity. From that you can build your own life. It's a cliché, I know, but it's true.'
And with the vast market that is the US yet to be tapped, and a set of showcase gigs in Tokyo for June lined up in conjunction with summer dates in Italy and Norway, Kara stands on the cusp of stardom. The big time beckons.
© Jason Holmes, April 2012
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