On her upcoming mini-tour across the UK, Dundee jazz singer Alison Burns is loving the ’20s. That is, the 1920s.
Counting Judy Garland and Peggy Lee as main influences and known the world over for her nostalgic, retro sound, former Penny Dainties member Alison has always kept one foot in the 20th Century. So where better to start after a year of lockdown than the decade which ended the last major pandemic and kicked off a major cultural revolution?
Alison sat down (a rare event, I come to learn) with us ahead of her anticipated Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig on July 20, to catch up about performances, pigs and pandemic projects galore.
“It’s going to be quite emotional, getting out on stage again, I think,” she admits. “I feel like something’s tried to take away a slice of me, tried to get at the essence of me.”
After a year of lockdown, it’s easy to see why. A prolific professional singer and vocal retreat facilitator, Alison is usually on the move, touring America, Australia, Japan and Europe along with her UK circuit every couple of years.
But it’s clear she doesn’t believe in idle hands (or vocal cords). A singer is still a singer, it seems, even without a stage.
“The joy of singing,” she explains, “is that during lockdown I’ve still been able to sing.
“I sing in the house, and in the garden. I sing to the sheep in the field, and to the cattle – because I love animals. And because singing is true to me, I’ve still been able to do it.
“Performing is a massive part of it, but I’ve got a mini tour coming up. So it’s braw!”
Raring to roar
Braw, indeed. Alison’s upcoming string of dates with her long-time performance partner and father-in-law Martin Taylor includes local spots like The Wee Bear Cafe in Lintrathen, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and Perth Concert Hall. And it’s clear that despite being keen to get back on stage, the pair’s first priority is safety.
“Mostly, we’ll be indoors, facing outside, but the audience will all be outdoors, so it’s very secure,” Alison explains.
“It’s great to just be able to go out the front door, get in the car and drive to the gig. The gigs I do with Martin are very portable – it’s just voice and guitar, it’s the essence of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, which is a classic combo. And we’re also family, so we can have a family bubble with it, and take it on the road dead safely.
“We just want to put the fun back into things. Even though we still have to be super, super careful, we want people to start living their lives and enjoying music again in that safe environment.”
After a year of struggle for folk around the globe, Alison hopes her new “roaring ’20s”-inspired setlist can inject some optimism into her audience’s lives.
“The theme of the dates we’re doing is the songs of the Roaring ’20s. They’re not forgotten – a wee bit dusty maybe! After the Spanish flu, the last pandemic in the 1920s, there was a massive burst of creativity. And we’re kind of seeing that now.
“So we’re going to put our own slant on the songs and hopefully people enjoy them. There’s a lot of very upbeat songs as well – and when you listen to the lyrics, some of them are really quite progressive.”
Pigs and Post-Its
One such lyric for animal activist Alison came from Ruth Etting’s 1929 hit, Button Up Your Overcoat.
“I’m a great animal lover,” explains Alison, “So I don’t eat meat and I don’t buy any animal products. And I found a song from the 1920s which said ‘lay off meat’. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to sing this, it’s part of me!'”
Putting her money where her mouth was, Alison became a patron for Wales-based animal sanctuary Beneath The Wood over lockdown.
“The sanctuary reached out to me,” says Alison. “They had just done this massive rescue – the biggest reversal of an animal destruction order. Sasha Bennet, the woman in charge, saved 53 pigs, doomed to be slaughtered. And some of them were pregnant, so 53 became 91 almost overnight. I thought, ‘I’ve got to support that!’
“So I became a patron of the charity, which I’m dead proud of. They’re trying to get ‘pigoneers’, people to help them feed these pigs, and it’s a huge task. So I’ve been making these little videos of the pigs and putting my voice to them, and no one knows it’s me. It’s had loads of hits!”
Between being a professional singer, workshop facilitator, voice actor, theatre performer, practicing solicitor, record label owner and an animal activist, you’d be forgiven for thinking Alison might have taken lockdown as a breather from the bustle of everyday life. But it’s obvious she loves learning almost as much as she loves singing, with a new hobby under her belt – writing!
“Words are amazing. I love words,” she gushes. “During lockdown I’ve been studying screenwriting, and I’d like to give that a go! I’ve got a few ideas I’m working on – but gosh, it’s huge.
“I’ve got my pinboard and my Post-It pads and so on. Because I didn’t want to be idle. And I love how words move people.”
‘There’s a part of me that’s fearless’
To anyone meeting her now, Alison is a force to be reckoned with. And although she’s been singing since she sat in the schoolroom, she had to make a few bold moves to get to where she is today.
“I actually started off as an engineer,” she explains. “I know, it’s bonkers! But the way engineering was changing, I could see the writing on the wall. Everything was becoming automated. So I went to work as a draughtswoman, because I’d done all my technical qualifications.
“And at the same time as doing that, I was still singing and doing gigs, and I also did community drama. It was a Dundee theatre group called The Cat’s Oot The Bag – brilliant name!”
“At that time,” she explains, “the repertory theatres had maybe two Equity cards to give away per year, and you had to have an Equity card and be part of the actors’ union to perform. And the Rep had already given away their quota.
“But Alan said the job was there for me if I could get my Equity card. I looked back at everything I’d done – I had done loads of radio jingles, TV, adverts, all with my voice. So I wrote to Equity. And I got my card straight away! So that was it!”
Harking back to one of her favourite-ever films and huge influences, The Wizard of Oz, Alison muses: “Sometimes there’s a fork in the Yellow Brick Road. You’ve got to take the right fork. And I thought ‘if I turn this down, I’m going to regret this for the rest of my puff!’.
“And I had all the trappings, you know? I had the mortgage, the car… but I thought, ‘I can’t say no. This is a yes moment’. So I said yes.”
Ultimately, Alison puts her success down to the fact she’s always stayed true to her sound, deeming herself “a retro girl in the digital age”.
“I’ve never wanted to be famous,” she laughs. “That’s never been in my equation. I just love singing for the joy of it.
“It’s my job, it’s what I do, it’s a huge part of me and I’ll never give it up. I’d have to die first.”
Tickets for Alison’s upcoming gigs and more information can be found on her website.