Praise You: A Nina Simone Tribute Mix by Zara McFarlane

Hailed as the “High Priestess of Soul”, there are few more iconic and inspirational voices in 20th century American music than Nina Simone. Unwilling to be catalogued by genre, the singer, pianist and activist’s discography explored classical, R&B, soul, jazz, folk and hymns, at times used as a vehicle to examine the civil rights movement and the struggles of African Americans.

Nina’s influence is still prevalent today, with many singers and artists continuing to be inspired by her versatility and distinctive vocal style. One such singer is jazz vocalist and Brownswood regular Zara McFarlane. Beyond Nina’s ability to transcend a myriad of genres, it’s the simplicity and morality of her lyricism that Zara seeks to emulate through her own music, particularly on her latest album for Brownswood, Songs of an Unknown Tongue.

Following the release of the LP, which marks her fourth long player for the label, Zara shares the impact Nina has had on her as a singer alongside a mix that showcases the wide breadth of her discography.

Songs of an Unknown Tongue is out now via Brownswood Recordings.

Why does Nina Simone mean so much to you?

Discovering Nina Simone’s music in my teens opened up my ears to a depth of emotion and artistry that was unrivalled to me at that time and still is today. She is one of the few artists who’s music I have listened to in various stages of my life and it feels very present and relevant to the situation I am in at the time. It doesn’t transport me back to a particular era or memory but continues to grow with me.

What makes a Nina Simone record so unique?

The mood, the voice, the tone, the masterful emotive delivery. A great interpreter of lyrics; they always sound like she could have written the song even though much of her extensive catalogue are reworks of other songwriters. Although her own songwriting and improvisations on piano are so captivating.

When did you first hear Nina Simone’s music and what impact did it have on you?

I first heard Nina Simone’s music in a movie. The song was “Wild is the Wind” and I remember going to record stores to find out who it was. The piece was so moving and stayed with me that I had to seek it out.

What’s your favourite Nina Simone track and why?

My fav Nina Simone track is…. Ooooh there are so many! For today I would have to say the instrumental “African Mailman”. It takes you on a percussive journey across many different vibes/styles classical, jazz, latin, afro etc.

How did you approach this mix? What did you want it to say about Nina Simone’s music?

I wanted to show a breadth of her styles, jazz, soul, ballads, folk, and also show how other people have interpreted her music and made it their own as she herself has done throughout her career.

How has Nina Simon impacted you as a singer/songwriter?

Some of her original songs are almost folk-like and simplistic with moralistic lyrics and I often incorporate this style and influence in my song writing, particularly on my most recent album Songs of An Unknown Tongue.

What would you say is Nina Simone biggest legacy on music?

I think it would be her versatility and distinctive piano and vocal style. Her musical imprint has influenced so many singers of my generation. She seemed to be such a vibrant character and spirit with a demeanour and poignant voice that will forever be remembered.

Songs of an Unknown Tongue is out now via Brownswood Recordings.

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