Home! New York! Despite driving rain, the 55 Bar was absolutely packed for both sets last night. And, as well as our beloved regulars, there were tons of new people there…. I felt utterly redeemed after California. Fire. Rain. Lonely days that you think will never end. Nothing stops New York-uhs, especially 55-uhs.!

THIS IS A PICTURE I TOOK OF NEW YORK IN THE RAIN A FEW WEEKS BACK. NOTE PEOPLE WALKING ABOUT IN IT.

So are just some of the reasons we love the 55:

1. It is an amazing place to work out new stuff and experiment in a no-pressure environment in front of a loving, receptive audience! Last night I threw all this stuff at Jason and Victor that we had never done before, Round Midnight, Just One of Those Things and other [gasp!] STANDARDS — which I almost never do but have, lately, rediscovered after a long long rest — and they did an great job, unfettered by the spectre of people sitting with arms and legs crossed miming “show me!”

2. You never know who will be in the audience. The President of East Timor came one night — admittedly he was brought by a friend, but it was very exciting and everyone wanted to know who was there who could possibly need the (extremely OBVIOUS) bodyguard who was at the bar looking like one of the baddies in the Matrix (too muscular for his suit with a curly wire protruding from behind his ear, like Agent Smith). THIS IS A PICTURE OF AGENT SMITH. Not at the 55 Bar.

3. We always sell CDs — although last night, RIGHT IN FRONT OF someone who had emailed me in advance to ask me to save my one remaining copy of Nights of Key Largo (Venus), I sold it to a young woman who wanted to buy the CD with “the sex song” on it (AKA’The Island’) because I thought he wasn’t coming. Yikes! Luckily, my latest shipment has arrived from Japan and is ready to pick up. To hear/buy any of my CDs check this link Tessa’s Music

4. The bar staff — led by their fearless leader, Tara — serve up magical potions with diverse names like “beer” and “wine” and “cocktail” but which all have the same marvelous effect of making you feel kind of warm and squiffy inside!

5. I’ve been playing there for more than six years every month, since the late and great Queva (that’s a picture of us hugging) gave me my first gig there in May 2003

and turned it into a “home” gig for me. Other “regulars”  include jazz giants Chris Potter and Mike Stern, and Motema (who put out my latest CD Obsession) label-mate, the amazing singer-songwriter KJ Denhert.  Queva once surprised me with a huge birthday cake and free champagne for everyone on a gig I did near my birthday, and then she did it again to celebrate my third anniversary of playing there.

6. Everybody knows your name! It’s like Cheers with good music. They even know my mum! (Pictured with me below — at the bar … hic!)

So I am back from LA which was on fire (literally!) and hot! Not in a good way. I have never been so hot in LA. But I did get to play with the amazing Hamilton Price (bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums) and Jason, of course. And I got to add names to my mailing list and was informed by some Japanese people there that I am “big in Japan” (like Tom Waits said!) because of my album Nights of Key Largo, and Hajime Sato from Eastwind Import even turned up with a VINYL copy of that album for me to sign! If you are an audiophile and like the idea of having your own vinyl copy of my CD — among many others to choose from, check out www.eastwindimport.com. And I got a lovely review from Don Heckman which appeared in his wonderful International Review of Music. And I stayed with my California mum. But please, California, try not to burst into flames next time I come!

13eee-catalina
My name in neon lights, and it’s not even Broadway.
669c9-wnightsofkeylargo
Me and Hajimi.
Hamilton Price, Joe LaBarbera and Jason Ennis
Hamilton Price, Joe LaBarbera and Jason Ennis

My singer friend Kate Geller suggested I write a blog for other singers on how to take care of your voice on the road. So … here are my travel tips for singers, for voice/health AND general tips – which actually apply to all frequent fliers. Feel free to add tips and comments.

PACKING
1. I never go anywhere without my ‘travel scarf’. This is a huge wool scarf which doubles as an extra blanket on the plane, since the doll-sized plane-issue ones generally don’t cut it. Or sometimes I roll it up and use it as a back support or a second-rate but better-than-nothing neck pillow (see item 11).

SCARF/BLANKET/NECK PILLOW/GLAMOROUS SHAWL, BACKSTAGE WITH TESSA AND DANIEL KRAMER

2. Unless you are appearing in the same place more than twice, don’t take more than two — okay, three — outfits. And no more than two pairs of shoes and earrings/accessories. You think you will but you won’t use more than this, and the more you take, the more time you have to faff about in the hotel room in front of the mirror. Not to mention carrying it all… which brings me to ….
3. I take in my HAND BAGGAGE (more on hand baggage in a min) one of those felt covered freezable cold packs because carrying heavy bags has been known to throw out my back — though not since my new suitcase (see item 7). I find the cold pack works for me. Some of you may prefer hot ones. Find out which is best for you and pack one — or both. Also pack in your hand baggage good painkillers — just in case.
4. Okay, so hand baggage. Always pack at least one copy of all the music you will need and take at least one box of CDs in your carry-on. That way, when you’re waiting around for your bags at the airport and they DON’T COME (see Letter From Tokyo 1 in February folder of this blog), you will be covered. Naturally, since you have taken this precaution, your bags will arrive. But don’t chance it! The two (packing what you need in your carry-on bag and the checked luggage arriving on time) are definitely related, This is known in England as “sod’s law” — though I am not sure what a sod is in this context.
5. Pack a pen with your passport to answer all the landing forms questions, like “Are you bringing any guns/bombs/plutonium?” “Did you pack any livestock?” “Have you petted any rabied animals while you were away?” “Are you carrying more than $10,000 in cash?” (Hah!) “
6. Take small toiletries items in a separate quart sized ziploc bag and put it in your carry-on case near the top so you can whip it out when you need to.
7. My four-wheeled suitcase has changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE! It practically pushes itself, spins in every direction and I would marry it, if I weren’t already taken — by the very man who (perhaps realizing I would develop “feelings” for my wonder-case) advised me not to buy it. Now I want a four-wheeled carry-on because my tiny carry-on bag (with only TWO wheels) feels like it weighs twice as much as the giant one. I bought it at Marshalls, or Filene’s Basement or Daffy’s, for $79 – reduced from $300-something. I have had many cheap suitcases over the years and they are not worth the savings. Trust me.
8. I have a packing checklist on my computer which I update before and after every journey. When I am going out of town to perform, I print it and check off everything as I get to it. It has on it things to pack, things to do (like charge cell phone or empty trash, or freeze/throw out perishables). I have two checklists — one for domestic and one for international travel.
9. Take a hairbrush, minimal makeup (i.e., lipstick) and sunglasses in your hand baggage. I was once met at the airport at 4am (after 20 hours traveling) WITH TV CAMERAS! Thankfully I had my hooded coat to cover up as much as possible of my face and hair but …. Let’s just say that now I know why movie stars don’t go anywhere without their movie star glasses. And, since that experience, neither do I!
10. I take an atomizer filled with water to spritz my face throughout the flight. It helps to counteract the dehydration far more (and less messily) than moisturizer.
11. My other best friend when I travel is my bead-filled neck pillow. I sewed a sort of tie on it so I can actually WEAR it. This also means that I don’t absent-mindedly drop it on the bathroom floor because I forgot to remove it. It allows me to sleep sitting up on a plane. Without it, I can NOT sleep. During a six-hour layover at Moscow airport recently, I tied it into a ball so it remained firm, put it on my 4-wheeled suitcase, leaned forward and … I slept! Just little 20-minute cat naps at a time, but it helped. I won’t pretend I arrived “rested”, but without that little pillow there is NO WAY I would have been able to sleep at all and I would have been completely fried on arrival.

NECK PILLOW/WARMER WITH NATTY TRIM

12. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD! What’s this doing under “packing”, right? Or have you been to Siberia? (see Siberia blog). Or, indeed, Japan (see Letter from Tokyo 1), when I woke up with jet lag at 2am and, after counting the hours until breakfast discovered that it was soup and rice. Or maybe your alarm didn’t wake you after your 25-hour journey to get somewhere and you missed breakfast. Or you have a ten hour layover at an aiport like Palermo, Scicily (I know, Italy, right? What happened?) or Moscow SVO. Last time I went to Russia, I took four protein bars (giant kind) and five balance bars. Even though I stayed at two nice hotels, I needed them. In fact, I ran out. So pack food – breakfast bars, protein bars, whatever you need for sustenance. And if you find yourself in Siberia, fake a dizzy spell near a supermarket! The one I went to was better stocked than any supermarket I have ever seen in the world – though of course telling the difference between sour cream and yogurt in Cyrillic is a bit of a challenge.

EXTRA PLANE STUFF
1. Last time I went to London, it was snowing there and here, so my boyfriend told me to call ahead and check for cancellations. The flight was canceled and rescheduled. So I got to spend an extra day with him, instead of sleeping on my suitcase at the airport or — worse! — doing what singer Sheila Jordan did recently, shelling out another $60 to get a cab back home to wait for the next flight. Yikes! If the weather looks the slightest bit dodgy, call ahead.
2. Plane background noise is deceptively loud. This is one of all sorts of things I never noticed before I was a singer, but after an 8-hour flight during which you didn’t let your seat-mate get a word in edgeways, a girl/boy can actually lose her/his voice!

TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
It is fabulous to be your own instrument — which is what singers are. BUT … the downside is, if you fall ill … you can sound like … well, imagine a saxophone that’s been left out in the rain for a week. Sadly, people won’t realize that NORMALLY (of course!) you sing like Sarah Vaughan at her peak!

SARAH VAUGHAN AT HER ‘CRAZY AND MIXED UP’ PEAK

Your frog in the throat off notes — assuming you can even get a note OUT — will be their first impression and, you know what they say about first impressions. I read recently about a Broadway actress-singer who was disparaged by a reviewer for not being able to hit the high notes. People! She had a cold!!! Warning: I once sang with a horrible cold. Not only did I sound like shite on the nite, I then couldn’t SPEAK for six weeks afterwards. You really don’t realize how amazingly useful speaking is until you lose your voice. Writing notes to the people in the supermarket when you can’t find something in the aisles is surprisingly laborious – especially when they can’t read your hurried handwriting. And the phone … fuggedaboutit! One of the most frustrating and emotionally trying six weeks of my life. So you should do everything you can to head off ANYTHING respiratory at the pass. Here are some of my health tips:

1. STAY WARM
Okay… remember that scarf? This wonderful invention was actually created to keep your neck warm. Opera singers wear their scarves everywhere and that is because they are effective! Staying warm is one of the best ways to stay healthy. Or is it that getting cold can make you ill? Whichever, a scarf is your best friend! If I have been in the cold and am not wrapped up enough or (horrors!) went out without my scarf, I ALWAYS have a boiling hot bath when I get in. This also works. Raising your temperature is the secret, apparently. If a boiling hot bath or shower is not an option (See Letter from Siberia post in 2008 folder to read about traveling 16 hours between gigs in Siberia on a train. No bath. No windows.) Get out your travel scarf and roll yourself up in it.
2. VICK’S FIRST DEFENCE
My friend Adrian Hedley told me about this. It works! That Siberian train journey I mentioned … the musical director got a horrible cold and actually lost his voice. He also had this habit of getting right up on you to talk. But First Defense, a nasal spray, kept me healthy. No, I didn’t squirt it on him when he got too close! (Only do this in a medical emergency!) I squirted it on me! Maybe it was the placebo effect, but I don’t think so. I think First Defense is a UK product. If so, the American equivalent is probably ZICAM. I personally like the candy version. I also really like the swabs — but it is absurdly expensive because you are supposed to throw away the swab after each swabbing.
3. SPEAK UP
If anyone gets too close to you, don’t be afraid to put a hanky over your mouth and say, “I’m sorry. I am a singer and I can’t afford to get ill.” People understand. But, even if they don’t, you have to do it. I haven’t had to do this yet, but if I sat next to someone on the plane who was ill I would ask to switch seats. It might feel a bit rude, but you can do it nicely. At least you’re not squirting them with First Defense.
4. VITAMIN C
Someone once told me that taking 1,000 mg doses of Vitamin C every hour or so, gets rid of a cold quickly. I have found this very effective. I don’t think you need to spend a bomb on Airbourne. My very favorites are Rite Aid chewable Vitamin C tablets with acerola. They are kind of tart, which seems to work on breaking down the — ahem — phlegm right away. I use Vitamin C like this as a preventive and as a cure.
5. REST
If you arrive somewhere and you get ill, go to bed. Even a few hours of BED-rest — i.e., actually lying down — really helps. When I was in Beirut I got flu on the first day and, canceling the gig not being an option, spent every day in bed and dragged myself out of bed every night to sing. Okay, I wasn’t my best for the first few days, but I got through it. This was before I knew about the wonder-drugs, First Defense and Zicam.
6. KEEP YOUR HANDS CLEAN
Most germs are communicated via the hands. That means whenever you touch a doorknob, or hold a railing, whoever held it before you, if they had a cold, will have left those germs. It is a singer’s lot to be a germ-phobe. My friend Sue, who is not a singer, but knows far too many than is probably good for her mental health, carries sachets of hand-sanitizing wipes with her everywhere she goes. The seriousness with which she once handed me one when we were out somewhere reminded me of the time my mum told me she was VERY worried about me being in America: “I hope you are wearing at least SPF 30!” (It is my duty to look young for my age, so that no one wonders how old she is). I keep one of those mini hand sanitizing sprays in the same zipper pencil case where I keep my passport – and SPF 30 dabber.
7. GET THE FLU JAB
Since I lost my health insurance (don’t get me started!) I haven’t yet discovered where to get these done, but in my opinion, better to be safe than sorry. I used to get one every year. However, there are health warnings so you should weigh the risks. And, it goes without saying, if you are ill just don’t have injections of any kind.
8. STAY HYRDATED
Drink plenty of water during a flight to stay hydrated. In fact, it kind of ‘oils’ the vocal chords to be hydrated at all times, flying or not. So you should be drinking at least eight glasses a day. Call me a baby, but I find it easier to drink more water if I use a straw.

These tips are not in my book Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better (Random House-Vemilion). But it has many others on navigating your way around the freelance artist’s life, and you might know some of the people in it (including me). www.amazon.co.uk

SINGING AT THE UNION OF COMPOSER’S CLUB IN MOSCOW. PICTURE BY VLADMIR KOROBITSYN

Here I am in the most comfortable bed on EARTH, leaning against SIX of the most comfortable pillows I have ever leaned against, at the Marriott Grand in Moscow. This is a far, far cry from the Siberian train tour of last November. In fact, this entire trip, I have had not one bad meal! Samara was pretty amazing. A beautiful city with enormously palatial wooden mansions everywhere. I arrived at 2am, after a 25-hour journey (including two layovers and a one hour drive from Samara airport, which is in the middle of nowhere and a little scary in the middle of the dark black night with two men in Russian hats who you don’t know), and walking up the endless corridor to my room — all super-high ceilings and closed doors — was spookily reminiscent of ‘The Shining’ but without the ghostly children on tricycles.

The gigs were fab. The Samara Philharmonic was beautiful and I met some lovely people. And I got to sing my song Usha’s Wedding with a phenomenal Russian singer called Lera, who was just amazing. I have sung that song with tons of people and it always amazes me what different people do with it, especially given that they have never heard it before. This girl was kind of like a Russian Lila Downs (who once actually sang it with me on it at the 55 Bar, when I discovered her in the audience), only wilder. I didn’t take pix of the audience, which is a drag. But I think I took some of the hotel which I will post later. Meanwhile, I was sent these pictures by the wonderful photographer Vladmir Korobitzyn.

ANOTHER PICTURE BY VLADMIR AT THE CLUB THAT NIGHT WITH OLEG KIREYEV QUARTET

Then I flew to Moscow just in time to hit rush hour traffic. The journey that will take me 25 minutes tomorrow morning at 3am (cough!), took actually THREE HOURS that day. But I didn’t mind because I was super tired and, until we hit almost standstill traffic, I had been stressfully having to “air drive” in the back seat, due to scary autobahn-esque driving all around me. It’s very tiring pressing your foot on imaginary brakes and leaning very very hard in one direction (which is how you steer when you are air driving), so it was such a relief when that ceased to be necessary. I spent the rest of the “drive” passed out on the back seat — probably drooling, I was so fried. Flying about to gigs is … hard work! And I’d had a SIX HOUR layover in Moscow on the way to Samara which is, surprisingly, kind of primitive. There isn’t even an escalator to the next level. Hello? — bags!

Homeless dogs look pleadingly at you in the airport cafes (actually they roam in packs all over Moscow, and huddle together in the subways when it’s cold, like little families — which is kind of sad and sweet at the same time). Even at the information desk, no one speaks English, which was a bit unhelpful. And there was no seat on the loo! Or perhaps it was misplaced because I did notice a loo brush holder and loo brush OUTSIDE the actual loo. Otherwise, Russia rules. Right now the streets are full of men carrying flowers to give to the women in their lives, because this weekend is a national holiday called Woman’s Day. So much more civilized than Mother’s Day. I mean, what if you aren’t a mother, or don’t have one? Woman’s Day is so inclusive! And the women here! So beautiful! Russian women are from the 1960s — beautifully turned out and terribly feminine. I mean, only a Russian woman would wear spike heels to breakfast, right?

Meanwhile, I had a magnificent first night at the club in Moscow last night, where the crowd was cheering and whooping and bought 33 CDs off me. Hooray! If tonight is even half as much fun I’ll be happy!

HAPPY WOMAN’S DAY!

 

mipac poster

Me in Red Square for the first time.
Me and Santi Debriano

Moscow was truly amazing! Despite my fear that the 1753 seats of the absurdly gigantic venue [the Moscow International Performing Arts Center] would actually only have TWO bums on them, the gig was one of the most fun of my life! “Do you think there will be anyone there?” I said, mournfully, to the presenter’s assistant in the dressing room, where I was putting on makeup JUST IN CASE anyone had come. And she laughed and said: “Oh yes!”

When I got out there, people filled all of downstairs and some of the side seats and Francis (my percussionist, who I had shipped in from Tokyo, who has better eyesight than I do — okay, what I mean is, isn’t too vain to wearhis glasses) said that the upper deck was pack-ed (it is two syllables when he says it, cos he is Brazilian) and that there were maybe 1500 people there. The booker and all his staff were hugging me in the break, having been perhaps almost as concerned as I had been BEFORE the gig that the scruff bag (me) who’d got off Aeroflot after the 9 hour flight from hell the previous day was going to be able to pull it off.

I had been terrified that the entire thing was going to be awful. The guys (and me) were exhausted and two of them had arrived on the day. And Aeroflot is indeed the worst airline I have ever flown (the man next to me groaned for the entire flight — I mean ACTUAL groaning cos he had forgotten his jacket and it was minus 10 in the cabin… which was also ominously creaking the whole way). But although between sets and before the gig the band members were semi comatose, on stage they were like those toys you press the bottom of and they collapse and then you release it and they spring upright. They were amazing. You would never in a million years think they had just landed. On Aeroflot!

And the audience was WILD! Cheering. shouting ‘Bravo’ mid songs, clapping at the opening bars of songs they knew (including White Room). I felt like they knew me already and I knew them. Whatever people say about Russians being cold … well they must have been lying. Someone else said the audience wouldn’t speak English. Another flagrant untruth. They were even laughing at my jokes (though someone told us afterwards that the people next to her kept nudging her to translate certain songs). And at the end we got a STANDING OVATION. From 1500 people. I felt like Elton John or someone (only with my own hair). And I was surprised how comfortable I felt. Then again, the hugest ham I know (me) comfortable in front of a 1500-strong cheering crowd, who got my jokes too? Duh!

Oh, and the POSTER outside!!! Santi saw it as we were driven to the venue and said “Jesus! Isn’t that you?” I took a pic (okay, several pics — for Mum, of course!).

But I wish I had brought more CDs. By the time Irina had got out into the foyer, they had already sold out of the only 60 I had brought (imagining I would be carrying home 58, since I’d been expecting only two bums on seats). And the next day in the hotel a couple, who had been at the gig the night before, saw me in the foyer and bought two that I’d forgotten to give the presenter and the woman was kissing my photo and was nearly in tears telling me (in Russian) how much she had enjoyed the gig (an expressive people!).

Me and Francis on the subway escalator


Otherwise, I am having a bit of a difficult time not speaking Russian. The subways (Greco-Roman temples outside and unbelievably beautiful — like the Met or the National Gallery or something — on the inside) are swarming with non-English speaking (how dare they?) Russians who, not realizing I am, in Russia, a massive big star of Elton John proportions (only with my own hair), are impatient with my plaintive: “Er… can you point on this map here to where we actually are now?” — perhaps because they don’t quite believe I can’t see that for myself. (I am a directional dyslexic). In fact, the reason I am an expert on the subway stations here is because I have seen them all by now, having been to the end of most of the lines before realizing, oh, I must have missed my stop. And since I can’t speak Russian and say: “Don’t you realize I am Elton John?” I am being shouted at a lot by subway staff because it turns out there are distinct exits and entrances and I can’t read which is which (yikes!). And I went to bed hungry last night cos no one in the hotel speaks English and the room service menu is in Russian. Sigh.

This is on stage at MIPAC
It’s all the more difficult because the written language bears a striking resemblance to Double Dutch (which I also don’t read), with letters back to front and upside down and words with NUMBERS in them (I am not kidding!). Plus, unhelpfully, the subway stations only have the name written on the wall ONCE, so if you miss that once, you have no idea which station you are at. Okay, I admit, not that I would have known even if I could have seen it, but you might. Luckily, there have been a few kind, hand-holding types who have been able to direct me in the right place, since I clicked that the thing to do was show them a picture of where I wanted to go in my guidebook! (a picture is worth a thousand words — especially words that have upside down letters and numbers in them).

My room at the Four Seasons hotel!

I did manage to score a night at the Ritz Carlton, on the back of writing an article for British ELLE on Moscow. I will tell you that I woke up the next day and I literally looked ten years younger. The bed was amazing. HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Or, as we say in Russia…. RRY [upside down R] 3XX FLJXCVB-ING!

 


LETTER FROM TOKYO 1

July 2007 So … Does anyone out there know whether Mercury or some other planet of vital importance is in retrograde? First I spent the flight over sitting next to two unaccompanied children with very small bladders. I had the aisle seat. (Need I say more?) They could also sleep in any position (which meant me spending much of the flight with a small foot in my face).

But they were sweet when they were awake (and not needing to pee). They engaged me in conversation about elephants and robots (who doesn’t love robots?) and other things that I think more adults should talk about. And they were very sympathetic when I described my deprived childhood (Mum would not let me have an elephant for my birthday when I was four. Some cock and bull excuse about the garden not being big enough!). By the way, for those of you who know my mum, she was on top form when I saw her in London this time. She didn’t mention the dress not being red — though, as we hugged hello, she did whisper in my ear, “Stand up straight, darling!” Mums! Got to love them! (Or else!)

Back at Tokyo airport the woman at immigration wouldn’t let me through cos, knowing I was being picked up, I hadn’t written down the address I was going to. I made up a hotel — as advised by a very nice woman who was on her way to … the Ritz Carlton! Of course I didn’t look like I could possibly be the type to be staying there, being somewhat crumpled and baggy eyed with a foot shaped dent on the side of my head. But I wrote it down and she let me through anyway, thank goodness.

Then, after waiting patiently by the only moving baggage carousel for miles until there were no bags on it (this took some time), I was a bit concerned when my luggage was not forthcoming. “Oh this is the Texas plane baggage!” they explained. “Your bag is over by the counter.” Phew! However, it turned out, no one had seen my OTHER bag. Yes, THAT bag. The one with the microphone and music and shoes in it. The one with my ice pack — which would have been very useful right now cos — guess what? — I just put my back out! (stress-induced). The one with all my makeup in it! Yes. THAT bag that STILL hasn’t arrived and which Newark (who I blame entirely, since everyone at Narita was adorable) seems to know nothing about. As I walked out I noticed I was the last person to leave the airport.

At the hotel (no, I am not staying at the RC) I fell asleep with no dinner and woke up at 2 am and began literally counting the minutes (3000 or maybe 300, I’m not very good at sums!) until 7 when breakfast was served. At dead on 7 I ran to the dining room where I found a buffet breakfast of … er … soup, shredded lettuce, some sort of roll with currants in it and (thank God!) toast! And (more groveling thanks) coffee! Okay, weak coffee. “People! This coffee is weak!” (Of course I didn’t say that, but don’t they realize a New Yorker is staying at their establishment!). I know, I know. You’d think a girl would be grateful for anything after waiting FIVE HOURS to eat.

You would be wrong.

But it could have been worse. It could have been my friend’s journey from hell which was a catalogue of disasters culminating in being trapped at the airport (due to thunderstorms) for three hours with no AC or food or drink and mournfully looking out of the window to see another waiting plane on the runway struck by lightning and burst into flames! On second thoughts …no … actually culminating in getting home to discover she had forgotten her door key! So you see why I’m wondering about Mercury retrograde.

But the good news is that, while shopping for ice packs, I noticed that shampoo is indeed available for under five dollars!Contrary to all reports that it would set me back $100 a bottle.


July 2007 – LETTER FROM TOKYO 2 [DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER]
I only just got Internet hooked up to my PC at home, which is why you haven’t heard from me before. And yes (those who asked) I did feel the earthquake. The entire house rattled and swayed from side to side. Bit scary. More scary, though, is the fact that the nuclear power plant at the site of the earthquake’s epicenter is in danger of blowing up.

Meanwhile, Tokyo is a fascinating mix of extremes. Tiny little back streets are overshadowed by Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers. Run down wooden shacks are sandwiched between posh apartment buildings. Neon-illuminated boulevards hide dark, quiet side streets where you might come across a cool bar or an all night pet store for drunken impulse puppy-buying — Paris Hilton-sized dogs are de regeur. This little chap tempted me every night on the way home from work.

And the super-strict Japanese work ethic is offset by after work drinking binges which means that at 2am, I am invariably stepping over dark suited businessmen, still impeccably dressed, slumped on the ground in a drunken stupor, or lying beside a little mound of vomit. Or a group of teens will rush by carrying friends in their arms.

Meanwhile …Performing to strangers is a bit strange anyway, but it’s something else entirely performing to desperately rich strangers who are not particularly listening because, to them, 25,000 yen ($25) is a small fry table charge in comparison to the $18,000 (yes, eighteen thousand dollar) MARTINI on the menu. Here are Philip and me. You have to dress in cocktail attire “at all times”! The one time I accidentally went to help the guys set up, wearing a white, strapless summer dress and sandals, I was told off. This dress got the thumbs up from S., the lady in charge of training all the waitstaff.

The “Diamonds Are Forever Martini” contains a one carat diamond, which — assuming the recipient hasn’t choked on it already — is whipped away by the hotel (hopefully after you have finished your drink!) to be set into an engagement ring. I was given the sheet music yesterday because apparently someone is proposing to his girlfriend next month and I have to sing the song at some point during the proceedings.
If you don’t know the lyrics: “…they won’t leave in the night, there’s no fear that they might desert me. Nothing hides in the heart to hurt me…unlike men the diamonds linger (rhymes with finger). Hold one up and then caress it, touch it stroke it and undress it(!). Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to the grave for. (refrain:) I don’t need love. For what good will love do me. Diamonds never lie to me. For when love’s gone, they’ll linger on.” Er… hello?

Meanwhile…. on my FIRST day off in Tokyo (I worked seven nights straight, but now have Sundays free), my new girlfriend Inaia (another singer who lives upstairs) showed me around Tokyo. Of course I can’t remember how to get to any of these places without someone holding my hand and leading me there, and I can’t remember the names (so I couldn’t even ask the way) but she took me to an amazing park called Yoyogi, the entrance to which was crowded with high schoolers dressed as Bo Peep meets Goth, and where I saw my first rabbit on a leash. But the sight to see is the dancing Elvises.

Brylcreemed, slicked back hair, black leather jackets, white tee shirts (or bare chested — phoar!!), faded jeans, and shoes so old and tattered they are wrapped in duct tape, to show that they have been dancing a long time. Kind of like the Dancing Princesses in Hans Christian Anderson. Apparently the duct tape is a mark of pride. The dancing is … well, it’s kind of like the twist meets cowboy dancing with the odd bit of hip hop chucked in. It gave me a squeezy feeling in my heart and I couldn’t decide if it was bad or baaaaaaad. In the end I decided it was baaaaaaaaaaad (i.e., good), because they are very serious about it and it feels so innocent (and they are all very handsome and some are bare-chested — phoar!!). They just want to be looked at — for free! In fact, even the (few) homeless people here don’t panhandle.

Elvis impersonators aside, Japanese people dress so stylishly. Everything they wear looks like couture (mind you, I am living in a very posh part) — i.e., as if there is only ONE of these items in the entire whole world (except for school girls, who all wear plaid miniskirts, white shirts and ties). At the traffic lights everyone obediently stands ON THE SIDEWALK (gasp!) until the green light comes on. I started out impatiently stand in the middle of the road New York style, until I realised that (gasp!) traffic didn’t EXPECT to find people standing in the middle of the road New York style at Tokyo traffic lights.

As for WALKING on the sidewalk. Maybe because Japanese people don’t need to be on red alert for street crime or something (I can’t tell you how many enormously fat wallets I see poking out of men’s back pockets), they appear to have no sense of space and one person can mysteriously take up the entire sidewalk, going at snail’s pace, probably emailing on their cell phone at the same time. It’s kind of tortoise meets hare (me being the hare).

Otherwise, Tokyo is the perfect city with plenty of affordable shampoo. And it is safe. I don’t lock my door when I am home. We leave the front door wide open all the time. And I walk home alone from work at 12.30 am and sometimes at 4 am (if I have gone out with Inaia after work) and feel totally safe. There is something wonderful and liberating — especially as a woman — about looking at a dark alley at 4 am, and not thinking twice about taking the short cut that way home. Okay, you think TWICE. But only because you’ve been living in New York a bit too long.

I live in, Azabu Juban, which is UBER cool. And so quiet, even though a 20 minute walk only from midtown. There is very little traffic — aside from bicycles — which makes it super quiet, with just the odd mother with child on child seat, or granny holding umbrella swishing by. The swishing sound would be due to the rainy season, by the way. Every damn day!! And it is so HOT. People warned me, I did not listen! I washed my clothes the other day and it took them THREE FULL DAYS to dry because the air is so humid. Here is a picture of the outside of my house.


Being already a directional dyslexic makes it a bit hard to find my way around. I felt a bit better when my friend Anna told me that, in order to protect the Imperial Palace, the city was actually designed for people to get lost. Not having street names doesn’t help, of course. Everyone uses maps. Just like in Lost in Translation.

But aside from missing you, I could be very happy here. Oh, hang on, except for having to sing to strangers ignoring me most nights, aside from the odd request — like Danny Boy (gaaaargh! and no I didn’t). Then again, a man in lizard skin winkle pickers the other night gave us a $100 tip!

I just picked up my alien card. For ages, I had been calling it something I can’t spell or pronounce now, which it was pointed out to me the other day was kind of like saying “I’ve come for my Honky Card.” Bit embarrassing. Then again, languages are not my strong point. Those of you who know that I kept saying “voila” instead of “au revoir” when I first went to Paris, will not be surprised to hear that when I was in Akihabara recently I kept saying Akihabara instead of Arigato (thank you) and that when I am VERY flustered I say Arigato instead of Konichiwa (hallo). No one seems to mind. Maybe because I bow a lot. Bowing is cool!
However, no amount of bowing could fix ‘The Elevator Incident’ which happened to me the other night when I was all froo frooed up in my black net over violet dress and got into the elevator at B3 just as a young man in a chef’s hat burst out of it. As the doors closed on me I realized he had left behind THE most appalling well … shall we say, emission … and the elevator goes express after the first floor so I had ahead of me 45 floors of coughing and choking to endure,
But then, just when I was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, a man got in at the first floor and… Well, there was I, (all gussied up, which somehow makes it worse) COMPLETELY ALONE in the elevator and there was this terrible smell and … well, what would you think? Of course I mimed “Goodness, what is that terrible smell?” with lots of flapping of my hand in front of my face, and screwing up of my nose. And he, of course, joined in (Tokyoites are very polite). But he was obviously thinking to himself “arigato/konichiwa/akihabara” (which would be my Japanese for, “First one smelt it dealt it!”).
Naturally I now see him ALL THE TIME, and my musicians, Philip and Francis, are both agreed (judging by the expression on his face whenever we see him) that he clearly thinks it was me. Now I merely have to say the words “elevator incident” to Philip and Francis to totally crack them up, which makes me feel very witty. By the way, the picture on Letter from Tokyo 1 of this blog is of Philip’s cat.
The music is getting easier. It really helps when one of YOU comes — as has happened 5 times (if you count Reiko coming twice and Anna and Alan coming at least twice, and Raj coming with a huge posse — THANK YOU). And I realize that people ARE listening, just very discreetly (i.e., while talking among themselves and swigging champagne and martinis). Here, by the way, is a picture Raj took of the most important drink in the house — sans diamond, of course. That’s me on the stool in the background.

And I am learning so many new songs. Wichita Lineman, for one, which Philip and I agree we both deemed horrendously cheesy when we were kids but which now seems cool. This is the first sign of aging, I think. Nostalgia for the stuff we sneered at in our youth. And I wrote a whole new arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, which Francis, the percussionist (who also is an amazing singer), does fantastic backing vocals on. As for the standards… some of them are fantastic! Who knew? We have FUN.
Akihabara! (Trans.: I can’t wait to see you next month!)

This is Francis, who also sang so beautifully!

I got back from Seoul, via Tokyo, yesterday. 20 hours of traveling! Blimey! But it was surprisingly easy. I got the best plane seats without an upgrade (though Continental needs to work on the food situation!). And there were no children with their feet in my face — though I did miss the interesting conversations about elephants and robots — so I arrived sans foot-shaped dent on side of head!

I didn’t mind leaving Tokyo in the end. It was hard hard work and only one day off a week with tons of stuff that I had to do during the day isn’t enough! But I did make some lovely new friends and eat some good food and I got to write a SIX THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO guide for British ELLE for the December issue (so if you go, and want a quick guide, let me know). And I did some Karaoke where, according to the TV screen, I used up 3.1 calories singing “The Crying Game.” Here is a picture of the screen in our individual booth.

Karaoke Bar
Speaking of songs, I got to sing “Diamonds are Forever” for TWO couples in the same week! That’s the $15,000 drink I told you about! Actually, I think I said it was $18,000 and I’m still not sure, sums not being my best subject. The first man bought one for his mistress. They didn’t dress up. They slunk in (as befits one buying an overpriced martini for an “other woman”) and hid in a corner of the bar. “No fuss,” said the man, who apparently only wanted to be “the first” to buy it (kind of says it all, doesn’t it!). They just clinked glasses very casually and it looked like she said something along the lines of: “Thanks for the snack!” (a la B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” where it rhymes with “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back!”) and then, after glugging it down, they left, not even holding hands. Perhaps he had done something very, very wrong, and this was the rich beyond wildest dreams equivalent to a normal person’s bunch of flowers apology.
Meanwhile, the other couple …. Well, the husband bought it for their 25th wedding anniversary (that also kind of says it all, in a good way). They came with friends. Friends who may even have been at their wedding. They both looked amazing. The hotel hired a handsome young flamenco guitarist from Barcelona to play with me and I was wearing a got-the-thumbs-up-from-S. jade green silk dress (gets tiring dressing up ALL the time but that night was worth it!) and we were sneaked in to the restaurant next door via the kitchen to do the acoustic rendition of “Diamonds Are Forever” that we had worked out that afternoon.
The husband was beside himself with excitement at having arranged the surprise — MONTHS in advance. And the wife did an AMAZING acting job of pretending she had no idea. In fact, maybe she really didn’t know. Anyway, she did a lot of excellent gasping and furrowing of brow in confusion faces and was crying within seconds of the song starting, before she even knew about the diamond. Then they whisked the drink over (served by TWO young waiters) and plopped the diamond into it (more gasping and eye dabbing) and all their friends applauded, and so did we. Later I overheard the staff describing what had happened to the few staff that had not managed to find a hiding place from which to witness the proceedings themselves. It was quite possibly the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen up close. Surprisingly not corny at all!
Otherwise, no mafia came in during my time there. So no massive tips of diamond-like proportions. But I do have ALL MY FINGERS. And I had an amazing time in Seoul, including a trip to an island where (i) I climbed up a massive mountain with my son (pulling me up the hill by hand — okay, yes, “dragged up” might be a better description) to see a Buddha carved into the rock, (ii) got propositioned by one of the workers (who, very disappointingly, turned out not be a monk, as I should have realized when his question was translated to me as, “Is she a virgin?” — which is how they ask if you are single over there, apparently), and (iii) drank a cup of tea made of pine leaves that was even better than PG Tips.

Korean rock
I also went to my son’s university and took pictures of his office, where one of his students said how young I look — thus securing for herself an A+ on her next essay. I went to the Samsung Museum of Art, where my daughter-in-law is a conservator, and looked at ancient pots that looked like modern art. I was profusely thanked by my daughter-in-law’s parents and sister for giving birth to my son — which I assume means, after six years of marriage, that they don’t have any plans to give him back.Actually, I have to admit, he is pretty cool. I was laden with gifts from the entire family, including his wife’s sister’s mother-in-law, who is a famous Korean artist. And I was invited to live with my children. All fantastic! However, I also discovered the TV show Lost on DVD. An evil addiction along the lines of those IKEA double chocolate biscuits I once warned you about. I know some of you ignored that warning! Oh, and I had a Korean body scrub which would DEFINITELY become an addiction if I lived there. Talk about deep clean! Eek!

 

Yes I am returned! The Edinburgh Jazz Festival was superb and sold out (as I think I already said somewhere). But I wish I had taken some pictures. This is the problem with not having family in the audience – though, of course, the benefit is you don’t have embarrassing scenes like my mum reading aloud from my book – er, that would be LOUD – to her entire table, or parents busting in through the doors shouting ostentatiously: “Excuse me! Excuse me! We are here to see our DAUGHTER, the singer!” My dad (bit of an attention seeker) has even perfected a sort of Royal Wave for when I acknowledge him in the crowd, which – God forfend! – I forget to do. Early in my career, he even once pounced upon the stage but was, thankfully, wrestled to the ground by my brother as he reached for the mic.

I spent most of the rest of my trip doing social things – including attending my niece’s wedding at which I was reminded of what it was actually like to spend a prolonged period of time with my ex-mother-in-law (who makes my own mother seem shy and retiring, even – almost – discreet).
For the curious among you (cough!), below is a photo taken at said wedding by my son of me and my ex. Somehow we are great friends (his three-year-old calls me Aunty – poor confused darling!), even though he has a swimming pool nestling in the acreage of his back garden (as my mother-in-law was very eager to show me within seconds of greeting me – she had pictures!) and I live in penury in Harlem wishing I had a back garden to look at (and maybe a window to look at it through). But then, I’m the musician around here, even if he does resemble one — Eric Clapton, right?
Meanwhile, my journey home was insane! The line to get through security snaked through the entire Heathrow airport and into the parking lot! By the time I got to the end there was no time to even buy duty free (naturally this is the only reason I have not brought all of you gifts of wine and incense). And the list of things you can and cannot take is bonkers. For example, you can’t take moisturizer or cosmetics but you can take massive big knitting needles. I foolishly admitted to having a lipstick in my purse (I mean you can’t lie can you, even though I think I would have got away with it) which meant the confiscation of my precious TWENTY-FIVE DOLLAR lipstick (I know, I know … bought during some kind of mental blackout). Annoyingly, I didn’t have a knitting needle with me to stab the girl who confiscated it. Or my glasses case (also forbidden) to assault and batter her with. I mean, it’s no wonder that poor deranged woman the other day tried to hijack a plane with a pot of Vaseline. – although thank goodness some brave person managed to overpower and wrest it from her before anything terrible happened!