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.

Ekaterinburg Philharmonic audience

December 11, 2008 I finally arrived in Moscow. The Siberian tour was wonderful and I sold out of CDs and met lots of wonderful, soulful Russians. Okay, so the food wasn’t ideal. But everything else was amazing. We even went to a Scottish jazz pub (see picture of me standing between two hunky Russians in kilts). They even had a flag! Though there seemed to be a bit of confusion because it was actually the Welsh flag. I felt kind of sad as I said goodbye to everyone last night. We were traveling with another two bands who were opening for us. A certain bond happens when you travel en masse on the overnight trains in Siberia.

But although the cab ride from the airport to the hotel today took longer than it did to fly in from Siberia I am THRILLED to report that this hotel is POSH! Already had room service (expense be damned!) and am planning to avail self of the gym and maybe even the sauna later. Yes a gym and sauna and beauty spa are on the premises. I even have internet (free). There is wood. Real wood furniture. Two bedside tables — though a single bed. And a bath WITH A PLUG so I can actually have a bath. Luxury beyond imagining. As for my fellow musicians … Richie, Oleg and Daniel were heading off for another overnight train trip and the St Petersburg musicians were taking a 36-hour (this is not a typo) train trip back home. I thought of them all as I walked up the massive corridor here towards my room. I’m afraid I started laughing. Aloud. All alone. Not at my fellow musicians, enduring more travel horror (as if!), but with JOY! Pure joy! It’s the contrast, you see!

A nice glass of red wine later, I am feeling more like “La Souter” — as they called me in the Italian newspapers in Palermo. Although I must confess that playing at Philharmonic Halls throughout Russia does make you feel pretty grand. When I walked through the foyer to get dinner, the crowd that was still there after the concert burst into spontaneous applause as I passed by, waving and smiling in a queen-like fashion (having been instructed at the start of the tour by Daniel to act more “like a star!” As you can imagine the Queen of Ham doesn’t need to be told things like this twice!). Little did they (or I) know that dinner was going to be shredded boiled egg on mayonnaise and grated carrot on top of bread followed by spaghetti with no sauce, cos I don’t eat pork, which meant I missed out on the giant slab of pork that was served up with it. Or was that why they were applauding. 

But I had lovely emails today from people who said they witnessed people in tears at my performance (nothing like hunger to make you sing with feeling!). And I scored the massive poster outside with my picture on it. It is now all folded up in my suitcase, weighing more than everything else combined. Next up is the gig in Moscow club on Friday followed by a surprise Russian TV appearance on Saturday. Eek! I think I’m scared, but am hoping “La Souter” shows up for that one. And then it’s back to London and then HOME HOME HOME! I can’t WAIT! I hope you will be able to see us in January. Then I go to Korea for three weeks, and then back for February (save the date for Valentine’s Day at Cornelia Street — FANTASTIC food! — and also on Feb 25 at the Kitano, as well as 55 on Friday, Feb 13!) Meanwhile, more pictures from the tour.siberia 2 023 siberia 2 027 siberia 004 siberia 014 siberia 039

Here I am in Omsk, Siberia, the most civilised of the cities so far — at least hotel-wise. The wallpaper is completely stuck to the wall, the fabric seats of the chairs are unstained, the formica furniture has only one bobbly bit on the bedside table, there IS a bedside table, I can switch the light off and on from the bed (as opposed to switch it off at the entrance and light my way back to bed with the screen light of my cell phone). The bed has a quilt (as opposed to a strange sleeping bag style sheet you have to climb into with a crackly bri-nylon coverlet on top of it), the main light bulb didn’t explode when i flicked the switch, and I have INTERNET!

However, all the hotels (even this one) have this kind of low on provisions vibe. Like, the loo paper is always just about to run out and when it does it is replaced with more loo paper that is just about to run out. And when I asked for coffee at breakfast, the waittress brought five small packets of instant coffee to replenish the entire buffet. And speaking of food. Let’s just say it is everything everyone promised it would be. My first breakfast was a kind of ommelette, except someone had forgotten to whisk the eggs, so it was actually four fried eggs stuck together with bits of Spam chopped up in it. And no, I didn’t eat it. And the bread all tastes like someone forgot to wrap it up after it was baked — which would have been some time the previous week, judging by its hardness!

But Omsk is good. And last night I had the best sushi ever on earth in a very posh restaurant — although at about midnight, billowing smoke was piped on to a disco floor and two young women wearing big floaty tops, black platform boots and … er .. thongs (yes, they had forgotten to put on their skirts) came out and started doing a sort of porn dance — presumably hired to entice people on to the dance floor.

But the hotels are at least hotels. After some of the gigs we don’t stay in hotels. Instead we ride the train through snowy Siberia, which was a terribly thrilling concept. But then they turned out to be overnight sleepers with SHARED compartments. The first train we took from Surgut to Tyunem took 16 hours. And getting on and off train platforms involves dragging big heavy bags up and down stairs. Many stairs. Many, icy, snow-laden stairs. The trains are kind of beautiful. Or, at least, they were once. Actual carpet runners in the halls, a little rug between the shared (four bunks per cabin) compartments. Curtains. Sort of like in the movie Some Like It Hot. Then again, … maybe not like that. Maybe more like Escape from Colditz on wheels.

After fighting vainly to open a window (the words “…need …. air … now ….” racing around my oxygen-starved mind), until we were sternly informed “it is not possible open window!”, I slumped back on my bunk opposite my fellow American Richie [Goods] and said: “I’m trying very hard to think of any situation at all when a train like this would be fun. But I can’t.” However, the overnight train on Thursday was significantly better — aside from the huge naked man in one of the windows, who was staring at us as we arrived, swaithed only in cigarette smoke, and actually scratching his belly. Somehow the word “ominously” feels like it should go into that sentence somewhere, perhaps before the word scratching. Richie said the train only seemed better because we had lowered our expectations.

BUT … the gigs have been fantastic, the crowds are warm (last night we got a standing O) and I’ve already totally sold out of CDs after three of the gigs ( (four more to go). I only brought 100, though, which is a bit annoying, but what can you do! I’ve been kicking myself but, I think, really, I couldn’t have coped with carrying them anyway (those stairs!). The band is great and we’ve been doing some interesting stuff. So I am having fun. Palermo was fantastic too. Both nights absolutely packed. Great band. And it is absolutely the most beautiful venue I have ever seen. Though the Siberian Philharmonic Halls we are performing in are pretty amazing too (will put up some of those pictures this week). London was also fun. And sold out. But, so far, Siberia is the most … er … interesting place I have ever performed. I am actually coming back to Russia (Samara) in March! Watch this space.

But next up: Omsk (second night tonight, followed by train ride to), Ekaterinburg (8th and 9th) and Moscow (12th), and then I will be back home in New York by Christmas. I will be at the 55 bar with my FULL ENTIRE BAND (except for Victor) on January 9. Plus, I think you can come and hear us at the APAP conference, too, on January 11. If you want to cheer us on there, we’d love to have you. All the info is below. By the way, my Venus CD [Night of Key Largo] comes out in Japan on my mother’s birthday, December 17!