Barry O’Sullivan talks to Vocalist Simone Waddell

Simone Waddell is one of Australia’s top contemporary jazz artists performing jazz, soul, and funk-infused with groove. She was the first Australian to win a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston USA and after completing her music degree, she has continued her career internationally in Asia, Europe, and Australia, performing at countless top venues, both solo and with world-class musicians.

When did singing jazz music first enter your life and who were some of those artists that influenced your style?
I have been in love with music from my earliest memory. To me, the piano was the most glorious instrument, and I spent hours in my early years playing and singing. It never ceases to amaze me that now I am paid to do what I did back then for fun without an audience. Soul music came into my life in my teenage years.

I started listening to artists like Oleta Adams, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, and Sade. I was enamoured with the Australian artists Tina Arena and Kate Ceberano. I met Kerrie Biddell at a vocal workshop in 1992 when I was beginning to discover more jazz music. I sang for Kerrie then and was braced for heavy criticism as she was known for her ‘direct’ communication, but instead, she was very complimentary. I was only sixteen years old and very relieved. Kerrie remained my mentor until the day I was by her side in September 2014 in ICU when she passed. My master’s degree and thesis are dedicated to her artistic contribution.

When at Berklee College in Boston in the late 90s, I discovered the jazz vocalist Diane Reeves and listened to much of her work. There, I also received instruction from Maggie Scott, a no-nonsense jazz pianist, vocalist, and voice coach who focussed purely on jazz repertoire and stretched me vocally week in and week out. I’m thankful to this day for those years.

What are your current musical projects?
I am thrilled with my fifth studio album The Art of Collaboration, which features sixty of Australia’s best jazz musicians. They include James Morrison, Tommy Emmanuel, and Paul Grabowsky, just to name a few. It was the highest-selling Australian Jazz Album of 2022, and I am so proud of all the incredible offerings from everyone involved. It also includes six tracks of my original songwriting, plus five iconic Australian songs reimagined into the contemporary jazz idiom. The album entered four Grammy Awards categories and was nominated for an ARIA award. My next contemporary jazz album is in the pipeline and features some magnificent arrangements of songs from the Great American Songbook. I have a Billie Holiday show that I perform under the musical direction of Rodric White and a brand-new show, Great Ladies of Jazz that I will be performing throughout 2024 on the Bravo Cruise of Performing Arts to Noumea and the South Pacific, along with other artists such as Marina Prior and Todd McKenney.

Life as a musician is full of challenges. What are some that may have confronted you so far, and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I have faced in my musical life is feeling very forced at times to override my intuition and to acquiesce to people who are overly aggressive or controlling. I overcame this well-trodden path by making a firm decision to follow my inner guidance no matter what. It comes at a price, yet the alternative is far more costly!

I am not challenged by hard work, long hours, gruelling travel, or discipline, although I sometimes feel challenged by doing it all myself. Yet, the process, which is not for the faint-hearted, develops an unbelievable tenacity that cannot be achieved in any other way.

What are some of your other interests outside of your musical career?
I am passionate about health and fitness, spiritual growth, and social justice. Also, I am exploring and studying music as a modality for trauma recovery, healing, and wholeness. I play indoor netball every week as well!

You are home alone on a Sunday night. What music would you choose to listen to and why?
I am at home with so many genres. The music can be melancholic, or uplifting. Gospel music has been a mainstay since birth, so Cece Winans could easily be on the playlist. I am never far from my roots in artists like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Etta James, and Sting.
As much as I love instrumental music, I truly love listening to great singers!