Jazzing up life with Gemma Sugrue

OCTOBER 26, 2016

A Few days before the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, classically-trained Cork vocalist Gemma Sugrue, is giving voice lessons and readying herself, her new band and back-up vocalists for the event.

But in between all the preparations, the gregarious musician took a moment to chat with WOW! about her upcoming performances, her coaching business and emerging career. And there’s nothing classic about any of it.

“It’s new,” she said of her decision to perform original works at this year’s jazz festival. “It’s weird, it’s my own music — I didn’t want to do cover music any more, I wanted to get my stuff out there slowly but surely.”

 With a solo career, a band and gigs in some of Ireland's top venues, Sugrue's life is enveloped in music. Courtesy Gemma Sugrue

With a solo career, a band and gigs in some of Ireland's top venues, Sugrue's life is enveloped in music. Courtesy Gemma Sugrue

This year, the 31-year-old — a popular back-up vocalist and vocal coach — challenged herself to perform more original compositions.

And, under her new band, the Gemma Sugrue Band, she will.

“I’m excited about performing my own material,” she said. This is the first time she and the band will be playing together. “It’s been on my to-do list for what seems like forever and I’ve always put other things first.”

Fans can catch her sing a bit of pop, R&B, and soul locally at the festival, which takes place this weekend from October 28 to 31 at venues across the city. Sugrue and her band will grace the stage for four gigs — all free — over the course of the weekend, at the Oliver Plunkett, Gallaghers and The Bodega in the city. Each show will include a mix of songs from well-known artists like American R & B artist, D’Angelo and Prince, a few lesser-known covers, and some new songs written by Sugrue herself.

Alongside her festival gigs, Sugrue regularly performs with Cork musicians Brian Deady, Niall McCabe, Jack O’Rourke, Camille O’Sullivan and John Spillane. But her latest claim to fame was performing at Electric Picnic alongside the RTÉ Concert Orchestra while 2FM’s DJ Jenny Greene spun popular ’90s dance tracks. The performance was so popular the trio was asked to repeat it in Dublin’s 3Arena in November.

“It’s amazing, and such an honour,” she said of the event, an accomplishment she noted on her Facebook page as a #dreamgig.

Getting into the groove, Sugrue — a Killarney native — fell in love with music at an early age.

“Growing up, my happiest memories are being at home, singing and playing on the piano — it was something I was born always thinking about.”

For years she studied piano, and at 16 she began taking vocal lessons. It was then when she decided to move to Cork City and study classical vocal performance at the Cork School of Music.

While obtaining her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she discovered a passion for teaching contemporary music.

“With anything like that, you figure out what you do want to do and what you don’t want to do,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to do classical vocal training — my heart is in the contemporary stuff.”

While in school, Sugrue met her future business partner, Laoise Leahy, who also had a passion for music education. Together the pair started Voiceworks Studio.

Now five years old, Voiceworks — a one-on-one vocal training and artist development centre in Cork City and Bandon — is home to around 300 students of all ages.

Here, Sugrue and her staff teach contemporary technique, host individual, partner and group voice lessons, teach piano and guitar accompaniment, ensemble singing, artist development, choir and more.

Voiceworks’ teachings, Sugrue said, feature all genres and musical styles and encompasses the most current research in the industry.

“It’s really important to not settle into one style right away,” she said. “We teach contemporary vocal technique, but I want everybody in Ireland to be on the page of what’s happening internationally with vocal technique and be on the cutting edge.”

An edge, she said, Cork most definitely has.

While she’s performed all over the nation, the UK, Australia and Europe, Sugrue said, to her — Cork is home.

 At the 2016, Sugrue began performing her own music, and like her every day style, her songs are a mix of high-energy pop and soul, and fun. Courtesy Gemma Sugrue

At the 2016, Sugrue began performing her own music, and like her every day style, her songs are a mix of high-energy pop and soul, and fun. Courtesy Gemma Sugrue

“There’s a lot of talent in Cork,” she said, mentioning the city’s popular jazz, folk and soul music scenes. “With good quality music on at the pub every night — you can make a thriving career here.”

Music, she said, is not only entertainment, but a vital part of the city’s culture.

“Music is really important to the people of Cork,” she said, “From an early age there’s this culture here where you send your kids to take music… and we’re very proud of the success of musicians from Cork.”

It’s that nurturing network, she added, which has both surprised and encouraged her in her career: “There’s just amazing support here from both people you know and those you don’t — you can’t buy that.”

With a show in the 3Arena, a new band, and a blossoming business, there’s definitely support for her career around Ireland.

“I’m very optimistic and I’m very excited about life — to a fault. And life is very busy, but I love it, I love all of it.”

Naturally, fans want to know what’s next for the Cork musician?

“Well, it’s taken me a long time to get used to my own name,” she said of performing her own music, a goal she’ll continue to pursue. “I’ve wanted to do this for 10 years, and I’ve finally come to the place where it’s take it or leave it — I’m grand with being me.”