Gypsy jazz songstress poet makes her mark
Gerard Hindmarsh ■ Gerard Hindmarsh is a published author living in Golden Bay
Talented souls are a delight to meet, and Isabelle Wolff is one of them.
This 31-year-old emerging European musician and poet has brought her gypsy jazz ballads and poetry to many a music scene while travelling the South Island late last year and has returned to do it all again.
Past performances included the Harbour Street Jazz and Blues Festival in Oamaru, the Blue Door in Arrowtown, not to mention joining in various gigs as she travelled around.
Lunasa Festival goers will also remember her playing with the New Zealand/Dutch band MyBaby up at Canaan earlier this year. Understandably, she got stuck in Golden Bay after that, something she intends to do again over her coming visit.
Golden Bay was where I first saw her perform, outdoors around the fire at George’s birthday bash high in the forested hills of ‘Fairyland’, only in Golden Bay of course. I was immediately struck by her voice – smooth and trained to perfect pitch yet dulcet and mellow to listen to.
As one reviewer put it; ‘Her vocals cut the air with a knife, made every heart swoon, and left the audience hanging on every note!’
That’s before you realise how good she is on the guitar. Old folk songs, covers, sad and romantic, she sings them all in her contemporary gypsy-jazz style.
No surprise afterwards when Isabelle tells me that she comes from a highly musical German family. Her grandfather played accordion and the organ at church, while her mother played the ‘great piano’.
Much of the Rhine region of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler where they lived suffered a catastrophic flood two years ago, but her village of Löhndorf stayed safe, she isl thankful for that.
She recalls her childhood in that pretty village, known for its big rose gardens.
“Music was always around me. At seven I was given a recorder with a microphone, I thought I was made, running around the house singing away. That was when I really discovered music.”
When she was 11, her teacher told her parents she was always the loudest singer in class, suggesting she join the local choir in which she proceeded to sing her heart out. But it was covers of popular songs that really got her going, teaming up with local bands as a background singer whenever she could.
By the time she was 17, Isabelle had already made the decision that she was going to make a living from music, so she was disappointed then when she didn’t initially get accepted for the Conservatorium of Music (Popacademy Artez) in Amsterdam.
“I adopted plan B, which was to train as an occupational therapist.”
It was during this time she also spent two months walking the Camino de Santiago trail along the Spanish-France border.
“I took my guitar on my back and played every night, it was life-changing, a musical pilgrimage for me,” she recalls.
When she turned 22, Isabelle applied again to the Conservatorium of Music, and this time, to her elation, she was accepted.
Specialising in guitar and singing, everything started to fall into place for her in Amsterdam. On the side, she picked up gigs playing in theatres, bars, backing plays and pop-up performances in the vibrant city, and even joined a reggae band for a time.
One of the uni papers she studied was Gypsy Jazz, a style that more than any other took her interest.
She attained her Bachelor of Arts in jazz and pop vocals, learning the vocal craft of gypsy tradition from Lulo Reinhardt, a wellknown German descendant of gypsy-music pioneer Django Reinhardt.
Around this time, she also recorded her first solo album, Liebe & Freiheit (Love & Freedom), which enabled her to attract performance funding from Initiative Musik in Germany, which she is using to record her second album, all inspired by her stay in New Zealand.
Isabelle admits she didn’t know anything much about New Zealand until she turned 26, and she followed a friend who had come out to caretake a camp for family stays and school classes near Invercargill.
She admits the music scene there didn’t exactly jump out at her, so she hitch-hiked with her guitar to Queenstown, where on her first night, she found an open mic session at one of the local pubs.
“Suddenly I was into the scene, like I had arrived and immediately felt part of it. Everything started falling into place from there.”
From Queenstown, she moved onto Christchurch where she discovered Akaroa before ensconcing herself at Hanmer Springs where another musician, Issac McClusky, invited her to perform at a New Years’ gathering at Lushingtons Bay.
She was in the scene, and the ensuing road trip eventually took her to Golden Bay, where she introduced herself to the band Newtown Rocksteady performing at the Mussel Inn, who invited her to join them for their gig there.
Later, solo performance at the Jazz and Blues Harbour Festival in Oamaru, giving her first vocal and songwriting workshop there as well, then straight into being supporting act for Craig Denham. It was all on.
Isabelle sees her path to music as one of love and freedom, the reason she called her first book of poetry exactly that. In combination with the release of an EP of four songs, ‘Liebe & Freiheit’ she toured her show in Amsterdam.
“Music is connecting us to something higher than ourselves and gives us the chance to connect with our emotions and other people.
“It dissolves boundaries between individuals and makes us feel whole and connected. A universal language that can heal us from modern society’s separation. And I can't wait to share my music with you all this summer.”
Mussel Inn, December 27 (8pm), Ruby Bay Store, January 6 (7.30pm), Diamond Harbour Festival, January 14