CARO EMERALD: Dutch jazz sensation
Her name was destined to end up in lights. Her friends and family always knew she would be a star. Now she jives at the Royal Albert Hall and entertains Prince Charles in the Royal Variety Show. Meet jazz singer Caroline Esmeralda, better known as Caro Emerald.
Meeting jazz diva Emerald in her studio in Amsterdam, you expect to find a reincarnation of Bettie Page dressed up to the nines. But Emerald is dressed down with no make-up, rather different from the woman we see in her dynamic live performances.
“I’m not wearing that much make-up everyday,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t want to because everyone would recognise me. Besides, I can’t even do it myself.” She points to an image of herself all dressed up. “I don’t wake up with my hair done like that, I don’t even know how to do the hair myself!”
She’s sold more then a million albums worldwide. But Emerald’s success came almost by accident. As a young child, she never realised how musical she was: “I tried to play several instruments, like the piano and flute – but I was too impatient. Then we had this play at the end of the year at school and all the kids wanted to have the solo – it was a jazz song. I eventually got it and we connected, jazz and me. It just clicked. I got the solo, and the reviews I got were overwhelming.”
Jazz was completely new to Emerald: “It wasn’t like we were playing jazz at home. It was weird, but I really had a feeling with jazz. Ever since I first sang jazz, I’ve never let it go.”
It was clear from the start that Emerald was an extremely fast learner compared to other children: “At a young age I started to become very fanatical about music, taking it very seriously. I was very eager; for example, during class we had to create groups, we all had a voice to sing – but when I went home I would study the other voices as well. I took part in all the plays and all the kids knew me. Music was the most important thing in my life.”
Her teacher advised her to study jazz at the Amsterdam Conservatorium. He explained to Emerald that if she wanted to pursue a career in music and become a professional singer, the Conservatorium was the place to go. There was, however, a moment of doubt when she thought: “I want to become rich as well, and I can’t get rich with music.” So she decided to combine her studies at the Conservatorium with studying Law: “I did that for a while. My plan was to do both. But eventually I realised I’m not the type to do two studies at the same time. And the Conservatorium won.”
She realised very quickly that most students end up as music teachers. “I took a year off to think about my decisions. The environment at the Conservatorium was so prestigious and ambitious – loads of competition. I had to take some time off to make things clear for myself; do I want to be a singer or is it just a dream that is keeping me busy? I had to make clear what I really wanted for the future. I made a very conscious decision; I want a career in music – even though the result would be ending up as a music teacher teaching at a school for the rest of my life.”
After graduating, Emerald worked mostly as a session singer until 2007, when she was called upon to cut a demo for producers Jan van Wieringen and David Schreurs and Canadian songwriter Vincent Degiorgio. It was her “meant to be moment”, as she calls it. “Up until then, I was always very realistic and thought fame wasn’t for me. Of course, at night in bed I dreamt about it, but I never really saw it as a realistic option. However, I was surrounded by people who believed in me: maybe that is what kept the idea alive – of becoming a star.”
When van Wieringen called to offer her a song, something clicked in Emerald’s mind. “I thought this is my lucky moment before I was always too insecure, but I wanted to change, start new and thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Her advice for young singers? “Just give it a try. If you want, something go for it. It’s such a shame if you don’t follow your dreams. Try to find your unique selling point. You need to work from your strength because the competition out there is huge and there are so many people who have the same dreams. To be just a good singer isn’t enough these days. Make sure that you write good songs and be creative. I think many singers have no idea where to start: they just hope that a producer discovers them or that they pop into the right person. That’s not how the world works! You need to convince them that they need you, that you are the one they are searching for. And that takes some balls.”
Caro seized her opportunity and recorded ʻBack It Upʼ. The producers loved it and gave her the green light. When she performed the song on a local Dutch TV station a year later, the song exploded. It became a huge hit in the Netherlands and the lead single from her platinum-selling debut album, Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor.
Adding Vincent Degiorgioʼs A&R background to the mix, Schreurs and van Wieringen set up Grandmono Records to release the music and manage the project. It was an overnight success. The album spent 30 weeks at number 1 in Holland, breaking a record set by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, selling 260,000 copies in one year. Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor has since gone platinum, with sales of over 1.3 million in Europe across more than 40 countries.
Emerald has chosen a good time to unleash her talent. The 1940s and 50s-style jazz and big band blues sound has undergone a significant revival. Her music is a crossover of jazz and modern beats, with undertones of hip hop, jive, reggae and electro-pop in her songs. What makes her stand out? “That is difficult for me to answer. My music is different, the lyrics are intelligent. It’s a story, a world, it’s more then ‘watch me on the dance floor, yeah, yeah’. It’s diverse and pleases a broad audience from young people to older couples. My music makes people happy.”
Emerald was never interested in recreating old jazz standards and simply reworking jazz favourites: “I wanted to do something different. Create my own sound. Even at school I had this urge to ‘on-jazz’… Which sounds weird be cause that’s how people see me right now. But I was never a hardcore jazz singer. I wanted to learn the rules of Jazz at school in order to break them. With my two producers, this became possible.”
Together with her team, Emerald creates her albums around a theme, starting with a simple moodboard full of pictures that inspire her. For the first album, the theme was set in the 40s and 50s as she loves the nostalgia of that time, including the movies of the golden age of Hollywood. For the second album, named The shocking Miss Emerald, Emerald found ideas in pictures, stories and people living in Paris. Aiming for an edgy sound – vivid, dark, romantic and intense – the core theme of the second album is style.
Style has always played an important role in the Caro Emerald world, and the second album emphasises Emerald’s role not only as a great singer, but also as a glamorous style icon. “I think my image is very important. The way I present myself to the audience. My style went from easy-going to a more diva-style. It evolved with the music and I think it’s very important that these two things fit together.”
Working with stylists and make-up artists, Emerald still buys most of her clothes herself: “I love UK brands actually! Like French Connection, Karen Millen, River Island, Topshop. For shoes, I love Jimmy Choo. They are great and I feel you can never get enough Jimmy Choos. I also wear them on stage. Jimmy Choos have the perfect fit – they walk really easy. My stylists buy most of my vintage outfits and of course I have many designers who design my evening gowns and tour gowns for me. We really generate a budget to let a designer design something special for my tours. Until now I only worked with Dutch designers like Dennis Diem, Maki Ito, Jan Boelo and Eudia, a hat dresser, who also made a hat for me for the Royal Variety performance. I also sometimes collaborate with a brand or designer who offers me things to borrow. At the moment I am collaborating with Suzannah.com, a website which creates clothes inspired by the 40s and 50s, classic and modern at the same time, exactly my style. I love that – I wore one of the dresses in the video clip I belong to you.”
Finding inspiration from fashion magazines, she particularly loves the collections from French luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton. Her dream, however, would be to have a costume made dress by designer Karl Lagerfeld, the great creative mind behind Chanel and Fendi: “ Yeah, a dress from Karl Lagerfeld would be great. we even wrote a song about him on The Shocking Miss Emerald album called The Maestro. That was an open solicitation to get something from him – however, I never heard back from him.”
The Shocking Miss Emerald went straight to number 1 in both Holland and the UK, becoming her first UK No.1 album. Emerald attributes her success in the UK partly to Radio 2 and Jools Holland, who has been supportive from the start. “They are so wonderful and fantastic. I think that my music and style fits the English the best. They understand the retro style the best in the world. It can be dowdy in another country but in the UK people love retro, it’s cool here. Also, I think that English artists have been a great inspiration for me, artists like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Lilly Allen. They compare me with them and I get that even thought we are completely different. We all create this ambiance with our music.”
Things might change now that she is expecting her first baby: “Yeah I have ideas about that, I definitely want to take my baby with me on tour, but I realise that I just have to try things out – how I’m going to be able to combine it all and that is pretty exciting. You just have to give it a try. We will start this summer with the first festivals, but I’ve been through a lot before and I really think in solutions. I have a great team, we work really close and I’m sure they will help me.”
Plus Emerald is not done yet: “Oh, I have so much more I want to do! I think music-wise it never stops. You always want your next CD to be better then your last one. I also feel the need to create new things; new collaborations, styles, and break through in the US – I really feel potential there, the reactions are great and I feel there’s a market for me. And it’s not relevant at the moment but someday I would like to record a singer/songwriter album. Only my own songs, maybe it won’t be attractive commercially, but I would love to do that for myself. I really believe you have to make your dreams come true.”
A very specific dream is to record the next James Bond track: “That is one of my biggest dreams. I really feel it has my name on it, they must ask me someday! My latest track I belong to you is in the James Bond style. I love that song.”
“I always want to surprise myself, to find out what I can do – that’s my biggest dream to evolve myself further. I hope that I can inspire people, to maybe buy other artists, to make people happy – that’s the most important thing. Or to help them through a hard time. When I was young, I imagined that if I can make one person happy with my music, even if it’s just one person, then I’m a very lucky and happy person.”
Published on Hungertv.com.