She began singing when she was 15, went on to work with names such as Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page, acted in films, and was the first Mary Magdalene in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on West End. Blues singer Dana Gillespie speaks with Lounge about her musical journey. Edited excerpts:
Many hues: Gillespie in concert.
Folk, rock, teen pop, acting, Sanskrit bhajans and then the blues. So many transitions?
It’s been interesting (laughs). I’ve been singing blues for 30 years and I grew up in the 1960s when blues was the thing in England. It was always my big love. When I was young, I always did whatever came my way, be it acting or singing folk songs, but then I would always run off in the evening to sing in a blues bar. Blues, I think, is spiritual music. You need experience in your life to be able to sing the blues. I didn’t have that when I was, say, 16, and even if I sang, I wouldn’t have been able to get the right emotion in my voice.
And you have that now?
Well, I sing with a band that’s considered the cream of blues (The London Blues Band). That must say something. I think it’s an honour I have earned. Now, I also run my own yearly blues festival at Mustique, a private island in the West Indies.
You tried many things before you settled on the blues.
Yes, in spite of the deep influence of blues musicians on me. The kind of musicians you see when you were young, they shape your life. I saw Muddy Waters perform at an American folk blues festival... In addition to that, all hit musicians like Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck (of the Yardbirds) were good friends. So, in a sense it was an embryonic ground for me to learn everything but I couldn’t concentrate on it. Strangely enough, it was because of the way I looked. I kept getting these film roles that expected me to show a bit of cleavage on the top of the shirt, which was all you did in films in those days, and I was happy to do any work.
You worked under the pseudonym “Third-man” for your bhajan-based devotional albums. What triggered these projects?
Even as a child I was drawn to India. I first came here on a holiday 35 years ago and felt like I had touched home ground. Then, 26 years ago, I came to see the Sathya Sai Baba at Puttaparthi. I loved the bhajans and felt I should record and spread them in the Western world.
How did you land the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar?
I read an advertisement in a music magazine asking singers to come and audition for a play. I was out of work at that time. Even as I rehearsed as a back vocal, I knew I was going to be Mary Magdalene... I did an audition and I sang Don’t know how to love him just with the piano, and I got it. I am not the sort who has premonitions but there was something about it—I just knew.
You have done projects with stars such as David Bowie, Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger. What is it that they like about Dana Gillespie?
People forget that they are not just big names and stars, they are also normal people. I have known David Bowie since I was 14. I was growing up in London, which was a melting pot at that time, and all these people who were just normal pals of mine went on to become major stars. I guess Bob Dylan asked me to tour with him because there were not that many women singers in those days. Women in the music business, the moment they get married and have children, they quit... I did not want to fall into that trap.
But there were romances.
Yes there were, but several more rumours that were false.
You’ve performed in India earlier. Are you looking forward to the Indian audience?
The blues is for people who want to have a good time unlike jazz, which I think is slightly more intellectual. You can dance to the blues and although not every person in the audience might get what I am singing about, I thing the swing makes them connect.
Gillespie will perform on 13 December at UB City, Bangalore, as a part of the Bengaluru Habba festival. For passes and festival details, log on to www.bengaluruhabba.co.in