Marcella Puppini and Kate Mullins are sat by the phone, the two founding members of The Puppini Sisters well and truly in the festive spirit.
They’re clearly looking forward to their Christmas tour, those eight dates including visits to The Duke’s in Lancaster tomorrow and Manchester’s RNCM Theatre next Wednesday (December 17).
The girls – who met at the Trinity College of Music in Greenwich and formed their vocal ensemble a decade ago – are promising something to warm the cockles too.
And that seems rather apt considering their proximity to Morecambe Bay this weekend.
“Indeed! Definitely a little cockle-warming. Absolutely!”
That’s Marcella speaking, her Italian tones a little more London these days, but still with enough of a hint of a Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida perhaps, in keeping with the Sisters’ screen sirens’ feel.
Marcella, Kate and most recent sisterly addition Emma Smith will be joined by a three-piece band, involving guitar, double bass and drums.
“Yes, on this occasion, although sometimes we do a slightly larger show with horns and strings as well. But we didn’t have enough room to bring them all.”
It sounds like a winner all the same, whether you fancy hearing their jazzy waltz treatment of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ or sultry seasonal staples such as ‘Santa Baby’.
So what do the girls know about Lancaster? Have they been to this part of the North-West coast before?
Marcella replies, “No, but we’re really looking forward to it. I have to admit I haven’t travelled that extensively in the UK outside of London and the big cities.”
Kate chips in, “We’ve never been to Lancaster before, but did something in the same area for the Jubilee, and it was a really nice show.
“But it’s been a while since, so we’re looking forward to recapturing the territory! And Lancaster Castle has already been highly recommended to us.”
With the festivities on the mind, and prior success in the shape of their 2010 Christmas with The Puppini Sisters album, I ask what the girls’ favourite seasonal songs are.
Marcella: “I really like our version of Mele Kalikimaka, and love the duet we did with Michael Buble.”
Kate: “As far as we’re concerned, the repertoire from the era we specialise in is all fantastic from around the Christmas season, from The Andrews Sisters arrangements onwards.
“Then there’s Doris Day for me, and her storming rendition of Silver Bells.”
Quite right too, and talking of Mr Buble – for whom they collaborated on Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman on his own Christmas album – is he likely to be supping a pint down the road from The Dukes on the night, poised to drop by to join you on stage?
Kate laughs, then announces, “Yeah … we’ll call him!”
If James Brown is The Godfather of Funk and Soul and Paul Weller’s The Modfather, does that make you The Fairy Godmothers of Swing-pop?
Kate: “Hey! That’s brilliant – we’re coining that!”
What do they think The Andrews Sisters or their inspirational predecessors The Boswell Sisters would make of the Puppinis?
Kate: “Well, we did hear from a mutual friend of Patty Andrews before she died, who thought we were rather good, and we took that as a seal of approval.
“Actually, I think that’s me being a little British about it – she thought we were very good. We were very touched at that.”
It’s been said of late that The Boswell Sisters have been forgotten down the years, but clearly not by The Puppini Sisters.
Marcella: “They were the inspiration for The Andrews Sisters, so were the ones that began it all.
“It is tragic if they’ve been forgotten. They are astoundingly amazing, and their sense of swing is unparalleled.”
Kate: “There was a darkness to them as well, which we quite appreciated.”
The Puppinis have turned up on Jonathan Creek and a few other TV shows in recent years, but I get the feeling they should be in a few period films too, in the spirit of those classic Hollywood moments their music emulates. Are those offers coming in?
Marcella: “Not yet. We’re waiting for Downton Abbey, but they’re not quite at the right period yet.”
Marcella and Kate have been touring as the Puppini Sisters for 10 years now. So where was their first show?
A brief discussion follows, with Marcella struggling before the answer comes to Kate, and for a while it’s like I’m on the set of a TV quiz show for the big money question.
“Yes! I do know! It was at The Amersham Arms in New Cross, with the two of us and a wonderful lady called Rosanna Schura who was studying with us, at a venue just down the road from our music college.
“I went to a gig there the other day actually, and it still smells the same – slightly damp and strange.
“But there was a very warm atmosphere there, and as I recall it, everybody really enjoyed The Puppinis’ first show.”
Did they think it was a one-off, or did they always believe in what they had together?
Marcella: “It wasn’t created with any big idea of it being a success, but it became quite apparent early on, because everywhere we went we got such an incredible response, and in the most random situations as well.
“We did a gig once where we opened for a heavy metal band, and all their fans absolutely loved us.
“Then we had a regular gig at a gay club in Soho, where after we played it was an established club night, playing Beyonce and all sorts.
“It was a completely random association, but they loved us there as well. We seem to fit everywhere we went and it became quite obvious that we had something.”
If they were playing to a heavy metal crowd, did they feel the need to throw something different into their set?
Kate: “We didn’t have to, although I did once try to rearrange Guns n’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle for The Puppinis.
“And it really didn’t sound that different to the rest of the set, because if you think about it, that song really kind of swings!”
Before meeting Kate at Trinity, Marcella was at Saint Martin’s College in London, as name-checked by Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s Common People?
Marcella: “I hadn’t realised that, although, I knew he was there. I’ll have to re-listen.”
Marcella had had a career in fashion and worked with Vivienne Westwood before embarking on a music degree, with those first appearances à la mode.
But their gigs quickly attracted a mix of impassioned fans – jazz-goers, retro-aesthetes, nostalgia lovers, those with a style obsession, and younger fans – all spellbound by the vivacity and colour in the voices and costumes alike.
Is Marcella still in touch with Vivienne Westwood?
“I’m in touch with quite a lot of people who work with her. Not Vivenne herself, although If I did see her we’d still say hello and have a chat, I’m sure.”
The style, fashion and drama play a big part in all this, don’t they?
Marcella: “Absolutely! Because it’s a visual show, as is anything on stage. It’s about the whole package, and it’s all very important because the style and the clothes also tell a story and create a mood.”
Did you listen to a lot of close harmony jazz and swing when you were growing up?
Both answer yes, and Marcella says, “I was totally obsessed with Manhattan Transfer, and just couldn’t get enough of them. And my brother and I would sing Simon and Garfunkel songs together.”
That brings a hearty laugh from Kate, who chips in, “I was the same with my Dad!”
Was there an Italian influence around the house for Marcella?
“Oh yes, and growing up in Italy I was going to the Alps a lot, so there are lots of Alpine songs and choirs doing traditional songs.
“My friends and I would learn those and harmonise on those. And singing harmony is such an important part of Italian culture.”
What does newest member Emma add to the party?
Kate: “Emma’s 23, full of life, an incredible musician and one of the most talented people Marcella and I have had the privilege of working with.
“Her family are all musicians, her grandfather was Frank Sinatra’s right-hand man. He was a trombone player and she was in his big band from the age of 14, a touring musician.
“She was also the only singer they took in the Royal Academy jazz department for 20 years. Emma’s really one to watch and has a burgeoning solo career too.
“Emma was also born and raised in the same town as me – Harpenden, Hertfordfshire – and at school just down the road from me, a few years after.
“But she adds genuine warmth to our live performance, and is such a huge talent.”
Does Emma add the classical vibe that previous ‘Sisters’ Rosanna Schura and Stephanie O’Brien once did?
“More jazz really, and swing is in her blood. She swings like a demon!”
Judging by Marcella and Kate’s respective past punk and metal backgrounds, I have to ask, does the world really need to hear another version of Wham’s Last Christmas, as featured on their Christmas album.
They both laugh, then Kate adds, “You’d have to ask Stephanie about that. That was her choice!”
Past sets have also included The Smiths’ Panic, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, and even a bit of Beyonce. All in their own style though, or ‘antiquing’ as they put it.
Any surprises in store for the set on this tour?
Kate: “There will be a couple of new numbers, having worked on some fresh arrangements.”
Marcella: “You’ll probably hear from us individually as well, with some solo places.”
As well as receiving gold and multi-platinum discs for past recordings, The Puppinis have made friends in high places in recent years too, and not only the afore-mentioned Michael Buble.
There’s also a certain HRH by the name of Prince Charles. So how did the next-in-line to the throne end up a Puppinis fan?
Kate explains, “We were on a Royal Variety Show and met him in the line-up after. He had an assistant whispering in his ear, telling him who was who.
“When Charles and Camilla got to us, we got the generic, ‘Hello, you were wonderful’.
“But then I think he twigged and said “Oh, it’s you! I think you’re wonderful. I bought your CD for my birthday and thought it was fantastic!”
And from UK to American royalty – Cyndi Lauper’s a fan too, I understand.
Marcella: “She was very impressed with us.”
Kate: “She’s great … and a real character.”
Marcella: “Although she wasn’t very impressed after one of our concerts when I inadvertently threw my microphone into her audience.”
Along the way, The Puppini Sisters have had plenty of prestigious sell-out shows and big festival moments too, including Glastonbury.
So what have been the most memorable gigs over their first decade performing?
Marcella: “There have been some incredible moments, but Koko in Camden in 2008 stands out.”
Kate adds, “And I think the Union Chapel last year, a church in Islington where we did a Christmas show with strings and horns.
“The strings on O Holy Night and The Little Matchseller, one of Marcella’s arrangements, just sounded sublime in that setting and with that orchestration. I was getting goosebumps just singing.”
Finally, it’s been a while since your last album, 2011’s Hollywood. Are we due a new one?
Marcella: “Yes, that’ll be next year when we’re recording that.
“It’ll be a mixture of arrangements of classics, pop songs and original material. And it’s coming soon!”
For more about the Puppini Sisters and their festive dates, head to their website here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, from December 11th, 2014.
I really love these girls, great interview!
Thanks Elena. Great to talk to as well!
Pingback: High Life, high fidelity – back in touch with The Puppini Sisters | writewyattuk