The past decade has proved a blast for The Puppini Sisters, this close harmony trio amassing gold and multi-platinum discs, and enjoying famous collaborations with everyone from Cyndi Lauper and Michael Bublé to The Manhattan Transfer.
There have been lots of big nights out too, from Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London to L’Olympia, Paris, The Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, The Greek in Los Angeles, B.B. King’s, New York, and Glastonbury Festival.
They’ve also experienced a fair amount of TV coverage en route, appearing on The Graham Norton Show, Strictly Come Dancing, Loose Women, This Morning, Big Brother’s Little Brother, Hell’s Kitchen and even Jonathan Creek, as well as a few stateside appearances via the ABC and NBC networks. And now they’re on the cusp of releasing their fifth album (their most independent recording to date) and heading out on their next UK tour.
Last time I caught up with The Puppini Sisters was at the end of 2014, with the girls about to make a festive appearance at The Dukes in Lancaster. They were sat in founder Marcella Puppini’s front room back then, the Bologna-born chanteuse and long-time sidekick Kate Mullins taking turns to respond, sound echoing around the high ceilings to confuse me.
This time I have Kate on her own, so to speak, and start by asking how life with the fairy godmothers of swing pop (the trio completed by 2012 addition Emma Smith after earlier stints in the band from Rosana Schura in 2004, Stephanie O’Brien from 2004-2012 and Terrianne Passsingham in 2012) has changed since our last conversation. And it appears that for the girls have been kept busy behind the scenes of late, having gone down the hands-on crowd-funding line.
“Yes, we just wanted to own our music really, and do what we wanted to, so we’re doing this all ourselves this time, via Pledge Music. We had four very happy albums with Universal but just felt times were changing and felt our fans were really keen to get involved with the project. It’s just such a nice way of doing it, whether there are tunes they want to hear and which songs they prefer, while giving them the opportunity to come and see us and sing with us on the album, live, to help with the campaign.”
And you’re all very social media savvy anyway?
“Something like that – Marcella more than me! I can do Facebook, but that’s pretty much it. But we’ve got a team on that!”
While the band has been ‘all guns blazing’ of late to complete the latest LP, which is poised for delivery next month, Kate had just managed to snap up a few days of ‘me time’ in Paris. The French capital has a special place in the heart for the Puppinis, and the band – who just this weekend played a theatre further south, in Agen – have played several Parisian venues in their time, including one which was very much in the international spotlight late last year.
“I went to stay with a friend, who was at the Bataclan when the terrorist attack happened. He was very lucky to get out. I was talking to him about when we played the same venue. There’s a picture of us on stage there. And one of the last shows we played in Paris, marking our 10th anniversary, was also very dear to us, playing La Cigale.”
I wonder how things are at the Bataclan and The City of Light itself, three months on.
“In my friend’s case, he’s been given therapy to try and get through it all. He’s fine – he’s come out of it with a massive sense of positivity, saying how everyone just opened their hearts to him. He did a lot of interviews for the BBC and all over, and people from around the world texted him and emailed him and told him they’d heard him. He’s a lovely man.”
Taking us back a bit, while touching on a French theme again, The Puppini Sisters’ story started in 2004, with Marcella – who met Kate at Greenwich’s Trinity College of Music – taking inspiration from the previous year’s animated cult film, Belleville Rendez-Vous (also known as Les Triplettes de Belleville).
“Have you seen it? It’s really good, quite abstract, with the music incredible, an amazing piece of work, and the man behind that (Canadian composer Benoît Charest) produced our first album.”
That film proved something of a ‘lightbulb moment’ for you, didn’t it?
“I think it was for Marcella … and it got me on board!”
In 2005, the Sisters signed for Universal Classics and Jazz, and the rest is history, or at least a decade’s worth. So to quote the girls’ new single, Is This the High Life for the three of you?
“It definitely is! The addition of Emma to the band had taken us in a whole new dimension to our show. She’s upped our game and is a fantastic musician … and I hope you’re coming to see us! I think also – because we’re in charge of this album – it’s got a very different feel. It all came together very easily, when you haven’t got too many people involved. So it definitely feels like the high point for us.”
So is the new single about that journey? Only there seems to be a little doubt in the lyric.
“It’s a Marcella Puppini special, sort of ‘I can’t believe I’m a millionaire’, but questioning everything. But in the end, actually the high life is everything you have in life, all the wonderful people you have, all these wonderful experiences.”
Along the way, the Puppinis have attracted an impassioned fan-base of all ages – from jazz lovers to nostalgics and retro aesthetes, and equally those drawn in by the style, vivacity and colour (in the girls’ voices and costumes alike). They’ve also been known to take on a few hits and give them a Puppini makeover too, from The Smiths’ Panic to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Beyonce and beyond.
For me, there’s a feel of the wondrous Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes? (from her Tropical Brainstorm album in 2000) to the new single. Maybe that’s a song you could incorporate into your live show.
“I love that song, and it always crops up in my life just when I really need it!”
The new album was produced by Fred DeFaye, with musical arrangements and original compositions by the girls themselves.
“We’ve worked on a few originals between us on this album, and between the three of us share the arranging. Fred’s on our last two albums, and is our engineer. After the first album we felt we knew how to do all this, but what’s good about Fred is he knows us well enough to suggest that wasn’t quite our best, ‘Non! Encore! Do it again!’ He’s fantastic at that.”
The Highlife is out on March 11th (on Millionaire Records, distributed by Absolute), with a typical Puppini Sisters combination of the band’s arrangements of self-penned originals plus classics from the ‘30s to the ‘50s (from Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive to Tico Tico) and jazzy reinventions of mainstream hits, including David Bowie’s Changes.
“Yes, we did all these arrangements seven or eight months ago, and Changes is something Marcella’s wanted to do for years. It seems like rather cynical timing, but really isn’t.”
Was Bowie a big influence on you all?
“Huge! Particularly on Marcella.”
Then there’s Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun? And Cyndi’s a fan, isn’t she?
“Yes, we supported her on the True Colors tour in 2008. She said she’d really like us to be on board. There was also Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Andy Bell from Erasure, and The B-52’s.
“We all had a 45-minute slot before Cyndi, then we’d all come on for an encore of True Colors. It was brilliant! It was a rolling tour, with bands joining as she went along. We did around eight dates in the USA, and finished at The Greek in LA, a dream come true for me. She’s just an amazing performer and her vocals live are outstanding. Cyndi’s like this possessed little imp running around the stage – a real hero of mine.
“Do you know what, though? She didn’t write Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and I hadn’t realised that.”
Wasn’t it written by a fella?
“That would bring a whole different meaning to it! But it’s a fabulous arrangement, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. I think it’s our best yet.
“Actually, I’ve just checked and it was written by Robert Hazard … so you’re right!”
Harmonising with Michale Buble on his December 2011 NBC Christmas Special didn’t do the girls any harm, either. And, remind me, isn’t HRH Prince Charles something of a Puppinis’ groupie?
“He sure is! We met him at the Royal Variety Show in 2006 and he was terribly sweet, and had got our debut album, Betcha Bottom Dollar, for his birthday. As he was coming down the line to meet everyone, he had someone whisper in his ear, ‘This is Jim, and he breeds ferrets, and this is Kate, Steph and Marcella, The Puppini Sisters.
“He said (Kate does her impression), “Oh, it’s you! Wonderful that you’re here. I was given your album for my birthday and I think it’s terrific!’
“There’s a fantastic photo someone sent, taken from behind him. All you can see is Prince Charles’s bald spot and us in front of him with our décolletage out, the light reflecting! But he was terribly nice, and Camilla was lovely too.”
Part of that Puppini charm that turned on the heir to the throne and many more – other than the luscious harmonies, looks and ‘impeccable retro-futuristic fashion sense’, of course – is the girls’ ability to put a swing-spin on songs you wouldn’t expect to hear from a band in their canon – take for instance the Missy Elliot, Sia and Sugarhill Gang covers on the new album.
“It’s been real fun. We’ve been doing this a long time now – coming up to 11 years – and back then it was still underground. Things like post-modern jukebox that are now very current. It’s really nice to see other people enjoying it too. We stuck to our guns and still enjoy it.”
As you hint there, a few close-harmony swing outfits followed in your wake. Do you enjoy the competition?
“We enjoy the compliment – put it that way! I think we’re definitely considered to be the pioneers, and that’s really nice. But it’s so infectious, we’re just chuffed to bits that others are enjoying doing it too.
“And we’re really looking forward to doing a thorough UK tour. It’s been a while since we searched out all the nooks and crannies of the country!”
The tour starts at Gateshead’s The Sage on Thursday, March 3, followed not far off my patch at Lytham’s Lowther Pavilion on Friday, March 4.
The rest of the tour includes – for the North West fans – Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre (Tuesday, March 8) and Sale’s Waterside Theatre (Wednesday, March 9), heading on towards a finale at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre (Monday, March 21), before a later show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Thursday, May 18).
So what’s the format on this tour? You’ve had some big bands and traditional orchestras behind you over the years. Is your own band travelling with you this time?
“Yes – guitar, double bass and drums, with some solo turns, so you get to hear the individual voices. We all get to play instruments as well – a mini-Puppini orchestra!”
Out of interest, the trio behind the girls are Henrik Jensen (double bass), Blake Wilner (guitar) and Peter Ibbetson (drums). And great value they are too.
The Sisters’ latest press release says, ‘When you start out retro, you don’t expect to become true originals’. But this has never just been about nostalgia, with plenty of originality employed en route.
It was Marcella and Kate at first, with a couple of line-up changes before Emma came along. Does it surprise Kate that suddenly the Sisters are up to album number five? There must have been moments where she doubted that, between that first show at The Amersham Arms in New Cross and now.
“Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had doubts. I never expected any of this to happen, but always kind of assumed it might, although that sounds weird. When I was at school I always felt I’d get a record deal and I’d go on and do this as a career, and when you’ve got that petulance of youth you think, ‘I’m just going to do it!’
“I don’t think I’ve ever really thought beyond that. We’ve kept rolling, we’ve kept loving it, we’ve re-invented ourselves, and that’s always kept it fresh. We’ve added more people to the Puppini family and taken in more influences. It keeps it entertaining for the fans as well!”
The fairy godmothers of swing-pop drop by, a December 2015 writewyattuk feature/interview with Marcella and Kate of The Puppini Sisters, can be found here.
The Puppini Sisters are at Lowther Pavilion, Lytham, on Friday, March 4, with ticket details from www.lowtherpavilion.co.uk/, the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, on Tuesday, March 8 (via the box office on 0844 888 4411 or http://www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk/whats-on/the-puppini-sisters–the-highlife-tour.aspx) and the Waterside Theatre, Sale, on Wednesday, March 9 (www.watersideartscentre.co.uk).
For the rest of their dates and all the latest from The Puppini Sisters, head to their website here and keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter links or their YouTube channel. And for details about their Pledge Music campaign and how to get involved, try this link.