You can’t move for women’s voices on the airwaves at the moment — Julie Walters on Classic FM leading off its new big series on turning points in music. Kate Molleson and Georgia Mann joining Sarah Walker and Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 (which this week also gave a big nod to female composers such as Amy Beach, Florence Price and Sofia Gubaidulina). Emma Barnett spicing up the political interview on Radio Five Live. It feels a bit like tokenism, too much too late. As if it’s going to make up for all those centuries of men in the driving seat of life. But the effect of hearing women’s voices almost whenever you switch on is like drinking fresh lemonade on a hot day, slightly acidic but invigorating.
Take Carla Bruni on Radio 2. Not exactly a feminist icon. And to begin with her late-night series on Wednesdays, Carla Bruni’s C’est la Vie (produced by Paul Smith), was all a bit soupy as she talked about falling in love with her husband Nicolas Sarkozy. I never expected to last the full hour but found myself drawn in by Bruni’s intimate way of talking as if to me alone, her connection with the microphone, her voice so soft and sultry. She brought a completely different tone to the nation’s favourite station. It was like being taken direct to Paris.
Her choice of music was not exactly eclectic, and her own tracks featured perhaps a mite more than was necessary (including a rather ghastly version of Tammy Wynette’s great anthem ‘Stand By Your Man’). But she did also give us Jacques Brel, Françoise Hardy, Leonard Cohen and of course Serge Gainsbourg (so overrated). It’s impossible not to succumb to her deftness of touch, her straightforward love of harmony and melody; nothing jars, no hard feelings. It’s as if in the world of Bruni nothing bad ever happens, which in these times is infectiously refreshing (although next week she is focusing on melancholy). Along the way, we heard about her meeting with Bob Dylan a few years ago. He gave one of his harmonicas to Sarkozy. ‘I don’t know why he gave it to my man. But I tell you it went right into my pocket as soon as I got into the car.’
A meeting between Bruni and Val Wilmer, the music journalist, photographer and historian, whose work was featured on Sunday night on Radio 3 (produced by Steve Urquhart), would be something to witness, Bruni, I rather suspect, being minced by Wilmer’s sardonic tongue. Wilmer became one of the foremost chroniclers of African-American musical culture through her writing about the great black jazz musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. Her working life began aged 14 when she took a photograph of Louis Armstrong at London Airport. She got into jazz when she stumbled across Ray Charles singing ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ on Radio Luxembourg while sitting at the kitchen table revising for exams. It was, she says, ‘The most arresting, dramatic sound I’d ever heard.’ She had grown up singing ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ in the school hall. From that to Charles was, she says, ‘quite some leap’.
As a teenager she wrote to the musicians she liked listening to, mostly black, and through the letters she received back from them she found stories which she began sending to music magazines. Memphis Slim had a meal with her family in Streatham; so did Charlie Mingus. All because of her letters. At the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1969, the journalist Richard Williams remembers how Wilmer was greeted as a friend by all the members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. To get the stories she later told in books such as As Serious As Your Life she didn’t, she says, ‘ask complicated questions’, but simple things like ‘Where did you get your saxophone?’ or ‘Who did you play with first?’
Not for the first time, but still a rarity, Composer of the Week on Radio 3 featured a woman, Rachel Portman, best known for her film scores (she was the first female composer to win an Oscar, for Emma in 1996). In conversation with Donald Macleod, Portman revealed how for her first commission she had just three-and-a-half weeks to provide 45 minutes of music. Recently she’s been studying psychotherapy and sees a link between her two professions: ‘Whenever I’ve been working on a project I’ve really had to understand a character, a world, a place. You have to really attune to it… to someone’s psyche.’
The music we heard was fantastically varied, with great textures and a variety of instrumentation (for the film of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she was told by the director not to use any western classical instruments). But what really cut through the airwaves was her account of moving with her two young children to LA while working on a film. One day she came back and realised the house had been broken into. She called the police who entered the building but soon came out ashen-faced. ‘There’s a body in the pool,’ they told her.