Designer by day, jazz singer by night

Fashion designer by day, jazz singer by night, Brigitte Mitchell is making the most of her talents, writes Kylie Knott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm

Brigitte Mitchell settles behind her "chaotic" desk that's overflowing with spools of colourful cotton, tape measures, scissors and magazines. Along one wall of her Central studio sit a couple of vintage sewing machines. Against the others lean racks of dresses.

"I've been super busy with the summer collection," says the 38-year-old as she clears a space. But while her uber-feminine couture label Viniga is worthy of column inches, we're here to talk about her other big passion: jazz.

"I've just recorded my new album and I'm really proud of it," she says, pulling on a pair of heels that do little to boost her petite frame. But that's okay, for what this South African lacks in centimetres she more than compensates for in talent and tenacity.

My singing was less about politics and more about the heart. If I had a stressful day at work I'd go out and sing my heart out
Brigitte Mitchell 

Her first album, Don't Explain, a soulful collection of mainly covers including the Billie Holiday classics God Bless the Child and Don't Explain, was nominated for a South African Music Award. This month, Mitchell releases her second album - "let's call it Blue for now" - in Hong Kong, South Africa and Japan. It's a melange of 1980s-style originals and jazz standards that will again keep jazz fans happy, in particular the hauntingly beautiful opening track, Because I'm Blue.

"[US pianist] Bobby West, who has worked with some of the greats - Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles - wrote the song 20 years ago. You'll hear it on the album," she says, passing over a burned CD.

"He met me and was very sweet - and was like 'I have this song and I've been looking for someone to sing it and I want you to sing it'. I was very flattered. It's a beautiful song - an original.

"Bobby arranged every bit of it and we have an orchestra in there, some amazing musicians - most are the same guys from my first album."

With a new clothes collection and new album, it seems Mitchell's creative glass is well and truly full. But then she jumps up and down, unable to contain her excitement about her current project - her yet-to-be-recorded next album. Don't expect her to give too much away though. "I can't say where it's being recorded, I can't say when and who will be on it - maybe in a month I can say more. I've been told to keep it hush-hush, but it'll be the biggest thing I've ever done with some big names in the music industry.

"The people involved in this project are amazing … Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real."

Modesty aside, Mitchell's rise seems well deserved in an age when manufactured pop stars ride the overnight skyrocket to fame and fortune. Born in Cape Town, she started chasing her dreams during the nightmare that was apartheid "way back in the crappy days", following her parents' footsteps down the paths of music and fashion. "My mum was a brilliant dressmaker but she was forced to stay home because she had six kids. … My dad sang in clubs," she says.

"I survived it all [apartheid] and it's inevitable that you'd mention it. I'm coloured, I'm mixed. My mum's mixed Dutch, Portuguese and British. My dad's Polynesian and Indian. I love my history and I'm proud of my heritage."

But while race issues dominated South Africa, Mitchell says the songs she sang in clubs were untouched by the political situation. "My singing was less about politics and more about the heart. If I had a stressful day at work I'd go out and sing my heart out. Don't get me wrong, I love African influences but my music is jazz and not Afro-Cuban or whatever - it's jazz and an expression of my feelings."

Her move to Hong Kong 14 years ago came about after entertainer Maria Cordero - "she was a big deal in the Hong Kong nightlife scene" - saw Mitchell on a video in South Africa. "She asked me to perform in Hong Kong. At first I was like, 'No, I'm a fashion designer'." But the pull of travel was too strong. "I was young and wanted to discover more about life." So two years after her proposition she moved to the city.

Her early days were spent subscribing to the mediocre pop scene: "I was doing a lot of R&B fusion and top 40 pop stuff that was very big in clubs and hotels [Mitchell performed at The Excelsior]." The turning point came when the Café Deco group recruited her. "The hotel scene repertoire was, well, just say I was glad I didn't have to sing I Will Survive again - or anything from Titanic," she says with a laugh. "Café Deco allowed me to do my own thing and that's when I started exploring jazz and working with other jazz musicians, and studying jazz on an intellectual level."

Buoyed by this independence, she soon found herself jamming with the city's best, securing a regular gig at French bar Gecko in Central, where she still performs, and snagging a husband, Gary da Silva, who's half-Chinese, half-Scottish "and 100 per cent music mad". He produces and drums on her albums. "The singer always gets the drummer, right?"

The couple have a seven-year-old daughter, Hannah.

"Gecko is a rehearsal for me. It's not always an easy crowd but it's a place where I can gauge public reaction to my songs - a testing ground where I can find out what makes bums move on seats."

Brigitte Mitchell, every Tue, Gecko Lounge, LG/F Ezra Lane, 15-19 Hollywood Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2537 4680