Jazz singer Mikhala Iversen describes her journey to musical and personal fulfilment.
Growing up in a household where both parents were jazz fans, Mikhala Iversen’s transition into an innovative jazz artist, with her own distinct fusion style, seemed a natural progression. Today, the Danish-American performer talks about how her upbringing shaped her musical career.
Mikhala Iversen grew up in what she describes as a “jazz house”. Her mother was an American vocalist, on tour in Denmark, when she met her father, a jazz fan. After a chance encounter in Copenhagen, they fell in love and settled in Denmark, never to return to the States.
As a child, Iversen met many jazz greats, who congregated at her house, thanks to her mother’s excellent Creole cuisine. “As you know, our people meet around food!” she explained. “So everybody came through our house.”
Her grandfather re-married and his new bride was a singer from California all-girl group the Peters Sisters, while family friends included jazz saxophonists Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, vocalist Eartha Kitt, saxophonist and songwriter Ernie Wilkins and girl group the Pointer Sisters.
Perhaps surprisingly, Iversen didn’t like jazz when she was young, because there was “too much of it” in her home. “It was all the time. It was 24/7. So I started as a dancer,” she explained.
At the age of 17, she began considering music as a profession, taking part in Broadway productions in Copenhagen. She performed at the Royal Theatre and the Danish New Theatre in musicals including Sweet Charity and Guys and Dolls.
In her 20s, she studied at vocal masterclasses through the Danish Artist Union, under London coach Sir Ian Adam, who had also trained Elaine Paige. “I was awarded a scholarship and went to London and studied with him. That just opened up my voice and I started singing.”
She also studied opera and gospel and went on to form her own rock band – Venus Vendetta and the Army Aphrodite – who played a few gigs around Copenhagen. Iversen wrote their original songs, describing herself as a “young rebel”.
Mikhala studied modern ballet, classical ballet and jazz ballet from the age of 16, describing her first solo role as “terrifying”. However, the ballet increasingly took a back seat in her 20s, when the music began taking over.
Iversen’s love for jazz eventually kicked in when she was 16, while listening to the music of Count Basie, at a family gathering on Christmas Day.
“I think I’d heard that arrangement 2,000 times, and they were all sitting there hanging out and singing all the horn parts, partying.
“All of a sudden, it just clicked and I heard it. I’d been hearing it all my life, but I hadn’t really listened to it. And all of a sudden, it just came through. It’s like wow, this is brilliant! This is larger than life.”
Balancing a love of jazz, rock and dance wasn’t a great hardship for the talented young artist. “Whatever really called me was what I focused on,” she explained. “Then, by the way, I also got married and had a child.”
Her first jazz band, Jump and Suit, performed songs by the likes of Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole. “Some of those songs actually carried over into my Jazz Muffin album, which is a merger of what I love,” she added.
“I was up against Etta Cameron, my own mother, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, the Pointer Sisters, Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt – and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I can’t get in there’. And that’s when I merged my love for reggae – and that’s where Jazz Muffin came in.”
Iversen’s interpretation of re-working the songs with a new zest, giving them the “reggae-muffin” treatment, was considered rejuvenating and fresh by many jazz fans. Her repertoire on the 2012 album was a mix of jazz songs from the 1930s and ‘40s, including Nature Boy, Good Morning Heartache and Loverman.
Iversen says she loves reggae, Grace Jones and Sly and Robbie, with the rhythm section on Jazz Muffin influenced by the music of Grace Jones. “I merged the jazz songs that I love – Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole.”
She explained: “I still wanted to stay true to the changes of the songs that create the melody and the music underneath. It’s not just a case of Nature Boy being in the key of C and then you can just play whatever you want.
“It still has to have that suspension in between, to create the dynamics to support the song and the melodies. That was a bit of a challenge, but it worked.
“I basically made a pop form. I changed the rhythm section. I turned that into Sly and Robbie. And then I put hook lines in, like a pop composition, but I kept all the melodies intact and made three-part harmonies on it. I made it danceable because jazz used to be dance music.”
When Iversen reached her 30s, she pursued her fascination with human behaviour and development and studied for a Bachelor Degree in Clinical Psychology at Copenhagen University.
Describing it as her “other passion”, she said she needed to find out: “Why we do what we do and how we can do it better.”
The reasons she studied psychology was two-fold – first, she was curious as to why people were continually stressed out about their job, and secondly, as a mother, she felt it would be interesting to relate it to parenting.
Iversen was delighted that her Jazz Muffin album resulted in her being invited to play live in New Orleans – now her home. When playing live in Europe, she had found it difficult to get people up on the dance floor. “When I got to New Orleans, my motto was to get more sweet love in this world, so let’s dance to jazz again, but they were already on the floor!”
She added, “I’ve been very fortunate here in New Orleans to be performing in the best clubs in the city. When I first decided to stay in New Orleans, I joined the oldest African American church in the world, St Augustine Church, and I sang with them.”
Now divorced, she began working for a tour company in the French Quarter and enrolled her daughter in college there. The tours look at the horrific life of slavery suffered by many people in the 19th century – something Iversen’s mother had told her about when she was only five years old.
She began the tours to fill a gap in the market: “Black people from all over the world would come and say, ‘So, where are our tours? Where’s our story?’ and I was hired to sell a certain product. I gained my tour guide licence and then I established my tour company four years ago, All Bout Dat Tours.
“I wanted the truth about slavery. I found out they were not interested in hearing the truth when I was working for the other tour companies, so I started my own.”
Her flagship tours are the Black Heritage and Jazz Tour, but she also offers a Swamp and the Whitney Plantation Tour. Black-Owned New Orleans Tour Company is the First to Offer Black Heritage and Jazz Tours That Are Registered With the Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
Although born in Copenhagen, Iversen describes herself as Afropean. She is interested in her heritage and says she finds attitudes in Denmark and the USA very different. Describing being in the US, she says, “I had a name – but I went to a place where I turned into a colour.”
She says she has coped with racism all her life. “Thank God my mother was black and that I grew up with so many strong black women around me because otherwise, I think I would have been squashed.”
She believes it’s particularly difficult for a woman to enter the entertainment industry. “You definitely have to be able to set some healthy boundaries, and that’s why I’m glad for my psychology education,” she explains.
She also believes it’s important to maintain the Creole spirit and culture in future generations. “How can we go about making that happen? First, know the past, so you can understand the present and change the future. Understand what’s going on today.
“The one thing I say to my students and kids who go on my tours is that if you take one thing away from here, I hope this has awakened your curiosity. Stay curious.”
The singer says we must feed our children with good nutrition – physically, mentally, and spiritually – to improve their overall health in the future.
She also hopes to re-marry one day. “I am divorced from the father of my child. We were married for 10 years, and I think that now I’m ready to settle down, so I would like to meet the love of my life,” she adds.
Iversen is one of the pioneers of jazz music, giving it her own unique slant, and also remains determined to promote her Creole heritage to ensure younger generations never forget their roots.