When Jorja Chalmers was a student at the Conservatorium, her ambitions were modest – she just wanted to work in music. Today, she tours the world as Bryan Ferry’s saxophonist of choice.
Jorja Chalmers (BMusStud ’04) is in her Berlin hotel room when I call her over Skype. It’s mid-morning there, and Jorja is surprisingly fresh-faced and friendly for someone whose day job is really a night job that can extend to all hours. With sun streaming through the window, she laughs as she recalls her years at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 2000-04.
“I was a rock’n’roll chick in a classical environment” she says. “I was a bit out of my depth the whole time I was there, but in a way that sort of suited me.”
Chalmers is a classically trained saxophonist who now tours the world with Bryan Ferry – of Roxy Music fame – and his band. After Berlin, the tour will take her to Denmark, Sweden, France, Spain, and coast to coast in the United States. It’s “the dream gig”, she tells me. “Honestly, when I was at the Conservatorium, I thought I might be a music teacher. Sometimes I can’t believe I get to do this.”
So was she a good student, I ask? Jorja laughs. “I could have been better. I always did really well with the practical exams, but with the theory … not so much.”
Born in Sydney’s northern beaches, Chalmers is a long way from home – she now lives in London, a far cry from that back-up career as a sax teacher. So how does a girl who says she came to play the sax “almost by accident” end up with one of the most coveted gigs in the world?
“My mother was a singer in a country band,” says Jorja. “And my Dad was always very musical. He built his own sound system, and he was always listening to really diverse music – everything from Pink Floyd and the Doors to Jimmy Hendrix, Kraftwerk and David Bowie. And classical, too – he introduced me to works like Rachmaninoff’s ‘The Rock’. I just loved that.”
Jorja had this incredible drive. She wanted to do well, and I'm not at all surprised that she has.
Chalmers was just 13 when she taught herself to play piano using the sheet music for the soundtrack to the film The Piano. Soon after, she picked up the sax. “I don’t really know why,” she says. “It was early high school, and I really wanted to join a band. It could have been any instrument,” she says, “I just wanted to play. I loved it.”
At high school, a teacher, who was studying at the Conservatorium herself, encouraged Chalmers to apply for a place. “I didn’t really think I had a shot,” she says. “I hadn’t been playing for that long compared to other students.” Her teacher cautioned her that the audition might be nerve-wracking, and it was. But Chalmers also felt a strong determination, “That was a big sign to me that I was on the right path – it just felt like the right thing to do.”
Though she jokingly says she was an “awful” student during her time at the Conservatorium, her teacher, Christina Leonard (BMus ’96 MPerf ’99 DipLangStud ’03), remembers it rather differently. “She always worked so hard,” says Leonard, who has taught at the Conservatorium for more than 20 years. “She had this incredible drive. She wanted to do well, and I’m not at all surprised that she has.”
After that study, Chalmers taught the sax to high school students but soon found she had itchy feet. She landed in London in 2004 and joined New Wave band Hotel Motel while temping in PR agencies by day. “I was having a ball,” she says. But one morning after a Hotel Motel gig, Chalmers saw a message on MySpace. “It was Bryan Ferry’s PA, asking me to come and play for him.” She did, and she’s been on the road ever since.
Ferry has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide (including his work with Roxy Music) and was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2011 for his contribution to music. He tours almost constantly, meaning that Chalmers is one of those rare musicians who is always working. “I’m extremely lucky,” she says, “because I get to tour with Bryan and then come home and make my own music in London.”
Ferry, says Chalmers, is “an incredible songsmith”, whose professionalism and creativity have continued to school her, long after she graduated from the Conservatorium. From her first gig with the band at the iconic London nightclub, Annabel’s, to the present day, Chalmers says she’s always motivated by Ferry’s attention to detail. “The standard of his performances is so high,” she says. “You really have to push yourself to keep up.”
Though she didn’t study composition at the Conservatorium, Chalmers now says she wishes she had, as writing is her “true passion”. When she’s at home with husband Alistair Renn (also a musician, and owner of the record label VIVOD) and their young daughters, Olive and Audrey, Chalmers composes music for soundtracks.
“Right now, I’m working on a Synth Wave project. It’s nostalgic soundscapes that work for drama, horror and sci-fi, stuff like that,” she says, adding that her ultimate goal would be to compose dramatic soundtracks, “My classical training makes it natural for me to write that way.”
After 10 years on the road with Ferry and side gigs with the Ting Tings, Patrick Wolf and 90s boy band Take That (“They started doing their synchronised dancing…it was a bit different from working with Bryan – he’s such a cool cat!”), Chalmers says the buzz of performing never gets old.
“We’ve played for 200 people, we’ve played for 70,000 people. On every level, it’s just an amazing feeling.” Does she ever get nervous, I ask? “Well, the 70,000-person gig, yeah,” she says. “But it still feels very comfortable for me, very natural. I couldn’t do it night after night if it didn’t.”
Written by Lauren Sams
Photography by Neil Turner