Inspirational Woman: Kerri Layton | Performer & Creative Entrepreneur

Kerri Layton
Image credit: Christian Ostmo

Kerri Layton, 35, an extremely talented international blues and jazz singer and creative entrepreneur who has travelled the world performing and has been described by industry magazine, The Stage as “A Million Dollars At Any Years Prices” is also an experienced youth worker, qualified drama teacher –  a path she pursued before being signed to the same agency as Lady Gaga which saw her playing at sell out events, singing for celebs and royalty alike.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am a Performer and Entrepreneur, I wear many hats like lots of us do! Jazz Singer, Songwriter, Bandleader, Guitarist, Teacher, Youth Worker, Agent, and Director of Dixiebird Records and Retro Performing Arts Co!

A creative first and a business woman second, I always had a deep passion for business and I always had my head stuck in the clouds. I’m pretty glad that at some point along the way the two met in the middle. I love treading that path between being an artist and an entrepreneur. The two are intrinsically connected and they inform each other. Its a dance.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I found my true love for singing and performing – with the support of my neighbour and some of the old boys down at my local jazz club. I was already working as a professional performer, actress and singer but when I found the blues this whole world opened up for me. I found mentors in the voices of Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Thrace, Mahalia Jackson, Peggy Lee, the list goes on and on!

I threw in the towel on my other shows and after the last tour had ended with a theatre company I was working for, I bought myself a snazzy mic, some great costumes and I went out as a solo act – Lady Layton!

It was a bigger success than I imagined and within a year I had done two international tours, sang for Royalty, moved to London and had the same agent as Lady Gaga!

However, one day – my voice suddenly changed and I was producing robotic noises – I was terrified and heartbroken – I was in the height of my singing career but was being rushed to hospital for an emergency operation on my vocal chords – not knowing whether I would ever sing again.

What followed was a year of recovery both mental and physically. I was grieving the loss of some friends and family and had no outlet, or way of connecting with the world, or way of earning a living event massively took its toll on my mental health.

During my darkest moments I birthed the vision for Dixiebird Records, its the one thing that really got me through and I was fortunate enough to receive some help from the charity Help Musicians UK who were instrumental (pun intended!) in helping me to get through that period and keep my career in music.

I had this vision of a really glamorous, female lead music agency and jazz label. I come alive when I hear the old stomps of New Orleans and the mix with the heady glamour of the early blues singers like Bessie Smith and I wanted to bring something truly unique with a contemporary twist. We have since performed for big well known clients such as; Bollinger, Alexandra Palace, Savoy, The Royal British Legion… and at the start of the year (2020) I was inundated and business was booming, my phone ringing was non-stop but when lockdown was announced, we lost all our bookings over night. I knew I needed to pivot… I did a 360 move and launched my second business using my knowledge and experience as a performer, my training, teaching and youth work experience and her expansive network of artists to launched the Retro Performing Arts Company, which was set up at the start of the Covid-19 crisis as a way of bringing our passion for theatre and the arts to families living rooms and to help keep the kids engaged and happy.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve never had a career plan as such… I have always just taken chances and rolled my sleeves up and got stuck in, each project has inspired the next, connected me with new people and has evolved over time.

Creating and performing has always been a bedrock foundation for me though.

I was a shy army child, who struggled with my identity and I didn’t have many friends, moving regularly from town to town during my childhood – I would escape in my head by making mini-theatre shows up in my room and performing them on park benches, or for anyone who would watch. It helped me overcome my shyness and I later found a deep love for communicating and connecting with the world through singing and performing and knew that I loved using my talents to raise spirits and create community.   It was my own childhood that led to me being so passionate about working with children and young people. Initially I trained to be a youth worker in Moscow, Russia, working as a youth worker in some deprived estates in Lancashire. Later I then worked as a drama teacher for a few years before I went full time int acting and then finding my voice as a jazz singer.

The one thing I did with my career was to always have a sense of play, and to follow my heart not my head too much. You could argue its not great to always be a dreamer, but it has always paid off for me.

I have remained a firm believer and advocate that creativity should be accessible to every child regardless of background or circumstance because eventually, singing, drama and dancing is where I found myself, my purpose and my connection to the world.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Everything was going so well and I was blown away, I had a career milestone when I headlined a show at a parade with a seven piece band at Alexander Palace to over 60,000 people. I remember having a voice in my head – maybe it was the universe – saying, “you are going to remember this day for the rest of your life” – and I really really do…” The reason this gig was so poignant is that only a couple of days later, I went to have a massage, when I was laid on the bed the masseuse asked me a question and as I responded my voice sounded robotic as my voice had gone into a spasm – I was terrified and heartbroken – I was in the height of my singing career. This was around Christmas and I had to cancel all of my work, which meant my income disappeared and I was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation on my vocal chords – not knowing whether I would ever sing again.

A previous vocal teacher had said I had a problem with my vocal chords so fortunately for me, I had already seen a specialist and I’d put in place some great vocal hygiene routines… and was already on the list of one of the countries top surgeons Dr John Reubin, he is amazing and works with many professional voice users.

They found I had torn my vocal chords and when I went in for my operation they told me that they didn’t know if I’d ever sing again and there was a chance it could completely change my voice and tone. I remembering putting pen to paper to sign the disclaimer and I was truly terrified… singing was the one thing that saved in during a period of depression – singing was the way I connected with the world and it was my healing.

I went into the operation on my own (my family were not near London) and I wasn’t allowed to speak for two weeks after the operation – I was so nervous and eager to know the outcome – but, during this time for my own mental wellbeing, I had to keep connected to my WHY – why did I want to be an entertainer, why did I want to be nostalgic, why did I love the old vintage glamour and blues, jazz sounds, why did I love bringing acts to the world that were really well produced… this is when I birthed Dixiebird Records.

I knew, that even if I couldn’t sing again… that I still wanted to show the world the creative talent of others by creating music shows that people would connect with, and so I decided to create a boutique platform for performers to gather where we could offer clients vintage glamorous acts for their event.

The name Dixiebird Records was inspired by my old neighbour in Lancaster, I wanted to name the business after something that reminded me of my pivotal moment when I found my voice  – I used to sing at home and mess around with vocalising jazz cords and one day the my neighbour Stuart who was a recovering alcoholic, came round and knocked on the front door. I thought oh no – I was so used to people telling me to shut up singing (including my own mum) – I thought I was going to get into trouble – but he said; “Listen – every time you sing your 1930’s stuff, me and my mate turn the telly off and turn the pint glasses to the wall and listen and it’s bloody beautiful!” – that was in 2012, I went to a local jazz club and then moved to London.  When I was naming Dixiebird records I looked to see what the name was of the detective devices you put you to the wall and listen and it’s called a ‘Dixie cup’ – I loved the word ‘dixie’ and through their encouragement he had given me my wings – like a bird – that’s why I called it Dixiebird.  I tried to find Stuart again to tell him about my success in London, but sadly he had passed away shortly after I lived next door to him – I still say that if it weren’t for him, I would never have become a professional singer.  I was so grateful to the gift he gave me during those summer months, encouragement can come from the most unlikely sources and when we most need to hear it.

Luckily, after healing, my voice is now better than ever. During the operation, the surgeon found that I had been born with a cyst on my left vocal chords which had burst at the age of 13” – on reflection I remember losing my voice then for 3 weeks and when this bust it created a dip (sulcus) in the vocal cord and this led to a tear in my vocal cord.  I remember the surgeon afterwards saying, ‘Kerri, on paper you shouldn’t have been able to sing ‘– but I had sung for over four years professionally with a four-octave range – so, I truly believe me finding my voice in my twenties was a miracle that was meant to be.

The surgeon did a delicate laser operation in order to keep my unique voice and range – I did lose an octave off my range and had to retrain my voice whilst also repair my life and finances. But I was extremely grateful that my voice had given me so much already – before I was a singer I felt so lost in the world – I didn’t know where my place was. My voice is my identity and I totally respect it. It’s a gift to be able to give it out to the world – I respect it and treat it well – I don’t eat spicy food, I don’t drink over 7 units, I don’t overuse it, I have exceptional vocal hygiene… I remind myself that I am a ‘vocal athlete ‘ I even have a sign in my kitchen and this is to remind me to respect my voice and fill my life, body and mind with the right thing.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, my business and livelihood Dixiebird Records came under threat with all gigs cancelled and all revenue removed… I achieved the ultimate pivot, considering how I could tap into my wider skills to support children and parents stuck at home, bringing some joy and fun, and developing creativity along the way. I launched Vintage Performing Arts Academy. Now called the Retro Performing Arts Co , through which I ran an online 6 week course, calling upon my expansive network of artists (many of whom also lost their jobs and income overnight) to support my new venture to ensure that during lockdown (and beyond) children and young people everywhere had access to a creative outlet. Activities included hosting a rap project with teenage girls in a care home to holding online drama games and lessons, culminating in bringing children from ages 6 to 16 together to perform in an online variety show.  I now contract six members of staff to help me run this thriving online community of theatre lovers and performers – offering fun and engaging creative lessons, drama clubs, summer schools and programs and courses for everyone from children and families to adults all with the aim to bring people together, nurture creativity, develop communication skills and build confidence.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

One career milestone was headlining a show at a parade with my seven-piece band at Alexander Palace to over 60,000 people. That was insane!

I had the privilege of creatively directing a parade piece with over 226 performers. It was a beautiful project that brought members of Haringey college together. It was more about the work we did around it though…. it was 2016 and that year I had a lot of personal bereavements, it had been Grenfell and there was a lot of fear and death. We based the parade on the day of the dead and had people from all over the world send in photos of their loved one. We made a huge alter and wrote a song about it. A close friend of mine had died that year and Alexandra Palace asked me to set off the fireworks, sparking a quarter million pounds of explosives into the sky to a huge sound system playing some of her favourite songs was a great way to celebrate her life.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I’ve always been able to look far into the future but only worry about the immediate steps in front of me. When i was in the early stages of my music career, I read a quote that said, “when you drive at night, you trust the road is in front of you, you never worry about what you can’t see in front of the headlights”.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I feel like that’s part of my role as a youth worker and a drama coach. I love it! I mentor a few young people now and when I worked as a county council youth worker year sago, I loved working with some of the teenagers there. I have been through so much in my life and I love showing young people what is possible for them too. I wasn’t born with opportunities o my lap, I went and hunted them down and I showed up. The proof is in the pudding as they day and I really want to inspire other generations of young people and show them what is possible for their life if they allow themselves to dream and then have the network encouraging them to go for it.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Acceptance! I want us ALL to be accepted for our unique differences. Women and men and I want us all to work as the team we are supposed to. I want the pay gap closing ASAP.

There is no reason for women to be paid less or the same job. That’s outrageous. That needs stopping.

More than anything I want acceptance. Women have a very different way of working, and it compliments the male way of working. I just want to see the world working together, there is no need for it to be a fight.

I truly believe in the power of bringing people together to have a really positive shared experience using the arts, music and drama as a vehicle to create deep transformations in communities, families and individuals.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t care so much what other people think!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Seeing how my academy built confidence, nurtured creativity, addressed anxiety and provided a new community, which helped with the challenges of everyday lockdown life, I was determined to build upon this success and so I have just launched an Online Summer School, in a bid to support more children, and parents through a difficult summer holidays.

Lockdown has taught me a lot in terms of just how much we rely on the creative arts for our wellbeing and happiness. Seeing parents worried that their children had become stressed with home schooling and frustrated by the lack of social contact and families struggling to know what to do in isolation for creativity and creative release made me realise that it was my responsibility as someone from the arts, to share my skills to help.

The 6-week Summer School is runs until the end of August and then I am carrying on teaching online courses and creating fun pockets of activities for homeschoolers and young performers! I love it!

I am so excited to be putting this out into the world – not only to help the kids but to support parents too as well as sharing part of our diverse arts scene here in the UK on a global scale.

With many parents having celebrated the end of home-schooling the reality of having to continue to keep the kids occupied whilst also still trying to manage work and life without the release of their summer holiday means that the next 6 weeks are looking daunting. Kids will get the chance to expand their learning and knowledge of the performing arts, whilst having loads of fun – so zero guilt needed from parents! Our amazing teachers and well-known performers have created an environment that is relaxed, friendly and easy going, and their infectious energy and genuine love for performing is coupled with their expert connection to the world of theatre. There is also a chance for kids to connect and hang out online with new friends from across the world via these amazing super interactive sessions.

The online summer school can be block booked or you can pick and choose individual sessions. To view the full timetable or to book please visit:  www.kerrikreates.com/dramaclub


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