Episode 15: Fiona-Jane Weston and Cece Otto, Two passionate performers team up and combine women’s history with music

You may not know that I have been a musician, performer and a composer for many years and am a member of a group called Amplify for indie musicians from all over the world to learn how to market our music. That’s where I met my two guests today, Fiona-Jane Weston and Cecelia “Cece” Otto.

Fiona-Jane is a London based actress, singer, writer and cabaret producer. She has performed to great acclaim throughout the United Kingdom and overseas, including New York. Passionate about history, particularly women’s history, her unique highly acclaimed solo shows make a specific feature of real-life historic characters using their own words.

Cece is an American based, classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in more than 20 states and in venues all over the world. In 2013, she launched An American Songline with a cross-country musical journey along the Lincoln Highway.

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Together they have created a unique show that combines history and music called Women Across the Water: How British and American Women Won the Vote!
The show will be aired on August 21, 3:00 ET, 12 PT and 8 BST. After listening to this podcast, you’ll be able to purchase your ticket right here.

You can learn more about the accomplishments and other activities of these talented ladies right here:
https://www.facebook.com/FionaJaneWeston
Website: http://www.fionajaneweston.com/
https://www.youtube.com/user/FionaJaneWeston

and

https://www.facebook.com/cece.otto
Website: www.americansongline.com
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AmericanSongline

Thanks for listening.
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Transcript:

Sharman Nittoli:  

Welcome to the Live Your Bloom Podcast!

Music:  

song...

Sharman Nittoli:  

Today's program will be a bit different in format. You may not know that I've been a musician, performer and a composer for many years, and I'm also a member of a group called Amplify where indie musicians from all over the world, like myself, learn how to market our music. And that's where I met my two guests today. Fiona Jane Weston is a London-based actress, singer, writer, and cabaret producer. She has performed to great acclaim throughout the United Kingdom and overseas, including New York. Passionate about history, particularly women's history, her unique, highly acclaimed solo shows make a specific feature of real life historic characters using their own words. Cece Otto, an american-based classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian has performed in more than 20 states and in venues all over the world. In 2013, she launched an American song line with a cross country musical journey along the Lincoln highway, which she's going to explain to us. She then went on to create other historical programs such as the songs of World War I. As I became acquainted with both of these women, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool if they paired up to give a concert based on their passions for history of music from the early 20th century? Hey, guess what? They did! And that's why I brought them on the show today. They are true Bloomers, living their purpose. Welcome ladies.

Cece Otto:  

Thank you.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah, and by the way, I got some of that information, right from the site where I bought my ticket for the concert, which I very much am looking forward to. So you are both very accomplished, very talented and both have a similar interest. And I would love for our listeners to learn more about you. What was your journey to this point that took you to refine it to that interest? Fiona, would you like to start, tell us a little bit about you.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

Well, l wanted to be a performer from a very early age, right? From the age of about four, I declared that this was what I was going to do. And my parents thought, I think is a lot of parents do that, 'Oh she'll grow out of it.'

Sharman Nittoli:  

They do. That's true.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

And I didn't. Never did quite managed that. And this caused quite a lot of consternation, I would say, in the family home. Not least because my father was an academic and felt that I should do the same. So I'm the under kind of a certain amount of duress. I took a more academic route and I did do Modern Asian Studies, which involves history and sociology. And I was thinking at that time on the history of China, but I never lost my interest in the performing arts and I kept it up as much as I possibly could. And eventually I just declared UDI and did the rebellion thing and did it. I was rather late to having a teenage rebellion, but that's what I did.

Sharman Nittoli:  

I have to just interrupt you. What's UDI.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

What is it? Unilateral direct action. In other words, I just went off and branched off on my own without asking permission.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Oh, good. Okay. I did too, but go ahead now.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

And I was living in Australia at the time and decided that I would just upstate and, you know, come back to live in Britain and chance my luck. Which I did do and faced with getting here, I realized that my family, I didn't know them all that well, cause I'd left England as a child. We're not living anywhere near London. I really was on my own just trying to survive. But that made me look for the things that I really wanted to do. And to jump forward many years after that, I mean, I did get quite a lot of work acting and it worked out well in lots of ways. It was a very difficult time, of course, in many other ways. But I then reached an age where all of a sudden, my youthful looks were not working in for me any longer. And I couldn't rely on that to get the engineer, the pretty young girls roles. Suddenly they weren't coming anymore. And I knew that was coming and I milked it for years, but I wasn't quite old enough to get into the mother rules or anything like that. And suddenly, as so many actresses find, I didn't have any work. I couldn't get any work. So I did the dutiful thing and went off and became a teacher and realized within about 10 minutes that I really wasn't happy doing that.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Excuse me, a teacher of what?

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

I was teaching in primary school, I taught general education

Sharman Nittoli:  

Oh, okay. Okay.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

And the idea was that I was to be a peripatetic teacher, meaning that a supply teacher really. So that I could do my acting in between and whenever I didn't have any work, go back to teaching. That didn't totally work out. I became very ill and I had been ill for quite a while and didn't know. And it was during the convalescence of an operation that I had when I suddenly decided that I would take a particular exam where I had to look at the whole century of the literature and the poetry and the drama content of that century. And I chose 20th century, which is huge, cause everybody could read and write, but I wanted to do the drama content and that became the basis of my first cabaret show, because I had all of that history of what women were doing in the 20th century. And all I needed to do really was put songs to it and suddenly, "Hey, presto I had a cabaret." So I've got a director and that's when I started and I've never looked back. I've never really done other work since.

Sharman Nittoli:  

And you have some very unique song choices. I've heard some of them.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

Yes. Mainly because spanning old, essentially like that, and trying to distill it into an hour show, meant that I had to be able to sing in different genre. And I had to be able to use my voice in different ways. So I deliberately went out and got training to allow my voice, to move within those different genre. And sometimes I couldn't find exactly the song that I wanted to, especially if I was trying to express the words of one of the women that I was talking about. So I promptly corralled my husband into writing the lyrics cause he's quite good at doing that. And so I said, 'I need this in two weeks.' I put a deadline on it, he gets it to me. If not, it'll go on forever and a year, you know. So as a result of that, I was able to get some very unique material going.

Sharman Nittoli:  

See that. And that brought you to refine your interest in your skills and to a very unique kind of a performance. I love stories like that. Cece,I know you have one too.

Cece Otto:  

Yes. Yes, I do. I think we all, right. Similar to Fiona Jane, I think there was that kind of 'aha' moment with one of those temp jobs with somebody where it was just 'Go out on your own. That's the only way if you're going to do the art that you're going to do, that you want to do, you're going to have to do it on your own. You're going to have to, you know, take that control.' But for me, you know, I had started my vocal training and as a teenager, operatically, I was pretty early on in singing and doing opera and operetta, and Gilbert and Sullivan and all these things, but then 2008 hit, and all of a sudden, all these places in Chicago, because that was where I was living at the time we're just not hiring. I hadn't paid my dues enough in the city at that point. You know, this is post grad school. I have all this education. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm like, 'Okay, what do you really love to do?' Like I had that conversation with myself, which I think we all do at points. Where, 'What do you love to do?' Well, I love to sing. I love to write music and I love to write words. And I was like, what can I do with all three of those? And so I thought. Well, singing travelog could do that. And I'm like, 'That's a great idea. What does that mean?' You know, there was sort of that feeling of like, 'I don't know what that means. So I had to let it kind of percolate', and I started to think about, well, what would a singing travelog look like which segways into your question about the Lincoln highway. I started looking at all of, wasn't just about American history, but I started to look at all these amazing trails and roads that we have across our country. Beyond the interstates. 'Everyone let's forget about the interstates. They're boring. They're kind of soulless. You have your truck stops', that's it. But if you go to those national highways, they're based off of various trails, people took across the country, they were based off of, you know, famous moments, revolutionary war, there's suffrage trails, there's all these different trails that started to appear. And I thought 'Wow. There's this whole history I didn't even know about beyond these numbered roads that we know now. And they used to name those roads back in the day, they had different names for it. And one of them was the Lincoln highway. There was a Jefferson highway, there were all these different ones.' And the Lincoln highway was one of the first transcontinental roads. It went from New York city in times square through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, kind of cutting the middle part of the country. And then ending in San Francisco's Lincoln park. And a lot of people used it back in 1915 to get to the Pan American exposition and some of those famous places. But people have to remember, cause we didn't know about this. There were not good roads way back in the day. And there were all these cars and you really couldn't get from one town to another. So part of it is totally automotive makers wanting to say, 'We'd like people to spend money on our products and on tires and other things.' But the truth of the matter was, was it spawned this big movement called the Good Roads Movement. And that's how the roads started to get connected from town to town and do different things. And, that road, the Lincoln highway was turning a hundred in 2013. And I thought, why not do a singing travelog across the country on this road? So I did that.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Why not? Yeah. Why not?

Cece Otto:  

Why not? What else am I going to do? You know? So I did that and I sang my way across the Lincoln highway and found very quickly that people were yearning for these types of songs. You know, from the early 20th century, everybody loves a good melody. No matter how old they are. And it was very clear, people liked this idea of looking at history beyond a dusty book or a static museum exhibit, or a statue. People like forms of living history. And so it just sort of exploded from there, and then all these other program ideas came. People started saying, "We like this idea of this kind of a program." And so everything just evolved from there.

Sharman Nittoli:  

You have a program for songs from World War I, yeah?

Cece Otto:  

Yup. That one was one that was immediate. That kind of came into the fold after the Lincoln highway. I think, unlike in other parts of the world, World War I's not really discussed a lot in America and a lot of it's because we just weren't really involved until the very end. Let's just be honest on that. We didn't really come in until it had been a few years on and I totally get historically why that happened. And that's a completely other podcast episode.

Sharman Nittoli:  

That's what a whole another thing.

Cece Otto:  

Totally. But People were wanting to understand that war, I think, and look at it differently. Yeah. That war has more songs written about it than any other war in history. It's over 14 or 15,000. That's in the Library of Congress right now.

Sharman Nittoli:  

You know that both of you have programs that have terrific educational value. Cause you know, I was a school teacher and I love being a school teacher, but I wasn't a lifer. I was like, I did it for five years. Literally would burn out because I have no boundaries and I don't pace myself. But I loved it. And I always felt music is a wonderful way of teaching so much information. We used to actually do raps using garage band to teach the stuff that they were studying. And cause you can't work where I work without liking rap, and I happened to like rap as long as it's in its purest form.

Cece Otto:  

Yeah.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Being a child of the 80s, you know. But I do feel both of you have programs that would have tremendous educational value and be a value, especially for where the world is going, where sometimes they're really looking for stuff that's online or they can access teaching history through music is brilliant. I think it's wonderful. So that might be something you might consider because you're in a category by yourselves, both of you. I don't think I know too many people who do this, you know. Although my father used to sing these songs and I used to work nursing homes and assisted living places back in the day. And I just happened to knew all of it. 'It's a long way to Tipperary.' You know, all that stuff. And I love those songs. You did "White Cliffs of Dover". You did that Fiona?

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

I did. Yes. Yes.

Sharman Nittoli:  

It's just a beautiful song. Just a beautiful song. And I used to take my grandson with me who was quite a handful and I actually watch the music affect him in a healing way. It was just something about the structure of the music and, oh, he just took over and those people loved him. So there is a healing factor besides actually they're great songs. They're structured well. They're written well melodically. There's so much to learn from musicians. If music teachers are teaching a form, there's a lot there to be learned, you know? So that's what I'll say about that. This is not about me, but I just say, I think it's brilliant what you both did, put together.

Cece Otto:  

Well, Fiona Jane, you probably have similar stories too, but the healing component of this, it goes beyond all generations. I see it at every show, I do. It's not something that you can put into words, but it's definitely palpable in the air in regards to how people react to this stuff and how some of this is just, without even realizing, it's such a part of who we are. Some of these melodies go deep. Like you feel like it's passed down through DNA. But once those melodies are heard, something gets activated even with younger people.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. There's something about the way the melodies are constructed. I really believe that's true because I used to see kids that would, yeah. They listened to pop and so do I. But, you know, they still sing 'Itsy Bitsy. Spider', you know, they're still children and they're open to singing everything. They find the joy, they find the joy and everything, so

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

simple and pure in the sound can actually be much more emotive. It's surprising to what resonances

Sharman Nittoli:  

I disagree that everything has to be pop oriented. It doesn't.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

No. Quite often, something much more some of the material can have. I mean, certainly the war songs, anybody who was in that war, it will reduce them to tears. Certainly "White Cliffs of Dover" does, "We'll Meet Again." I used a song because I wasn't able to get the kind of material I wanted for my wartime winning show, covers women's roles in warfare, covers of lots of wars, but particularly the two great wars. There was a very famous nurse called there a Britain who also treated German soldiers as well. And people thought that she was very traitorous to do this. And when she lost her brother in the war she kind of had a bit of a nervous breakdown. So I wanted a song that showed that from a woman's point of view. And I couldn't find one, but actually what I did find was Marieke, which was Jaques Brel

Sharman Nittoli:  

Jaques Brel

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

....and I used that because he's got the Flemish, and he's got the English, and the French. And I thought well, because of where it was based where he was based in Belgium. And of course, so much of the first world war was fought in Belgium, very bitterly. And I've done a lot of performances in Belgium and I used to sing that. And even though they were kind enough to say that my Dutch accent was good, which I'm sure it isn't. But I actually had people in the audience there, they're in tears, that amazed me.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

And I think it's because it also has a resonance there whereby apparently there's been a lot of division within Belgium between the French side and the Flemish side. So it was all about that breaking, and yet that coming together again. So it has a very, very powerful effect. Anything with where warfare is involved it has its own story and it has his own reconciliatory effect as well.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Music is the tool. And it's not just for children, it's for adults too. Here I challenge both of you. I think that America needs to learn what democracy really is, and have a real civics-oriented program where they can sing about it and learn the history and this is what we're trying to preserve.

Cece Otto:  

I would 100% agree with that. It was interesting. I did a world war one performance for Veterans Day or Remembrance Day in the UK at a public library. And they said, 'You know, we would really like to do a 4th of July program, which again, in about six months time, would you be interested in doing that?' And so I created a Celebration of America program. I've only done it once live due to various factors, and I did do some recording with it. And I have to say it was for me, personally, one of the most moving programs I did, but I had everyone in the audience sing more than one verse of Star-Spangled banner.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Wow.

Cece Otto:  

I printed out the words and had them sing along. And not only were they really tired because it's a long song, right? I mean the regular by itself, that's one thing, but people were, you know, you do that. You put 'God bless America' next to 'This land is your land' and talk about how these coexisted at the same time. But everybody thought about everything a little bit differently after they left. And again, it wasn't 'us versus them.' Nobody walks into those concerts thinking that way it was, we are all together in this and we are all Americans and I would love to do that program again. It was just amazing.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Well. You should. There is some controversy around that song, I just want people to know that we know about it, but that's not where I want to go today. Because it gets into a dark spot that I would rather not sing about. So I do understand the controversy over it, but I also understand why the song was written. So I feel sometimes you just have to take it where it happened. You know what I mean? People might not have been enlightened in a certain way, but still, something significant happened, you know?

Cece Otto:  

Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like, you know, Fiona Jane and I both do this with our programs individually, but we always frame it in a way so it's like, they're going back in time with us, with the music and with the storytelling. And I think that's a crucial piece to all of this. It's not just get up and sing these songs without reference. It's important to have that knowledge and history around it.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. And you focus, Fiona Jane, on the history of the women's movement? The Suffragettes?

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

Yes, I do. I kind of almost feel a mission to express women's stories because they weren't chronicles. Precisely because they were women and we lose women stories all the time. And even those that have been catched are not well known, and their contribution has not been celebrated the way it should be. So I'm not taking anything away from the contribution that men have made, but I also just felt that women history has to be highlighted in order for us to have a balanced and more rounded understanding of what we've all been through. Song.... I'm going to be doing something a little bit similar to Cece and as much as I'm not going to be traveling along a particular highway, but what I want to get done is to create a web series. Like a little drama documentary series at different venues around the country. Perhaps different stately homes, where Lady Mary might've done something amazing, and World War I, or wherever it is. And use my dramatic skills to tell her story so I can actually become her while I tell the story. And also tell the narrative through song so that it will be a form of documentary, which won't just be talking to camera and here's the pretty pictures, but actually the story of what happened there will be told through the arts. So that's a series i'm currently trying to get going. Once I've tackled some of the tech issues, which always foxes me.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Oh, please. That's just ongoing. I always say, once you're dealing with tech, you better expect complications. But you know, that's quite brilliant, Fiona Jane. I love the fact that you have created this platform to showcase, not just your talents, but to also feature your specific interests. And you as well Cece, I think it's what my program Bloomers is all about. It's finding 'What is that thing that brings you joy that you haven't been doing? Why haven't you been doing it?' Let's break that down and see if we can't fit that into your life in some way. You know, people don't realize sometimes the value of just 20 minutes of doing your thing in the day, and how it can actually change your life. It's just your whole outlook on life. So tell me about this concert. How are you merging your talents and interests.

Cece Otto:  

I will say, you know, through Amplify and through some of these other kind of circles online I had known about Fiona Jane for about a year, something like that. Everyone's like, 'There's this woman in London who you should connect with.' And finally, she and I connected at the end of 2020, where we were able to have a one-to-one call and it was pretty immediate. It was like, 'Yes, we have to do something together. Wouldn't it be cool to do something virtually, cause I think it would work.' And I had, again, just done this Women's Suffrage Program because that had just come into the US and so we both just started talking about what songs and stories she had, what songs and stories I had in regards to it, what were the differences and similarities and how we could frame that and create a program. And so we just went for it and launched it during Women's History month and it was amazing. And the demand was such, the people were like, 'Can you do this again?" So that's why we're doing it again to kind of mark, not only the hundred and first ratification of the 19th amendment here in the United States, which, you know, guaranteed women the right to vote as it was written. That's again, another podcast episode, but then it was also to mark Women's Equality Day. Cause that's August 26th. Song... But we also saw the World War I stories in parallels, where we could also join and do a show on that. So we'll be doing a show on that, and we're also excited about that as well. And it just became wonderful and amazing. The synthesis and how she and I work is just great because it's kind of, there's a great flow to it. It's amazing from 5,000 miles away. Cause I clocked it all right. Like that we could feel it through the screen and everything when we're rehearsing and talking and stuff.

Sharman Nittoli:  

That's brilliant. Fiona Jane, what are the dates of of the Suffragette Movement in England?

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

Well, they go right back into the 19th century, but we finally, at least, some women were granted the vote in 1918, just after the an end of the first world war, but only women over 30 and only those from the landowning class. So yes. Oh, yes. Our class in this country means far more than anything else. And it wasn't for another 10 years that the working woman was able to have a vote. So they eventually got it in the 1928. But I didn't even know that in August you celebrate a Women's Equality Day, I wasn't aware of that at all. And it came about, we decided to repress it now because obviously with that date coming and I thought, you know, we weren't getting any audience. I mean, honestly, everybody in the UK goes away in August. Cece said, "No, no, no. We might well get something because of this particular date." So we thought we were 'Marvelous.' so we'll do that, and then we'll do the World War I one in November in the Remembrance Month.

Sharman Nittoli:  

It's wonderful. And now this is such a timely topic right now in this country because, you know, the voting situation is under threat in many ways. And we feel that it's just a question and time, before they come at the women, because in many ways women are making the changes right now. The women have very strong voices right now in politics. Do you find that at Fiona Jane and England, the, that women are having stronger voices in politics?

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

They are to a point, they are to a point. I'm becoming more aware though than I've ever been, because I've because I lived away , lived abroad for so long. I often look at my own country with the eyes and foreigner. I really do.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

And I see things that I probably wouldn't have seen had I grown up here. And I'm becoming very aware that as a result of the boys boarding school, then they go into parliament. You know, they go to Cambridge and Oxford and so on, and then they go into parliament and what is parliament, but it's run rather than like a boys boarding school. And you know, if you've got your old school tie, well, of course it needs a boys school. Therefore girls weren't there, therefore they don't get promoted within because they didn't know the girls because the girls weren't at their school. That actually has got more of an effect than people realize. I still think that that happens. Certain clubs, certain sort of upper-class type clubs won't allow women in even to this very day.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Yeah. We have some of that here. And we're just going to have to break them down, you know, one by one. All right. I can't wait to see the show. I will be advertising it on my site. It will be on the podcast. And I urge everybody to check it out because it will be a real experience, but all of your contact information will be on the page. It's just going to be quite brilliant and I hope you do take the whole thing because I still see it having great value for the educational system. I really do. I know as a teacher, we made a big deal about Women's month in February and Black History month as well, of course. So you're onto something ladies, and I'm just loving it. So thank you so much for being on this show. I'm really had a ball.

Fiona-Jane Weston:  

Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Cece Otto:  

Yes. Thank you. This has been wonderful. I'm so happy to be here, as you can tell, cause I can't talk.

Sharman Nittoli:  

Two real Bloomers though, you're living your purpose. That's what it's about. You're living your passion, you're living your purpose and what happens once you start with one thing, it just hosted synergistic effect. 'What about this?', 'What about this?' And then also now getting into the joy of learning about history, which not many people experience when they're in school. But I do find many people when they're out of school, they're really quite interested in it, you know? You're actually providing that service as well as something musically pleasing. So thank you again. I look forward to it. Be well, keep up the work.

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