“My dad was a semi-professional drummer in a dance band. One day he came home from work and said a colleague was selling a guitar for £3, and would I be interested in learning.
I loved it and progressed quite rapidly. By the time I was 11, I knew I wanted to be a musician and nothing swayed me. I went through the system of grades and then went solo. My dad found out about the National Youth Music Camps (as they’re now called) in John Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s house. At 13, I went there and met like-minded people from across the UK – I was the only one from Wales. It was brilliant.
A few years later, I was going on the adult courses, and that was key to my development. It broke down barriers between genres. In the morning I’d be studying with John Williams on the classical guitar, in the afternoon it’d be jazz chords with Ike Isaacs.
When I was 17, I began studying classical guitar at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Even before then, I’d been involved in playing for drama at a theatre in Cardiff – and I carried that on. I was 19 when I took my first Musical Director role for the National Youth Theatre of Wales. I’d always liked songwriting – and composing for theatre was my first way in. My first job after graduation was writing, MD-ing and performing for a theatre company.
In the early 1980s, I began writing for some short films and then for the launch of the Welsh language network S4C. That was my first venture into television. It was all very different then, of course – you’d be writing for live musicians, having the metronome going and counting beats between key moments. It was bonkers really; everything was transposed by hand and had to be done by yesterday.
I call myself “the accidental bassist” because – when I was working my first theatre company – one of the actresses asked if I could play bass for her band that night. When I arrived, they were doing afro-Cuban music. It was a new world for me. I scribbled down some riffs but when we got on stage there was no light, so I couldn’t see my notes. I had to freewheel and absolutely loved it.
I stayed with that band for seven years, and we often played at Cardiff Jazz Club (now called Dempsey’s). One night there was a workshop, and the leader of a well known Cardiff-based jazz quartet asked if he could borrow my bass. And I ended up being invited to play. It was do or die, and I had a great time.
In the late 80s, I took myself off to Glamorgan summer school to hone my jazz skills. And that’s where I first heard the sound I knew I wanted to play. I didn’t take up the double bass properly until I was 27, which is quite late.
I formed a new band, and recorded my first album under the Paula Gardiner name in 1995. That really launched me as a jazz performer – until then I’d seen myself more as a writer than a bass player.
In 2001, I went back to the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. They asked me to set up a jazz syllabus. By 2004, when my daughter was two, I went full-time. We created undergraduate and postgraduate courses and the popularity grew. Composition is a very important element – everyone is encouraged to create their own material.
As part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, I was involved in Mzansi Cymru – a joint project between South Wales and Cape Town. The idea was to show a fusion of Welsh music and South African music. We had a community choir with singers aged from 8 to 87, an orchestra of 50 people, an indigenous percussion band from South Africa. It was amazing – and I had to conduct it all.
There are always new challenges. My next one is a Welsh language jazz project. I’ve been learning Welsh on and off for years, but this time I need to do it properly.”