Jess Robinson: 'I think of myself as far more than an impressionist'

This article is from 2019


credit: Karla Gowlett

British singer-turned-impressionist discusses her favourite impersonations, and the ones she hasn't quite mastered

A semi-finalist on Britain's Got Talent, Jess Robinson's singing ability led her to play Little Voice twice: at the very start of her career in 2003 as well as nine years later. Ahead of another Fringe run, she tells us her problem with Taylor Swift.

What do you prefer to be called: impersonator? Impressionist? Mimic? Something else entirely?
I think of myself as FAR more than an impressionist. Impressions is just one set of skills I bring to the party. I'm a comedian, singer, actress and impressionist in that order!

What is your first memory of hearing someone impersonate another person?
Probably my mum doing all the ladies in her book club when we first moved from London into the little Hertfordshire village where I grew up. I was about eight or nine and watching her describe all her new friends was like watching a deleted scene from The Vicar of Dibley.

What was the first impression you ever attempted and what was the reaction to it?
Apart from my mum (to make my friends laugh), it was Kate Bush. I LOVED her voice and her dancing. She's a gift for an impressionist. She's so distinctive in looks and movement as well as her incredible singing voice. I love impersonating singers and politicians alike, although I don't think anyone out there at the moment has the same breadth of singers in their range as I do. You can make people laugh, surprise them or move them to tears. It's a great skill.

What is your own favourite impersonation? And what is the finest impersonation you've ever heard by someone else?

I think my favourite impersonation at the moment is Olivia Colman. I admire her, so I enjoy 'researching' her. Her voice and character just came so easily to me, and she's so loved by everyone. It's always such a pleasure to get that laugh of recognition, and then, of course, to make her say something filthy. I also think my Billie Holiday is pretty amazing to be honest!
There are so many fantastic impressionists out there. I particularly love Lewis MacLeod. He's incredibly talented. Matt Forde is another favourite of mine because he's such a fine satirist. It's all about the material for me!

What is the one impersonation that you have tried and tried, but just cannot quite get right?
Taylor Swift. Even though I enjoy her songs, I find her voice so bland. There's nothing distinctive to hook onto.

What do you find harder: nailing an impression or getting the ideal joke to go with that impression?
Honestly it depends who it is. There are some voices that I adore: Amy Winehouse for example, where many jokes would just be inappropriate and you want to treat them with more care and make that moment a little more poignant. At other times, I want to say something funny and a certain impression will just add another level to that joke. I guess nine times out of ten, the comedy is most important to me.

Who is your favourite impersonator working today?
There are so many I admire, it's hard to choose just one. Rory is known for politicians, Jon for celebrities, Alistair for sports people, but they can all do everything so well and they've all been very supportive and generous to me. I love Tracey Ullman. I always admire not only her aptitude for brilliant voices, but also her incredible comedy performances. She's a very funny lady. Oh, and Dawn French's Björk and Fern Britton will always be favourites of mine. For me impressions are about either making people laugh or moving them.

What would be the one piece of advice you'd give an aspiring impressionist?
Find something to say! It's great doing brilliantly accurate voices, but after that first laugh of recognition you get, you have to back it up with some decent jokes.

The Jess Robinson Experience, Assembly Rooms, 3–24 Aug (not 12), 7pm, £13–£15 (£12–£14). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £10.

Jess Robinson: The Jess Robinson Experience

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Live Nation in association with Troika Award-winning Edinburgh favourite, Jess Robinson, returns with a brand new show and her fabulous live band. Join Jess for a fun-packed hour of comedy, music and vocal fireworks as you're transported by the human jukebox through improvised musical mash-ups and spot on impressions…