Calista Robertson: ‘George Orwell came to my grandma’s house for Friday night dinner!’

Calista Robertson: ‘George Orwell came to my grandma’s house for Friday night dinner!’

Singer-songwriter speaks to Francine Wolfisz about her musically-talented parents and her 'Jew-panese' roots

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

There’s always been something a little rock ‘n’ roll about Calista Robertson. Born into a musical family, she was handed a violin aged three and a year later gave her first concert at the Royal Albert Hall – but, she confesses, spent the entire evening asleep on stage.

Such was the entrance of Calista – daughter of the late Paul Robertson, one of the founding members of the Medici String Quartet and American-born violinist Chika Yamauchi – into the world of music.

Her earliest memories comprise “crawling around on a piano” and being schlepped about rehearsals rooms and concert halls.

“When I was a two-year-old and my mum was studying her PhD, she used to put me to sleep in her cello case,” she laughs. “I literally grew up within music and am so grateful for that.”

Now a talented pianist in her own right, the Royal Academy graduate is forging ahead with a career as a singer-songwriter and has just unveiled her new EP, Project: Love Me.

Released under her dark alter-ego, Calista Kazuko (taken from her middle name), the sweeping tracks are edgy, enigmatic and full of high drama. Critics compare her to Florence and the Machine, Tori Amos and Regina Spektor.

There are even shades of rebel Kate Bush. That’s unsurprising, given that Calista proudly comes from a long line of rebels.

Her father, Paul, famously used to turn up at the Royal Academy for classes in his pyjamas, declined the leader’s seat in the orchestra and argued with his teacher.

Paul’s parents were also out-and-out rebels. His mother, Esther, who grew up in a large Russian-Jewish family from the East End married a non-Jewish atheist.

Frowned upon by both their families, the couple moved to Oxford and Paul thereafter spent a Bohemian childhood living in a caravan.

Calista Robertson as her pop-noir alter-ego Calista Kazuko
Calista Robertson, daughter of violinist Paul Robertson, as her alter-ego Calista Kazuko. Credit: Małgorzata Maria Prońko

Despite turning away from the religious aspects of Judaism, Calista reveals she was especially close to her grandmother and that she “always had these incredible Yiddish phrases”.

She recalls: “My grandmother was always singing, always dancing. That’s my overwhelming memory of her, always dancing, cleaning and fussing.

“Because my parents were always on tour, my granny was such a massive part of our childhood and she basically brought us [Calista and her two siblings] up most of the time. I miss her a lot. 

“She lived till she was 95 and was always with us. That was an ongoing joke. My parents would try to move to some other part of the country, but my granny would then move in next door!”

Calista also relished listening to her Jewish grandmother’s stories from life in the East End.

“My grandmother’s father used to bring someone back every Friday night for dinner, that was the tradition.

“One day he brought a very nice, well-spoken man, who ended up staying under the stairs.

“He would help clean and really became a part of the family for a few weeks. As it actually turned out, it was George Orwell doing research for Down and Out in Paris and London!”

Robertson family at Dartington
From left: Chika holding Calista as a baby, brother Caspian, Paul and sister Thais

Paul, who passed away aged 63 last year, was for Calista her “greatest inspiration” and credits him with passing on his musical talent and “a great sense of humour.”

She tells me: “He was so proud, the most open-mined person about everything and had the most love for everyone.”

Calista’s schedule is getting busier by the day. Apart from working on her album, produced by award-winning film producer Guy Dagul, she is also writing the music for a new play, Joy, which opens at the Theatre Royal Stratford East later this month.

Then of course, there’s Project: Love Me, which Calista describes as “getting the chance to turn into who I want to be in everyday life, but not allowed to be!”

She adds: “Calista Kazuko channels Norma Desmond, she’s completely shameless, fabulous and extravagant. I’m certainly having fun!”

Calista Kazuko’s Project: Love Me is out now. Details:

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