Melbourne jazz ingenue Sarah McKenzie sings standards like Bye Bye Blackbird and I’ve Got the Blues Tonight with the pain of 1000 heartaches on her debut album Don’t Tempt Me.

Impressive, then, that the 23-year-old singer-songwriter is only a couple of years out of a composition course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

“I worked so hard there for three years, but after I’d finished, I thought Perth probably wasn’t big enough for me to achieve my musical goals,” the ambitious McKenzie told the Star Observer.

“I moved back to Melbourne and for the last couple of years I’ve been working at getting ABC Records interested in making this album.”

Unusually for a jazz debut, Don’t Tempt Me doesn’t consist solely of oft-covered standards. McKenzie has managed to slip a few original self-penned songs in as well.

“The ABC was quite adamant that it’d mainly be a jazz standards album,” she admitted, “but that’s OK for me because I love the standards and I love putting my own spin on them.”

They did present a particular challenge, though — how does one present a fresh take on a song as well-known as Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender or George Gershwin’s Summertime?

“That was the big challenge with the album. No doubt some people would look at the tracklist and think, ‘Oh, she’s doing Summertime. I’ve heard that a million times before.’

“But I’m really happy with the arrangement — I think it’s really different.”

The three McKenzie-penned songs on the album hold their own amongst these jazz classics. Incredibly, she wrote album highlight Love Me or Leave Me at the tender age of 16.

“It was written after I broke up with my boyfriend. I think we forget what it was like to be 16 — I had so many emotions swirling around that I channelled into the song,” she said.

True, but most 16-year-old girls channel their romantic angst into their Twilight obsession, rather than into crafting beautifully bruised jazz songs.

Did she ever feel a bit out of step with her peers growing up?

“Yes! Everybody thought I was very strange, liking music that was popular in the 1950s. But I liked that, because it made it my special thing — an escape, I guess. I’m really glad I found [jazz].”

McKenzie didn’t always have the music in her. Like many young children, she suffered through classical piano lessons, bored and disconnected from the music she was learning. It wasn’t until a chance lesson with a blues piano player that she realised what was possible.

“It just opened me up. I hadn’t heard those sounds before, and I just fell in love. Then he told me to go and find some jazz CDs and see if I liked what I heard.

“From there, I’ve delved into so much music and consequently come back to appreciating classical. My love of blues and jazz has really opened up my love of all music.”

info: Don’t Tempt Me (ABC Music) out now. Visit

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