A CHAT WITH: CAMILLA KERSLAKE
aaamusic | On 26, Oct 2015
English classical crossover singer Camilla Kerslake released her daring debut album in 2009 in the UK. As a soprano she’s toured with tenor Russell Watson, vocal trio Blake, Simon Cowell’s crossover super group Il Divo and performed at arena shows with Andrea Bocelli. She was the first artist to be signed to Gary Barlow’s new record label ‘Future Records’. Interviewer Anthony Weightman chatted to her following her latest release ‘Come Home’.
Anthony Weightman: Camilla, I listened to you on BBC Radio Oxford yesterday. When I was last invited on I found them very friendly and informal. How did it go?
Camilla Kerslake: I think they freaked out when I started talking about ‘boobies’, but it is cancer awareness month!
Anthony Weightman: Well, unlike that presenter, I haven’t started blushing yet! Firstly, you have a new single out called ‘Come Home’ which merges country and classical tones. Would you like to say a few words about this?
Camilla Kerslake: Yes, it’s been a bit of a labour of love, really. We’d been looking for new material and stuff for the new record for a couple of years. I wanted to make music that my fans had specifically asked me for. One of the women who co-wrote this song was Shelly Poole. Writing with her was because of a direct recommendation from a fan when I was doing a signing after a show. It’s wonderful for me to make a record I’ve always wanted to make. The lyrics in ‘Come Home’ really do resonate. Not just with me, but with a lot of people. It’s about going out there and seeing what the world’s all about and letting life teach you what’s really important. For me that’s my family, my friends and my fans. I think the theme of finding yourself is important to everyone and that’s what ‘Coming Home’ is about.
Anthony Weightman: I’m impressed by the way you elegantly move across sand dunes in your video. If I try that I’m usually sinking into some deep hole or falling down an embankment.
Camilla Kerslake: That happened too, certainly. Those shots didn’t make the cut. It just isn’t graceful!
Anthony Weightman: As a crossover artist your devoted fans describe you as fresh, edgy, powerful and emotional. They seem to have an open-mindedness to the way you mix classical and contemporary songs. But, do you feel have a problem with the classical music establishment? Are there still those who would like you to fit a more traditional image of being low key, restrained, not quite so desirable and less sexy?
Camilla Kerslake: I think initially, when I released my first album, there was definitely a lot more pressure to conform. The older I get the more I realise that when you’re a creative individual you have to be free to be creative in all aspects. If I’m told what to wear and what to sing it’s not going to be a real reflection of me as an artist. I think fans and listeners can tell if the music you make isn’t genuine and I think that what you wear and the album artwork and the shows that you put on really reflect who you are. I’m incredibly lucky that my new label lets me take an idea and run with it. I’m very lucky and not a lot of people have that these days.
Anthony Weightman: I understand you’re inspired by Kate Bush. She’s an artist with an extraordinary imagination and originality. Baffling, beautiful, delightful, magical and stunning. She’s also well known for theatrical excesses that are a bit scary and unsettling. How do you look upon what she’s achieved?
Camilla Kerslake: She’s one of the seminal artists of the last thirty years. She’s certainly an inspiration of mine. The first time I ever sang live was at the ‘North West Talent Competition’ and I won and that was by singing ‘Wuthering Heights’.When I was about nine my parents bought Kate Bush ‘the whole story’ and I was just utterly obsessed with it in that way that you can only be at that age. I know every lyric to that entire record and it started a life long love affair. I love her bravery and the fact that she didn’t conform and made the music that she wanted to make. I’d like to think that I’ve taken a very tiny leaf out of her book with this record and just made music for people who like music. How would you even classify her stuff? It doesn’t fit into a neat little box. The more people who can be like Kate the better.
Anthony Weightman: You’re also inspired by Maria Callas. There’s a marvellous quote of hers: “when my enemies stop hissing, I shall know I’m slipping”. Is that something you can relate to that, as a successful singer, putting up with the envy and jealousy of others just goes with the territory?
Camilla Kerslake: I’ve never really noticed it. I would rather that everyone did quite well and everyone helped each other out than fall into petty jealousy. But, to be honest, perhaps I would be one of the people hissing.
Anthony Weightman: Would you like to say a few words about how Patsy Cline has influenced you? Sadly she died young but she’s one of the greatest country vocalists now in the Country Music Hall Of Fame.
Camilla Kerslake: I’d say she’s another one of these women who’s probably one of the best and possibly one of the most underrated musicians, particularly in this country. Country music in the United States is enormous. It’s largely unknown over here and I think that’s a great shame. Patsy had such massive turmoil in her personal life and I just think that the music she created was a reflection of that. If you don’t have an incredible and amazing life I think it’s really hard to make genuine music. She’s a great inspiration and it was such an enormous loss. It would be incredible if she was still making music now, but sadly that’s not the case.
Anthony Weightman: You went through a tough and stressful time when you withdrew from the spotlight to become a carer to your mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. From personal experience I’m familiar with this sort of situation: trying to remain constantly humorous and optimistic, dealing with financial disasters and trying to juggle 2 homes. To me, one of the frustrations for the carer is having to put your life on hold, not being able to pursue your dreams and not knowing when things are going to get better. Was that your experience?
Camilla Kerslake: Massively. Cancer is, for lack of a better word, a complete bitch. It’s not only the physical fight to beat it, it’s everything that goes with it, like you said. I basically bankrupted myself trying to keep my life going. With my mum not working half the income had gone. I think that the most difficult part of it was that every time she would be coming round a corner, then something else would happen. It was just one of those things that was so frustrating for her. She’d be fine and doing well for a couple of months and build up her business again and then something else would pop up and we’d be right back to square one. In the end it was a good two and a half years of the cancer and the complications. Not knowing when it was going to be OK was definitely one of the hardest things for everybody, I think. That’s such a long time to be in that situation. It really does change you as a person and as a family. We’re a lot stronger and a lot closer. I certainly know who my real friends are and so does she and I know what’s important. Although it was horrendous and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I can only feel blessed because she came through it and I’m definitely a better person, I think.
Anthony Weightman: You’ve a four octave range to your voice, reaching the highest note ever written for the human voice (F6) and on a good day you’ve been heard singing notes half an octave higher (B6). This may be an impossible question, but is it possible to explain these variations to someone unfamiliar with these technical terms?
Camilla Kerslake: I’ll do my best. I’m a ‘coloratura soprano’. There’s always an enormous amount of work that has to be put in to get a voice to its peak. A person is born a coloratura. You’re either that way or you’re not. You have to take what you’ve been given and run with it. I’d describe a coloratura to a non classical person in this way. If Mariah Carey was a classical singer she’d be a coloratura because she can do so many incredible and fabulous really fast runs. There are loads of trills and she can sing ludicrously high. Hopefully that’s helpful.
Anthony Weightman: I was listening to your beautiful rendition of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ with Blake and Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Voices at the Classical Brits 2010. It’s been performed by a long list of classical and crossover artists and became Pavarotti’s signature aria. Do you feel that many of the well known versions of this are extremely tough acts to follow?
Camilla Kerslake: Oh my goodness, they all are! There are people who do it so incredibly well. Being asked to do it as part of an ensemble did take the pressure off somewhat, I can tell you. You’re not carrying the whole thing on your own. Being a woman I would never get the unfavourable Pararotti comparison. Also, when I was asked to do it I was twenty. When you’re twenty you genuinely think you can do anything. Now if I was asked to do it I would, but I’d be genuinely terrified. It was also the Classical Brits first ever charity single and I think we raised a decent amount of money that year. It’s something I’m proud of professionally and from a charitable point of view.
Anthony Weightman: Your voice has been compared to Katherine Jenkins by some publications, but others say your voice is nothing like hers. In your view what are the similarities and what are the differences?
Camilla Kerslake: Literally, I think the only similarity is that we’re both classical sopranos. She’s a ‘mezzo’, so she’s low and strong,. I’m a coloratura, so I’m high and twiddly. I think she’s fantastic and has done wonderful things for the classical genre.
Anthony Weightman: You were the first artist to be signed to Gary Barlow’s label ‘Future Records’ and you did a fine Italian version of Take That‘s ‘Rule the World’, an intensely passionate song. The original version had rave reviews and huge critical acclaim. You said that you weren’t sure about your version but then decided it really did work. Why the initial hesitation?
Camilla Kerslake: I think, when you take a song that hasn’t been written classically and you try to make it classical, it’s always a gamble. For example, if you pick up a Puccini aria you know, because he was such a legend, that it would be written perfectly. All the vowels would be in the right place and written on the paper would be all the volume markings. It’s almost like you’ve been given a script that you can follow. When you take something written for a pop voice, particularly something marginally uptempo, it can go one of two ways. I’ve heard some shocking pop covers done classically. I was just really keen to avoid that, but we did it in a light-hearted way. It’s just a really pretty and incredibly recognisable song done in a crossover way. I like to think it works really well and the fans received it favourably.
Anthony Weightman: You recorded your own version of ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ , the traditional Irish country song that’s possibly medieval in origin. It’s a moving tale of love, secrecy, sorrow and tragedy which evolves into a mysterious ghost story. The endless artists who have recorded their versions have tried to imprint a bit of their own personality into the song. Is that what wanted to achieve?
Camilla Kerslake: I think the lyrics, like you said, are so complex and wonderful. When they were written, writing about a ghost was actually quite shocking. I wanted to give it as much space as possible. There’s the imagery of a swan in the evening moving over a lake. It’s so glorious. I think I just wanted people to get what it was about and enjoy the mysterious beauty of the song. It’s one of those songs that’s been around for so long. I don’t think anybody owns it, you just lend it for a while. Do something fantastic with it and then release it back into the ether. I like to think that’s what we did.
Anthony Weightman: Lastly, looking to the future, would you like to say a few words about your third album due out in March, 2016.
Camilla Kerslake: I’d like to think that everyone’s going to be quite surprised by it. I toured last year raising money for breast cancer and the Royal Marsden and I did signings after every show. I’ve met so many incredible fans and most of the tracks have been their suggestions. So, I made it exactly for people who bought tickets for the show. Making a record for the fans. I don’t know how many people have done that, but it’s what I decided to do. There are some really crazy and completely unusual covers. Think like nineties grunge. We’ve also been working with some incredible people. Shelly Poole, one half of Alisha’s Attic. An incredible New Yorker called Leslie Mendelson. It’s really eclectic and honest. It’s one of those things that’s really personal and it’s quite frightening to write something that’s means so much to you and then release it to the world. I guess that’s what being an artist is all about. The covers are quite crazy, but just go with it. It’s country, gospel and crossover. There’s hopefully something for everybody, so enjoy.