Mum has her grandson now so the pressure’s off jokes Ipswich Regent bound singer Katherine Jenkins ahead of tonight’s performance
- Credit: SJM Concerts
Classical crossover star Katherine Jenkins talks marriage, family and new album Home Sweet Home with entertainment writer Wayne Savage.
Accompanied by the national Symphony Orchestra, the star will take to the stage at The Regent, Ipswich this evening, playing to a near sell-out crowd.
Jenkins is, by her own confession, guarded when it comes to her personal life. She’s told me in the past how she’d like to be known for her music and beliefs, not who she was or wasn’t dating at the time.
“You’ve got to just develop a thicker skin and see it as part of the culture where we seem to be so much more interested in and maybe a little bit more judgmental about what women in the public eye do rather than what men do sometimes,” she said last time we spoke.
It’s not, she added, that she was hiding her personal life; opening up about wanting a home life, to be happy in a relationship. It’s just that side of her life is for her and she’ll always want to guard that and keep it private.
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I have to ask about a story doing the rounds that she’d revealed it was Gethin Jones who broke off their engagement in 2011.
She was quoted as saying everybody else thought it was her decision, that she’d put her ambition first. In reality, every day she was just trying to find the energy to cope let alone go on stage and understand his reason for doing it.
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“It came from a documentary I did for BBC Wales. Through that we got the option to challenge a few misconceptions about the way things are written and what actually happened. But no, I haven’t actually talked to the press about it myself.
“You know... I’m married now, we’re talking about things that came before and quite a long time before so it’s not on my radar anymore. I’m not thinking about it and I don’t think anybody else should be thinking about it. I want to look forward and don’t think it’s right to be talking about that stuff,” she says in her usual straight-shooting, down-to-Earth manner.
The singer married artist-professor Andrew Levitas last year. She loves being a wife.
“Last year was such an incredible whirlwind, with the OBE, the album (Home Sweet Home) and my sister had her first child so I became an auntie. It was just brilliant and I’m very lucky to have found such a good guy. He’s really special.”
Jenkins jokes baby Rhys means the pressure’s off for her and Levitas to start a family of their own because her mum’s got a grandchild now, admitting they’re all pretty obsessed with him.
“Having our own family is something we both want and I want to make sure that happens, I think we both do. It’s not just outside pressure... You need to have time to do that so I’m not sure that’s going to happen in the middle of the tour,” she laughs.
Family is a huge part of the mezzo-soprano’s life. The music industry is a business that can, unfortunately, change you. Very close and grounded, Jenkins says her relatives are the one thing that’s kept her sane during her rise from Welsh school teacher to classical crossover star.
“My family have been really good and always given me a perspective on it and we all get on really well. It’s hard, you’re in a business where people tell you good stuff all the time and you get everything you want sometimes. People want to make things as nice for you as possible and it’s easy to believe the hype, get carried away, lose sight of what is actually important to you.”
Although it sometimes appears she burst onto the scene, her success happened in stages. First people in her homeland Wales knew her, then people in the classical world and it grew from there.
“My first gig after signing my record deal in 2003 was in front of 74,000 people at the rugby at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I was so nervous I had nightmares beforehand – I’d only played to 200 people before that. But that was where people first encountered me, singing the Welsh national anthem.
“I’m grateful that it happened with enough time for me to get my head round it. I always feel for these young people who end up on things like The X-Factor and they’re suddenly a household name because it’s very hard to deal with that kind of thing sometimes.”
Touring is the favourite part of her job; pouring your all into making a record from scratch is fun but there’s nothing like standing in front of a full orchestra and seeing how your music affects people.
“I can’t wait. In this day and age people are rarely taking orchestras out, its expensive (but) it’s something I absolutely stick to, we have to do it. I want to give people a full, live, classical experience. They’ve been touring with me for 10 years and I love them all dearly.
“Plus I’ve got John Owen-Jones (who recently announced his return to the West End stage in the forthcoming English National Opera production of Sweeney Todd alongside Emma Thompson) who is a Welsh tenor. We’re going to be singing some duets. Anybody who’s seen any of my shows know they’re very relaxed - lots of banter, silly questions, requests, lots of fun, lots of frock changes.”
There are few scenarios that rattle her nerves these days. Maybe if she’s singing new songs or it’s a particularly important event, like recently singing for a million people at the Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Eve she laughs.
Jenkins confesses to a few pre-show rituals, having to put her right shoe on before her left for example. There’s one thing she always does.
“The one thing that’s absolute, I feel like I’m going to do a bad performance if I don’t do it, is say a little prayer before I go on stage and speak to my (late) dad; ask him to bless me and my performance and help me remember my words and be in good voice.”
Ten years may have passed since her debut, but at times she feels like the girl who was signed at 23.
“I’ve learned a lot more about the business since but I remember all those excited, naïve feelings and not being able to see past one album. I was just living in the moment.
“You have to see the amazing opportunity, take it for what it is and make the most of it.
“That’s something I learned since my father passed away and I think you’ve just got to live for now. I’m glad, because I think if I’d have known at the start what would have happened I’d have been so overwhelmed I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it,” she laughs.
Home Sweet Home marks a reunion with Decca, who signed her in 2003. At the time, it was the biggest-ever recording contract for a classical artist.
“It really feels like a full circle; the tenth album, tenth year – it’s an opportunity to look back,” says Jenkins, who feels her voice is now richer, deeper, stronger…
“When you’re a mezzo-soprano, your voice is one of the later voices to develop. I went to the Royal Academy when I was 18 and I really should have possibly waited a couple of years because I was so much further behind everybody else, because the voice does take longer to develop.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve gotten control of my voice from 23 to now. You can hear the difference. It’s a fuller, bigger, richer sound. I’d say my voice has settled much more into the mezzo range. Not to take away from the first few albums. But it’s just nature.”
Jenkins was clear about doing a classical album, not a bunch of crossover songs.
“We had the luxury of time with this album. I wanted to go into it, in the right way, and I didn’t want to get distracted.”
For this proud Welshwoman, there was one song that would be a cornerstone on it. Remarkably, it’s the first time she’s recorded Land Of My Fathers.
“Which is ridiculous,” she laughs. “I wanted to make a version that was quiet filmic, so it’s not just your bog-standard traditional version of it.”
The album also includes a version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, featuring Jenkins singing in German and quicksilver violin by virtuoso superstar David Garrett.
“You don’t have to be a classical fan to know that piece of music. You’ve heard it a million times and everybody loves it, but hopefully we’ve done something new and fresh with it. It was the same with Elgar’s Nimrod, which is also on the album. It sounds so patriotic and it’s an instrumental that we’ve added words to.”
A similar approach was taken with I Giorni, a piece by Ludovico Einaudi, the 21st century’s most streamed composer.
“His music is so popular,” says Jenkins.
“And the tune is his most popular piece. They play it religiously on Classic FM. It’s become a classical anthem of modern day. People will recognise his style, but this is the first time his music has been turned into a vocalled song. He’s been involved and he’s given the go-ahead and he’s never done that before.”
It is, she acknowledges, an honour to be able to put her spin on the piece.
“Instead of taking a pop song and making it classical, on this song it’s finding classical music and taking a newer approach to it. That’s come out as one of my favourite ones.”
Elsewhere, pop was the starting point. The album features Jenkins’ take on two classic Freddie Mercury vocals - Queen’s We Are The Champions and Barcelona, his classic duet with Montserrat Caballé. The latter is a duet with Alfie Boe.
At her handful of recent summer shows, We Are The Champions – her “wild card on the album” – went down a storm. “Grown adults going crazy. They’re singing along like lunatics. I absolutely love it and it goes down so well with an orchestra,” she says.
Recording the song was a challenge.
“Those verses... Freddie sort of throws them away – there are a lot of words in there. So when you hear them in a classical way to begin with it’s a bit of a shock. I can’t get away with just throwing the words away.
“But Queen and Freddie in general are very anthemic and lend themselves really well to an orchestra – which is why we have Barcelona (a duet with Alfie Boe) on there was well.”
Jenkins grew up with the song, inspired by Caballé, dreaming one day she’d be able to sing all those notes.
“It’s very, very technically hard. I wasn’t sure if I could even do it. And with Alfie, we’d sung together before but never recorded. I knew he could do it brilliantly, it’s keeping it British, and he gives more of a classical take on it rather than asking a rock star or pop star to do it.”
As for the title track, she considers it a “personal anthem”, referencing Wales, Britain and the full-circle nature of this project – an album she hopes will stimulate the best kind of patriotism “through this stirring music”.
In terms of patriotism, Jenkins knows what she’s talking about, having put her boots on the ground in British army bases abroad.
“I’m really proud of being Welsh and being British. I travel the world and I try to do my best to fly the flag. I also see the UK through other people’s eyes and I’ve also been lucky enough to be involved in some major events her which have shown the UK in a brilliant way.
“The best thing is going out to places like Afghanistan and Iraq and seeing those servicemen and women at their best. I just feel really lucky to be there and to be able to sing for them and hopefully give them a little reminder of home. It’s been life-changing for me.”
Jenkins feels like she’s getting creative energy and encouragement from everyone.
“It’s all come full circle and it’s really nice.”
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