Beverley Knight: Queen B
Having first crashed onto the UK black music scene back in 1994 with the Brit-swing classic ‘Flavour Of The Old School’, Wolverhampton-born-and-bred Beverley has since prestigiously gone on to sell well over a million records domestically in a 15-year career that has impressively seen her tally of 14 UK Top 40 singles and three Top 10 albums irrevocably prove that the terms ‘commercial longevity’ and ‘British black music’ need not be mutually-exclusive.
Interestingly, having started out on the small independent Dome Records (who released Bev’s acclaimed, R&B-flavoured 1995 debut LP ‘The B-Funk’), it was after she signed with EMI’s Parlophone Records in 1997 that Knight (born Beverley Anne Smith in March 1973) captured mainstream pop audiences. As musically-diverse airplay smashes like the country-tinged ballad ‘Shoulda Woulda Coulda’ and uptempo, rocking ‘Come As You Are’ pioneered a string of Gold-selling albums like 1998’s multi-award-winning ‘Prodigal Sista’; 2002’s ‘Who I Am’; and 2004’s ‘Affirmation’.
Meanwhile, with her success on Parlophone peaking with the Platinum sales of the 2006 collection ‘Voice - The Best Of Beverley Knight’ (followed in 2007 by the raw Southern soul feel of the Silver-certified, Nashville-recorded set ‘Music City Soul’), 2009 meanwhile now finds Beverley returning to her independent-label roots - though today with a massive fan-base in tow - with the release of her upcoming LP ‘100%’ via her aforementioned new label Hurricane Records.
Indeed, with its musical moods ranging from the anthemic pop-R&B hooks of its bittersweet lead-off single ‘Beautiful Night’ and guitar-driven funk of the Orange Juice-sampling ‘In Your Shoes’; to the soulful vulnerability of ‘Bare’ and throbbing, autobiographical ‘Every Step’, ‘100%’ boasts bona fide big-name input. As collaborators range from the likes of multi-Grammy-winning US R&B producers Jam & Lewis and iconic soul diva Chaka Khan; to original Bee Gee brother Robin Gibb, plus chart-topping British tunesmiths Guy Chambers (Robbie Williams) and Amanda Ghost (James Blunt; Beyonce & Shakira). All of which in turn bodes well for Beverley’s upcoming November UK tour (her first in two years), which will interestingly be preceded by the launch of her own cosmetic range for darker skin - ‘K by Beverley Knight’ - this coming September.
All of which an ever-articulate and chatty Ms. Knight (who in 2007 was prestigiously made an MBE) enthusiastically discusses with long-time industry-acquaintance-cum-friend Pete Lewis during (amazingly!) their ninth interview together over a late-morning brunch one sunny July morning in London’s bustling West End.
The significance behind naming her new LP ‘100%’
“To me, the 100% represents the fact that this is obviously the first time I’ve owned my own masters, and - even more significantly - also been in complete creative control! You know, when I made my first album - ‘The B-Funk’ on Dome - there was no precedent. So I just did whatever I felt like doing, and whatever sounded right made it onto the album. Whereas, once the success and the major-label deal comes along, what I of course discovered was that you end up being more constricted. Because the priority - certainly as far as the record label goes - shifts from creative freedom to financial gain. So to me this new album is a bit like going back to that freedom and those beginnings of ‘Let’s make and album and see what happens!’. It’s almost like starting again, but in the most wonderful way. Because this time I’m doing it with, if you like, a fan-base as a security blanket.”
What Beverley wanted to achieve musically this time round
“I wanted an album which was a soul hybrid, but was in marked contrast to my last album ‘Music City Soul’, which was a very conceptual, back-to-basics/early soul-type record. So I basically set out to make something that was up-to-date, and that was led by strong songs, but without thinking too hard on very specific and narrow concepts. Essentially I just wanted an album that hung together well and sounded fresh - something that represented me and where I’m at right now.”
How the subject-matter of her lyrics varies a lot from one song to the next
“From one song to another I found there were very different things I wanted to express. For example, ‘Every Step’ is just me looking back on the 15 years I’ve had in the business so far. Even though there’ve been a lot of highs AND lows, I’m basically saying ‘This is my life. I wouldn’t change it, and I’m really happy that it’s given me the position I’ve got right now in music’…. Whereas ‘Beautiful Night’ I co-wrote with Amanda Ghost. And it was inspired by the fact that we’ve both lost someone close to us through death that we loved, while at the same time knowing that they were gonna go. So it’s talking about that experience of holding on to every last minute that you’ve got - because tomorrow’s coming, and any day could mean the final goodbye. Then the title track - ‘100%’ - talks about the relationship that I’m in now, which I’m very sure OF and very secure IN. So I’m basically saying ‘I’m giving this one 100%, as opposed to the 99-and-a-half I may have given the others’. So yeah, there are very different statements being made with each song.”
Working with multi-Platinum US R&B super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson/Michael Jackson/Mariah Carey, etc) on the track ‘Every Step’
“When you work with people who are not just successful, but who are LEG-EN-DA-RY, they have such a different ear that you inevitably end up learning from the experience. Which is the thing I came away with from working with Jam & Lewis - I felt I’d been through the master-class! Which was just fantastic for me, particularly with Terry coming in and very specifically producing my vocals - something which previously not that many people have done, and which was absolutely brilliant. And, in terms of hooking up with them, I was actually brought to their attention by Chaka Khan, who of course did her last album - ‘Funk This’ - with Jam & Lewis. You know, with Chaka and I having known each other for a number of years, she’d actually SPOKEN to them about this English girl called Beverly Knight! So, though I wasn’t aware they knew me at ALL, apparently they DID - and were interested in WORKING with me! So, thanks to Chaka, I ended up in the studio with them!”
Recording the track ‘Soul Survivor’ as a duet with iconic soul diva Chaka Khan
“Chaka and I first met in London when she played The Jazz Cafe a number of years ago. During the show she was pulling all these different singers onstage that were in the audience - P. P. Arnold, her sister Taka (Boom), Mica (Paris)... And, in the midst of all that, she called little ME down as well - even though I was completely unprepared and, at the time, didn’t know her at ALL! But then, from that experience, we kept in touch... So anyway, a little while after that, I was writing with Guy Chambers. One of the songs we wrote together was ‘Soul Survivor’. And - while initially we’d been thinking of it as a song for Tina Turner - once I started to think about how it applied to my MY career and MY life, I was like ‘Never mind Tina, I want this song!’… And, because I also wanted to have Chaka on my album someway somehow, ‘Soul Survivor’ suddenly seemed to be the perfect candidate to bring her on board with. And, as soon as she’d sung her bit on it, I was like ‘OK! This is spot-on! FANTASTIC!’!”
How Beverley’s cover of The Bee Gees’ ‘Too Much Heaven’ came to feature vocals from the record-breaking group’s very own Robin Gibb
“It’s quite bizarre, but I always first meet these people on a stage! Robin and I actually got together when he was doing a charity show, and inviting a lot of different artists to perform and collaborate. He asked me if I’d do two Bee Gees’ songs, and I chose ‘Guilty’ and ‘Too Much Heaven’ - because those were both songs I worshipped as a child and grew up with... So, when the show came round, we did ‘Guilty’ as a duet between the two of us - and it was FANTASTIC! And then, when the time came to record this new album, I was like ‘If I’m ever gonna cover anything on an album, now’s the time’ - and I decided ‘Too Much Heaven’ was the song. So, once I’d recorded it, I really wanted Robin to hear it to see what he thought… And, because he really loved it, he asked if he could contribute a few little ad-libs! So of course I was like ‘YEAH! Go right AHEAD!’... And that’s how I ended up with a Bee Gee on my album!”
Beverley’s thoughts on people already hailing ‘100%’ as her finest album to date
“Well, the fact folks are already saying that really is brilliant! And I think a lot of it stems from the fact that the more songs you write, the better you get! You know, when you’re 21 you simply don’t write with the same breadth of experience as when you’re 36! And to me an album does rise or fall on the strength of the songs. Plus, in addition to my growing experience as a songwriter, what I think also makes this record stand out has just been the total abandonment and freedom I’ve had throughout. I mean, I was able to write without having to be constantly mindful of ‘the charts’, and to have the songs produced exactly the way I WANTED them to sound! Nothing more, nothing less!”
How she feels about releasing through her own independent label (Hurricane Records) for the first time
“I actually feel very privileged to be in a position where, 15 years deep into a career - at a time when not many people in black music, even in America, sustain for that long - I’m now able, financially, to be independent and be my own boss. You know, to me that is a massive thing - particularly when, now I AM independent, things actually seem to be flowing a lot smoother! I mean, though logic would dictate that when things like budgets are smaller it would be a slower and harder process, with me it’s actually been the OPPOSITE! For example, concert ticket sales around this album are moving way faster than they did when I had the machinery and big, strong arm of a major label behind me! So I do feel very proud of that. But then, at the same time, I certainly don’t think being independent is for EVERYONE! You know, you do have to have a certain amount of business acumen to be able to do it by yourself. Because every decision is now YOUR decision. And, when you do mess up, you can’t turn around and blame anyone else!”
The circumstances surrounding Beverley leaving EMI Records, after being signed to their Parlophone label for 11 years
“Well, when you’re on a label and things are going wrong - to where even the TABLOIDS are writing about the problems - then you know that record label is in some serious trouble! Because why the hell would a tabloid run a story about a business which, by and large, the public have no real dealings with? So, knowing there was a problem at EMI, it was like ‘Well, I’m not Coldplay, I’m not Robbie, I’m not Joss Stone - I’m not one of those millions-of-albums-sold-type EMI artists. So I know how this story will eventually end. They’re gonna have to start saving money and getting rid of people’… So I’m there watching this house-of-cards kind of collapse inwards, and thinking ‘My chance to get out will be when the next option period comes up’… Then, when that eventually happened, those infamous ‘360 deals’ that are now available for artists were around. Where not just your record sales, but all that stuff like your live revenue are all up for negotiation as part of the one record deal. Which to me is almost like going back to the days of the Fifties, when artists were owned lock, stock and barrel. So because I didn’t wanna sign anything like that and I didn’t have any ties or strings - I was at the end of my deal anyway - I was like ‘Bye! See ya!’.”
Launching her own cosmetics range for dark skin - ‘K by Beverley Knight’ - this next September
“The gap in the market, when it comes to cosmetics that cater for darker skin, is like The Pacific Ocean! And traditionally what us girls of colour have always done is just go from here-to-there, and cherry-pick our make-up from all OVER the place! But even then, it’s always been harder to do that with foundations and powders. Because, with the cosmetics companies that WOULD - quote-unquote - ‘go darker’, a lot of them didn’t go dark ENOUGH and didn’t have the variety of shades. So, when I was approached one day by a lady from a beauty company to see if I’d be interested in launching a make-up range for dark-skinned women, immediately I said ‘YES!’. You know, with this gap in the market having existed for ever, I was like ‘Well, why NOT me?’! So, with the collaboration of their thoughts and ideas and me telling them the problems I’ve encountered myself, together we’ve created this new line, which at first we’re launching exclusively in Selfridges stores and we’ll then roll out to John Lewis and others later.”
What we can expect from Beverley’s upcoming live dates
“With me now having a pretty hefty body of work, for the tour itself this time I’ve got the problem of having to choose songs that represent every stage of my past career, in addition to also showcasing the new album! Which of course is a very nice problem to HAVE! And what it probably means is that my shows will be longer this time round than they’ve been in the past, simply because there’s more stuff to showcase. But, as always, it’ll be energetic and emotional, and you’ll come home knackered physically and mentally - but hopefully euphoric as well! You know, people will need to go on a roller-coaster journey with me on these shows - and that’s how I like it!”
How - as a UK female soul artist that’s already been out there for 15 years - Beverley feels about today’s “new”, white-artist-dominated, British female soul movement
“Well, you’ve just hit the nail on the head, in that - of the girls who are currently coming through - the only two from Britain who’ve done global things and haven’t been white are Estelle and Corinne Bailey Rae! BUT, of those white artists that have been successful, the thing is - and I’ll take Amy (Winehouse) and Adele, because they are the ones I think are very, very special - they had the songs, man and they had the voices! And you can’t argue with the SONGS, and you can’t argue with the VOICES! Because, when someone is that good, everything else becomes almost irrelevant and insignificant. You know, Amy could have been from anywhere on earth, looking anyhow she wants - and the album was gonna GO, because it was a BLINDER! So I’m definitely not sitting here getting bitter and angry and vexed about it all. Because the way I look at it - and I am an eternal optimist - is that yes, my career probably opened doors for them initially when, I hate to say it, they were still at bloody primary school! But, in turn, what THEY’ve now done for ME is made the AMERICAN market easier - please God! - to conquer! You know, with everybody over there now talking about ‘British female soul singers’, what they’ve actually done is prepared a PATH for me! So, on that score, all I can say is ‘Watch out! I’m COMING!’!”
“Well, once this new album has been promoted/toured etc in this country, I will definitely be looking to exploit it in as many other different territories as I can. Because that was an area that, for whatever reason, proved to be nigh-on impossible when I was with EMI. You know, I never understood why they never released anything I did internationally, when artists who were selling way less than me with WAY less profile were being released in all SORTS of overseas markets... And then, once that international side of things has run its course, it’ll be right back in the studio again to make the next record! And who knows? Maybe, along the way, I might even be in a position to bring on board a new label-mate - which would be amazing! Because there’s so much talent out there, and I can’t think of any greater accolade than to be able to say ‘Here’s someone who I’ve helped on their way!’!”
Beverley performs at ICA, London on September 3 (show already sold-out). Her UK tour then runs November 3 to November 14. Plus she also performs at Royal Albert Hall, London on April 7 2010. Tickets available (from July 19) on 0871 2200 260 and www.gigsandtours.com
The download single ‘Every Step’ is currently available free until July 20 by clicking on http://www.beverleyknight.com/beverleyknightfreedownload/
The single ‘Beautiful Night’ will be released September 7, while the album ‘100%’ follows on September 14, both through Hurricane Records
Words PETE LEWIS