Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Beverley Knight: UK's finest

Beverley Knight
Beverley Knight Beverley Knight Beverley Knight Beverley Knight

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 Beverly Knight has since prestigiously gone on to sell well over a million records domestically in a 17-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 Sliver-certified, Nashville-recorded set ‘Music City Soul’), 2009 found Beverley returning to her independent-label roots - though now with a massive fan-base in tow - with the release of her Top 20 LP ‘100%’ through her own new label Hurricane Records.

Hurricane meanwhile is also now home to Knight’s new, seventh studio album ‘Soul UK’. A celebration of UK soul music - the British songs and artists that inspired Beverley leading up to her own arrival on the UK scene in the mid-Nineties - the 13-track set represents a personal journey, delivered in Knight’s instantly-recognisable soul/gospel style, through some of her all-time favourite soul tracks by British artists.

Indeed, produced by Grammy-winning Martin Terefe (Jason Mraz/James Morrison) alongside London duo Future Cut (Lily Allen/Shakira), ‘Soul UK’ sees Beverley paying respect to her UK predecessors while simultaneously reminding today’s generation of the artists who paved their way. Taking songs from a selection of iconic artists ranging from Soul II Soul (1988’s ‘Fairplay’) and Loose Ends (1990’s ‘Don’t Be A Fool’) to Jamiroquai (1992’s ‘When You Gonna Learn’) and George Michael (1988’s ‘One More Try’), it also interestingly includes some of the more “hidden” gems that make up British soul highlights of the Eighties and Nineties - including Princess’ 1985 Top 10 hit ‘Say I’m Your Number One’ and Lewis Taylor’s 1996 cult track ‘Damn’… Which are in turn currently being pioneered by the album’s first offshoot single - an irrepressibly-driving take on Junior Giscombe’s 1982 international smash ‘Mama Used to Say’.

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 tenth interview together over cold drinks one sunny spring afternoon in London’s bustling West End.

How the idea and concept for ‘Soul UK’ initially came about

“It all started with one of those putting-the-world-to-rights conversations that I’m ALWAYS having! Basically my managers were talking about my longevity in the British music industry, which can be very fickle - and then from that we got around to talking about people who HAVEN’T stayed the course and the reason why that might BE. I was basically saying how these people should be championed, because there’s so many young kids doing well today who are British who don’t actually know the artists who paved the WAY for them… And then from that I suddenly was like ‘Hold on a minute! Why don’t I do a tribute, a celebration of UK SOUL music?’… You know, it suddenly occurred to me that I’m basically like a bridge between those people who came out in the Seventies and Eighties - Linx, Soul II Soul, etc. - and the kids of TODAY - the Tinie Tempah’s, the Chipmunk’s, the Katy B’s... Which made me the best person to DO it!... So yeah, that’s basically where the seed of the idea for ‘Soul UK’ actually came from.”

The criteria for choosing the songs to include in the project

“Well, once we’d decided on the concept, it was like ‘OK, we’ve got this idea. Now how the hell do we choose the songs and go about RECORDING them?’!... And - though that took forever! - in the end we decided to base it on things that had affected me PERSONALLY, and that I had STORIES to tell about. Because, if we’d just based it on ‘The Best Of British’, the list would have been so long it would have been difficult to cut things down.”

Some specific examples of how Beverley selected the songs

“As I was saying, the starting-point was basically songs that meant something to me personally and artists that directly influenced me. Like I remember first hearing the Jamiroquai track ‘When You Gonna Learn’ when I was at university in Cheltenham. And, though I didn’t know what the hell it was, I hunted all over the city for this vinyl. Then, when I found it, I discovered that - though I’d assumed it was a rare groove - it was actually a totally new record by some white guy from Ealing! And then of course the fact that I’ve subsequently gone on to work with him gives it a direct link to me personally… While with Rod Temperton’s ‘Always And Forever’, though I can remember hearing it on the radio as I was growing up, it was only after I’d got to adulthood that to my surprise I discovered - long after he’d written songs like ‘Thriller’ for Michael Jackson - that Rod himself was British and from Cleethorpes!... Then with ‘Say I’m Your Number One’, I remember Princess performing it on the telly - on ‘Top Of The Pops’ - and at the same time being totally unaware that Pete Waterman was the man behind it!... So yeah, I basically thought ‘If I have a direct personal link with those songs and can tell the story about it, then it makes sense that it should go ON there’... And so in that way ‘Soul UK’ also became a kind of soundtrack to my LIFE.”

Beverley’s quote that “The UK is a world-beating producer of music and this genre (British soul/urban) can sometimes feel overlooked and underplayed”

“Oh, COMPLETELY! I’ll start explaining it with my own experience. When I started out, it was a real fight for radio to come on board - because at the time they simply would not touch this area of music. Plus I came out at what would appear to have been the worst possible TIME! Because Brit-pop had just begun to explode with the whole Blur-versus-Oasis thing, and then that was very quickly followed by The Spice Girls when all things became ultra-pop. So I was considered not relevant, not British enough, too aggressive… And that was me in 1994! I mean the guys in the Seventies and Eighties had an even BIGGER fight - because Britain just never embraced this form of music from their own ARTISTS! Which meant that - up until the generation that are out there now - everyone, including my generation, never really got the hearing that they DESERVED! And so, while the fact this generation today IS getting a fair crack of the whip is a great thing, it is only happening because of the work that went on BEFOREHAND… So yeah, I DO think British soul-slash-urban music has over the years been underplayed massively and, in some areas, totally IGNORED! So to me it’s like ‘OK, now that you know about these guys today and the success they’re having, how about acknowledging those dudes that came before who set these guys up and put those wheels in motion?’!”

What Beverley wanted to achieve musically in terms of her updates of the songs

“With many of the songs it was very much about introducing them to a new audience, both older AND younger. So, as KRS-One would say, it was very much about ‘edutainment’ - in terms of getting the songs together, the approach, and how I went about RECORDING them. I mean, some songs - like ‘Always And Forever’ - were very much just gems as they ARE. So I was very careful about staying faithful to the originals while at the same time updating them a BIT. Whereas others needed updating a hell of a LOT! Like ‘Round And Around’, which - though a brilliant song - was production-wise very much stuck in its time and definitely needed to be pulled into a modern era. Which to me meant recording it LIVE. Because that then contemporises the song without making it stuck in one particular era, while at the same time giving it a timeless, classic feel.”

Featuring songs by global music icons like Jamiroquai (‘When You Gonna Learn’) and George Michael (‘One More Try’)

“Well to me, when people become global icons - like George, like Jamiroquai - you can often forget WHY they became the icons they are. Because they become famous for OTHER things - and I think you know exactly what I’m talking about THERE! So to me it is important to always remember that the body of work they have is WHY they’re revered all over the world and WHY they’ve sold millions and millions of records! And to me musically both those guys have a very definite soul BACKGROUND. Like Jay grew up listening to the jazz-funk of people like Roy Ayers and George Duke. While if George could wake up tomorrow and sound vocally like Aretha Franklin, I think he’d be a very happy man! Because you can clearly hear that side of things in his voice. And for me ‘One More Try’ was the song George wrote where I was like ‘OK, now you’re talkin’ to ME! I’m GETTIN’ you on this!’!... You know, I could very much hear that Southern soul/Stax/Muscle Shoals kind of feel... So to me covering ‘When You Gonna Learn’ and ‘One More Try’ was my way of giving love to those guys, while at the same time educating those people who DON’T think of them as being soul acts that actually they ARE!”

Beverley’s reasons for also including some of the “hidden gems” that help make up British soul’s highlights of the Eighties and Nineties - like Princess’ ‘Say I’m Your Number One’ and Lewis Taylor’s ‘Damn’

“Well, Lewis’ track is a prime example of someone who disappeared under the radar to the point where a lot of today’s music-lovers don’t know who he IS. While Princess is somebody who everybody loved for that one moment in time and then subsequently forgot about very quickly. You know, Princess suffered from that classic thing of a brilliant song that was a hit in its day but just isn’t being PLAYED any more. Whereas Lewis suffered from people who should have been putting him right up there in the spotlight, failing to recognise that actually they had a GENIUS amongst them. You know, they just failed to SEE it… I mean, when I first heard Lewis Taylor’s debut album it stopped me in my tracks the same way the AMERICANS of my generation were stopped in their tracks by D’ANGELO! I was like ‘This guy is INCREDIBLE! This is the record that Marvin would have made had he lived!’... Yet for so many reasons, it didn’t HAPPEN. So by covering ‘Damn’ I was hoping that, in my own small way, I could enable Lewis’ music to live on and for people to actually CARE... You know, I was determined that this wasn’t just gonna be the kind of album where it was like ‘Here’s a load of massive hit records that British artists have done in the soul genre’. To me it also had to be about showcasing things people had missed and that had just passed them by altogether.”

Showing love to fellow hit-making Wolverhampton soulstress Jaki Graham by covering Jaki’s 1985 UK Top Ten hit ‘Round And Around’

“As a kid we all knew Jaki was from Wolverhampton, because Wolverhampton did not stop going ON about the fact that she was from Wolverhampton!... And I’m glad they DID! Because it meant she was someone I could look at and absolutely identify with, and say ‘This is someone who came from the same place as me and has ACHIEVED!’! To the point where I’d be out shopping with my mum and my little sister, we’d see Jaki in Beatties - Wolverhampton’s department store - and ask her for her AUTOGRAPH! Plus, just like my mum, she’s got this half-Wolverhampton/half-Jamaican accent... So I’d be like ‘God, she couldn’t be more relatable if she TRIED!’!... I mean, she really was someone that I looked at and said ‘Yeah, that’s a path that I can follow!’… And when I TOLD her that recently, she had TEARS, bless her! Because I don’t think she realised the effect she HAD. You know, she was having this great career making hit records, becoming the first black-Brit to be signed to Motown... But at the same time little me was watching her, going ‘That’s what I’M aspiring towards’.”

The thinking behind ‘Soul UK’ additionally including a live DVD of Beverley’s performance of all its songs at West London’s Porchester Hall last April

“Well, it’s the fist time I’ve ever commercially sold a live DVD of me onstage doing what I do. So for me it’s vey exciting to have it included in the whole ‘Soul UK’ package. Because, though we all know these days album sales themselves are decreasing year-in-year-out, at the same time people still enjoy a live SHOW! So in that way, including the DVD is giving people an extra incentive to really experience the whole ‘Soul UK’ thing. Plus what’s really important is that on the DVD, before I sing each song, I’m actually explaining the stories behind why I CHOSE them... So yeah, for me it is very much a personal victory. Because I’ve been waiting SO LONG to do a live DVD! And while it’s not exactly like my full-on live shows - I haven’t got my OWN material on there and it’s not a massive stage - it is still a fantastic way of me giving people an idea of what my shows are LIKE. Plus what was especially wonderful for me was that, on the night, a lot of the people whose songs are featured on the album actually came ALONG and so are featured on there TOO.”

Beverley’s determination to make ‘Soul UK’ an international success

“Well, bearing in mind the whole time I was with EMI they not once, not EVER, released anything on me internationally - and if you ask me why I still don’t know - I cannot explain to you just how determined I am that this record IN PARTICULAR will go international! Because all the ingredients are THERE! This really is a case of selling something to America which they don’t already HAVE - it’s that simple! Plus, with right now being a great time for ALL things British being loved and consumed ferociously by the American public, why not a bit of me as well as all these other Brits who came BEFORE me?! You know, while America will of course completely get songs by acts they already know like Soul II Soul and Loose Ends, I’m also convinced that they’ll get and understand the artists that they DON’T already know - especially when they see the album performed live!”

Beverley’s thoughts on today’s UK soul and urban music scene

“Last time we spoke - two years ago - it was all about white Brit girls with soulful voices, absolutely doing their thing and just really, really making an impact worldwide - most notably Amy Winehouse. And from that, this year we’ve already seen Adele coming back and absolutely smashing it - going stratospheric with her second album, entirely based on the strength of the vocals and the songs. Which pleases me greatly, because I backed Adele from the jump… But then, in terms of the new UK generation happening now, it’s basically all about young, mostly black-African guys rapping and having huge success right across the board WITH it! Which in itself is fantastic… But then my question is, aside of Katy B, where have all the GIRLS gone - and, an even BIGGER question, where are the male SINGERS?! I mean, Taio Cruz is the only person right now I can put my finger on who’s vocally doing any kind of SINGING! And I think one of the reasons why HE’S got his props is because he’s already written for a lot of big AMERICAN acts. Then aside of that, in terms of anything with an R&B edge, I guess we’re all just waiting on what Labrinth is gonna do - which hopefully will be great!... I mean, it’s just so funny how things turn on their HEADS! Because you and I can both remember a time when, if you had a rap on your track, it was literally edited OUT of songs for radio - otherwise they wouldn’t PLAY it!... You know, it’s just amazing how things can CHANGE!”

Current and future plans in general

“I’ll be touring this new album in November, which will be very exciting. And - while that will initially be UK-based - as I say, I am determined that this record will be international. So I am hoping that I can spill the touring and promotion around it into 2012, when I’ll also at some point be taking a short break to get married! Then this coming September I’m hoping to give The Great North Run a go - which I’m actually really scared about, because 13 miles is quite a long way! While in terms of my cosmetics range - while I can’t say TOO much right now, I am planning to relaunch it next year. Because though in 2009 we did have a bit of a false start and there were a few issues distribution-wise, because the reaction was so strong I am intending to take the whole brand forward onto next year. Which is desperately exciting, because it means I’ll have another string to my bow!... So yeah, while I am going to be very busy, at the same time it’ll be wonderful! Because if I’m not busy, I’m BORED!”

Beverley performs at G-A-Y, London on June 25. Her UK tour runs from November 14 to 27. Dates include Liverpool Philharmonic (14); London Royal Albert Hall (16); Manchester Bridgewater Hall (20); Wolverhampton Civic Hall (22); and Bristol Colston Hall (27).

The single ‘Mama Used To Say’ is released June 27. The album ‘Soul UK’ follows on July 4, both through Hurricane/Absolute

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