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Issue 1084

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Feature

Beverley Knight: UK's finest

Beverley Knight @bluesandsoul.com
Beverley Knight @bluesandsoul.com Beverley Knight @bluesandsoul.com Beverley Knight @bluesandsoul.com Beverley Knight @bluesandsoul.com

Having first crashed onto the UK black music scene back in 1994 with the Brit-swing classic âFlavour Of The Old Schoolâ, 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 âcommercial longevityâ and âBritish black musicâ need not be mutually-exclusive.

Interestingly, having started out on the small independent Dome Records (who released Bevâs acclaimed, R&B-flavoured 1995 debut LP âThe B-Funkâ), it was after she signed with EMIâs 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 âShoulda Woulda Couldaâ and uptempo, rocking âCome As You Areâ pioneered a string of Gold-selling albums like 1998âs multi-award-winning âProdigal Sistaâ; 2002âs âWho I Amâ; and 2004âs âAffirmationâ.

Meanwhile, with her success on Parlophone peaking with the Platinum sales of the 2006 collection âVoice - The Best Of Beverley Knightâ (followed in 2007 by the raw Southern soul feel of the Sliver-certified, Nashville-recorded set âMusic City Soulâ), 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 â100%â through her own new label Hurricane Records.

Hurricane meanwhile is also now home to Knightâs new, seventh studio album âSoul UKâ. 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 Knightâs 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), âSoul UKâ sees Beverley paying respect to her UK predecessors while simultaneously reminding todayâs generation of the artists who paved their way. Taking songs from a selection of iconic artists ranging from Soul II Soul (1988âs âFairplayâ) and Loose Ends (1990âs âDonât Be A Foolâ) to Jamiroquai (1992âs âWhen You Gonna Learnâ) and George Michael (1988âs âOne More Tryâ), it also interestingly includes some of the more âhiddenâ gems that make up British soul highlights of the Eighties and Nineties - including Princessâ 1985 Top 10 hit âSay Iâm Your Number Oneâ and Lewis Taylorâs 1996 cult track âDamnâ⦠Which are in turn currently being pioneered by the albumâs first offshoot single - an irrepressibly-driving take on Junior Giscombeâs 1982 international smash âMama Used to Sayâ.

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 Londonâs bustling West End.

How the idea and concept for âSoul UKâ initially came about

âIt all started with one of those putting-the-world-to-rights conversations that Iâm 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 HAVENâT stayed the course and the reason why that might BE. I was basically saying how these people should be championed, because thereâs so many young kids doing well today who are British who donât actually know the artists who paved the WAY for them⦠And then from that I suddenly was like âHold on a minute! Why donât I do a tribute, a celebration of UK SOUL music?â⦠You know, it suddenly occurred to me that Iâm 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 Tempahâs, the Chipmunkâs, the Katy Bâs... Which made me the best person to DO it!... So yeah, thatâs basically where the seed of the idea for âSoul UKâ actually came from.â

The criteria for choosing the songs to include in the project

âWell, once weâd decided on the concept, it was like âOK, weâve got this idea. Now how the hell do we choose the songs and go about RECORDING them?â!... 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 weâd just based it on âThe Best Of Britishâ, the list would have been so long it would have been difficult to cut things down.â

Some specific examples of how Beverley selected the songs

âAs 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 âWhen You Gonna Learnâ when I was at university in Cheltenham. And, though I didnât know what the hell it was, I hunted all over the city for this vinyl. Then, when I found it, I discovered that - though Iâd 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 Iâve subsequently gone on to work with him gives it a direct link to me personally⦠While with Rod Tempertonâs âAlways And Foreverâ, though I can remember hearing it on the radio as I was growing up, it was only after Iâd got to adulthood that to my surprise I discovered - long after heâd written songs like âThrillerâ for Michael Jackson - that Rod himself was British and from Cleethorpes!... Then with âSay Iâm Your Number Oneâ, I remember Princess performing it on the telly - on âTop Of The Popsâ - and at the same time being totally unaware that Pete Waterman was the man behind it!... So yeah, I basically thought âIf 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 thereâ... And so in that way âSoul UKâ also became a kind of soundtrack to my LIFE.â

Beverleyâs quote that âThe UK is a world-beating producer of music and this genre (British soul/urban) can sometimes feel overlooked and underplayedâ

âOh, COMPLETELY! Iâll 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 itâs like âOK, now that you know about these guys today and the success theyâre having, how about acknowledging those dudes that came before who set these guys up and put those wheels in motion?â!â

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

âWith 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 âedutainmentâ - in terms of getting the songs together, the approach, and how I went about RECORDING them. I mean, some songs - like âAlways And Foreverâ - 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 âRound And Aroundâ, 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.â

Featuring songs by global music icons like Jamiroquai (âWhen You Gonna Learnâ) and George Michael (âOne More Tryâ)

âWell 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 Iâm talking about THERE! So to me it is important to always remember that the body of work they have is WHY theyâre revered all over the world and WHY theyâve 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 heâd be a very happy man! Because you can clearly hear that side of things in his voice. And for me âOne More Tryâ was the song George wrote where I was like âOK, now youâre talkinâ to ME! Iâm GETTINâ you on this!â!... You know, I could very much hear that Southern soul/Stax/Muscle Shoals kind of feel... So to me covering âWhen You Gonna Learnâ and âOne More Tryâ was my way of giving love to those guys, while at the same time educating those people who DONâT think of them as being soul acts that actually they ARE!â

Beverleyâs reasons for also including some of the âhidden gemsâ that help make up British soulâs highlights of the Eighties and Nineties - like Princessâ âSay Iâm Your Number Oneâ and Lewis Taylorâs âDamnâ

âWell, Lewisâ track is a prime example of someone who disappeared under the radar to the point where a lot of todayâs music-lovers donât 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 isnât 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 Taylorâs debut album it stopped me in my tracks the same way the AMERICANS of my generation were stopped in their tracks by DâANGELO! I was like âThis guy is INCREDIBLE! This is the record that Marvin would have made had he lived!â... Yet for so many reasons, it didnât HAPPEN. So by covering âDamnâ I was hoping that, in my own small way, I could enable Lewisâ music to live on and for people to actually CARE... You know, I was determined that this wasnât just gonna be the kind of album where it was like âHereâs a load of massive hit records that British artists have done in the soul genreâ. To me it also had to be about showcasing things people had missed and that had just passed them by altogether.â

Showing love to fellow hit-making Wolverhampton soulstress Jaki Graham by covering Jakiâs 1985 UK Top Ten hit âRound And Aroundâ

âAs 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 Iâm glad they DID! Because it meant she was someone I could look at and absolutely identify with, and say âThis is someone who came from the same place as me and has ACHIEVED!â! To the point where Iâd be out shopping with my mum and my little sister, weâd see Jaki in Beatties - Wolverhamptonâs department store - and ask her for her AUTOGRAPH! Plus, just like my mum, sheâs got this half-Wolverhampton/half-Jamaican accent... So Iâd be like âGod, she couldnât be more relatable if she TRIED!â!... I mean, she really was someone that I looked at and said âYeah, thatâs a path that I can follow!â⦠And when I TOLD her that recently, she had TEARS, bless her! Because I donât 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 âThatâs what IâM aspiring towardsâ.â

The thinking behind âSoul UKâ additionally including a live DVD of Beverleyâs performance of all its songs at West Londonâs Porchester Hall last April

âWell, itâs the fist time Iâve ever commercially sold a live DVD of me onstage doing what I do. So for me itâs vey exciting to have it included in the whole âSoul UKâ 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 âSoul UKâ thing. Plus whatâs really important is that on the DVD, before I sing each song, Iâm actually explaining the stories behind why I CHOSE them... So yeah, for me it is very much a personal victory. Because Iâve been waiting SO LONG to do a live DVD! And while itâs not exactly like my full-on live shows - I havenât got my OWN material on there and itâs 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.â

Beverleyâs determination to make âSoul UKâ an international success

âWell, 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 donât 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 donât already HAVE - itâs 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, Iâm also convinced that theyâll get and understand the artists that they DONâT already know - especially when they see the album performed live!â

Beverleyâs thoughts on todayâs UK soul and urban music scene

âLast 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 weâve 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, itâs 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 whoâs vocally doing any kind of SINGING! And I think one of the reasons why HEâS got his props is because heâs already written for a lot of big AMERICAN acts. Then aside of that, in terms of anything with an R&B edge, I guess weâre all just waiting on what Labrinth is gonna do - which hopefully will be great!... I mean, itâs 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 wouldnât PLAY it!... You know, itâs just amazing how things can CHANGE!â

Current and future plans in general

âIâll 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 Iâll also at some point be taking a short break to get married! Then this coming September Iâm hoping to give The Great North Run a go - which Iâm actually really scared about, because 13 miles is quite a long way! While in terms of my cosmetics range - while I canât 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 Iâll have another string to my bow!... So yeah, while I am going to be very busy, at the same time itâll be wonderful! Because if Iâm not busy, Iâm BORED!â

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 âMama Used To Sayâ is released June 27. The album âSoul UKâ follows on July 4, both through Hurricane/Absoluteâ¨Words
Words PETE LEWIS

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