Piano Concerto in G major Maurice Ravel
With three chart-topping albums, two Classical BRIT Awards and millions of adoring fans, Welsh singing star Katherine Jenkins seems to have it all – but behind her latest CD is a tale of loss and heartache.
That’s what people say about Welsh singing sensation Katherine Jenkins. Oh, and “nice”.
“That lovely Katherine Jenkins,” they say. “She’s so nice: nice voice, nice looks, nice manners… Nice.”
Are you thinking what I’m thinking; that “nice” people don’t get to the top – Katherine signed to her label three years ago for a record £1 million and has three chart-topping albums and two Classical BRIT Awards to her name – by being nice?
Look at that other Welsh singing star Charlotte Church. We all thought she was nice, didn’t we? Next thing she’s in the tabloids painting the town red. A slap in the face to her millions of nice, lovely fans but I guess that’s the draw of the pop pound for you…
But hold on, what did Katherine Jenkins just say to me?
“I can say never, ever, ever will I sing pop.”
So her flirtation with the genre on Serenade is just a wobble?
“I like the idea of doing a classical version of a pop song and I’ve always loved Bryan Adams’s Everything I Do,” she explains (the singer-guitarist accompanies her on the track). “I did the same thing on my previous album with I Will Always Love You and I thought I’d carry on the theme.”
As long as it goes no further than the occasional acoustically arranged pop standard sung in Italian (on her new disc, Everything I Do is named by its Italian translation Quello Che Faro), I think we can let it pass. In any case, as Katherine says, she’s done the rebel thing already.
“My success happened to me much later than it did for Charlotte, when I was 22. I spent four years doing student things at the Royal Academy of Music and came out knowing what I wanted to do. I’d done the partying, had the student life, so now I don’t feel I’m missing anything.”
Get this – she doesn’t even go nightclubbing. Her idea of the perfect evening is relaxing with friends over dinner, and if you’re in Neath, her home town in South Wales, this Christmas Eve you might spot her having a drink with old school mates in the pub.
“I’ve seen people get carried away with success but I don’t see why your life has to change,” she explains.
She clings to the advice someone gave her when she first signed to Universal Records: don’t believe your own hype. Her fondest hope is that people will say of her, “She’s having all this success, but she’s the same Katherine.”
Ah, how nice but even so… surely there’s a fire burning somewhere behind all that loveliness? We know she likes driving. Her dream is to do the lap test on TV’s Top Gear car show and she has just bought a new car, an Audi Q7. But then she spoils it by explaining that the vehicle, an enormous thing with seven seats, is just perfect for transporting her dresses between shows.
“The boot on my Mercedes SLK is too small!” she wails.
I suggest that a love of driving suggests she likes being in control, her Top Gear ambition a clear case of someone who needs to win.
“Not really,” she says. “I just love being able to do my own thing. A car allows me to be independent.”
And then it slips out: “I’m very driven, you see.”
Now we’re onto something. She credits her mother Susan with her drive. As a working mum and the family breadwinner when Katherine’s father took early retirement, Susan instilled into her daughter the idea of having your own career, earning your own money and being independent.
It explains why, when Katherine took to singing, it was she, and not her parents, who did the running, who asked to be in the choir, who practised hard for competitions. “In fact, they were always asking me if it was what I really wanted,” she says.
So you’d imagine that when Hollywood came knocking, as it did a couple of years ago, Katherine would have jumped at the chance to make it big in Tinseltown.
Wrong. In fact, the only way the Hollywood execs that she met could get her into their film, called A-list and released in 2005, was by telling her that her then boyfriend, an actor, whom they’d just auditioned, wouldn’t get his part unless she was in, too.
“I told them I can’t act without music,” recalls Katherine. So they gave her a silent role in the movie. All she had to do was sit at her boyfriend’s hospital bed – he was playing a coma patient – and look shocked. When it came to filming the scene, she cried her eyes out.
The Hollywood men told her it was great acting.
“Acting?” she asked them. “I was really crying; he looked so desperate!”
And this is where my attempts to discover a less-than-nice Katherine Jenkins collapse. You see, I can believe her story happened exactly as she describes. I know Katherine cries because within moments of meeting her for this interview, I made her somewhat watery eyed.
She was recalling the first time she sang at the Sydney Opera House and remembered that her father Selwyn, who died when Katherine was 15, had promised his family they’d holiday in Australia one day.
“Sadly we never made it. So it was very emotional for me to sing at the Opera House and I was saying ‘Come on, Dad; please give me the strength to do a good show.’”
The heart-melting sight of a beautiful woman welling up should have stopped me in my tracks, but heartlessly I pressed on… I’d read in the sleeve notes that Katherine has dedicated her new album to her grandmother, as well as to her father. As she explains in the booklet, Nanna passed away during the recording of the album.
“I get upset just thinking about it. Nanna was 90 and hadn’t been well all year. I was performing in Kosovo when I heard she had become much worse. I dashed to her bedside and managed to spend two days with her. Then I had to go to Australia on tour and got the news that she had passed away.”
It’s a moment performers must dread: when their private and professional worlds collide. Inevitably, it is their public who must come first. For Katherine, it’s particularly hard.
“It’s got a lot to do with where I come from, the things that have happened to me. My life can be very stressful so for me the most important thing is to stay grounded and keep my family around me.”
Quite literally; anyone who attended the Classical BRIT Awards will have witnessed the “Jenkins Taffia”, Katherine’s name for the friends and family who cheer their support whenever her name is mentioned.
They’ll be saving their biggest cheer for her new disc, a selection of arias, pop and traditional songs, and hymns. There are the usual Jenkins comfort-zone tracks, among them The Green, Green Grass Of Home, Dear Lord and Father Of Mankind and The Prayer, and more challenging pieces such as Chanson Bohème from Carmen and Puccini’s much-recorded aria O Mio Babbino Caro. She’s even partnered by Kiri Te Kanawa in Delibes’s Flower Duet.
Katherine has teamed up with The Philharmonia to bring a lush, Hollywood quality to the recording. Heard back-to-back with her first album, Première, it’s clear the girl from Neath has come a long way.
She’s sounding much more confident, more technically accomplished. Her diction has always been clear but now her Italian and French is more natural and convincing. But the biggest development her fans will notice is that her voice is now darker and richer.
“In Living a Dream [her third album], the music was all high-lying but for Serenade we noticed my voice had changed, that it had settled slightly. My bottom range hasn’t grown; it’s just that my voice feels more natural and comfortable a little lower than it did.”
A mezzo is usually in her prime by her early 30s, so Katherine’s voice has a few more years to mature. This latest disc shows it’s developing nicely. There’s still an absence of characterisation and raw emotion in her singing but on the upside, she possesses a growing confidence that, coupled with her flawless image, should ensure her star keeps rising.
“I want it to appeal to lots of different ages. I had so much encouragement when I grew up in Wales, it’s my way of giving something back.”
See, I told you she’s nice.