It wasn’t always thus – her early career found her pitched towards an urban R&B market, as Flava Of The Old School would testify. The belting vocal of Made It Back, however, confirmed her as a singer with raw soul potential.
And it’s to those roots that she has returned for new albumMusic City Soul, whose grainy cover indicates the singer’s intentions.This was naturally the topic uppermost in her thinking when we cornered her at Parlophone’s offices. Seemingly boundless with energy and enthusiasm, she gushed forth on the new record.
“I’m just going back to what I know, that’s where I’m most comfortable. I grew up singing in a church in Wolverhampton, and there you really sang how you felt, you were fed by singing that way. When you get the chance to do that on an album that’s not religious as such, but it’s an amazing feeling! This was the first time I felt fully inside the music.”
She admits it was a conscious move to go back. “Yeah, it was – I made the decision a long time ago, before Voice came out. I wanted to make an album that was stripped back, peeled back – and this felt like just the right time to do it. It’s been received well, too – so far, of course!”
Recording for Music City Soul took place in Nashville, and was clearly a hugely cathartic experience for the singer. “I’d been before, so I knew it well, but Ive only ever written there. This time I had killer people around me, even people whod played for Elvis! You have to be immersed in the spirit of the place, and even though we only spent five days in the studio there, it was an amazing time.”
Knight goes on to describe the writing process of the album. “I worked with Martin Brabham, who’s done stuff for James Morrison, also Jimmy Hogarth and Guy Chambers, who you’ll be familiar with. What we wanted most of all though was for the music to have a live feel to it.” The aesthetic was an important aspect for her. “Thankfully it came together quite easily. I think it’s all about the way you play stuff. I wasn’t making Neptunes-y type stuff, but wanted to do things you could always re-create live. This is the first time I’ve done something that has sounded as live, as raw as this, and it’s been great to interpret stuff in a new – or should I say old! – style.”
Beverley agrees that there has been a palpable shift in her vocal qualities over the years, making her more suited to raw soul now than she would have been in the late 1990s. “If you look after your voice, as it matures you get a warmth, a dexterity. The bass of the voice starts to come out, it warms up nicely. Im really enjoying that sound at the moment – and I think it’s something about age as well”.
Now while it’s not flattering to ask a lady her age, research tells me Knight is thirty-four. She notes that “some of the artists I admire most made their best music around the age I am now. I think that’s what made me feel ready to tackle Piece Of My Heart. The suggestion for that came from Ronnie Wood, and he said he thought I should do it as a single. The management and record label thought it was a good idea, but then I said “Is it?!” But what it did in the end was really instil some confidence for me in Parlophone, and it acted as a kind of a bridge to what was coming next.”
Taking on well-known songs – and trying not to murder them – has been a feature of the reality TV show ‘Just The Two Of Us’, where Beverley has appeared twice, first partnering Nicky Campbell, then Brendan Cole. And if that sounds too horrendous to contemplate, it’s clear she took a lot from the experience. “The best thing about the show was just about singing the songs – rock and pop songs you’d never associate with me. Utter classics as well – stuff like the Rolling Stones, and singing Young Hearts Run Free with Jocelyn Brown, that was just so fantastic!”
“If you look after your voice, as it matures you get a warmth, a dexterity” – Beverley Knight enjoys her maturing sound.
On taking the role, she says, “you can imagine my reasons about being reticent on the one hand, with it being a reality TV show, but doing the show, singing those songs, expressing the voice to a lot of viewers – I think it was really good live entertainment.”
And since we’re talking about singing to new audiences, attention turns to her enthusiastically received guest slot on the Take That comeback tour. The Manchester gig sticks out particularly as an example of how she managed to compete for centre stage – even when the boys were on. “Take That was really good fun, it was nice to have that kind of a platform. Their audience was mostly women and girls of course, but I felt a real camaraderie with them, they really got into it. I had a lot of fun in next to nothing, but my mum had heart failure when she saw what I was wearing!”
A strong sense of family comes through as the singer discusses her recent appearance in the honours list, for services to music but also in her capacity as an ambassador for Christian Aid and the Terence Higgins trust. Step forward: Beverley Knight MBE. “That was so surreal, but it was a wonderful, wonderful morning going down to the palace” she gushes. “Not that I’ve been a strong monarchist or anything, but it was what it meant to my parents that really did it for me. When they came over here it was from the countryside in Jamaica, not knowing what was in front of them. It was a huge risk, and it feels like a way of saying thank you to them for that.”