Beverley Knight, British singer, songwriter and actress, chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Sam Moore, being awarded an MBE, her latest album Soulsville and her forthcoming tour of the UK

Beverley Knight MBE is a British recording artist and musical theatre actress who released her debut album, The B-Funk, in 1995. Heavily influenced by American soul music icons such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, Knight has released eight studio albums to date. Widely labelled as one of Britain’s greatest soul singers, Knight is best known for her hit singles Greatest Day, Get Up!, Shoulda Woulda Coulda and Come As You Are.

After releasing a platinum-selling compilation album in 2006, Knight went on to tour the UK with a reformed Take That. She has also hosted four series of the BBC Radio 2 show Beverley’s Gospel Nights, which explores the origins and impact of gospel music. In September 2013, Knight made her first foray into musical theatre, taking over the lead role of Rachel Marron from Heather Headley in The Bodyguard. She has more recently taken on the lead role of Felicia in the musical Memphis.

Knight is an ambassador for many charities such as Christian Aid and has travelled to areas affected by disease and poverty to help raise awareness. She is an active campaigner for anti-Aids organisations such as the Stop AIDS Campaign and The Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2007 she was awarded the MBE in recognition of her charitable work and the contribution she has made to British music. In September 2005, Knight was made an honorary Doctor of Music from the University of Wolverhampton.

Whilst busy preparing for her tour of the UK, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Hi Beverley how are you today?

Hiya Kevin, I’m fine thanks. How are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure, no worries at all.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life is good thank you. I am looking out at a pretty dull Toronto late morning but I have to say that it is still lovely out there. For me Toronto is such a cool place; I am really enjoying my time here. So all in all life is treating me well thank you (laughter).

You are currently preparing to go out on tour. Are you looking forward to being back out on the road here in the UK?

I am, I really am as it will be so different for me from being on the stage either in the West End or here in Toronto. It will be such a lovely homecoming for me having been out of the country for the past three months. I am really looking forward to touring around the UK and reconnecting again with all of my music fans. It is going to be such a fun tour for me to do. I am really looking forward to it.

You will be performing here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday 20th June, what can we expect?

Well this tour is the Soulsville Tour so there will be lots of songs from the Soulsville album which I released last year. However, there will also be the songs which I know that everybody looks out for whenever I do a show. There will be the classics from my back catalogue, all of the fans favourites, and maybe a little sprinkle of what I have been up to in musical theatre as well (laughter). So I have got a lot to give the Nottingham audience. To be honest with you it has been a long time since I played Nottingham so I intend to make sure that I am bringing my AAA game to the city as I don’t want to let anyone in Nottingham down (laughter). I want people to go home after the show saying “yes we waited a long time for the show but it was worth it”; that is all that I want to hear.

You have mentioned acting, if I put you on the spot, acting or touring which one would you chose?

That’s easy, I would always tour over and above the acting because I am a musician first. Being a musician is not just my first love, it is what I define myself as. But in addition to the music I also love acting. I have done so much acting since I was a tiny child and now I have the opportunity to act professionally it has been wonderful. I am just so glad that I have acting as a second string if you like to the bow. But yes, music would always be my first choice, if I ever had to choose.

You have mentioned your latest album Soulsville. I have to tell you that I have been playing it to death for the past six months and I really do love it.

Thank you, thank you very much, I am really glad that you like it. I had so much fun making the album.

It’s because I am an old soulie at heat (laughter).

Really, that’s brilliant (laughter).

Were you pleased with just how well it was received?

I have to say that yes I was, I really was. I honestly couldn’t have asked for any more from the fans regarding this album. They have been so kind and have taken it to their hearts. It’s fantastic.

Looking at the songs that you decided to cover for this album, would you agree that it could have been a very different story?

(Laughter) you are so right when you say that because making the album was such a risk for me. For me to record those five classic songs that are on the album was an enormous risk. Those five songs are so well known and so well loved that I didn’t want to get it wrong and fail to pay respect to both the songs and the original artists who had originally recorded them. I could only interpret them the way that I feel them deep inside. I thought that if people could latch onto the sincerity then hopefully everything else should come from there. I am really grateful that people heard that sincerity together with the love whilst I was singing. Thankfully they could hear my love for those songs being expressed and I had really a great time recording them.

You have covered two personal favourites of mine, Hound Dog and I Can’t Stand The Rain. What was the rationale behind you choosing those particular songs?

I Can’t Stand The Rain was the most obvious one because Ann Peebles originally recorded that song in the very room at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, where I stood to record the Soulsville album in. She had stood exactly where I was standing so that was her spot too; so that made complete sense. Whenever we think about Hound Dog we automatically think of Elvis (Presley) and think of it as being a country song. However, because it was a blues song that had originally been recorded by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton back in 1952, I thought ‘okay, I can come at this from a blues angle and take it back to where it was originally’.

But of course the Memphis roots of the song as we know it are based in Memphis because Elvis was from Memphis. So I thought that would be a really interesting and something quite different to throw into the mix which was maybe more obvious. I just enjoyed going through all of those songs but I do have to say that there were just so many songs for me to choose from. The problem I faced was narrowing it down; that was the issue together with making an album that was interesting to people to make them want to listen to it. I think we did it; I think that we got there. The response has been great so I am really happy.

You mentioned standing in the same room at Royal Studios as Ann Peebles. Did you get nervous when you thought about the artists who had stood there before you?

Yes I did, and when you walk into Royal Studios there is a real sense of the history that surrounds the place. When I walked into Royal Studios for the very first time in order to research Felicia Farrell who I went on to play in Memphis The Musical, the weight of the people who had recorded there was massive. There were some serious proper soul greats, so I took a deep breath and thought ‘wow, okay this is big’ (laughter). Then later going in there to record the album was no less a feeling; I still felt that the atmosphere was so thick and so charged, it was simply palpable. That really did make me excited. That made me think that we were going to do great things in that room.

Didn’t Willie Mitchell’s son Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell surprise you when you went into the studio to record the album?

(Laughter) yes he did, and just who has told you that (laughter). Boo actually engineered the whole album and one day he switched over the microphone that I was using and put Al Green’s microphone in place and said “you are going to sing on that” (laughter). I just thought ‘okay Bev whatever A game you thought that you had you had better upgrade it very quickly’ (laughter). Oh my god, what was really fantastic was that some of the musicians who graced the album were of course half of Al Green’s original band and they came into the studio to play for me. It was simply unreal. For someone like me it was simply unreal. I loved every second of making that record. It truly was a dream come true for me.

I have to ask you just what was it like working with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame?

(Hysterical laughter) Sam Moore is one of the happiest men that I have ever met. He simply never stops smiling (laughter). Sam is eighty-one years old now and he was telling me all about wanting to perform a season in Las Vegas, “and then I’m going to do this, and then I am going to do that” and I just thought ‘don’t you ever sit down and relax with a cup of tea’ (laughter). Sam is just going, going, going. He has so much passion and energy, I loved it. I still can’t quite believe that I was in Royal Studios with Sam Moore and that we sang together. That is forever indelibly printed in my mind. I just can’t get over the fact that it was me. The whole event was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

Did you have to leave any songs off the album that now with hindsight you wish that you had put on?

To be honest there are no songs that I think now ‘oh, I wish that I had put this on the album’ because I am thinking that there will be songs that I will keep in my back pocket and bring them out at another time (laughter). So rather than regret the song choices I am happy in the thought that I couldn’t do everything at one time so I am just going to revisit the project at a later date (laughter). The songs are going nowhere (laughter). For example, Isaac Hayes has been Mr Memphis for such a long time but he doesn’t have to worry, I will be honouring his legacy at some point (laughter). There is also Otis Redding and many, many others; the list just goes on and on (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh god, wow let me think. Whilst I have been here in Toronto there was a documentary on the TV which documented the Underground Railroad which was the means in which the slaves escaped from the South and eventually made their way to Canada or the North of the States. Towards the end of the documentary they were discussing the legacy of that whole post slavery period and how dark it was. To finish the documentary they played Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and that got me by the throat, I must say. That did in fact make me shed a tear because of the way that she sings, the way she bends her notes, the pain in the vocals; everything together with the subject matter itself. It was the most fitting end to a documentary and after I just had to sit in silence for a couple of minutes in order to compose myself. That was the last thing that made me shed a tear.

Taking you back to February 2007, you were made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in recognition of your charitable work and the contribution that you have made to British music. How did that make you feel?

Wow (laughter). It was totally mad and I still can’t quite believe that all happened. I know it happened because I have got the photographs to prove it and it was all over the BBC that it happened and it was such an honour. What made it extra special for me was that both of my parents were there with me to witness it. That made it all the more special and I accepted the award for them.

On that note Beverley let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great and I will see you here in Nottingham.

Thank you so much Kevin. You take care and yes, I will see you in Nottingham. Bye for now.