Ten years ago Katherine Jenkins went from unknown singer to global star almost overnight. As she marks a decade in the business she tells Sarah Freeman why she’s going back to her roots.
As plans for New Year’s Eve go, Katherine Jenkins’s took some beating.
After a family Christmas with new husband, the American artist and film producer Andrew Levitas, the Welsh mezzo-soprano was off to Berlin. More specifically she was headed for a stage in front of the Brandenburg Gate where she was due to perform in a special New Year’s Eve party to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was to be joined by a raft of the world’s top classical musicians and of course German favourite, David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhoff who performed on that historic night in 1989.
“How fantastic will that be?” says Jenkins, who when we speak has just had the invitation confirmed. “There have been a lot of ‘pinch me’ moments in my career and I’ve been incredibly lucky to perform on some really memorable occasions, but each time you think, ‘It probably couldn’t get better than that’, another offer comes in which totally takes you by surprise.
“Being in Berlin on New Year’s Eve and being able to share in that anniversary, a real moment of history, is going to be something pretty special.”
Personally, last year was also a significant one for Jenkins as she clocked up 10 years as a recording artist.
It was back in 2003, when she was in her early 20s that she first came to public attention, singing in Westminster Cathedral as part of a service to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. At the time, the idea of classical crossover stars was being embraced by a number of record labels and Jenkins ticked all the right boxes. Photogenic, comfortable in front of the cameras and an easy going girl next door personality, that small frame also housed a big voice.
Her talent was already well-known within the classical world. Growing up, Jenkins had twice won the BBC Radio 2 Welsh Choirgirl of the Year contest and the BET Welsh Choirgirl of the Year competition. She had also been awarded the Pelenna Valley Male Voice Choir Scholarship for the most promising young singer and at the age of 17 had won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music.
However, when her debut album Premiere was released in 2004, it made Jenkins a mainstream music star almost overnight. Selling an unprecedented four million copies, it was just the start of what has been an incredible 10 years.
“People often ask how I coped with the fame, but for me it didn’t feel like overnight stardom. As much as I could be I felt prepared for the attention, although yes, when people start to recognise you in the street it does feel a little surreal.”
As the anniversary loomed, Jenkins, now 34 years old, admits she was in reflective mood. The result was a new album Home Sweet Home, which was released just before Christmas and is arguably more traditional than some of her more recent work. Recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studio it features performances of How Great Thou Art, voted the nation’s favourite hymn in 2013, Land Of My Fathers and Silent Night. There’s also a number of collaborations, including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which she sings with David Garrett and a duet with Alfie Boe on Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s Barcelona.
“When I think about that first album, honestly, it feels like yesterday. When I was recording Home Sweet Home there was a definite sense of how much had changed for me, but it also felt very familiar, because I was going back to those songs that I really love to sing. I have enjoyed everything I have done over the last 10 years and I have been given the freedom to experiment, but this is where my heart really lies. I wanted an album which was eligible for the classical chart, but I also wanted to record songs which were anthemic.
“For me these are songs that bring the nation together. Those special shared moments – sporting or national events where we all express Britishness through song. The album is full of the climactic moments that shows classical music at its most enjoyable.
“Making it was an absolute dream. I was working with people who really understand classical music and it’s just fantastic to be able to return to where my heart lies musically.”
When the album was released, Jenkins quietly mentioned that she might take a break from music. The last decade has been punishing for a self-confessed home bird and while she has clearly made the most of every opportunity, there was a sense that she wanted to spend some time with her new husband Andrew Levitas.
After splitting from television presenter Gethin Jones, Jenkins met and fell in love with Levitas. Engaged last April, they married at Hampton Court Palace in September followed by a blessing in Neath, Jenkins’ home town. However, while she may crave some down time, she’s unlikely to get it at least until the spring.
During February and March, Jenkins will be promoting Home Sweet Home on a live tour which comes to both Sheffield City Hall and York Barbican next month, although she gives the impression that performing in front of her fans rarely feels like work.
“Throughout the last 10 years they have been incredible and every new album is really my way of thanking them,” she says, having just put out an appeal on Twitter asking those coming to concerts for suggestions for the set list. “I want the audience to feel like they are really involved. Without them I wouldn’t be here. I want to know what songs they really want to hear, I want every performance to be a collaboration between me and them.”
While Jenkins had early thoughts of being a music teacher, when she decided to see if she could make a professional living from singing, she didn’t have to wait long for reassurance. After sending a demo to Universal, she was invited to the record label and following a rendition of Rossini’s Una voce poco, a six-album contract, reportedly worth £1m, was on the table.
Just three years after releasing her first album, Jenkins made her first appearance in the British young people’s Sunday Times Rich List which ranked her as the 62nd richest young person in Britain with an estimated wealth of £9m. In 2010, the Sunday Times Rich List placed her at joint 11th in the Top 20 Young Millionaires list alongside Leona Lewis and Charlotte Church, with an estimated wealth of £11m.
Jenkins would never deny the money is welcome – it funded that fairytale wedding, after all – but looking back on her career, it is the memories not the pay cheques which mean the most. It was Jenkins who headlined the Queen’s Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace and she was back again last year to pick up her OBE for her services to music. She has sung with many of her idols, from Plácido Domingo to Andrea Bocelli, and two years ago cemented her reputation on the world stage by touring South Africa, the US, China, Abu Dhabi and Europe.
However, ask her to pick her career highlight so far and she doesn’t hesitate – entertaining British troops out in Iraq.
“It all began when I performed We’ll Meet Again with Dame Vera Lynn at the 60th Anniversary of VE Day in 2005. She said that I should go out and entertain to troops and when Dame Vera Lynn says you should do something, well you have to do it.”
That Christmas and the following December, Jenkins made good on her promise flying out to the British Army bases in Iraq.
“It’s something I’m really passionate about. I’m not sure what I expected when I went to Iraq for the first time, but I hope I went there with an open mind. I got my flak jacket on and really my aims was just to put on the best show I could. It was an incredible privilege to be there.
“Of course I watch the news and of course there has been much debate about whether we should have been there in the first place, but it’s not my job to comment on that. Once the troops were sent out I think most people think that they need and deserve the public’s support.”
Jenkins is not entirely sure what 2015 would hold. She has made is no secret that she would like to have children, but with music having always been much more than a job it seems unlikely that she will disappear from view for very long.
“I love being a wife. It’s the best feeling in the world. My career is going great, my personal life is pretty fantastic. That’s a pretty good place to be. In fact I don’t think you could ask for much more.”
• Katherine Jenkins, Home Sweet Home tour, Sheffield City Hall, February 23. 0114 2789 789, www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk; York Barbican, February 25. 0844 854 2757, www.yorkbarbican.co.uk