One of Britain’s best known R&B singers, Beverley Knight has released seven studio albums in a 20-year career, won three MOBO awards, performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympic Games and received an MBE for her services to charities such as Christian Aid and the Terrence Higgins Trust.
In the past three years she has also acquitted herself with aplomb in London’s West End, taking leading roles in The Bodyguard, Memphis The Musical and Sir Trevor Nunn’s revival of Cats.
The Wolverhampton-born singer, now 43, is not a complete stranger to the world of greasepaint and curtain calls, having performed in musical theatre when she was young.
Still, she says, she’s found treading the boards at the Shaftesbury Theatre and the London Palladium to be an “absolute world away” from concert tours.
“I am so used to being me on stage in concert, ad libbing, extending a song if I want to, changing the set list at the last moment, presenting me to the audience,” she explains. “But of course when you step on stage in musical theatre, or any theatre – play or whatever – the minute you step on stage you’re not you, you’re somebody else and you are that person. There’s no room for ad lib and you can’t really play with a performance too much once you’ve hit a sweet spot with the director you’re expected to keep it there night after night. It’s so different.”
She says she couldn’t have envisaged even five years ago the direction her career has taken. “Not at all,” she laughs. “It’s just mad. Thank God I had that background because I really did not think that it would be one role, two roles, three roles, just one after the other. It was so surprising and wonderful and just goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen to you as you’re toddling along life’s path. It’s great but you’ve just got to embrace it all.”
In the midst of doing three musicals back to back, Knight has been writing her first album of original songs since 2009’s 100%.
“It’s hard work,” she says. “You get up, you go down to the studio, you’re trying to create, you know you’ve got a window of time where this is the time you’ve got for today and then you’ve got to get out of here... go to the theatre, get on stage and do a warm-up, so it has not been an easy one but so far the results have been great.
“I’m shattered but I’m happy,” she chuckles.
As for the record itself, Knight says it will be “very earthy, very raw, very live and very soulful”.
As well as singing and acting, Knight has also made several series of shows about gospel music for BBC Radio 2. It’s a tradition she grew up in, in the Pentecostal church in the West Midlands (she later studied religious theology and philosophy at Cheltenham and Gloucester College).
“It was nice to have a show where I could showcase at least a little bit of my background and where I’ve come from musically,” she says. “In this country [gospel] is very well known to the people who know it, it’s huge for people like me who have grown up in that tradition, it’s commonplace, but outside of it it seems to be very unknown, a world away from the music that we listen to and consume on the radio and in our own homes yet the two worlds are so closely linked because without the gospel beginnings you wouldn’t really have soul music, for example. A lot of those blues musicians back in the day were dragged to church as children and then the minute they left church they were playing in the club, the two are so closely linked.”
It was the gospel tradition that led Knight herself on to the music of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.
“That was my parents’ doing,” she says. “I heard those records played without fail every Sunday while we were getting ready for church, when we came back from church... that was the soundtrack to our Sunday and I loved it. I was always the last one to the dinner table and they all knew where to find me, standing in front of that record player just listening and watching it go round and round, I loved it.”
When in 2007 Beverley Knight received her MBE, she said she thought it was for her charitable work as much as for her contribution to British music. She says charitable work is “absolutely paramount” in her life.
“I’ve been given so much – the gift of music has taken me all over the world, it’s allowed me and enabled me to live the kind of life that I have. I have to now enable others to have a chance at doing something wonderful.
“I have so much that I can give and that can enable them to then go on and hopefully give or maybe lead a better life for themselves. Why would I not?”
Beverley Knight plays at York Barbican on June 3. For details visit www.beverleyknight.com