new music

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For fans of musical theatre, the name Dave Willetts is synonymous with the West End.  Over a career spanning more than thirty years, Willetts has appeared in many shows, including the lead in Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera.  He continues to perform in musicals around the UK and as befits an actor who was part of the original Les Mis production at the Barbican (understudy to Colm Wilkinson), Willetts more often than not, chooses to work with new musical projects.

Alongside this illustrious stage career, Willetts has also enjoyed success with a number of albums.  One such offering is Timeless, an album first recorded a while ago but only now finding it’s way into the mainstream, which for fans of rich, tenor voices and musical theatre alike, is nothing short of miraculous.  After all, we don’t often get the chance to hear new material from such a seasoned actor and singer.

I described Willetts as an actor and singer in that order as it happens to be the way he described himself when I interviewed him back in 2015 when we talked about Dave Willetts as Jean Valjean.  For him, this is the crucial distinction when performing in a musical.  It is somewhat of a surprise then to find that his back story has more in common with Alfie Boe than Michael Ball. Like Alfie, Willetts has a non performance background, working in engineering as a day job and relaxing through the medium of amateur productions. While performing in Charlie and Algernon at the Priory Theatre in the Midlands, Willetts was spotted by the art director of the Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and after a successful audition, became a professional actor, with a first role in the chorus of Annie. Twelve months later he was in the West End with Les Mis and the rest, as they say, is history.

Timeless is a collection of songs that are exactly that; timeless.  Encompassing popular standards and songs from musical theatre, the album feels full of choices personal to Willetts and needless to say, they show off his vocal range and versatility to perfection.  This is a singer who through his vast acting experience, is able to convey warmth, tenderness, fun, pathos whilst also projecting enormous vocal power.

My favourite tracks are those from musical theatre, particularly I Dreamed You and This Is The Moment, from Tony Rees and Gary Young’s Jekyll and the Broadway production Jekyll and Hyde, respectively.  Willetts has worked with both shows and when I spoke to him in 2015, he was involved in writing the book for a further musical based on the Jekyll and Hyde story, The Man Inside, which has since had it’s premiere, Willetts of course taking the lead.

The majority of the other tracks are not from musicals and are such an eclectic mix that you have no option but to believe that these are personal choices.  Fun is the word that springs to mind when listening to You Took The Words Right Out and San Francisco Bay Blues – they would be great to listen to live.  Tears in Heaven and Smile allow Willetts to show his tender side while Bridge Over Troubled Water lets that rich tenor soar.  Leaving all this aside, the song I’ve taken away from this album is a duet, with Lara J West, on I Swear, a massive 1990’s hit for All4One.  As soon as you hear it, you’ll know it, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Timeless is released on 2 February and is available for pre-order:

If you can’t wait that long, I have a copy to give away!  Just answer the following question – competition closes at Midnight on Sunday 21 January.

Which West End show did Dave Willetts star in after Les Mis?

This competition is now closed.

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I have a confession to make – I truly love Christmas songs and Christmas albums so it was with total joy that I heard Rachael Sage had released a holidays EP, aptly named Joy. It’s a holidays album because it also encompasses Hanukkah, also being celebrated at the moment.

It’s a tricky thing to bring something new to Christmas music but that is exactly what Sage does with her cover of the classic Joy To The World.  Weaving together her proven sounds of folk, pop, and jazz,  Sage brings new life to such a joyful song; indeed, my overwhelming emotion when listening (and I can’t stop listening) is joy.  Sage’s vocals are crystal clear and she certainly knows how to arrange a song to suit.

Tchatchkes and Latkes is one of Sage’s own songs and is lively and tongue in cheek, originally being written for Rachael’s Joe’s Pub shows. It’s pure, unadulterated fun, definitely passing the ‘have to get up and dance’ test.  The second Hanukkah song, Hanukkah in the Village, a favourite with Rachael’s many fans is also beautiful:

 

Wonderfully evocative, the song takes you all around New York City in three minutes and makes you feel like you’re actually experiencing the holiday season there.  If I didn’t want to visit New York at this time of year before, I do now!

The most interesting track on the EP is the Yiddish ballad, and Rachael’s first Yiddish recording, Umru Meine, which debuted earlier this year at Skirball Center For The Performing Arts, where she sang it alongside Tovah Feldshuh, David Hyde Pierce and other Broadway performers as part of a National Yiddish Theatre gala event.  This is a cover but again, with Sage’s own arrangement suited to her style and you can feel Sage really connecting to the language.

Joy is available to download here:

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Monday 13 November sees new musical Tiger Bay, open in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre.  Set in the early 1900’s, the show tells the story of poverty and wealth in Cardiff’s Butetown through one young woman, played by Vicky Bebb.  Welsh musical star John Owen-Jones plays John Stuart, Third Marquess of Bute in a role written for him.

When I spoke to him earlier this year around the release of his compilation album, Bring Him Home, John said that to have a part written for him was “a long held dream”.  With Tiger Bay, John also had the opportunity to be involved in a new musical right from the beginning as the show initially premiered in Cape Town in March / April this year.  This  experience was different to other shows that John’s been it was “more like a long workshop with rewrites and changes” as opposed to slotting into a long running show.

One such long running show was Les Miserables, where he most recently took over from Alfie Boe on Broadway.  John enjoys a good relationship with Alfie and joked about Alfie and Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean before Alfie) that “they did what I originally did and then I went and showed them how it was supposed to be done.”  Click here for our Les Miz Broadway reviews to see if you agree!

Whilst on the topic of Alfie (John knowing Alfie and me writing this blog, talking about Alfie was inevitable) we talked about the infamous night at the Royal Albert Hall when Alfie pulled John up onto the stage to sing Bring Him Home.  Of that night, John said “I wished I hadn’t had two pints of lager but it was absolutely unplanned and terrifying but perhaps the beer was helpful.  I couldn’t believe Alfie had the balls to do that.”  That was my very first Alfie concert and because of that magical moment, one of the most memorable:

John, of course, also starred in another iconic long running show, Phantom of the Opera as well as a recent short revival of The Wild Party.  When asked, John’s dream roles include Sweeney Todd, George in the Park, Man of La Mancha, Into the Woods and Company.

Tiger Bay opens on 13 November – click here for tickets.

John’s latest album, Bring Him Home is available here:

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In times as turbulent and uncertain as those we currently live in, it seems to me that the music we listen to would go one of two ways: escapist or reflecting what’s happening around us. But, what if there was a third way? Music that reflects uncertainty while also sounding hopeful for the future of our world? In Stargazer, the new album from US musician, Jesse Terry I think we’ve found this.

I once read that during a recession, sales of red lipstick go up as we try to keep our spirits up during doom and gloom, a story that appeals to me as a fervent lover of red lipstick as pick you up, whether or not there’s any truth in it. As an escape from reality it’s pretty sure fire, albeit on a short term basis. Another escape route from reality is music, both songs that you’ve loved forever and new music that takes you to a far off, magical place. I have a pretty extensive music collection but I’m always looking for more to add and I recently came across a US artist named Jesse Terry whose new album, Stargazer really lifted me with its upbeat tone of hope and thought provoking lyrics that lead you to think about the bigger picture.  When I spoke to Terry, I asked him if was a happy person and he said that “most people see me as a happy guy…I’m happiest when making music and that’s when most people do see me.  In Stargazer, we talk about choosing your own universe and it’s the journey that’s lots of fun, it’s good to still be on that journey”.  The title track is filled with hope, compassion and empathy, demonstrated by the lines “I know how much it hurts, you’re free now to choose your universe, I know your time’s coming soon”.

Stargazer as a whole uses a lot of strings which make an emotional impact and have been thoughtfully arranged as part of the song, rather than added as an afterthought. They work so well that I would like to hear several songs as classical works as well as acoustically, particularly Woken the Wildflowers.  Terry and I bonded over the sometimes overuse of ‘extraneous strings’, my own phrase!, where it really doesn’t suit the music but in this case, Terry says that he was aided by a great arranger, Danny Mitchell and the songs were written with the strings in mind.  “Think Abbey Road without George Martin’s string arrangements” is how Terry put it.

The Abbey Road connection is apt as Terry cites The Beatles as his most overriding musical influence (he talks about them with reverence and awe in his voice) along with Jeff Lynne, Brian Wilson, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and The Travelling Wilburys.  All of these can be heard on Stargazer but as well as The Beatles, I felt that Paul McCartney’s later solo work made it’s presence felt with Terry even sounding like McCartney at times.  Listening to the rest of the album, Dangerous Times struck me as a flowing melody with lyrics that really make you think about the world around us and our place within it whereas Only A Pawn had the same effect but with a stand out intro and use of pizzicato strings.  Dance In Our Old Shoes and Runaway Town pass the had to get up and dance test parts and to me sound positively Springsteenish.

Stargazer is available here:

Jesse Terry is touring the UK in October – click here for info.

What do Simon and Garfunkel have in common with En Vogue, the all female group from the early 1990’s?  Well, they were two of the artists cited as musical influences by British female duo The Sound of the Sirens when I interviewed them recently.  At first glance, it’s difficult to see the similarity between En Vogue and Exeter based Sirens, aka Abbe and Hannah, whose sound is more acoustic pop than R&B, but it’s the harmonies that inspire, along with Destiny’s Child and the aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel.

It seems that Abbe and Hannah’s musical influences are multi layered and eclectic; song writing inspirations are Oasis, Mumford and Sons, Nirvana and Coldplay amongst others. Listening to the Sirens debut album, For All Our Sins, these song writing influences are immediately apparent: the influence of Mumford and Sons is easily detected and Abbe and Hannah cite them as their major influence.  The writing process takes place both together and alone and is aided by lots of dog walking!  Abbe and Hannah each have a dog (Maggie and Taio) and like to listen to songs recorded on their phones whilst out walking – sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

For All Our Sins is an album that delivers upbeat, sweet melodies that beguile you, whilst at the same time, sharp lyrics speak to us of strong emotions, the sadness that life can bring and finding strength and positivity to get through.  Abbe and Hannah hope that by doing this, they can “help others to deal with the same issues”.   Chaos and Together Alone are my favourite tracks, along with their first single, Smokescreen:

It’s when listening to the lyrics and the overall sound that you hear the influence of all the other female singers and songwriters that have gone before.  The likes of Pink, Alanis Morrissette, Laura Marling and even Gloria Estefan further influenced the Sirens.  Going back to En Vogue and Destiny’s Child, it’s easy to see that it’s not only the harmonies that inspire, but also the women themselves – after all, there are still relatively few all female groups making music successfully.

As with all independent musicians, I was interested to find out why Abbe and Hannah chose to go the indie route and it turns out that Sirens are a perfect match with DMF Records as they are both Exeter based and both Abbe and Hannah said that working with them was “just like family.  We can pop in for a cuppa and chat, it’s great”.   As for the future, the Sirens will continue to frequently play live and hope to record another album in the next year or so – they already have some new material written.

Lastly, the title of this piece is Sins of Sound of the Sirens and you might ask what sins?  I concur, Abbe and Hannah are far too lovely to have many sins.  The title of the album comes from the lyrics of Cross Our Hearts and was chosen by the duo’s brothers – and they like it as “it can mean anything”!

For All Our Sins is available here:

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The Journey is the second album from classical crossover artist Thomas Spencer and has been a long time in the making and reflects his desire to find his own voice in the crossover world.  I spoke to Thomas last week about the album and about his own personal journey through the world of music.

Thomas hails from a Derbyshire village and after music A level, decided to study acting in London.  A change of heart though saw him enrol for voice training at Trinity College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music before going onto a post graduate musical theatre course.  The logical outcome of all this was to work in musical theatre but when Thomas found that he was losing out to singers and actors with a bigger profile, his response was to try a different approach and began recording an album in his London flat with his musician / composer brother, Oliver.  Credere was the end product and the brothers quickly decided that they wanted to record another, using mostly their own material.  It’s unusual for classical crossover artists to record known material and although The Journey does contain this, the majority is (mainly Oliver’s) original compositions.  Of this choice, Thomas says “we wanted to find our own voice, our own material, our own style of music”.

The result is a unique sounding album that lulls you into thinking you know where this musical journey is going to take you; it’s only when you’re a few songs into the album that you realise this is not taking you in the expected direction at all which for me, is great.  There is something for everyone on this album, whether new to classical crossover or not although, as we know from Alfie Boe, there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad; part of what makes good music good is the unexpected (and goodness knows Alfie Boe in particular is nothing if not unpredictable) and it’s the original songs on this album that stand out.

The Journey is released on 23 June and this is a super busy time for Thomas as he is also coming to the end of a multi date project with choirs around the country.  Beginning in the middle of May, Thomas has been travelling the length and breadth of the country working and performing with community choirs.  Whether singing solos or as part of the tenor section, singing his own music or teaching and participating in workshops, Thomas says that “no two choirs sessions have been the same, each night is unique with differing abilities, ages, sizes…it’s nice to be kept on my toes”.  Most of the choirs have their own repertoire and Thomas gave a wry chuckle when he said that Bring Him Home and other Les Mis songs seemed to be perennial favourites with choirs – I expect he’s sung that a fair few times over the last few weeks.  Having said that, Thomas has also sung Gilbert and Sullivan and other musical theatre songs in the course of this tour and even learnt some Welsh folk songs courtesy of a week with Welsh male voice choirs.

When asked why a community choir tour, Thomas answered that “having sung in choirs all my life I felt it was a good way to get involved in community and to spend time talking about and performing music.  I’ve been lucky enough to train at some good places and it’s great to be able to share some vocal technique, biology of the voice and what I do before performing”.   Nearly all the songs on The Journey lend themselves to choral adaptations so it would be interesting to see if any of the choirs Thomas has worked with add any to their repertoire.

The Journey is available here:

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Will Barratt has been performing in London’s West End (Jersey Boys, Phantom, War of the Worlds, Producers) for a while now but he became someone to look out for amongst Alfie Boe fans when he understudied Alfie’s Billy Bigelow in ENO’s Carousel; he literally took over from Alfie half way through a show after Alfie came down with an ear infection.  Two more shows the next day followed, both to rave reviews. I interviewed Will after the end of the five week run and although he was quick to point out he had no expectation of performing the role, in the event that he did, said that “it was good to get on for a couple of shows together, like a preview and opening night in two shows”.  Additionally, Will said that although Alfie was sad to have to miss the show, he was “so pleased that I got on – he was dead happy for me”.  If you want to hear Will singing the soliloquy, click here for a pre-show talk and performance at ENO (soliloquy starts at 23m).

As Will’s only role in the production was to understudy Billy, I was keen to find out about the creative process and rehearsal period; how much was he involved?  It turns out that both Will and Molly Lynch, who understudied Katherine Jenkins as Julie, were as fully involved as Alfie and Katherine from day one.  Whoever plays the part, the blocking and direction is the same, it’s the thought processes of the actor that differs.  Will says that “Alfie, Katherine, Molly and I, we all got on, we worked through stuff together…Alfie was also going through the process of figuring out the role, he didn’t know what it was on day one either.  We were all doing it together”.

Now, you might be wondering about the headline of this piece – Confessions of a Justified Sinner.  This is the title of Will’s self penned debut album, released in 2015 and showcases his seemingly effortless talent for singing, playing multiple instruments and song writing.  Of the songs themselves, Will says that “all the songs on this album contain bits of me, my life, history, wants and needs, aches and pains, ups and downs…they are my confessions”.  He leaves it up to us as to whether he is a justified sinner or not!

Being self penned, this album is not what you might expect from a musical theatre performer – there are a few songs that wouldn’t be out of place in a musical but on the whole, the songs are a mix of upbeat, rockier, pop and jazz with a hint of Americana that really get you up and out of your seat.  To me, a great song is one that you instantly sing along to or you can’t sit still to and both the opening track, Give Me Some Time and Demon, towards the end, had me up and dancing straight away.  These two songs, together with Fearless (below), a beautiful ballad and the almost Buble-esque Never Thought, are my favourite songs.  Interestingly, Give Me Some Time and Never Thought are songs originally written when Will was at school, just reworked and rearranged to give a more sophisticated sound.

Will’s fabulous voice handles all these styles with great versatility and is a joy to listen to.

Confessions of a Justified Sinner is available here:

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In the twenty first century you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s no such thing as new sounds in music; after all, haven’t we already invented everything?  In most cases the answer might be yes but having listened to US band Kolars, it’s clear that the future of music innovation is well and truly kicking.  Their eponymous debut album, released this week, is a riot of genre defying songs that embrace country, guitar led Americana, glam rock, blues and folk music to name but a few.  Throw in new wave and punk and you start to see why the band (husband and wife Rob Kolar and Lauren Brown) describe their music with terms such as glam-a-billy, space blues and desert disco.  I spoke to them via skype last week and Lauren described this musical journey as “the way music is going in general – there are more genres and sub genres now, mixing genres to create new ones”.

The album is a product of Rob and Lauren coming together as a duo after the demise of their previous band, He’s My Brother She’s My Sister and as already mentioned, represents many different genres derived from numerous and somewhat eclectic musical influences.  I asked both about their musical influences and Rob in particular, as the writer, named just about every type of music since the 1950’s – and what he didn’t, Lauren did.  As a writer, Rob says he is influenced by a lot of UK music as well as blues and this is reflected in the construction of the songs on the album.  Upon first listen, the album is clearly innovative musically but strip that away and the songs are well constructed that would work perfectly well as acoustic tracks.  The opening track, One More Thrill, exemplifies this – and look out for fabulous drumming from Lauren:

Rob says about the origins of One More Thrill, “it started out on acoustic guitar and then turned into a kind of Springsteen anthem and then new wave and punk elements were added.  I learnt to be open to all genres of music and not be pigeon holed”.  I can definitely say that this album cannot be pigeon holed!

Taken as a whole, all the songs have a strong percussive element which is to be expected with one half of the band having such a distinctive drumming style – when asked about the music she didn’t like, Lauren’s answers were all related to artists with “awful drum sounds”.  Additionally, catchy hooks mean that you’ll be hearing the songs for days afterwards.  The glam rock influences are apparent too and it’s no surprise to learn that Rob’s favourite period musically turns out to be “glam rock, T Rex, Bowie, it includes pop, great hooks and then you’ve got the androgyny, fun fashion, great drum sounds”.  A couple of the songs have definite Bowie moments but with this album, just when you think you’ve got a handle on the music, the tracks take a sharp turn into something totally different. This album challenges you musically whilst remaining very listenable.

Kolars is available here:

Catch Kolars at their remaining live dates – click here.

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Autism – most of us have heard of autism and a fair amount of us probably think we know what is meant by the term autism, but do we?  There are a huge range of issues faced by people with autism and one of the problems causing difficulty is a lack of understanding amongst the wider public which is where World Autism Awareness Week (WAAW) comes in.  Brought into being by the National Autistic Society (NAS) to highlight World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April, WAAW, which runs 27 March – 2 April 2017, aims to further raise awareness and understanding in public attitudes.

This year, the charity is being helped with it’s annual campaign by up and coming music duo The Beautiful Secret, whose new single, What’s Inside, is the anthem for World Autism Awareness Week:

Released tomorrow, the song shows ‘what’s inside’ Katie-Rae, shown in the video.  Katie’s aunt, Rachael Hawnt, is one half of The Beautiful Secret (alongside Ashley Cutler) and after hearing Katie say that “no one ever listens to me”, wrote What’s Inside in response.  Rachael said about Katie-Rae, “she has autism and learning difficulties and had many fears and phobias from the get-go. She has struggled with social situations and depression all of her life, but she is still a strong and loving person with a fantastic artistic flare and a big, big heart.  We wanted to write a song to help raise funds and awareness for autistic people. The first person I went to talk to was Katie-Rae; I told her I wanted to write about the way she felt, a real perspective from a real autistic child.”

The fundraising and awareness aspect of teaming up with the National Autistic Society came later and is something that Katie-Rae herself feels very proud of. Speaking this week, Katie said “I’m not brave enough to get the word out there myself so my aunt is doing it for me…it makes me happy that it’s going to help people”.

Highlighting understanding is the key to both this song and this year’s World Autism Awareness Week and Katie-Rae’s own words encapsulate perfectly the issues she and many other autistic people face on a daily basis.  Speaking about school, Katie told me that

No one cared how we felt, people thought we were crazy.  We’re not crazy, we’re just different.  People didn’t really understand, even the teachers, until Miss Young helped us explain to the other teachers how we feel and how we think.

The fundraising head of NAS, Kate Donohue, agreed that “very often, young autistic people felt that no one ever listened to them”, which is why the song is so powerful.  To have Katie-Rae appearing in a video highlights just how powerful the song is – and also shows how brave this young lady is, despite what she thinks.

What’s Inside, by The Beautiful Secret, supporting the National Autistic Society is available here:

All proceeds go to NAS.

Click here to find out more about the fundraising and awareness work of the National Autistic Society.

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One of the difficulties in being an unsigned artist is how to gain exposure for your music and reach new audiences.  The beauty of independent musicians is that you can make the music you want but the catch is that you then have to do all the promotion yourself.  Therefore, musicians and their managers are always looking for new ways to reach out and sell the music.

In the last ten years, one such way is to become a Caffe Nero Artist of the Month or to be listed for the monthly playlist.  Artists are also invited to play live in a selection of Caffe Nero locations and I recently spoke to Mark Sullivan, who is currently criss crossing the country in a camper van (musicians have such a glamorous life), on the Caffe Nero tour.  Sullivan has been a musician for a long time and I asked him why this touring approach was important and he said “I knew I wanted to get on the tour as it’s a really good way of reaching an audience…it pushes me as an artist to connect with people in such an intimate setting”.

In order to be considered for the tour and playlist, artists need to have produced music that is available on properly mastered CDs (mp3 tracks are automatically rejected) and although Sullivan was in a good place, musically, after winning the soloist category of the 2015 Rock the House competition, his EP wasn’t ready for release until now.  Recorded in the USA with acclaimed producer Steve Greenwell, the three track EP entitled Still Good For Nothing (the title comes from a line from the second track, Bird At Night) showcases Sullivan’s warm vocals and classic, guitar led pop.  In particular, Warm Your Bones is a lovely song to listen to and eminently catchy, while the video is just pure romance:

I love a music video that tells a story!

Although Sullivan has a lot of material written in preparation for more recording, in addition to this three track EP he has just three more ready to release and he hopes to do this later in 2017 / early 2018.  The question of EP versus album then brings us neatly back to why Sullivan wanted to tour with Caffe Nero.  As Sullivan says “although I have enough material for an album, I don’t have enough reach and so I need to build an audience and raise my profile before releasing an album”.  Playing and selling his own music in venues around the country, renowned for supporting unsigned artists, is designed to help accomplish both those aims.

As for Caffe Nero themselves, supporting up and coming artists is something that enables them to have new and interesting music on their playlists each month; live music is the icing on the cake although exposure to customers via the wi-fi login would also be a factor in getting the music heard. Ultimately, though, it’s the live music that helps gives musicians the impetus and profile to become more successful – Jack Savoretti was the first to play these tours and he’s done quite well since!

Mark Sullivan’s EP, Still Good For Nothing is available here:

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