Star Q&A: Katie Melua

Round & About

Interview

Liz Nicholls asks singer Katie Melua a few questions about her musical icons & more ahead of her new album No. 8 being released and a UK tour this month.

Q. Congratulations on your new album! How do you feel about it now it’s about to be released? “I feel like it’s been a long time coming. We’ve been working on it for so long and can’t wait to share it with everyone. When you’re working on it it’s always tricky to sort of be able to tell completely objectively how you feel about it or what you think about it. Now the dust has settled you start to feel like you begin to see it properly, and begin to hear it properly. There’s always like the excitement of a new record and that’s kind of bubbling in the team, so I just can’t wait for it to be out there.”

Q. What lessons did you ponder about love, and what do you feel is the most powerful lesson to convey? “I looked at it from the perspective of a record maker and a singer/songwriter who has sung great love songs. And so from that perspective I felt like I had to say and have lines like ‘I think we’ve given love too much airtime”’ which is about acknowledging these love songs, but as I’ve got older the reality of life has shown me that when records just celebrate the early love and the passion of love and the sort of that angle of love like it’s not enough. I think it’s important to honestly observe your life and to put that into your music and your words. Another song on the record – How’d you make a love like that last – is about being just honest and asking ‘what have I actually seen?’. What is the reality in all the relationships that I’ve observed – both mine and those around me? There is a real gap between what I’ve seen in culture to do with love and what I’ve seen in reality and I’m interested in seeing how much we can bridge that gap.”

Q. What activities have helped keep you sane during lockdown, are there any habits you will now keep up? “Well I think I’m going to keep up the habit of taking photos. But really meaningfully. I learned to use a film camera to take photos for the album and the promo photos, I never worked with one before, I’ve grown up with a telephone / iPhone camera. The photographer Rosie Matheson taught me to use a camera and I got to shoot the album cover. It genuinely changed my perception of how I view my visual world around me because I realised there’s so many possibilities of which angles you use and what you put inside a picture. It’s like my visual senses have been heightened through learning to take photos, and I’ve actually just bought myself a camera. So I think I will keep up the habit of taking photos and just being a bit more perceptive of my visual surroundings.”

Q. You’ve spoken poignantly about your mental health before, how are you now and how do you maintain good mental hygiene? “Thank you for asking, I’m feeling really good. You know I was sick in 2010, and I’ve had a really healthy recovering and I’m grateful for it, and I’m also grateful that it happened. And how do I keep my mental hygiene – well in a way the fact that I got sick is what keeps my mental hygiene because I’ve realised how the brain can break, basically, and I place a great deal of importance on my health, on not overworking, on just respecting my mind and my body, and my energy and really paying attention to it, and doing good things, things that I love and being kind to people.”

Q. I know you lived in Surrey for some time. What did you enjoy most about living in Surrey? “I used to live on Nutfield Road, up on top of that hill. I didn’t really used to hang out there much because we moved there when I was just starting Brit School, and so I tended to get the train from Redhill to Selhurst, change in East Croydon. I was always at the train station in Redhill! Because we were on top of the hill the view of the Surrey downs was incredible. Very close to our house there was a lake with water sports, and we’d go out on canoes and windsurfing.”

Q. And obviously you’ve played in Guildford quite a few times haven’t you? “Yes I have. And actually the shows we did there with the Gori Women’s Choir were brilliant. Mind you, my first show was there as well, supporting The Planets I think. Good memories, yeah, really good memories.”

Q. You’ve been compared to your namesake Kate Bush; would you like to work with her and are there any other dream collaborations or icons you’d like to meet? “Kate Bush is the ultimate icon. I would blow my head off if the possibility of working with Kate Bush came around. Are there any others? Yes, of course – I love Bob Dylan, I love Joni Mitchell. I think Laura Marling is brilliant, but you know what’s interesting is there isn’t a great deal of communication between artists, like we tend to keep to our own spaces, which is a shame really. But everyone works in their own cycles and I think that’s what makes it difficult. An artist can spend – years making an album and the work is very engulfing. It’s tough to form friendships because you could become friends one season, and then you could go off on tour for 6 months? And then you come back and then they’re on tour. And even at festivals the schedules are usually too relentless so you aren’t hanging out backstage.”

Q. What’s your first ever memory of music? “It is of my mum playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the family piano in Georgia when I was four or five years old. I can still picture it. There was a power cut so there were a couple of candles and I remember hearing that thing of beauty, you know in something that was so emotional and something that I couldn’t touch and I couldn’t see, and the melody just piercing me in the darkness, it was majestic.”

Q. What are your three favourite pieces of music? “Just My Imagination by The Temptations, because I think it is the most exquisite pop record. It’s like a sweet, divine movie that you see, and the vocals and the lyrics are done perfectly; they’re super subtle, they’re completely clear, they’re really bitter sweet, they’re about imagining a lover that the protagonist can’t have. And then the music just is draped around that in the most extraordinary way, and it’s got a great groove but it’s not too loud – it’s just perfect. My next piece would be Mourned By The Wind by Giya Kancheli, which is a classical piece of work, and I actually heard it live performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Southbank Centre. When I first heard it, it was an out of body experience, because it’s incredibly delicate in parts and then there are certain sections that are mind-blowingly – they hit you like the whole orchestra strikes. And finally I Remember by Molly Drake, Nick Drake’s mum. I just adored the philosophy in this song – it had the most beautiful lyric ‘I remember fire light, and you remember smoke’. You can tell her music and her songwriting influenced her son, it’s just perfect. I feel like her work and Nick’s work defines that sort of indescribable English quality, which is sort of subtle and delicate.”

Q. Your tour is due to visit Berkshire and Oxfordshire, do you know this part of the world well and if so any places you would like to visit? “I played at Blenheim Palace a lifetime ago, but I didn’t get a chance to explore much which is a shame. I just love the English countryside, and I actually worked for three weeks completely alone in a cottage in the Cotswolds. That’s where I completed a lot of the lyrics for the new record, and I think it’ll always be in my heart actually. I had an amazing time just being on my own for three weeks. I didn’t have a car, the nearest pub was a half an hour walk away, and I had a cottage that was generously lent to me by an old friend… for three weeks obviously, not forever [laughs].”

Q. Who would be your six dream dinner party guests, living or dead, real or fictional, and why? “I would say Virginia Woolf; her writing is a big inspiration to me. To The Lighthouse is my favourite book – how she describes life is I think one of the greatest things in western art. There’s a dinner scene in To The Lighthouse where she describes the fruit and the food on the table, and the light in the room and it’s just majestic. So, having someone like that who was such a keen observer of life is a must. I would also have Pina Bausch, a German choreographer who revolutionised modern dance. I love her way of working, how she explored male and female relationships and how she made commentary on it through her dance pieces. Her parents were restaurant owners, so she spent her childhood kind of hiding under tables observing life under the table at a restaurant, and then I think that’s where she developed her kind of – that’s what inspired her. She trained as a ballet dancer and then she was given the job of being the head choreographer at the Wuppertal dance theatre company. I saw her dance once. Maybe I Dreamt It on the new album is inspired by her. The third would be Bob Dylan. I love Bob as an artist – I love the idea of Bob, the character that we have of him on records. I especially love his love songs about women like Time After Time and Lay Lady Lay. I think it would be lovely if my guests are all at the same age that Bob might fall in love with one of my guests and might write a song about her. So we’ve had a writer, a choreographer, we’ve had a musician – let’s go for a painter. Levan Lagidze who is a legendary Georgian painter, a living legend. I know him, and I have a relationship with him where we converse about his work and the process of creating, and I find talking to him really fascinating – we talk about art, we talk about life, and I know the conversation with him will always be fascinating and funny. Next one, okay we should have a scientist! Let’s have… let’s have Newton. Why Newton? Because I loved physics at school, it was my second favourite subject at school after chemistry. His university life was interrupted due to the plague, and it was when he was at home he saw the apple fall and had a major discovery from that – I’m sure obviously that’s not what actually happened, I’m sure it was a build-up over years and years, so it would be nice to sort of hear the full story about his discoveries. And my final guest would be my grandma, Tamara (called her Babula; a Russian term for it) who passed away a few years ago. But she had a heavy influence on how I sing. From a very young age, she would always get me to sing for her in the kitchen – she was always the only audience. And at the age of six or seven, she’d give me proper critique that I could take like an adult, she never kind of molly coddled me – and she always told me to sing from the heart, and I think she really enjoyed doing that.”

Q. Do you celebrate Halloween at all? Is it a time of the year you enjoy? “I love Halloween! As a teenager I just adored Halloween, and I loved doing Halloween parties. I once did a Halloween party where I invited a ghost story teller, and around 15 friends and we listened to ghost stories – but we were about 23.”

Q. If you could make one wish for the world, what would it be? “I think for all of us to pay attention to our moods a little bit more, and go easy on ourselves… yeah, go easy on ourselves as humans because I think we’re alright.”

Star Q&A: Wine wizard Oz

Round & About

Interview

Jonathan Lovett catches up with wine expert and TV celebrity Oz Clarke ahead of the publication of his latest book, Oz Clarke English Wine in which he waxes lyrical about the newest new world wine country

What floated your cork to write this book?

I think the time had come. I’ve been writing about English wine and supporting it ever since I was an actor and singer years ago. Year by year I’ve noted what was going on and, to be honest, there wasn’t much in this country until Nyetimber came on the scene in the late 1990s. This wonderful English sparkling wine was a complete revelation which tasted better than most Champagnes! Every year since then I’ve seen new players arrive and the 2018 was our biggest ever vintage, which was talked about all over the media, so I realised then I had to write this. There was no high street book for anyone interested in English wine so it just had to happen.

And the book is also about the English countryside?

Absolutely. I’m a country boy from Kent and when I was growing up I was also in Cambridgeshire for a couple of years so my memories of early life are all about the countryside. When people ask me, “Where would you like to be right now?” they expect me to say, “San Francisco or Johannesburg etc” but instead I say, “Oh, take me to the white cliffs of Dover with the wind blowing in my hair and the sun in my face and I know in half-an-hour’s walking I’ll come to a beautiful pub where I can enjoy a pint of their local beer!”

What English wine would you recommend that won’t break the bank?

Firstly, if we’re looking at English wine, the best English sparkling wines are quite expensive, and deservedly so. But if you want to drink English wine for less money then try the still wines as we make a delicious range. There are vineyards such as Denbies in Surrey, Chapel Down in Kent or Three Choirs in Gloucestershire and you can get these simply outstanding white blends with names like Flint Dry for just a tenner. It’s the same price you’ll be paying for a supermarket New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and just as good.

Do you miss the acting at all? I hear you were quite successful…

I miss theatres and whenever I go round the country I often go to the local theatre and ask stage door, “Would you mind if I just go and stand on the stage for a few minutes?” as there’s something magical about an empty theatre. And sometimes I stand on the stage and sing, perhaps a bit of Sweeney Todd. I played that wonderful role opposite Sheila Hancock at Drury Lane and my first night was just about my best ever night on stage.

What made you switch from the stage to Sancerre?

Well, I did 10 years pretty much solid without a holiday and I was playing Juan Peron in Evita opposite Stephanie Lawrence. It was a big, successful show then Stephanie left and I should have also gone at the same time but they asked me to do another six months. During those six months I just lost the joy for what I was doing and I started losing my confidence. I started coming into the theatre, fearsome, and I thought, “This is absolute nonsense” and, “I’ve got to leave.” So I went away and sat in my little garret in Islington and wrote a book called Sniff, Gurgle and Spit and realised I could make a job as a wine writer!

BBC’S Food and Drink followed which propelled you into the stratosphere. Why was it so successful?

It was the first food programme to take a magazine approach to what was happening that week. We went out on a Tuesday evening and up to Tuesday morning we could still change what was going on so it was very up-to-date. Then there was the relationship between myself and Jilly (Goolden). Our fantastic producer, Peter Bazalgette, teamed us together and we got on so well. We both set out to democratise wine and wanted to share a happy world of eating and drinking that class-ridden England just wasn’t getting.

Finally, your real name is Robert…where did the Oz nickname come from?

Well, when I was a lad I played lots of cricket for the Cathedral Choir School in Kent. One day we played one of the local schools and they thought, “Ha! These fellows wandering around in their cassocks – what a load of weeds!” So these boys were bowling at our heads but my dad always taught me to watch the ball and whack it to the boundary and I kept doing that and scored 32 runs off eight balls! They compared my pugnacious approach to an Aussie cricketer so I became…Oz!

• Oz Clarke English Wine: From Still to Sparkling. The Newest New World Wine Country is out from September 3rd published by Pavilion Books.

• We have five copies of Oz’s book to give away

Star Q&A: Christine Walkden

Round & About

Interview

Jonathan Lovett chats to one of the nation’s favourite gardeners, The One Show’s Christine Walkden, who is also a proud life member of The National Allotment Society

Q. This year’s National Allotments Week runs from August 10th to 16th – what’s wonderful about allotments?

A. There’s the fact you can grow your own fruit and veg, but an allotment doesn’t just help with cultivating plants, it helps with cultivating people. On an allotment you are constantly cultivating friends and relationships and there’s a great sense of camaraderie. So much of modern society, particularly lately, is about isolation but on an allotment you get together as a community and it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, or whether you have three heads or four…you’re just a gardener.

Q. When did you have your first allotment?

A. I was just 10 and by the time I was 14 I had five of them! I didn’t have any family interested in gardening, but I always felt very much at home on one. I started growing mustard cress which I forced my dad to eat and I gardened a little strip outside our terrace house, then I took over next door’s…and next door’s…before a Mrs Hargreaves suggested I take on her late husband’s allotment. I guess it was a bit strange for a young girl to be doing this, but it didn’t seem strange to me.

Q. A lot of people have taken to gardening during the lockdown. What essential tip do you have for the novice?

A. If you don’t succeed first time then try again. It amazes me that we have to learn to ride a bike or pass our driving test but, for some reason, with gardening people think it’s just going to happen. People don’t persevere and I don’t know why but if something in the garden doesn’t happen the first time then some folk just think, “Stuff it!” I had to persevere. When I started out in this business it was very male-dominated. As a teenage girl in the early ‘70s it wasn’t that easy – but I got there.

Q. How have you coped during lockdown?

A. I haven’t enjoyed it and it I can’t say it’s been a good experience. My work is about people and sharing but I haven’t been able to see anybody so I have found it very difficult. It’s also been quite scary that your life can come to an absolute standstill by external forces. My garden has been gardened to death over the past few months!

Q. You’ve appeared on many TV shows, including your own, and are the resident expert on The One Show. What’s it like meeting the A-listers?

A. I frequently have to pinch myself and find myself saying, “How the hell did a gardener end up working with people like Julie Andrews, Ian McKellen, Vera Lynn and David Frost?” One of my favourite celebs is Helen Mirren who is very keen on gardening and always very willing to open-up about what she does and is happy talking to you. It’s an odd couple – myself and Dame Helen Mirren!

Q. And am I right in saying you once appeared on Shooting Stars opposite Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer?!

A. Yes! I was on the 2008 Christmas special. I didn’t really know anything about the programme before I went on and I found it a very surreal experience. But a producer I know told me beforehand “Just give as good as they’re giving you” so I played them at their own game. Afterwards Bob said it took them a minute or two to realise what I was doing! It was as weird as one would expect but I survived!

Q. And was there a moment when you thought – I really would love to be a gardener?

A. I remember our headmistress coming into our class one day. She asked if any kids wanted to take plants home and I put my hand up and took three. When I got home my dad said, “What the hell are you doing with them?!” I replied, “I want to look after them during the holiday,” but he said, “You can’t because we’re going away on holiday!” So I put the plants in a bath full of water in the shed and went away for a fortnight. When I came back I expected them to be dead but I opened the door and they were full in flower! To this day I’ve never been able to repeat that…but it has led to a career!

To get involved with National Allotments Week visit The National Allotment Society

Star Q&A: Julia’s outdoor jewels

Round & About

Interview

To say TV presenter Julia Bradbury loves the outdoors would be an understatement, so much so that she set up The Outdoor Guide website packed with wonderful walks, picturesque pubs to stay in and everything you need to get out and enjoy yourself

Q. Let’s start with exactly what it does mean to you to be outdoors and its particular importance while we’ve been in lockdown?

A. I think a lot of people have reconnected with nature and with green spaces during lockdown. People talk about being able to hear the birds sing and they are noticing things like flowers in bloom, more bees in the gardens, along hedgerows and in their parks, cleaner air and lack of noise pollution. There is no doubt that the plus against all the negativity of the Coronavirus is that it has made people more aware of nature. I hope the message is coming across loud and clear that we need nature to protect us from viruses like COVID-19; it’s because of the manmade breakdown of nature that this disease has crossed over. The more forests, oceans and wildlife habitats we destroy the more endangered humans become.

Q. Did you always have a love of the outdoors as a child, any special memories?

A. I was incredibly lucky. I had a dad who adored the great outdoors. I went to school in Sheffield, I grew up in Rutland and Sheffield and after school and at weekends my dad Michael, a Derbyshire man, would take me walking around Buxton and the Peak District, which is where he used to go exploring with his brother when he was a little lad. They were fantastic bonding experiences for him and I, but also, I think it planted this seed deep in my psyche, deep in my heart and deep in my brain, to appreciate and love the outdoors.

Q. Do your children share your love for the great outdoors?

A. Yes, and in fact, their favourite day from last year was a cold, wet October windy day when they got dressed up from head to toe in their outdoor guide waterproofs. We all zipped up so the only thing that was exposed was our faces and we went out into the sheet rain. We had a full-on wet leaf fight and rolled down the hill, jumped in puddles, and we got soaked. They often talk about that day and they just want to go out and roll in the leaves again.

Q. You’ve recently done a Q&A on The Outdoor Guide with psychologist Jonathan Hoban about mental health, what did you take from that?

A. We started doing our lockdown sessions which are up on TOG for people to access who have been struggling with mental health issues throughout this period. We touched on topics like keeping routine and how important that is for lockdown, how it’s okay to feel angry and how it’s alright to feel emotional. I actually had a day a few weeks ago, in the midst of the lockdown period when I just lost it. I couldn’t stop crying; all because I couldn’t get an iron to work. It wasn’t about that of course – it was the whole situation, all the questions and uncertainties that we are all facing. It’s OK not to be OK all the time! It’s very beneficial to have these weekly discussions with Jonathan, hopefully for lots of people.

To find out more visit The Outdoor Guide website at https://theoutdoorguide.co.uk/

David Gray matters

Liz Nicholls

Interview

Twenty years on since his masterpiece White Ladder, Liz Nicholls chats to musician David Gray

Q. Hello! Does it feel like 20 years since White Ladder was released? “It does feel like 20 years – it’s not gone by in the blink of an eye. There’s been a lot going on, a lot to negotiate in these intervening years. It feels good to be at this moment now. I was a bit ambivalent about the idea of a tour when it was first hoisted up the flagpole. But I think years went by and then I thought maybe this is the time to do it because people get sick, things change and then suddenly things aren’t possible in the way they used to be. None of us are getting any younger, so this is the time to give it the full celebration. Then I’ll move on to creative pastures new.”

Q. I’ve been reading that White Ladder came from a dark place… “I think the press use the word ‘dark’ a little too liberally… I mean, let’s face it, I was living in north London. I wasn’t in Bosnia. Or Syria. I was eating croissants from the local patisserie… such was the darkness that was engulfing me! I think things hadn’t worked out [with sales] and that was a hard pill to swallow. I was in a place that, after three albums, I thought ‘is this it?’ When that happens to a musician over a course of many years, it gets worse & harder. A real sense of futility permeates everything you’re doing. Apart from in Ireland, importantly [where David’s music started selling first]. That kept me going; the fact that I had a real connection over there and a fan base kept me believing something could still happen. But I did think, ‘I can’t go on like this, I think I have to change paths’. Then I thought, ‘well, maybe I can make a better record’. You can blame the world, you can blame the journalists, you can blame the record company but I thought: ‘can I make a better record?’ And the answer was yes.”

Q. Did going lo-fi help? “We took the record production in-house with what money was left. We bought a few bits of gear. We got back to making music in my spare room. And that was the best sense of freedom and intimacy. The freedom to explore and discover and get more hands-on with the recording process was the beginning of making this album. A very limited palette of options ended up  one of the strengthening factors in the sonic world we created. We pooled all our creativity. There’s a brightness to the record, even though a sort of melancholy creeps in here and there. It’s the negative charge flipping into positive. It was a ‘do or die’ moment – how do you face the world after it’s shunned you or been indifferent? You open your heart even wider and you go again. That’s the answer. Openness hurts, as Rumi once said. That’s the approach and it’s just incredibly open, melodically unfearful. [White Ladder] is a record that’s happy being exactly what it is. We made the record and we were proud of it when we finished. We’d taken such pains over every tiny bit. It would have been preposterous to imagine the success that was going to come.”

Q. What’s your first memory of music? “Two things. It would be my dad playing records when I went to bed. The smell of fag smoke, cigar smoke, wine, beer and then The Beatles or Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road. Particularly Cat Stevens’ Hard Headed Woman, Wild World. Those songs really take me back. Rod Stewart, Atlantic Crossing. That was the early ’70s soundscape I remember and also all the beautiful TV music. Bagpuss. Hector’s Garden. All those sounds were very entrancing.”

Q. What format do you listen to music on? “Well I’ve succumbed to the algorithmic world of Spotify, and for some things YouTube. I might occasionally play a record… three months later you come back and the turntable’s still going round and round. Sometimes a CD. Some songs don’t exist as streaming music. I’ve got some records you can’t listen to any other way. It’s a bit like DVDs. I’m still watching a lot of films on DVD…”

Q. Any talented up-and-coming singer-songwriters worth your time and a leg-up? “I don’t think they need a leg-up from me but I will mention a couple of people I’m enjoying. One would be Big Thief; a group of musicians from America . And a Bristol collective called This Is The Kit [alias of Kate Stables]. They’ve grabbed my ears in recent years. I could go on but I’ll just meander out into obscurity. Word of mouth is still the most potent means of discovery. If Spotify or Apple recommend I listen to something, 99 times out of 100 I will refuse. That’s the kind of stick-in-the-mud that I am. I’d rather sit on my own at the bus stop with the rain lashing down on my face listening to nothing than listen to their recommendations based on everything I’ve already listened to. One problem with the predictive thing is that if your kids are listening through the same service, it suggests you listen to all the stuff that they listen to, which at the moment is a heavily urban kind of vibe. Not my chosen mood of reflection.”

Q. Mind you, I sometimes discover rare delights from my daughter’s choices before they go mainstream, such as Billie Eilish… “Billie Eilish is one of those rare successes; there’s real talent there. The record production as well. She gets all the plaudits but really her brother [Finneas] is a big talent sculpting the whole thing. It’s really nicely done so hats off to them.”

Q. Do you have a favourite book? “Well, I’ve got lots. Moby Dick by Herman Melville would have to be one of my favourites, an enduring favourite which I’ve read several times. You could do a lot worse.”

Q. What about your favourite film? “You’ve switched tack… you’re not going to ask my favourite colour next, are you?! Well, as it happens I was rather disappointed by Parasite, which got a huge amount of publicity with its bizarre Oscar-winning run. But that’s because I’d enjoyed their previous film Burning more – it’s a really good watch. It’s a dreamlike, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. You never know what’s real or what’s imagined; it’s set on the border with North Korea. I loved that film and it should be the one everyone’s watching. It’s more fully realised and poetic than Parasite managed to be.”

Q. White Ladder means a lot to me and was the soundtrack to a poignant breakup in my life 20 years ago! Have you had any weird fan mail or comments from your fans? “Course I have… but whether I’d want to draw attention to how weird, or how… suggestive, would not be healthy for people to hear! I’ve had some very odd things. Generally the things I get to read or that are sent are very touching, moving. People’s lives, deaths, disaster, triumph, childbirth, illness, madness. It’s all bound into the album & what it meant to people at that certain time in their lives. I came out of a pub earlier this year and this guy was hanging on to a Rottweiler which was dragging him down the street, with his dodgy mate, in the rain. One eye slightly off to one side. The kind of person you step out of the way of. And as I was stepping out of his way he grabbed me and [adopts husky, menacing shout] ‘David Gray mate! Yeah your record saved me; I got off heroin.’ Suddenly I was having this very intense conversation with him about how his friends were dying and as he got into his recovery process he discovered the record. Something about it helped him strengthen his resolve. Well, as he puts it, it made him feel ‘there was something bright out there he could grab hold of’. You hear mad stuff like this and it’s quite hard to process.”

• David Gray’s White Ladder has just been re-released in a deluxe edition as well as on CD, digitally and on vinyl. For this and updates on the tour, which was set to include Blenheim Palace, visit www.davidgray.co.uk

Talking Point: Clare Balding

Round & About

Interview

Liz Nicholls asks Clare Balding about life, sport and pets as she launches her new Dogcast podcast

Q. How do you feel about where we’re all at as feminists as we approach another International Women’s Day? “I think we’ve achieved a lot but there’s still a lot to do. We all need to realise many companies are not valuing the work of women in the same way they value that of men. We have to protect and support those who have been denied opportunity and financial reward and we have to consistently and insistently point out to employers where they need to shape up.”

Q. We’re real dog-lovers here, and even have an office dog (Booster the black lab)! Can you tell us more about Dogcast and your love of dogs? “I grew up with dogs and the first face I remember seeing and feeling a connection with was my mum’s Boxer, Candy. To be honest, I think Candy felt more protective towards me than either of my parents. I spent most of my childhood dreaming of being a dog. There are so many benefits to dogs being a part of our lives and Dogcast is all about exploring that joy, as well as offering practical advice on veterinary and behavioural issues. I’m fascinated by the positive impact dogs can have at work, in schools and in hospitals and care homes. Maybe I should come and visit your office to see what Booster has done for the team… “

Q. Do you play golf and are you looking forward to the Ryder Cup? “I do play golf and I thought Europe’s victory in last year’s Solheim Cup was one of the sporting highlights of the year. I love team golf and will watch the Ryder Cup as much as I can and hope we’ll see a reigniting of the successful bromance between Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood. They were amazing together in France in 2018.”

Q. 2020 is a huge year for sport – which aspects of the Tokyo games are you most looking forward to? “I can’t wait to see the new sports in action – especially skateboarding and rock climbing. We’ll have the youngest ever British Olympian representing Team GB in skateboarding (Sky Brown) and I hope she can win a medal. I’m also hugely looking forward to the Paralympics and I’m sure Tokyo will do a great job of hosting.”

Q. Did you enjoy your school days? “I had a mixed time. I started off very unhappy and got into a lot of trouble. I was suspended for shoplifting and de-housed. Then I rebuilt myself a bit, with the help of a very good set of friends and by throwing myself into sport. It all worked out in the end. I had a very good English teacher and she helped me get into a decent university to read English, which I loved.”

Q. Can you tell us about your love of horses? “My dad was a racehorse trainer and I was put on a pony before I could walk. It seemed easier to learn how to ride than stand on my own two feet and fairly soon I was falling off at regular intervals and rolling around on the ground laughing. I wanted to be an Eventer and my dream was to compete at the Olympics for GB. Then I started riding racehorses at the age of 16 and I discovered that winning races was a lot of fun. I won my first car by riding in races and I won my weight in champagne – which is the only time I’ve been delighted to be on the heavy side!”

Q. Is there anything you love to eat & drink? “I don’t mind champagne (luckily) but I really enjoy a rhubarb & ginger flavoured gin with tonic. I like most food apart from tomatoes, which I really hate. I don’t mind tomato sauce or sundried tomatoes but I really dislike them raw. It’s something to do with the squishy texture and the way the pips get everywhere.”

Q. What was it like growing up In Hampshire and any favourite places to visit? “It’s a beautiful part of the country and I was lucky enough to grow up next to Watership Down. I love the rolling hills and the clear chalk streams. I’ve done a lot of walking in Hampshire and the Home Counties but there is still so much more to explore. The other week I walked from Winchester Cathedral, past the college and through the water meadows, before climbing up to St Catherine’s Hill to explore the ancient labyrinth on the top. It was absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t believe that it had taken me until then to discover it.”

Q. What’s your favourite book, film and artist? “I’m always reading so I can’t say I have one book that I would choose above all others… But if I had to recommend something that summed up the British countryside, I’d go The Wild Places or The Old Ways (both by Robert Macfarlane) or Rising Ground by Philip Marsden. I also love Caitlin Moran’s books and anything written by Nora Ephron. I watch a lot of films and have really enjoyed the development of storylines in which women can be leading characters, rather than just victims or support players. I would hold up Hidden Figures as a great example of a film about women who made a real difference to the development of the world as we know it and had previously been ignored by history. As for a piece of music, If I Had A Million Dollars by Barenaked Ladies makes me laugh every time I hear it. My go-to album on repeat is For All Our Sins by Sound of the Sirens. I love every song on it.  If you meant artist as in painter, I would say Davy Brown – a Scottish landscape artist who paints beautiful water colours.”

Q. Who would be your dream dinner party guests? “Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Julie Walters, Emma Thompson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman. Someone would have to be in charge of cooking as I get stressed by cooking for more than one person.”

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And what advice would you give your younger self? “Best advice is that ‘whether you think you can’t or you think you can, you’re probably right’. The power of the mind is an amazing thing and can influence the way we perform almost any task. I like to say ‘yes’ to things at work that scare me a bit – like working on the last General Election – because I think it’s good to be out of my comfort zone and it means I always feel challenged and am learning more about how to do the job. I’d tell my younger self to read more books and to stop worrying so much about clothes and hairstyles or trying to fit in.”

Q. What else is on your horizon this year and beyond? “It’s a big year because of the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. Before all that, I’m launching the new podcast, Dogcast With Clare Balding and I’m working on a new book for kids. It’s in the non-fiction space and it’s all about resilience, patience, confidence and concentration.”

Q. If you had a magic wand, what one wish would you make for a better world? “I’d try to reverse climate change, clear up the oceans of plastic, stop the fires in Australia (and elsewhere in the world) from destroying so much wildlife and natural habitation, stop the floods that cause so much damage and basically create a world in which we are living in harmony with nature.”

* Download the Dogcast with Clare Balding podcast at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dogcast-with-clare-balding/id1495796637

Talking Point: Russell Watson

Round & About

Interview

Liz Nicholls chats to singer and dad Russell Watson, 53, ahead of his 20th anniversary UK tour.

Q. Hello! Congratulations on 20 years since your album The Voice. How does that feel?
“Thank you! You’d expect to be more thrilled and grateful at the start of your career and then becoming used to it but for me it’s the other way around. I didn’t realise the significance of the record sales at the time. The Voice spent a year at number one in the charts and people kept congratulating me but at the time I was a bit ‘meh’ – I’d say, nah, Robbie Williams has done more, Elton’s done more. Now I look back and can’t believe the arena tours, the sales. It was just happening so quickly but I’m more grateful now.”

Q. How do you take care of your voice?
“I’ve always had to take care of my voice. If you don’t you pay the price later down the line. Dairy is an absolute no-go, as are fizzy drinks and anything spicy. I lived on chicken and boiled rice throughout the entirety of the last 25-date tour I did with Aled Jones, but he didn’t! I’d meet him in the canteen where Aled would be tucking into his meat & potato pie, chips, peas, gravy and a Diet Coke. I‘d ask him how he could have that before going on stage and he’d say ‘Well, that’s the downside of being a tenor!’ But I love Aled; we’ve become really close. It’s nice to have someone you can talk to and trust in the music industry.”

Q. You’ve worked with some stars – who would be your favourite?
“I’ve been very lucky. The list is endless and I’d never want to forget anybody. From Luciano Pavarotti at Hyde Park to Paul McCartney at the Nobel Peace prize awards in Oslo when we sang Let It Be. When I was a kid I remember sitting in my bedroom playing the Beatles bumper songbook and 15 years on I’m singing with the man himself, wow. Shaun Ryder, Meatloaf, Lulu, Mel C ¬– so many amazing people! Lionel Richie definitely stands out, and Cliff Richard; my mum was a massive fan of Cliff when we were kids.”

I haven’t ever stopped loving it!

Q. What’s your first memory of music?
“My grandad was a fantastic classical pianist trained to the highest level but sadly he had serious confidence issues so he never went on stage. But my earliest memories are of leaning against the back leg of his grand piano, falling asleep to the vibrations of the Chopin waltz.”

Q. You left school early didn’t you?
“Yes; I loved school but not from an academic perspective – I always felt I wasn’t ready for learning as a child. I learned more about life and started to read more after I’d left school – I’m not an advocate of leaving school early, though! I come from a working class background and I love my mum and dad to bits but they didn’t in anyway to encourage me to be academic. Maybe if I’d had parents who’d been more pushy I might have been. But I wouldn’t change anything.”

Q. Do you get stage fright?
“No not really! I’d been doing the clubs for years then in 99 I was invited to sing at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s last game of the season in what had been a truly iconic time for the team. I sang Nessun Dorma and walked off to see my dad at the side of the pitch with a tear in his eye (it was windy, he said!). He said: ‘were you not nervous?’ And I said no – I love it! And I’ve never stopped loving it. The more the merrier in terms of the crowd.”

Q. Do you love being a dad more than ever?
“Yes; my bond with my girls got even closer after getting ill with the tumours, particularly the second one when I nearly died. My eldest is 25 now and works with me and they’re both nearby. We pull funny faces and sing the wrong words to pop songs, crying with laughter. They bring the best and most stupid side out of me.”

Tickets

For all tour dates and to buy tickets

Talking Point: Will Young

Round & About

Interview

Liz Nicholls asks local singer-songwriter Will Young, 40, about life, happiness, his new album Lexicon and upcoming tour

Q. You’re looking well! You said this new album has been stress-free –
is that why? “I think so, yes. Looking after your wellbeing is so important. I now work a four-day week and I’m working with a team I adore. Our rule is that if it doesn’t make us happy, we don’t do it! Also the music inspires me.
I think this [Lexicon] is my best album to date.”

Q. How do you like to listen to music? “In my car! I love driving down to Berkshire listening to BBC 6 Music… But I actually still own CDs!”

Q. What’s your first memory of music? “Listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album on a sunny day and looking at the artwork on the LP.”

Q. Which tour dates are you looking forward to and which days out will you enjoy close to these? “I always love the New Theatre in Oxford. Kew Gardens in London is so beautiful and fun. Gigs in Gloucestershire are always fun as it’s near my sister and is such stunning countryside.”

Q. Do you like to travel & where’s next? “I love travelling. I have been to Marrakesh twice in the last few months. My next place is Brazil or India.”

Q. Do you consider yourself healthy? “I am healthy-ish. I try to eat greens a lot and drink a lot of water. I think moderation is important but my downfall is chocolate!”

Q. What advice would you give to any budding musicians? “It’s about finding your own unique voice and style. All of us are unique and we need to give ourselves the time to explore this.”

Q. What other projects are on your horizon? “I’m writing a book called How To Be A Gay Man which I’m very excited about. I’m touring the UK in October and also playing Pub in the Park gigs.”

Q. It’s lovely to hear you joyful. How do you feel now, looking back at your low period in terms of your mental health? “I feel very proud of how hard I’ve worked over the last seven years. It’s been a huge task and I’m fortunate to have the strength of will but also the time and money. I’m aware I’m very privileged and that’s spurred me to give talks on mental health to businesses around the UK to help set up a system that can aid their employees. Depression and anxiety are partners in that they create a cloud that descends over mind and body. It creates difficulties for one’s ability to function. I always say it’s like swimming in syrup.”

Q. Do you have a favourite book, artist, film and piece of music? “Enid Blyton’s Shadow The Sheepdog, Magritte – a Belgian artist, Remains Of The Day and Barber’s Adagio For Strings.”

Q. Who would be your dream party guests, living or dead, real or fictional? “Richard and Judy, Richard & Judy and… Richard and Judy!”

Q. What would you wish for if you had a magic wand to change the world? “Peace and love.”

• Lexicon is out now. He will perform at this summer’s Pub In The Park shows and has also just announced an extensive UK tour for October 2019, tickets via www.willyoung.co.uk

  Read more of our Star Q&A’s

Talking Point: George Clarke

Round & About

Interview

Home truths: Liz Nicholls asks architect, dad and TV star George Clarke, 47 about life & loves ahead of hosting Blenheim Flower Show this month

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to improve their home?
“Make it very personal and beautiful. I see so many homes that just look like any other and most are simply attempts to copy an interior design magazine. There is such a large number of bland global styles out there that sometimes I can hardly tell which country the house is actually situated. Of course, they are beautifully designed, but that’s it: they are a designed objects often devoid of personal charm or character. I get bored of that. Your home is like an extended member of your family, unique and personal and its design should reflect that. Make it about you and the people around you… not about what’s popular.”

Q. I know you love shopping – what’s your weakness?
“I love cameras. I’ve taken photographs since I bought my first camera at 14 years old (a second-hand SLR Chinon from a shop in Sunderland which is still there). I now have a bit of a camera collection. My favourite camera is my Leica CL. It’s a compact camera and it goes everywhere with me. I know there are great camera phones out there these days but taking a photograph with a beautiful camera that has an amazing lens on it feels completely different. I don’t keep a written diary, but I take photographs as a visual diary and they say a picture says a thousand words.”

Q. Do you know Oxfordshire?
“I love Oxfordshire. It’s a fantastic escape from London. And Oxford itself is the most wonderful city. My favourite place to visit is the Augustus Pitt Rivers museum. What an incredible collector he was. Oh… and a small part of me wishes I’d gone to Oxford University. I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I’d get in.”

Q. Please tell us your favourite aspects of your home in Notting Hill – it sounds amazing! And what are your fave hang-outs/ pubs/ walks in SW London?
“I love my home. It actually a 1960s modernist house that I’ve fully refurbished. It’s not a big house, but it has everything I need. My garden studio has to be my favourite part of it. It’s my escape. I’m never happier than when I’m in that space… whether working, reading, sketching or watching the tv. It contains most of my books on architecture and design as well as many architectural models of beautiful buildings from around the world. My studio goes some way to proving that even the simplest and smallest of structures can be truly life changing. I love living in west London because it has such a creative buzz. There are some truly amazing people living there. I’m within a short walk of Portobello Road market and Golbourne Road. Porto, the infamous Portuguese cafe, is my favourite place for a coffee and breakfast. My favourite pub is The Cow. Ive being going there since I moved to London in 1996. It always reminds me of the pub in Cheers because everyone knows everyone and no matter who you are, or what you do, everyone treats everyone exactly the same. “You want to go where everybody knows your name”. The Cow is an institution.

Q. Do you consider yourself healthy? Is there anything you eat / don’t eat?
“I’m pretty healthy, but I don’t exercise anywhere near the amount I’d like to. There is always an excuse for not keeping fit, but my schedule doesn’t lend itself to a regular routine. Very early starts and late finishes when filming and travelling so much isn’t great. Everyday I’m on a plane or a long train journey. I think I’m the only person I know who gets fitter, healthier and slimmer when on holiday. I exercise every day and eat a lot of salad and fish when on holiday. I never eat sweets, cake or milk chocolate because I basically don’t like them, which people find very weird. I’m lucky as I don’t have a sweet tooth at all.”

Q. What advice would you give to any budding musicians?
“I’m always jealous of anyone who has put in the hard work and education to learn how to play an instrument beautifully. I gave too much time to architecture, design and sport to learn an instrument properly. But beautiful music has the power to move you more than architecture does. Architecture has brought me to tears a number of times, but not as much as music has. I’m not qualified to give any musician any advice other than carry on what you’re doing and enjoy every moment making beautiful sounds. Everyone should listen to Delilah Montagu. She’s a 20-year-old singer songwriter from London. She’s at the very beginning of an exciting adventure in music. A super talent.”

Q. What’s on your horizon?
“I want to go to Alaska. It’s at the very top of my bucket list.”

Q. What’s your favourite book, artist and film and piece of music?
“Master & Margarita by Mikhaial Bulgakov. Turner’s my favourite artist. I’m a sucker for any James Bond film; Spectre is up there. I never thought Daniel Craig would ever be my favourite Bond but he’s there now. He’s brilliant.”

Q …And piece of music?
“Here Comes the Sun by George Harrison. Simplicity and beauty personified.”

Q. Who would be your dream party guests, living or dead, real or fictional?
“George Best, Will Alsop (architect), David Attenborough, Elvis, Pink, Charlize Theron, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and my wife Katie. It would be a great night!”

Q. What’s the best lesson parenthood has taught you?
“Firstly, that parenthood is the greatest thing on earth… nothing else matters once you have kids… secondly that love is completely unconditional.”

Q. What are your three favourite buildings in Britain, do you think, and why?
“That’s a tough first question! I have too many favourites. I think my first would be Durham cathedral. I went there for the first rime when I was 8 years old and I couldn’t believe that something so beautiful and so big could be built over 1000 years ago. I’m not a religious person (my only religion is that everyone on the planet should be kind to each other) but I love beautiful, peaceful spaces and Durham was building I would spend hours in, enjoying the peace and tranquillity and doing a few sketches along the way. Durham was the building that made me fall in love with architecture.

Second would be Sir John Shane’s house in Lincoln’s-in-Fields…one of the most incredible homes in the world. When Soane joined the 3 existing houses together and refurbished them in the 19th century they must have been a magical wonder like no other. My third should be my own home…as your own home is the most important piece of architecture in your life. But I can’t have a top three and not choose an Edwin Lutyens house. I’d go for Goddards in Surrey. It is owned by the Landmark Trust and I’m a very proud patron. I was lucky enough to stay at Goddards in 2002 and it blew me away. The beauty and craftsmanship of the arts and crafts movement, leading into the Edwardian age, is one of my favourite periods of architecture. Lutyens is my favourite British architect and Gertrude Jekyll my favourite garden designer. Their collaboration at Lindisfarne in Northumberland would be my next favourite……see that’s five favourites…not three! I told you it’s too tough a first question”

Q. What would you wish for if you had a magic wand to change the world?
I’d reverse climate change so that everything we did made a positive contribution to the environment rather than a detrimental one. I genuinely worry everyday about the impact we are having on Mother Nature. If we don’t get our act together soon we are really going to screw things up…if we haven’t already. Everyone knows what is going on, but it’s going to require a massive change in the way the way we live on this planet for us to sort it out. That’s a depressing end to a nice interview. Sorry!”

  Read more of our Star Q&A’s

Prophet Sharing

Round & About

Interview

Two great religions. Two great comedians. The descendants of Abraham may have gone their separate ways, but now stand-up comedian friends Ashley Blaker and Imran Yusuf are joining forces in the most-unlikely double-act since Kermit and Miss Piggy, the pair are travelling the UK uniting people of every faith and none for an evening of laughter and come to South Street Arts Centre this week. Peter Anderson caught up with the pair to chat about the show and their love of comedy.

With the current divisive nature of politics, it is nice to see comedy trying to bring unity, where did the idea for the show come from? Ashley replies “: I had thought for a while about doing something like this and then Imran came to see my Edinburgh show and really enjoyed it so I thought it would be worth asking him”. Imran agrees;” The show was Ashley’s idea I went to see him in Edinburgh last year and afterwards we got talking and he pitched this format.”

Speaking of the format, what can audiences look forward to? “Authentic experiences of two people from religious backgrounds who actually know what they are talking about.” Imran explains, whilst Ashley entices us “We perform separately and then do half an hour together. Thereafter I don’t want to give too much away.” He smiles.

Would there be the possibility of a sequel, together or perhaps with comedians of other faiths following your splendid lead? Imran replies “I hope this inspires other comics to explore something similar. Ashley and I are both quite well read into our faiths with some hardcore experiences, I hope to see more of something like this rather than the pedestrian narratives that are well worn out now.

I’m already working on another solo show and have vowed to read every major religious book over the next few years to help understand the multiple world views we are all so devoted to.” While it seems, Ashley has a partner lined up for 2020! “I have asked Tom Cruise if he’d like to do a show with me – orthodox Jew and Scientologist. Not sure how funny he is but I thought he would probably shift a lot of seats.”

You are coming to Reading, is this somewhere you have happy memories of? Ashley replies “Yes I’ve performed my last two solo shows in Reading, so I am very much looking forward to coming back.” Imran has also performed here “Yes, I’ve performed in Reading a few times before. At the Uni and for two previous solo shows”.

For your chance to see them together, they are at South Street Arts Centre on 4th June.

  For information go to Reading Arts.