Music Group Blake's Ollie Baines, Malmesbury
Blake - the opera-meets-pop group - hit the music world with meteoric force last year in a fairytale story that's stranger than fiction. Katie Jarvis met one of the fab four - Ollie Baines - at his home near Malmesbury
Here's the manuscript for the novel: four impossibly good-looking and talented young men meet up via Facebook, decide to form a group and, before you can hum the chorus of Closest Thing to Crazy, secure a massive recording contract. That's just chapter one. In chapter two, they're asked to sing for Dame Shirley Bassey's private birthday party. And in chapter three, they win Album of the Year at the Classical BRITs in a blaze of glory.
And here's the rejection letter: Dear Ms Jarvis, thank you for your manuscript, which we regret to inform you has been turned down. Even novels have to be believable and, frankly, it would take a pretty gullible set of readers to swallow this one.
Ollie Baines is relaxing at home (a pretty rare state of affairs these days) surrounded, as usual, by a noisy gaggle vying for his attention. Only this lot have feathers. "They're Cayuga ducks," he says, as these gorgeous characters waddle round the garden, their black-green plumage fairly glowing with iridescence. (One, with a particularly extravagant coif, could surely make it as a part-time Elvis impersonator.) "They're like people in that they go grey in their old age... And over here," he says, leading through to another part of the beautifully-conceived grounds, "we've got alpacas. They keep the foxes away."
It's an archetypal Cotswold house, tucked away in a village outside Malmesbury: sprawling, old; an authentic mishmash of styles and eras that from one angle looks farmhouse and the next elegant country estate.
And the Cayuga ducks - named after a lake in New York State, if you must know - share their extensive home with horses, and bantams, and chickens, and dogs that seem too numerous to count with accuracy - though that could be an illusion caused by their keenness to follow Ollie everywhere. Some are a relic of when the Baines family bred Jack Russells (for various reasons, they tend to migrate back every now and then); and one is Ollie's sister's dog. "My sister has a really cool job working for Valentino Rossi [the Italian motorcycle champion] so she spends a lot of time jet-setting around the world."
See? See! I'm not making all this up. I wouldn't dare.
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Not only does Ollie Baines belong to Blake, a singing group with the most unbelievably fortunate story in the history of music (they make the Beatles look an epic struggle), but he has a fairytale background too. Preposterous!
Right, Ollie. Let's have the truth. The story goes like this: the four Blake lads - Ollie, Stephen Bowman, Jules Knight and Dominic Tighe - met through the social-networking internet site Facebook (though they all had roundabout connections of one sort or another). Within days, they'd secured a major-label record deal and, despite having only sung together a handful of times, recorded a debut album in November 2007 that flew to the top of the UK Classical Album Chart and made the top 20 in the pop equivalent. If the next bit is in danger of sounding like a list, it's because there's not much to say in between: success has followed success. Last summer, their version of Swing Low became the official anthem of the English rugby team; they sang on the soundtrack of Da Vinci Code sequel Angels and Demons. And then their album scooped top award at the Classical BRITs - only the second debut album to have won the title. And... well, you get the drift.
But you can tell us, Ollie - we're Cotswold Life - and we won't tell anyone else. Scout's honour. Did it really happen like that?
"I'm quite a prolific diary-keeper and, every now and then, I have to go back and check what really did happen. But, no, it's been very good. It hasn't been distorted; the essence of how we all met up is exactly the same. The Facebook story caught everyone's imagination.
"The first record went amazingly well but it happened so quickly and a lot of people missed it. Our second record seems to have reminded people we're here." Their new album, And So It Goes, is currently storming through the charts. "I won't suggest we're really famous because we're not, but when people ask me what I do now - in the pub or wherever - and I say I'm a musician, they stand back and go, 'Oh, I know you! Aren't you...? And that never happened last year. I still don't feel it's fame, but it's recognition and it's nice."
If this summer's concert at Westonbirt Arboretum is anything to go by, locals, for sure, are well aware of his success. The boys performed with Welsh superstar Katherine Jenkins, and the warmth from the audience for their home-grown-lad-made-good was palpable and moving. Did it feel unreal to be starring so near to home?
"Funnily enough, it's more real than all the other stuff, because you go away and you sing in all these concerts and you can't really relate to it; there's this whole mock-celebrity thing going on back in London. But when you're in front of your own people, your own crowd, it's rather like you're one of them who just happens to be on stage."
And what's it like to perform with Katherine?
"Jenko! Great guy! She gets the audience in the palm of her hand. I'm probably giving trade secrets away but it's interesting to see how she treats people in Norfolk differently from how she treats people in the Midlands and, obviously, in Wales. She's very perceptive about who her audience is and what they want. She's lovely: girl next door but with a certain wisdom. We've learned a lot just from watching her."
It's certainly been a steep learning curve for a lad who's only 25. If Blake hadn't happened, Ollie Baines would still be studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, hoping in the next year or so to be considered for chorus parts with minor opera companies. It takes years for an opera voice to mature and become powerful.
"A good friend of mine has just been doing a medium lead at Covent Garden and I think he's 29/30 but that's really unusual. For me, that's four years down the line and I wouldn't expect to be getting anything really fantastic until my mid 30s because a) your voice doesn't really peak until you're 31 as a tenor and b) you're stepping up the ladder the whole time."
So how does he cope with the amount of singing he's doing at the moment, in front of audiences of tens of thousands, from Australia to Japan?
"I didn't expect to be singing quite as hard or as much as we have been. It's great because there are four of us, but I'm still the only tenor so there's quite a lot of high stuff that goes into a four-part harmony; you really have to work at it and I've had to get much stronger as a singer as a result."
It must, I suggest, be a lot to swallow for his classical friends, still struggling through the traditional route. "The reaction has been good - even from the staff." (His success meant he's had to leave college before completing the course.) "As a musician, they know you have to do any music you can that keeps you being a musician," he says, pragmatically.
That's the other point the Facebook story conveniently misses out. The boys might rarely have sung together before their first recording, but they've spent their lives richly steeped in choirs. We're in the Baines family sitting room now, and there's evidence of music everywhere: two pianos; heaps of sheet music. And while both Ollie and his father - whom he physically resembles - freely acknowledge music didn't come from the male side of the family ("though he really appreciates music; he stands in awe if I'm playing the piano"), his mother is a talented singer and dancer. Edith Piaf and jazz were the strains heard around his childhood home.
It was at his pre-prep - the younger section of St Mary's, Calne - that his talent for singing was first picked up. The then-music teacher, Karen Cordon - now headmistress - noticed one of her trebles belting out a song about badgers, which she'd innovatively set to the tune of Neighbours for her young charges. So she packed him off, aged eight, to an audition at the pre-prep, New College, Oxford, where he romped home. From there, he went to Pilgrims', Winchester. It was a total immersion - even Christmas Days were spent at school because the choir was needed for services (he celebrated with his family on Boxing Day each year). But it was a life he accepted and loved.
Marlborough followed - baulking the family tradition of Eton - and it was here a subtle change took place. Although the school doesn't have the great music traditions of its cathedral peers, it nevertheless takes its choirs seriously. "I'd been a shy little treble when it came to singing at Pilgrim's and, because I got nervous, they didn't push me into being a big soloist, which I rather regret now."
But Marlborough wasn't having any of that. At the end of his first year, Ollie was made to sing Hear My Prayer by Mendelssohn (the most famous part of which is O for the wings of a dove). "I used to wedge myself between the pews, holding on to stop myself shaking like a leaf. On this particular occasion, it was a whole-school service, and I can remember looking round as I started the piece and seeing everybody in the chapel. I could see a lot of my year sniggering, obviously thinking 'What a silly high voice', which is what you have at that age unless you're a butcher's son. But after a couple of minutes, they'd stopped sniggering; and after about five minutes, I even saw a couple of the really stupid boys getting elbowed by others telling them to shut up.
"At the end, so many of them came up to me and said: Full respect. I'll never make fun of you again."
It was, perhaps, a turning point: the moment when the young lad realised he had a talent that set him apart. But if that realisation came relatively young, it's left him untouched in other ways. He's affable, modest and unimpressed - in the best way - by his sudden success. You can almost hear the little voice whispering to him, "This might not last for ever". It's not lack of confidence; it's a realism that belies his youthful stature.
He's also packed plenty of experiences into his life, which undoubtedly helps. From a Tanzanian gap year - which he relates hilariously - where he was nearly in a plane crash (it lost power after being struck by lightning); nearly drowned in the Nile; and during which he managed to visit a bank where an armed robbery was taking place; "the getaway vehicle was a yellow American school bus". If nothing else, it was a good preparation for meeting fans, which have provided him with far more scary experiences - including the time a conventful of adoring schoolgirls had to be locked in a hall for the group's own protection.
There have been some pretty daunting professional experiences, too, such as recording at the iconic Abbey Road studios, and working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. "Sometimes, when you're asking for a C Sharp and not a C Natural, you're suddenly thinking: I'm speaking to the principal soloist here who's been playing since I was in nappies. Who the hell am I to be asking him to do anything?" It's also pretty hard work. He's had one weekend off since April and the last time he went on holiday was skiing in February 2006. Although he gets on exceptionally well with his fellow three, the lack of personal space and time apart can be irksome - after all, they're only human. "But I always say I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. There are times, believe me, where you have to kick yourself and say: I'll wake up one day and think: I'm glad I did this; it was fun. And whatever little arguments we're having now, they'll all be over tomorrow."
So are Blake taking the music world forward? Are they creating a new genre? Their latest album is nothing if not eclectic, featuring a range of songs including Chasing Cars, Time To Say Goodbye, The Closest Thing To Crazy, Up Where We Belong, Nella Fantasia and their own take on Wild Mountain Thyme. "That's a bigger issue, isn't it? They all sort of say it's crossover - but that traditionally used to be singing 'pop-y' songs in a classical way. We've deliberately tried to avoid doing that. We've also tried to avoid putting things in a foreign language just to glam them up a bit.
"We do do very classical stuff, and I think we have a right to because we're trained in it. We also have a right as young people to do music we enjoy. Ours is music people can relate to and sometimes people just like to hear hits."
And will Blake all live happily ever after? It's a question Ollie Baines has obviously considered. "The music industry is very fickle, and you do have to be businesslike about it. You've caught me off-guard, and I don't normally talk about it - but look at Pavarotti. Was he the best tenor of his generation? No. Was he the best businessman as a tenor of his generation? Yes. And therefore he was most successful. You've got to keep grounded.
"I tend to be quite quiet about the whole thing, and that's not because I'm not proud of it; I am. I simply want to see where things go. And I hope that's the right attitude to have."
� Blake will be appearing at Cheltenham Town Hall in a show also featuring soprano Natasha Marsh on March 22, 2009. Tickets are available from 0844 576 2210 and online: www.cheltenhamtownhall.org.uk.
Blake's second album, And So It Goes is out now. You can buy online from www.blakeofficial.com