Beverley Knight: “I will always feel like the girl from Wolverhampton”
- Credit: Uli Weber
Lucky you if you have tickets for Cornbury’s Friday extravaganza. Beverley Knight, international soul superstar and consummate live performer, is back on the festival stage with a bang
Beverley Knight is on her way to a dress fitting and answering my questions with her bright and bubbly best voice. She laughs - a lot - during the time we are talking and the more she relaxes into the interview, the more the distinctive flat vowels of her childhood Wolverhampton accent start to come through.
Radio presenter, West End leading lady, singer-songwriter, charity ambassador and philanthropist - Beverley's portfolio career takes some juggling but she finds the 'my life is hard' grumbles of some performers bewildering.
"Sometimes it is glamorous, sometimes it's crazy," Beverley admits. "I do varied things, but the key is, I actually love what I do. I struggle to understand, if I'm honest with you, people who are in my industry and who seem to dislike it. If you don't like it, then don't do it!" she says simply and not unkindly.
"I don't have to gee myself up to go on a stage or to perform in front of people. It's just the most brilliant thing in the world for me - it just is!"
Beverley works out most mornings and is happy to get seriously sweaty in lycra and leggings, or a tee-shirt and jogging bottoms if there's a chill wind outside. This year she will celebrate her seventh wedding anniversary with fellow gym-fan husband James O'Keefe, as well as marking her 25th anniversary in the music business with a series of concerts. But social media posts of her looking every inch a star in a gorgeous gown aside, you're likely to find Beverley wearing jeans and a jumper off-stage.
"I will always feel like the girl from Wolverhampton. It's very difficult for me to feel like anything else because I have such a connection to home. When I look in the mirror that's what I see looking back," she says, giving a little laugh of disbelief about where life has taken her. "I certainly don't look in the mirror and see 'soul legend' looking back. I think, my god, I am so fortunate."
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Beverley's grounded attitude and reputation for charity work come from an example set by her Windrush generation parents Edward and Deloris, who encouraged Beverley, and her siblings Cynthia and Adrian, to give back to their community. In the 2006 Queen's birthday honours list, Beverley was awarded an MBE for her services to music and charity. Besides being a patron of Terrence Higgins Trust, Beverley is an ambassador for Christian Aid and supports a number of other charities such as Cruse Bereavement Care, and campaigns focusing on mental health awareness, diversity and women's rights. In 2018 she was presented with the freedom of the city of Wolverhampton.
"I'm the child of immigrants. My parents came here in the fifties and sixties and they had to make a life for themselves, and they did. I owe it to them, first and foremost, to contribute, and I owe it to the people who live around me, to contribute. I also have a bigger platform now… it's amplified and not just for the people around me in my own corner of the world, it's beyond that now, so it's really important to me."
Beverley further credits her father with introducing her to Wolverhampton Wanderers football club - where she's still a proud supporter, international singing commitments permitting.
"My dad, when he came here in the fifties, wanted to understand the people around him. Football was the religion and dad would try to have a little conversation about football, even though he was really a cricket man. He encouraged us as kids to follow the local team and take an interest in local issues. Part of that was loving Wolverhampton Wanderers!" she says.
Blessed with an amazing voice and range, Beverley credits nurture, nature and work ethic for her success. She admits to being bemused when, on starting school, she realised that singing wasn't a universal talent.
"No-one has ever made it on their own…I was lucky enough to have parents who recognised my musical abilities early on, but then, they had musical abilities themselves - so did my brother, so did my sister and most of my family - so it was no surprise when I came along with musical ability," says Beverley.
She laughs as she says the show-off gene helps her feel comfortable on stage - and you only have to see her singing, to a massive audience, at a piano, or giving an impromptu performance, to be aware of the 'wow' factor that sets her voice apart, and feel the joy she gets from using it.
"I was precocious, but it's funny, my parents would never say 'stop showing off', which a lot of other adults would say to me as a child, because they understood that while to one person it's showing off, to someone else it's showing your abilities and those abilities can be nurtured," she says, thoughtfully.
This year alone those abilities have meant Beverley's diary dates include starring as Daddy Brubeck in Sweet Charity, performing a 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Festival Hall, duetting with pop-opera singer Andrea Bocelli, leading pupils from the Arts Educational Schools choir at the Olivier Awards, and headlining at several summer festivals, before workshops and rehearsals ahead of musicals booked for 2020.
One of her career highlights came about when the late rock star Prince flew her by private jet to his LA home. Beverley hadn't realised she was heading for Prince's A-lister Oscars party where they would be joined on a makeshift stage by Stevie Wonder on vocals. It's a story she tells with fan-girl enthusiasm, trilling notes without a warm-up. Guest Quincy Jones gave them a standing ovation.
So, besides performing at Cornbury this year and celebrating her 25th anniversary in the business, what else does Beverley hope to achieve, and which of her idols would she like to sing with?
"Sadly Whitney is gone and I never got to sing with her, and Aretha is gone, and I never got to sing with her. But I have sung with Chaka (Khan) which was my joy, and with Prince and also Stevie Wonder in song just a little bit, at Prince's pleasure, which was amazing," she says.
Beverley reveals that, born a Smith, she took her surname inspiration from Gladys Knight of 'The Pips' fame.
"It sounded right - and so many people have since asked if she is my auntie," laughs Beverley (she's no relation).
"There are so many legends to choose from - but a performance with Gladys Knight would be great - the two Knights on stage. She is incredible," says Beverley.
Can Cornbury make that happen in 2020? Don't put anything past the organisers when it comes to pulling in the big names. In the meantime, Cornbury will be putting on its own nights to remember, 2019-style.
A brief biography
Over the years, Beverley's stellar career has seen her garner a host of plaudits. She has collaborated with a host of music superstars from pianist Lang Lang to funk band Jamiroquai, rock legend Ronnie Wood to guitar superstar Carlos Santana, fellow home-grown talents Jools Holland, Jamie Cullum and Take That, and the aforementioned Chaka Khan, Prince and Stevie Wonder.
She has played the most demanding singing roles from Felicia Farrell in the award-winning Memphis the Musical to Grizabella in Cats (at Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's request), plus others. She reprised her standout 2013 role as the beautiful diva Rachel Marron in the stage musical of The Bodyguard in Toronto in 2017. In 2018 Beverley won acclaim starring in Sylvia at the Old Vic Theatre, playing the role of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Beverley has sold over a million albums in the UK alone, and had several top 10 albums, including the platinum-selling Voice. She has won three MOBO Awards, and been nominated for best female at the Brit Awards three times and for the Mercury Music Prize.
She has presented Beverley's Gospel Nights for BBC Radio 2, and sang I am what I am at the finale of the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. She has also won BBC1's Celebrity Mastermind title.
Beverley's tips to up and coming musicians and actors trying to break into the business
"When I came through you could be a talent, really raw and have a team around you who would help to hone you, but now, it's almost like you've got to be completely polished before anybody has heard a note from you.
"I think YouTube is a brilliant tool… it can be you and your guitar or you and your piano and you can broadcast yourself to the world. And if it's you and your mates, you can do that for very little money.
"With actors, walking into an audition, I would say get eye contact with everyone in that room when you walk in… so they don't forget who you are. And of course, the love of the craft will then encourage you to practise, practise, practise. That's so important."
Quick Cornbury Q&A
Would you rather...
...sleep in a bell tent, yurt or tepee?
The first one! - the other two sound a bit too scary for me!
...chill out in the comedy tent, at the food stalls or in the yoga workshop?
Yoga, that really would chill me out - if I went to the food stalls, I would eat everything!
...drink coffee, builders' tea or a herbal infusion?
I tend to drink more herbal teas because of my voice, but if I had a choice it would be builders' tea, proper strong as well - keep the teabag in - and not too much milk.
...turn up to Cornbury in a classic VW camper, gypsy bowtop caravan or sleek silver Airstream?
Vee-Dub everyday, then I would feel like I was in the Mystery Machine with Scooby-Doo and the gang.