Charlotte Church, 20, is a cultural phenomenon. After appearing as a child on a TV talent show to introduce her auntie Caroline, she zoomed to international fame and(famously)fortune, performing and recording all over the world and selling millions. A sidestep into the pop world was the natural next move and at 16,her management and record company began to put this next phase of her extraordinary career into drive. Her album," Tissues And Issues" went Gold and produced four hit singles, including the top five sound of last summer, the Motown inspired "Crazy Chick".
At seventeen she was introduced to award winning UK jazz singer, Ian Shaw, 43, and for the next three years, he was her vocal mentor, coach, pianist and, more recently, record producer. Together they have performed in stadiums, concert halls, football clubs, Welsh pubs, TV and radio studios and Selfridges (recreating the Streisand and Donna duet, "No More Tears" to thrilled Saturday shoppers)
Shaw adores her and says he" would crawl backwards over hot cinders to play piano for her". Here, he shares his experiences working with this remarkable young woman who, simply by being herself at all times, transcends and rubbishes any small time redtop smirch with talent, wit and poise.
My first meeting with Charlotte Church was at the Welsh National Opera rehearsal rooms. Out of a fairly unremarkable small car stepped a petite sixteen year old wearing a floor length furry black coat (she later told me she'd half-inched it from her Mum) and towelling bedroom slippers. Her huge luminous green eyes were wary but warm. Not another vocal coach I thought she thought.
We entered an enormous room with two grand pianos; the scene of many an opera rehearsal. Her genial manager, Mark, left us to it and within minutes she was grilling me about range, head versus chest voice, vowel sounds and breathing. It was the most energising and exciting lesson I'd ever given.
Having not taught one-to-one for a few years I was excited about working with Charl. The brief was simple; to retain the magic of her astonishing natural voice but sharpen and guide it toward a more poppy, soulful sound, a sound that ironically, she was very comfortable with. Influenced by her mother Maria, a classical guitarist and her auntie Caroline, a hugely talented cabaret rock singer, Charlotte had been belting out Whitney, Mariah and Celine since she was a little girl.
After a lot of laughter, gossip and Fanta orange, we launched into breathing. Charl does her own head voice warm-up, padding round the room - cascading scales and arpeggios with the power and ease of a Mozart soprano.
Charlotte's intakes of breath were confident and effective but I wanted to experiment with a 'snatch' breath, more akin to unexpected gospel phrasing and a much easier way to 'attack' with the chest. Charlotte knows all about deep, diaphragmatic breaths calling these her 'belly breaths'. She had been taught thoroughly by her previous teacher, Louise Ryan (Loulou), who had helped to shape and extend Charlotte's extraordinary voice and stagecraft from a very early age. Mark had sent me an american recording Charlotte had sung for a film soundtrack, and although it came with all the usual trappings of recording a pop vocal; drop-ins, extended reverb, occasional auto-tune etc, I could hear immediately that Charlotte's pop singing would be nothing short of heartfelt and extremely natural.
I looked forward to my trips to Cardiff more and more. We now had a goal. Her record company, Sony BMG, needed the album. Whilst showing Charlotte singers and songs she'd never heard before, we began to establish exactly what SHE wanted to sound like. Charlotte had first seen me on The Jack Dee Show and was fascinated by my bluesier riffs and gospel phrasing. We broke down some of these details, often note for note, and within a few months these tiny details and colours became a very natural part of her interpretation. I showed her how, by miniature movements of the mouth, she could execute these R 'n' B riffs, more often than not with a loose jaw.
One of the most daunting events for us was the televised opening of the new Millenium Centre in Cardiff. "Out There On My Own" from "Fame" was a song Charlotte already knew. I scored it for piano (me), bass guitar, drums and full orchestra, making sure it was in a key that showed off Charlotte's lower, more soulful range, as well as her top belt voice. She didn't disappoint. It was more or less her first TV singing outside of the classical idiom. Her stagecraft, charisma (bucketfuls) and the newer voice came together magically. We were so proud of her that night. During the following year, Charlotte's album was being put together and we continued to work on technique - broadening her palette of sounds and influences. I was invited into some of the UK sessions to guide her through some of the specially written songs, Charlotte requesting me to sit in the vocal booth with her to oversee some of experiments. Her studio manner is a joy; she's quick yet thorough, always coming up with backing vocal ideas, the laughter quotient maximum at all times.
One of my main concerns in the studio for Charl was to capture a tonal intimacy that worked really well in an acoustic-friendly rehearsal room. "Fool No More", a 12/8 mid-tempo soul ballad has a verse that is technically a little low for her, with tricky whispered low notes. Because it's a great story song, Charlotte understood fully that the emotional journey from "you are guilty of everything I know . . .",whispered into the ear of a lover who wronged her, to the massive chorus required an instinctive knowledge of the studio microphone. Previous recordings have involved her standing at a set distance and relying on a fairly constant ( soprano) range. This was different and immediately nods toward Alicia Keyes, Anita Baker, Whitney and more recently, Beverley Knight and Beyonce Knowles. No problem for Charlotte, as these are her contemporary, everyday sounds. It was just a case of finding a comfortable, dare I say it, formula. The final choices for the album were a mix of rocky, pop-structure danceables. "Crazy Chick" as an example had an A-A-B-to-chorus formula, starting low-voice and conversational, building to an anthemic, riff-repeated chorus, ending in the hilarious "I need professional he-eh-eh-eh-elp", on which Charl tagged a descending gospel riff that we'd found in one of our coaching sessions. When it came to the ballads, the most natural thing for Charlotte, especially when the texture is acoustic (mostly guitar, piano and spare strings) is to sing in head voice. This voice is a godsend. It's the voice that she 'learns' everything with, the voice she hums with, warms up with. In a sense it has become her escape valve! It's often quite a fight to have her 'belt' (albeit a very friendly one, with "oh, you ***** "thrown in to keep me fresh!) More recently, in preparing her for her tour, we've been working on a combination of sounds to ReALLY make the album tracks (and a few chosen covers from the 80s and 90s soul-pop vaults, she does a killer "Kiss" by Prince, ALL in head-voice, pulling in all manner of R and B and gospel melisma).
Because of her experience with a huge variety of live set-ups, from solo harp (the extraordinary improvising harpist, Rhodri Davies) through Spanish guitars and a battery of latin-American influenced percussion (Habanera) to funky big band . . . she was a recent guest on Jools Holland and sang "Fool No More "with his (very loud) team of players, Charlotte knows the sense of immediate sound-environment and "acoustic space". I'm constantly giving her songs which challenge this, like "Calling You" for example. In the studio, this was a dream to record. Her lower voice now assured and soulful, it was just a case of 'to belt or not to belt' the choruses. She drives a lot of decisions herself and straight away knew that the listeners should be teased. We did the first chorus in her beautiful airy head voice, the rest huge for the remaining few. With just a cello and piano to back her, this has been one of her most successful recordings. Raw, real, yet understated; if that's possible. The middle section on the original film version is a bluesy harmonica solo. Charlotte suggested a "stack-up" of melody-driven backing-vocals with the lead voice peaking at an astonishingly pure, yet soulful D flat. In many ways, these more recent recordings echo a lot of the gigs she did in her early years and aren't merely a stake in the popchart race. Charlotte recently came to a gig of mine at a West End club. She was out with mates but was happy to sit in with me. After a demonstrative "Summertime", complete with new bluesy licks, she performed the said "Calling You" which, in its stark simplicity and hopeful lyrics, hushed and enchanted the late-night Soho revellers. Her feel for space and time was at premium that night. Like Liane Carroll singing Ewan Mcall's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to ONE rather emotionally charged and vodka-fuelled friend, alone at the piano after a gig in Birmingham, Charlotte's performance that night crossed into a new and magical territory. You got it or you ain't.
Live, Charlotte is a dream. I put together a young band for the promotion of her first single, "Crazy Chick". Her joy at having a rhythm section during these first rehearsals was inspiring. Often staying later to work out some killer backing vocal ideas with Marian and Yvonne, her two seasoned session singers, her attention to musical detail was heartwarming. It all paid off. The single went top 5 and her album, "Tissues And Issues" went gold.
The rather odd combination of a forty-something jazz singer and a young pop icon is apparent, yet as we are now firm friends, there's nothing, musical or otherwise to hide from. Our combined Welshness and a shared passion for damn good singers coupled with a love of Chaucerian, nay toilet humour (so important in most high octane musical situations I feel) has brought us closer together. Charlotte is a star. No doubt about that. Her personality and stagecraft will always dazzle, her wit and downright ordinariness continue to warm even the coldest and most calculating TV hosts. But above all… that voice. I recently arranged and produced two songs as bonus tracks for her last two singles, Kate Bush's "The Man With the Child In His Eyes" and Bob Telson's impossible to sing "Calling You" from the movie "Bagdhad Cafe". Without hearing the original recordings of these songs, Charl managed to give a brilliant performance in the booth, inbetween being filmed for "Here Come The Brits", for which she was nominated Best Female Vocalist. She left the studio to go and meet her boyfriend, an unaffected, hard-working 19 year old, padding down the courtyard that connects the Cowshed Studio to the street. She made everyone cry that day. An angel in stolen hotel slippers.