Interview: Beverley Knight
When I saw the track listing for your new album (Soul UK), I thought “we have to talk”. You have covered a lot of my all-time favourite British soul tracks, so I must commend you for your impeccable taste.
Thank you! Honestly, this record is an absolute labour of love. I’ve always banged on about how British soul doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and people always say that about me: “you don’t get the respect you deserve.” But you have to honour the people who put it in the spotlight in the first place.
Some of the blame lies with British soul fans, who could be quite snobby: if it comes from the US, it must be authentic, and if it comes from the UK, it’s just an imitation.
Completely right. That attitude has infiltrated the minds of a lot of people who are outside of the soul fraternity, and that’s a dreadful shame, because we know that’s not true. That’s why I made this record: to say “come on guys, celebrate your own”, and to reintroduce the songs to a wider audience, who will hopefully not see the difference between the continents.
You must have started with a massive shortlist of possible tracks. How did you go about whittling them down?
It was a massive list; I’ve got Soul UK Volumes 2, 3 and 4 here! I started by thinking: right, which songs can I tell you a tale about? Is there someone who I connected with over the years – someone who I went on to work with, or became mates with? And of course, with these guys being British, I pretty much had a story or a connection with everybody on these songs.
So you’ve met most of the people who recorded these songs in the first place?
I’ve met absolutely all of them. Some very briefly, like George Michael at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising event, and some are actual proper mates, like Jaki Graham.
I like what you’ve done with Jamiroquai’s debut single, When You Gonna Learn, because you’ve taken the track in quite a different direction.
I’ve sung with Jamiroquai on stage, but people have forgotten that Jay isn’t only famous for racing cars, and going out with models, and having punch-ups. He’s well known because he’s sold thirty million albums and made some great British soul/funk records. The original track is very much of its time, so I thought: let’s slow it down so that we can get the lyrics, because the lyrics are so pertinent; they were twenty years ahead of their time with that one.
The production on some of the Eighties tracks might sound a bit dated to modern ears, but you’ve produced an album which has its own particular stamp on it, with a production that hangs together all the way through.
It needed to be a cohesive record. With a lot of albums I’ve heard, where people have covered other people’s material, they take the guts out of the song and it becomes some kind of boring, bland old thing. I think: why have you done this? I can’t see the connection. I didn’t want to make a “covers album”. I wanted to make an album which was a concept of something which I feel desperately passionate about.
Just from reading the track listing, I sense you were one of these people who were always going down to the record shops and keeping tabs on everything that was coming out. Were you that kind of diehard soul girl?
My music tastes are really eclectic, but I’m soul at heart. I was a bit like a DJ in a way, with anything that came out: what is it, who is it, who’s released it, who’s the A&R? So I was one of those people who you’d find on a Saturday, when I was doing my degree, down at Cheltenham town hall, digging through the crates and finding these soul gems.
There’s an interesting mix between tracks Soul II Soul’s Fairplay, which was a drop-dead cool club cut at the time, and the poppier end of the spectrum, such as Jaki Graham and Roachford. So you’re reclaiming that side of things as well.
I wanted people to understand the diversity of what we were doing in Britain. I didn’t want it to be one of those intellectual [adopts ponderous, po-faced voice] “Yeah, this is one of these musical albums which chronicles 1974 from March to May.” That’s not the kind of tribalist, elitist thing that I wanted to do. I wanted everybody to come to the party. So Lewis Taylor is on there; you and I might know who he is, but other people would be like, who? Even some soul fans don’t know who he is.
I’m very pleased with your selection from Loose Ends. Everyone knows and loves Hanging On A String, but I was really pleased you went for Don’t Be A Fool.
And ditto Fairplay. The reason I went for Fairplay and Don’t Be A Fool is: what the hell am I going to bring to Hanging On A String? That song is not only iconic; it’s sacrosanct in my world. Even the way it starts, with the little electric toms, and the way it comes in, and Carl Macintosh’s little guitar licks, all of it – that’s what I want to hear, when I hear Hanging On A String. It’s not just the melody; it really is the production. It’s the same with Keep On Moving, and it’s the same with Back To Life. It’s not about taking the song out of the production and updating it, because part of it is the production. I’m not touching those songs. They are the Holy Grail.
One of the earliest tracks on the album is Freeez’s Southern Freeez (from 1981), which is a pretty sophisticated track for a young girl to be into.
I think it’s because I grew up with music in my system. Growing up with gospel, I didn’t grow up with straight up and down pop. That came when I started to nick the radio out of Mum and Dad’s room. I was growing up with sophisticated chord changes, which I completely understood because they were a part and parcel of my DNA anyway. I didn’t appreciate that they were sophisticated until I tried to replicate them on piano. So for me, Southern Freeez was just a song which I appreciate now has loads of changes, chord progressions and movements – but as a kid, it was just something which I totally understood and loved.
You’ve also covered a track by George Michael, who isn’t a name that you would directly associate with the British soul movement. Did you know right from the start that you were going to take One More Try in a Southern soul/gospel direction?
When I first heard One More Try as a kid, my first comment to my sister was “this sounds like church”. It had the chord progressions of a proper, old school, Charles Wesley hymn. Then when I did my version, I said to my sister “do you get what I mean now?”
You’ll be getting married next year. Is that all planned out, and what sort of music have you got lined up?
We’re trying to get married out of the country, maybe in Italy. That’s where we first went away together, so I thought it would be romantic! I’m going to beg my band to do the honours. It’s going to be old school soul with a little bit of funky house, because some of my singers have had funky house records in the charts in their own right. My best mate is DJ-ing, and he knows the kind of stuff I like. I don’t even have to tell him what to play; he just knows.
Do you know what your first dance is going to be?
We know, but we’ve got to keep it a secret. It’s an absolute classic from the Eighties. We’re not doing a slowie. We want to throw some shapes. We want to shake our butts! Once I do the business and get married, we’ll have a chat again, and you’ll be like: oh my God!