It’s not often that we’re offered the chance to experience one of Britain’s top soul performers in an “up close and personal” situation – so for those lucky listeners of Smooth FM who had won the chance to see Beverley Knight in the intimate surroundings of Tonic on Chapel Bar, this was a moment to savour.
Following a cheerful, likeable support set from Ben Montague, Dr. Beverley Knight MBE took to the small stage at the back of the venue: wreathed in smiles, and looking stunning in a black and silver mini-dress. For the first half of her thirty minute, six song set, she was accompanied on guitar by her long-time musical collaborator Paul Reid.
The two performers launched into a stripped down rendition of the current single Soul Survivor: a powerfully assertive personal anthem (“I’ve been there through every phase, seasons come and go but I remain”), which is performed on record as a duet with Chaka Khan. To Beverley’s delight, the fans at the front already knew every word. A couple of songs later, Shoulda Woulda Coulda – her best known hit –gave everyone else the chance to join in.
Switching to pre-recorded backing tracks for the second half, Beverley introduced a stunning version of Piece Of My Heart by explaining that Janis Joplin had “nicked the song from Erma Franklin, and now I’m nicking it from Janis Joplin”. The set concluded with Keep This Fire Burning, an uptempo track that got the smart, well-heeled crowd wiggling and shimmying.
She might be bracketed as a “soul diva”, but there was nothing diva-like about Beverley’s warm, friendly demeanour, and the easy rapport which she established with the audience. Vocally flawless and naturally soulful, with sixteen years’ experience in the music business behind her and doubtless many more to come, she remains what she always was: a “class act” indeed.
You’re performing a secret initiation-only show tonight. How did the idea come about?
The radio station Smooth FM asked me if I would be involved in their little “secret squirrel” event, and I thought: oh, that’s lovely. They’ve been so supportive of me, and I thought that the least I could do was come up and have a little sing-song. To be perfectly honest, I love singing so much that if you give me a mike and a P.A., I’ll do it!
The first time I saw you perform was nine years ago, in Trafalgar Square. Your “warm-up guy” on stage that day was none other than Nelson Mandela. That must have been an emotional occasion.
Yes it was. We were celebrating seven years of the freedom of South Africa, and that was one of the most prestigious events that I could have been invited to. I remember the papers the next day were full of Mel B’s top falling down, and all kinds of frivolous stuff, but I was like: this is so prestigious, don’t make it about poor old Mel!
Did you get a chance to meet the great man himself?
I did – he came to my dressing room! OK, check it out: I’ve come off stage, and I’m going on and on about how this is the greatest honour ever bestowed to me. Then I got a knock on the door. It was some official saying “We’ve got the South African high commissioner here, and some other dignitaries who would like to say hello”. The high commissioner walks in – this lovely lady – and then in walks Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, and the actor Richard E. Grant. So I’m sitting there staring, and Nelson Mandela said “I really enjoyed your performance, and I hope I have the pleasure of hearing you again.” And I did sing for him again, at a private dinner event for his children’s foundation, thrown by Earl Spencer.
You’ll be performing a short UK tour next month, back once again at the larger venues. How will tonight’s show compare?
Tonight, it’s just me and my guitarist Paul. So it will be extremely intimate – right up close and personal. When people see me on a big stage, it’s lively, to say the least. It’s full on. So this will be very chilled, with a lot of banter – because I do like to chat!
Your new EP (Soul Survivor) comes with three additional live tracks. Is this the first time that you’ve released live material?
I’ve recorded live sessions before, but this is the first time I’ve released something from one of my live shows. The tracks were recorded in Sheffield, so that’s not so far from Nottingham!
The lead track is a duet with Chaka Khan. I know you go back a long way, so how did you first meet?
I went to see her at the Jazz Café in London, a number of years back. She noticed me in the crowd, and got me onto the stage to sing with her. That was the start of our friendship. We kept doing things on stage together, then she flew me to Montreux to do some singing at her show at the Jazz Festival. Then I had Soul Survivor all written, and I asked if she would duet it.
It’s a very appropriate track for the both of you. What does it take to be a “soul survivor” in this business?
Number One: you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love what you do, you will fall on your face in this industry – because it is tough. The thing that will galvanise you and propel you – even when you might be having a few problems with a song, or when the record label is at your throat – is the love of the music. That will keep you in the game. And beyond that, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard, because it won’t always come easy. Some things do, and you’re like: oh my God, this is so great! Other times, it’s like: I’ve got to fight for this one.
You’re much more independent now, as you’re recording for your own label. Does that bring additional pressures, or does it bring a new sense of freedom?
You know that quote from Spiderman? “With great freedom comes responsibility.” That couldn’t be truer! The freedom has been wonderful, but the responsibility has been things like looking at budgets and keeping them in check, and thinking: OK, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the single is the right single. All the kinds of things that I could blame the record label for are now on my head! But at the same time, I’m enjoying it.
After the tour has finished, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Hopefully there will be the festivals, and once we move beyond that, the cycle will start again. So I’ll be back in the studio, thinking about the next record.
Have you done any writing for that yet?
Not yet, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. When I’m in the promotional phase, I find it difficult to write. When I’m in the touring phase, that’s when it’s easy. That’s when the ideas start flying around.