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In the legendary Village Recorders studios in Los Angeles, Britain’s most restless classical singer is hard at it. Hard at broadening – again – his musical palette.
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Did we say classical singer? On his new album the vocals may be as rich and resonant, powerful and seductive, as ever. But on Trust – the follow-up to 2012’s acclaimed Storyteller – Alfie Boe has never sounded so coolly contemporary as he applies his extraordinary gifts to a soulful set of country and blues, folk and gospel, standards and originals.
Not that Boe is doing all the heavy lifting himself on the timeless likes of Glory, Glory Hallelujah, Georgia On My Mind and You’ve Got A Friend. Around him are a crack team of experienced players, all corralled by legendary producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Walter Becker, Tracey Chapman, Madeleine Peyroux).
“I am in awe of the musicians I’m working with,” says the singer (opera singer in a previous life) from Fleetwood, Lancashire, the rockin’ tenor who stole the show at last summer’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace.
“I feel like I’ve got to a stage in my voice and performing and recording… then you come along to sessions like these and play with players that just feel the music from their toes to the heads,” he says admiringly of a group of musicians who have, variously, collaborated with Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Little Feet, Bill Withers, Rod Stewart, BB King, Sting, Phil Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Nils Lofgren, Sam & Dave, Cream, Otis Redding, The Clash & Stephen Stills (to name just a few).
“It’s in their body, it’s in their blood, and they know every inch of it. I never thought I’d be here,” Boe admits with a grin. “It was a always a wish – always a vision in my mind – that I would love to be able to get to play with players like these, and people that have so much history and fantastic stories.” As he concludes with a goes-without-saying smile, “I’m very, very pleased that I am here.”
It’s all part of what Boe calls his “journey”. As with everything to do this proudly working class performer, he means that matter-of-factly, not in some fancy-dan, hi-falutin’ way. In that regard the hidebound conservatism of the British classical establishment was never going to contain Boe. As plainly and pithily stated in his best-selling autobiography My Story, the singer has long struggled within the confines of an artistic milieu that values his talents in shows ranging from The Pearl Fishers to La Traviata, but at the same time stifles his genre-straddling, rule-trashing ambition.
“It’s always been a huge shame to see that and to have been a part of it,” he says with typical candour of the elitism – the snobbery – that bedevils the opera world, “and to realise that that’s the industry. I’ve had to go through the crap to realise that the sole concern of the establishment is to just put the productions on no matter what,” says this iconoclast who has performed in productions of Don Pasquale, Kismet and The Mikado, “to do them the right way, to enforce a style on their artists… You must do it like that ’cause that’s how it’s been done for years.
“And I just couldn’t sit with that. And I was being hemmed in, and being controlled. And I don’t like that,” frowns this singer who has always wanted to try his hand at different musical styles and forms. “I don’t like being told what to do. My mother’s the only one who can do that!”
Hence his most recent UK concert dates, the repertoire for which drew on the full range of Boe’s musical interests, from pop to rock to classical to musical theatre. Over the sold-out run of the Storyteller tour, which included two nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Boe played to almost 80,000 fans. Given UK album sales of over one million and three Top Ten album placings, the tour was a triumphant cap on his career – so far.
And hence, too, Trust. The idea for the album grew, in part, from an American club tour Boe undertook with a lively rock’n’blues band earlier this year. It was his second US tour in six months, a mark of the Brit’s stratospheric rise in the States, which largely stems from American TV channel PBS’s repeated broadcast of the film of the 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables, with Boe in the lead role of Valjean.
“I loved singing songs like Wayfaring Stranger and Angels From Montgomery on that tour – I liked that sound on my voice. I feel comfy doing that stuff. I’m not closing the door to opera or music theatre,” he clarifies. “I just don’t think it’s the right time to go back to that. I’m on a journey to discover another side of my career, another side of me.”
As part of this searching, Boe is stretching out in other ways too. He’s previously starred on Broadway in film director Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed staging of La Bohème. But this autumn he makes his “straight” acting debut. In the upcoming second series of ITV’s hit period drama Mr Selfridge, Boe appears as a tenor named Richard Chapman. In the 1914-set show, he plays a crucial role in one of the storylines in the series about the founder of the eponymous London department store.
“I’ve always loved to act and develop that side of my career as well. Being a part of Mr Selfridge was exciting and I’d absolutely like to do more acting, when the opportunities arise.” But music will always be Boe’s first love. And the making of Trust, he admits, is a dream come true.
“I’ve worked with many producers in the past – but this guy,” he shakes his head in wonder at Larry Klein’s CV, “his knowledge on music in itself is incredible. His knowledge [of] sound and what he wants to bring out of every player is amazing. You don’t get many people that are just invested in music. It’s a lesson, it’s a real lesson in itself,” adds this vocalist who will always want to learn more.
Klein, meanwhile, is equally impressed. “It really has surprised me how quickly Alfie’s got on board with what we’ve discussed,” the veteran American producer says. “It really makes me think that we’re gonna take what he does into a whole new place. That’s pretty exciting.”
“I’m so happy with Trust,” concludes Alfie Boe. “From beginning to end it was a complete joy and a thrill to make with these damn fine musicians. They’ve created so many musical environments and flavours over the years. Their experience, combined with the musical sense and feel of Larry Klein, linked us all together to create an album of amazing emotion. I hope listeners enjoy this new musical journey as much as I did.”