Katherine Jenkins tells JOANNE SAVAGE about making classical music accessible, wowing on Dancing With The Stars and warming up her vocals in the shower
“I JUST never really thought things like this could happen to someone from Neath,” says the beautiful Katherine Jenkins on the phone to the News Letter, when asked if becoming a world-famous mezzo soprano was always her plan.
“My daydream-thing was always just about being a singer. The fame side of it was not, because really as a classical singer you don’t expect the whole household name thing. I wanted to work in the world of opera and that was it.”
The glamorous Welsh star, 32, excelled as a singer and pianist while at school, eventually passing her grade eight exams in both disciplines with distinction before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London.
After graduating Katherine had been working as a freelance music teacher and as a tour guide on the London Eye when someone at Universal listened to her demo and asked her to come in and audition.
Even now she remembers that moment when her rendition of Rossini’s Una Voce Poco Fa landed her a six-album deal with the record company.
“I remember I was petrified. I remember also feeling that probably nothing would come of it. My mum and I would say to each other: ‘Things like this don’t really happen to people from Neath’. It was happening but we couldn’t believe it was happening. Even now my mum and I sometimes look at each other and are like ‘I still can’t believe this!’
“You adapt; you get used to certain things like being on tour, but you never lose those moments when you go ‘Wow!’”
As a crossover artist – someone who straddles the genres of classical and pop, able to sing Nessun Dorma as perfectly as a catchy chart-climber, she sees part of what she does as popularising classical music, opening the door to a world that can certainly seem sealed off, abstruse and more than slightly posh.
“My roots and training are obviously classical but I love being a crossover artist because it allows me to sing such a big range of music and to appeal to different audiences. I never get bored because I sing so many different songs. I feel also that what I sing encourages people to listen to music that they might not otherwise consider.
“I feel as though I am from a very normal background and that I didn’t have this privileged background growing up of always being taken to the opera or anything, but I fell in love with singing and that led me to classical music.
“It makes me happy at the thought that my music might lead some people to listen to more classical or visit the opera.”
Jenkins has enjoyed a massive amount of commercial success to date. Six of her studio albums reached number one in the UK classical charts between 2004 and 2008, selling a total of more than four million copies. After her first album Premiere made her the fastest-selling mezzo-soprano to date, she became the first British classical crossover artist to have two number one albums in the same year. She is also the first female artist to win two consecutive Classical BRIT Awards.
Jenkins released Believe in October 2009, her first with Warner Music. This album featured Andrea Bocelli and other musicians like André Rieu and Chris Botti. Then came Daydream, which included some Celtic ballads like Black Is The Colour and Carrickfergus.
Most recently Jenkins wowed American primetime audiences during her stint on Dancing With the Stars – the US version of Strictly Come Dancing. Jenkins and her partner Mark Ballas waltzed and tangoed their way to finish second – behind NFL Super Bowl player Donald Driver – on the enormously popular show, which draws a weekly audience of 25 million.
“It was so amazing,” says Jenkins of the experience, and you can hear the happiness in her voice at the memory. “I got there and everyone was like ‘she’ll be voted off in the first week because nobody knows who she is’. That was a fair comment really, because unless you were into classical music then, no, I don’t think maybe people did know me.
“I went out there and thought well, all I can do is be myself and I was stunned by the response I got. To come second on a show like that in a country that didn’t really know me – it was incredible – they made me feel so welcome and really embraced me.
“It’s crazy now, absolutely crazy,” and she laughs again, at the thought of how her profile has reached such heights Stateside.
This year her schedule has been typically hectic: “I’ve spent four months in America, then I was on tour in South Africa, China, Taiwan, Japan, then I’m back touring in America with Andrea Bocelli before I do my Irish dates.
“I love touring but of course it can be hard to be away from friends and family. I love the live audience and the feeling I get when I am up there in front of one is really the main reason I do what I do. I love being on stage; I love chatting to people afterwards.
“Things are happening that I never, ever dreamt would happen.”
There’s an earthiness and a warmth to Jenkins that makes it easy to imagine her chatting to fans, smiling, gushing, wide-eyed and grateful at all the success she’s enjoyed to date; there isn’t a hint of the prima donna about her.
At the end of the month Jenkins will release her ninth studio album – “I still can’t quite believe that,” she laughs, throaty, still with a trace of the Welsh burr in her delivery despite a decade of globe-trotting. This Is Christmas showcases her beautiful vocals on festive favourites and hallowed hymns.
Accordingly her accompanying tour dates in Belfast and Dublin will cultivate a similar mood: Katherine arrives at the O2 Arena on December 15, then Belfast’s Odyssey Arena on December 16.
“It will be Christmassy,” says Katherine, “I want to help people get in the mood really, although it does seem quite weird to talk about that now.
“Hopefully there’ll be a lot of songs that people will want to sing along to. I mean I grew up singing in church so my memories are all about carols and the family singing, the classics that everyone knows.”
Does she sing a lot at home?
“Sometimes, but not an awful lot if I’m honest – I’m usually all sung out by the time I get home! Though I do occasionally warm up in the shower.”
Looking after her voice is a strict process: no alcohol before concerts, no dairy while singing, no spicy foods the night before, lots of water, regular work outs. “My body is part of my instrument really and so I need to be fit.”
And she adds before slipping off to complete a whirl of press demands: “I’m excited because I love coming to Ireland. I feel there’s a whole Welsh-Irish appreciation going on.”
Jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a sophisticated, Marilyn-Monroe-esque aesthetic going on, down-to-earth, a heavenly voice, a repertoire that covers arias to pop and a ready laugh: it’s not hard to work out why Katherine Jenkins is a star.
:: Katherine Jenkins, Odyssey Arena, Belfast, December 16. Tickets are now on sale from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. Call 0844 277 44 55 or visit www.ticketmaster.ie.