INTERVIEW – Lesley Garrett

When I was asked to interview Lesley Garrett I was thrilled and more than a touch nervous. I’d seen the world renowned Opera singer perform at the Laurence Olivier Awards the week before; she’d sent shivers up my spine. As I stood on the balcony watching what felt like my own private show, I finally grasped the reason why Lesley brings sexiness and a ‘cool-factor’ to the world of Opera. As we chat about love, designer wardrobes, her new album, The Sound of Music and inhaling steam I realize that Lesley is also just a charming, down to earth lady.

Your new CD ‘When I Fall In Love’ was released on Monday 5th February and it’s your first disc for Universal Classics & Jazz. Was it hard work?

Oh, it was a joy… I can’t say it was hard work… well, of course it was very painstaking because I spent a long time choosing the tracks. That was the most difficult bit I suppose because there were so many wonderful love songs that mean a lot to me. They are a celebration, if you like of love and of wonderful relationships in my life; of people I love and people who love me. Also of certain situations I’ve been in that certain pieces of music have got me through.

It’s a very personal album and I was very anxious to get the individual sound of each song right and to adapt my voice to suit each song properly. I think that’s the big problem with opera singers singing classical music, is that they just sound like opera singers. I think it’s important to respect the composer of every single piece of music we ever perform. You have to find the right sound for each piece and I think that has been hard work. I recorded each of the tracks over and over and over again until I got the sound that I wanted.

It entered the pop Top 20. You must be absolutely over the moon…

Thrilled! I can’t believe it – I don’t think I’ve ever been in the pop charts so this is unbelievable. I’m really, really pleased about that. What’s very exciting is that I obviously must be reaching a wider audience with the range of work that I’ve been doing over the last few years.

One thing I should say about the album is that Tolga Kashif; my composer, arranger and producer that I work with all the time, has done the most amazing job with the arrangements of the songs and they’re beautifully symphonic and very rich. I think that it’s going to be wonderful for this new audience that I seem to be reaching. I’m really excited that they’ll possibly hear sounds they haven’t heard before.

You’re a busy lady (that’s an understatement…) do you get much time for rest and relaxation?

Not a lot, but then I do believe in being busy and I’m bringing my children up that way. It’s important to work hard and make the most of what you have. I just feel so lucky to be doing what I love and to still be doing it after twenty-years. I mean, this is my thirteenth album and I guess I’m very grateful to the public that they still want to hear me sing. I so respect that and I basically don’t turn down any opportunity to get the music that I love and believe in out there.

After having said that, I do very much make my children the priority in my life; I always have done. The choices that I’ve made have been very much from the point of view of putting them first and making sure I’m there for them. If I’m touring they come with me and we’ve had some wonderful experiences… we were in Australia last year – that was just the best time. There’s nothing quite like it… to actually sing at the Sydney Opera House and have your children there in the front row waving at you – it does not get any better than that.

Your voice is obviously precious – do you use any particular methods to look after it? Special diet etc? I can’t sing to save my life – some tips would be useful.

There are so many things, honestly… it’s just never-ending. Diet is absolutely vital – I avoid dairy produce, fatty food and anything that will give me acid reflux because that’s the bane of a singer’s life. I don’t drink fizzy drinks… I do drink wine and loads of water. I avoid smoky and noisy atmospheres and I inhale steam every day. I have to stay away from anybody who is ill… that includes my husband! My kids will say “Mummy, no kisses just hugs!”  I also have singing lessons every week and have done so all my life.

You not only sing like an angel – you look fantastic too. Is there a lot of pressure to work hard at that?

I think we are very much in an audio visual era and I think it is very important for all performers to look as good as they sound. I can’t do all the things I do to sound good and then look a mess… there has to be consistency there.  It is a vital part of my act and I do take much better care of myself now and have much more respect for myself than I ever did in my twenties. I actually think I look better now than I did in my twenties! (laughs).

I’ve learned a sense of style which I never had before. I still dance a lot – I did ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and have kept that up so that keeps me trim.  We all need to do it, we all need to look after ourselves and make the most of ourselves and there’s no excuse for not doing so… inside and out.  

The wardrobe opportunities must give you a buzz? Obviously not for The Sound Of Music – there’s only so much you can do with a habit. But performances and photo shoots?

(Laughs) I must admit, I am getting a bit sick of black serge. I did however; wear one of my other black frocks at the Olivier Awards. I am very lucky in that respect and some of the designers clothes are just out of this world. I’ve got a few favorites obviously and I do tend to ‘acquire’ some of the clothes I wear for shoots because when you’ve got a wonderful professional stylist you’d be mad not to take advantage of that.

You play Mother Abbess in The Sound Of Music – were you one of the many fans of the movie?

Enormously… isn’t everyone? It’s kind of in the national psyche this piece. My children love it; my parents know all the music and everyone that comes has such expectations. There’s an enormous sense of responsibility that we all share because this music matters so much to so many people. No song matters more than ‘Climb Every Mountain’. When I’m singing that song I’m so aware of how the public are connecting to the sentiment in it. I think everybody has had to climb a mountain at some point in their life. I can feel them willing me on to perform it well and hopefully I never let them down.

Did you follow the TV search for Maria?

Yes, when I was able to. I definitely voted for Connie… we all wondered whether it was going to work. I mean, inventing a West End star through television is an extraordinary thing to do but she has so proved herself and is wonderful in the role. The great thing about her is her attitude… she recognizes that this is just the beginning and that she still has, obviously a lot to learn. She is learning from everyone else because they’ve had more experience than she has… and she’s aware of that. The funny thing is, that she and I share something very similar in common and that is that neither of us had ever done a musical before. We’re very much soul mates in that respect. 

Speaking of The Sound Of Music – you were at the Olivier awards on Sunday… I saw you perform ‘Climb Every Mountain’ as I stood up on the balcony. Amazing. Did you enjoy the night?

Yes, it was extraordinary to see just how much talent there is in the West End, particularly at the moment and the standard of work that is being presented for the public. As wonderful as The Sound Of Music Is, it didn’t win because there are just so many fantastic performances and shows out there. I was never as aware of it as I was on that night. For that reason it was absolutely terrifying performing Climb Every Mountain in front of my peer group. To see Janet Baker there honoring John Tomlinson.

You also made appearances in Strictly Come Dancing and the BBC’s genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are. There was also ‘The Lesley Garrett Show’ and ‘Loose Women’. Are there plans for more TV work in the future?

Well, I’m very excited because I’ll be one of the judges on Comic Relief’s The Fame Academy next month. We’re allowed to have a certain amount of holiday time and I have been allowed to donate my holiday to Comic Relief because I think it’s important to do a certain amount of charity work every year.

As for reality shows, I think they are a wonderful thing to take part in as long as you’re learning a new skill or developing a talent and inspiring the public to do the same. The reality TV shows that are just about ritual humiliation I have no time for at all… as a viewer or a participant. I just think they are horribly manipulative and I can’t understand why anyone would have anything to do with them.

As one of the finest voices in Opera, what other singers (in particular outside of Opera) do you admire?

Tom Jones has a fantastic voice and has stood the test of time. I admire his longevity and the way he re-invents himself and connects with the younger audience.  I admire all performers who are able to do that. I admire Madonna for that reason. Vocally, I think Heather Small has an incredible voice and I very much enjoyed performing with G4 recently… they are a lovely group of guys. Of the groups that are doing classical crossover at the moment, they are the best.

You’re a woman of many talents… you have your own radio show everySaturday evening on Classical FM. How did that come about?

I love it! I think it’s just the best fun… I love putting the show together. I enjoy having fun with it and being irreverent with Opera. It’s such a powerful and strong art form that you can afford to mess around with it and perform it in a tongue in cheek way. I do a feature called ‘Sixty Second Opera’ where I cover the plot of an opera in sixty-seconds. It gives me the opportunity to reach a wider audience with the music I love. Hopefully it will make them want to hear more. As for The Sound of Music, please come down and say hello!

It would be quite easy to chat to Lesley all day. She has a lovely demeanor that makes you want to hear her life story then tell her your own. At this point, however, I’m conscious that she has a show to do and a voice to preserve. One thing’s for sure… this isn’t the last we’ll see of Lesley Garrett. With a jam-packed year ahead she’ll grace the screen, the pop charts, the stage and the airwaves. The music world is all the better for it.