Compiling a list of the contemporary music world’s most illustrious divas is an interesting mental game to play. Instantly and obviously the figure of Barbra Streisand springs to mind. Streisand is in a rare band of perhaps three international women that can commandeer a devotional gasp from an audience of thousands with one single note. Floating behind her, wind machine positioned just out of frame, ball-gown wafting gently in the breeze, one might alight upon Céline Dion. A diva is a singer with a talent that is rare and magnificent enough to border almost on the eccentric; a voice that monopolises the air when it is at full strength and can break a heart at whispering volume. The diva sits outside the realms of casual whim and the daily turn of trend. She is powerful enough to stand and sing alone.
Now where might a lovely young woman from the humblest of upbringings in the Welsh Valleys, from the tiny village of Neath, fit into all this? Katherine Jenkins may yet become Britain’s one competitor to these women’s thrones. Having broken records, picked up plaudits, been littered with awards, sold multi-platinum scales of recordings and played at every single one of the highest profile sporting tournaments in the British calendar, Ms Jenkins has completed her work in the classical/crossover field. Alighting upon a sound for her seventh album in the sun-kissed Hollywood Hills, under the expert tutelage of world class star-maker and producer David Foster and with the unprecedented backing and commitment of new label Warner Brothers, Katherine feels like she is about to go supernova. At 29 years of age she feels embedded in her home culture enough to take a risk on cutting loose for the international stage. Suddenly Britain might just have readied a diva fit for the world stage, in every respect.
Katherine inhales a sharp breath. ‘When I think of a diva I think of a voice. I think of a woman who’s independent and in charge of her own career. I think of a woman who knows what she wants to do artistically. And I think of a woman that does that thing, effortlessly. I’m ready to go down that route.’
2009, as we know, is the year of the British pop girl. What gives in other fields? ‘There is a discussion about women in the music business at the moment,’ she says, ‘I’m always being asked whether I have noticed a change with all these great new female artists coming through. And of course for pop music that seems quite radical. And it is fantastic to see these women doing what they are doing and doing it so well. But in the classical world, we are filled with big, strong female characters. It’s something that you almost take for granted. So in the world that I come from the whole idea of strength and femininity is not odd. It’s usual. Strong women are what opera is all about.’
Not that the recording of this pivotal, metamorphosizing record for Katherine started with too many open displays of strength. Knowing she was ready for the challenge of attaining the creative prowess of her heroines was one thing. Executing it was quite another. In February of this year, Ms Jenkins made the first of several three-week trips to LA to work alongside Foster in his studio, with the express intention of crafting something new and directional for the singer. ‘The first day in the studio, I actually left in tears. I came out there questioning my vocal abilities.’ The singer extraordinaire and the producer par excellence began brainstorming ideas of the kinds of songs that she would take on to ramp up her career possibilities to the next level. ‘My usual way of working on all of my first six albums was to pick the tracks, have the arrangement done for me and then to go in and sing the song. This time could not have been any more different.’
One of the songs Katherine brought to the table was Evanescence’s 2003 worldwide goth-pop smash Bring Me To Life. She had heard something in Amy Lee’s vocal delivery on the original that she connected with: an urgency and deep yearning. David began envisaging a radical orchestral rewiring of the song, with the percussion taken out and replaced by the pulsating beat of strings. ‘And David said to me “It’s a great idea but I don’t think that you can sing that song.’’ She was floored. ‘I’m not used to someone telling me that I have limitations. I like to see the possibilities. I knew I could do it.’ She left the studio and retired to her hotel room in tears. ‘I did tell him that he’d made me cry, but it was only at the end of the sessions when we were so pleased with what we’d ended up with. When we had nailed it.’
For every cloud a silver lining. In quite literally bringing it to life as a contemporary musical and emotional storm, Bring Me To Life has turned into a major touchstone for what Katherine Jenkins has achieved with her new record. It is testament to the seismic leaps of the imagination that happened for her in LA. When she was presented with a 12/8 demo of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry by one of Foster’s co-producer’s, Jocem, she was no longer daunted. She began hearing her own unique take on the classic in her head. ‘The lyric of that song is perfect and lent itself to this peaceful, restful version. Immediately when I heard it I could see where it would go. I mean, I love that song. Who doesn’t? But I could feel how it could be mine and then how it would be performed live. It wasn’t just about moving the remit of what I do forward. It was about seeing it as a live show coming together. When you’re hoping to take classical crossover music to the next step, its all about how it is going to be translated to the bigger setting.’ Each song was deftly crafted with Foster’s signature build. 'Every time David arranged a song, he would always talk about that point when the music would make the audience stand up and applaud.'
A duet with Andrea Bocelli on the fabulously haunting I Believe took her careering down a further freeway of possibilities. ‘It’s my favourite song on the record,’ says Katherine, ‘We’ve sang together a few times but we’ve never recorded together. But suddenly I was in David’s world and David was producing a record for Andrea and the pieces of the jigsaw just began to sit into place.’ In keeping with the texture of the new album, they eschewed a traditional opera duet in favour of a new reading of a pop song. ‘This isn’t about turning my voice into a pop singer’s voice. I don’t want to do that. I just don’t believe that I cannot interpret pop music with my voice.’
Her special reading of Sarah McLaughlin’s Angel proved the point with something folksier. ‘If I were to sing that song around the house you would get the same sort of intimacy you get on the record,’ she says, justifiably delighted with Foster’s pared-back production. As she had found her new sound, LA alighted to project X, the alchemical redirection of Katherine Jenkins, the young woman from the little place with the huge voice. Grammy winning Dance With My Father and Right Here Waiting writer Richard Marx offered the diamond cut power-ballad Fear Of Falling up for the mix. ‘It just worked.’
Entering ‘David’s world’ came with its own unique set of personal conundrums for Katherine. She rose to every single one of them, none more daunting than one that she casually slips into conversation. ‘One of the first days we got there I was in my hotel room. So jetlagged! Just looking forward to a night in, maybe getting a bit of room service. The phone rings and its David saying “What are you doing tonight? I can’t remember but do you like Barbra Streisand.’ I told him she is one of my biggest inspirations and he said ‘Oh, great, I’d love you to come to her birthday party.’ I was sitting there in my pyjamas with no make-up on thinking, how quickly can I get ready for this? Get me to Bel Air. I walked in and there was everyone from Hugh Jackman to Sydney Poitier and Warren Beatty. The guy that had thrown the party for Barbra was called Sandy Gallo. David introduced me and he said ‘well of course she has to sing for Barbra.’ I was hugely jetlagged, totally unprepared and before I knew it I was standing in front of the piano and had to perform in front of 100 people. I couldn’t even think who was in that room watching me. I sang O Mio Bambino Caro and then went into Happy Birthday. All the way through it I could see Barbra in the middle of all these people stroking her dog, Samantha, just watching me.’
This is the stuff that Katherine Jenkins dreams are made of. ‘It was one of those out of body experiences. On the outside it might’ve looked like I was composed and together but in my head there is this huge scream going ‘Oh. My. Gosh. What on earth are you doing, girl?’ I could not believe it was actually happening. It was the kind of story where you think, ‘if I tell my mum about this back in Neath is she even going to believe me.’’
If Katherine Jenkins can serenade her at the piano, surely she is ready to walk alongside Barbra in the international diva stakes. ‘Whatever happens here, happens. I am not the sort of person to plan every last move and decide where I am going next. All I know is that I have made the album that I am proudest of in my life. It is mine. I was there for every step of the orchestration, from conception to completion. I am ready for something new.’
It doesn’t end with the record. Katherine has begun the staging and planning of her first solo arena tour with the design and production genius, Kim Gavin, who was responsible for the biggest British tour of all time this year for Take That. The crossover between the mainstream world and the classical milieu that she was incubated in come ever nearer for Katherine. ‘I don’t see any reason why I can’t go further with this. I’ve touched something here that feels right. People expect that because classical music is the music I make it’s the only music I have a great knowledge of or listen to. But I love all different kinds of music. I’d love to do something completely left-field. I love the idea of someone doing what Eminem did with Dido on Thank You.' Taking a folk song and putting it right in the middle of an iconic hip hop record. I don’t see any reason why someone like Kanye West couldn’t do that with opera. I’ve realised contemporary opportunities for an opera singer with this record.’
The sky is the limit right now for the first bona fide British diva. Raise an operatic gin and tonic or a pop pint of lager to her. She can accompany both now.