“I don’t know a single big successful black artist who hasn’t had the finger pointed at them from their own community at a given time in their career, to say ‘you’ve left us behind, you’ve sold out’ or whatever, who hasn’t then come full circle and suddenly is totally respected…”
With a platinum selling ‘Best Of’ album (2006), three MOBO Awards, two Black Music Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Urban Music Award under her belt – plus a host of nominations spanning her career including BRIT Awards and the Mercury Music Prize – Beverley Knight is due her respect.
14 years since dropping her first album (The B-Funk), the British soul singer prepares to release her sixth studio album – aptly titled 100% to signify the fact that it is her first independent release since her long term contract with Parlophone came to an end. “I own it lock, stock and barrel – it’s my album, my label, the whole lot belongs to me for the first time ever,” she gushes, “which I’m desperately excited about.”
It shows – with a new team, a slick new image and a persistent daily Twitter campaign of minute-by-minute updates on her shows, photo shoots and what she’s having for tea, personally interacting with as many fans as possible, Beverley Knight is visibly and audibly glowing about the new project. She tells me, “You’ll feel the presence a bit more – which is something I was determined to do.”
“It’s a cherry picked team that I’m working with; people who want to work the project as opposed to people who were just on the label working whatever was handed to them. And that’s not disrespecting my old label because I don’t feel there were many on the label who were like that. But it can get like that I am sure – you have to just do your best with who you’re put to work with – but in this case I’ve chosen the team and they’ve chosen me. The next bit is down to the public – see what they think of the record. “ She pauses. “It’s exciting but bloody hell it’s scary. I rise and fall on my own decisions; whatever happens after this point is on my back and on my shoulders, and equally if things take off I have to make sure I can cope and run with it.”
Releasing the new album and lead single next week via her newly established independent label Hurricane Records, Knight remarks, “The whole record industry model is on its last legs for a lot of people. Why re-sign a deal to carry on in the way that I was carrying on, when I could do it myself? So that’s what I did.”
In contrast to the retro sound of her previous album (Music City Soul), 100% is a contemporary soul record whilst being “still grown up in its approach and very soulful” and features production credits including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (noted for their work with Janet Jackson and Prince), Amanda Ghost (Beyonce, Jordin Sparks) and Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Duffy).
The sole collaboration on the album is with Chaka Khan, whom Knight describes as “a wonderful idol of mine.” The duet came about a few years after the two became friends when Khan invited her onstage at a show. When Knight began work on 100%, she found herself mulling over a song called “Soul Survivors” (co-written with Guy Chambers). She recalls, “It sounded great with just me but I thought, ‘The chorus says I’m a soul survivor, I’m a soul reviver’ and I thought, who else do I know who’s a soul reviver? Chaka Khan – she would smash this. Bringing her on this would take it to the next level. So she heard it, loved it, sang it, killed it. That was that. “
Though established as a Soul and R&B artist, we talk about the hard time Knight had with the British urban press when she experimented with other sounds beyond the usual spectrum of Soul a few years ago, drawing on the melting pot of pop, rock and folk influences she grew up listening to in the West Midlands.
“I was bringing other influences through as I was growing and feeling more confident,” she explains, “but of course that translates as ‘you’re selling out’ – which is a phrase I think is desperately patronising and insulting. How can I change the voice or the influences that I have? My voice is my voice – it won’t change, it will only grow and mature.”
“You think of Jacko, you think of Prince, you think of Whitney Houston – she had a terrible time after her second album – everybody goes through it and then they all come through the other end and they become revered,” she reflects. “Everybody walks through the fire. I sometimes wonder if [people] are not happier for the artists they admire to just not do well so they can keep them all to themselves.”
“It’s a British thing as well, not just the urban press,” she says. “That thing of: ‘we love you when you’re the underdog, the minute you’re successful we don’t love you so much’ – which I don’t get – in America it’s the absolute opposite, wouldn’t give a blind man a light on the way up the ladder, once they’re up there they love you to death. It really is the opposite.
“As far as I’m concerned, I grew up in the West Midlands. The West Midlands isn’t London, it wasn’t cliquey and cool and ‘this tribe of people listen to this kind of thing and you never did anything outside of that.’ In the West Midlands, which really is a melting pot, you listened to everything that was going! There wasn’t that massive distinction and barrier between this is rock, this is pop, this is folk, this is acoustic – it just didn’t exist, people didn’t think of it in that way. They do now because of the digital age which has forced everyone to think that way but when I was growing up it was either whatever came out of the radio was good or it rubbish – the end. So you grew up with a mixture of sounds and again, particularly in any province, the labelling factor just didn’t come into it.”
“What I’ve done is widen a demographic. If it wasn’t for the careers of myself or Lemar or people like that, then a lot of newer folk wouldn’t even get the platform. It’s folk like us who cut down the path – Mica [Paris], Omar – who enable other people to come through and have an easier ride of it. Someone’s gotta take the flack. If it’s me, fair enough, but I’m big enough and grown enough to ride through it. I have and always will.”
“Beautiful Night” is the first single from the album 100% – both out September 7th.
Marsha Gosho Oakes
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