Beverely's heart and soul

She is funny, feisty and unafraid to speak her mind – but she’s become a star on the strength of her music. Keiron Pim spoke to Beverley Knight ahead of her performance at the UEA this month.

In a decade as one of Britain's foremost soul singers, Beverley Knight has seen a few changes – most of them for the good.

She has led the way for an unashamedly British style of soul, and has spoken up for British talent in the face of American corporate power.

And she has emerged as an eloquent and thoughtful spokeswoman, commenting on issues including homophobia and awareness of HIV and Aids.

But it is when she's on stage that she is in her element – and that's the reason her forthcoming gig at the University of East Anglia is set to be so popular.

Live performance is fundamental to her career and she describes it as “the cornerstone of what I do”. “It's how I started, firstly in a church capacity and it's the best and most organic way of hearing music,” she says.

“It's the way I became a fan of many of the artists I have admired over the years, seeking to emulate and learn from them.”

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Artists she mentions include Sly Stone, Earth Wind and Fire, and Prince – one of her all-time idols. “I have seen Prince more times than I can say – if I said you would say 'she's a stalker!',” she laughs.

After many years of hard work in what she has described as a “gradual up curve”, she's now a bona fide star in her own right.

The irony is that nowadays stardom is often handed on a plate to wannabe pop stars.

“Things have changed massively. Marketing has gone from being important to being paramount. Reality TV is the biggest change of the lot,” she says.

“I remember talent shows when I was a kid, like Opportunity Knocks, and you had to have a modicum of talent.

“There had to be something that indicated you were worthy. Now it doesn't matter how crap you are. Some people get a career just by being crap – look at the Cheeky Girls. I mean, hello?”

She says it's getting increasingly hard for new acts to break through, but she has seen improvements in terms of “being a woman and being in control of your own career, not being told what to do”.

“At least we are getting there now – I'm seeing a lot more black British artists,” she says.

“At the Mobo [Music of Black Origin] awards one year I said that the labels need to sign and support British talent. Everyone cheered at the time, but it's a shame that the forum I used to make that point has now fallen into the corporate trap, getting big American acts so that we can get more viewers.”

Beverley snubbed the Mobo awards this year in protest at the emphasis on American artists over music of British black origin.

Her stance made the papers, as did her recent forthright condemnation of the murderous homophobia evident in some Jamaican dancehall singers' lyrics.

“If you are prepared to go on record for eternity saying things that are hateful then you have to be responsible for the consequences of your actions,” she told Newsnight.

She'd been invited on to the programme after penning a piece in a national newspaper about her friend Tyrone Jameson, whom she nursed before his death from an Aids-related illness.

Her work for the Terrence Higgins Trust, Gay Pride in Manchester and Christian Aid, in the latter case travelling to Salvador to highlight the plight of children with HIV and Aids, has also helped in the fight against people's ignorance about homosexuality and Aids.

“Newsnight asked me to comment and give my ideas on some of the lyrics by dance-hall artists in direct response to a piece about my friend Tyrone,” she reflects.

“I said in no uncertain terms that I was very much against the homophobia in dancehall.

“People talk about freedom of speech, but if your freedom of speech would then endanger the lives of other people then that's no longer acceptable.”

She was brave to put her head above the parapet on a divisive issue but has been encouraged by the feedback she received.

“The response has been overwhelmingly brilliant. There's not been one actual clear and concise argument against the point.

“I've had vitriolic letters but I'm like 'whatever' – there's no point arguing because they don't actually have an argument.”

Born Beverley Ann Smith in Wolverhampton in 1973, she had a strict Pentecostal upbringing by her Jamaican parents.

Since turning 30 last year, she believes that she has entered a singer's most potent decade.

“It's about the fact that your voice and your life experience begins to come together as one, to the point where I believe that they really do work in tandem with each other.”

Her latest album, Affirmation, is dedicated to Tyrone and has been seen as a musical departure, mixing rock guitars with the soulful pop with which she has been associated.

The song No More, a collaboration with drum'n'bass star Roni Size, is another new direction for her.

It was written in response to the shootings of teenage girls Letitia Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis on New Year's Eve 2002, which devastated Beverley.

“I think artists that want to have that really long-term career can't just do the same thing over and over again,” she says.

“I have my eye on the long term, way longer than the 10 years I have been doing. I get bored myself, hearing the same things.

“Change is a good thing, and I believe diversifying is a very British thing. Look at Massive Attack, the Prodigy, all the way back to The Beatles doing R&B covers.

“Diversifying is what we do best and I'm following in a very long tradition of going down new avenues.” t

t Beverley Knight plays the UEA on Sunday November 21. Doors open at 7.30pm and tickets, £17.50, are available from the box office on 01603 508050, www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk and HMV and Soundclash in the city.

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