From Broadway to the West End, to the dappled light of Downton Abbey, JULIAN OVENDEN has been delighting audiences with acting and song since the age of seven (starting as a choir boy at St Paul’s Cathedral). Twenty years and a hugely varied career later, he releases his second solo album, Be My Love, a smooth and heartfelt re-interpretation of songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Gershwin, to name but a few.
Aura Simon caught up with him in the run up to its release.
So, you started performing early in life, and never really stopped, from what we can see! Was there ever a defining moment when you made the choice to carry on down that road?
Not particularly, because I’ve done it from such an early age it’s always been a part of who I am and what I am, and I don’t think there was ever any doubt in my mind that that’s what I wanted to do – to be an interpreter of music or of words. It’s a great privilege to earn a living doing it, it’s quite a hard life in many respects, it’s not as glamorous as it’s made out to be. But I guess it’s a compulsion really, it’s a vocation, so when there are hard times when I’m not working, I feel like I still have to persevere, I have to get out there and try to get the next job or make the next album!
Singing wise, you’re classically trained, you’ve done Broadway, the West End, pop crossover music, it’s a lot of different styles to keep up with. Do you have a strategy for switching hats or does it come naturally?
I’ve done a lot of varied stuff, I think one has to adapt depending on the kind of work you’re doing. This kind of music that I’ve been recording, I don’t feel I have to adapt to, I feel it’s been as close to me as it’s possible to get, so that’s been really nice. I’m not in a musical where I’m servicing one composer, I haven’t had to think about style so much, so I’ve just been trying to kind of make the songs musically exciting and interesting and seductive.
The new album is a bit of a tribute to the great American composers in the early 20th century, it’s gone back in time a little since your last album. What drew you to that era?
It’s the music that I love the most, I think, the music that I feel happiest singing. I love the kind of romantic quality of the music. The songs have been covered by a lot of artists, a lot of great artists, and they can take re-invention and reinterpretation; and that’s what I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to be respectful to the music but also put my own stamp on it.
I like the simplicity. Those simple statements, like the title track (‘Be My Love’) is a very simple song, made famous by Mario Lanza, but I wanted to do it in a completely different way. It’s just very heartfelt and in a way very straightforward and unadorned. It’s not so showy. A lot of music nowadays, musicians are trying to actively show off, you watch The Voice or X Factor, it’s about showing off, it’s about ‘Hey! Look how high I can jump!’, ‘Look how high I can sing!’, and it really has no artistic value whatsoever apart from in that moment, it just becomes noise. I think that to be able to really dig down deep into the sentiment of the song, which was as important in those days as was the music, is what I’m trying to do.
And at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles, amazing! How did it feel recording where Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. had all made their way?
It was kind of surreal! There’s a lot of history that emanates from those studio walls and I wanted to find a space that gave the record a little bit of magic and the real authenticity that comes from that studio. But also in the players that we hired [the record involves the Chris Walden Big Band and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra] it was amazing, I had to kind of pinch myself. Terrifying, but ultimately very exhilarating.
What was the process like of putting this album together? Did you lock yourself in a room with an accompanist and 100 songs or did the choices come naturally?
Yeah, kind of, a pianist from New York came over, we sat down for a day and a half, and played through some stuff, some of which we’d already performed together and some other songs that I really wanted to record. The song list developed pretty quickly and it subconsciously assembled itself into an order that kind of resembled the three stages of a relationship really. The songs are all about experience, I feel like now I’m at the age I’m able to really properly connect with the emotions of the songs. Also musically, because I have lots of different musical experiences, to do something with the material, something interesting, I guess.
What are the biggest challenges with recording as opposed to singing live?
I think to try and connect with the listener is always the number one thing. Because recording is not something you do every day, and so you might do an album every two years. I think my experience working with a camera helps – you’re trying to speak to one person and you’re trying to be personal. This music is at times very intimate and very vulnerable and you have to draw on yourself a bit more. That’s what I’ve tried to do, anyway.
You’ve such a broad spectrum of work – would you ever want to write?
I would, I just don’t think I’m much good – I’ve tried writing and I’m useless! I don’t have the patience to do it, I just don’t have it. I would like to direct, though. It would be nice to have a bit more control.
And what would be your dream directing job?
I’d like to direct a film, actually, maybe a musical film that draws on my musical experience. Or direct a musical maybe, I don’t know, but I’d like to be in charge, I’d like to say ‘This is my interpretation’.
What with the industry being as saturated as ever with new graduates trying to push through and make their mark on the industry, it’s more competitive than ever. What would be your advice for those starting out?
I would really try and be yourself. Be brave in who you are. I think that’s the most important thing, even though imitating and copying is one of the ways we learn as artists, and how we’re inspired. Often the biggest mistake I’ve made is that I haven’t been brave enough in my own instincts, and I think the older you get, the more you go ‘Oh, sod it, I’m just going to do it my way’, rather than the way you think someone else wants to see it. So I think bravery, and having the courage to show yourself, that’s the most important thing as an artist.
Now, going a bit topical here. There’s been a lot in the press recently about economic class division in the industry. Has this been something you’ve perceived in your career?
No, I think it’s made more of because it’s a kind of media hot topic. I think we should be encouraging everyone to express themselves and to have a chance in the industry. But I think just because someone goes to a public school doesn’t necessarily make it easier to succeed. I think it can give you confidence but in terms of ‘old boys’ networking’, I don’t really know whether the business works like that.
It’s not something I feel like I’ve benefited from. As a performer you’re trying to get beyond that, and by judging people by where they go to school, it really is the same crime as judging people by their skin colour. So I believe in equal opportunity for everyone, everyone has something to say. We shouldn’t positively discriminate, I think! We should celebrate success and encourage areas that are struggling.
What do you love most about the musical theatre creature?
The community, especially on Broadway, there’s a real community – slightly less in the West End because it’s a bit more spread out, but there’s a pretty tight-knit community wherever anyone’s working. Everyone’s in it together, there’s a strong bond.
What do you think the industry could improve on as a whole?
We need to invest in new writing more. New music. The whole jukebox phenomenon is pretty dull. I mean it can create good shows, you know, the Jersey Boys etc, they’re all pretty decent shows, but not challenging. You compare that to Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim or LaChiusa, or people who you feel are really pushing something.
I mean there’s Hamilton in the States, which is an interesting show, or Matilda was a pretty impressive piece of work, it was artistically trying to do something strong, and I think we should be supporting more work like that, that’s initially less commercial but more interesting artistically. It’s hard because it is a commercial place. They seem to be able to do it in New York, there’s more infrastructure there, there’s more workshops going on, there’s more writing, but I think people are much less snobbish about musicals now, so hopefully that will then show up in new writing.
Quick-fire round! Your favourite song on the album?
I think it’s the title song, ‘Be My Love’, I love it. It’s simple and a total jewel, I love it.
The weirdest singing exercise you’ve ever done?
[laughs] There’s one that involves keeping a straw above your top lip while singing scales, kind of wedged between the top lip and the nose, that’s quite a weird one. I’ve got loads of strange stuff, I’ve done it all!
Do you still feel the nerves at auditions?
Yes, very much so.
The most bizarre thing you’ve had to do at an audition?
Be struck by lightning eight times in a row.
Wow, just straight off the bat there…
Each time with more force. I think it was for the DIY company Ronseal, it was twenty years ago and I was doing a commercial audition: “Right – can you act out being struck by lightning eight times, each time with more force?”
Your favourite director to work with so far?
I had a really amazing time on a play two years ago at the Donmar called My Night With Reg with a guy I was at drama school with, Rob Hastie. It was terrific.
Best and worst fan mail?
Some people send me sweets which is always nice, or money! Like they sellotape pound coins to the letter and say: ‘go and buy yourself some sweets!’
There are some slightly more strange ones, where they want to have pictures of various parts of your anatomy, which obviously I have you know, in the second drawer down.
Of course, who doesn’t have that drawer? Last but not least, what’s next for you?
I have no idea! That’s the joy of doing what I do, you never know what’s round the corner really, this record’s my focus for the next few weeks, I’ll probably do some live dates, and maybe a tour towards the end of the year. I’m waiting for the next flight. Or I might be unemployed for the next five years, I hope not!
So do we!
* Julian Ovenden’s new album Be My Love is released on 22 April on East West Records.
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* Julian Ovenden’s stage credits include My Night With Reg, Grand Hotel and Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse. Other theatre credits include Sunday in the Park With George (Théâtre du Châtelet), Death Takes a Holiday (Roundabout, New York), Finding Neverland (Leicester Curve), Annie Get Your Gun (Young Vic) and Marguerite (Theatre Royal Haymarket). Extensive television work includes Downton Abbey (including the BAFTA Downton Special), The Sound of Music Live!, Foyle’s War, Smash, Person of Interest, Any Human Heart, Midsomer Murders and Charmed.
Julian has performed at the BBC Proms and gave a critically acclaimed performance in the New York Philharmonic concert production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat. He’s also regularly collaborated and performed with the celebrated John Wilson Orchestra as well as musicians including Alison Balsom and Michel Legrand.