Tony Cummings spoke to Humphrey Berney about the music of the UK's most unlikely boy band, BLAKE
Blake is a British vocal team who have been called a "classical group", "classy harmonisers" and even a "boy band". The last is a bit misleading, particularly as their first album received the Classical Brit award for Album Of The Year for 2008 while their second 'And So It Goes' and third 'Together' both made the UK pop charts. Blake's recent appearance on Songs Of Praise showed that their mellifluous harmonies are much admired whether singing a hymn, a pop song or providing backups for Shirley Bassey. I spoke to Humphrey Berney who together with Oliver Baines and Stephan Bowman make one of the most pleasing vocal blends. . . however you'd like to classify their music.
Tony: Blake were on Songs of Praise recently. Tell me about that.
Humphrey: Yes, we went up to Bangor about three or four weeks ago and we did a recording for them and performed a couple of tracks. One was "O Waly, Waly" with The Military Wives Choir and the other was our new version of Elgar's Nimrod, both from the new album. In the last five years they've built an amazing new theatre complex in Bangor which has facilities for the university students to use for their media studies and performance. So the BBC set up a large studio and we had a live studio audience and performed on the main stage of the theatre. It was very nice to do it with a live audience because normally with a studio there's just a camera. So it gave it another dimension, which is always a nice thing when you're performing live.
Tony: I love the song "O Waly, Waly". Have you heard that melody put to the worlds of "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross"?
Humphrey: Now you are testing me. No, I don't think I have. "O Waly, Waly" is a tune that we've known for a long time. We all love our film music as well and it was used in a Meryl Streep film, which was a very evocative film and a very evocative melody. So that was one of the main reasons we chose it. But it's always interesting to hear of other versions of it, so I must go listen to that.
Tony: It's a beautiful melody. Very stirring, very romantic words. Is melodic beauty something you're really looking for in the material you choose?
Humphrey: Always. Always. As singers and musicians, the melody is often paramount to what we do. Obviously, the lyrics are very important but when it comes to things like film music, we sing a lot of Ennio Morricone and we sing some Hans Zimmer and other big composers and obviously their original compositions are often for orchestral score without lyrics. So it's often the melody that catches our imagination and we then adapt those and set them for voice. The melody absolutely, as a singer, is one of the most important things. It's always interesting that you can take a piece of music that an audience will never have heard before and you can see the power of a good melody because they fall in love with it instantly.
Tony: When you joined Blake back in 2009 they were already successful. Was it a gruelling audition you had to go through to join them? Your singing experience was in classical music and opera.
Humphrey: I'd been working for three or four years as a freelance singer and like Oli and Jules, I'd come from a very musical, choral background. I had a huge amount of experience already. Obviously, I listened to a lot of the tracks and the music the guys had created. On meeting them, almost as important as the music, I knew that we would all get on very well. I think that is testament to the fact that we're still together making music nine years on. It was much more excitement than trepidation and within a couple of weeks of joining we had a full UK tour so I only had a couple of weeks to learn all the music. By the end of the first show, it was clear that it was going to work and we haven't looked back since.
Tony: I did some reading about you on the Internet this morning. One website called Blake a 'classical music group'. Would you accept that as a reasonable phrase?
Humphrey: Yeah, I would. It's always interesting when people try to label us; the music element is obviously the most important because we are all trained classically. Two of us in the group were serious choristers, so the musicality of what we do is very important and we use that musicality and our experience of singing in choirs and singing in harmony to take such a broad spectrum of music. The classical element is very apt because we do come from a classical background. We're not an opera group, our vocal delivery and the style we choose is very varied. We dabble into a little bit of opera, but then we also go across to doing vocal arrangements with orchestras of modern pop songs as well. Hopefully it allows our musicality to come through.
Tony: Coming myself from a pop music background, the thing that put me off for many years about getting involved or even listening to much classical music was the snobbery that goes on and the elitist mind-set. I think since Classic FM and a few other things that have come along, a lot of that elitism has gone, but it's still there, isn't it?
Humphrey: It is, it's a very tricky topic that. I think the elitism element all stems from a technical element. I think sometimes that gets misunderstood because when you're talking about opera or classical singing or classical instrumental playing, the rigidity of people's views or the steadfastness which can come across as snobbery, is a pursuit of excellence when it comes to technique. If you have somebody who isn't technically trained in that way of singing who sings a classical piece of music, an operatic piece of music, people sometimes then can be quite negative towards that. I think that's really because they feel that the technical side of what that music was written for and the technical application that's needed isn't necessarily upheld. But even within that, there's absolutely nothing wrong with people as we do taking bits of music that are meant for the opera stage or for the classical hall and mixing it up and bringing it to a new audience.
Tony: Or indeed, in the case of "O Waly, Waly", a piece of ancient Scottish folk music.
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