Remember that interview I did with Stephen Connolly of the King's Singers last Sunday? In case you forgot, here it is again. (You should see an embedded audio player, but if you don't, you can also click on the link and download the mp3 of the interview.)
And finally, here is the transcription!
Also, you might have noticed that there's a little Amazon ad on the left-hand side of the blog. This is so I get money if you click through and buy that album, but it also has the extremely useful feature of giving you a preview of each song off the King's Singers album "Simple Gifts." So if you want to hear what any song we refer to in the interview sounds like, just use the Amazon ad like a little player - snippets of all the songs on the album are there, in track order.
Note on transcription: This is a cleaned-up version. I removed um's and er's, eliminated some of my responses (like, “Yes, yes”) and eliminated some false sentence starts. Also, at times I couldn't understand what he was saying, so occasionally you will see a note that says “inaudible.”
This interview took place on 6/15, 9 pm EST (and 6/16, 9 am Hong Kong time.)
Allegra: Hello, this is Allegra Martin. Is Stephen Connolly there?
Stephen: Hello, speaking.
Allegra: Hi! Thanks for being willing to talk to me!
Stephen: Oh, it's good. Where are you calling from?
Allegra: I'm calling from Boston, Massachusetts.
Stephen: Oh, nice.
Allegra: Yes, so exactly twelve hours off.
Stephen: Yes. I was thinking you might be calling...so it's what, 9 pm there?
Stephen: All right, well, thanks for staying up. [laughs]
Allegra: Oh, well, 9 pm is not so late! 9 am I think would be a little more painful. Did you have a concert last night?
Stephen: We did have a concert last night, yes. We had a fantastic concert, actually. It's a while since we've been to Hong Kong, and – a number of years, actually – and we had a fantastic concert. I think they've been sort of starved of a cappella for a number of years. But they gave us a real roaring welcome when we came on stage.
Allegra: Oh, excellent.
Stephen: It was really nice. It was a really nice concert.
Allegra: Was it a big venue?
Stephen: Yes, it was the big city hall in Hong Kong, so it was lovely, actually. It was full of – over here they do these big signings afterwards. Rather than just mingling afterwards in the lobby, they have this sort of thing where they sit you down at a long table. We signed for about an hour afterwards. There were long, long queues of people just coming along. And this is a [inaudible], so the technology – they all have their little cameras, and everybody wants pictures, so it was a rather late night.
Allegra: Yes, well, thank you for getting up early, I hope you have a cup of coffee in front of you.
Stephen: It's brewing just as we speak.
Allegra: Oh, good. [laughs] So happy 40th anniversary. And I guess 20th anniversary to you? Is that true?
Stephen: Well yes, absolutely, yes. It's actually coming up to – in September it will be 21. It's all passing by rather fast. I was just skimming through the program last night, just on a personal note, I was just looking down the bios, because we have to sort of sign next to our bios, and my bio was saying, “As I'm writing this, in four days time I'll be celebrating my 20th anniversary,” and it just goes to show how fast the years do pass, because soon it's about to be 21. So obviously that bio's now out-of-date. Mind you, there was a bio floating around for ages which said, “I can't believe that I've been in the group for over a decade.” And then I wrote a new one [inaudible].
Allegra: Ten years later.
Stephen: Yes, ten years later. But I've loved it, I mean, the group seems to go from strength to strength. 40 years, it really is a milestone.
Allegra: It really is. How has it changed in the – when you joined, what was different from the way it is now?
Stephen: Well, you know, essentially it's still the same thing. It really is, it's still the same thing.
Allegra: Have you added new kinds of repertoire?
Stephen: Oh yes, lots of things we sing better, but fundamentally, compared to modern vocal groups, I don't want to get into sort of comparing, but when you look across at your contemporaries out there, you know, the people who are treading the same circuits, the group has really stood by what it's always done. We haven't changed at all fundamentally. And that can sound a bit negative, you know, same boring old King's Singers, but the formula that our forefathers accidentally stumbled upon, you know, when they were at King's College Cambridge, and they just got together as friends, singing, you know the history there --
Allegra: Yes. Although I was curious, were there originally six people, is that why you ended up with six people now?
Stephen: Yep. Yep, exactly. And this odd thing that there was two counter-tenors, a tenor, two baritones and a bass, and on the first concert in 1968 they sang everything they knew. This is why you get this funny sort of eclectic mix. Yes, the fact that you get everything from, you know, a Renaissance madrigal to a Broadway song is that they sang everything they knew, everything that could be sung a cappella.
Am : So even back then, they had the same range that you do now.
Stephen: That's right, they had – yes. They had this – well, you know, we sort of refined it, and we continue refining it, but basically yes. I mean, I think they were probably singing more Yale Songbook at that time, you know, in 1968, but they sang everything they knew, and they had to quickly have things written for them, because there was nothing written for those voices.
Allegra: Right. Did they do their own arranging, or did they quickly find new arrangers?
Stephen: They quickly found people who could arrange for them. People who were – and the interesting things is that a lot of the early arrangers, and the most successful arrangers, were people who arranged for things like brass band. You know, this sort of – what I found really interesting is this thought of how the group [inaudible], it's kind of accidental. And that when you try to put something together, and make a success of it, it's a real uphill battle these days. You know, we see a lot of vocal groups that come to us, they've got together, they're good singers, and they want to be successful, they want to make a living doing it, but actually it's much harder for them, in a way. You know, it's almost as if the best things have sort of divine routing going on, that it was sort of meant to be, and it's part of something that was just waiting to happen. Whereas if you – there's a lot of groups out there, strangely enough, who have got six singers, and they sing madrigals, and they sing pop songs, and they're trying to, you know, almost clone themselves, thinking that's a successful combination. And we say, “I think it's going to be really difficult for you to do this,” you've got to almost come up with something completely new. And you can't always think that, it's just going to happen. So the more successful of the a cappella groups have come about just in the same way as the King's Singers, this sort of accidental route where you just do it for the love of it. And it's grown into something – you know, some sort of appeal, some sort of spark has been there. You know, this sort of – it's like the American Idol, this sort of pop thing, where you get these sort of groups where you stick people together. You say, “All right, we're going to get these people, and this one has got blonde hair, this one's a brunette,” things like this, and yes, they might have a hit, but they soon fade off.
Allegra: So what do you think the magic element – I mean, because I am in one of those groups, and I know many people who are, who would love to know, what do you feel the magic element is?
Stephen: Well, I have to be careful, I have to be careful with that!
Allegra: Why were you able to have 40 years of success? Was it the musical skill, or the range of what you were doing, or the fact that you all loved it so much?
Stephen: I think at the beginning, it was something very new. And nobody was doing anything like it. If you look at the a cappella world at the time, it was nothing compared to how it is now.
Allegra: But you're still successful, and now there's a lot of other a cappella groups.
Stephen: Oh yes, that's right. Well, I think this – I think we've still got a lot of things going for us, you know. We're still quintessentially incredibly British, you know.
Allegra: Ah. And that's a huge asset, is that what I'm hearing?
Stephen: I think it is. You know, just as Church's Shoes, English shoes, you know, and you can't – no matter how well the Americans make shoes, they won't make Church's shoes. You've probably never heard of Church's shoes. I only thought of it because they were advertised in the program last night.
Allegra: Oh, I see.
Stephen: These sort of yachting shoes with rubber soles, these beautiful shoes on top, sort of evening shoes for yachts. Yes, I think being British has certainly helped. Being all male has been – you know, it's sort of an identity. The public can identify – we're very approachable, as well. On stage and through our repertoire, this – you know, educating the audience at the same time as entertaining them. Giving people a huge choice in a concert. There's something for everybody. And what's the difference between us doing that and somebody else going and singing everything? I don't know, we do it very naturally. You know, the way we sing a madrigal or a piece of Lassus, to a piece of [inaudible], it comes out the same hole, in a way. Do you know what I mean?
Stephen: When you join a group like this, it is a kind of different repertoire right at the beginning, but we – it quickly becomes – we're classically trained, we're all classical singers, but we quickly become probably the most natural sort of crossover group. I think we are. I think the King's Singers – of course we, you know, are kind of the original – not blowing any trumpets here, but I think we were the original kind of crossover group. We just kind of did it. We didn't think it was clever to be doing the pop stuff, or to be jumping around. I think 20 years after the King's Singers started crossover became kind of a hip word, and you have people coming out with all sorts of rubbish on the record market, and we were subjected to all sorts of excruciating sounds from classical musicians. And then it became a dirty word again, “cross-over.” But I think we've sort of stayed in the middle of that storm, peaceably in the [inaudible.]
Allegra: Yes, well, it's true. And the latest Cd – I got a copy of Simple Gifts here --
Stephen: Oh, really?
Allegra: -- which is fabulous.
Stephen: Oh, yes. I think it would have been stomach-churning 20 years ago, and innovative 40 years ago.
Allegra: Yes. And I mean, it sounds very natural, you don't sound like – you know, like you're primarily a classical group at all. Especially the solos. I mean, the solo singing is amazing.
Allegra: Who does the solo singing on “Valparaiso?”
Stephen: That's Paul. It's beautiful, isn't it?
Allegra: It's stunning. Do any of the group --
Stephen: My solos sound a little bit like Willard White. I'm certainly a bishop on a bicycle when it comes – I'm not a great pop singer. But thank goodness my solos are just kind of very oratorio-esque.
Allegra: Oh, no. Am I correct in thinking that would be “Swing Low”? Is that one of them?
Stephen: Yes, yes.
Allegra: Yes, that too is stunning.
Stephen: Well, no, but it's very – I'm a very sort of – I've always been kind of a – I don't necessarily do many solos, you see.
Allegra: Well, that's because they have to have somebody singing bass, right?
Stephen: That's right.
Allegra: They don't let you get out of the basement very often, huh?
Stephen: This is what – our main sort of solo singers are in the middle of the group, the people who do the leads, who are not either singing harmony on the top or bass on the bottom. They just do it naturally, you know. Nobody thinks, “Oh, this is a pop song, I've got to sing it in a pop way.” You just – we just sing. And I think that – I think sometimes it works against you as well, because people don't know what to – people like to pigeon-hole, especially when it comes to the commercial side of things. People like to know how they're going to sell you. If you do everything, people don't know where to put you. And that can work against you in concert presenting and in recording, if people don't know which bucket to put you in. In Borders Books or wherever, the golden days of Tower Records where you could go and find every record that was ever made in some kind of – finding a King's Singers album could be very difficult.
Allegra: Right, you'd have to go to a lot of different bins.
Stephen: Unless they have their own bin, and then it looks like a very – a bit of a strange bin, with all sorts of rubbish in it. You'd be thinking, “Well, what's this, Tallis? Beatles? Well, I'm not going to buy these guys, they seem to have a problem with their identity.”
Allegra: Speaking of that, how do you – with that range of music – a lot of concerts are obviously done roughly chronologically. Have you ever played around with that idea, have you ever --?
Stephen: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Allegra: So how do you – talk to me about programming a concert. And do you always decide a set list ahead of time?
Stephen: Yes, we --
Allegra: Or sometimes is one of you just like, “All right! Now we're going to sing “Black is the Color.” Let's go!”
Stephen: We usually leave a final group of songs, which is usually kind of pop-y songs, to the night. So we'll have a program, but the last set of songs, five songs, and the encores will be announced from stage. So we just make a little – we take turns each night, it goes down the group. So, you know, David will, and then Robert will the next night. And I think it's quite nice, because you get a different perspective each night. Some people really don't like to sing certain songs, so they don't on a certain night. And I think it keeps things fresh, and people bring new, you know – we've got a huge repertoire, and it ensures that things don't get lost, although they inevitably do from time to time. You realize you haven't been singing this song for about six months, you try and sing it again, but you've forgotten it. But it sort of keeps things fresh night after night. But the programs, we have – yes, we do them about six months in advance, and depending on the presenter, the request comes via our agent for a heavy program, you know, a mixed program, it depends on what kind of series it is, and whether we've been there before, and we have all these sort of books. We've been around for a while, you know, when we go somewhere, like Boston or Chicago or New York, you know, we've been there a lot of times before, and we don't like to repeat. So we have this [inaudible] sort of business or sort of librarians, cross-reference sitting, and we sit down and we look down what we've done, and try to come up with something that fits the order.
Allegra: Oh, wow, so you try to do something new in every city?
Stephen: Yes. Having said that, we're now getting much more into that vein of trying to find a tour program, so, for a particular tour, a tour program. And we're under more and more pressure, as it is, kind of commercially, to link album releases to tours. Of course, we're the King's Singers, so that doesn't quite work. You can't do a “Simple Gifts” tour, because you end up singing a whole sort of pop [inaudible]. Having said that, you can have a “Simple Gifts” program which has folk elements and [inaudible] stuff at the end, and varies things throughout, linking it all in. But yes, it's – the commercial world out there is always banging on your door, saying, “Oh yes, but we want to make it easy for ourselves to sell you guys.” It's a horrible word, “sell.” But it's a reality, is that people want to make it easier to identify what the product is. It's no good saying, “Well, we've got the King's Singers here this season for you, and it's their 40th anniversary,” “Well, so what? What are they offering me?” “Well, it's the King's Singers and they've been around for 40 years,” “Yes, but why should we have them and not Chanticleer, who are touring with this fantastic program of Eastern – you know...pipe-smoking music for --, why?” and so the pressure's always on to sort of – just being the King's Singers isn't good enough to ensure a date.
Allegra: Wow. That's kind of astonishing, coming from...
Stephen: Well, it's a reality. It's a reality. I mean, some people have – we've been to a place like Munich, we've been to Munich maybe twelve times since I've been in the group, singing in a prestigious place. Many of those concerts have been for the same presenter in Munich, and Munich starts to say, “Well, what are they offering new? What – can they offer something new?” So that feeds through. And the management, just on the business side, the management or presenters are finding it difficult to sell. Like anything else in this world, if we're having a hard time of it, we'll pass the criticism on, or we'll pass the difficulty on to the next of kin, you know. To the nearest and dearest in our lives, we will add a little load. And that's what happens. And we're the ones who have to sort of try harder, really. OK, back to programming. We have had some interesting programs where we don't sort of follow a chronological – it's not always chronological. I mean, sometimes we start with folk songs, and we go Romantic, and we end with Spanish Renaissance in the first half, and we'll go back to English Renaissance in the second half. But this kind of group thing has always been something we find hard to get away from. Doing groups of pieces.
Allegra: Doing groups of pieces? So that's one of the principles of programming that you use?
Stephen: Well, they have been really, we find it hard to get away from that. We've experimented with doing just a whole list of pieces. Actually, the other thing is that, if you're a symphony orchestra, you know, you go up there and you do a symphony in the first half, and you do a concerto at the beginning of the second half, and you've got sort of focal points. When you're going up there and just doing piece after piece – this is where our contemporary music comes in, because we can have a piece, in the middle of the first half and in the second half, or the beginning of the second half, that is 20 minutes long, or 15-20 minutes long. And it might be the piece that really challenges the audience because it's modern, and it's not maybe what they're used to hearing. But normally our pieces are about 3 minutes long, you see, so you can get a whole string of these sort of sound-bites. You've got to be very careful in a concert. So unless you're actually putting them into sort of groups – now, here audience, here, now you've got some Renaissance music for about 15 minutes, and now we're going to give you some Romantic music for about 15 minutes. If you're just mixing it all up, it becomes a little bit sort of – I don't know if you have this over in the States, but we have a classical radio station in England which plays three-minute pieces. Piece after piece after piece. Very rarely do you have a whole symphony – very rarely do you have a whole movement of a symphony. They'll play something for three minutes and then they'll fade it out.
Allegra: That sounds a little exhausing, actually.
Stephen: It is, a little bit. And that what we find in our programs. Unless we have a fantastic thematic kind of string going through, it can be – you know, we've gone from Ligeti to Machaut. You know, we've done these sort of inter– this sort of sandwiched first half. Where we've had Ligeti, Machaut, Ligeti, Machaut. A Machaut Mass, interspersed with Ligeti madrigals.
Allegra: Oh, interesting.
Stephen: That he, you know, wrote for us. And actually --
Allegra: That Ligeti wrote for you?
Stephen: Yes. He wrote six madrigals for us. Even though they were about sort of six hundred years apart, these guys – five hundred years. Even though, they were using sort of the same styles of composing. Ligeti wrote this lovely letter to us saying, “I hereby give permission that my madrigals can be interspersed with those pieces from Machaut,” you know, and all this sort of thing, because we have to have – because he wrote them as a set of pieces to be performed together. And then we performed some other pieces. But it's very difficult, you know. And you can see the audience are really sort of tested. We're trying to do more of that. And it's not good to, say, do a program about trees. It's nice, but after a while the audience go, “But musically we're being thrown around a bit here.”
Allegra: I see. OK.
Stephen: And you can dumb down, as well. Dumbing down is no good, because after a while it all becomes like some sort of huge saccharine tablet. I remember a criticism from years ago...there's probably some sort of truth in it. There's probably some truth in it. It's probably a Bostonian critic as well.
Allegra: Oh, for pete's sake.
Allegra: He's probably retired.
Stephen: Yes, he probably is. Somebody said, “The King's Singers are 98% artificial sweetener.”
Allegra: Oh, my goodness!
Allegra: No Bostonian critic could ever say that.
Stephen: Isn't that great? Maybe it was New York City.
Allegra: I must defend my city.
Stephen: New York City, yes. But you know, that wasn't a review that -- and if you look at the reviews, the worst reviews, they always have an element of truth in them. And that's why sometimes they hurt. You know, when you look at what the worst things people have said – another review I remember as saying, “The King's Singers” -- you know, sort of the opening headline, “The King's Singers – Six Voices of No Particular Distinction.”
Stephen: But you know, there is an element of truth to these, an element of truth – apart from the success of the group, the fact that we have these voices that can blend seamlessly. That we don't then – they're not of particular distinction, you know, the physics of our individual voices, we're not six soloists, we're not six successful singers.
Allegra: But I have to tell you, though, is that that's what surprised me perhaps most about the Simple Gifts CD, is that in other choral – other situations where a choral group has had solo passages done by members of the chorus, the solo work is usually, you know, OK, but not stunning. But all of the solo work on this CD was stunning.
Stephen: Oh, well.
Allegra: I mean, one of my question is, aren't you running the risk – do people ever consider leaving the group to pursue solo careers? Because it seems like it would be an option for nearly everybody.
Stephen: I think you get to that stage where we actually do what we're doing together better than what we could do individually. And I think we all feel that, actually. We happen to – when we're allowed to shine, albeit for a few seconds, individually, we do it within the confines of the King's Singers, and it's much easier to just step up on the pedestal and tell a joke and get a quick laugh than actually get out there and do it as a stand-up comedian, you know?
Allegra: Yes, well, that's true.
Stephen: It's the same thing with solo singing. It's all right to stand up and think, “Oo, this is not bad, really quite nice, a spot of nice singing,” but actually to get up there and that's your main bread and butter of what you do, it's more difficult. Yes, we all can do solos, and we all have certain kinds of solo elements to our career pre-King's Singers. But what draws us to this job in the first place when a vacancy has come up is that actually we feel much more comfortable singing with other people. Not that we shy away from it, but there is something deep inside which is much more comfortable singing with others rather than singing on their own. It takes a special person to go up there to stand up there on their own night after night, especially – much more than just a voice. There's something deep inside that needs to be doing it on your own. Moreover, I think there's a deep passion in each of us, to be drawn to this job, much more than an income and something to pay the bills, and somebody would have difficulty with it night after night when you're touring. There's something deep-rooted inside there, having a passion about singing with other people. You know what it's like. Something draws you to singing in the choir or singing in a small group. People do it, and people give a lot of their free time to doing it at an amateur level. If you ask them really what it is about it they can't really put their finger on it. But there's something very special about singing with other people and making sounds [inaudible].
Allegra: What pieces – what pieces for you never get – what are your favorite pieces to sing? On the new album or in general? And also, what are your favorite solos?
Stephen: [inaudible because I'm interrupting]
Allegra: Listening to somebody – are there any of the other group members where, whenever they sing a certain solo, you're like – you just love listening to it every night?
Stephen: Oh, I think I don't really like listening to anything every night.
Allegra: Oh, really? It changes?
Stephen: But you're asking me, and you'd probably get six different answers.
Allegra: Well, for you, what are the – are there any songs that never get old? What usually doesn't – you know --
Stephen: I think I can't answer that. And that's such a cop-out answer. I don't really know. I mean, some nights I'm just on fire for Renaissance music. And you could put the pop music in a drawer and lock it and turn the key. Sometimes I'm just much more drawn to the Renaissance composers and the simplicity. And sometimes, spiritually, I'm much more – I'd rather be singing a church program at a large cathedral in Germany rather than being in Taipei and singing Broadway. Sometimes -- you know, it's like saying, “What's your favorite food?”
Allegra: Well, yes, it's impossible.
Stephen: Well, honestly, do I really want to eat pasta? Do I really want to say pasta? Well, I could say pasta because it's easy, but do I really want pasta, or do I really like Cantonese? Well, I don't know.
Allegra: Well, are you going to rehearse today?
Stephen: No, we've got a day off.
Allegra: Oh, OK. Well, thanks for talking to me on your day off! But do you – like, last night, was there anything in particular that --?
Stephen: What I wanted to sing last night? Well, it's funny, because last night we did a particularly light program, and I'm feeling – we did Broadway, and we did folk songs, and we did English stage and screen, so we did Lloyd Webber, and we did quite a lot of light music, and at the moment, yes, I like singing it. And we're doing a number of – the same program over here. But actually what I'm kind of missing at the moment is – if you ask me what my favorite music was right at the moment, I'd probably be looking at William Byrd or Thomas Tallis. [laughs] Because we're not doing it, you know. It's like, if you're over here eating the food all the time, it's like saying, “What's your favorite food?” and you'd probably go, “Oh, I don't know, a burger?”
Allegra: Right. “A milkshake?” Yes.
Stephen: [laughs] I had my minced pork and baby squid soup last night.
Stephen: Yes. I could do with some mozzarella sticks.
Allegra: But as soon as you get back to Britain you're probably going to miss that minced pork and baby squid soup.
Stephen: That's right, exactly. Next month we'll be in Germany doing cathedrals, singing Byrd and Tallis, and I'll be thinking, “Oh, I'd love to go and do sing Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Memory,” or – you know? Or, you know, “The Rhythm of Life” by Cy Coleman. But the grass is always greener.
Allegra: It's true.
Stephen: But I think this is a good thing in a group like this, because you're always then stepping out to try and do the other thing, you're always looking forward to doing the other thing. You know, it's interesting, you asked me before, and I haven't given you – I haven't really given you any decent answers yet, but I keep thinking about good answers after you've asked the question, and we've moved on to another question --
Allegra: Oh, that's fine. Jump around.
Stephen: The thing about the group's success, and how does the group keep going over forty years. I really believe that we've had to change, the group had to change after the first ten years. One of the members said he was going to leave. Just shortly after the tenth anniversary. He was the tenor at the time, a chap called Alastair Thompson. And the group had to sit down and seriously think whether we could stop, because they'd been together for ten years. They couldn't imagine how the group could ever change, how it could still be still successful with a change, whether it would weaken it. And they decided – they got a new guy. They auditioned, and they found a new tenor. And they found that the tenor, not – he didn't do things that the old tenor did, but he actually brought new qualities to the group, and changed – because the group changed socially. It's like bringing in a new friend. A friend leaves, and they found a new friend, and it's going to be a group of friends. And the whole kind of metabolism of the group changed. And the audience liked it. They didn't prefer it, but they took it on board and embraced it. The group then became quite comfortable with the idea of making changes. But also, found that a positive thing is that when you make a change, it adds something new. It brings something new. And change is not a dirty word. And yet we've had relatively very few changes. If you're looking across at vocal groups, a group called the Swingle Singers you're probably familiar with, they've had – probably they've had 150 singers in the last – I think they've been around about the same time. I think we're on our – I think Chris, who joined the group four years ago, is our – I think 19th?
Allegra: Yes, that's what the website says.
Stephen: Does it? I mean, I don't know, I lose track of these things. But I think that's pretty good, because if you get a string quartet, they might get to forty years and it's been the same guys. Or you've got a singing job, which is comparatively young-sounding, it doesn't sound old, and running around the world, and doing it in air-conditioning, and we're in the deep depths of humidity here. It's like, every day is a trial going outside. You get wringing wet, your vocal cords get wringing wet, and then you go into the dryest, coldest room.
Allegra: Right. And that's after getting off a plane.
Stephen: [laughs] After getting off a plane, yes. I think actually we're all third-generation. You know, the first bass in the King's Singers did 14 years. The second did five. I think that's the shortest time – a couple of people have done five years. Not a short time. I joined in '87. People used to say, “Oh, that's quite a long time.” But even so, you know, change has been a really good thing for the group. I think if the original guys – well, I don't think, to be honest with you, that they'd be sounding too hot anyway, these days. I think if there had been a lot less changes going on, the group might have become sort of stale. I've got this sort of feeling that the change has been really part of the success. And the way I've seen – I've seen all the group changes. To my right, the whole group's changed a couple of times since I've been in it. And I've seen the audience, the really sort of people who keep coming back time after time, the sort of die-hard fans, and the people who really support you. They embrace these – when a new singer comes along. It's like having a new family member. People lament somebody's going, but actually they're so supportive of the newbie. So I think that's been a big – you would think it actually would be a weakness, wouldn't you?
Allegra: Having to change singers.
Stephen: Yes, you'd think it would be a weakness, and that the audience would see it a singer moving out as a [inaudible] unity, but actually for the King's Singers it seems to be OK. It seems to work really well, and because we sing so many different styles, you know, people bring a fresh outlook to various sides of the repertoire. You know, we get some people coming into the group whose real forte is certain sides of Renaissance music, and it just seems to work. We've had somebody come in who's been particularly really good at singing the pop leads, or...it's just been a really good thing. It's been a good thing. [inaudible]
Allegra: So change is your friend.
Stephen: Yes, well, I think it is. Change is [inaudible]. [laughs] But we don't manufacture changes, by the way. And it's always sad when somebody decides to leave. They've got to go off on, and people leave for different reasons. People can get very tired out, you know.
Allegra: Yes, well, you do a lot of traveling.
Stephen: yes. You can leave – people leave for different reasons. I mean, it's a strain on family. I mean, we're on the road – this year we're incredibly busy. I mean, more busy than – between you and me, we've probably taken too much on this year. We've had that thing of not being able to say no, always saying yes, and not really looking at what we've been saying yes to, and suddenly find ourselves with – I don't know – it's probably about some 20% – it's about 15% more concerts than we would normally have. And normally we'd have a right round of concerts. We don't have empty years, we have full years, and we're balancing our time at home with our rest time between tours, and then our vacation time is slotted in there. We normally find that between 110 and 115 concerts is what's comfortable. On top of that, recording new albums and stuff has to go in there. So we have a couple of recording slots a year. We've got about 130 concerts this year. It's just too many. So it squeezes the time between tours. And we just – [inaudible] was really busy. And then things start to suffer. You can see how people just run it. The music business, you know, is just grabbing everything and burning out. And what's interesting is, the group – a long time ago, the original group didn't have a very successful track record with its marriages, because they spent a lot of time touring. They'd go off to Australia for six weeks, or to the States for four weeks at a time. And over the years, the formula – by the time I joined the group, twenty years down the line, they'd have – there was a strict formula that we'd have so many nights at home in a month. And that the tours wouldn't be over so many weeks. Two, two-and-a-half weeks was the max. And we'd take a three-week Easter break, when the school holidays were on. We'd take a six-week summer break. July through September. We take a Christmas and New Year break, and this was so that those with children would have time to be a dad, you know?
Allegra: That must be tough to stick to. You must get a lot of pressure to do Christmas concerts, especially.
Stephen: Well, we do, but actually, it's funny, we're usually back home by the 23rd of December. But it's tough. And it's a real – it takes a real special kind of relationship to withstand it. I mean, this is nothing compared to the people who have to go in the Armed Forces and work six months at a time. But it is very difficult. We've had people, you know, going back to their – we've had people leaving because they get the calling, you know, we've had one go and leave the group and went to become a priest.
Allegra: Who was that?
Stephen: He was a chap called Bruce Russell. He joined about the same time as me. He was the first baritone for about eight years.
Allegra: So singing with the group was his path to a religious...music called him?
Stephen: He left the group and he went straight to become a priest. People have left because of age, you know. People have – and our voices simply wear out. Nobody's ever been thrown out of the group, and this is a really good thing.
Allegra: Speaking of your voice, I have to ask. On your website, there's a question, “What happens if you get sick?” and the answer is you sing anyways. But I can't imagine with the humidity and the air conditioning and the hotels and the planes that nobody has ever gotten laryngitis and literally not been able to make a sound.
Allegra: So what happens in those cases?
Stephen: Well, you know. It's much easier when there's six of you than when there's one of you or even four of you to get on stage and open your mouth and mime.
Stephen: Especially in a six-part texture. When somebody literally cannot make a sound, or can hardly stand up because they're feeling so ill --
Allegra: And does that happen, or are you – I mean, you must be pretty professional about taking care of yourselves by now.
Stephen: Oh, yes. I know what you're saying. We don't – people don't not turn up to do a show. We can --
Allegra: Can you do it with five?
Stephen: No, but what we have in the concert, is we have a program where people will stand out from time to time. So, in a group of madrigals, you might find one or two madrigals within that group of madrigals have only four singers. So two people step back. So we can tweak a program, but it doesn't get the guy out of actually standing up at various points in that program. What the amazing thing is, is that normally the audience doesn't know that somebody's sick, although that person might have had quite a few pieces off. And he's not doing [inaudible] much on the stage. But a lot of people have no – I mean, one time, a long, long time ago, going back 15 years, we were doing a concert in Boulder, Colorado. And I don't know if it was something to do with the altitude or just the general stress of the tour, but David Hurley, our counter-tenor, who is known for his fantastic – he's always spot-on. Health-wise, he hardly ever gets ill, and his voice is always there, it's this beautiful sound on the top of the group, he's the most reliable. You know, I've sung with him for 18 years, he never sings a note off – if I could sing like him two octaves down I'd be just so happy. He's always spot-on. And he just lost his voice. Something came over it, you know, like sort of a blanket of no voice-ness. And we had to make a change in the program, because there was something very sort of revealing. I think it might have been a contemporary piece. It was just too much. And he basically stood and opened his mouth on the end of the group. Which is really – you know, when you're somebody at the top of the group --
Allegra: Yes, that's very exposed!
Stephen: [Compared to?] the guys in the middle, it's very exposed. And Simon Carrington, who was the guy who stood next to me, a guy who's just in his last year at Yale now, choral professor now, he's one of the original singers. He made an announcement saying, “I'm sorry, as you're probably aware, illness has come into the group and we're going to have to make several changes to the program tonight.” And after the concert somebody went up to David when they were signing the autographs at the end, you know, the CD signing, and said, “I just wanted to hear about which of the guys has been ill. Now do tell me, was it Simon who was ill?” This was to David. And they didn't know.
Allegra: [laughs] And David was like, “Yes.”
Stephen: [laughs] Yes --
Allegra: Yes, it was!
Stephen: It was him! I think it's --
Allegra: Wow, so you always stand up there.
Stephen: Pretty much, yes. I mean, I remember doing a tour in Japan, and I was – I can't say I was alone, there was actually three of us who had got some virus – this is half the group. At the time we were doing a Christmas show, and we were touring with a pianist. So we were doing stuff on our own and with this pianist. And it was kind of a shared thing. But three of us got to the stage – I had certainly lost my voice, I couldn't actually sing. We went and had various jabs from this sort of Japanese doctor. We had to take our shoes off, you know, and go in this special room, I forget what they call those floors. But it was a very odd thing, where you were just given several jabs, you didn't have a clue what they were doing to you. And they gave us handfuls of pills, I had to pop about 12 pills a day. And for about four or five concerts there was just nothing there. My voice had sort of – one side effect of this virus was that I just couldn't make any noise, my speaking voices was about four octaves lower than it normally was.
Allegra: Good lord.
Stephen: The vocal cords wouldn't even meet to make a sustained sound. And I did about four or five shows like that.
Stephen: And we got through it. I don't know how we did it. I don't know how we did it. But we got through it. And they loved it. So...
Allegra: That's very impressive.
Stephen: Yes. I know what you're thinking, foolhardy!
Allegra: Well, that's the other thing, I was thinking, I mean, do you ever worry about running the risk of hurting yourself if you do that?
Stephen: Well, this is the thing, is that, you know, if it hurts, don't do it. I mean, that's the thing. I mean, if you can stand on stage in a group like this...Nobody wants to be on stage when they're ill, you know, with a temperature or a sore throat. If you can still get up there and do what you – you know, take part in the event without it hurting – I've never got up there and thought, “What I'm doing now is really damaging.” I've got up there and thought, “This does not feel comfortable, I wish I was in bed right now.” Or, you know, “I wish there was scaffolding around me because I feel like I'm going to pass out.” But I've never thought, “This could be the end of my career.” Actually, you know, to be honest with you, the voice is a pretty resilient thing. Like most parts of our bodies, they're pretty good. I wouldn't say – I wouldn't recommend young opera singers to go out and do a Wagnerian role with laryngitis, but singing in the King's Singers is slightly different. If we were doing a “Simple Gifts” group, we wouldn't expect somebody with laryngitis to sing a lead for one of those things. We're very kind. But kind of showing up and taking part in the communication side of it is part of what's required. It's a nice sort of philosophy to come upon, as well. You know, because when you join a group like this, you don't have to think, “Well, if I'm ill, I'll just be staying in my hotel room.” I think the fact that you've got to suit up and show up is part of what we do, in a way. Yes.
Allegra: Well, I don't want to – I know that this was originally supposed to be half an hour, and I don't want to take up your entire day off.
Stephen: Oh, don't worry, I'm waking up now.
Allegra: Oh, OK! Coffee's finally kicking in?
Stephen: Well, I mean, as you said, it's a free day. I say it's a free day. We're doing a public workshop tonight in the cultural center here. Normally when you do a workshop – we go into the States to do a workshop, you know, might do a show on a college campus, and then the next day you'll go and work with the choir, perhaps. Workshop scenario. Well, here they do it completely different. I don't want to make – I keep saying “here” as if I'm on the moon, which it's not. But the kind of way they present things is probably a little bit more...maybe a bit more commercial, in a way. I don't know if I can even say that comparing it to America, because America's incredibly commercial. Compared to the sort of sleepy backwaters of Europe. But here, they've actually got this thing tonight where they've sold tickets.
Allegra: Oh, to a masterclass.
Stephen: Yes, and they've sold tickets, and there are 150 people coming, who've bought tickets, and there's all these groups performing. So that's our – that's a free day.
Allegra: Right. Not exactly free.
Stephen: I've got to go and do some shopping. I've got another hour before breakfast ends. I want to go and do some shopping in Hong Kong. It looks like it's raining outside, unless that's the humidity on the windows.
Allegra: You can't even tell, huh?
Stephen: Well, I've got a corner room, I've got these huge windows with kind of netting curtains in front of them. I can't see outside because it's streaming down the windows. It's either raining or it's really humid. So, we've got this workshop, and it starts – we leave the hotel at 7, it's just across the road from where we're staying. And we'll get there and sort of meet the people, and we start at 7:30. We do a workshop, we have six groups, we spend 20 minutes with each group, and we do a 15-minute Q&A. We finish at a quarter to ten tonight. And that's the free evening.
Allegra: That's the free evening.
Stephen: Yes. [laughs] I think, you know, I think one thing – the success of the group – I mean, yes, we keep looking for new things to do, new ways of doing things. But this whole idea, as a group, in the kind of – we do keep a check on each other. We never get too – we don't take things too seriously. We take the music really seriously. What we do, making chords, our vocal colors, you know, the professional bits of what we do, we take incredibly seriously. But actually, we don't – we keep a check on each other. We don't take anything really too seriously.
Allegra: Nobody lets anybody else get a swelled head?
Stephen: No. Yes, and in my time in the group, and seeing these people coming and going to my right, what seems to have happened – if there's ever a kind of prima donna thing that starts going on, the nature of the group just kind of squashes it down. It's a real ego-flattening experience, being a King's Singer actually. Funny enough. You'd think --
Allegra: You wouldn't necessarily think so!
Stephen: You'd think it would be the biggest high ever, as a singing job. And actually, it's a job that within the group you've got to expose all your weaknesses, being a group member. You can't just play on your strengths all the time. Your people are – it's like being in a family. And we really look after each other. Socially and musically. It's a real sort of microcosm of really, I think sometimes, how life should be. You know, this sort of – we're basically like a – just like a family of brothers.
Allegra: Do your families ever hang out together? I mean, when you get back to Britain? Do you ever have big old get-togethers?
Stephen: Not really. In the summer – Philip Lawson, who is our first baritone, was trying to get a kind of group summer party together. And he was finding difficulty in the summer break – we've got a six-week break coming up – getting this party going when everybody was free. And I think the day that was the most popular was the day that I wasn't available, I was going off to do something. But no, it's very difficult, to get us all together. We all live – not miles apart, but you know, I'm down in Devon, which is about 3 hours from London, and Paul is an hour and a half north of London, so we all – when we go home, we're pretty much...we get together, and our families come to concerts, but I don't think ever all of the families have been together at one occasion, in the present formation of the group.
Allegra: But the group members do – when you're on tour – you socialize – I mean, I suppose you couldn't avoid it, if you're on tour so much.
Stephen: We do. People like their space as well. We don't all often sit down and have a meal together. Probably breakfast we might do. If I get down to breakfast before it finishes at 11, there might be a few guys there. They might have all been there at 10 am.
Allegra: Right. They might be all shopping now.
Stephen: Yes, some might. But you know, there's no big – we don't go around as a tribe eating together. But we spend a lot of time together. It's really like being in a family. It has its ups and downs, just like a family. You've got to work through everything, just like a family, really. And then the fact that there's no room for prima donnas.
Stephen: And the way we sing, as well, the way we create our sound, there's no room for ego in that, either.
Allegra: Yes, it's true.
Stephen: I mean, it's human nature that these things rear up, so that every now and then, somebody's got to sing louder than the other guy, but you know, ultimately we know it doesn't work. If somebody's in a bit of a bad mood, then it sometimes comes across in their voice when we're rehearsing, and you suddenly realize, “Oh, I wonder what's wrong with so-and-so? He's sticking out today! He's trying to be a [bird?] somehow.” And somebody might have had a bad phone-call with home, or lost money on the stocks and shares or something. Or they just bought oil. [laughs] And it's too expensive. But when it works, everything is really like a very well-oiled machine. All the bits are just clicking in with each other. That's how it's meant to work. That's how it's designed to work. And it's lovely when it does work like that, which is most of the time. But it takes quite a lot of effort.
Allegra: Do you have a group clown or a group mother hen, or anything like that currently?
Stephen: Well, we have various – we have an agent. Our German agent has worked for us for over 30 years, and actually, it's funny, because she's been known for the last 30 years as Mutti. And she's a lovely lady, but “Mutti” is the German word for “Mummy.”
Allegra: For Mummy, yes.
Stephen: So she's a bit of an outside mummy. Our general manager at the moment is a lady, and she sort of mothers us a little bit. But in the group, I don't know. It's interesting, there's a couple of us who have been around for a while, you know, I've been in the group for 21 years, and David Hurley's been in it for 18 years. So, you know, somebody like Chris who came along four years ago, he will sometimes defer to our opinion, because – or sometimes we'll want to maybe stamp our opinion, because we've always done it in a certain way. And I mean, it's for the new generation in the group to say, “Well, actually, why don't you try it this way? Why does it have to be the same?” That's an interesting one. It's a bit like the teenager in the family saying, “Well, actually, I want to try it different.” And unless the teenagers in our families try it different, we'll never progress. So, it's part of the King's Singers thing, I'm sure. When I joined the group, I was a 21-year-old singer, and I wanted to do things differently on stage, and I wanted to perform and be a bit more outrageous in the way I interacted with an audience, which might have turned some of the guys' heads at the time, but that's become part of the way we communicate with an audience now, it's sort of – and the comedy side of thing. So it is, it's like a family really. There are these sorts of uncle figures. But I think we tend to play those different roles regardless of how long we've been in the group. Yes. Well, good luck over there, and I hope you have a nice summer.
Allegra: Thank you so much, and I hope you have a successful tour.
Stephen: Yes. Good to speak to you.
Allegra: Thank you so much.
Stephen: Bye, then!