Stephen Bowman, Humphrey Berney and Ollie Baines make up the band BLAKE. Since the launch of their first album in 2007, the friends have quickly established themselves as one of the most successful crossover bands. Thanks to Sara French, Classical Crossover Magazine was able to get to know them a little better…
The story of how your all found each other and then started a group thanks to facebook is very interesting. What made the three of you want to sing together as a group as opposed to pursuing solo careers?
Steven: There is certainly safety in numbers! We’ve all had the chance to sing as soloists previous to Blake, which was great, but genuinely it’s a lot more fun creating a group and enjoying the experience together. A big part of our live shows is the banter and comedy between us, which the guys in audience appreciate as antidote to all the love songs we sing.
Humphrey: Singing in harmony is a great feeling and working with others adds a great team dynamic. You can play off each other on stage and have mates to have a beer with after the show. It can be quite lonely as a soloist.
Your group has had many fantastic performance opportunities since you released your first album in 2007, including several major sporting events. Which ones are your family and friends most excited about?
Steven: We’ve been asked to sing at Twickenham stadium a number of times, for national and international rugby games. Seeing 70,000 people filling that stadium is really quite something, specially when you’re leading Swing Low or Jerusalem. We often take our family and friends, who get to enjoy us and a good rugby game too!
Humphrey: My family all came to see us perform at the classical Brits at the Albert Hal. It was such a great night and they were very proud. Another highlight for them was when we sang at the opening of the new roof. They are big tennis fans!
Stephen, you were accepted into the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama before you could even read music and now you are writing songs! Do you feel that your studies in music theory have helped broaden your appreciation for the music you sing?
Stephen: I was shockingly bad at sight reading music when I started Guildhall, preferring instead to play the piano and sing by ear. I improved slightly, but frankly I’m still pretty awful at it. However, I’m sure that relying on my ears has helped me with my song writing and helped me appreciate more than just classic music; essential for Blake.
Humphrey, although you studied at the Royal Academy of Music and performed in operas you have also sung in a rock’n’roll band and are now happily in the crossover music scene. How important do you think is for people to be exposed to all different genres of music?
Humphrey: Very. For me variety is so important. Of course that brings challenges in regards of singing techniques but to be able to satisfy all my musical tastes through Blake is amazing.
Change is an inevitable and exciting part of any musical group. Your band has gone from a quartet to a trio in recent years. How are you enjoying reworking old favorites to accommodate this and creating new sounds?
Stephen: You’re very right, change is something to be welcomed in any vocal group, as it injects new life into performances and allows for new directions. We’ve reworked every single piece we sing, distilling four part harmony into three. It was during this process that we realised how often we were doubling up on harmonies. Audiences were surprise at how similar the trio harmony sound was to the quartet.
Humphrey: I am loving it, it has provided challenges which we have overcome. Becoming a trio has added a new energy to the group both musically and in our stage performance so things are looking good!
Ollie, I think sometimes people underestimate the diverse careers available in music beyond performance. You have a degree both in music (performance?) and also music technology. Can you tell us a little bit about your studies and how they have helped you so far in your career?
Ollie: I went to three universities and didn’t finish any of my degrees – not through lack of trying but because of my want to move onto the next thing. When I ended up at the Guildhall and found myself with a job after the first year (that’s when I joined Blake) I left as I felt it would have been foolish not to take the opportunity. The purpose of the music performance course is to get a job so when the opportunity came up I took it. Music technology has been an enormously helpful foundation for the amount of time we spend in the studio and the amount of input I have on the production of the recordings and I still keep up with all the trends and technology now.
As musicians I feel we have a higher purpose than mere personal advancement, and Blake has been very supportive of multiple charities. Do you have any words of encouragement and advice for up and coming artists to give back with their music?
Stephen: As a group we do all we can to help charities in the UK and worldwide. We’ve been very lucky with our career, gaining the opportunity to travel the world and sing the music we love. Giving as much time as we can to charity feels right, whether singing at events or appearing on radio or TV to talk about their campaigns. Musicians have a unique way to help charities get their message across, it’s important to do all we can.
Ollie: There are only so many ways of getting one’s music out to the wider public most of these involve major record labels – if you are fortunate enough of finding other ways to do this you absolutely have to take the opportunities – this includes charity work of course. However, if wouldn’t work if you didn’t have some kind of personal affiliation or connection with that charity. All charities that Blake have worked with over the last seven years (35-40 in total) have had some significant personal connection to at least one member of the group. The advice I would give is they should work with the causes they really care about, because that way you gladly give your time and you will feel more like you are really making a difference.
Humphrey: Music is a very wonderful thing and can help people in so many ways. Use your music and if you are fortunate enough, your profile to help others or simply bring them enjoyment through your performances. It is a wonderful gift so share it!
In Britain singing in choirs is a very important part of musical culture. As you have choral backgrounds, what do you think it is about choral singing that continues to draw the public?
Stephen: It’s true that Britain has an exceptional tradition of choral music, although for a while this was rather forgotten in the mainstream. The public now seem to be fascinated by choral singing again, perhaps because of recent TV shows headed by Gareth Malone, a Royal Academy classmate with Humphrey. Our harmony sound is very much influenced by our times in choirs, giving us some experience of jumping around the available notes till we arrive at chords which best suit the mood of a piece.
Ollie: I think choral singing is a part of the British culture and I think choral music has played a huge part in Britain’s musical evolution over the last 500 years and since the break with the Catholic Church choral music has been a major part of the Church of England that the rest of Europe has never experienced. There are more than 40 cathedral choirs in England alone and countless parish choirs that are of an extremely high standard. A lot of people in Britain do not realize how far ahead of the rest of the world we are is in terms of choral music. It is something we should be immensely proud of.
Humphrey: The new interest in singing in choirs is a great thing and something we have been very involved with having invited hundreds of choirs to join us over the past few years. Singing in a choir brings so many things: Musical fulfillment, team work, friendship and so much more. If you have not sung in a choir then join one – you will love it.
Humphrey, you’ve done a bit of acting for the BBC. Is this a talent you hope to develop more in the future? And if you, would you ever consider doing a super hero role?
I have been very lucky to have had a great deal to stage time through out my life both acting, singing and combining the two. Blake is my focus and there is certainly no time for other projects which is a good situation to be in! Super hero?! I have a big jaw and told I look like buzz light year so maybe Toy Story the Musical!!!
Ollie, have you done any arranging for Blake so far? Considering your background in French Horn, Trumpet and piano, I imagine you would add some very interesting textures to the instrumentation. If you have not, would you consider doing so in the future?
I have been lucky enough to have a big input in all the Blake albums which has increased has time has gone on. I have been lucky to work closely with all the orchestral arrangers so that the structure of our songs fits with the vocal arrangements we come up with. We have also over the years worked with some incredibly gifted vocal arrangers, such as the brilliant Mark Williams (who is now the Director of Music at Jesus College Cambridge) who have significantly helped to mould the Blake sound into what it is today.
Tell us more about your label Blake Records and how its formation came about?
Stephen: Blake Records was our best business decision in seven years together. As other artists were finishing their contracts with major labels and immediately looking to sign up to new ones, we were approached by Svengali Adrian Munsey, who asked if we would consider setting up a record label with him. We loved the idea of gaining more control over how our records would sound, so accepted the opportunity and never looked back.
If you had to label the members of your group, who would be… the Diva, the Prankster and the Scholar? Or any other titles you feel more appropriate?
Stephen: Always hard to pigeon hole us boys as we’re all fairly multi-faceted, but here goes. Perhaps, Ollie the bookworm scholar, Humphrey the extreme sports junkie and I the self professed online geek?
Humphrey: Scholar – Ollie. He used to be a teacher and loves the academic side of music.
Sporty – me, I cannot sit still and happiest when I am doing something active – wake boarding, kite surfing, mountain biking….anything.
Techno – Stephen. He is the computer whizz and runs all our social media, keeping us in touch with the world.
Prankster – All of us!!!
Stephen you are an avid supporter of motor bikes, which some might say is a bit risky. What makes you enjoy them so much and do you think that being a bit of a risk taker has made you a better performer?
Stephen: I’m actually the least likely person to get called a risk taker, even when I’m on a bike, I’m cautious by nature. I use a Honda Fireblade motorbike to get around London, get to the recording studio and attend some concerts. It’s a thrill to travel that way, gives me an adrenalin buzz, maybe it does pick me up on stage!
In conclusion, 2013 was a big year for you in terms of touring and performances. Do you gentlemen have a new record coming out soon? What can we expect from you in 2014 and beyond?
Steven: 2014 is a big year for Blake. We have tours and shows in the UK, Russia, South Africa, Germany and America. Importantly we have our first UK studio album by the trio, so that very exciting. We can’t wait!
Humphrey: Lots! Tours in the UK, South Africa, Asia, USA, a new album and I amongst all this I am getting married! It’s going to be a big one!!
To keep up to date with all the latest from Blake visit blakeofficial.com