Nicknamed “The People’s Soprano” Rebecca Newman has become one of the most successful indie artists in the classical crossover movement. Her new album, “Dare to Dream” features duets with Universal’s Blake and Mary Jess. Her success and dedication is a success to all indie artists. Fran Laniado speaks to this month’s cover star to help us get to know her better!
It seems like you were interested in singing from a very young age, but didn’t go to school for it or really make a career of it until later. Was that always a goal for you? Or would you have been content to have it as a hobby?
I sometimes wonder, myself, just how I came to end up where I am now. I used to sing all the time as a child, but it wasn’t until I was 13 that I discovered there was something about my voice that stood out. I was singing along to Sarah Brightman in the soundtrack to The Phantom of the Opera after my mum had been to see it in the West End and I realized my voice naturally suited the classic soprano sound much better. I joined a local junior amateur operatic company and won the leading lady in their next show, which was Carousel. From then on all I wanted to do was be a professional actress and musical theatre performer in the West End. I started working in a local pub, washing dishes, to earn money to pay for singing lessons but I quickly discovered the world of opera and decided that’s what I wanted to do. However, after my A Levels I took a two year break to save up for drama school and quickly worked my way up the corporate ladder, moving to the London head office of the firm I was working for. I decided singing was best kept as a hobby, but when I moved to York to do a degree to further my professional career, singing seemed to catch up with me again. Within a week I had the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Princess Ida’, then started busking and singing at weddings to earn money to fund my studies. I was able to try out a career as a singer while I was still studying, so there was no pressure, and found my business experience was really useful in making it work. I fell back into it by accident and it’s as if music wouldn’t let me go, rather than I went looking for it. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit so when it became clear that singing was more than just a lucrative hobby I decided to give it a go. For me, music isn’t a job – it’s a passion, it’s an identity. It has enriched my life in so many ways and I couldn’t turn my back on it now, even if I tried.
Based on your website bio it looks like you have a few musical theatre credits to your name (Carousel, Chess, Princess Ida,) is that something that you’d like to pursue more in the future?
I would love to do more theatrical productions and hope my new album may open some more doors for me. My previous theatre work has been with local companies but it is very hard when you’re a freelance singer because the level of commitment is very high and gets in the way of earning the money you need to live on and invest back into your music. I also enjoy the creative process of putting together my own concerts where I get to choose all my favorite songs, which is very different to winning a role in a show with a cast of characters. Now I am composing my own music and songs I’ve found that is where my passion lies, which, in turn, pushes me further away from theatre and more towards a recording and touring career.
In 2008 you had a scare with your voice. How did you feel about the prospect of not singing anymore?
At the time I almost wanted to stop singing because I felt so frustrated with my voice. I knew what I was trying to do but my voice wouldn’t cooperate. I was a professional singer by then and the pressure of needing to be healthy in order to earn my living was quite tough. Once I found out what the problem was, and it was a simple fix, I was very relieved and once the medication had time to work I noticed the difference very quickly. It was like someone had handed my old voice back. It has really made me appreciate how lucky I am to be able to sing.
What do you do to maintain your voice now?
I have regular lessons with a wonderful teacher, whom I’ve been seeing for two years now. I have to keep healthy, hydrated, and drink alcohol infrequently. When I was going through my vocal troubles I tried everything – marshmallow herb tea, no dairy, no caffeine, propolis, honey and lemon – but in reality the best things you can do are to get enough sleep, drink enough water and ensure your technique is good. If your technique is bad no amount of potions or dietary and lifestyle changes will overcome that.
You’ve released several albums now and your repertoire seems to go from musical theater, to folk songs, to opera, and pop. What genre do you feel most comfortable in?
I’ve discovered the joy of songwriting now, so I can sing exactly as I want! What tends to come out of the writing is a mixture of folk and light opera. Nothing can compare to the feeling of hitting those operatic high notes well, it feels like you’re flying, but I’ve always enjoyed using my folkier voice to generate more intimacy with the audience. If I had to choose one genre and stick to it forever it would be the operatic style. It’s not the easiest, and you never stop learning and developing, but it’s definitely the most rewarding for me. It is also what my fans most want to hear.
You work with several charities to raise money and awareness. How did you come to partner with these charities? What inspired you to use your music as a way of helping others?
When I decided to leave my job and return to education to do a degree I had intended to go into development economics. I wanted to work within governments and non-governmental organizations around the world, using my skills to help reduce poverty and improve the life chances people in developing countries. I am a firm believer that we all have to do our bit to realize the changes we want to see in the world. Once I started singing I found I was able to use my music to raise money and awareness for charities, which helped me fulfill this desire to help change the world in my own small way. I was able to raise funds that I could never have dreamed of just writing a cheque for when I was working full time. I also realized there was a virtual big, blank advertising space whenever I was performing where I could promote a cause. During the performance the audience would associate their positive feelings with that cause, which helps ensure future support for the charities. I chose to support Childline because I wanted to help young people who had no one to talk to when going through hard times, just like I did as a child and a teenager. I also chose to support the RNLI with a song release and my Coast to Coast Tour, which took in twenty venues across the UK, because I grew up by the sea and knew what an amazing job they do by putting their lives on the line to save people, without even being paid. Many of my friends in London were unaware of this, so I wanted to get out there and spread the word.
You perform live fairly often. Do you ever suffer from any performance anxiety? If so, how do you cope with it?
I get a bit of an adrenaline rush but it’s a good feeling and it can bring out things in your performance you can’t manufacture in rehearsal. I don’t really get nervous, unless I am doing something new and under-rehearsed, but even then I know that the most interesting and fun performances can follow when you’re working with a bunch of musicians and you’re all flying by the seat of your pants! The main thing is to make sure you have enough time to prepare before the performance. As an independent, self-managed artist I used to be so busy trying to organize things unrelated to my performance – like front of house, merchandise table, lighting, sound, travel – that I ended up being the bottom of my priority list. Trying to stick on false eyelashes five minutes before curtain call is not the best way to ensure you go on stage relaxed and focused. I’ve always tried so hard not to be seen as a diva, but sometimes you have to make sure you put yourself first, after all, you’re the reason people have parted with their hard earned money to buy a ticket so it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re ready to go on stage and give them a good show.
You’ve been dubbed “The People’s Soprano”. Where did that nickname come from? How do you feel about it?
I had some radio producers and journalists refer to me by the name in the past, plus audience members would say it when I was working with another singer who called himself a people’s tenor. However, back then I didn’t feel worthy of such a big title. It wasn’t until I worked with a wonderful tenor called Gari Glaysher that I understood why people saw me that way. I was telling him about the amazing time I had been having recording with the orchestra and going to and from meetings in London, concerts, and so on, but said I missed street performing. I missed it because of the unique connection you get with people on the street and how they keep you grounded. It was Gari who then told me I was demonstrating the true qualities of a “people’s soprano”, so I put it to my fans, asking them what they thought. Their response on social media was so overwhelming I decided to start using it officially. Since then I’ve gradually embraced the identity. I believe it’s my down to earth approach, my slightly goofy sense of humour, the way I don’t take myself too seriously and, importantly, the way thousands of people over the years have had a stake in my musical career and development, especially through my street performances. I owe my success to the people who have followed me over the years and I want to take them all with me on the adventure. I’m very pleased to see my supporters interacting online and at my shows and am honoured to be part of their lives to add some extra enjoyment. They even have a collective noun: Newmaneers!
What are your musical influences? Any favorite artists? What do you usually listen to for fun?
I have such a wide range of musical influences it’s hard to know where to start. My own music has been influenced by artists like Josh Groban, Enya, Hans Zimmer, Annie Lennox, whereas my vocals have been influenced by Sarah Brightman, who first inspired me to move into the soprano range, Maria Callas, Renee Flemming, Pavarotti, Angela Giorghiu.. However, my career has definitely been influenced by the recent classical crossover acts who have been trailblazers, like Russell Watson, Katherine Jenkins, Il Divo and Andrea Bocelli. My enthusiasm for songwriting was definitely encouraged greatly by a wonderful soul/folk singer and guitarist called Jess Gardham and the hip-hop band I was in at university. Favourite artists at the moment include Noah Stewart and Joyce DiDonato. When I’m listening to music for fun I like Emelie Sande, Adele, Jack Johnson, Katie MacDonald – basically, acoustic singer-songwriters and bands that you can imagine would sound just as good live and unplugged. I also enjoy listening to orchestral film soundtracks.
You’ve worked with several voice teachers. Do you feel that any of them was particularly remarkable or inspirational?
My current teacher is simply wonderful. She was classmates with Alfie Boe for her post graduate opera course. She is fantastic and really encourages me. She doesn’t just teach me because she is paid to, she actually gets excited when things are going right and really invests in me as a singer. Our lessons regularly overrun and there have been times when she’s jumped up from the piano and hugged me because something she had been trying to get me to do for ages suddenly works. She understands what I am trying to do with my voice; she knows I’m not training to be an opera singer and enjoys finding the best way for me to approach my songs so they are technically good but still sound like me. I’ve been very lucky with teachers over the years, even though I went through several years with hardly any coaching at all, and I always remember my first teacher, Mary Burman, as being the first person to recognize my ability – at least, the first person with any real knowledge about music! My voice is going through some exciting changes at the moment and new tones, textures and vocal colours are coming through. I’m excited to see how it will sound and feel in another six or twelve months time.
You are an independent artist. Is that by choice? Would you consider signing with a label at some point?
Very little about my music career is by choice or design. I never intended to be where I am now – I was just trying to plug away, making a living from music and enjoying the little challenges that brings. I self-released five CD albums as a way of having something to sell to support myself. Somehow, I’ve managed to gain a following far beyond anything I thought I would. Just over a year ago I raised the funds to realize a long-held dream of mine, which was to record an album with a live orchestra. As the album has been funded privately, much of it raised via my own fanbase, I still own all the rights to it and was able to choose exactly what went onto it. I’ve never been in the position before where I had anything ready to sell on to a label, and I’m not the kind of artist who had ever considered approaching major labels to get a recording deal, so this is all very new. All I can say at the moment is I’ve had some very exciting conversations with people in the industry and I’m looking forward to seeing how my album is received by listeners and the music industry when it is released.
What about the classical crossover genre appeals to you?
I’m very excited with the potential for the classical crossover genre. There is a massive, lucrative market out there for the music. Many people following this style of music are keen to buy physical merchandise, which is dying out in other more mainstream genres, as well as come to live shows. There is also a hunger for new music. Covering classical arias is an art in it’s own right, and it’s enjoyable to rise to that challenge, but singing and writing music that uses elements of both operatic arias and pop allows me to show off different sides of my voice. I generally cross over between styles within my shows, singing a variety of styles on one night, but I’m also trying to write songs in the style of Time to Say Goodbye, The Prayer and You Raise Me Up, as these have proven to be very popular.
What are your upcoming projects?
Currently, I’m finishing my new album, called Dare to Dream. There are two completely original songs on the album, one of which, Dare to Dream, is the title track and is extremely personal to me. It has been recorded with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Paul Bateman. Paul has worked on many of Sarah Brightman’s albums and international tours, so I do have to pinch myself sometimes. He is incredibly talented and the arrangements he wrote for the orchestra have breathed new life into some old favourites and really pull at the heartstrings. The album features a collaboration with Blake, for The Prayer, and with Mary-Jess, for Sull’Aria, by Mozart. The second part of my dream is to get an album into the top of classical charts, so the next few months are crunch time for me. The album has been a true labour of love. I will undertake a small tour, hopefully in the autumn, to showcase the album. This album has had to qualify for the classical charts, so it needed to contain at least 60% classical music, but income from this album will go into my next album, which will feature even more original material.
What would you like to accomplish in the future (long term)?
I would like my new album to be the start of something bigger than just me. There is a quote I use to guide me in my career: “success is not about how high you climb, but how many people you take with you”. I want to involve many schoolchildren, choirs and clubs to bring the message of Dare to Dream out to everyone. I’ve already started mentoring a young soprano, and am in the process of executive producing her first album so she can start re-investing in her music. Hopefully, it will give her a leg-up and help her in her development as I’ve been there and done it when it comes to most challenges and pitfalls. I’ve seen so many people in the industry kicking out the ladder behind them, but we don’t have to operate like that. I just want to keep making music that people enjoy and inspiring people to have a go themselves. I hope to use my music as a way of getting out and seeing more of the world, and meeting more wonderful musicians, composers, producers and, of course, listeners along the way. Naturally, duetting with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Joseph Callejah or Il Divo would be rather nice, and maybe even picking up a couple of Classic Brit Award nominations along the way would be something to tell the kids one day!
For more information please visit: rebeccanewman.co.uk