Soul Britannia: Beverley Knight
AN INTERVIEW with Beverley Knight is like a catch-up session with a girlfriend you haven’t seen in years.
As we met in a coffee shop in central London, the down-to-earth soul singer convinced me to try a café mocha (which she paid for – thanks Bev) and then chuckled in agreement as I told her how nice the beverage was.
“It is isn’t it? It gives you the buzz of the coffee and the chocolate at the same time,” Knight exclaimed, as she sipped her own mocha.
Chatting about everything from her slim and trim figure – “I’m not consuming anywhere near the amount of sugar and salt that I used to,” she explained – to her hair care tips (she’s ditched relaxers in favour of keratin treatments), it was easy to forget that I was actually there to do an interview.
In fact, in Knight’s company, it’s easy to forget that the Wolverhampton-born songstress who is often dubbed the ‘queen of UK soul’ has sold over a million albums in her career and has performed with the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan.
Having made her debut back in 1995 with the album The B-Funk, Knight is unsurprisingly thrilled to still be in the game. Gearing up for the release of her new album Soul UK – an album of British soul classics that influenced her own musical journey – Knight considers why she’s been able to achieve longevity in the business.
“I’m a grafter of grafters and I’m very confident in my abilities,” she says. “If I could bottle my self-belief and sell it, I’d be laughing! I always had the mentality where nobody could tell me that I wasn’t capable of having a long career like the artists that I’d admire.
“Also, I’d seen artists, brilliant artists come and go and I didn’t want my career to go that way. Look at Omar; he influenced an entire genre of music that came out of the States, yet he doesn’t get the props he deserves. But at some point, he’s gonna get his props.
“I decided that I wanted that longevity and I fought tooth and nail for it. At times, I p****d off my label and made a lot of people knock heads, but it’s worked out… not to the level of Amy Winehouse or Adele. Maybe that will come, who knows? But I’m still in the game.”
Knight’s longevity and respect in the business isn’t to be sniffed at.
With her new album Soul UK featuring tracks from a host of British artists who are no longer active on the mainstream scene, (Omar’s There’s Nothing Like This and Junior Giscombe’s Mama Used To Say are two of the tracks Knight covers), it’s quite something that she is still flying the flag for black British soul after 16 years in the game.
Still, the talented singer, known for her powerhouse vocals, still hopes to attain the global appeal of some of her peers on the soul music scene.
“I’m very grateful when people tell me I’ve been an influence on their career,” Knight says. “To be an influence on someone’s career is massive. It’s the biggest accolade you could ever have. But what I’d really like is the chance to be heard internationally. That is what Adele, Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone have achieved. They’re smashing it everywhere and I’d welcome that same opportunity.
“I don’t need the kind of life where I can’t walk street. I’ll leave that to Rihanna and Beyoncé! I’d just love to know that in some distant corner of the globe, someone somewhere is singing my songs.”
Though Knight feels, to some degree, that the British music industry sometimes sees greater marketing potential in white soul singers than their black counterparts, she also believes that some black British singers – and black audiences – don’t always appreciate the moves that need to be made to enjoy success.
“We as black artists have to understand that we’re in a business and sometimes, we have to move sideways in order to move forwards. I think sometimes we can be victims of the stereotypes that say black people are supposed to sing this kind of music or look a particular way and when someone steps out of that mould, we don’t check for them again!”
Knight laughs: “When Roachford broke out of the box, it was white people who got him to number one, because Cuddly Toy [Roachford’s single that Knight also covers on her album] didn’t sound like a ‘typically black’ song. So we’ve got to get rid of that mindset.
“Jimmy Hendrix changed the world with a rock guitar, even though that probably wasn’t expected of an artist that looked like him. The only way we can start to see ourselves as being as diverse as other people, is by sometimes making those sideways moves and not feel that we’re selling out by doing that.”
Having began her career with R’n’B hits like Flava of the Old School and Mutual Feeling, did Knight experience accusations of ‘selling out’ when she moved “sideways” and enjoyed commercial success with hits including Shoulda Coulda Woulda and Come As You Are?
“Oh, I got a lot of that,” she admits. “When I wrote Come As You Are, to me, I had written a song that sounded like Sly & The Family Stone – that funk-type vibe. But to a lot of people, it sounded like a ‘white’ song. I couldn’t understand that because I was singing it and I’m not white!
“So yeah, I did face that kind of resistance. But like most things, you have to take it with broad shoulders and just get on with it. Michael Jackson got called a sell-out when Thriller came out and Beat It was on there. A lot of people weren’t feeling Beat It at all. But Michael Jackson went on to become the biggest black music icon that ever lived. “Similarly, a lot of people weren’t feeling Prince’s Purple Rain when it first came out.
She continues: “But that often happens with black artists; people go off them because of their musical choices and then they come full circle and go back to loving them again. It happened to me and I came through at the other end, so much so that I’ve been able to make this album that pays homage to British soul.”
But don’t get it twisted: Knight doesn’t consider Soul UK as any sort of return to her soul roots.
“Not at all. It’s like when Justin Timberlake said he was bringing ‘sexy back’ and Prince got vex and said, ‘sexy never left!’ The fact is, I never left [soul music]. I was always happy to be, within black music, the maverick who did what she wanted to do. So this album isn’t about rediscovering roots, it’s about acknowledging the musical giants on whose shoulders I’m standing.”
In addition to the aforementioned artists, some of those “giants” include Soul II Soul, whose 1989 hit Fairplay gets Knight’s treatment, and Loose Ends who Knight pays homage to with her version of the group’s 1990 hit Don’t Be A Fool.
“It wasn’t so straightforward [putting the album together] because there are so many wicked British soul records out there, from High Tension and Light of the World, right up to from where I started. So I was like, ‘How am I gonna narrow this down?’
“So I started with people who directly inspired me and then started choosing from their catalogue. I decided not to touch any songs that might be considered sacred, so it was like, ‘I’m not gonna do [Soul II Soul’s] Back to Life and mash up Caron Wheeler’s vocals!’ So I chose another of their songs – Fairplay – which is just as important.”
We couldn’t discuss the album without talking about the equally notable album cover.
Featuring Knight dressed in a black playsuit that reveals her long legs [the image on page 23 and inset, above left], I couldn’t resist playfully teasing her about the sexy look.
“This is so mad,” she laughed. “I did another interview and the journalist was like, ‘You look so sexy on the cover! Do you feel sexy?’ I feel a bit embarrassed about it now because I wasn’t trying to portray ‘sexy Bev!’ It was just that I loved the playsuit and I thought I was creating a retro, ‘80s kinda vibe. Now I’m like, ‘Did I show too much leg?’
“But I never would have done that years ago. Back then, I would have felt like that image would have been a odds with me being a serious artist.
“But I’ve grown up thinking that it’s ok to show a bit of leg. I think it’s a marker of how far I’ve come in my mindset. But if you ever see me with my legs akimbo, then we’ll have a problem!”
* Soul UK is out on July 4 on Hurricane Records