Sunday 25 February 2018

Twinkle, twinkle, what a star - how Cork city is special to Katherine Jenkins

Classical crossover singer Katherine Jenkins is a national treasure in Britain. At home, she's a smitten new mum. But she holds a special place in her heart for Cork city

Katherine Jenkins at the annual Tusk Trust Conservation awards at Claridge's Hotel in London last November.
Katherine Jenkins at the annual Tusk Trust Conservation awards at Claridge's Hotel in London last November.
Katherine Jenkins and her husband Andrew.

Julia Molony

Katherine Jenkins sweeps into the green room at the live music venue LSO St Lukes in London's East End. Here, among the grey walls and stacked function-room furniture, she seems out of place - hyper-real, like a Disney princess who has accidentally wandered onto an industrial estate.

Her looks, certainly, are pure Disney - the long tumbling blonde curls, the china blue eyes. As is her manner. When answering a question, she widens her eyes, a smile comes into her voice and she delivers her response, more often than not, with an actual twinkle. If anyone else tried it, it would seem like pantomime. But Katherine Jenkins somehow carries it off.

She twinkles as she talks about how enchanted she was to perform at the Queen's birthday in May. She twinkles at the memory of her last performance at the Cork Opera house.

"I love going to Cork," she says, ever the enthusiast, explaining why she'll be back again at Christmas. The first time she went "everybody was just so nice. I brought Andrew, my husband, and we went and did all the tourist things and we met a lot of people and were out and about and I just thought, 'gosh, what a lovely place'."

The second time, she sang with Jose Carreras and was seven months' pregnant - it was her farewell show before heading off on maternity leave. "It was a really, really special night. . . It seems to be unusual that you would go back to somewhere so quickly and so many times, but if they keep asking me, I'll go."

Most of all, however, she twinkles as she talks about her nine-month- old baby daughter Aaliyah - her first child with husband Andrew Levitas whom she married at Hampton Court in 2014. She had previously been engaged to the hunky Welsh TV presenter Gethin Jones, and though the pair were adored as a Welsh golden couple, they split in 2012. It was during a stint in the US that she met Levitas, who is a film-maker and artist.

"I stopped working at seven months' pregnant," she says, talking about her recent return to work after maternity leave, "because I didn't know how I was going to feel technically, with the change in my body. So many friends told me that when you get pregnant it's going to be a complete change to the voice, which I didn't believe. But it was true. It completely changed. It sort of almost supports the sound in a better way. . . It made the voice louder and more rounded. It was really lovely to sing when I was pregnant. I look back and I think I wish my voice sounded like that every day."

It's telling that she refers to her singular talent as "the voice", as if it's a separate entity all of its own. The first inkling of its unique power came when she was in a church choir as a child, and she shattered a glass window hitting a high note. Since then, "the voice" has made Jenkins the world's most successful classical crossover star, with 12 number one albums in 12 years.

She set a chart record this year when her album Celebration became the latest one to go to number one. It was recorded as an accompaniment to the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations, and features a selection of traditional British songs. "I was already pregnant so I knew roughly the time I was taking off," she says. "And a year in advance they asked me if I would do the show. So I knew that was going to be the main thing I was coming back to after maternity leave, and what a nice thing to come back to. . . . It seemed that it would be really lovely to make a soundtrack that sums up, not just the birthday, but all the events around the UK this year that are hopefully going to make us feel patriotic. Things like the Invictus Games and the Olympic Games and the football. All these things that are lovely that happen over the summer. So it was just a soundtrack to those events."

It hasn't, she says, been a wrench to go back to performing after having her baby, mostly because she brings her daughter with her as much as she can. "To have her with me just makes it lovely and we hang out all the time."

For Jenkins, life after baby has been blissful, and despite the demands of their careers, she and her husband go to some lengths to put family first. "My husband is a New Yorker so we also have a place there," she says. "But here is home and we spend time there to go and see family and for his work. I won!" she adds with a smirk. "We're both very close to our families so it's important that we get a proper amount of time with each, so it's nice to have a reason to go there. And then. . . if I end up singing there then that's a bonus. But we just try and work it around spending the time with the families."

"I think we both like to make sure that we're supporting the other one," she says of how they make it work. "Luckily in my job, we plan quite a long way in advance. So I can map out where I'm going to be when, and try and fit in with the other schedules. So if Andrew is going to be making a film in Africa for example, then I will try and make it that I will be on tour in Africa, so that we're never split up. Because we'd always rather try and travel together as a family. It works out most of the time, we get a lot of time together. It might be that there are a few days when it doesn't make sense, and I'll just dash off and do a few dates and then come back to them. But the main goal is to try and always travel together." It's been a conscious decision, on her part especially, to plan work around life, rather than the other way around.

"I've toured for long enough, that I know what works and what doesn't and at what point you feel disjointed from your friends and family and loved ones. And I think all this requires a lot of work. You get out of it what you put in. I think that we all just want to be in each other's company as much as possible. Doesn't that sound sickly sweet!" she says, with a laugh. "It's true, you should hear my husband. I'm turning into him!"

The other benefit of all of this is that Aaliyah is already getting an impressive cultural education. "Somewhere in there we are programming her with all this nice experience of music," Jenkins says. "The first three months of my pregnancy I did 27 shows," she says, and I gasp. "If it sounds punishing, that's because it was. I'm not sure I would do that to myself again in terms of the physical demands of being on tour," she admits. "And also, you can't tell anybody. So you have your own little secret. But I think that she (Aaliyah) is definitely musical because of the amount of performing I did when I was carrying her. And sometimes I'm warming up - like today and she's not bothered at all. And then the other day I was warming up to sing on the Michael Ball Show. The minute I opened my mouth she burst into tears. So I was like, you can never quite tell how the singing is going to go down."

Mostly though, Aaliyah is an appreciative audience, even when music brings her mother's attention elsewhere. "I have to say - and this is probably going to come back and get me later on in life - she'll be a horrible teenager or something like that, but it's like right now she understands . . . I'm learning Carmen at the moment, I'm performing that in July, and she sits in her Bumbo chair. She sits and she watches me rehearse, and she watches me and the pianist and the conductor, and she's fascinated by it. So I'd much rather her watch that than watch nonsense stuff."

Jenkins grew up in Neath, in Wales, with her mother, who was the "breadwinner", her father, the "house husband", and her older sister Laura. Though she was discovered as a 12-year-old choir girl, she worked as a music teacher before she became a professional singer. "I loved it," she says of teaching. "I would love to go back and do it again at some point, even if it's one-on-one teaching. I was doing stage schools and preparing students for practical parts of their GCSE's".

Her father died from lung cancer when she was just 15, and she has since said that it was this experience which prompted her to pursue her dreams of performing. "The idea that you never know what is around the corner has been with me since then," she has previously said. Equally, she has been shaped by her mother's grit and determination. After her father died, her mother put Katherine and her sister through university. Seeing her mother make her way in the world and support her family has had a big influence on her, too. "Going back to work wasn't about, 'I'm bored I need to go back.' It was more about thinking about, I want to keep my singing and my passions going, so that when she's old enough, she sees that I go out and do something, that I work hard at something, that I have to be dedicated to something. Because I had that with my mum... I had that lead by example kind of thing. And I want Aaliyah to see that it's all about hard work and dedication, you can do whatever you want. Originally, when I've been asked, I honestly would have thought that the answer would have been 'yes, I'm going to take some time off, I'm going to just focus on being a mum'. But I think it was having the daughter, which surprised me because I thought I would have boys, it's so important the example you set to them, in all those areas - image, and how they see themselves and confidence. It's definitely something that's on my focus list of the things I want her to see."

At the age of just 23, she signed the biggest recording deal in classical music history, and since then, it's been a pretty much unbroken run of hit albums. Still, despite consistently breaking sales records, she says that, even now, she never assumes her position is secure. "I don't take it for granted because I didn't know whether I'd be lucky enough to come back to work after taking time off [to have her baby]. I never take it for granted, I've had a really good run."

She twinkles again when she talks about growing up in Wales, and it's clear that despite her global fame, home is still a massively important touchstone for her. It's why she doesn't feel in the slightest bit "apologetic" about the guns-blazing patriotism that is expressed in Celebration. "When I grew up in Wales I had so many lovely opportunities to develop my singing and my music and also just the sense of, sort of, family. And I'm really thankful about that. So when I talk about being proud of being Welsh and British - that's a real thing."

There is a song on Celebration called This Mother's Heart, which Jenkins had commissioned especially for the album. But it's taken on a whole new meaning now she's had her little girl.

"Initially, the idea was let's write a song that is for Her Majesty on her birthday. But actually it ended up having a different meaning for me, because I definitely wouldn't have been able to sing this song a year ago. You can imagine the love you feel, but it's nowhere near what actually happens when you have your own little one. And I took her in with me to the studio - I took her with me and she was out in the main part of the studio with the mixing desk and everything, and I was singing it, and I was feeling it, but we sort of stopped and then the producer said, 'Great, I think we have it' and I said, 'No, I think I can do better'. So I ran out and I picked her up and I cuddled her and I filled my Aaliyah tank, and got all those feelings and went and sang it again. I couldn't get to the end of the song without crying. And every time we would get to the end I was a wreck, but you know what, I needed to do that in order to sing the song. I hope that one day she'll listen back and she'll know that I was literally performing for her."

There's only one other kind of performance that fills Jenkins with as much emotion. And that's the ones she does for the British troops in conflict zones. "They are my favourite concerts. They changed my life," she says. And indeed she is now a trustee of the British Forces Foundation and another charity for post-traumatic stress.

"That sounds really dramatic," she goes on, "but in the very first trip I did, which was Iraq in 2005, it was Christmas Eve. It's not a glamorous trip at all. You go out on military aircraft with everyone else - helmets flak jackets. It goes into blackout as you land at night. You certainly realise what you're going into and the drama of that. And you've got a back pack and my dress is rolled up and you don't shower for two days and we don't really sleep for two days . . . the very first concert I did, which still makes me emotional, we were in Basra in an empty aircraft hangar with two flat-bed lorries for the stage, 4,000 squaddies just sat on a concrete floor. And all these aircraft just landing in the background, all the way through the music. And I was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and I got to the chorus and they all sang it back with me.

An aircraft hangar in Basra might be no place for a Disney princess, but it's clear that there's more to Jenkins than meets the eye.

Celebrate Christmas in Cork with Katherine Jenkins and the City of Cork Symphony Orchestra, with two performances on December 14 and 15. For tickets got to More:

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