Charlotte Church, HOME Festival, Dartington (23/6/12)

Tagged with: Charlotte Church Jonathan Powell HOME Festival Dartington Review Glyn Phillips world music

Charlotte Church. It seems everyone has an opinion on her. And it’s never actually about her music. And that’s a pity.

So, it’s against this background that Church is relaunching her music career and in a way that you might not expect. No big media fanfare, huge tour, festival headliner status, endless tv appearances, expensive adverts in papers, or enormous entourage. Just her, her new band, a set of new songs and a summer’s worth of small gigs and low-key slots in a variety of niche and local festivals.  Which is how our paths came to cross...

When I caught up with her at Devon’s Home Festival in the 15th C manor house at Dartington, she’d done 3 gigs in her under-the-radar tour and probably played to only about a 1000 people in total. By the end of her set, she’d added a few hundred more - quite a change from the girl that has sold in excess of 10 million albums worldwide.

But, in my opinion, it’s probably the most sensible move she’s made for a while. She has the proverbial ‘Fame and Fortune’ in abundance. She has the new(ish) boyfriend and two (lovely) kids and mummydom suits her.  She's even naturally good-looking.  You'd wonder what the problem is.  I honestly couldn't give a stuff about her private life - no matter what the vacuous world of hack 'journalism' thinks counts as news. But lost amongst all the ups and downs of the last few years, first courting and then fleeing from ‘the media’, has been her music and maybe her vision of herself as a musician first and foremost rather than ‘a celebrity’. Yet she is blessed with an incredible instrument - her voice. And I think she’s finally rediscovering it (literally and metaphorically).

I am of an age group where I was too young to buy in to her childhood career (ie when she was every Granny’s favourite) and too old to connect with her enfant terrible pop years, so I never really payed her much attention - the world of real music (and certainly in my field, of world music) has so much more to offer than the majority of the commercial music industry’s output.  

"those Manuka-honeyed tonsils mean business."

However, standing just a few feet in front of her whilst she opened her lungs and let rip was a hair-raising experience. She can hit notes like a juggernaut and yet move up through the scale without losing a scintilla of power. Very impressive. So, THAT’S what everybody’s being going on about… Let me tell you, those Manuka-honeyed tonsils mean business. So much for the instrument, but what about the artist?

Charlotte along with boyfriend/co-writer Jonathan Powell have been going back to basics, putting together a new band of young Cardiff-based musicians, writing new material, experimenting in sound and style and searching for a more mature vision to carry their careers forward. You could accuse her of re-inventing herself. Well, so what? It worked for Bowie and numerous others. The essential point is whether you’re true to your musical self.

Some people are truly ‘pop-fodder’: one-minute wonders living out 15 minutes of fame (14 minutes too long). But sustainability in music is possible and it comes down to musical integrity. People will eventually see through you if you don’t actually ‘feel’ the music.

So, it seems to me that Church is looking ahead for the path that will take her forward. The audiences for her first two career moves have probably long gone. So this is absolutely the right time to start again with a fresh slate, to go on a journey of musical self-discovery, to go inward and ask yourself: who am I and do I have anything to say? To this end she needs to broaden still further her musical reference points as well as experiment with sound herself; to be both humble and confident; restrained in behaviour but wildly daring in musical vision.

At the Home Festival which is pretty much a world music festival with a good dose of folk and acoustically sensitive music bundled in, the presiding sentiment on hearing that Charlotte Church was a late addition to the programme was neither boundless excitement nor dismissive derision. It was just: “Ok. Fair enough. Let’s see what she brings.” And at this stage, that’s precisely the attitude you need - because it’s based on the display of real talent in real time, not an image or a previous reputation.

In other words, if you can win over real music lovers, people who are passionate about music from many different cultures and who cannot be seduced by the trappings of celebrity and you can impress them purely on musical merit, then you are able - as a musician - to hold your head high. You’ve succeeded. Most people are willing to give others a second or even third chance, if they sense there’s something of value there. So the bottom line with Charlotte Church is thus: Is the music any good?

OK, about time I gave a run down on the concert.  Charlotte was introduced just as the cloud-covered sky started to spit rain, which intermittently showered down through the nine songs set.

She bounded on stage looking bright and breezy and apologised for bringing the rain with them.

“Thanks for having us. What a beautiful place! We’ve got to leave tomorrow to go to the Oyster Rock Festival in Cornwall, but this is lovely! I want to stay and chill out here in Dartington!”

I spent a lot of the first two tracks (“Beautiful Wreck” and “Breach of the Peace”) taking photographs, so I can’t really comment on the music except to say it was very apparent that her voice was in fine form - no problems there!

In between, Charlotte commented on how strange it was having her little daughter and son with her on a gig (they were standing on the foot of the railings just in front of me) “You’ve never seen Mummy perform before, have you!”.

Explaining their plans to release a series of EPs this summer she commented: “Bit of a different sound. We started recording it in the garage and that got too difficult, so we turned the garage into a studio. We’re all very proud of it and we hope you like it too.”

"beautiful falsetto harmonies ... sweet and pure"

By the third song, which I think was called “Off”, they had all really settled in and were beginning to relax. The music was, I suppose, what you’d called indie pop, I dunno, and to be honest I was hoping for something a bit more rootsy, or folky, or ‘worldy’.  

But what really struck me were the beautiful falsetto harmonies between Church, Powell and the two other guitarists. As sweet and pure as the jar of honey at her side!

Charlotte might be a big name, but this was no mere backing band. They were very much to the fore and engaged in the music and I was impressed by their togetherness - not just musically, but as a presence in their own right on stage. She looked and sounded very comfortable in that format.

For the fourth song we were given a choice: “We weren’t sure what kind of crowd to expect so we prepared two different tracks - you lot choose.  Which one do you want to hear?.” Nobody knew what to pick since we only had the names to go by (a little more information about each one would have been useful!), but in the end they chose “Come To Me”.

Just before launching into it though, there was one of those lovely moments, both tender and funny, that you get as a parent, when her little daughter Ruby who was standing up at the barrier hanging onto the railings, shouted out: “Mummy, look, I’m singing too!”. I just hope Mummy heard!

"fabulously rich and dense sound"

“Come To Me” was, for me, one of the standout numbers from the set, with a fabulously rich and dense sound, full of lovely harmonies. This was some very well-thought out music. And once again it just showed us the amazing vocal ability Church possesses. I was also impressed how much she throws herself into each song, both physically and emotionally.

Time to bring the tempo down with the weirdly named “How Not To Be Surprised When You’re A Ghost”. The showers were getting heavier now, but I was kept amused by the vision of her little son, Dexter replete in bright green ear-protectors, grasping onto the railings, head back, grinning away at me and trying to catch the raindrops in his mouth. Ah, the little pleasures of being a kid!

This led into the first single to be released called “The Rise” (available as a free download here: and then onto the next tune, “Say It’s True”.

Nearing the end of the set now, Charlotte took some time to explain the context of the penultimate song “Judge From Afar”, which is her response to a story the Daily Mail wrote about her. “You’re wrong. You shoot me down before I speak. Do you want to take my place?”.

For Charlotte this was obviously the emotional centrepiece of her set, being so intensely personal to her previous situations. I did worry that this is dangerous ground, though. Any writer (whether author, poet or lyricist) can tell you that you should always write from your own experiences. And this is by and large true.

However, she needs to be careful not to distance herself from the public with experiences that are completely out of our realm of experience or our interest. I’ve never been papped and am highly unlikely to be - like most real people in the world. So while I might feel some sympathy, I can feel no empathy. Be true to yourself, write about your thoughts and emotions, but connect emotionally with your audience and their lives. I’d be interested to see what Church could write that would be of mutual interest to both me and her. Genuinely.

"twiddling the knobs ... with gleeful abandon."

However, on the other hand, “Judge From Afar” is - musically - a very powerful piece with a huge sound! Using a looping box and a small laptop computer mounted to her left, she set up multi-layered, dense textured, poly-harmonies in real time that she then sang over, whilst her boyfriend changed over to violin and looped his sounds too. It all ended with Charlotte and Jonathan on their hands and knees on the stage floor hitting buttons and twiddling the knobs of the various looping and effects units with gleeful abandon. How different from the carefully controlled and stage managed images of Church that you might expect - and how refreshing.

The long and the short of it is that she looked like she was really enjoying herself. But what’s more - and ultimately what’s more important to her career - is that it was very well received by the audience. An audience who hadn’t come to see her at all, but were nonetheless willing to lend an ear, to see if she had anything to offer. Hmmm.

With a “Bless your cotton socks for listening through the rain”, Church’s band launched into what she described as a schizophrenic disco track called “James” to finish off with. To be honest, not really my cup of tea. I would have been happy to stop at the previous one, but she probably wanted to rock out a bit more.

Fair enough. I’d seen enough to convince me that she seemed to be serious about making a new start and by going about it the right way - via the music first and gaining the respect of - not ‘the fans’ - but by trying to connect with intelligent, open-minded music lovers first. These are early days for this ‘new’ Charlotte Church and even this set and tour is - to my mind (and in the words of Earth, Wind and Fire) - only a beginning. I expect to see a lot more creativity. I hope to see a continuation of the experimentation, the reach towards a more emotionally mature audience (no matter the age, young or old) who care nothing for celebrity status but judge people on their musical ability and intent, and an attempt to write music that means something to all of us.

If anything (and I did try to say this to her and Jonathan when they sat at the next table to me at breakfast the next morning) personally I'd like them to be even more daring musically.  Really break some boundaries down.  I thought of all the amazing and equally talented acts I’d witnessed at Home Festival over the weekend.  And just like some people play Fantasy Football, my mind was racing with thoughts of pairing up Church with the Finnish vocalist Sanna Kurki-Suonio (a woman with a voice every bit as lithe and vital as Charlotte’s) in some Finno-Cymraeg acapella; or maybe going down a genre-busting jazz-tinged route with Japanese pianist/singer Ryoko Nuriki. Or what about an Ethiopian slant, teaming her band up with the Krar Collective? I’m sure the results would be fascinating, as well as mutually beneficial.

Fellow Welsh singer, legendary icon and - let's face it - 'sustainable career man', Tom Jones did himself the world of good by teaming up with all the new young bands for the “Reload” album, combining his voice and experience with their vibrancy and edginess. Charlotte has the youth and the voice already, but the experience of working with world musicians with so much musical integrity could possibly change her perception permanently. So many possibilities if you just reach beyond people’s expectations of you. Exciting times for our Welsh songbird. Let’s hope she takes wing and flies to the heights she’s capable of.

One last thought though. After “Judge From Afar” had finished and the last notes from the speakers died away, a very curious thing happened. The crowd, who to be fair, were mostly old enough to be Charlotte’s parents (or even grandparents in some cases) spontaneously and unexpectedly carried on singing one of the riffs from the loop! Hmmmm. Now that’s interesting! Charlotte’s new sound is already having an effect at the most grass roots and fundamental level you can get.

"It might just be cool to like Charlotte Church…"

You know what? It might just be cool to like Charlotte Church…

Glyn Phillips