There might not be much new in journalism, but phoning Humphrey, a popular entertainer who has just broken down in his classic Triumph TR6, might just count. Surely contemporary stars are meant to swig Cristal Champagne while posing with his “bitch” in a pimped up Rolls Royce sporting a gold rather than Silver Lady (just for that little extra bit of class, you understand).
But Humphrey (and Stephen and Ollie, who I also speak to) comprise Blake, a pop-classical crossover group; and they don’t need many bling-like props: as a former public school boy who spent much time in the choir, Humphrey says things like: “my auntie was a flautist.” Not a boast which Kanye West can probably make. Ollie, meanwhile, will tell you how “frightfully important” it was which colour jumper you were allowed to wear in the school choir. Ollie’s vices include a weakness for the French horn, which would earn him a ribald comment even in One Direction.
For the uninitiated, Blake has sung at every big national beano from Wimbledon to Wembley. They were old friends who re-connected on Facebook, whose fans include Will Smith, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and occasional collaborator Shirley Bassey. Their 2008 debut album went straight to the top of the classical charts, and they were invited twice in the same year to Buckingham Palace (probably more than the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition Jeremy Corbyn).
Humphrey was the youngest singer in the National Youth Chamber Choir who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and has sung at Glyndebourne. Ollie was in the celebrated Winchester Cathedral Choir and up at Cambridge was in various college choirs before a stint in Florence (which all sounds terribly Room with a View). Stephen, the son of an opera-singing mother and German rock-guitar playing father, attended the London Guildhall of Music.
There have been plenty of crossover acts aka Katherine Jenkins, but what was new about Blake was making a pretty boyband out of classical singers – NSYNC meets Mozart. The result is a mix of classical pieces, patriotic anthems, old favourites from musicals and plenty of stripped down pop.
Were, I ask, serious classical musicians sniffy about Blake dipping a blue-blooded vocal cord into the vulgar world of popular entertainment? “Those who were a bit snooty have had the grace subsequently to say ‘well done’,” says Humphrey. “I left music school quite highbrow. I am the only one in the group who worked as a classical musician and experienced the reality, and its not very romantic. It is rare to be lucky enough to earn a living from it.”
Ollie chips in to recall the rigour required of him as a chorister at prep school: “You do make sacrifices, 25 hours extra a week, seven days a week.
“[The masters] were very good at telling you how professional you were. And when you had been up till 1am singing in the cathedral, one of the masters would have to explain why we hadn’t done our homework.”
He – and his collaborators – have certainly profited from that dedication, but in the modern world of infinite youthful distractions, did he not rebel against this cloistered upbringing? “I didn’t rebel against it, though I was no angel,” he adds hastily. “When I went to big school at 13, I actually felt withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t know what to do with all this free time.”
So all this effort on choir practice, it must have made him religious, no? “Not particularly, but you can’t but help be moved by the spirituality of the music. You are struck by the composer’s faith. I am reasonably religious by modern standards.” Which is setting the bar pretty low. “Indeed!”
He admits he is happy in a “cardy” and would “never put myself in the bracket of a rock star; we do what people want to listen to.”
He has, he says, no desire to be “outrageous.” “And if that is kicking against the norm, it is a norm that needs to be kicked.”
Which is at least honest. They are three well brought up public school boys with a classical training, and they have more fun singing than they would working for Foxtons. “I am not an idealist, there is a calmness to the group, we are just very laid back. We are not rock stars, we don’t make fortunes, so we try to save money on tour – there is no-one picking out a certain colour in the M&Ms.”
So while they are hardly poor, they are not living in rapper opulence, either. “We all have mortgages,” says Ollie. “We are like a small-to medium-sized business with 15 people to pay when we are on tour. And most of what we do is not Wembley at £200 a head, it’s theatres at £20, so do the maths.”
Ollie offers a good line in stories, including how he was caught in a shoot-out in a bank in East Africa. “It seemed to be a weekly occurrence, with bullets flying everywhere between police and this massive guy with a pump action machine gun. It only ended when the robbers ran out of bullets. But perhaps the most terrifying part was that afterwards I told my mother and my sister gave me the most horrendous b*llocking for frightening my mother.”
Similarly, on another African adventure his plane was hit by lightning and suffered a crash landing. For the return journey, no other passengers turned up. “So the pilot said ‘where are you going ultimately?” I replied ‘Zanzibar’, so he said ‘fine, hop in, I’ll take you.’ When I landed there was a red carpet as they were expecting the UN ambassador. Instead the welcoming committee had this British student with a rucksack stepping onto the red carpet.”
Stephen’s upbringing is the least textbook, with his German rock guitarist father and opera-singing mother in Bath which, as he says “probably makes it fairly obvious where I sit in the In/Out debate.
“Both parents pitched their own music, but they both luckily failed,” he laughs. “As artists we cross the divide, some would say awkwardly, but I think as long as the music is performed with emotion, it has validity. The music we do is bloody mindedness. We make the music we want.
“It confounds and annoys record labels. There have been attempts to come up with a word for what we do, and they thought of ‘popsical’.” No wonder they left their record company to start their own.
“But what we have is a passion for music. One of us didn’t have a passion for music,
and he left. When we started playing on football pitches you would have to be a psychotic human being to be nervous in front of 85,000 people. Early on it was hard to stop your hand shaking while holding the microphone, but if you know if you have done it in 30 or 40 stadiums you should be able to do it in the next.
“Many of the songs like I Vow to Thee, My Country and Swing Low Sweet Chariot are very stoic British songs.”
Journalists are used to interviewing tongue-tied singers for whom whatever eloquence they manage in the studio is harder to reprise in the interview room. But these are bright, educated, rather posh boys who deploy the great British weapon of self-deprecation. So Stephen recalls his crush on Keira Knightley and how she wandered into their recording studio and sat down for several minutes before suddenly exclaiming “oh sh*t”, and rushing into the next door studio where she had meant to be all along to record a voice over.
“So I had spent all this time wondering what I would say if I ever met my ideal screen goddess, then the opportunity actually presents itself and I say not a single word.”
Similarly, he talks about his other work (voice overs, modelling) and says: “I wish to be a Jack-of-all-trades, not a master of any.”
As for being quite so middle class, he says: “You can’t shy away from it, or be too apologetic. We had more music on the curriculum of our schools, so more opportunities. But we are not the only ones: look at Coldplay. If they want to pick on you there are a dozen ways, from your looks to your height.”
Ollie agrees. “Lots of people in the pop world are public school, most of the people in record companies. You have to be quite bright. It doesn’t just happen by accident. We were one of the few bands who said ‘no’
to their first contract. The record company were amazed, and said ‘nobody ever actually reads those’.”
Three young men up on stage together: doesn’t that spark ego wars? “None of us are born soloists or want to hold the stage. There is safety in numbers. Our voices compliment each other. Previous members were more worried about the limelight.”
Or as Humphrey says: “If someone tries to take the limelight, they are soon put in their place.” And being stars rather than mega-stars, a pragmatism comes into play. “I am married,” says Humphrey. “I can’t afford not to work. I did musical theatre before and I learned I am quite good at the cheesy stuff. But,” he adds “then I will do Mozart.”
They are, then, decidedly old-fashioned chaps, but that has it appeal out on the concert circuit. “There was an exclusivity back in Shirley Bassey’s day which has gone, I would much rather have been around then,” he says. “I keep being told I need to post more on Twitter, but I am just as happy walking in fields and messing around with old cars.”
Spoken like a true Humphrey: and that, surely, is the appeal.
Blake: ‘Songs of Stage and Screen’ at Clair Hall, Haywards Heath – October 14, 2016.
After reuniting as friends on social media, Humphrey, Ollie and Stephen formed a crossover group and went straight to the top of the classical charts. Not just your average pretty boyband then