Kerry Ellis: 5 vocalists that blew my mind
On new album Golden Days, Kerry Ellis once again proves herself as a terrifyingly talented all-rounder of a singer.
Ellis first broke into the music industry as a theatrical powerhouse, providing show-stopping vocals for West End production My Fair Lady through the back-end of the ‘90s and into the early ‘00s.
It was at this point that Ellis caught the ear of Brian May. She then landed the role of Meat in Queen’s jukebox musical We Will Rock You, before going on to impress in a slew of shows - including Miss Saigon, Les Misérables and, most notably, Wicked.
As she established herself as one of the West End and Broadway’s hottest properties, she remained in contact with May and in 2010 the pair worked together on her debut solo album, Anthems.
Seven years on and the duo are back with Golden Days, an album split between original recordings and reworked versions of tracks as diverse as Amazing Grace and Parisienne Walkways.
“I don’t think we planned to come in and say, ‘Right, we’re going to do these songs,’” Ellis says on the eclectic mix of material. “It was organic. Some of the covers have come to us along the way.
“For instance, I Who Have Nothing - we went to Italy and performed at a huge festival and played with an Italian singer called Irene. That song then became very poignant to us and we had to put it onto the album.
“Then you have Born Free: we have worked a bit with Virginia McKenna, who is the founder of the [wildlife charity] Born Free Foundation, and we have gone over to South Africa and experienced a little bit of that and done some work over there. So we went on to do a version of Born Free that is completely different to the original version. It’s very special to us and it was a natural progression for that to go onto the album.”
And how about the original material, we wonder: was it a case of sending ideas back and forth over email, as is so often the case in 2017?
“Some of it developed on tour, some of it we have performed live on tour, some happened in the studio,” Ellis responds.
“Brian might bring in an idea and some lyrics or just a riff and a melody and we would develop it together… and then some of it just came over email!”
It seems that Ellis and May have formed quite the working relationship, bouncing ideas off each other in the studio and developing an unmistakable chemistry on stage.
“Brian is great to work with. He does have ideas to push me in certain directions which I might not think of initially. Some things work and some things don’t work. He might suggest something and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ and it will turn out great and become one of my favourite parts of the song.
“He has a great ear as well and he encourages me to try different things. He thinks like a singer sometimes which is very helpful as well.”
As Ellis’s profile has shot skywards, she admits that connecting with her audience has been a welcome product of her knack of belting out incredible performances.
“I get people telling me that they saw me in Wicked or on Broadway or whatever and it is lovely to have an impact on people, especially with young people and when children tell me that I inspired them to sing. That is lovely because it means that you have had an impact on somebody. Especially now that I am a parent, knowing that you can have an effect on another generation is wonderful.”
This brings us onto the meat of today’s discussion with Kerry, as we charge her with the task of picking out the vocalists that had the biggest impact on her. Her eclectic fab five of vocal powerhouses, pop royalty and singer-songwriter sensations follow…
Golden Days is out now.
1. Ed Sheeran
“Ed Sheeran at the moment is massive and he knows how to write a song. But I like him because of the simplicity that he brings.
“He brings a great song and it’s just him, his guitar playing and his voice. That is very much what Brian and I do and that is lovely. It’s simple. It reaches people because people listen to his vocal and connect with it.
“Perhaps we don’t have artists like Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson that are truly iconic any more, but we do have some absolutely massive stars like Ed Sheeran and Adele.
“It is very brave to do what Ed does and play Wembley with just his voice and a guitar. But, it’s a massive payoff because you can’t get a ticket to see him now - everyone has gone crazy for him.”
“Beyoncé is a big favourite of mine. I think she is just incredible. Her voice is an instrument that can blow people’s minds. Like Ed Sheeran, she is also incredibly creative. I’m a big fan.
“She keeps on reinventing herself. Over the last 10 years, the different kinds of music that she has put out is incredible and she seems to get it right every single time and come up with a massive song or a massive album.
“She does that even without a lot of build-up; her music just comes and smacks us in the face and takes over the world. She is an incredible performer and for me that is what it is all about. To see somebody do what they do live is just magic.
“I realise that Ed Sheeran to Beyonce is a big swing, and there will [be an even bigger swing] as I go on with my choices [laughs].”
3. Freddie Mercury
“I like people that sound very real and people that you can associate with. For me, when it comes to vocalists, Freddie has to be up there.
“Freddie was so raw and he reached so many people. People perhaps don’t realise why and how he did that. Yes, he was a massive showman, but he also seemed to speak directly to people through his vocals.
“I was very young when I met Brian - I was on another show and he asked me to come audition for We Will Rock You. I guess it was daunting [to sing Freddie’s vocal parts] but I knew what the show was all about. I knew that it was the music of Queen.
“It was a little daunting singing a song where the writer is sat right in front of you. In that situation you have to be respectful and just do the best that you can.
“But I saw that as a privilege rather than being a daunting experience. It is more daunting when I look back on it now. At the time I just felt that it was an opportunity and a privilege to sing that song in front of that person. It was a good thing as opposed to something that I was terrified of.”
4. Michael Jackson
“Michael Jackson has to be in this list. Like Freddie, he is one of those talents that just blew people’s minds.
"He was somebody who could get into people’s hearts and also get into their soul through his music. Michael and Freddie were the complete package.”
5. Liza Minnelli
“Liza is another big one for me. She was a big one for me when I was growing up because of her theatricality. Again, she had a rawness in her voice.
“I saw her about five years ago and her voice probably isn’t quite what it used to be back in the day, but I still felt every lyric and every word with her. That is because she is a true performer and she knows how to speak to an audience.
“People like Liza Minnelli influenced me in terms of going into theatre, but the reason I sing the way I do now is because I had so many different influences when I was growing up. That meant that there wasn’t really a clear path for me.
“I wasn’t the type of person who would sit around playing an instrument and trying to write a song. That wasn’t natural for me; I was natural on the stage and wanting to perform. Now that has changed slightly over the years.
“I met Brian when I was on My Fair Lady, which was my first West End show. So, I have had these parallel careers that have swerved in and out of each other. I’ve done big shows alongside a recording career.
“It has been a gradual change rather than a big shock and major adjustment to my vocal style. I have learned so much along the way and I am still learning about how to perform and how to relate to an audience. As a musician, you are blossoming, learning and improving every day.”