Gareth Malone is staring at an elaborate afternoon tea menu when his face twists with disgust. It’s not the sarnies, his eyes seek out an impassive looking man sitting at a grand piano (“oh my god, that piano is blue,” Malone hisses) emoting his way through a frothy arrangement of Richard Marx’s song Hazard. Malone’s not being snooty, it is terrible music. For a moment I think he might not be able to stand it – and then he starts to sing.
“I swear I left her by the river. I swear I left her safe and sound,” he hams. If I had asked you to sing, I tell him, you would’ve refused. And I’d never have guessed that all it would take to prompt you was a bit of middle of the road pop. He smiles and looks back at the menu. “Are you eating? I am starving.”
In the seven years since Gareth Malone first appeared on our TV screens, presenting The Choir, he’s been transformed from baby-faced choirmaster into newly hirsute national treasure. (Full disclosure – his beard looks less manscaped than on the telly and he suits it.) His programmes have bagged a slew of awards – Baftas and an Emmy amongst others – and last year’s Military Wives Choir turned him, and them, into a phenomenon, complete with X-Factor beating Christmas number one. Malone’s got the magic touch and he’s busier than ever. And now there’s a new project too.
Voices, an album of choral reworkings of tracks by Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Fleetwood Mac and Radiohead amongst others is Malone’s first foray into reinventing choral music by way of pop songs and sophisticated production. There are the close harmonies and cathedral style that you’d expect of any classical choir, but the repertoire and the performance style is aimed squarely at a young audience. Malone is on a mission. It makes sense for a boy who was “bullied mercilessly” at school for his love of singing.
‘Strange but brilliant’
“Unbelievable” is the word that he uses to describe the position he finds himself in. “I’m forever sitting with my wife and we’re like ‘how did we get here?’ We had a conversation back at the start when we discussed whether we were going to go for this or not, knowing that there was a chance that it could take off. And now I’m here on the front of the Radio Times. It’s strange but it’s brilliant. All my problems are nice problems to have and all my days are interesting. I get to sit and talk to you about me. Ridiculous. But every day I get up and I get to think about music and that’s all I ever wanted really. If I could talk to my 14-year-old self that would be the dream.”
Malone has taught singing to stroppy boys in a comprehensive, only slightly less stroppy surgeons in an NHS hospital and is currently on telly working with staff of Citi (the multinational banking empire), P&O Ferries and Cheshire Fire and Rescue Services amongst others as part of The Choir: Sing While You Work. He is basically a one man choir-forming machine – there are now more than 80 military wives ensembles across the world inspired by what Malone created with the women in Devon – and he’s responsible for a massive increase in community choirs across the country. Even the 17 members of Voices, all musically trained, were chosen via a Kitchener-style recruitment process that elicited more than 800 applications.
“I think the album is great and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for ages,” he says. “I wanted it to be a choir singing great songs because I was forever in schools talking about music and there was no choir I could point to and say ‘listen to them, they do Alicia Keys and Bon Iver. They’re young’.”
Voices might be a commercial project with trained musicians, but Malone says that his task of shaping them into a choir and creating the sound that he wanted is just like when he’s working with the amateur choirs that feature in his programmes. “It’s about persuading,” he says. “That’s the chief job of a conductor. Persuasion and for me, working with young people, there’s always an element of saying – and this is especially true for working with young people who’ve been through the system and can read music – that is not enough. I’ve had to work really hard with Voices to help them to deliver a performance that’s convincing and moving.” This, he says, is much less arduous with amateurs, who often arrive with their own reason for wanting to sing. “It’s why on the X-Factor, the ‘overs’ are always the ones with the story,” he says, “because they’ve lived. You don’t have that with an 18-year-old. But what I do have with these guys is talent and freshness.”
Nice, but not too nice
If you’re anything like me, then you are most likely unable to watch an episode of The Choir (and I’ve watched all of them) without instantly wanting to join one. The fact that I haven’t is beside the point and also what probably keeps me watching series after series. After all, if I was getting the benefit of belting out songs myself chances are I wouldn’t want to watch a bunch of firefighters from Cheshire doing the same. What Malone does and what makes it so compelling is both simple and complicated. In part, it’s just that singing is joyous, even when it’s a bit ropey. Watching people transform from nervous, off key, whisperers into being able to sing their hearts out in front of huge audiences is heartwarming and not a little bit emotional. They are changed. And if you can’t feel moved by that then I humbly suggest to you that there’s a lump of granite in your left chest cavity. And then there’s the more complicated part too – Malone manages to lead all of this emotional exploration and transformation without being gooey or creepy, without milking it or micromanaging it. He was once described as as “a human tuning fork,” able to judge the right approach with each individual and I honestly can’t think of a better description than that.
The thing about Malone is that he’s nice. But he’s not too nice. Yes, he coaxes and cajoles amazing performances from very nervous amateur singers, but he’s not sickly sweet, he’s not really sweet at all. There are no histrionics, he wasn’t even very keen on Wherever You Are, the song which landed the Military Wives Choir with last year’s Christmas number one because of the sentimentality of the lyric which was made up of phrases from letters sent between the wives and their husbands who were on active duty in Afghanistan. Malone is tough and that’s why we like him.
“Whenever I perform for TV there’s a last minutey thing about it so I’ve developed a fairly strong spine,” he says. “I think if people knew how close to the wire it is, they’d be pretty horrified. And of course I can’t crack because I’ve got a choir standing in front of me who’re looking to me to hold it together.”
And hold it together he does. Malone may look like a dandy in his array of coloured slacks and tank tops – he’s camp enough to have a huge gay following as well as being housewife’s choice – but there’s something steely about him too. There is no doubt that he is single-minded and driven, albeit in a bow tie.
An only child, Malone grew up in London until he was 10, when his parents, James and Sian, who met at their local Gilbert and Sullivan society, decided to move their family to Bournemouth. Malone’s dad, originally from Parkhead, is the reason for his son’s willingness to sing in front of an audience. Malone snr is a Scot with an ‘everyone should have a party piece’ mentality and his son lapped it up. Malone’s mum, Sian, worked in M&S and then in the civil service. She had studied music as a child and played Vivaldi on the stereo to her bump while she was pregnant with her son. It worked because Malone has, he says, always loved music. At university he studied drama and then pursued vocal studies at the Royal Academy of Music. While he studied, he worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, eventually running the LSO St Luke’s community and youth choirs. It was that job that led to him being spotted for a television programme being made about encouraging boys to sing. It was a winning formula and apart from a brief foray into using his skills to help boys engage with school more generally, which didn’t really work, Malone has stuck with it.
“I think it could be anyone, any choir master,” he says. “I’m not being falsely modest – I think I bring something to the table – but it’s the experience of singing that actually impacts on people. If I didn’t have that, it’d be nothing.”
He stays in touch with the choirs that he works with, he says. There are plans for another project with the Military Wives Choir next year. As an over-invested viewer who wants to believe that what happens between Malone and the choirs is more than televisual trickery, I tell him that I’m pleased. He rolls his eyes.
“I get so many tweets about it,” he says. “People saying, ‘of course, Gareth Malone just abandons his choirs’, which is annoying because I don’t know where they get their information from.”
He does sound genuinely peeved.
“I give each series six or nine months of my life. So reading or hearing people say ‘oh Gareth is hardly ever there with the people’ is like ‘sorry? you want me to spend more time?’”
“It’s a long, intense process. With the Military Wives I lived in Devon with my family while I worked with them. This time, I couldn’t move my family. My wife’s just had a baby so they stayed put and I trooped around the country.”
Malone’s wife, Becky, is an English teacher in a London comprehensive. The couple have a daughter, Esther, who is three. Their son, Gilbert, was born in May. “In fact, it’s his seven month birthday today,” he says, checking the date on his phone. I can tell that he’s delighted, but Malone is no pushover – he’s charming company, but there’s no sense at all that he’s about to spill his emotional guts while nibbling his sandwiches and drinking his tea. He does admit, though, the fact that his career reaching a new level coinciding with his new baby being born has been a strain. He describes the last year as “an extraordinary juggling act” and says that he can’t wait for Christmas; with no chart success to be dealing with this year, he’s planning a proper rest. It’s true, he’s looking a little less polished and a little more ruffled round the edges than he appears on the box, but the most striking thing about him is that he seems to be a man doing exactly what he wants to do.
“The thing that has fuelled me and that I always get really excited about is the stuff like earlier today when I was looking at repertoire with a friend of mine who is a music academic,” he says. “We were sorting out repertoire for a concert next year and it was really fun. Doing that or being with Voices and rehearsing. The bit of just being in the room and saying, ‘OK, tenors sort that note out, basses, do this’. It’s really fun.”
As for the national treasure stuff, he’s much less convinced. “It’s all very gratifying and lovely and thank you very much, but you know that there’s a flipside. So even when people are saying Gareth Malone is so much better than sliced bread, you know there’s a point when they’re going to be saying something else. I’d rather have people say they like the programme than blow hot smoke – I can’t bear it.”
Liberace at the blue piano takes a turn for the maudlin and Malone looks appalled. “This music is tragic,” he says. “It’s killing me.” The geezer tickling the ivories seems to sense it because he starts playing The Entertainer. “You know, when I’m doing interviews I always ask to go somewhere with no music. It just interrupts my train of thought because I start thinking ‘what’s this?’. So now I’m thinking of my parents’ copy of Scott Joplin and what the cover smelt like when I was about eight.”
We’ve gone way past our allotted time, and sandwiches eaten and tea drunk, Malone must to head off for an afternoon of radio interviews. As I pack up, I admit to myself that I had worried that Malone was going to be a bit too full of himself to be likeable. I couldn’t have been more wrong. And the reason is simple. He actually said it: “If I was not making TV and I was not making CDs, I’d be in a cold hall somewhere with a group of singers trying to make them better,” he says. “What else am I going to do? What else would I want to do?”
• Gareth Malone Voices is out now on Decca (www.garethmalonevoices.com), £29 for the limited edition CD album and songbook. Voices play the Usher Hall on May 31, 2014. The Choir: Sing While You Work is on BBC2, Mondays, 9pm.