In the week that Alfie Boe's new album Serenata is released I caught up with James Morgan, conductor and producer (with Juliette Pochin) of Serenata for this exclusive interview.
I have previously interviewed James in regard to the Parkinson's charity concert, SymFunny. Earlier this year James decided to go public with his diagnosis of early onset Parkinsons disease after initially keeping it quiet. The music and comedy evening, to raise both awareness and funds, was hosted by Al Murray, the orchestra was conducted by James and featured artists included, apart from Alfie of course!, Armstrong and Miller, Jane Horrocks and Juliette Pochin. Click here to see more details of the evening and donate.
Q: How did you come to be involved with Serenata?
A: We were asked! We'd done Alfie's first two albums for Decca - Bring Him Home and Alfie, and we've known Alfie a long time, so it was very nice to be asked to return for Serenata.
Q: Alfie fans know you through your work with him - tell me about your career other than Alfie Boe. How did you get started as a conductor?
A: I started conducting at school, and first worked professionally at English National Opera, where I was on the staff for a few years. After that I went freelance, and Juliette and I started our music production company together with some TV theme tunes (Kumars at no 42!!!). We have produced lots of different artists and as well as record producing, we also do music for movies; most recently we were in Morocco working on a Ridley Scott production and last year we did the music production for Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet. We also compose classical commissions. Last year our new guide to the orchestra for families, The Great Enormo received its South Bank premiere.
Q: Who was it who first worked with Alfie - you, Juliette or a joint project?
A: Juliette first worked with Alfie down at Grange Park Opera more years ago than either of them would care to remember! She then suggested we worked with Alfie to try to get a record deal, so we flew out to New York to record him and to fix auditions for him with the record companies. None of that worked out at the time for various reasons, so it was lovely ten years later to be asked to produce his first album for Decca!
Q: Moving on to Serenata, can you describe the recording process with Alfie and then with the orchestra in Denmark?
A: We recorded for four days at SARM - a legendary studio where the BAND AID single was recorded, amongst many other things - with Alfie and his band, then once we'd put all that together we flew to Copenhagen and did more recording with DR's chamber orchestra. They'd also played on Bring Him Home and Alfie so it seemed very appropriate to work with them on this.
Q: What was the thought process behind adding the strings?
A: The idea was to enhance the sound of the band with the warmth of the strings to make a lush, cinematic sound whilst not detracting from a very real, Italian sound.
Q: Who chose the musicians and how did you decide how to arrange the songs for them?
A: Alfie already had his band - Murray, Matt and John Tonks - to which we added Eddie Hession on accordion and Andy Tolman on bass, and the arrangements grew from the rehearsal period before we recorded anything.
Q: So, given that there was rehearsal time, how much was there and how did this differ from Bring Him Home and Alfie?
A: BHH was recorded from start to finish in two weeks and we were giving music to Alfie at the sessions! Similarly for the Alfie album there was no rehearsal, but I think we had a little more time to record, but not a lot. This time we had the luxury of a week's rehearsal - unheard of!
Q: Who chose the songs - as conductor / producer how much say do you have in that?
A: The songs were chosen with a bit of bartering! - we don't get too involved in that side of things, but we make suggestions too.
Q: A very diplomatic answer! Can you talk us through the process of producing an album? What happens after the music has been recorded?
A: Once the music is recorded there's an editing process, choosing the best takes, editing between them, tidying everything up, adding any further production. Then it's to mixing - we often mix in Copenhagen, as we did for this album, which has a lovely setup including lots of vintage equipment which add a lovely, natural warmth to the overall sound. Finally there's mastering, which is a dark art in this case performed by the legendary Tony Cousins - it's the equivalent of adding a final shiny gloss coat of paint!
Q: Moving away from Serenata, you toured with Alfie on the Bring Him Home tour - what was the funniest thing happened?
A: The percussion brothers, Owen and Tim Gunnell, found an ice cream mobile stall which one of them sat in and the other round the auditorium while Alfie tried to sing O Sole Mio......
Q: Any disasters on the tour?
A: No such thing as a disaster in music - just a new interpretation! (although breaking down on the M1 comes close).
Q: Thank you for your time, James, can you tell us about any future projects you both have lined up?
A: Weirdly, we are working on something which we've actually signed a non disclosure agreement for, so we can't talk about that except to say it is with a huge name in the music industry. We're also currently working on a musical tv show for kids, and writing a big choral classical commission.
Serenata is available now on Decca Records.
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