The UK’s queen of soul, Beverley Knight, talks royal awards, recessions and racial stereotypes
Your Dubai gig is happening this week. Should we expect the classic hits or stuff from your new album, 100%? I’m not one to go on stage and neglect the songs that enabled me to get up there in the first place, so it’ll be a (hopefully seamless) mixture of old and new. It’ll be bloody lively, I can promise you that!
Tell us about the new album. This one harks back to [second and third albums] Prodigal Sista and Who I Am in that it’s a contemporary-sounding record, as opposed to Music City Soul, which was more of an old-school, back-to-basics soul album. It’s a happy-sounding record; going through the recession was bloody hard work and I wanted something that would make people smile.
Your fourth album was Affirmation, which got some negative press for moving away from an ‘urban’ sound and towards pop, with elements of rock. Did you feel like people were dictating the music you could play based on the colour of your skin? Whenever people ask about influences, I always say Prince; he’s been my absolute hero since I was tiny, and his vision of music was – for want of a better word – multi-racial. He did what he did, irrespective of whether it was what someone with black skin or white skin should be doing, just as Rick James did, just like Sly and the Family Stone did with their multi-racial group. I carried that same attitude into my own work and, for me, the idea that someone should say, ‘Because you’re black, you shouldn’t have a guitar-based song in your heart to write,’ is pathetic. It’s insulting, demeaning and goes against everything that music stands for.
Yeah, to say that the colour of your skin should limit your musical ambitions – after all, Hendrix was one of the greatest rock guitarists in the world. Frequently the people who make those observations are the so-called music critics, who are supposed to be open-minded. It’s never the other artists – they don’t feel like that. Which is why NERD and Lenny Kravitz make music that some folk would say ought to be the preserve of white people, and Joss Stone makes music that’s associated with black people. It really is a bugbear of mine. It’s so insulting. And most of those comments came from those critics who write specifically about black music, which is disappointing because their very history should tell them that you wouldn’t have your Satrianis if it wasn’t for the existence of Hendrix, you know what I mean? Come on!
You started Hurricane Records last year; wasn’t that a risk in a recession? Some people might think that I’m mad, but I’m not starting up a business in a traditional sense. I didn’t need to get any start-up money, and the ‘product’ – me! – that I’m selling is already established. So all I really had to do was make sure that the music was good.
You’ve achieved a lot of awards and nominations, including a Member of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. Did that change anything for you? I hesitated as to whether to accept the MBE because I thought that people would be like, ‘You’re part of the establishment now!’ But I was never Rage Against the Machine or The Smiths or The Clash, so in that respect it didn’t really matter. But in another respect, I didn’t want to be seen as someone whose music should only be enjoyed by people in their twilight years. Some people’s perceptions changed, perhaps, but most people were really glad for me. I’ve stood the test of time and there’s a lot of respect for what I do, and I’m really grateful for it. The quality’s still there, because if the quality plummets you can’t expect anyone to think anything but, ‘Well, you’re really crap now.’ And that’s the way it should be. But that’s not part of the plan.
Good to know you’re not planning a catastrophic career-ender. Do you ever worry about losing the ability to write good songs? Well, you bin the stuff that isn’t great anyway, and most decent songwriters know when they’re on to something that’s half decent. In terms of getting inspiration to write songs, I’m not the Beyoncé level of star so I can live an ordinary life. If I was removed from that, my songs would suffer. That would be more of a worry: being so removed that I lose touch.