When you think of choirmaster Gareth Malone, a controversial and particularly aggressive hip-hop act out of California probably isn’t the first thing you’d associate him with.
But on his new album, Voices, recorded with a hand-picked choir of 16 young people from around the country, he has covered a Death Grips track called Guillotine.
However, the choice of song is typical of Gareth’s approach – he’s always keen to find new ways to widen the appeal of singing.
Gareth explains: ‘That was our producer, David Kosten. It wasn’t a song I knew, but the whole point of the project is to do things that choirs don’t normally do in a mainstream sort of way.
‘He said let’s do something completely out there, and he suggested this crazy track that he’s a bit obsessed with.
‘It’s a free interpretation of it, not nearly as scary as the original.
‘But it was really fun to record, and I think it’s quite beautiful.’
Other tracks on Voices include covers of Keane, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver as well as guest solos from Lianne La Havas, Amber Le Bon and Fyfe Dangerfield of Guillemots.
And for the past couple of weeks the choir and Gareth (pictured right) have been on tour – Gareth’s first. They’re due in Portsmouth next week.
‘It’s going really well,’ he says, ‘we’re having a great reaction, I think we’ve had standing ovations in every venue and we’ll keep working for it.
‘We’re taking nothing for granted.
‘It’s a fun show and I think the audience are appreciating the varied repertoire. There are lots of chances to get up and sing and join in. It’s a bit like a relaxed workshop atmosphere – it’s not like a formal concert.’
Although Gareth is now used to fronting successful TV shows that see him attempting to build a choir in sometimes challenging circumstances, performing every night in front of audiences of more than 1,000 has provided its own challenges. And none more so than Gareth showing off his own singing voice during the show.
He says: ‘Just before the first night I went down with an horrendous cold and cough that’s only just clearing up.
‘By the time I get to Portsmouth I should be in good voice.’
Gareth adds: ‘It’s a singing night, I’m just encouraging everyone to sing along, so I thought it would be fun for people to see that I can get through a song too.’
Gareth got his big break after he was approached by a production company which was looking to make a show about singing in schools. While researching online, they came across his name. They called the London Symphony Orchestra, his then employer, and he took the leap.
But no-one involved had any idea just how popular the show would prove to be. Six series, numerous specials, guest appearances all over the place, and a huge charity single later, it seems things worked out pretty well.
Reflecting on his career, Gareth recalls: ‘Quite early on, just starting out after university, and getting my first job working in theatre, a director said to me ‘‘adapt and survive’’. I thought that’s a really good motto.
‘And that’s what I’ve tried to do – think how can I adapt myself to that opportunity, or adapt that opportunity to me?
‘I don’t think that I had that clear a path. I knew I wanted to do creative stuff, I’ve always been an ideas person. I never wanted to do things that conventionally I suppose.’
And it’s that thinking that has led him to where he is now.
‘I hated the thought that someone else would do The Choir and I would end up watching it, thinking “that’s the show I was offered”. You have to take these opportunities.’
With a brace of Baftas and an international Emmy under his belt, Gareth isn’t one to rest on his laurels though.
‘It’s great to win those awards, but for me the real attraction is working with choirs, and that’s why the tour is so much fun.
‘I’m on the road with these great singers and we’re constantly working, trying to get better and developing, which is the bit I really enjoy.’
Perhaps his best-known success was The Choir: Military Wives series and the subsequent platinum-selling and Christmas 2011 number one single Wherever You Are.
‘I didn’t think much beyond the series’ says Gareth, ‘and I think everyone involved thought it was an important thing to do.
‘I think it was that first performance in Barnstaple’s Pannier Market where about 800 people turned up and it was just unbelievable, that’s when we thought it could be something bigger.
‘We were expecting about 50-60 people, some friends and whoever was shopping. And it wasn’t just “that bloke off the telly”, it was absolutely because of them. The support they had was so evident. It was extraordinary.’
Gareth’s enthusiasm for what he does is clear.
He says: ‘I don’t think that it’s necessarily true you can make anyone into a great singer, but you can certainly iron out problems.
‘There are usually reasons why – people make basic mistakes, be it posture or breathing, or expression or whatever it is, and relatively quickly you can make great improvements.
‘The hardest part can often be just starting getting people to sing. Sing me a song. It doesn’t matter what style you’re singing, I want to hear a voice.’
Gareth Malone: The Live Tour is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Tuesday. Doors open 7.30pm, and tickets cost £22 to £36 from portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call 0844 847 2362, which is open 24 hours a day.