How are you feeling about the new album ‘The Performance’?
I’m ecstatic. I never thought it would turn out this way. It’s more than I ever dared hope it would be. 11 fantastic songs written for me by 11 different writers. I don’t know, it’s a different voice, there’s parts of my voice I never used before, a ‘head’ voice, and this quiet calm. Because everybody associates me with belting ‘Goldfinger,’ and it’s more or less true. But my vocal coach said I had this head voice and this lovely softness, but I never used it and she said I should. On this album, it came out. I think people are going to be confused by it, they’ll say ‘Where did these notes come from?’ because they all associate me with the big voice, but there’s a control on this record that’s incredible.
You have a vocal coach, then?
Yes. Not singing so much nowadays, whenever I have to sing I go to her just to check that I’m doing it right, and it gives me confidence.People think pop singers shouldn’t do that, that it’s only for opera singers. Not at all. Every morning, for half an hour, I would vocalise before going into the studio to record my new album.
It’s been more than 20 years since your last studio album of all-new songs. Had you felt that the material being presented to you wasn’t right?
Well, not only that. I’d really retired, to tell you the truth, and I was just coming out for special occasions. These writers have brought me back. Only that could have done it, and it was a challenge, because you wouldn’t have thought they were my songs. I took them on holiday with me, and I would say ‘I can’t do this, they’re too difficult.’ But I was listening to the way the writers were singing them, and trying to sing in their key, which never helps. It wasn’t until I actually went into the studio, with a piano, and put my voice on, that I started to get excited. I could hear myself.
There are a lot of lyrics appropriate to your life on the album. One of the most personal is the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘The Girl From Tiger Bay’. How did you feel when you heard that song and read the lyric for the first time?
Very emotional. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, because I felt ‘it’s too personal.’ But then they’re all personal. But there’s something about Tiger Bay, naturally, because I’m from there, that is terribly personal. These writers have got inside my head to write these songs. At the end, I heard someone sobbing, and I didn’t realise it was me. I love this record.
How was David Arnold to work with?
He’s very gentle, he lets you find your own way. He’s very cool, very laid back, otherwise he would have made me very nervous, but he put me completely at ease. David was great to be with, and I love him for allowing my music director, Mike Dixon, to be there, to help me, because Mike knows me.
You recorded the album at a lodge studio in Ireland, didn’t you?
In the country, yes. I thought ‘Oh, it’s going to be lovely,’ and it rained every day! But we stayed there, ate there, slept there and recorded there, and it was great fun, in spite of the rain.It was great fun to be all together. After the day’s work we were able to go to the dining room and have dinner and then play games together. Oh, and then there was the pub. I became a great barmaid.
Did you ever expect still to be an entertainer at this stage of your life?
I’ve been on this wave ever since I was discovered and I can’t get off. It was like I was meant to do it. Even when I had my first job in a factory, and I was wrapping up enamelware for export, I’d just sing, and people would stop working. The supervisor would say ‘Bassey, what do you think you’re doing? All of you, get back to work.’ The whole factory would stop. I didn’t realise what I was doing.
How different is it for young pop stars emerging now, compared to when you were starting in the mid−1950s?
These days, if kids do get discovered, it’s sad, it’s not lasting, because they’re not taken care of. I was taken care of. They’re instant stars, they can’t handle it, and the inevitable happens, they turn to drugs and drink. My audience grew up with me, and introduced me to their children, and their children. So in the end I have a family audience.
How do you go about preparing your live set?
I get a great kick out of that. You have to have a beginning, middle and an end, then the other songs fall in between. I find that so exciting, to put an act together, to find songs. You lift them but you can’t keep doing that, or you break them. The next song, you must bring them down gently.
So how are you feeling about the Electric Proms show?
That’s going to be another challenge, and I love a challenge. You make it creative. What I’m looking forward to is performing songs from the new album for the first time, that really will be a special moment. It’s very interesting rehearsing, to find out which song should follow another. I find that exciting, building a new show.
Is there one song on the record that you particularly love?
I love all of them. But the Pet Shop Boys’ song (“The Performance of My Life”) got right into my head, and made me sob, and not many songs do that. When I heard that, after doing all the other songs, it was just too much for me. I don’t need to write a book. The record is my autobiography.