We caught up with the much loved tenor ahead of his show at St David’s Hall to talk about Calvin Harris, fatherhood and missing Jean Valjean.
Mechanic, opera singer, international superstar: Alfie Boe has had an unusual career. Best known for playing Jean Valjean in the London and Broadway productions of Les Miserables, the ever-energetic Alfie added yet another string to his Boe by playing the Queen’s 92nd Birthday Party. Indeed, from singing to thousands of children on Blackpool beach to appearing on Michael Parkinson, there aren’t many things this vocal polymath hasn’t done
Boe’s latest album, As Time Goes By, chronicles anthems and arias from the 1930s – arguably an underappreciated musical decade, sitting between the excesses of ragtime and the as yet undiscovered rock ‘n’ roll.
Now he’s announced a new tour kicking off at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18th March, before heading north to Llandudno. He took some time out of his preparations to tell us about longevity, his daughter’s Spotify, and pining for a return to the London stage.
There are four years between your last two solo albums – what prompted your return to the studio?
“I think it’s time for this music to be heard again. It’s music that I grew up listening to, and making an album of it has been on my mind for a long time. Because I’ve been involved with Michael Ball projects for the last two years, and before that Broadway, there’s just been limited opportunity. Now I’ve had my shot to do it, and I’m happy that I had the chance to put this music out.”
You described the album as a homage to your parents – what impact have they had on your musical career?
“My father was my first music teacher – he would tell me about these old artists and the dances that would take place. It was an interesting collection we had back home. The majority was old-fashioned big band guys – the Glenn Millers, the Benny Goodmans, the Tommy Dorseys, and then we had a couple of Cab Calloway albums. I think my dad always tried to make sure that I deeply understood the songs – the periods, the artists – so I really had to educate myself from an early age.”
What is it about the 1930s that appeals to you?
“It was a funny old time. A lot of the songs are very romantic – lush, beautiful, fantastical melodies – performed by some of the iconic figureheads of jazz. The same is true for the scenes that you picture in your head: The ballgowns, tuxedos, bow-ties and slicked back hair, in ballrooms with pristine dance floors and chandeliers.
“But when you delve deeper and cut through all the glamour, you realise that the music had an element of hysteria – of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, freedom and excitement. It wasn’t long after Prohibition. The skirts were shorter, the ties were undone, people were letting loose and basically having a rave.
“People started making records and creating music companies. When you look at it like that, it was the start of the music industry.”
Is that something you particularly enjoy – delving into the historical side of the music?
“I think it’s very important. This is the first time I’ve really decided on a period for the music to come from – because it was such a vibrant time. There was fear but also excitement: The First World War was over, Prohibition was over, but there was also this element of, ‘Oh crap, what’s going to happen next?’ – the feeling that things were going to explode.”
How about your children – have they shown much interest in music? Do they think what you do is cool?
“I’m not cool – I’m their dad! I think they take on board what I do, but they’re 10 and six-years-old, so perhaps they’ll get it later in life. Maybe when they have kids, they can say,
‘This is your grandad, this is what he used to do’.
“They do love music though – my daughter has her own taste and takes control of Spotify when we’re in the car. It’s nice to hear what she’s listening to, what’s inspiring her, and as an adult, you can learn a lot from that. Once you start saying, ‘What’s that rubbish you’re listening to? Turn that off’ – you’re closing your mind to an opportunity to broaden your horizons. I don’t believe you should ever shut down anyone else’s taste.”
What do you think of music today? Do you think it’s lost some of the impact it used to have?
“I think there’s some fantastic artists now. I’m fascinated by the progression of electronic music – we’ve got wonderful people like Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Mark Ronson, being really inventive with that style. I consider them to be modern-day classical composers in a way, because they use hundreds of different types of instrumentation and create sounds from nothing. They’re constantly bringing in new vibes and new sounds.”
And do you enjoy that sort of music?
“I do, I listen to it a lot, actually. And it’s good – it’s as simple as that. It gives you a beat, it can get you on your feet, it can chill you out, it can do all the different things that music is supposed to do. I wouldn’t criticise the modern-day music market. There are so many fantastic singer-songwriters out there that I’d love to work with. I’d love the opportunity to put my flavour of sound onto an electronic track.”
How long do you think you’ll stay in the industry?
“As long as I possibly can! I’m here to entertain, make people feel happy, make a living and look after my family. This is my job and it’s what I was born to do, so while I’m still entertaining – still making people feel that emotion through my songs – I’d like to keep doing it.”
Do you miss being in Les Miserables, and would you do it again?
“To be honest, I do. I was in London recently with my wife and kids – we went to dinner with a couple of friends, and then went to a hotel for hot chocolate. It was about 7.15 or 7.30 at night and I felt that buzz of all the theatres getting ready to do their shows – I felt ready to go, ready to perform. So yes, I do miss Les Mis; I miss putting on that costume, embracing that character, and walking out on stage and telling that story. I’d love to play the role again. I’m not sure if I’m too old now, but if the opportunity to do it was there, I probably would.”
An Evening with Alfie Boe As Time Goes By, Monday 18th March, St David’s Hall,