Interview with Julian Ovenden

Mimi ON May 09, 2012 AT 12:00 pm

 

Julian Ovenden

By Chrissy Iley

The room is filled with love and awe for Julian Ovenden – he’s just performed songs from his album If You Stay. It’s the kind of easy listening that demands attention. His voice pierces your heart. We are in the ballroom of a stylish Knightsbridge hotel.

We know Ovenden mostly from the long running series Foyle’s War where he plays the handsome pilot son of Michael Kitchen’s Foyle. He has also starred in The Forsyte Saga, been a steamy Diet Coke man, and appeared in various Broadway and West End productions, most recently in  2008 opposite Ruthie Henshall in Marguerite.

But who knew of his vast charisma and the way he has taken songs from the Sixties and made them so strikingly different? When he sings You Made Me So Very Happy it is with a brooding and demanding machismo. When you think of the theme tune to the Thomas Crown Affair – Windmills of your Mind – think of Steve McQueen himself if he were singing it. This is a voice of a man who has been wounded but who can take care of things.

Yet his life doesn’t appear to have been a struggle at all. He is the son of Canon John Ovenden, the chaplain to the Queen. His life has been charmed with a scholarship to St. Paul’s as a chorister and then a scholarship to Eton and Oxford.

When we meet for tea and scones at the Fortnum’s café I am faced with intelligence, charm and humility – no sense of entitlement.

The album If You Stay is not out until April 23 but feedback from those in the industry who have heard it has been encouraging. So much so that when Foyle’s War returns to TV screens it probably will be without Ovenden.

Imagine a more manly Michael Bublé, a more melodic Dean Martin. Imagine songs that are known to be soft and Sixties suddenly given muscle and power.

Easy listening is a term that is often used incorrectly. It’s not the music you hear in a lift or something that you can drive to or eat to. It’s music that can be both foreground and background. I want this music to add to what you’re doing, not just blend into it.

‘It seems a contradiction in terms to be saying that I’ve been pushing the boundaries of easy listening, but we’ve been amazingly experimental. It’s music from the classic era. Tunes that are traditionally gentle, but we’ve not made them vanilla. I want to get the passion across. I feel it’s about being the gentleman of song. You listen to those singers of the sixties and there’s something about them that makes you stop in your tracks. For instance the song If You Go Away. There’s something emotionally captivating about that song. And there’s a depth to this material which might not be there generally in today’s pop music. Y<strong>ou can sing these songs with unashamed, unapologetic emotion.’

One wonders about this Old Etonian going against the emotional grain. Is he good at expressing emotion? Or perhaps he needs these songs as the vehicle to do it?

‘Good question. I think I’ve got better at it. But going through the education system I went through – I don’t think you can go to boarding school and come out of that experience without feeling a little repressed – yes, it does leave its mark on you. That’s why I got into acting: the only occasion I could meet girls. Going to drama school knocked some corners off me and definitely makes you much more expressive. You have to be as an actor and musician that’s your lifeblood.’

In person Ovenden has a hint of vulnerability, but only a hint. A perfectly chiselled jaw line and a warm rich voice. He is 35. His good skin makes him look younger but when he talks he seems older and wiser.

‘I don’t think I was necessarily shy or needed to sublimate myself into a character to deal with my emotions, I just felt the opportunity was there and I didn’t have the tools to go about approaching girls and talking to them. Also I think in my generation it was different. Guys these days are now invited to show their feelings more. It’s not so much of a big deal to cry in public. It’s more accepted. Twenty years ago you would have found no one doing it. Now we are encouraged to be in touch with our feminine side, including to the point of actually being apologetic about our masculine side.’

His album of 1960s songs has come together to address a need in him to present the masculine. Some of them are Rat Pack songs that could have been sung by the ultimate hard man who could embrace sentimentality – Frank Sinatra.

Easy listening shouldn’t be passive listening. ‘It is possible to be romantic, show passion for the material but be at the same time have machismo and the old school glamour of Cary Grant. I like to think of the music as Technicolor, trying to seduce the audience.’

We talk about the kind of films from that era that he likes, which seem to involve the macho hero type like Sinatra and McQueen. ‘The kind of guys who are not afraid of being guys. And that doesn’t mean to say they were chauvinistic or sexist. They were just guys and that’s certainly part of the music.’ They chose to record the album in the studio in New York where murdered rapper Tupac Shakur used to record which seems to have given it a grittier harder edge.

Nothing about Ovenden is predictable or clichéd. He insists that he is not posh and his parents were not posh despite his St. Paul’s, Eton, Oxford education.

‘I wasn’t aware of class until I got to Eton and then it becomes more apparent about status and wealth I suppose is what it comes down to. There were lords, earls, dukes and princes, but because my father was a vicar you sort of defy a class label. My parents were never pushy, never ever. They wanted to give me the best education I could get and I showed musical inclination so they helped me pursue that avenue. I got a scholarship to choir school at St. Paul’s and a scholarship to Eton.’

When he was growing up his father may indeed have been just a vicar. For most of his life his father was based in Primrose Hill, but in 1996 he became the royals’ vicar. His father had to audition for the job of chaplain to the Queen.

They fly people to Balmoral to spend a weekend with the Queen so that she has a chance to get to know them and make some kind of decision. They were due to fly up and a week half earlier Diana died.  My parents assumed they were going to be cancelled, but they were not. They were phoned to say it was going ahead.

‘When they got up there it was the week that the whole royal family were congregated. They were party to an extraordinary weekend. Years later when I was working in New York I took them to the cinema, which they hadn’t been to in about 30 years, to watch The Queen with Helen Mirren. There’s a scene in it where it was that weekend in Balmoral where Tony Blair is on the phone saying they should lower the flag and they were sitting around the lunch table. My mother turned to me and said, “I don’t know who researched this film but we didn’t have chicken, we had salmon.”’

Are his parents very friendly with the royal family? Hesitantly he says, ‘They are careful about mentioning them.’ He had spoken in an earlier interview about meeting the Queen Mother when he wanted to do some research on Noel Coward. The family’s home adjoined the church at Windsor so he was able to pop by for a gin and tonic which he had to mix and couldn’t decide which of the 70 different size tumblers would be the right ones. The Queen Mother had said, “By the way, you know Coward was a spy, don’t you. Oops!”

The royals come over at Christmas for mince pies and turn up in mufti. ‘Slightly more relaxed and off duty than would normally be seen. In my experience the Queen is very nice.

In September his father retires. ‘He’s had enough of working on Sundays and he deserves a rest. I don’t go to church regularly. I wouldn’t say I was religious but more spiritual.’

He is married to opera singer Kate Royal (no relation to royal Kate). They met in a bar at Glyndebourne, exchanged numbers and didn’t see each other for a year. Royal had seen him in his Diet Coke ad and had a crush on him. Then serendipitously they both happened to be in New York and they met up again.

‘We properly got together in New York. One of the first things she invited me to was a rehearsal of a piece of work she was doing for Paul McCartney at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting in the rehearsal next to Paul McCartney and listening to her sing and thinking there is something special going on here. With her voice and with her.

‘You get a lot of information about people from their voice. I saw in her something that I hadn’t heard before. I knew then it was special, even though we’d seen each other only a few times. The mask dropped and it was somewhat exciting.’

Much more intimate to be invited to a rehearsal and sit next to McCartney than go to a performance? ‘Yes, I agree. He asked me what I thought of the work and of her. He knew something was kind of going on. He was interested to know what I was thinking.

‘We’ve been together ever since. Lots of different places and weird configurations of dogs and children.’ He has Audrey, four months, and Johnny Beau, two and a half.

‘Johnny Beau was born when I was doing Annie Get Your Gun in the West End. His birth was in the morning and I did the show in the evening, but it may not have worked out like that, and we did have images of me striding into King’s College Hospital in my chaps and Stetson.’

It wasn’t until after the birth of Johnny Beau that they got married at the end of 2009. It was a white wedding – it snowed. ‘We had a wedding and a christening at the same time and my father did the ceremony. My father didn’t mind us having a baby first. He’s very liberal. He was one of the first people to support women priests, gay priests and he’s very inter-faith, very relaxed. He has no problem marrying people who have been divorced. He’s a groovy vicar.’ Proof perhaps that our Queen is groovier than we might imagine.

Royal, who has long dark hair and classic good looks discovered that hormones flooding her body as she breast fed subtly altered her voice. She took a few months off after having her second child Audrey but is returning to work. An opera star’s diary is booked years in advance and for the rest of this year she will be in Berlin, Salzburg, Amsterdam and have two months at the Met in New York. Does he worry about periods of separation?

‘It takes a lot of organisation for us to all get together. For long trips like New York she’ll take the kids. For the others she will leave them here. We will manage and that’s where the wonders of Skype comes into play.’

He doesn’t complain. It’s not in his nature. He may do a small tour with his album and he is in talks with Harvey Weinstein about a musical version of Finding Neverland. He has been careful not to organise too much.

‘When I was a chorister you were singing every day. You just did it and you did it to a high standard. I became a chorister when I was seven. It was a very structured life. Some people get completely put off singing but I found that I loved it.

‘I don’t want to be seen as someone doing this in my spare time. It’s different when you’re doing all of these things – acting, musicals, then bring out an album. Not many people have done that. Anthony Newley, Barbra Streisand?’ There’s a sense of trepidation in his voice when he says this, but there shouldn’t be, he’s a one-off.

If You Stay is released April 23

Find out more here at his official site; http://julianovenden.com/

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