'Do you want me to do the Levi’s advert? Honestly, I’m game for anything.’ Gareth Malone has just discovered that part of his Saga Magazine photoshoot is taking place in a laundrette and he’s recalling that famous Eighties TV commercial where model Nick Kamen stripped down to his boxer shorts in a laundromat full of flabbergasted females.
To the disappointment of his more ardent fans, no doubt, there are no plans today for Britain’s most famous choirmaster to follow suit. Yet Gareth’s good-sport enthusiasm says as much about his brilliant sense of humour as his independently thinking spirit.
‘You’ve got to have rules so you can break them,’ he says. ‘That’s what creativity is. People say, “This is the way choirs are”. And I say, “Well, why? Why can’t it be like this?” I don’t think of myself as someone who does everything like everyone else has done it.’
There’s no disputing that. Over the past 12 years, Gareth has single-handedly revived the nation’s interest in community singing by making choral music cool. He’s worked with a variety of pop stars and fronted countless TV shows guiding singing novices to perform against the odds (there are now more than 80 Military Wives choirs following his 2011 project with the original Military Wives). More recently, he united 300 locals and former residents
of London’s Grenfell Tower with stars including Robbie Williams and Roger Daltrey to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to raise funds for victims of the June 2017 tragedy.
Everyone who meets Gareth – a chap raised in ‘a fairly affluent, middle-class household’ and so musically gifted he passed a Royal Academy of Music postgraduate diploma in classical singing with distinction – says he is charmingly down-to-earth. They are spot on. Gareth arrives 15 minutes early to our main shoot location at west London’s Bush Hall concert venue after cancelling the taxi we had booked for him and hopping on the Tube instead. (He suffers ‘terrible car sickness’, he says.) Apparently, nobody approached him on his journey on public transport from his north London home, which is ‘fairly rare’ and also a bit of a shame – Gareth, 42, is clearly not the sort of celebrity to get shirty about lost anonymity.
‘There are times when I’ve been in the middle of buying my frozen peas and someone will say, “Excuse me, I’m in a choir”. It’s nice,’ he says of the fame. ‘Sometimes I sort of forget that I’m on TV. I’ve had some time off recently and someone does a double take and I think: “Oh, yeah. Of course, you know who I am”.’
You get the impression that Gareth, who’s here to promote his new nationwide choral singing tour, still can’t believe what’s happening. He’s in his element today, on stage striking Bruce Forsyth’s thinker pose, among others. But cover shoots like this one ‘were never the ambition’ for Gareth, not even as a drama student at the University of East Anglia, where he struggled to believe in himself.
His first real job was mentoring disadvantaged youths in his home town, Bournemouth, and he later joined the London Symphony Orchestra running their youth and community choirs and working in inner-city schools. He was exactly what producers of BBC Two’s The Choir were looking for in 2006 when they began scouring Google for a choirmaster to transform a mixed bag of London schoolchildren into a singing success.
Now everybody knows Gareth. He gleefully recalls meeting the likes of Elton John and Annie Lennox, and even the late George Martin, The Beatles’ record producer, after a choir Gareth had assembled from a Watford housing estate, for the 2009 series The Choir, Unsung Town, recorded a cover version of The Beatles’ In My Life at Abbey Road Studios.
‘George sent an email asking, “Would you like to come and have tea?” We sat in the control room of Abbey Road One [studio] and he told me about playing what sounds like a harpsichord on the original track. That was the joy for me – hearing him tell in his own words stories that I already knew because I’d read them.’
There have been downsides to success, however, and Gareth is honest about the pressure caused by holding down ‘two careers’, in TV and music. The ‘extraordinary year’ – 2012 – he received an OBE for services to music and performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was also the year he realised that his focus on TV work had harmed his musical creativity.
He subsequently threw himself into two successful nationwide tours, including one off the back of his 2013 choral album Voices, alongside forming the Invictus Choir, a group of wounded ex-armed forces personnel who would perform at Prince Harry’s Invictus Games in Florida in May 2016. ‘That was probably the hardest project I’ve done, much harder than Military Wives, because people had huge mental health problems and terrible traumas. The weight of that was enormous and I remember coming off that project thinking, “I can’t shake this off, I can’t”.’
He had weekly counselling sessions to help process the harrowing stories, but by the end of 2016 Gareth was spent and needed a break from all-things entertainment. ‘You get the feeling that
this is such a privilege to do as my job and if you’re going through the motions, it’s just awful. I was in danger of that.’
Save for six days filming BBC One’s Pitch Battle, coordinating the Grenfell Tower project and starting up a kids’ choir near his home, Gareth filled 2017 with piano practice, jazz studies, ice skating and enjoying home life with his secondary- schoolteacher wife Becky and their children Esther, seven, and Gilbert, four.
‘Weirdly, I actually relished stacking the dishwasher,’ he chuckles. ‘My career has afforded me enough time and flexibility to be at home while my kids are young, but last year the major thing was thinking: “I’m 42 now and I started on my 30th birthday; what do I want to do and who do I want to be when I’m 50?”’
Professionally, he’s decided that the answer lies in ‘touring, working with great musicians’ and – with his tank now fully replenished – embarking on a couple of immersive Military Wives-style projects that ‘really matter to people’.
Singing for your wellbeing
His tour with five-time-Grammy-winning harmony singers The Swingles kicks off next month and features ‘three or four’ new songs, a couple of his favourite old classics, including Ben E King’s Stand By Me, and an audience interactive song-writing session.
Ask him to reveal some juicy secrets from tours gone by and – apart from a bus toilet catastrophe too stomach-churning to print – Gareth has little to impart. ‘I don’t tour for the money or the after-show party. I do it because I love performing,’ he says. ‘It’s all about the stage. That’s where I want to be.’ Gareth’s motivation – always – is also to create a show that his fans will love. It doesn’t always work. ‘I’ve had people write saying, “I was really disappointed to see that the Military Wives were not performing,” but that’s being in the public eye.’ He shrugs.
‘People go, “He’s the guy with the bow tie who does Military Wives, and if he does anything else, that’s going to be a bit of a problem”. It’s about taking those people, holding them by the hand and saying, “Actually, I do these other things as well, I hope that’s OK”.’
Mild mannered he may be, but Gareth is also a tough cookie – you don’t get through years of school bullying without either crumbling or rising stronger. He did the latter. ‘I was quite artistic and sensitive as a child,’ he says, acknowledging that his ‘flamboyant’ and ‘expressive’ personality was at odds with his sporty and cooler peers at his all-boys school. ‘There were snide, undercutting comments. I’d do something good and they’d find a way to belittle the whole thing. But it’s good to be able to take that on the chin. It prepares you for a world of Twitter!’
Those boys were fools. Everyone knows that sensitivity and an ability to communicate are the qualities of a real man, and it’s why Gareth is now a bona fide housewives’ favourite.
‘I’m not Tom Jones!’ roars Gareth, playing down the fuss. He once joked in an interview that members of his audience never throw their underwear on stage like Tom’s fans, which prompted one fan in Liverpool to show him what he had been missing. ‘Somebody went to Primark and bought £1 knickers so I could have that experience. There were these two rather sad-looking thongs at the edge of the stage. It was very funny.’
Ask him if he’s a tough tour boss and Gareth answers, ‘Yes and no’. He likes to run a ‘happy ship’ but, equally, is not afraid to boot anyone who doesn’t work hard enough off the team. ‘When they don’t do a good job, I’m like, “What’s the point in having you here?” Essentially, the public are paying me for an experience and then I pay the people that I want to work with.
‘I’m always very upset by people who don’t care. I spend so much of my life trying to help people – music is about being generous – so if I’m then on the receiving end of exactly the opposite, a “computer says no” kind of attitude…’ He stops and we visualise an exasperated Gareth on the phone to a telecoms company call centre.
‘Right! That kind of thing, or anyone who says they can’t help me, people who don’t go the extra mile because they’re not engaged.’
On the subject of engagements, if anyone is wondering whether Gareth will be coordinating an Invictus Choir performance at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle next month, prepare to be disappointed. ‘I have a friend who sings at St George’s Chapel, Windsor,’ he reports, ‘and I’m sure they’re better qualified for a royal wedding. I’ve not had the invite and I think I’d have heard by now!
‘We’re not that close, but I’m very pleased that Prince Harry is getting married. I feel very warm about it. I think Meghan seems like the right kind of girl for him.’
As our time together draws to a close, Gareth polishes off the pain au chocolat he’s been munching during the interview, zips up his coat and says polite and enthusiastic goodbyes to the team before heading off in the direction of the nearest Tube station. Hopefully somebody will stop him to say hello.
Gareth’s five reasons you should join a choir
1. Structure It gives shape to your life. My big choral moments have taken months of practising, which requires dedication and organisation. Having an investment in something is really important.
2. Friendship It’s great for people who have moved house or are grieving, because it gets you mixing with others and, with focusing on the conductor and the like, you can’t really do it and be thinking about something else.
3. Exploration You get into buildings that you wouldn’t ordinarily go to. I sang in the Sistine Chapel on a choir tour. I’ve also travelled to places such as Romania and Israel.
4. Musical experimentation Sometimes when you’re introduced to a piece of music, you don’t get it and feel you’ll never like it. Then about three or four weeks later, something clicks. I have a much more open attitude to music now.
5. Health Singing is good for people who have COPD [an umbrella term covering various lung diseases]. It’s good for the breathing muscles.