We all know Jason Manford as a wildly popular comedian, from his sell out tours, to regular slots on the TV, he has been at the top of his profession for a very long time. Growing up in a musical family, singing is almost second nature to Jason. Some of you may be surprised to learn that he has been singing long before he took his first steps on stage to crack some jokes.
I was invited to his showcase recently, at Pizza Express in Holborn – London, and I went with an open mind (it has an area underneath the restaurant, dedicated to live music, just in case you’re picturing Jason standing there with his mic, next to the all-you-can-eat buffet). The crowd in the room looked surprised, as was I, after the first song, as to how good his voice was, and of how much control he has! A Different Stage is a great album, packed with some of his favourite songs from musicals such as Chess, Les Miserables and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but he doesn’t make it cheesy at all, as cheesy as it may sound.
The good thing about watching Jason performing these songs, is that in between the songs, he is unconsciously cracking jokes and constantly entertaining the audience. There isn’t that awkward feeling of disconnecting from the audience that you get with some performers, who can sometimes struggle to fully engage with their audience – who launch in to song after song, with no interaction. Jason probably has the opposite effect.
I chatted to Jason to find out more about his singing background and the making of his debut album, A Different Stage.
I recently attended your album showcase and I was really impressed. What sort of reaction were you expecting with the release of this album?
At the showcase, I was just happy that people came, because that was a nerve-wracking night for me. For the actual album, I guess I’m just hoping for people to give it a chance. I think if you give it a chance, and you like that sort of music, then you’ll like the album. Because it’s done well, the orchestra sound wonderful, and I can sing a bit! So, I would like for people to be open minded about it, and not expect it to be funny – there’s no laughs on this album.
You’ve got great control in your singing voice. Did you have vocal lessons growing up?
Not growing up, no – other than I sang a lot. My grandparents were singers and so I learnt from them. And all my aunties and uncles were singers, so there was a lot of singing going on all the time. At every do, there was a guitar out, if not a full band playing. So I did sing a lot as a kid. I was always into musicals from an early age and I was always in the musicals at school. But I didn’t have any singing lessons really, until 2009 or 2008, where I did a show called Born To Shine for ITV, where they let me use an opera singing teacher and she taught me how to opera sing. She took my voice from what it was and made it better and gave me more control and range, and so I’ve got the ability to hit a top C on occasion.
What are your thoughts before you go on stage?
Interestingly, I’ve not done an awful lot of singing on stage. I’ve done musicals, and obviously there’s singing in that, but my main fear, and it is fear, it happened at the proms the other week, which is just as you start the song your brain goes ‘I don’t know the next line of this song! Oh my god, the music has started, what are we going to do?!’ And then you sing the line that you thought you didn’t know and you realise of course I knew it! And then your brain goes ‘what about the next one!’. There’s occasionally a bit of that fear but most of the songs I’m singing are the ones that I love and I’ve been singing in my car and shower. But it is scary. It’s weird being on a stage for four or five minutes with no laughs – that’s very alien to me.
Many people don’t realise that you have been singing for a very long time, can you tell us a bit about that – and when you first started singing?
Well I probably started singing at about five or six, we did little performances in the living room, me and my brothers, for family when they came around. I remember specifically doing a show of Crybaby, a film with Johnny Depp, which we probably shouldn’t have been watching at 7 or 8 but we just knew all the songs. And then we spent every Sunday going to watch my grandparents’ band. She was a phenomenal performer. She just held such control, not just with her voice but with her personality too, and so I learnt pretty much everything from her and her children as well. So, I’ve been singing a lot longer than I’ve been doing stand-up.
You joked that you initially thought that Decca were winding you up when they offered you a record deal and for many people, it’s a dream. How long did it take to sink in – that they were being serious and that you were going to record an album to be released?
Pretty quick! I could see where they were coming from. Bradley Walsh did well with his album. Alexander Armstrong has done well with his, so there’s obviously a precedent of people accepting performers having other talents than the one they’re known for. But it was amazing! But when they booked this 60-piece orchestra, and we flew to Prague, and we were in this studio with the producers who did Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins, I thought, ‘my goodness! This is just on a different level!” It was amazing.
The album features some of your favourite songs from musicals, is there any one that especially means more to you, or any song that you enjoy performing more than the others?
The one that means the most to me is Hushabye Mountain, because I sang it so many times while I was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It means a lot to me because my children love it – they request it as a song that makes them feel safe. They fall asleep to that song. And now it’s on the album I don’t have to sing it any more, I can just press play and watch the telly!
I love performing Stars because it’s got a lot of story – it’s an angry copper singing the song. And it’s the one that people go ‘Oh crikey! He can sing!’. It’s got everything in it. And I also love This is my Life because again I feel like it’s a song that comes from a place that we’ve all been in. You feel like the world’s done you a disservice, things have happened and gone wrong for you, whether it’s that you’ve been dumped or you lost your job or whatever. But there’s no point looking out there for help because it’s all there in you – it’s your life. The song has a real growl to it!
How many times have you sung Hushabye Mountain? I think you mentioned that your Gran was a particular fan of that song!
I probably have sung that song in front of a crowd about 500 times, we sang it in Chitty for an entire year. It’s a song that was sung to me as a kid, I sing it to my children and it’s the song in the show that people at stage door go ‘my dad used to sing that to me, he’s no longer with us, and in that moment I just loved it’. What I love about my version of it is that I’ve tried to keep it like a lullaby. You can sing it however you like, but away from the show there are a lot of versions that are quite big. And it is a song that he is singing to his children as they’re drifting off to sleep. It’s difficult to try to keep that without losing your voice.
Tell us how you came about naming the album – A Different Stage?
I was in a meeting at Decca and I had been making loads of jokes about what to call the album and I’d been calling it things like ‘Well Bradley Walsh has got one’ and ‘I can’t believe nobody’s stopped me yet’. There were many different ideas for the album title and Manford All Seasons was what I wanted to call it. Manford and Songs was another good one – that’s album number two! Then I flippantly said, ‘we should just call it a different stage or something’ and everybody in the office was like ‘yeah – great!’ And I was like ‘guys, isn’t there a team of people who come up with album titles? You’re just going to go off the thing I just said off the top of my head?’ But once it stuck, it stuck! I guess it was like a baby’s name, once you’ve said it that’s what it’s called. And actually, it’s a much classier pun than Manford and Songs and it sums up two things. It sums up a different stage literally, a different stage in my career, but also as a person, I’m at a different stage in my life so it fits in with that.
The album contains some of the great musical songs ever written and recorded. If the West End Fairy were to wave their magic wand and say to you that you could be in any musical tomorrow, which one would you choose and why?
It has to be Les Miserables. All day long. I don’t know how many more times I can hint to be honest without literally ringing up Cameron Mackintosh and saying I’ll do it for free! I’d love to do that, it’s a great musical. What’s been nice about the stuff I’ve done is that there are a lot of musicals you can do just because you’re on the telly. You will get a chance to be in Grease because you’ve been on telly, and I didn’t want to do that. There’s been stuff over the years that I’ve turned down because I wanted to do stuff that I was getting because I could do it as a performer. That’s definitely the case with the part of Parelli, you could only do that if you could technically play the part, because he’s an opera singing barber. The same with the other stuff I’ve done.
What do your comedian friends make of your singing and the fact that you are about to release an album?
They verge between taking the mickey to being a bit jealous. There’s an element of both. I would not be surprised to see a Michael Macintyre album in the next two years. But lots of people have had albums. Peter Kay has a number one single. I’m not the first comic to sing. Right back to Ken Doyle, Morecambe and Wise, all those kinds of people, it feels like it’s just a nod to those guys.
How was Edinburgh this year? Did you treat them to any songs?
Edinburgh was great, but I was very much focused on my stand-up at Edinburgh this year. I was doing my Muddle Class show because I’m about to do a huge 18-month tour, I had to get that right. I couldn’t stick a song in, I needed to stick to the jokes.
How do you fit the singing schedule in, combined with your comedy, TV and radio show work? And will there be A Different Stage Tour – to accompany the release of the album?
My Muddle Class tour is my primary job next year and the radio show, which I do every Sunday. There are a few bits of telly coming up as well, but they’re all recorded in a short burst of time.
As far as touring the album is concerned, I’m not sure yet because I would like to see how it does first and if there’s an appetite for it. I feel like there is – we’ve put on a couple of dates in Manchester and Pizza Express in Holborn and I’d love to do more. I feel like there are spaces to do that, it’s just finding out whether there’s an appetite for it.
Your voice has been compared to Alfie Boe, what do you think about that, and has he given you any advice?
Wow, I don’t know who by. Compared to Alfie Boe, it’s not as good! Alfie is on a different level in terms of vocal technique. He is an opera singer and I’m very much not. But there are things that I’ve learnt from listening to Alfie. He’s technically brilliant, and I remember when I was singing with him on tour and he gave me some tips on how to hit those high notes so you feel totally in control of it and he gave me some techniques on how to do that, which was great. But he’s full of advice on the music business and how to get by with that, it’s great having a pal like that.
A Different Stage is available to buy now.