Julian Ovenden is not who you think he is. Sure, you’ll have seen him a lot on television including Foyle’s War and as the scheming Charles Blake in Downton Abbey, but his new album, Be My Love (released April 22nd on East West Records), is the culmination of 33 years of musical training.
Based on his love of great American composers and lyricists of the first half of the 20th Century, the album includes works from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and the great partnerships of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Rodgers & Hart. What all these names have in common are that they hark to an era when the lyrics were as important as the music.
From Irving Berlin’s 1923 composition “What’ll I Do” to Shirley Horn’s classic 1992 “Here’s To Life”, sometimes alongside an orchestra, sometimes alongside a big band or sometimes alongside just a piano, the record is underpinned by a voice brimming with joy, hurt and passion.
It’s in the tradition of Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr and the great standards singers of any era, but as Julian explains, “it’s a marriage of old and new. I respect these songs, but they’re done with a fresh, dynamic sensibility.”
Be My Love was recorded at the legendary Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles, where the walls are adorned with photos of the giants who recorded there: Sammy Davis Jr, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin.
“It was terrifying,” chuckles Julian. “But I like being scared and I like being out of my comfort zone. The place hasn’t really changed since the ‘50s. There’s real magic in that room.”
Nick Patrick, who produced the best-selling If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, met Julian on the Downton Abbey Christmas album and the pair were reunited on Be My Love. Julian knew exactly which songs he wanted to breathe new life into. This resulted in the songs being recorded over one heady week with musicians and singer in the same room at the same time, face to face, the way it used to be.
Serendipitously, the songs fell into a three-section narrative, reminiscent of the great Sinatra albums. First comes the giddy joy of new love; then the heartbreak of love turning sour and, finally, the acceptance that what happened was good and it’s time to move on.
“I wanted songs that moved me,” he explains. “If I can connect to a song as a person and as an artist, it works for me.”
Made famous by Mario Lanza in 1950, the title track encapsulates the album. “I’ve always loved its honesty and openness. It’s a direct invitation to the world I want the album to create. A world that is romantic, deeply felt, but has a feeling of escapism and fantasy. It’s exciting, alluring and seductive, but it’s personal, intimate and connected too.”
Julian Ovenden is more than equipped to make this type of record. From the moment the son of a preacher man (and now the husband of soprano Kate Royal), was enrolled as a chorister at the renowned St Paul’s Cathedral, music has been his life. There, he honed his skills and began the daily two-hour practice sessions which continue to this day. “To me it’s like cleaning my teeth, or walking the dog. Back then, it was full-on: when other schools had broken up, we were still there singing, even on Christmas Day. You’re either going to do it forever, or never do it again.”
Needless to say, Julian loved it forever and, when he was given the key to St Paul’s Cathedral, he spent nights there, on his own, playing the cathedral’s organ. “It made such a racket,” he smiles. “but nobody heard me. At least, I don’t think they did.” Such were his skills that they earned him a music scholarship to Eton and, then, another scholarship to New College Oxford.
After Oxford, unsure of where to go, acting called and these days he’s neither a singing actor nor an acting singer. Instead, he’s a singer and an actor. His love of singing has taken him all over the world to prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Centre in New York, the Royal Opera House, the Chatelet in Paris, the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, on Broadway and in the West End. He’s also regularly collaborated and performed with the celebrated John Wilson Orchestra as well as musicians including Alison Balsom and Michel Legrand.
“With my music, if I can in some way affect people, that’s enough.”