Gareth Malone aims for Christmas number one with help from Belfast Community Gospel Choir
The UK’s favourite choir master Gareth Malone brought some early festive magic to Belfast this week. Karen Ireland finds out more about his quest for a Christmas number one with a little help from his friends at the Belfast Community Gospel Choir
It has been Christmas for the past 18 months in the Malone household in London as musical maestro Gareth prepares for his latest project. In Belfast on a whistle-stop tour of the UK working with the best of British talent including Belfast Community Gospel Choir he explains his aim to create the ultimate feel good Christmas album.
"This has been something I have had a passion for a long time. I want to bring back the real magic of Christmas which should be all about loving your neighbours, letting bygones be bygones and just doing something nice for other people and communities coming together," says the 40-year-old, who has made choirs trendy again with programmes such as The Choir and The Naked Choir.
Gareth, who is married to teacher Becky (35) and dad to Esther (6) and Gilbert (3), says the kids have loved the constant Christmas music in the house over the last few months as he has prepared to create this festive album with a difference.
"It's Christmas all year round in our household as this has been a real labour of love for me.
"Dare I say it - Christmas is starting earlier and earlier every year," he jokes and I agree (looking around at the festive fun of BCGC's rehearsal room on the Ravenhill Road).
"It is becoming more and more commercialised and we are forgetting about what is really important - people and interacting with each other - and I wanted an album which brought those feelings to the fore.
"I wanted it to be something that people could play in the background while they were putting up their tree and rediscover the magic of Christmases gone by."
He admits his childhood experience has played a key part in this project.
"When I was younger my favourite thing about Christmas was going to see the nativity play, listening to choirs sing and going to the Christmas markets. I wanted to recreate that feeling.
"Every year I look around for that type of album to play in our house but I can't find what I am looking for, so I decided to make it," he says.
Gareth's dream is to produce 'The Best British Christmas' which will feature choirs from up and down the country, bell ringers, brass bands, children's choirs and even contributions from stars such as Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs and The Voice, Fyfe Dangerfield, who founded indie band Guillemots, and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch.
And, of course, the contribution from The BCGC - who have a very specially selected part to play.
"I am always researching and looking for new choirs to work with. When I discovered the work of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir, I was blown away by their talent and I also loved their story. I love that this choir brings together different people from different political backgrounds and they all come together in perfect harmony.
"It seemed very appropriate that the choir sing - War Is Over, the John Lennon classic and something which is a poignant nod to the troubled past here in Northern Ireland.
"I know a lot of the big players bring out Christmas albums such as Rod Stewart and Cliff Richard, but I would like to think our album will be a strong contender and we will give them a run for their money."
No stranger to the number one spot, Gareth is perhaps best known for his work with the Military Wives, whose single Wherever You Are, reached number one in the charts in 2012.
"It was a real honour to work with the Military Wives. It was emotional as these were a group of ordinary women living their lives in extraordinary circumstances.
"I had wanted to do something for some time as there was a real drive to support the troops from home and I was contacted by a lady in a base and I thought - this is it, the time is right.
"These women are highly functioning, positive people.
"Their husbands are away serving and they are back home holding the fort and just getting on with every day life. The choir was a real release for them and such a success that there is now over 75 military choirs at bases all over the UK."
Gareth attributes one of the other highlights of his career to working with Prince Harry on the Invictus Choir which travelled to the Invictus Games earlier this year.
"This group of people who have come through so much trauma in their lives came together and gave this their all. It was very humbling and a great honour to be part of it and to be asked by Prince Harry to put a choir together under his instruction," he says.
"He didn't actually sing with us but he took a keen interest in what was going on."
With various musical projects on the go all the time Gareth describes his career as his dream job.
"If someone was to ask me to write down what I would like to do for a living it would be exactly what I am doing now. I am very blessed as I love it. I get to work with professional musicians and bring them together with people who are perhaps just singing in their shower as a hobby.
"It is amazing."
And it seems there could be hope for people like me, as Gareth says with more and more choirs springing up all over the UK there are even - can't sing, won't sing choirs for people who just want to have a laugh and be part of something.
"There is no doubt that being in a choir is good for your over-all wellbeing. There is a real feel good factor that comes with meeting up with other people and opening up and singing together. A real camaraderie develops and members feel like they belong and they are part of something.
"It is also good for breathing and produces happy endorphins."
But Gareth hasn't always been living his dream. A drama school student, he says it was difficult, after leaving, to find a job.
"Everyone knows you don't walk straight into a job from drama school and I did everything from working in an ice cream parlour to being an usher at the cinema.
"That was great and I got to see Toy Story about 45 times," he laughs.
Joking aside he started to do some youth work which ignited his passion for bringing people together and helping those disadvantaged in life, attributes which remain close to his heart to this day.
"I then studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music. Growing up I was always singing and there was always music playing in our house and I knew I wanted to work in the music industry.
"It is then that I was approached to do The Choir and the rest as they say is history."
Gareth admits that balancing his career with family life isn't always easy.
On the day of this interview, Esther, his young daughter, has had her first day at school and Gareth has been anxiously waiting on a phone call all day to see how she got on.
"A lot of my work is at night as that is when choirs meet and I can be away from home for weeks at a time," he says. "I do miss them terribly but on the flip side there are times when I am not working and I get to be at home for long periods.
"After this project is over, for example I plan to take about a three-month sabbatical."
And what will he do to relax?
"Play the piano of course," he adds.
And he assures me even though it has constantly felt like Christmas in his house for year and a half he won't be cancelling the big day.
"The children are at that lovely age when they are starting to understand more about it and they are super excited about Santa," he says.
"Hopefully everyone will put their tree up this year to our album.
"It features everything from traditional carols, to modern songs and even songs I have written especially for it."
The Best British Christmas CD featuring the BCGC will be available to buy from December 2
Superfans hitting the high notes with Gareth
Teacher Sarah Rooney (34) from Ballygowan. She says:
"I am super excited about taking part in this album as I am a real fan of Gareth Malone. I have watched all his programmes and think he is fantastic and really talented. He is the only man who could get me to wear a Christmas jumper in September. I joined BCGC two years ago as I was looking for some more balance in my life. I love it."
Joyce McCullough (52), a bank worker, lives in Belfast. She says:
"I think this is a fantastic and very exciting project to be involved with. I joined the choir seven years ago when I was going through a pretty traumatic time. The choir got me out of the house and boosted my confidence and I felt better about things. It really turned my life around."
Paula Bacon (45) from Belfast is a special needs classroom assistant. She says:
"Four years ago I was offered free tickets to go and see one of the choir's shows. I cried all night it was so emotional. I went for an audition and it has completely changed my life.
I have made so many friends and there is such a wonderful feeling singing - we are always on a high after each concert. I have also been to American twice with the choir."
Jenny Russell (38) is a university lecturer from Belfast. She says:
"I have two young children and work was busy and home was busy. I was looking for something that was just about 'me' time. I find the choir so uplifting and I get a real feel good factor from it.
I have made so many strong friendships from the choir. It is fantastic."