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'I played at the royal wedding, but I have a long list of things I still want to do'

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been on the up and up over the last few years, thanks to winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award and playing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He talks to Lucy Mapstone about performing at the royal event, his latest album, and why he feels he has still got so much more to give


Success story: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Success story: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Success story: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Sheku Kanneh-Mason has just stumped me with a revelation I did not think possible.

The young cellist, whose long list of accolades could probably stretch the length of three football fields if they were lined up end to end, has admitted that he didn't feel at all fazed when playing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

His performance of three pieces of music, including his tear-jerking rendition of Ave Maria, is believed to have been watched by an estimated two billion people across the world.

But for 20-year-old Kanneh-Mason, it was no big deal. Not a dot of anxiety. It was just another chance for him to do what he loves most.

"No, I didn't really get nervous," he reflects, markedly honest and humble, without even the slightest hint of arrogance.

"It was such an exciting thing and I just thought about the music, which is more important."

He is unsure of whether it was the best thing to have ever happened to him, but he explains: "It was amazing to perform for so many people around the world.

"I love performing and the opportunity to be able to do that more is really nice."

As well as using his passion to keep himself focused (and to stop him from getting distracted by the truly terrifying thought of millions of pairs of eyes watching him perform live), throughout our chat, Kanneh-Mason often highlights the simple fact that his main goal is simply to make and perform music to the best of his ability, and that nothing else matters.

His humility and introverted temperament is a breath of fresh air, but it's somewhat surprising to discover that he's retained these traits given the last few years he's had.

Kanneh-Mason has had the most remarkable rise to fame since 2016, after years of honing his craft alongside his musical family of siblings.

The Nottingham-raised wunderkind is the third of seven children born to immigrant parents from Antigua and Sierra Leone. His siblings include sister Isata, who last year released her debut album of piano music, and his violinist brother Braimah.

Kanneh-Mason made history when he became the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician award in 2016.

He rose to international acclaim in 2018 after playing at the royal wedding in May that year, and he also became the youngest ever cellist to score a top 20 album in the Official Albums Chart when his first collection, Inspiration, debuted at number 18. The album later peaked at number 11.

Shortly after the nuptials, Kanneh-Mason nabbed a Brit Certified Breakthrough Award for his album, as well as two Classic Brit Awards.

He added another string to his impressive bow when he was recently named in the New Year Honours list for services to music.

Kanneh-Mason says the notice of the MBE was a "big surprise" and, rather than letting it go to his head, he says that the honour is mainly "a real motivation for me", and that he was proud to tell his family of his achievement.

The softly-spoken young star said that it would be "really, really nice" if Harry were to be the one to give him the MBE at Buckingham Palace, commenting that it would be "a great reunion".

However, not-so-fortuitously, we speak hours before Harry and Meghan make their bombshell announcement about stepping back from royal duties, so it is now looking highly unlikely that would be the case. He may just have to settle for Prince Charles or the Queen instead.

For now, Kanneh-Mason is focusing on his latest album, a new collection of works based on Elgar's Cello Concerto that he recorded at the Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, one of his heroes.

The musical prodigy lights up when talking about his second album, seemingly preferring to discuss his work, than having to think about his triumphs and rise to super-stardom.

"I grew up listening to Elgar's Cello Concerto a lot, it's my favourite piece of music ever," he enthuses.

"And in terms of other pieces on the album, I wanted to have pieces that relate to the Elgar Concerto in some way, so either by being something by Elgar or sharing a kind of mood or character with the concerto, or written at a similar time, like pieces that were written just after the First World War, so there's a theme in terms of mood and character."

He says that Elgar's work resonates with him because of "the personal nature of the music".

"It's not music that shouts and tries to announce itself to everyone. It's very intimate and very personal, and that's what makes it so moving."

He could have been describing himself: he's certainly not an artist who needs to shout or announce himself when entertaining a crowd, be it at his school, the Royal Academy of Music, or indeed in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle at the wedding of one of the most famous couples in royal family history.

I ask him how he keeps himself grounded, because it seems astonishing that someone could have so much talent and achieved so much at such a young age and still have such a cool head on his shoulders.

He laughs softly and replies: "My cello lessons are a big thing in keeping me focused on my development, and the people around me are really helpful in that.

"Also, listening to my favourite recordings remind me why I do what I do.

"I'm always aware that... just because I've had the opportunity to perform at the royal wedding for so many people, I am still developing as an artist and I have a long list of things I want to do and how I want to change as a musician.

"That's why studying is such a big part of what I'm doing at the moment.

"There's so much more I can do."

Sheku Kanneh - Mason's album Elgar is out now

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