Don’t get ideas above your station. This was a piece of genuine advice given to me when, at the age of 9, I expressed a desire to be a Blue Peter presenter when I grew up. At the time I felt sad that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my dream but what shocks me far more now, looking back, is that it didn’t even occur to me at the time to question the wisdom of the person who’d said it to me because, after all, as a grown-up, she clearly knew what she was talking about. Still, it was upsetting; my junk-modelling skills were (and still are) pretty impressive – I never threw away a rice crispies packet or a loo roll tube, just in case – and, every week without fail, would copy Sarah Greene’s model in real time, double-sided sticky tape at the ready. Having grown up in foster homes, I’d also had plenty of practice working with children, plus someone had told me that you had to be interviewed whilst bouncing on a trampoline. I could certainly have done that (although, post giving birth to two rather large babies, I fear it would have rather less desirable consequences now, perhaps best not to go into here.)
What was my “station”, anyway? Audre Lorde said “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” In a similar vein, until every girl in the world is able to gain access to the same standard of education and opportunities as any boy, thereby enabling her to grow up to be who she wants to be, we can’t say that we have properly achieved equality. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have ended up doing something I love for a living; I may not have become a Blue Peter presenter but singing, writing and conducting music certainly works for me. Whether or not being a freelance musician constitutes having got “ideas above my station”, I’ll leave for you to decide (but please don’t feel obliged to tell me!)
During 2018, with so much media attention focused on the 100th anniversary of some women achieving the vote, I found myself pondering what I could do to join the feminist cause. I’d written a song, as part of a larger choral piece ‘Freedom! The Power of Song’, called Twenty-first-century Woman. Inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s now-famous Golden Globes acceptance speech which begins “A new day is on the horizon”, the lyrics present a vision of a future world in which“every girl can grow up to be who she wants to be”. I had an idea to record the song and release it as a charity single to raise money for charities supporting girls in education. Then I had a better idea: I would hire Studio 3 at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios and invite some of my singing colleagues to record the song with me. I was amazed by the response: I’d asked stars of the West End stage, internationally-acclaimed concert and recording artists with decades of experience, pop backing vocalists for some of the top names in the music business, gospel singers and singer-songwriters. They all said yes. So then I thought, “how about we have an all-female band too?” and then “and an all-female production crew!” Once the seed had taken root in my head, there was no stopping it from growing. The universe was with me the day I phoned Abbey Road Studios – they told me they’d been looking for a project for IWD and that this sounded like the perfect thing. ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ was born and little did I know then that we would make history by being the first all-female recording session to have happened at Abbey Road Studios. Ever.
On a cold St Cecilia’s Day last November, a group of twenty-one singers, band musicians and sound engineers spent their afternoon break walking over the famous zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios many times, in an attempt to get a good photo with all of us in it. It’s usually the tourists holding up the traffic but this time it was us! We managed it eventually but I couldn’t help thinking it must have been easier when The Beatles set the trend 50 years ago…
The atmosphere in Studio 3 was electric that day. Alicia Marsden (11), daughter of Louise Marshall, was first up – she recorded the girl solo at the end of the song like a true pro, ably coached by her Aunty Melanie (Marshall). After that, the rest of us sang and played our hearts out until we had enough takes to call it a wrap. A few promo photos later, Alice Fearn (AKA Elphaba from Wicked) had to hot-foot it to Apollo Victoria Theatre to be covered in green make-up whilst Gina Beck (AKA Miss Honey from Matilda) made her way across town to the Cambridge Theatre to don her wig, specs and cardy to become the world’s best teacher. The brilliant Sophie Alloway packed up her drum kit, Andrea Vicari closed the lid on the Yamaha grand, Rosie Frater-Taylor packed away her guitar and Inga Eichler her bass. We had done it!
The rest of us hung around in the Studio 3 lounge and drank a celebratory glass or three of champagne while Isabel Gracefield and her brilliant team of sound engineers started to build the first comp of the track. Suddenly a voice said “Hey, let’s do some more singing!” (I genuinely adore my colleagues) and a bunch of us, all former members of The Swingles, guaranteed always to leave the party last, ran back into the studio and improvised soul-sister vocals over the top of what we’d recorded earlier. Sara Brimer Davey was astonishing and we all gaped in awe and left her to it. What a voice.
Since then, I have had the privilege to meet and film some of the most inspiring women imaginable: Dames, OBEs, MBEs, CBEs, surgeons, bishops, cancer survivors…. They are all appearing in the YouTube video which will be released along with the song. Watch this space.
Twenty-first-century Woman will be available to download from all music platforms on March 8th 2019, International Women’s Day. All proceeds will go to charities supporting girls’ education.