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Cleveland Watkiss Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska

Cleveland Watkiss – “I’m sharing my gift in the most pure and honest way I can”

Home » People » Cleveland Watkiss – “I’m sharing my gift in the most pure and honest way I can”

“It’s such a great healing tonic for myself when I do these gigs,” Cleveland tells me, “I just find that with VocalSuite there’s a deeper kind of upliftment I get from doing it. I feel like I’m renewed again.

“I’m sharing my gift and I’m trying to do it in in the most pure and honest way that I can in the moment.”

Cleveland Watkiss is undeniably one of Britain’s best vocalists, his award-winning career which has spanned over three decades, has taken him around the world. He has worked with some of the biggest names in jazz, soul, rock and drum and bass; notably Stevie Wonder, The Who and Goldie to name just a few. He has endless expertise and experience to supplement his natural talent, something that he today shares with students at Trinity Laban through his role as a vocal professor. In 2021 he won the Ivor Novello Award for Innovation and in 2018 he was awarded an MBE for his services to music. He also won Best Vocalist at the Guardian Jazz Awards for three consecutive years, and the 64-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.

Cleveland Watkiss performs VocalSuite Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss performs VocalSuite Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska

“It’s something I want to focus on,” Cleveland explains in regard to his VocalSuite concept, “In 2020, you know pre-pandemic, it was something that I was going to jump back in to, I wanted to focus on my solo voice performances and I’m just kind of getting back into it now.” There is a feeling that this gig couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for Cleveland, having his desires, like so many of ours, derailed by the global pandemic, the upcoming headlining of the Manchester Song Festival offers a remedy to that. “I’m excited about what’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it will find its way. It always does.”

The nature of VocalSuite lends itself to experimentation and improvisation, “It’s like splashing paint on the wall and saying okay where’s this going? Where’s the blue going, where’s the red going, what is it saying, how is it speaking to me?” He feels that half of the battle is getting out of his own way, “It’s frightening at times, but you’ve just got to let go and trust it, trust the moment, trust your musicality. There’s the other side as well of course, we’re soundboards, that’s what I believe anyway, the music is coming through us. We’re able to pull it from the clouds or heaven or God or from ancestors or past experiences, we’ve just got to catch it.”

VocalSuite as we see it today was born of the same trust in self. “The first gig that I did doing it kind of happened haphazardly,” he laughs, “I was supposed to do a gig with my good friend, Tunde Jegede, who plays Kora masterfully, but he had double booked himself, so he had to pull out. I said, I’ll do it myself, I hadn’t done any VocalSuite by myself, but I said it and I did it.” Cleveland sang for 90 minutes straight that night, his only friend his looping device. It was a leap of faith but one that paid off. He had reached a point where all he needed to create the soundscapes he desired was his own voice. In reality it was a long time coming.

“It was at that moment that I realised, right, now’s the time that I can do this”

Cleveland Watkiss performs VocalSuite Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss performs VocalSuite Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska

Cleveland had long been fascinated by artists doing similar, particularly soloist Bobby McFerrin, who he admiringly described as having a wonder voice. “He’s one of the first singers that I saw on stage by themselves creating music in the moment. Just one man standing on the stage, and you heard, almost like a whole orchestra.” This was the 80s and it wasn’t just singers that were the subjects of Cleveland’s study, all soloists, no matter their instrument of choice, were of interest. He also took time to study orchestration, listening to Baroque and Atonal music, and trying to figure out how he could recreate what he had heard using his own voice. It wouldn’t be until the arrival of the tech of the mid 90s that Cleveland really began to explore what could now be described as the foundations for his VocalSuite performances, “I started to play around with looping devices where I could capture ideas, layer them and orchestrate them in the moment.” There was a new tool in his toolbox, and he would use it to great effect.

In a career that has long had a theme of collaboration, Cleveland was better equipped than most to contort his voice to create the illusion of collaboration in his VocalSuite performances, “I’ve always been interested in using my voice in different ways, it has such a vast scope and ability to attach itself to different aspects of music and sound. I love the exploration, whether I’m working with DJs or working with an orchestra, working by myself, or working with a choir, they all require different things. And it’s been an honour and a blessing to be able to do that.”

VocalSuite seems to be the culmination of all the work that has come prior, as a multidisciplinary artist who has always expressed creative freedom, effortlessly genre hopping for decades, VocalSuite is the perfect showcase for Cleveland to flaunt the musical fruits of his labour. It is a reflection of himself, free flowing and accomplished.

“I’m not bound by anything. The only thing I’m bound by is my own imagination.”

Cleveland Watkiss is at Stoller Hall on Friday 1 March as part of Manchester Song Festival 2024.

Manchester Song Festival is a three day event of concerts and workshops for all singing abilities, including introductions to folk and musical theatre, acting through song and vocal health. Family activities over the weekend include interactive storytelling sessions with live music for youngsters aged 3-5.

Jordon Francis
Written by
Jordon Francis

Jordon Francis is a freelance journalist based in Manchester.

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Jordon Francis Written by Jordon Francis