Cleveland Watkiss Heads To Manchester Song Festival

“You should expect the unexpected. That's what everyone needs to expect. Come with open minds - and to hear stuff that you've never heard before and you're never going to hear again!”
Colin Petch
February 7, 2024

It’s just over three weeks until The Manchester Song Festival returns to The Stoller Hall - and the upcoming weekend (Friday 1- Sunday 3 March 2024), is packed full with live performances and some amazing chances for local singers to get involved and learn from some of the best vocal professionals in the business.

Award-winning Jazz singer and bona-fide cool dude Cleveland Watkiss kick-starts the 2024 Festival with his Vocal Suite, a unique performance blending voice and technology for a unique display of a cappella vocal talent - and after listening at length to his genre-defying music - we felt it was essential to talk to the man himself before he heads Up North…

After a brief moment of improvised Bebop down the line between Hertfordshire and Harrogate (which I think went very well), Cleveland explained how it is the Stoller audience are set to welcome him in March:

“The festival called and asked me if I'd be interested in taking part in a workshop/performance type of situation. That’s exactly what I do with Vocal Suite - a project that I've been working on for many years. I'm just working essentially with my voice and using technology to capture improvised moments and then create a musical conversation. I described what I do to the festival team and they were keen to have it as part of the weekend.” 

Cleveland shares that he’s very much back on a journey now, (that was interrupted by the pandemic) of exploring the different dimensions of the human voice, whether it's with texts or with sound, or by creating songs and melodies in the moment. Vocal Suite fuses voice and technology, using real-time looping to create live compositions. With improvisation/counterpoint harmony, electronics, breakbeat loops and basslines (all live and from his mouth) - the effect is stunning. Cleveland is able to create an utterly unique, orchestral vocal soundscape with influences ranging from classical to African rhythm, to jazz and choral music.

 Cleveland Watkiss: Image credit Monika S.Jakubowska
Cleveland Watkiss (Image Monika S.Jakubowska)

And with this often audience-led performance, the artist is undoubtedly democratising - and making music-making accessible for any of us prepared to learn how to use our voice in a new way.

Cleveland: “Yeah, I mean, in the sense that we all have this instrument and we can all use it to some degree and we can all join in. The voice is a tool to inspire and uplift people, you know? So a strong part of the intent of what I do is really to uplift and inspire people to be what they're called to be.”

And on the subject of inspiring people, Cleveland entered a couple of competitions as a young chap in Hackney, that clearly opened a significant door to the future: 

“I was very much into Sound System culture as a young teenager growing up - like most young black kids in the East-End of London in the early 70s. I Built a Sound System with some of my school friends - and when I say build - I mean literally build, because that's what you did. That's what's really fascinating about sound system culture: everyone builds their own system. 

“I was probably 14 or 15 - and I'm learning about amplifiers and wattage and sound systems and the placement of speakers and blah blah blah and this very quickly became my passion.”

The sound system culture and the music coming out of Jamaica was being absorbed by Cleveland and his friends, but it was only when one of those friends heard him singing along to a particular record that he was playing at home - that he was urged to take part in his first Sound Clash competition.

“I was. Like, really? He said, yeah, yeah, yeah! And encouraged me to go and do this competition. And I did it - and I won it! I was like: Oh, wow. OK. So I entered another competition - and I won that too!

“So then I thought maybe I should see this as a career. Maybe you know, I was just toying with the idea of exploring the voice modes. And that's what I did. I found a singing coach. I was really fascinated how I could speak a different language with the voice.”

And the overplayed phrase is: ‘And the rest is history’...but it really is. After study at the London School of Singing and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Cleveland co-founded the Jazz Warriors big band. His vocals can be heard on their debut album, Out of Many People, which won a video award in Japan. He was also entered for the Wire/Guardian Jazz Awards - and voted best vocalist for three consecutive years - confirming his place among the vocal elite.

Opera and Musical Theatre followed and in 2007 the City of London Festival, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the first parliamentary bill to abolish slavery, commissioned Bridgetower - A Fable of 1807 reworked by Julian Joseph  and Mike Phillip, which tells the remarkable story of black Polish-born violin prodigy George Bridgetower - the son of an Abyssinian ex-slave who had headed to London to escape revolution in France. Cleveland played the lead - and his performance was lauded.

Cleveland: “I thought to myself, Oh my God, what have I bitten off here? You can't do this. Are you kidding yourself? You're gonna stand on the stage in front of 1000 people - and everyone's going to hear your voice. No microphone. I thought I’d have a panic attack!

[On the first day of rehearsal] “I thought: I need to leave now. I can't do this. [I should] just own up and say it. I was about to do that and then another voice said - (because you know, voices love to talk to you). Another voice said, if you do that, what are you saying to yourself about being an explorer? So I said no, no, no. OK, I'm gonna do this. And I did it. It was amazing. And to this day, it's been the. biggest challenge I think I’ve ever faced.”

If Cleveland Watkiss MBE played a violin, he’d obviously have a number of impressive strings to his bow (I know - what an atrocious metaphor. I do apologise) - but there’s one other fantastic ‘string’ that we have to talk about: His ultra-hip monthly radio show on The BoAt Pod

“I've been doing it now for a year or so. It's a monthly residency feature that I have over in Little Venice in London. It's a lot of fun. I'm able to just play whatever I want to play. Play the music that I'm listening to in that moment.” 

The BoAt Pod in Little Venice, London
The BoAt Pod

And The BoAt Pod is quite an organisation, doing some amazing work.

Cleveland: “They're doing some amazing things. They just had an invite by Blue Note Records to host some sessions with DJs playing music. To be involved with artists from that stable - that label is amazing. They're bringing on interesting people like Paul Weller - he does a regular session there, so they're opening it up to various people from different parts of the music spectrum - you know, just people that are passionate about music.”

And so the final question before we let our Bebopping, Dowopping, Operatic, Jazz-Singing tour de force go…What should we expect from you and Vocal Suite on March 1?

“You should expect the unexpected. That's what everyone needs to expect. Come with open minds - and to hear stuff that you've never heard before and you're never going to hear again!”

The Manchester Song Festival at The Stoller Hall runs from 1-3 March. Full details on all the live performances kicking off with Cleveland on the Friday 1st March – can be found HERE

Workshop Day bookings page for Saturday 2nd March can be found HERE

Day Ticket for the Saturday Workshops  - £22 Adults: £5.50 Students + Under 18s

Header Image: Cleveland Watkiss (Monika S.Jakubowska)