Leytonstone choir: "Damon Albarn? We'd never heard of him" (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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The Pentecostal City Mission Church Choir discuss performing and recording Damon Alburn's new album Everyday Robots
“Honestly? I wasn’t a fan. I’d never heard of him. Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of Monkey and the groups, y’know, Blur and all, just not Damon...”
It’s a warm Wednesday afternoon, and I’m sat with two members of The Pentecostal City Mission Church Choir in the foyer of Leytonstone Library.
Choir leader Conroy Griffiths and fellow singer Mary Oldacre, who make up part of the six-strong assemble, have just finished rehearsing for an intimate set they are due to perform that evening with Damon Albarn.
Organised to showcase his highly anticipated debut solo album Everyday Robots, the choir also appears on two tracks on the record: Mr Tembo and Heavy Seas of Love.
But the pair is forthcoming at admitting that they had no idea who the pop chameleon was, that is, until he requested their vocal talents.
“We just didn’t know,” laughs Conroy, 58, who lives in Enfield. “About a year ago a phone call came through to the church, I don’t know how they got our number, but it was Damon’s office.
“They told me that he was creating this album, which would centre on his life, growing up in Leytonstone.
“You see, the church had an impact on his childhood, he used to sit outside on his bicycle and listen to the choir singing. Although it wasn’t actually us, you know, me and Mary, it’s amazing to think that that he remembered the church, the choir, after all of these years.
“That he found the choir’s music so spiritually uplifting that he wanted us to be part of this project.
“So here we are, continuing the choir’s legacy.”
According to the duo, a rough copy of Mr Tembo was sent over and the choir was tasked with injecting their gospel sound into the music.
“At first we thought the song was about an old man, then we found out it was a small elephant and that was quite funny. In fact I’m getting ribbed about singing this elephant song...but there’s meaning behind it.
“It wasn’t a lot of work for us, as singing comes naturally. We did some creative ups and downs and Damon selected which bits he wanted to keep.
“But I will say he didn’t give us much notice,” laughs Mary, 45, who lives in Walthamstow. “I think we had one rehearsal before we went into the studio.
“It’s a bit like today, we didn’t realise we’d be singing all of Heavy Souls, he’s only just told us.”
While most performers would be forgiven for feeling nervous at the lack of preparation time, the choir is taking it all in their stride, as this isn’t, after all, the first time they’ve worked alongside famous singers – their impressive roll call includes the likes of Patti LaBelle and Sir Cliff Richard.
With various reports over the years describing Damon as a difficult personality to work with, how does he compare with their previous collaborators?
“Oh he’s lovely!” Gushes Mary, “A really regular, down to earth guy. When I first met him I was really nervous, but he made us all feel so comfortable, it’s been a joy to work with him.”
“And he’s certainly no taskmaster”, adds Conroy, chuckling, “if anything, it’s my job to be the taskmaster.”
We can hear the opening strains of For Tomorrow playing down the hall, which can only mean that as Damon is back on stage practising, the pair need to get back to the rehearsal room.
“I don’t think any of this has really hit us yet,” admits Conroy, as we walk back. “A year ago we were singing in our church, now we’re filming pop videos, we’re performing gigs and we’re going to be on stage at Latitude Festival.
“Who knows what else Damon has planned for us...either way it’s been phenomenal.”
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