Venus & Mars: An Interview with Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman

Usually credited with inventing the concept of the “classical crossover”, Sarah Brightman has had one of the most fascinating careers in contemporary music. From being a theater actress, to becoming one of the most successful recording artists of her time, she has made a name for herself in a genre that once was thought of as impossible to sell. With her stunning voice, wonderful theatrical displays and her larger than life interpretations, she has been one of the few artists to conquer almost every market in the world. One of her singles became the most sold in German history, she’s cracked the Billboard 200 several times — even surpassing Elton John and The Rolling Stones as most popular British act in America — and recently she also conquered the Asian market, becoming the highest selling artist in Korea.

Now after a five year recording hiatus, she’s back with Dreamchaser, an album that chronicles her latest obsession: space travel. I spoke to Ms. Brightman a few weeks ago as she began her promotional tour in the United States and we discussed the album, the way she selects the songs and how she might soon make interstellar history. I was endlessly charmed by her spirit and was surprised to realize she isn’t the diva we might perceive her as being through her records and music videos. She shared funny anecdotes, laughed constantly and even thanked me for “letting her talk about her album”. She was an absolute delight to talk to …

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Would you say this is your most experimental album to date?

Experimental? Yes, but the most truthful answer is that it’s the most personal album I’ve made. It was inspired by some things I’ve always wanted to do like go to space so recording the album was so inspirational. I had to create a soundscape that came purely from being inspired by space and all those things I’ve known since I was really young. It was also the most personal because I was changing producers. My last producer didn’t want to work with the theme of space, so I worked with Mike Hedges, who I’ve known for quite some time now. It was interesting to create a sort of ethereal energy, and it was a journey for both Mike and I cause first it was about getting to know each other and then it was about deciphering the kind of map we were creating.

Was it easy to choose the songs for the album?

In the end, yes it was, because I wanted to convey the idea of the universe. I wanted to convey the ideas and visions you would get from being a human up in space, and you were looking down to the earth below. I am not a composer of music, I sing pieces which have been written for me which gives me bigger freedom to search for pieces I want to record. Making this album and listening to music I found myself going “Ah great, this is great” and I had the opportunity to record pieces I’ve always loved!

What other themes are you looking to explore now?

I don’t think in terms of themes, I don’t calculate them, they show their face along the way. I’ve had a very long career, I reached a peak and I’ve had a steady career and I think the answer is that what I do with my albums really parallels what happens in my life. Symphony, for example, had a Gothic theme and featured songs chosen in times that were dark. When I recorded that album I was going through a great time of change in my life, and change can only be good in the end. I feel that people really feel they’ve got a part of me when they listen to my albums and the themes just show themselves.

There is something very spiritual about Dreamchaser; I couldn’t help but think of it as the tale of a journey to space and it was interesting that the first song is “Angel”. Are you relating space and the universe to the concept of going to heaven?

It’s interesting that you say that because “Angel” was the first piece I worked on with Mike and that’s the reason why I chose it as the album opener really. However as a child I actually found myself looking up at the sky, looking at the stars … and I found it incredibly protective and continued to find it protective my whole life. When you gaze at stars and think about planets, the places it takes your imagination are amazing! You look up the sky and you know the stars have always been here, they were referenced in biblical times and have always been present. They are somewhere up there in the future and they guide you, they make you feel safe.

One of your most recent tours had you singing in the pyramids of Chichen Itza; the Mayans are renowned for their knowledge about the stars. They were so versed in astronomy that some have suggested they were actually extraterrestrials. Do you believe in those conspiracies?

History and culture, they explain things to us, and we have so much more information now that we are able to understand things on different levels. I believe back in those times human beings were very respectful of what they wanted and how they interacted with their surroundings. Just looking at their contributions one gets a sense of this. All of those things they created, where do all those things come from? There is something beautiful which we can’t really understand, but we understand messages of it and hopefully we’ll understand it more and more … but no, I’m not one of those hocus pocus astrology girls [laughs].

Even if you’ve stated that you are not a composer per se, you do have composer credits on “B612”, how was the process of creating music instead of just performing it?

It was so fun to do! We basically started with the backing track and I experimented vocally, putting lines down. I love the idea of music and this is where most of the songs came from. There is also a very “James Bond movie moment” in this song which reminded me of all these songs of classic movies. There is also something universal and very epic about the B612, which is mentioned in The Little Prince, and I found how in a way, the writer felt he had to go on a journey to B612 and how he found love this way. Now there is a tracking company that protects the planet from asteroids, it’s been recently set up and I learned there are more asteroids circling the earth than we realize and how there is some danger to this, how it explains geographically what has been happening on our earth …

Listening to this album I felt that you pushed your voice to a new limit. You do things with your voice that are simply unbelievable. As the years go by, are you discovering new things about your voice?

Oh yes, it was all great fun because I was being given a clean slate which was great to work with. I did this piece originally recorded by the Cocteau Twins and thought “This is the best: I can use the crazy vocals the Cocteau Twins did and go wherever I liked.” There was also the fun aspect of space I could use and trying to explain space vocally in a crazy way. I have a huge fanbase who maybe are used to very classical music and my more sedate pieces, which are gorgeous, so I can’t wait to see how they react to these new songs.

I heard that in your upcoming trip to space you’re planning on becoming the first performer to sing in outer space …

It is possible because that’s what I do, I perform. However we have to think about all the implications about performing in space — for example there is two second delay and if I have an orchestra and a choir — that would have to be worked out. But I think it could really be a beautiful thing. The space station orbits the planet 16 times a day, can you imagine traveling so fast? It must be beautiful to hit various areas of the earth … but yes, it all depends on the practicality of the technical aspects.