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In Conversation: Susan Boyle

2009-11-17 14:54
Susan Boyle

What was it about Britain's Got Talent that made you want to apply for it?
Well, I'd watched the show on television, like everyone. And I had promised my mum that I would do something with my life just before she died. So I applied for it. Filled out the application form, went through the preliminaries, went before the panel and then was lucky enough to be picked by them, too.

What was going through your head when you were filling in the application form?
I was just concentrating on it. They asked what you’d done in the past and what kind of act you had and if you had a stage name! I just thought, well, my own name will do, won't it? I didn’t know whether I needed a stage name or not. Was it enough to just put my own name down?

Who had you enjoyed on the show before?
I liked the Glaswegians on it when I saw it on the TV. But it was when I saw wee [chorister] Faryl [Smith] that I thought 'I could do that. I fancy that.' She’s a very good singer. All the best to her. Paul Potts was exceptional too. Fantastic voice. He was an inspiration to everybody, all the ordinary people like me that just enjoy singing. If you can do it when you’re working in the Carphone Warehouse you can do it from anywhere.

Take me to the audition day
Well I will never forget that day for all the right reasons. January 21st. A lot of people dream about being on television, about making records, about entertaining people. You chance your arm and see how far you can get. But to be honest I never thought for a minute that I would get this far. The audition was at The SECC. I could see the place but I kept on taking the wrong bus. I must have changed buses about six times to get to the place and I could see it all the time. I got there hours early and sat in the holding room watching everybody do their audition one by one. Everybody kept saying to me are you sure you should be at this audition. I saw dance groups come and go, men with spoons, dogs. Eventually it was my turn, I got three yeses. By the time I'd finished my audition I’d missed my last bus home so one of the runners got me a taxi home. I was on a real high, it was like Celtic winning the cup.

What were your nerves like at the audition?
Pretty jangled, you know? Then with missing the buses, I was all over the place. I went on stage and my knees were knocking but I decided you either show nerves of you get cheeky with it. I said right, the cheeks the thing. I introduced myself as Susan Boyle and that I’d like to be a professional singer like Elaine Paige. Well that was immediately met with laughter and then I began to sing. Without blowing my trumpet too much, I got a standing ovation, it was exhilarating. I didn’t imagine that I'd get that reaction. I was still on a high when I got back. It was a very good feeling. Everything I said to the judges was completely unplanned. The Elaine Paige thing I’d thought of before because she’s always been a favourite but the carrying on and the swagger? I had no idea where that came from. My original intention was to go on in a football strip. A Celtic strip, just to get the attention. But my family told me they’d completely disown me if I did! [laughs]So I thought I’d draw the line.

Why did you choose the song "I Dream A Dream?"
It was just a song I loved from a musical I loved. I’d seen a production of Les Miserable in Edinburgh, at the Playhouse and I liked the mother figure. It was after my mother died that I’d seen the show and I loved the song and what it meant. I'd sort of regressed after she'd died, if you like.

Can we talk about your mum?
Of course we can. It was life-changing not having her to depend on so much. I had to learn to do things for myself. My dad has been dead ten years now and my mum for two and a half. They had a good innings. They were elderly when they went and they’d been sweethearts since they were 20. They went to school together. Came from the same area, grew up together. This was a promise that I’d made to my mum, that I’d do something with my singing. She was the reason I pursued my singing. She was the reason I became a member of choirs and sang in wee clubs. Just to see what I could do. She had a good belief that I could do it. She was a good woman. We'd seen a soloist singing on the TV just before she passed and I said 'is that what you want me to do, mum?' and she said 'Yes'. I said 'are you serious?' and she said 'Of course I am.' So I decided to do something about it. I couldn’t straight away because the bereavement hit me hard. But I’m getting over that slowly and putting my promise into practice. The dream my father had of becoming a singer is coming true though me so I think he’d be proud.

How did you cope with that bereavement?
After mum died in 2007 it didn’t fully register until maybe 6 months after when the loneliness set in and there was nobody around except my cat. When you lose someone as powerful as your mum you feel as if a part of you is taken away and that does things to your confidence. My confidence was pretty down at that time. A good way of leveling it out, I found, was to tell myself that even though she’s not here physically, mentally and spiritually she is. That’s what keeps you going. I have my faith, which is the backbone of who I am, really.

You’re the youngest of the nine?
Yes, I fell out of the cot last! [laughs] I’d keep them up at night with my screaming and bawling. By the time I was growing up most of them had left the nest and were getting married. My eldest sister is 23 years older than me.

What was it like growing up in such a large family?
Oh, we were quite a squad. All with different abilities. But all very musical. My brother Joe was a songwriter, too. My dad used to sing. My mother sung and played piano. I have two sisters that are very good singers. We were a wee bit like the Von Trapps! There were guitars sitting about in the house and a piano and we’d all experiment with them. We loved The Beatles in the 60s. I was just a wee lassie and we’d sit and watch Top Of The Pops and wait for them and The Rolling Stones come on. My dad hated that program so he used to turn it down, I used to turn it up just for devilment. My dad was a fair sort of person mind you but he used to cause a lot of arguments in the house over that program.

Tell us how the dynamics of your house worked?
I think the two eldest ones got the responsibility delegated to them by my father, he was quite strict with them. We were never allowed to go to the local dance hall but I had a sister who used to shimmy down the drainpipes and sneak out. But there's nobody around who hasn't done that before! Gradually my brothers and sisters got their own jobs and their own ways of life and got married and flew the nest.

How ironic that you've now taken "Wild Horses" and made it yours.
I just hope that I can do it justice. The words are great. They take me back to where I lived. It's a very powerful song.

Are your memories of growing up outside of music happy?
They're mixed, like everybody else's. The majority of my childhood was quite happy until I started getting bullied at school. They used to knock me about a bit and try and make me cry. There’s nothing worse than another person having power over you by bullying you and you not knowing how to get rid of that thing. For anybody that has that type of problem I’d tell them to see a teacher now but I didn’t do it. I didn’t think I could trust anybody and it made me a bit of a sitting target. By the time I got to secondary school I wasn't sure who was my friend or my enemy. I didn’t make friends very easily, I did try and speak to people but they made fun of me. I often felt pushed aside.

Was music a release from this?
Oh aye, it was a complete emotional release. I had a slight disability and instead of saying 'right, I have this disability' and concentrating on it I had to find my abilities and concentrate on that instead. Singing was the one thing that I was good at. Music was my escape and my brother bought me lots of LP’s. I was daft about the Osmonds at the time. I used to go up to my bedroom and play records, I could be who I wanted to be, I used to imagine myself singing to an audience. It was my safe haven. Even at 13, I would see people singing on the TV and wanted to be in that position and entertain people.

When did you first discover that you had a powerful voice?
I’ve sung since I was about 9. I'd do theatrical stuff and join choirs. I was picked for a solo once, but choirs for me were about hiding behind other people. They were about taking comfort in letting other people take the lead. I was quite shy back then. Hard to believe after everything that’s happened this year, I know! But I was. The thing is by the time you get to my age you lose that shyness.

How old are you?
[whispers] 48. It’s only a number, for goodness sake!

If you’d told the young Susan, at 12 years old, that this was what was going to happen to her, what would she have said?
She wouldn’t have said a word. She would’ve been too shy to say anything.

A lot of the music on your album has a religious flavour to it.
Aye, there's a couple of hymns on there. It seemed right. How Great Thou Art is a song that takes me right back to my childhood. There's a lot of people I associate with that hymn, it's a very spiritual song. On a personal level, Church is very important to me, it's the central point of my faith and I recognize that God gives you gifts that you have to use to the best of your ability. I hope I’ve got the right professionalism to do that now. I know that I’ve got the right people behind me to bring it forward. I just hope that I can.

Tell us more about why religion is so important to you?
The church has always been my friend in the times where I was being bullied, where I felt lonely, when I lost my mother and it helped me through it. I am also part of an organization, as well as being spiritual you visit the elderly and sick helping people offering prayers and help to those who need it. My faith gives me an inner strength and helped me through the periods of self doubt. I will always continue to keep that kind of linkage. It's not just about being an entertainer that’s just part of it, another part of it is being connected with someone else and that someone else is my faith.

Do you understand why your tremendous story has connected with so many people?
I don't know, really. It’s an unusual story. I was often left behind at school because of one thing or another. I was a slow learner. I'm just I'm a wee bit slower at picking things up than other people are. So you get left behind in a system that just wants to rush on, you know? That was what I felt was happening to me. And this feels like a good way of making up for that. A very, very enjoyable way of making up for it as well. I don’t think the resources were there for me back then at school. Teachers have more specialised training now. There was discipline for the sake of discipline back then and you are looking at someone who would get the belt every day. 'Will you shut up, Susan!' Whack! I should be careful about what I say because I have a sister Mary who's a fantastic singer and she's a teacher now. But like I say, it's all very different now. I think teachers are taught to understand children with learning disabilities a lot better.

How do you feel about the worldwide reaction?
I didn't know what YouTube was until I was in the record offices and saw the clip and the number of hits and thought oh my god. I'm still trying to come to terms with it. The fans have been amazing and the mail I have received, phenomenal. I have been sent beautiful gifts including books, toiletries and a vintage dress from the 1950’s that had been in a family for generations and they wanted me to have it. It’s indescribable that someone would want me to have something so precious. Everyone has shown me such kindness and support. I’ve even had offers of dates!

Tell us about the significance of some of the other hymns you sing on the record.
"Amazing Grace" is a beautiful song. Just beautiful. It’s a song I try to learn from, about how grace influences your life. I’d sung it as part of choral work and I think it is one of those songs that appeals across the ages.

After your first audition on the TV show went out you became more famous than anybody could possibly have anticipated. How did that affect you?
I have no idea how that happened. Honest to God. It was absolutely unbelievable if I'm being honest.

What do you think it was about you particularly that people became so instantly fascinated by?
Put it this way... a woman who went on with mad hair, bushy eyebrows and the frock I was wearing had to be noticed. Come on! That particular frock was a good choice at the time, I thought. I'd bought it for my brother’s wedding. It was a dress to impress. But I don’t know whether it did or not. It's a hard one to put into context, probably the fact that I’m an ordinary person who came from a poor back ground and through fate and the help of a great team of people I was able to rise up from that, I know it’s a cliche but it’s a bit of a cinderella story really.

What was it like living in Blackburn at that time?
The hype that went on I didn’t really get. I just didn’t get it. By the time the live shows happened it was a bit surreal, really. Strangers writing to me every day. Everyone was really nice to me. Blackburn became kind of manic. There were satellite TV companies at my door every day. All the local kids were having a look to see what was going on. In some ways it was funny. The neighbourhood turned out to be a very good community. They were very supportive. Nobody seemed to mean any harm. People would offer to do my shopping for me that I'd never spoken to in my life before. By the time I came down for London for the semi finals I knew a lot more people in the village.

How did the live shows feel for you?
Good. Everyone was ever so good in my semi final. I didn’t think there was anyone you could pick out as better than the others. It's a very hard show to judge. Then the fan mail snowballed and the whole thing went a bit chaotic. Everyone was very kind to me on the show. Ant and Dec were ever so nice. Piers and Simon were lovely.

Some of the papers were less than lovely. How did that feel?
You can't really get annoyed by it. People will write things about you. It is part of the territory you're in. It felt a wee bit hurtful and I'm sure if I read everything I would've become a wee bit paranoid but you have to take it all with a pinch of salt. I'm getting used to it now and I get lots of advice. Back then we all were a bit shocked by the interest I think but I had a good team to get me through that unexpected patch.

The kind of instant fame you had is very hard for the media to deal with because you are still one of us rather than one of them.
I'm the wee wifey with the mop and the cat next door. I went from being an unknown, nobody bothering me on the streets to all these headlines with things like 'the hairy angel'. The pressure of that I found a bit suffocating as anyone would because it all happened in such a short space of time.

You had a short spell in the Priory, why?
I don't really remember much about it after the final I went there with extreme exhaustion. I hadn't slept properly for about a week and I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was in there for 3 days and I've never felt so tired, but I look back on it now and it was a necessity. I wanted to get a rest and a break at the time without all the cameras you know.

How is Pebbles?
Pebbles is doing great, thank you.

She's become a celebrity in her own right.
My cat has been called Pebbles, she’s been called Bubbles, she’s been called Peebles, they always get it wrong.

At what point did you know you were going to make a record?
I wasn't sure until after the show. I had a meeting at the record company and they asked me if I wanted to make a record and I was a wee bit nervous. I don’t remember much of the final of the show because I was so exhausted at the time. But afterwards we talked again and you know? Simon Cowell knew my dream was to make a record and he said if I still wanted to do it then he would offer me a deal. You don't get that every lifetime, do you? Thanks Simon! After 23 years of waiting and wanting to make a record it takes your breath away really. There aren’t really words to describe it except for one, Wow! It didn’t feel real, I kept asking myself is this really happening. I kept expecting someone to say ‘haha love, we’re kidding’.

Describe the feeling the first day you walked into the studio?
When you go into the studio you see all these plaques on the walls of different artists and I said to myself 'you're going to make an album and eventually if your good enough you'll be there.' I felt quite shy but was determined to do my best. The album was so important to me and it was very important to have songs that personally appealed to me. I sat and listened to music and heard songs and thought about things that would suit my voice and songs that meant something to me when I heard them.

What was the first song you recorded for the album?
It was "I Dreamed A Dream" first and then "Cry Me A River". I remembered it being the theme tune from the TV show McCallum. I'd been through to Edinburgh to a wee studio to see how my voice sounded on tape and that was the song we’d sung there. I went into the booth and sang the song and that was that. I found it easier than you’d think. It's a Julie London song, with a lovely 1950s feel about it. I like that era. It seems so tame and innocent now.

Obviously "I Dreamed A Dream" had to be on here.
Obviously. But a lot of the ones that moved me surprised me a lot. Wild Horses was a song like that. I just didn't expect it to suit my voice as much as it did. I'd never tried singing that song before. It was all new territory for me. I'm used to singing music from the musical theatre and this was rock music. But the lyrics drew me into the song and as the story unfolded I got it. I felt drawn in by the words. The same thing with You’ll See.

This is quite something isn’t it? Susan Boyle takes on Madonna!
It’s just a song. And it's a song about determination. I am a determined woman, despite the bullying I’ve had in the past. It's a song about proving yourself as your own woman. I instantly loved that song. It’s a song about knowing that whatever happens to you, you’ll be alright.

What about the new songs: "Who I Was Born To Be"?
This is fate telling me what I should be doing with my life. I heard that song and instantly I knew. It's a brand new song. A very powerful song. It was a very moving song to sing.

How pleased are you with the album?
The whole thing has come together so well. Beyond my wildest dreams, really. I had a great producer. Steve [Mac] was so kind to me. He was brilliant to work with and he got the best out of me. The album itself is like a reflection on my whole life. I've waited so long to become a professional singer and now it’s become real.

How was going to America for you?
I went to LA and there were great crowds waiting for us at the airport. It was quite something. Nothing that a woman like me was used to. For heaven’s sake! What have I done? But I found Americans to be incredibly warm and friendly and very open about how warm and friendly they are. It was quite something to be in Hollywood. It’s like stepping back in time. To another time and place with all the movie stars gracefully walking about. The hotel I was staying in? Apparently Frank Sinatra used to take his women back there! Talk about "Strangers In The Night", eh? And I dipped my toes into the same pool Grace Kelly had been in. This is a world I'd never seen before and never dreamt that I would get to see. Everyone was so wonderful to me and I can’t wait to visit again.

How was it singing "Wild Horses" on America's Got Talent?
It was one of the most incredible things I've done in my life, if not the most incredible. When I was getting my make-up put on Piers Morgan came in to say hello, and I’ve always had a soft spot for wee Piersy. [laughs] He said 'you’re a serious artist now.' The frock that they had given me, specially made for me by Suzanne Neville, the grand piano, the orchestra. It really feels like I am [an artist] now. There's always been a supermodel fighting to get out of the wee wifey! Ha! [laughs] Well, not quite. But everyone's put a lot of work in and I can't believe the way that I've looked in some photos. It’s like looking at a different person that the one I was this time last year.

You've undergone a bit of transformation, when you look in the mirror now what do you see?
I brush up quite well! It's a bit like a signet to a swan, now I see a sophisticated lady even though the outwardness has changed, inside I'm still the same, but a bit more refined now in some ways. The whole process has been good for me. I keep reading that I've had all this botox, the teeth whitening but I haven’t had that at all! I've been working hard and lost a bit of weight which has been good for me.

What’s the dream now, Susan? Would you like a boyfriend?
Och, there's no time for that now! I’m far too busy! What a laugh. No, there was a TV company that wanted to set me up with a man. Apparently he was a nice man, but I’ve got my living to do now. I don’t mind being friendly, but no marriage plans as yet!

How proud do you think your parents would be of you now?
I think they would be very proud of me. I hope they would. I've done a lot of wrong with my parents, there's no-one around that hasn't, frankly, but hopefully I’ve made up for that now and they’re smiling down on me. I can feel it, sometimes.

Do you think that there’s something in your story that has changed the perception of fame in Britain?
No, but I think that I have turned the ordinary woman upside down. The wee wifey with the bottle of Flash doing her cleaning? She’s gone now.

Don’t lose her altogether, Susan.
No I won't. That’s what keeps me grounded. Remembering that I am just that wifey. My story is what you see is what you get. There’s no airs and graces with me.

How does it feel to be Susan Boyle now?
I feel very content within myself as I'm finally achieving my dream. I feel so lucky and very privileged actually.

What is your biggest fear?
Well everybody has fears but mine is probably that this will all disappear, I want it to keep on going as long as possible. If it did all go away tomorrow I know that I've enjoyed every moment of living the dream now.

The girl that dreamed a dream, what does she dream about now?
I dream about security, I dream about one day finding the right person and continuing to make people happy with my music. My advice to those who dare to dream is don’t give up. If I can do it anyone else can to.

Britain's Got Talent's 40-something Scottish songbird chats about fame, faith, her debut album, her cat, covering Madonna and so much more.
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