I was born on a turkey farm in Tamworth, meaning that I hated country music because that’s all that was on the radio. But so much of country music is about telling a story, and I’ve grown to adore narrative songs that have a journey through them.
I suppose Rodgers and Hammerstein was the big influence growing up: Carousel and South Pacific plus My Fair Lady. My parents had those records, and I remember us singing The Sound of Music in the car as we travelled. At the same time as I was listening to Carousel, I was also listening to Jimi Hendrix, but I also became interested in Lieder at school. I don’t know how, but again it was probably because of the narratives. You think of something like Winterreise or Erlkönig, they’re stories.
Philip Quast as Ben Stone in Follies at the National Theatre. Photo © Johan Persson
Growing up, we only had a pianola in the house. I never learnt an instrument, and on the pianola you could get all those semi-religious pieces like Bless This House, but also things like If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof and all the Mario Lanza songs from The Student Prince. It’s interesting to see as a result of this mixture which musicals I like now. I really find it hard to sing songs from shows that don’t say anything. And I’m a firm believer that cabaret doesn’t work for me unless you’ve got charm and wit and – most importantly – something to say.
But for music to listen to now when I’m just relaxing at home, I go looking for really quirky stuff. An album I’m loving at the moment is Due come noi che by Gino Paoli and Danilo Rea – it’s quite extraordinary. I also really love listening to classical music, but I don’t listen to musicals ever. I realised the other day that here I am in Follies and I don’t know any of the other words or songs that anyone else sings. And I never have. I just don’t listen to them in that way. I don’t have an ear for learning. But Follies has been the most incredible experience. It’s quite thrilling. I was saying to someone the other day, “I could retire after this one because there really is nothing more to do.”
I listen to Shostakovich a lot: things like his Piano Concerto No 2 I love. I also love listening to opera, but at the same time I will put on Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton, and I love listening to a lot of rappers. I think Eminem is really extraordinary to listen to. Because I teach so much, I’m fascinated by the integration of language and music – generally I listen to everything to do with words and language.
When I’m writing, I go back and listen to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Recently a writer here, who’s married to Penny Downie, gave me a lot of the remixed masters and Van Morrison’s live stuff.
I’m also really fond of a lot of folk music. Again, that’s based on language. I’ve become very, very interested in Eastern European music. I didn’t quite understand jazz, but once you go and watch some, and you watch the musicians, you start to understand it. As an actor you understand the nature of how someone’s got to finish an improvisation within a certain given time, and there’s this great moment of “are they going to make it?”
THE MUSIC I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT…
Due come noi che
Gino Paoli and Danilo Rea
Parco della Musica Records MPR 042 CD
At the moment I would have to say Due come noi che by Gino Paoli and Danilo Rea. I’ve listened to this album more than anything else in the last four years – at least once a fortnight, which is quite substantial. I don’t hear narrative songs like these sung by Americans or the English, but Europeans sing about walking into a room and smelling your perfume.