Fiona Bennett has returned to her passion of music with her new album A Country Suite after taking time out to start and take care of her family.
I caught up with her to talk about the new record, why she decided now was the perfect time to return to music and what lies ahead.
- A Country Suite is your new album so what can we expect from the new record?
I was a fairly prolific song-writer in my twenties and thirties and then when my younger son was diagnosed with Autism I had to concentrate on that.
So A Country Suite is the first thing I have written in fourteen years and it came about because my oldest son Dominic went off to boarding school and so I had a little bit more time to myself.
I started playing the piano again last year and in October I went to British Grove Studios in London and treated myself to a day there and recording the whole thing.
- How have you found returning to music and writing after a reasonably lengthy break?
Well it’s very surprising actually because I really had thought… I will always be a musician. I started playing the piano when I was four and when I was eighteen I went to train at the Guildhall in London. So music is in my bones really and I have never had a job that hasn’t involved music.
But when I became a full time mum that took over everything. So that is very exciting and it’s lovely and I am thrilled to bits that music has come back, really really pleased.
- I was reading that the music on the album was inspired by costume dramas of the 19th century so how have they inspired you? And how have tried to capture the essence of that time?
I am a Pices and I am a real escapist so I love a good book, or film, or costume drama and I love things like Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford. While it all looks very lovely on telly I imagine that life back then was very tough.
Although I am from Wales I have lived in Berkshire for the last twenty two years and some of the villages around there probably haven’t changed a great deal.
The village where my youngest son Zachary goes to school is called Hampstead Norreys, the church gets a mention in a Doomsday Book that’s how old it is, and there is still a wonderful community feel there.
The seasons feature a lot in the music and it’s inspired by the school drive every morning, it’s not very far, but just watching how the seasons change; the way everything closes down over winter and comes back to life in the spring.
There is a combination of the costume drama as I have tried to evoke… the second movement is called Sunday Gathering and it is supposed to be rusty old harmonium in the chapel because there would have been someone in the congregation who would have been able to play the harmonium, it was a very old wind driven instrument.
So I tried to write something contemporary but with something that would remind you of that period in history.
- So how have you found the response to the album so far?
I am absolutely thrilled actually. I decided to have a thousand copies of a CD made and I always planned to give away quite a few to fellow musicians, fellow composers, friends and family and people who I don’t know and don’t know me just so I can get an honest response.
I have had so many people come back to me and say ‘I absolutely love it’, ‘It is on in my car all the time’, ‘my children love listening to it when they are dozing off to sleep’. The one word that comes to me time and time again people tell me they find it very relaxing because it helps them chill out.
- Nia Williams penned the lyrics for the final track so how did you end up working with her?
Nia and I met when we were nine years old as I had moved from North Wales down to Cardiff with my family and my parents decided that it would be a good idea for me to go to a Welsh school where all the lessons were taught in Welsh.
Nia was in the class and we became friends very quickly, we both played the piano and we were both very advanced for our years. So we were great friends and we went off to secondary school together.
When we were eighteen Nia went off to Exeter University and I went off to London and we didn’t see one another for twelve years.
I went back to Wales to visit my family and I happened to bump into her father and asked how she was and he said ‘oh she is fine but she lives ever so far away in Basingstoke’ and I said ‘isn’t that funny because I live in Newbury’ - it’s twenty minutes in the car from Basingstoke.
So we met up again in 1991/2 and I was very busy song writing and I asked Nia if she was interested in having a stab at writing some song lyrics.
We have written many many songs together and the song Tymhoran, which is on the album, reached the final of the World Song Competition in 1998 - so we were in the final six for that which was great.
- You have mentioned the British Grove Studios so how did you find the whole recording process - as you said you did it all in a day?
Well I couldn’t spare the time - you have the luxury of time when you are younger and you don’t have a family. I had done a massive amount of recording from my teens onwards as my father use to work for the BBC in Cardiff.
I did a lot of recording in my teens, twenties and thirties and so I was very familiar with how the process works; for example you don’t fidget or talk or rustle you just keep really still as the recording begins. And when you finish you don’t take your foot of the piano peddle as you get a great big clunk.
I knew that I had to get it done in a day so what I did was I practised and practised until I could almost play everything in my sleep because I knew that I would have to get it done quite quickly. So it was quite stressful but it was really enjoyable as well.
- You started playing the piano at a very early age so what sparked your interest in that instrument?
My dad, who comes from Dublin originally, came from a family who sadly didn’t have a lot in terms of material possessions and his dad was a bit of a whiskey drinker and so they didn’t have much money.
My father would have loved to have played the piano and I think that it is one of his great regrets because they were very poor and life was very tough. So when I was young he just thought ‘let’s see if Fiona enjoys it’.
So we were living in Anglesey, North Wales and he sent me to the local piano teacher and I just took to it like a duck to water - I’m not sure if one of the reasons was she use to give me two chocolates at the end of each lesson; there was one for me and one for my sister and I use to eat them both (laughs).
But I loved it and I took my first exam when I was six, which is really quite young, my mum and I took the bus to Bangor to take the exam and I got a distinction.
Then when I was twelve we moved back to Cardiff and we had to find a new piano teacher and they did find me someone he was a really nice chap but we just did the same pieces and the same scales.
I eventually told my dad that I wanted to stop playing the piano and he was really upset about it because he knew I was good. So he set out to find me a new piano teacher.
Between the age of fourteen and seventeen not only did I skip several grades, I was grade five and I skipped six seven and eight, I took a diploma when I was seventeen.
I had to do a recital in front of three people from Trinity College in London and a three hour history and theory paper but at seventeen I had letters after my name and I had a diploma - she was a really inspiring teacher.
- You studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as well as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama so how did you time there prepare you a career in music?
I don’t know that they do prepare you as I think that you have to make that decision for yourself.
I trained at the Royal Welsh College - the teacher that my dad found when I was fourteen and she taught the full time music students at the college but also has some part time students and that is what happened to me; I would go there on a Friday evening after school and I would have a one hour lesson with her.
In my first year she decided that I should apply for a scholarship and so I had to do a recital for some of the important people at the college who decided I was talented enough that they offered me a scholarship.
This meant that the fees were substantially reduced for my parents, which was a great help, and also they gave me a scholarship to study music theory, which is just as important as playing as you have to know what you are doing on paper.
When I was seventeen my scholarship expired because I had had it for three years but because I had a year left before I went to the Guildhall they decided to extend for the extra year which was wonderful.
When I was fourteen I decided that I wanted to go to a London music college so I got all of the prospectuses in and I saw the Guildhall one and I really took to it and that is where I wanted to go.
But sometimes people change their mind when they get to music college. Sometimes they start off studying a particular instrument but when they get there you get to try other instruments and some people change course completely; they go from a performance course to a more graduate or academic course.
But I stuck to my academic course. I wanted to go back to Wales and work in Wales but that didn’t work out and it didn’t happen quite as I imagined.
So I ended up being offered jobs, playing the piano and singing, on board the SS Canberra, P&O’s luxury cruise liner at the time, and so I got to sail around the world for five years.
I continued to do a lot of television work in Wales, even though I wasn’t living their full time, and then I went to live in London and ended up in Newbury. So I am a bit of a nomad but I have been here for a few years now.
- You took some time away from your career to have a family so why did you decide that now was the right time to return with this record?
I wasn’t a conscious a decision I just started to come up with some tunes and they were just floating around in my head and I just thought it would be a real shame if I did not record them.
I hadn’t made a record or recorded anything since 2004; I recorded a little jazz CD. I was fifty in February of this year and I just thought that I would treat myself and it would be a CD to mark my birthday.
I took some money out of my savings, it was quite expensive to hire the studio, and I just spent the money on myself and treat myself. It was really about getting the music down on CD, see what people think of it and then see what happens.
But I have written other music since I have recorded it so there is more music in the pipeline.
- Well you have touched on my final question what's coming up for you?
I think music will always have to take a little bit of a back seat to being a full time mum as Zachary is on the autistic spectrum and he needs extra support at school - at the moment his dad and I are trying to decide which school he is going to go to next and so there is a lot of planning and preparation for that.
I use to gig a lot with my band in London and Bristol and for a while my band was the preferred party/function band for Highclere Castle, these days known as Downton Abbey. So I use to perform there a lot during the 1990’s but I can’t really do that anymore because I am needed at home and I need to be here.
So that’s why I thought if I can write and record piano music and possibly get it played on radio and people can download it then that is a way of writing my music and possibly making a living from it without it taking me away from Zachary.
So I have written a new suite called The New Lady Radnor Suite and it is back in one of my favourite periods in history. Hubert Parry, who wrote the famous hymn Jerusalem, he composed a suite of music for a lady called Lady Radnor and she was the wife of the fifth Earl of Radnor.
When my two sons were at Chems School I met the current Lady Radnor, she is called Melissa but everyone calls her Moo.
So she and I have become quite friendly. And I said to her ’did you know that there is a Lady Radnor suite?’ And she said that she had heard about it.
So I said ’it would be a real scream if I wrote one for you’ and she said ’yeah that would be lovely’.
So I sent her A Country Suite and she said that she loves it and it is always on in the car. So I have composed a new Lady Radnor Suite and I am hoping to record that next year.
Fiona Bennett’s new album A Country Suite is out now
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw