The Choirgirl Isabel
The Choirgirl Isabel
"They came to York and..." She won, obviously. "There was only me competing from the York choir, which I'm kind of glad about because I'd hate to be competing with a friend. That would be terrible!" Isabel loves being part of the choir, and remembers how, as a seven-year-old probationer, she would have running races up and down York Minster's enormous nave. "We had to be really quiet, otherwise the old choirmaster would get really cross with us. But it was great fun, you could skid along on your knees." Perhaps more importantly, she has gained priceless performing experience with the choir, both as a member of the ensemble and as soloist in pieces such as Vaughan Williams' Mass in G Minor or Heathcote Statham's Magnificat in E minor ("that was my first solo in Evensong").
Even so, ever since this golden opportunity knocked, her life has been a bit of a blur, as she experienced her first taste of working in a top-flight professional recording studio and found herself rubbing shoulders with a variety of famous artists. She recorded her debut Decca album in a total of six days, with the sessions split into two batches, and then polished it off with a few additional bouts in the studio, such as the one in which she recorded a duet with Aled Jones on All Through the Night. But, mysteriously, it wasn't with today's Aled. "I thought I'd be singing with him as an adult," Isabel explains, "but when we got to the studio I listened to the track and there was this boy singing it. I went 'Whoa! He can sing high!' But it was Aled as a boy.
He'd recorded a lot of material that couldn't be released because his voice broke after recording it, so I found myself singing along with one of those tracks." Aled was about the same age as Isabel is now when he shot to fame as the boy treble who sang the haunting Walking in the Air, from the animated film The Snowman, so it's good news for Isabel that he's taking a big-brotherly interest in her budding career. She first met him when she accompanied him to a fund-raising concert for the London Welsh School, where Jones was performing alongside Cerys Matthews, Hayley Westenra and Karl Jenkins. "He's going to be my mentor and co-manager," says Isabel. "He's very friendly and easy to get on with, and when he was singing he came across as a really nice person. Cerys did a duet with him, and it seemed like they were having lots of fun." Isabel's album is an easy-to-love selection of pieces which span a variety of genres, playing to her familiar strengths in church choral music but also encompassing some shrewdly-chosen popular songs. "There are some hymns," she points out.
"There's The Day Thou Gavest and In The Bleak Midwinter. Then there's a new version of Einaudi's I Giorni, called For Tomorrow. It was originally a piano piece but we've added a vocal part for me to sing. I really like it, and I can play it on piano now as well." On her version of Bright Eyes, the theme from the tear-jerking rabbit odyssey Watership Down which gave Art Garfunkel his best-known solo hit, Isabel sings the vocal to a guitar accompaniment, and she has taught herself how to play that as well. Ironically, Isabel is a passionate animal-lover who can't get on with rabbits - "I had a rabbit but he bit me, and he gave me huge scratch marks on my wrist" - but she has been much more successful with the guitar. "I've been teaching myself guitar since last year," she points out."I'd call it 'songwriter guitar', and I have actually written some songs.
We went on a school trip to France and there was a talent show. I did one of the songs I'd written, but my friends really bugged me by going round singing it. I was going 'shhh! Stop singing it! It's terrible!'" (although good enough to win the talent show, as it turned out). Amusingly, some of Isabel's friends have created their own rap song which was inspired by the problems they were having learning latin verbs, and Isabel now uses it as a handy crib-sheet for her own latin studies. This must have come in handy for the latin pieces on her album, such as Cesar Franck's Panis Angelicus, on which she duets with Britain's Got Talent's Liam McNally. "That's my singing teacher's favourite one on the album! She loves the version I've sung.
I've also recorded Pie Jesu by Faure. We do the Faure Requiem with the choir, though I haven't actually sung the solo part. The last time we sung it, our choirmaster couldn't decide who should be the soloist from the senior girls, so all of us sang it together." Despite her hectic schedule and the barrage of new situations she keeps being confronted with, Isabel is doing a good job of keeping both feet on the ground. Strikingly self-possessed and confident, she doesn't hesitate to throw herself into new challenges, even extreme ones like the outward-bound week she spent in the Hebrides last summer and again this year, living on an uninhabited island with no electricity and surviving on boiled limpets and seaweed.
"I Iove stuff like that!" she enthuses. "Maybe I'm a tomboy at heart." All this may be because her somewhat unusual upbringing has taught her how to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances. She was born in London in 1998, but she was little more than a month old when she moved to Tuscany with her parents and three-year-old brother Jack. This was because her American father, James, is a celebrated wine critic whose job took him to Italy.
Isabel harbours mixed emotions about the five years she spent in Italy. "I can just about get by in Italian, but I was really stubborn about learning it. I was going 'no! I'm not Italian so I won't speak it'. Now of course I wish I'd studied harder, because it's such a beautiful language and it's fantastic to sing in. And also because I didn't speak the language I didn't get to know the other children very well." But it wasn't all bad.
"I loved going out into the woods and getting mucky in the bramble bushes and stuff, and we had dogs and I always enjoyed walking them every day. We moved to Italy because of my dad's job, and of course the food's amazing - I do miss the food, because school lunch isn't exactly up to what I had in Italy. Lumpy rice pudding, urgh! In Italy the ice cream was amazing, and we had a brilliant pizza place nearby." Her departure from Italy was brought about by an unfortunate chain of circumstances. Both her English grandparents fell ill and later died, and her parents separated, prompting Isabel's mother to move back to England with her two children.
They settled in York, where it was Isabel's piano teacher who suggested she should try for a choral scholarship at the Minster, even though she'd had no singing experience. Astonishingly, she was successful. The scholarship not only started her off on what is shaping up as a highly promising musical career, but salvaged the family's tottering finances at a difficult time. Happily, too, despite her parents' separation, Isabel is still on good terms with both of them. "My mum hasn't got remarried, and I see my dad loads! He came just a week ago, and we went to Leeds and went to Wagamama, which is my favourite." Hymn book and cassock aside, Isabel is just a normal 12-year-old girl.
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