In the world of musical theatre, Colm Wilkinson stands very tall. On stages in New York, London, Toronto and beyond, he has deservedly won a reputation as one of theatre's greatest performers. Such unforgetable characters as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and Che in Evita have been given a definitive portrayal by Wilkinson in their hit productions. Along the course of a substantial career, Colm has earned multiple awards, critical acclaim, and the adoration of millions of theatregoers.
The multi-talented Irsh-born performer is now showing a different side to the public. He happens to be a skilled songwriter and film composer, as well as a fine interpreter of songs from a wide variety of musical genres. That becomes evident upon listening to Wilkinson's new solo album, Some Of My Best Friends Are Songs.
Back in the 70s, Colm scored numerous pop hits in Ireland, often with his own compositions. His ascent to stardom on the theatre stage has meant a long gap between solo albums, but the singer is clearly proud of his new work.
"My last solo album was 25 years ago. Record companies always want me to do Braodway stuff, but I wanted to get back to my roots. It evolved into a tribute to my mum and dad," the amiable star explained in a Tandem interview. "This is a collection of songs I had always wanted to sing." It is certainly a highly diverse record, as writers covered range from Willie Nelson ("Funny How Time Slips Away"), Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne"), Cat Stevens ("Father And Song") and U2 ("M.L.K./I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For").
Colm singles out his version of the classic "Red Sails In The Sunset" as being "the core track and the catalyst of the album. "My parents were great singers and musicians. In her teens, Mum was a nurse at a town near Brighton. She was looking after an old lady who one day said 'there is a nice Irish man downstairs you should meet.' This guy was playing the piano, and the song was 'Red Sails.' That is how they met. It is also the first song I ever sang on TV."
Furthering the family connection is the song "Last To Know", written by Colm's son. "Aaron is the real deal and I'm quite proud of him. This was a chance to show his songwriting ability," says Colm. The album also features three high-quality original tunes by Wilkinson.
He financed the album himself, but Colm picked up many of Toronto's best musicians for the sessions. These included John Sheard, Kevin and Gary Breit, Perry and Michael White, and Jackie Richardson, while Juno-winning roots music producer Danny Greenspoon was at the console.
"I think they all did a great job," enthuses Colm. "I was knocked out by the musicians and they loved the material. Danny likes the inspiration of the moment, and he let the musicians get a feel for the song and bring what they want. The album sounds like real people playing real instruments. There is maybe not a commercial hit on there, but I can stand up and say I'm proud of it. That is the bottom line. As soon as I recoup I'll be back in there to do another one."
He may have a reputation as a vocal virtuoso, but Wilkinson is no technician. "I don't use a lot of technique when I sing. I let the emotions and the lyrics take me. I just tell the story the best way I can. I get emotionally attached to lyrics in a big way."
He is very open-minded about different styles. "For me, it is what Duke Ellington said: 'There is only one type of music, good music.' I get the same thrill from listening to good country or rock 'n roll as listening to my favourite tenor singing opera. All are things that touch your soul, and I approached these songs the same way."
Some Of My Best Friends Are Songs will be released by EMI Music on Feb. 10. Colm Wilkinson performs at Massey Hall on February 21.
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