Laura Wright
Laura Wright is studying at the Royal College, for which she won a scholarship, involve her in singing English, French, German and Italian song - "we do everything from Monteverdi to Mozart, right up to modern compositions" - but for The Last Rose, she chose to explore the rich and mysterious heritage of English folk music. The songs on the disc stretch back to the 1600s with The Water is Wide (also known as O Waly, Waly), and travel through the centuries to such "modern" pieces as Down by the Salley Gardens, a setting of a poem by W.B. Yeats, and Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, a song based on Tennyson's poem and famously set to music by the English composer Roger Quilter.

"With a lot of the songs, nobody knows exactly where they came from," Laura points out. "I'm still learning about the origins of each piece. These are melodies that have lasted for centuries, and somehow everyone seems to know them even if they can't remember how. I think it's great to have them all assembled on an album in some fantastic new arrangements."

The original flash of inspiration for The Last Rose came to Laura last Christmas, when her grandmother gave her a pile of sheet music that had been passed down through her family. "There was a really old little book in there, I don't know where it came from. l turned over the first page, and the song was The Last Rose of Summer. I said I 'know this piece, I love it!' My grandmother said 'yes, my mother used to sing it to me', and this little story came out about it. That is basically where the idea for the album came from." With such a vast and historic catalogue of songs to choose from, sifting out the most suitable pieces was a painstaking task.

"We had loads, a massive list of music!" Laura recalls. "I sat at the piano with Anna Barry, my producer, and we went through every piece and asked ourselves 'does it work up high, does it work lower down, will this one work with a string arrangement, does it work with my voice, does it fit with the other songs' - after going through all that we eventually whittled it down to 12 tracks."

Working out suitable keys to sing the pieces in was another tricky consideration. One of her favourite selections is her new version of Blow The Wind Southerly, which was made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, but Laura's pure soprano voice could hardly be more different from Ferrier's extraordinary dark brown contralto.

"I was quite nervous about recording that one," she admits. "Her recording was so iconic that there was no way I could try to copy her in any respect. Hers was a very heavy voice and was perfect for the time and was amazing, but what I like about my version is that it's much lighter and just pure and simple. That was just one example of how we had to experiment with different keys and tempos to find where my voice settled best in the song."

For the overall sound of the album, she decided she wanted "sort of a Lord of the Rings soundscape with lots of rich, swelling strings, with a really simple melody and simple voice on the top, with other instruments dipping in and out. You don't need to over-complicate the songs, because the words and the melodies are beautiful and they speak for themselves." To Laura's delight, the orchestra who played on the recordings was the Royal Philharmonic under Barry Wordsworth's baton, "which to me is like a dream! To be in the same room with them, let alone sing with them, for me is an absolute honour, and that has been the most exciting aspect of recording the album by far."

To bring variety and instrumental breadth to the pieces, three different arrangers were employed on the project. John Rutter and the young Welsh composer Paul Mealor had both recently had their pieces performed at Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding, while Patrick Hawes can also claim a royal connection, having composed the Highgrove Suite for the Prince of Wales.

"They put some great arrangements together, and I had complete faith in all of them," Laura enthuses. "I've worked with John Rutter quite a lot - he was a judge on the Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year competition when I won it in 2005. He said 'oh, you've grown much taller!' He'd already been working on a couple of folk song arrangements, including the version of Down by the Salley Gardens that we do on the disc, so that fitted in nicely." It was Paul Mealor who came up with one of the album's most distinctive arrangements, on Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. Constructed from haunting strings and harp and some evocative discords, the piece feels faintly other-worldly.

"That's one of my favourite pieces, and it is a bit weird, isn't it?" says Laura. "I'd been singing the traditional Roger Quilter version at college, and then we thought it would be interesting with one of the pieces on the album to have a slightly different arrangement. Paul Mealor came back with that, and I think it's absolutely stunning. I think with these folk melodies you can often find similarities between them, and you don't want them all to merge into one number. That's why it was important to have three different arrangers, to create contrasts in tone across the whole album."

Another song arranged by John Rutter was The Water is Wide, a piece which has evolved through countless variations over about 500 years. "That's what I mean about the amount of time that this music has been passed around and handed down," Laura points out. "I'm only just 21, and I think it's good to have somebody young singing this music and passing it on. It's funny, people might ask 'what's Lavender's Blue?' - another one we've recorded - and then you sing it to them and they say 'hey, I know that song!' It's great to have all these historic pieces assembled on one album."

Laura is a fan of some of the new generation of folk music performers such as Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, and she evokes something of the folk-minstrel spirit with her version of Scarborough Fair. It's another song which dates back centuries, but became popular chiefly through the hit version by Simon & Garfunkel.

"Yes, again we tried to find a slightly different dynamic for that one," she says. "In fact it was the last song we recorded. About half the orchestra had gone and we were left with the string section, and Anna Barry came up with some very pretty little descant phrases for the strings to play over the top of the piece."It's also the only track that uses an acoustic guitar. "That was Craig Ogden playing guitar, because he'd recorded his own version of the song recently. It gave it a little bit of a different sound. The pitch is also really low for my voice. "It's important to me to keep the individuality of my voice, because that's what sets you apart as a singer. I'm really conscious when I'm training and learning vocal technique that I don't want to lose what makes me sound like me."

Laura has become used to dividing her time between singing and her school work at Framlingham College. One thing she does miss about Framlingham, though, is the enormous scope it gave her to develop her sporting skills, which encompassed hockey, tennis and javelin-throwing. She has found her fellow music students woefully apathetic about sports, but to compensate she has started getting involved in running and cycling events for charity. "I ran my first marathon in Venice last October, and I felt terrible and really stiff afterwards. Then I did the 2011 London marathon and I felt fine, though my producer Anna was a bit concerned that I ran it right in the middle of our recording sessions. Luckily it didn't cause me any problems."

Next on her outward bound list is the Pedal to Paris event, where she plans to cycle to the French capital despite never having done any serious cycling before. She's doing it to raise money for the Royal British Legion, a charity she feels strongly about supporting. "I'd really like to go to Afghanistan and sing for the troops, it's something I've always wanted to do," she explains. "I used to be in the Territorial Army at school - not that that was anything like what they're doing over there, but I do feel I have a connection with the military ethos."

Having recorded The Last Rose, she thinks she's an excellent candidate to become the new English Rose. When she sang at some special sporting occasions, including the Carling Cup Final between Birmingham City and Arsenal at Wembley and the tribute to the late England football manager Bobby Robson at Ipswich, it occurred to her that there was a vacancy crying out to be filled.

"There's no English singer for football or rugby events," she points out. "For Wales you have Katherine Jenkins and for New Zealand there's Hayley Westenra, but there's no-one singing for England, a singer who's proud of their English heritage. That's something I'd love to do." It sounds like an idea whose time may be about to come.




Laura Wright Releases