Soprano Renée Fleming has learned “a completely different style of singing” for a forthcoming pop album, which features covers of Muse, Arcade Fire, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. “This album is NOT a crossover,” the American singer insists. “There’s not a hint of ‘middle ground’. It’s completely at the other extreme of the spectrum.”
This isn’t the first time Fleming has let her hair down on a recording – she released a jazz album in 2005, and sang in Elvish for The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. But this is Fleming’s first foray into the fearsome, pierced world of actual rock and pop.
“In classical music, we perform unamplified in halls that seat up to 4,000 audience members, plus we’re required to project over large orchestras and often a chorus,” she explained. “We’re kind of the weightlifters of singing … [Here, I had to] sing in what often felt like a whisper. I was recording in a small, acoustic booth in this intimate style, which is the complete opposite of how I usually sing. [Producer] David [Kahne] worked with me closely so that there was no hint of drama, cheesiness, or ‘Las Vegas’, as he would call it.”
Of course, Fleming isn’t exactly covering the Misfits. Her version of Tears for Fears’ Mad World is much more Gary Jules than new wave, and that old chestnut Hallelujah won’t blow the spectacles off any grannies. The project was conceived by Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein, whose management company represents Muse, Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Inspired by a bus poster featuring the soprano, Mensch “badgered” Fleming’s record company “once a year for years”, he told the New York Times. When Fleming finally capitulated, the pair gave her 40 songs to listen to – and an Excel spreadsheet on which to indicate “Love it”, “Like it”, “So-so”, “Not my cup of tea” or “Would love to sing it”. It was “mostly … indie-rock bands,” Fleming admitted. She took the music on holiday with her family, only to discover that the artists were some of her daughters’ favourites. “It really grew on me, but I still don’t think anyone knew how my voice could possibly combine with this music,” Fleming said.
“We all agreed she wouldn’t sing like a standard soprano, like Katherine Jenkins or Susan Boyle,” Mensch explained. Instead, Fleming had to find that new voice – and become comfortable singing these songs. “I was especially fascinated by the Mars Volta song, With Twilight As My Guide, which is operatic in its scale and musical complexity. I was, however, a bit concerned about the text, specifically the reference to ‘devil daughters.’” Fleming wrote to the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, asking permission to change the lyrics. “Sure, she can change it,” Bixler-Zavala replied, but he said the lyrics were “sarcastic” – “one huge metaphor for the [poor] way women are treated in Islamic society”. Fleming was satisfied: “This explanation was enough for me.”
Dark Hope will be released by Decca in the spring.
1 Endlessly (Muse)
2 No One’s Gonna Love You (Band of Horses)
3 Oxygen (Willy Mason)
4 Today (Jefferson Airplane)
5 Intervention (Arcade Fire)
6 With Twilight as My Guide (The Mars Volta)
7 Mad World (Tears For Fears)
8 In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
9 Stepping Stone (Duffy)
10 Soul Meets Body (Death Cab for Cutie)
11 Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)