Singer Abi Gilchrist on hitting the right notes with Kent Soul Choirs

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You know that feeling when you’re at a stuffy wedding, politely making small talk, and then YMCA or I Will Survive comes on and suddenly everyone is on their feet, dancing and singing along? That’s the power of music.

Now imagine being a woman who can bring that power to others every week.

That’s what today’s Celebrating Women does. And after listening to her, I’m truly in awe.

Your children or grandchildren will probably already know Abi Gilchrist because she sings the title song of CBBC’s Do You Know? and is the voice of Monkey Music.

Born in London but now living in Whitstable, the 41-year-old mum of two young children has been singing all her life. From church choirs, she’s gone on to provide backing vocals for the likes of Ronan Keating, Joss Stone and Steve Harley, as well as being the frontwoman for the popular cabaret band Miss Kiddy and the Cads. Did I also mention she sang for former USSR president Mikhail Gorbechev, too? And is married to renowned TV and film composer Ross Power?

As incredible as all that is, it is the work she does with others that most impresses me about Abi. In 2010, she founded London Soul Choirs, a community group formed with the goal of singing, making friends and performing great music. Then, when she moved to Whitstable, just down the road from me, she formed Kent Soul Choirs.

They sound fantastic, right? Yet they’re just everyday people and many have never sang before. Their foot-tapping repertoire features everything from The Four Tops and Stevie Wonder to Prince and Beyoncé.

Best of all, Kent Soul Choirs is singing in the City Sound Project in the Park free music festival this weekend – and it’s not far from where I live! So if you can’t contact me, you know why.

Here, Abi tells us more about her career, partying with Boyzone and why everyone should release their inner diva…

Tell us how you began singing?

I started singing in a church choir at the age of seven as my best friend had joined it. I was already playing the piano at that time but had no idea I could sing. My friend left the choir around a year later, but I stayed until I went to music college.

I’m not religious at all, but I loved the music in the church choir and the friends I made. And it gave me an amazing grounding in singing and in particular, choral singing.

Was it clear you had a talent?

I think it was clear I had a naturally good voice straight away, yes. I think my musical training from age three in music classes for babies all helped and learning the piano from six.

I started singing lessons at school age 13 and luckily had the most amazing teacher – she’s my singing guru even now.

Both she and my secondary school in Blackheath, London, really supported me and guided me through the singing I could do as I grew up, including being part of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and I getting a scholarship to Guildhall School of Music to do a classical singing degree.

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Okay, I’ve waited long enough – what’s the goss about Ronan and Boyzone?

I’ve sung with lots of people over the years – my band played for a big event for the MD of the Isle of Wight Festival and a lot of pop stars were there so we accompanied them on their songs.

Ronan sang that night and we accompanied him. He came straight off the stage in the West End, where he was doing the musical Once, and walked straight in and played three songs with us without even meeting us or doing a soundcheck.

He was really fantastic – both his singing and playing guitar – and he had the audience eating out of his hand from the moment he arrived.

Following that, he asked us to play for his 40th birthday party, which was brilliant fun with all the Boyzone guys.

My singing career these days is mainly as Miss Kiddy in the Miss Kiddy and the Cads. We’ve played at Bestival, the Henley Music Festival and the Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank, among others.

And singing for Mikhail Gorbechev…?

My band was asked to play for a dinner in Switzerland. When we got there, we found we were playing at the top of the mountain in the café-bar used during the ski season. We had to take all our equipment up on the cable cars in the snow.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the after-dinner speaker and so he was speaking before we played. He ended up speaking for such a long time that we played around three songs and then the party finished!

I was relieved, to be honest, as the air was so thin at the top of the mountain I found it really hard to sing up there.

Why did you start Kent Soul Choirs?

I founded Kent Soul Choirs as the sister choirs to my London Soul Choirs I when I moved I to Whitstable in 2015. London Soul Choirs had been running since 2010 and was so popular and brilliant that I decided I Kent deserved a bit of the fun, too!

I started with the Friday lunchtime choir in Whitstable and was surprised by how popular it was straight away. It now has more than 40 members each week, which is amazing for a daytime choir.

My husband Ross joined the choirs in 2016 and we opened the Monday night Whitstable choir and also the Tuesday night Canterbury choir, too (yes, I am interested – 50Sense).

We run these three between us now, as well as our other sessions in Rochester and London, too, so there are six rehearsals per week for members to attend as they like.

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Do you think anyone can sing?

Yes, absolutely!

All the choirs are free to try and don’t need any experience or audition to try out. We love it that people come along who have never sung (and usually tell us they probably can’t – which is never true.)

We also get people who have done some amateur singing and want to challenge themselves more – we're definitely a choir that pushes our members to really achieve something.

One of my biggest challenges is how many people have been told I they can’t sing and they have carried that with them for years – and it’s really NEVER true. They’ve just never been given the right support and encouragement.

Singing is a lot to do with how well you hear music and if you’ve never listened to music in this way, then it’s very daunting at first. Plus, of course, there’s the reading of the music, too. That’s why we don’t use any music at our choirs. Everything is learnt by ear so I everyone is in the same boat from the start.

It also means that once it’s in, it’s so much easier to remember than if you learn it reading a score which goes into a different part of your brain.

We really aim to make our choirs as accessible to everyone as possible – no matter the experience or ability.

What do the singers get out of it?

I think the members get a lot out of it, both in terms of singing achievement but also more personally – making new friends and being part of a special “choir family”, as they call it.

As well as this, they get to perform at some amazing gigs - Kent Soul Choirs have performed at local events such as the Whitstable Oyster Festival and the Whitsparkle Christmas events, and we also hold our own concerts each term.

We’ve joined the London choirs singing at the Southbank Centre and also with Jocelyn Brown at The Troxy and with Lemar at The Camden Electric Ballroom. And we’ve raised a lot of money for charity in the process.

Our biggest achievement to date was winning the MASC Kent Choir of the Year competition 2018 and we also opened the Main stage for the Camp Bestival Easter Party at Dreamland in Margate this year.

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Sally, 53 “and six months” As a woman in my 50s, there’s something about knowing who you are, what you enjoy and how you want to spend your time. For me, this is about creating challenges, wanting fulfilment and meeting like-minded people. The sense of community within Kent Soul Choirs really meets those needs.

I’ve secretly always enjoyed singing. It’s so uplifting. Music has a way of distracting you at times of crisis and being able to focus the mind on your happy place, changing your mood with a Spotify playlist.

So I took the plunge three years ago, dragging my two best friends along the way. I’ve found the joyous power of singing takes my mind away from the realities of a stressful job and a challenging home life. I’ve I made new connections with positive people from all walks of life who share an energy, a love of singing and a desire to support and come together. We jokingly call ourselves a choir family, but that is what we have become.

On a personal level, it has truly cemented a 21-year-old friendship. We met at the school gates when our children were young. Life sometimes get in the way of you meeting as often as you would like to, but this has changed. Despite their initial resistance to join, we really have found a new deeper bond in meeting weekly, sharing the new fabulous experiences that choir has graciously provided for us.

None of this could happen if we were not inspired by a truly great woman. Her passion and talent are a driving force in what we achieve.

Nicola, 46 I joined the choir as I’d grown up in a house full of singing, had been in a jazz choir at university and wanted the opportunity to sing with others again now my children were a little older.

What came as a bonus was the lowering of stress and anxiety and enormous sense of wellbeing after a couple of hours singing. Plus the wonderful camaraderie and friendships created by a room full of happy people.

Philippa, 57 I love being in Kent Soul Choirs. I’ve always found singing really liberating and a great stressbuster, but KSC has brought me great new friends, boosted my confidence and given me a chance to get out into the community. It’s fab.

Sue, 62 Kent Soul Choirs has given me a challenge, satisfaction, joy and friendship – a feeling of coming alive.

Abi, what do you get out of Kent Soul Choir?

When I initially started the choir, it was because I missed choral singing and I also thought it would be nice way to meet local people and to do what I love. I had no idea how big and successful it would be. Next year is the UK Soul Choirs tenth anniversary and we’ve gone from four members to 250 members, which is just incredible.

Even if I’m having a bad day and don’t fancy driving to London or Canterbury to take rehearsal, as soon as I get there I’m totally swept up in the enthusiasm and excitement of the members who I can see relish their weekly choir session. It’s infectious and you can’t help but leave on a high.

I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved running choirs in the south-east and the sound that these choirs now make, which is absolutely at a professional level and is now being appreciated as that by the industry, which is very satisfying.

How can people get involved?

Anyone can come along for a free taster session to any of our rehearsals in Whitstable, Canterbury, Rochester, Hither Green or Greenwich. Check out London Soul Choirs and Kent Soul Choirs for info on venues and times and send us an email to book in a session.

Catch Miss Kiddy and the Cads at The Underbelly Festival, on London’s Southbank, on 7 June and 30 August and closing the Late and Live Music festival on Herne Bay Pier on 31 August. Kent Soul Choirs are at CSP in the Park on 4 and 5 May. See you there!

Are you a singer? What is your go-to song? Do you sing in a group or strictly in the bath? Let me know in the comments below.

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