Desert Storm:
An Interview with Sarah Brightman

by Tony Phillips

Sarah Brightman. Two simple words that conjure myriad images; everything from powerhouse soprano to backlit pop princess. If one is already in accord with the former, then enter Harem, her latest Middle Eastern-flavored release guaranteed to only add to her worldwide tally of 15-million albums sold. As someone leaning towards the former, the blue-jeaned Brightman shimmered and clinked on cue. However, she also surprised by leaning across the table with an efficient “give us it here” as a lacquered nail tore through the shrink-wrap around a troublesome cassette tape. While still not classing her with the jungle cats, our close-to-an-hour chat in the New York offices of Angel Records — Brightman explains EMI’s classical arm by saying “You know, they have all these different groups” — reveals a much more utilitarian diva than anticipated. She periodically stops to pick up the recorder. One hand glitters with a charm bracelet anchoring both a diamond encrusted cross and Arabic moon while the other is adorned with a simple, red Kabbalah string. She leans over the machine and frets, “Is it working?”

And working is something the perennially jet-lagged Brightman knows a thing or two about. Her latest, self-described “fantasy record” logged session time in usual haunts like Abbey Road and studios in Hamburg, Paris and Toronto, but also took her to places as far flung as Cairo, Beirut and Prague. “Vocally, this is different for me,” Brightman explains, “I actually took off a lot of time from live work, which I’ve never done before. I’m known as an interpreter of music, singing songs and arias, but I wanted this to be more of an atmosphere album as opposed to just singing a song. I wanted the voice to be layered and interesting. It took quite a while to do.” Brightman describes Harem as “a mixture of inspiration I got from literature, art and music.” She doesn’t see this Eastern influence as anything new either, citing a song she recorded years ago called “You Take My Breath Away” — included on Harem as a bonus track — and a sitar-fusion piece from the Eden album called “In Paradisium” as early experiments with the form. “I’ve actually been doing little bits of this for a long time,” she explains, “but I’ve always wanted to do a project of this type because I’m a child of literature.” Paul Bowles, The Thousand and One Nights and Lawrence of Arabia all make the cut as influences. “All the cinematic things,” as Brightman puts it, adding, “I’ve liked Indian and Persian poetry as well. Being brought up in England and continental Europe, there’s always been a fusion of world music around me anyway. You can go to Istanbul in two hours from London. Everything’s nearby.”

In fact, Sarah’s first taste of desert life came when she was just a little girl, a tiny dancer at the Elmhurst Ballet School. Her parents took her to Northern Africa on holiday. “I believe it was Tunisia,” Brightman remembers, “I also traveled to Marrakech when I was younger. I’ve always liked the idea of the outsider in these areas. It’s why I like Paul Bowles. It’s also why I called the album Harem. It means forbidden place if you translate it. It’s in your imagination, but you don’t really go there. You maybe don’t want to go there, but it’s a mystical place. It’s ancient. People have journeyed there and come back changed.” Still, Brightman allows that if a more strident singer/songwriter, let’s say Sinead O’Connor, recorded an album called Harem, we’d probably have clearer views on Palestine, the fate of women within the patriarchy and religious tolerance. Brightman seems fine with the difference. “I don’t think in political terms,” she says, “I don’t have anything to say about that. I don’t know enough about it. I love art. I love culture. I’ve always felt very integrated in many different cultures because of how I’ve been brought up and how I’ve lived. But in many ways, I only understand about music.”

Still, despite her cover of “What a Wonderful World,” reality has a way of encroaching on even the most rose-tinted environs. The current political climate is not one Brightman’s been able to block altogether. Was there any discussion around the project’s Middle Eastern flavor in a market where even by-the-numbers releases are sagging post-911? “Yes, of course it was considered,” Brightman answers. “We actually put off the release which was meant to be much earlier this year. I did think maybe I shouldn’t release it, but then I thought the album has nothing to do with the political climate. I’ve been working on it for so long, I can’t just stop it, not do it, because of what’s happened, so I’m letting it go. I don’t know what else to do.” The new album also presents a Middle Eastern sampler of singers as contemporary as Natacha Atlas to as “beloved and best-known” as Kadim Al Sahir. Of course, Brightman wants to take her harem on the road and in her inimitable, arena-razing style, wants to bring these musicians with her. But a tour kicking off in the US this fall doesn’t phase Brightman. “There are a couple of musicians I want to take,” she admits, “but I don’t see that there should be a problem. They’re musicians. It’s about music, not any political situation. It’s just unfortunate, these situations do arise in the world, but time will pass and things will sort themselves. People will see things more clearly and get things into perspective.”

If that sounds like a citizen of the world talking, it’s because it is. “My family home is in Spain,” Brightman begins cataloging residences, “a smaller home — it’s like a shoebox, actually — is in a village outside of Milan. My singing coach for my classical work lives in the next village. My boyfriend is in Germany. And I have a home in London, which I’ve had for years.” When asked about a typical day, Brightman picks Milan. “I get up early. A lot of farmers live in this village. I go and get my cappuccino and they think I’m the weird English girl. There aren’t any other people from anywhere else that live there. The café is opposite the subway that goes into Milan so you watch people coming and going. It’s quite fun. Then I go back to my pad and get myself together, walk to my singing coach’s house and work with her for about two hours. Then she cooks some spaghetti. Her husband’s name is Enrico. He’s a classical musician. We all have spaghetti. Then I go home.”

When you’re this far a field — Brightman cops to “tricky times for artists slightly older like myself” — it’s difficult to keep tabs on your relevance in a temperamental marketplace. And though she’s not truly conquered America, or at least its market-driving tweens, she points out being signed here since 1990 when music biz legend Jerry Moss heard her sing Mozart’s “Hallelujah” and hit her up with the typical “What else you got, kid?” Not so in her native England. She relays a recent chat with her London hairdresser requesting a story from her British heyday. Brightman replied, “I’m probably going through my heyday in the rest of the world right now, but not here.” She reflects, “That sums England up, they remember me for ‘Starship Trooper’ and being married to my ex-husband. That’s it. I’m nothing there,” she laughs, asking, “what do they say, never a king in your own country?”

Oddly, it’s ex-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber that’s one of her bellwethers today. In fact, he leant her the A.R. Rahman song “The Journey Home” from his hit West End Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams, though returned favor might be a better way to put it. “When I was with my ex-husband,” Brightman explains, “he didn’t really take in things like Indian food and culture.” Brightman, whose family lived for long stretches in India and even has relatives buried in Puna, continues, “I was into it and used to cook him Indian food. So when I asked him for the song, he said yes, it’s not my music anyway so be my guest.” Brightman does point out that Webber actually doesn’t care for her version, finding the up-tempo part too Euro, but says, “We have a very good relationship. I love it when I get honest opinions from people and I always get an honest opinion from him.”

Another bellwether for Brightman? Her loyal gay fanbase, which Brightman marvels, “has always been very strong, really since ‘Starship Trooper’ all those years back. I mean, I was 17-years-old when that song hit. People always ask how I feel about having such a strong gay following and I’m happy about it. This community is very in the know when it comes to art, culture and music. I feel privileged to be taken in by them. I think, God, it’s probably good what I’m doing. It’s always a good indicator. If the music is really good, then people are going to buy it. It might be a little more difficult to be accepted by the media, but I’ve sold all my albums with no MTV or VH1. I trust that. Now I know I can really trust my work, so I keep going.”