As I speak to Paul Phoenix, he’s standing on the roof of a car park over-looking King’s College, Cambridge. The famous British University town is the King’s Singers spiritual home; all of its founding members attended the school. Phoenix, however, didn’t – in fact, he didn’t attend Cambridge University at all. As a boy he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, before heading north to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He’s been in the ensemble for 14 years. Turnover is low – the group, which has six members at any one time, has only had 21 since it began in 1968.
Phoenix, who is the group’s Tenor, says when they’re on the look-out for a new recruit, they’re not concerned about where they studied – merely that they ‘fit’ the ensemble. ‘We want someone with relevant experience, and that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to hire an ex-choral scholar from Cambridge,’ he tells me. ‘You need to bear in mind that you’re looking for someone who you’re going to travel around the world with for seven months of the year - in many respects they’re going to spend their life with you. I see my colleagues more than I see my wife! Except of course I feel a bit differently about her – she’s rather lovely.’
The ensemble won a Grammy in 2009 for their album Simple Gifts and they’re in demand as performers, teachers and recording artists around the world. I ask Phoenix why he thinks they have such international appeal. ‘There’s something about the distribution of our voices, I think,’ says Phoenix. ‘There aren’t any other groups that have that spread. People also seem to love our humour. It’s not choreographed, it’s quite spontaneous. And also there’s that unique sound which really only comes from English choral music.’
Phoenix and his five colleagues are certainly clocking up the air miles. Straight after their visit to Qatar, they’ll be flying out to China for a tour. ‘China has a growing choral tradition,’ explains Phoenix. ‘There’s a huge groundswell of interest and support there. We find that companies who want to help their employees learn English are doing it through singing.’
Phoenix is married with two sons, William, 15, and Edward, 11. I ask him what impact his globetrotting job has on his family life. ‘It’s all or nothing,’ he says. ‘One minute I’ll disappear, and then I’m home 24/7. My wife says it’s like having three kids when I’m home! There’s no room for me to talk about the tour, no room for jet lag – I have to hit the ground running. I feel like I have a double life in a way. It presents challenges - you have to decompress after a tour. I use the drive home from the airport to become human again.’
As part of his effort to maintain a work-life balance, Phoenix has recently taken up marathon running. ‘I ran my first cross-country marathon this year,’ he tells me. ‘It was absolutely horrific, but I’m doing it again next year! I keep ticking off countries that I’ve run in. I’m at 34 countries so far. I’ll make Qatar the 35th!’
The King’s Singers will be performing for the launch of this year’s IBQ Chamber Music Series at the end of November. Phoenix says the programme will appeal to all tastes. ‘It’ll be an eclectic mix. We’ll be doing a little bit of everything, from the Renaissance right up to 21st century pop, and quite a lot in between.’
This concert will mark the group’s first visit to Qatar. “I’m really looking forward to it,’ says Phoenix. ‘Really, this visit is as a result of performing in Dubai earlier this year, which we really enjoyed. And it’s so important for the legacy of the group that we sing in new countries.’
Phoenix tells me that one of the group’s key aims is to spread the influence of choral music around the globe. ‘You know, after 43 years of the King’s Singers, we’re visiting Qatar for the first time, and I really don’t want it to be the last time,’ he says. ‘I want it to lead to other things. We have a lot of quality and culture to share. I want to try to forge a relationship with choral music in every country we visit, and Qatar is no exception.
The King’s Singers take the stage at the end of November. Tickets are QR150, QR75 for IBQ customers, QR50 for students. For more info as well as dates and location, see www.asdchambermusic.com.