Shropshire Star

Russell Watson on the importance of churches as he prepares for concert at Shrewsbury Abbey

Singer Russell Watson says he can't wait to sing in Shropshire – an experience that will be all the more special because of his surroundings.

Russell Watson

The tenor is on his way to Shrewsbury Abbey. It is part of a tour in which he is visiting some of Britain's most loved churches and cathedrals.

He admits to not being brought up a churchgoer, but he does understand the importance of the parish church to a community

Last year he helped raise funds for St Mary’s in his home village of Astbury, near Congleton, in Cheshire.

Watson, who lives on a nearby farm with his wife, Louise, said he has developed a strong relationship with the church, adding: “I raised £20,000 for them last year, when the paving around the outskirts of the church was stolen, and we fund-raised to get it replaced. This year, I’m doing the same thing.

“The Rector Anne-Marie Naylor came to me after the performance and said, ‘Thank you so much for this, Russell. It would take our church years to raise these kinds of funds, and you’ve done it in one night.’ And I replied: ‘Let’s do it again next year.’ And it looks like we’re going to raise another £20,000 for them this time, as well. So, as much as I can’t be with them every week, they are very much in my thoughts.”

Watson will be at Shrewsbury Abbey on Abbey Foregate on Saturday from 7.30pm. He says the surroundings of the Abbey will add to the atmosphere of the event.

Russell Watson

Speaking to Church Times, he said his family were not churchgoers, but their values mirrored their faith.

He said: “I was still brought up in what I consider to be a Christian way. I was taught the morals of life. The fundamental thing was integrity and honesty. There was always lots of love in the house. And I’ve taken that with me throughout my life.

“I came across a lot of dishonesty in the music business. But the necessity for people to be dishonest and deceptive is still a confusion to me. I wasn’t taken to church, but I do believe my parents had – and to this day still have – a Christian outlook on life, as much as they may not practise Christianity as we know it.

“Whenever we walk into these magnificent buildings, there’s a sense of ‘I must show a certain amount of decorum and respect in here.’”

Balancing the audience’s respect for the space with their enjoyment, Watson says, “I don’t want them to feel that they can’t let themselves go, or be themselves. I will inject some light humour into the proceedings, to loosen things up. And I’ll usually start with a big, upbeat, buoyant aria, something I know will get their attention; so we’re all aware that this is a concert, in a place of God, and I want you to enjoy it.”

The repertoire for religious venues includes Ave Maria, César Franck’s Panis Angelicus, 'Abide with me', and 'How great thou art', and “some of the big classical arias that I love to sing, and even a touch of musical theatre as well. But the songs that lend themselves best to those types of venues are the big ones.”

He accepts that church venues may not always have the acoustics of a concert hall, but adds: “It’s a perspective thing. I’m aware that I am going into their house, and respecting their rules is something that I’m happy to do. These buildings have been here hundreds of years. We can’t change the nature of their acoustics.”

The one day when Mr Watson will not perform is Christmas Day. “It is sacrosanct. No way will I perform on Christmas Day. Christmas is when the furore of the music industry finally dies down. I walk into the house, close the front door, and it becomes all about family: bringing everybody together, all our loved ones, and spending a significant day together.”

Salford-born Watson worked in a factory when he won Manchester Piccadilly Radio’s 'Search for a Star' competition in 1990 and started a path to stardom.

In 2005, he underwent extensive surgery for a brain tumour. The tumour returned the following year, and treatment shaped his faith and ideas on the life of the world to come.

He told the Church Times: “I’d gone to bed, and the tumour growing in my skull haemorrhaged and was bleeding into my brain. I didn’t wake up the next morning, and my assistant found me and called an ambulance.

“The doctors needed to assess the damage; so I was wheeled into an MRI scanner, and all I can remember is huge furore around me. I was flicking in and out of consciousness. My vision had gone. I was just seeing a sheet of black with shadows around. MRI scanners are quite noisy, and and there was clap-clap-clap, bang-bang-bang noise. The pain in my skull was immense. I felt like I was going to die.

“There was a singular moment when it felt the noise of the scanner began to drop. The pain stops. And it felt like I was leaving my body. I could see a visualisation: I was sat in a dark room, and there was a door in the corner, with a sliver of light. As a child, I’d get frightened in the dark, and say, ‘Can you please leave the door open slightly?’ and there would be a sliver of light down the door.

“Then I felt like I was leaving to go wherever — hopefully, heaven. And I imagined myself walking to the door and opening it, and, if I did, I would never be returning to my body again. The thought of my two children Rebecca and Hannah and how they would manage without their dad was foremost. I began thinking: I’m not ready to go yet, my kids need me. And the clatter of the MRI scanner came back, the pain in my head was back, I was back in the room. If I’d have walked through that door, I would have been going to another plane.”

Such a close brush with death has strengthened Mr Watson’s belief in an afterlife, but his conviction comes with a caveat: “If I was 100 per cent certain there is an afterlife, I’m not ready to go there yet – even if it’s a better place; even if it means that all my woes, worries, and troubles are gone, and all the people that have gone before are waiting with open arms. Death frightens me, because I have so much to do here, and so much more time to spend with the people that I love. The prospect of my mortality does still scare me.”

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