Countertenors, with their otherworldly voices and early-music repertoire, can appear—on-stage, at least—as though they’re from another time and place. But after a few minutes on the line with British sensation Iestyn Davies, who will make his Vancouver debut at the Playhouse this Sunday, it’s clear repertoire does not define the singer.
In a lengthy conversation with the Straight from a Lisbon hotel room, the chatty Davies, 34, professes his love of Led Zeppelin, discusses his time as an archaeology major at Cambridge, and relates tales of his stint in a high-school band that almost signed with a major label.
The band’s name, he confides, was Cage: “We thought the name was really cool: ‘It represents us—we’re, like, caged at school,’ ” he recalls with a laugh. The group took part in an Epic Records competition and, despite never having performed for an audience, got noticed.
“They advertised and said, ‘Are you 16 to 21? Are you male? Do you want to be famous?’ And we were like, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I think they were basically about managing the hell out of you and totally manufacturing a really studious kind of original rock band, but with songs written by somebody else, and groomed haircuts, and things like that.…We started thinking, ‘It’s just about money, isn’t it?’ Anyway, we had to do our A-levels and go to university and all those kind of things, and thankfully, it slowed down.”
Lucky thing, too, because instead of fronting a manufactured copycat of Blur, Davies is now captivating audiences as a countertenor, and winning over critics such as the Guardian’s Tim Ashley, who has praised his “extraordinary evenness of tone, his immaculate breath control and the rapt subtlety of his phrasing”.
The former boy chorister, who came to notice in 2004 when he won the Audience Prize at the London Handel Singing Competition, before being named 2010 young artist of the year by the Royal Philharmonic Society, will be joined Sunday (March 30) by the 25-year-old lutenist Thomas Dunford. They’ll present a program of 16th- and 17th-century songs by Robert Johnson, John Danyel, Thomas Campion, and John Dowland, as well as a new commission by American composer Nico Muhly.
“I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by early music being a sort of separate entity,” Davies insists. “It was a great thing that happened, the revolution [of early music]…but it’s very important to remember that at the end of the day, most people don’t understand that. They’re just hearing music. First and foremost I sing music prior to the 18th century, but of course I also dabble in contemporary music, because it’s much more of a challenge.”
As for his listening tastes, Davies says he’s as likely to put Zeppelin or Marvin Gaye on the stereo as George Frederick Handel. “This sounds really nerdy, but I think there’s a big relationship to be made between baroque music, Handel mainly, and the way that Led Zeppelin works in terms of their music,” he muses. “Baroque music is all about dance and rhythm, and the bass line is where the harmony comes from.…The riffs? In a way it’s a blues thing, but it’s also a baroque thing.”
So does this mean he’ll be wailing “Immigrant Song” as an encore? Don’t put it past him. “I’d love to, actually,” Davies admits. “The thing about that singing is, he [Robert Plant] is actually really doing it in his tenor voice. It’s not falsetto. It would be the right pitch, but it would be a bit too delicate.”