Interview: Grace Davidson on new album and her work with Max Richter, Julie Cooper and Harry Gregson Williams

Sarah Stuart spoke to soprano Grace Davidson about her new album Sacred Chants, and her work with contemporary composers Max Richter and Julie Cooper.

Many will have heard Grace’s ethereal voice on Max Richter’s Sleep where her pure voice excels. Grace is first and foremost a baroque specialist, working as a soloist with leading Baroque ensembles. Grace’s unique tone has attracted many contemporary composers such as Eric Whitacre, Max Richter, Julie Cooper, and Michael Price.

Grace’s work is split between these seemingly contrasting worlds of early music and contemporary composition. There is, however, an interesting connection in the light sound suited to both. Grace’s pure sound has led to her critically-acclaimed lockdown project Sacred Chants, an album of works by medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen for solo voice.

[Image 1: Grace Davidson by Andrew Staples.]
Grace Davidson by Andrew Staples.

Your repertoire ranges from the medieval music of Hildegard von Bingen to contemporary composers such as Max Richter and film music. As a baroque specialist, could you tell us about the differences – or similarities – in experience, expression or vocal technique when singing music from such different eras.

Well, it’s funny because I feel that the two worlds are very closely linked actually. Most of my experience as a young singer came through Baroque and Renaissance music. I sang with wonderful consort groups like the Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, and Tenebrae. So I learnt lots of this repertoire, and I absolutely adored it. It really exposed me to all of these wonderful programs. I don’t have an enormous voice, and I love singing in a straight and instrumental way. I was a violinist as a child.

That became my style, and my niche. Then I was very lucky to have this world of film music come into my life as well. I was approached by Max Richter, for example, who loved the way I sang and felt it fitted well into his sound world. I realised it really did, so I’ve opened up this whole new world as well.

I go from doing a Baroque programme in Austria or Germany, like last week singing Purcell & Händel with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, to going to Abbey Road Studios to work on a film soundtrack. I’m very much using the same voice always, I don’t feel like I have to adapt.

They are two different experiences, obviously. I’ve gotten used to singing in studios with headphones on, and I absolutely adore that, but I also adore singing the early music. I feel like I’ve found my natural habitat in these two rather different worlds.

They have a similar light sound to them which works well.

Yes, they do, and for example Sleep is a kind of lullaby. The line I sing is like a descant, and it feels a bit like a Renaissance descant, like Allegri’s Miserere – it has that vibe to it.

‘Sacred Chants’ has been very well received, how did this album come about? What can you tell us about the music of Hildegard von Bingen that drew you to record this album? How did you approach your interpretation and phrasing of the music, did you use a modern transcription of the original neumes?

It’s funny how this album came about. In lockdown we all lost a lot of our work, I was still doing a bit of film work for composers, and I brought some of that home. My outbuilding became a studio, it’s not an official studio, but I have a great friend and collaborator Christian Foreshaw who has recording equipment.

One night I was sitting on my sofa feeling a bit gloomy and I received a message from the film composer Harry Gregson Williams. He was writing a score for The Last Duel, and said he’d heard my voice and would like me to sing it. So I asked Christian if he could come round the next day. There were about ten or twelve cues I needed to sing and record. They were all ‘Hildegard-esque’, with a simple feel to them.

We recorded them in my garden outbuilding, and Williams was delighted. After that recording I thought – this reminds me of the Hildegard von Bingen I used to sing. I went to my library and found this book of Hildegard by Christopher Page. It is a modern edition, not neumes, but there’s not very much. It’s just dots on a page.

I’ve had that in my library for years. When I was at the Royal Academy of Music Jeremy Summerly invited me to sing a piece of Hildegard in a concert. I’d never heard of it, so I popped down to Chimes on Marylebone high street and the lady pulled this one score off the shelf. It’s actually what they used in Gothic Voices, Christopher Page’s group with Emma Kirkby.

I’ve always had this album, I’ve sung it every now and then, and snuck it into programmes. I adore it, and I feel very free and comfortable singing it. I said to my husband and Christian after this, “my work has all fallen out of the diary, I’m going to make an album of Hildegard von Bingen”. I asked my husband, Nigel Short, if he’d produce it. Christian came over, and we spent three days recording it in my garden shed!

When we put it together, it sounded very plain – after all it is just voice. I thought it was a bit risky, that it might be quite boring to people and appear as a whole album of all the same things, but it’s not all the same at all. And when you start to listen into each phrase, and each colour, it’s wonderfully varied.

It was born out of lockdown, and loss of work, and feeling isolated. It felt really fitting to do it at that time. It was actually very healing for me to do. To just create my own project in this period of my life when I probably wouldn’t have gotten round to recording it if we hadn’t had a pandemic perhaps.

It’s been really very well received, and people have thought that maybe this is what we need in life at the moment – a bit of something that is just exactly what it is, unaffected. I could have added drones or had other singers if times had been different, but on this occasion it was very much about me using my resources.

Grace Davidson recording Sacred Chants at her home in Cambridgeshire.

‘Sacred Chants’ was recorded during the pandemic from your home, please can you tell us about your experience recording in this way? With lockdown being a time of isolation, singing on your own must be quite powerful.

It is lovely that it was inspired by my film music, where I feel this strong link. So there literally is a link to the film, it was actually a fantastic Ridley Scott film. An epic film. It’s quite a dark story, but if I hadn’t been invited to do that, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the thought to do the Hildegard. So it all just happened very sort of spontaneously, and I’m really thrilled with it.

It must have been nice to have a project to do during lockdown.

Yes, I’m the type of singer who is invited to do this and do that, so it was quite empowering to come up with my own project. For it to have reaped success is even more satisfying.

Grace Davidson recording ‘Julie Cooper: Continuum’ by Alexander Barnes.


Hearing Hildegard’s chants sung by solo voice really accentuates how her melodies have a freer and more expressive feel than other liturgical music of her day. Other than the beauty of Hildegard’s music, is it important to you to sing works by women, including contemporary composer Julie Cooper?

Absolutely, yes. I’ve been very lucky to sort of advocate some of that. I’ve been approached by, and work with many more female composers these days, which is just wonderful. And I adore working with Julie, obviously, with Continuum. I think somebody like Hildegard is a sort of underlying influence on all of these things, really. It’s just extraordinary music and actually hugely varied. I think Julie Cooper adores that music as well, and sort of admired it, and everything just tied in nicely. We had a ball doing her two albums.


Can you tell us more about your recordings with Julie Cooper, most recently with your release To a Skylark where you sing with your son Joshua? That must have been a very special experience. How did this project come about?

Well, funnily enough, that one was sort of born out of the previous one, Continuum. Continuum was also mid-lockdown. Julie was writing it through lockdown. When we recorded at Abbey Road, it was all quite socially distanced still. I was in a booth for that, which is quite challenging. I desperately wanted to be in the room with the orchestra, to look at them and make music with them.

Continuum is a beautiful album with some lovely, wonderful musicians. It’s such a privilege to have an accompanist in the form of Clio Gould, and Elena Urioste, a wonderful violinist to duet with, and with Jessica Curtis conducting. It’s very much a female dominated project, which was just how Julie would have wanted it. So it was lovely, and there’s some readings and poetry, a nice variety.

After that recording, I was in touch with Julia as a friend and a colleague. My husband, who runs Tenebrae Choir, has just recently released a Christmas Disc In Winter’s House, which also has some really nice female composers on there: Joanna Marsh and Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. We did Britten’s Ceremony of Carols which is traditionally sung by boy choristers. We had Joshua record That yongë Child just for fun, really. Then we listened back and thought, oh, this is really good. So we put it in.

Around that time I was chatting with Julie and she asked to hear it, and she said she wanted to write a duet for myself and Josh. I thought, ‘Oh golly, that’s quite a big responsibility’, but it was such a lovely thing and it just evolved. We recorded last summer just as he’d left being a chorister at St John’s College School, Cambridge, yet still had his treble voice.

It just happened naturally, and it was really perfect. Joshua just adored it, he loved being in the studio. That to me is a very, very special thing. We’re going to treasure that forever.


Can you tell us more about your work recording and performing as the primary soloist with Max Richter, and what you enjoy most about this type of work? The sustained notes must be challenging. It’s interesting that people who don’t necessarily know choral music love Richter’s work.

I absolutely adore working with Max and singing for him. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve been on a few of his projects and we’ve toured the world with things like Sleep. I feel like that’s very much kind of my piece. It’s a great privilege to do it.

That’s an interesting question because the audience is a very different audience to those of my days with The Sixteen, or my hardcore classical Renaissance audience. These are people that are drawn to the works for the concept, rather than necessarily the music, but the music obviously is very moving as well.

It’s really interesting to see how audience members respond, because it’s a different concept. They don’t sit in chairs and watch us for things like sleep. They can be lying down, or reading a book. We perform in different environments. We’re not just in concert halls, sometimes we’re in warehouses, somewhere which is just a space for people to respond how they wish. So I adore that.

There was a bit of a hiatus through the pandemic again, but we were at the Barbican at the start of October with new works by Max. He’s just had a new ballet released in Canada, which is inspired by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam. He very kindly got my son Joshua to come and do some readings on that as part of the backing track.

There’s lots more to come from him, I’m sure, and I hope to continue working with him. It is a technical challenge to sing those lines because they sit high and there’s no text. I’m a wordless, sort of ethereal magical, otherworldly type of instrument. And that’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one. I adore it, and I feel very privileged to be involved in it.

It is very unique. A lot of people, who aren’t typically into Classical music, find that music very peaceful and healing, a bit like the Hildegard. I think it’s quite similar.

I think there are links, I think that’s interesting. Although the Hildegard is full of text, every other note is a word, and it’s very religious. Max’s music isn’t religious ever, but it’s normally got a gentle kind of activist undertone. There’s a reason why he’s written stuff, and that really reaches people and relates to them. There’s a fascinatingly wide audience for his music. He’s done an amazing thing, the reaction that we had at the Barbican was just amazing. It was so moving.

Do you have any other projects that you can discuss coming up?

I’ve got some ideas, I am thinking about my next album now. I hope to do another compilation album, featuring old and new music, because I feel that represents what I do. I’ve made that a thing. I never really wanted to go into opera. I love baroque music, but it’s not sustainable just to sing that all the time. Everybody has to find their thing.

Grace Davidson performing with Max Richter at Sydney Opera House by Mike Terry.

Musifée’s playlist Grace Davidson explores Grace’s career, and the music mentioned here.

Grace’s music can also be found in Musifée’s playlists A Spotless Rose, Contemporary Women Composers, and Weekend Classics.

Sacred Chants can be purchased from Signum Records.


Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International