‘Thinking man’s Charlotte Church’ returns from the wilderness

Billed as the “thinking man’s Charlotte Church”, Emily Gray seemed destined for fame and fortune, but at the age of 17 she dropped off the face of the music scene seemingly never to be heard from again.

But after years in the wilderness she has been coaxed back to the stage by a Hampstead minister-cum jazz musician.

In an unlikely turn of events, which has seen her go from coy chorister to selling thousands of albums and packing out 25,000-seater stadiums, Ms Gray – a self-confessed atheist – now finds herself marshalling a fledgling Hampstead choir.

The 26-year-old said: “I’m really excited because I will finally be totally in charge of what I want to do and I don’t have that horrible sense of anxiety which I used to get before performances.”

Steered into singing lessons, albeit a little unwillingly, after singing Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer at a family gathering, Ms Gray went onto win BBC Chorister of the Year in 2000.

After featuring on Songs of Praise, she won herself a record deal with classical music giant Naxos. The album soared to eighth in the classical charts in Britain and topped the tables in Sweden and Norway, paving the way for a high-profile tour.

Her singing talents packed out enormous stadiums the length and breadth of Britain and she was lauded by musos as the “thinking man’s Charlotte Church” – who Ms Gray once told a radio talk-show host “sounded like a 55-year-old woman”.

Most Read

A shot at the big time beckoned.

“It was brilliant being told that you are going to be famous, better than anything,” she said. I went from being that girl who sang awkward opera songs in assembly, to everyone wanting to be my manager and kids who had been frightening suddenly wanting to hang out with me. Of course I told them I was far too famous.

“I was made out to be this rival to Charlotte Church as some sort of marketing idea, but I was nothing like that. I was the girl who went through an entire photo shoot with her flies undone!”

With a golden future ahead of her she headed to legendary Manchester music school Chetham’s, where her panic attacks started to kick in. Instead of being inspired by the expertise at her disposal, the 15-year-old starlet was overwhelmed and anxiety festered.

“I had always been a big fish, actually I still was, but it made me realise how much I didn’t know and how many ways you can be criticised,” she said. “You lose confidence because you realise that singing is a nasty little industry and that’s where all the panic stuff came from.”

The nerves built to such a crescendo that she would feign illness to avoid having to audition for places at conservatories – universities for musicians.

After her mum called on Christmas Eve to tell her that her parents were going to separate, Ms Gray turned her back on the music world and eventually settled for a career in law.

It was as a legal assistant for a law firm dealing in the divorces of wealthy couples that she fell, quite accidentally, back into music.

An employment solicitor who she sat next to kept bugging the former singer to “jam” with her in the basement of the building, which quickly turned into illicit gigs for lawyers. The underground concerts had renewed Ms Gray’s appetite for something she had been convinced she had fallen out of love with.

Heath Street Baptist Church minister Ewan King then persuaded Ms Gray to start a community choir in his church in a bid to get people across the threshold.

So far 15 singers have been recruited and Ms Gray is on the hunt for more to join her choir.

“Ewan has got me back into singing and needs bums on seats and he thinks I am the perfect person for the choir, the perfect mixture of not religious but comfortable with it,” said Ms Gray, who lives in Mile End.

For more information about the choir contact Ms Gray emily@heathstreetchoir.com.