Going back to their roots – duo Balsamo Deighton take the country road

He made his name on stage as Jesus Christ Superstar, but Steve Balsamo – one half of duo Balsamo Deighton – has always written and played his own music. His latest album is a country-esque collaboration with Rosalie Deighton called Unfolding – a pared back offering on life and love. The duo spoke to iSing about Messiahs, melodies and making it in the music business.

iSing: Is it true that you were told as a child that you couldn’t sing? So given this advice what made you decide to pursue a singing career?

Steve Balsamo: Haha, it’s true. In school I wasn’t allowed to join the school choir (a fact that the dear teacher denies whenever I see her). We had to get up and sing Morning Has Broken in front of everyone else, and I was very sad I didn’t get in, but my mate Andrew did. I always believed I could sing, I loved it and never stopped. My late mum said I literally sang before I could speak, and would always sing myself to sleep. Interestingly my two children do the same thing now. I guess it was part of my life’s plan to pursue it. 

iSing: At 21, after cutting your teeth singing in working men’s clubs in Wales, you landed a role with a touring production of Les Miserables. How did that work out for you?

SB: It worked out perfectly I think. Having sung in pubs and clubs, I attended a performing arts course at Neath College in South Wales. The singing teacher Rhian played me some songs from Les Mis and I loved Colm Wilkinson’s voice and the songs. She thought I had a similar tone to Colm [who had played the lead role of Jean Valjean in the West End and on Broadway], and taught me Bring Him Home and a few others. The college was doing a production of Superstar and I got to play Jesus. Spookily, during the last crucifixion scene of our run, I had this overwhelming feeling that I’d play the role again…

I was on the college course for three months when an open audition for Les Mis was advertised in The Stage. I took the early train from Swansea, drank buckets of coffee and was first in line for the audition at 10am, wired and full of youthful swagger. I sang Bring Him Home and Gethsemane and was quickly ushered into a room with Cameron Mackintosh the producer. I was clueless and didn’t realise the significance and that he was the boss. I got in, joined the cast and toured with the show for a year and a half. It was fantastic training, and I made a lot of lasting friendships, but at the end of the run, although the director encouraged me to audition for other roles, at that time I wanted to get back to writing and playing my own music. So that’s what I did. I went back to Wales and formed a band.

iSing: So what made you go and audition for Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS)?

SB: A friend from Les Mis, Jonathon Greatorex, had stopped acting and become an agent. He called and asked what I was up to. I said I was writing songs and looking for a recording deal. He told me about Superstar and asked if I’d like to audition, with a view of getting the role and securing a recording deal! Looking back, intention and the naivety of youth is a powerful thing. I auditioned 14 times, won the role, won an award and got a record deal with Sony.

iSing: In terms of working on JCS, how did working in that show impact your understanding of voice and performance?

SB: The great singing teacher Mary Hammond was looking after the show, and she gave me some excellent advice. I began to realise that rest, warm ups and downs, no smoking and keeping boozing in check were all essential in keeping healthy and maintaining a healthy voice for eight shows a week.

iSing: Gethsemane is one of the well known songs in JCS – a notoriously difficult song to sing – with some wildly high Gs. How did you prepare to sing the song back then, could you do it now?

SB: Back in Neath College, Rhian the singing teacher and I worked on the song, and luckily it was within my range, having covered Deep Purple songs in bands years before (Ian Gillan is Purple’s singer and the original Jesus). We looked at every Jesus that had come before, I stole my favourite bits and changed the scream in the middle section to, I believe, a more theatrical rising scale to the high G falsetto note. I love the fact that this has been mostly adopted by the interpretations that have come after me, and Rhian, the brilliant JCS musical director Mike Dixon and I have left a little bit of us in the notes of the song.

Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar sung by Steve Balsamo

iSing: What happened after JCS?

SB: I signed a deal with Sony and travelled around the world for about five years writing songs with some of the best writers on the planet and really learning the craft. I released a solo album, All I Am, got in the charts, and even got to play on Top of the Pops.

iSing: How did you find the experience of going solo after being so closely associated with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical JCS?

SB: It was interesting, as back then there was a clear demarcation of theatre and pop/rock music. However, as I came from rock bands, it was as if I was going back to that rather than changing direction. It’s all music, and all I’ve ever tried to do is make music with as much authenticity and soul as I can, regardless of genre.

iSing: How have you coped with/managed the disappointments of the music industry? What keeps you going?

SB: Doing anything creative is precarious, tough and real hard work. I believe everything is an experience to learn from, so even though knock backs sting, I view them as invaluable learning. Singing, music and writing is in me, and it’s something I will always do…I’m a lifer! There’s something magical about getting together with like-minded writers, sitting in a room with nothing, and coming out a few hours or days later with feelings distilled into a song. It is alchemy and I can’t think of a time in this life when I won’t be doing it.

iSing: Do you have any kind of vocal routine? Or coaching?

SB: I take singing very seriously and I see a great teacher in London called Mark Meylan. I warm up and do exercises every day. I steam, trill and am dedicated to always learning more about my voice.

iSing: The Storys toured with the likes of Elton John, Santana, Celine Dion and Joe Cocker. Can you tell us more about that? What did you learn from them?

SB: It was like going to school. Being around people of that level of greatness is interesting in lots of ways. How they are, how people relate to them, how they work, and getting a little glimpse into their world was amazing. They were all charming, and although they have god-like status to some they are just people, albeit with exceptional gifts. Speaking to Elton before one of the shows, just after he been to collect an award from a music magazine, and seeing how excited he was after meeting one of his heroes, Scott Walker, was fabulous. Even heroes have heroes.

iSing: How does the song writing process work for you?

SB: I’m constantly writing words down and recording ideas into my phone. There are more than 200 snippets at the moment, some of which will be developed. Every few weeks, I’ll take a look and see which jump out, and work on them. Sometimes an idea will rattle around my head and demand attention. I have one of those right now that just needs to escape.

iSing: Now in terms of the duo – how did it come about? How did you and Rosalie get together and what was it that made you decide as a duo it would work?

SB: Rosalie and I met about 15 years ago in the London recording studio of producer Martin Terefe. Martin was producing tracks for our respective major label albums. We love the same music, have a similar sense of humour and really like each other’s voices, and way back then said at some point we’d write together. Years later Rosie came and supported The Storys and, when one of the members left, she joined the band, writing and recording our third album, Luck. When the band called it a day, we decided that the time was right to make a duet record.

iSing: Balsamo Deighton’s new album Unfolding was four years in the making. Can you tell us more about it?

SB: We had no time frame, and really took our time writing and recording it. We wrote about 30 songs, and it was very tough making a 12 song album. Since we started, some people close to us have died and some have been born, so a lot of life passed under the Unfolding bridge, as it were. Some of the experiences were channelled into the songs, and we are very proud of the album we’ve created. We think it’s beautiful.

 Light in the Dark – Balsamo Deighton

iSing: It’s been described as Americana but how do you describe your music with Balsamo Deighton?

SB: It has influences of folk, as Rosalie comes from a traditional family band, The Deighton Family, that played cajun, blues and folk music and found success worldwide. We both like country music, so there’s a little of that, and there is a little Americana in the mix too. But we think it’s poppy and rocky in places, as we gravitate towards radio friendly choruses. It has some Springsteen-ish moments, Tom Petty-ish vibes, some Finn brothers and Ryan Adams, but it is ultimately an album of good songs that the two of us love to listen to.

iSing: Tell us about working with Julian Wilson (of Grand Drive) on the album?

SB: We worked with a few great songwriting friends on the album that we both love. Julian is such a tasty and clever songwriter and we are both huge fans of him and his brother Danny, of Danny And The Champs (Rosalie was in them for a while). We also had Andy Collins of The Storys write some beautiful tunes, a great writer Mick Lister and producers Tim Hamill and Ben Robbins who are both fabulous writers. We also covered an amazing Jackson Browne song Sky Blue And Black.

iSing: There are lots of female/male duo country-esque groups around at the moment, why do you think this is?

SB: I think everything is cyclical, and the mix of male and female in harmony will always appeal. There is also a resurgence of country and roots music in the UK, so it’s a wave that we are very happy surfing.

iSing: What’s next for Balsamo Deighton?

SB: We will be touring Unfolding, starting to write and collect songs for the next album, and heading over to Nashville to start that process.

iSing: Why do you think Balsamo Deighton works so well?

Rosalie Deighton: I think it works so well because we both like the same music, are moved by very similar things, and that our voices blend beautifully. Some people like you to dance when you hear their music, we just want to break your heart!

iSing: Has working with Steve changed your approach to music/signwriting or singing?

RD: I always learn from everyone I work with. With a specific duet/harmony album, there are parameters we have to work in for the music to really chime. We have this almost psychic approach to both writing and singing, which is unspoken, spooky and very easy. It’s quite effortless and lovely, and something I don’t want to think too much about…it just happens.

iSing: How has working in a duo impacted your music industry experience?

RD: Only in that since we started, there have been lots of people recording as a duo. It seems the cool thing to do.

iSing: What is the secret to a great vocal blend?

RD: Space, respect, knowing when not to sing. It’s what Emmylou Harris calls “The Rub”; that indefinable chill you get when you know there is a something beautiful happening.

Website: balsamodeighton.com

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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.