be yourself and drop the sad backstory


Have you ever caught yourself singing in the shower and thought, “Wow, I sound just like Adele!” Do you consider your performance skills up there with the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest creation? Ever watched a televison talent contest and thought, “I could do better than that”. Or even just wanted to be able to sing with confidence on a karaoke night?

The veil is finally being lifted on the secret ingredients that make a talented singing contest winner – and it’s not really even about the singing.

Ben Haenow, who won The X-Factor in 2014, and Ben Forster, the 2012 winner of the musical theatre version, Superstar, are joining forces to advise and mentor a new generation of talent for a competition called Alpha Unsigned that awards a £100,000 record deal to the best unsigned singer-songwriter.

But what are the judges looking for? The Bens showed me how to win at TV talent shows and, more crucially, how to transfer those skills to an open-mic night in a pub.

Ben Haenow performs at Manchester Academy during his 2016 tour (Photo: Matthew McNulty/Redferns)

In order to assess my skills (though I’m no singer) I offered to sing a song that I wrote (well, it’s more of a poem), more or less making up the tune as I went along, to Haenow. “Before you begin, do you have a sad backstory?” he asks. I tell him I’ve just got some kittens. “Oh, happy stuff? That’s no good for TV,” he jokes.

I begin. It’s… not great. He politely doesn’t mention that my singing voice can set off car alarms. He is actually very encouraging, praising the lyrics. “It’s quite cathartic to do something you enjoy in front of people regardless of the reaction you get for it. It’s good for the soul,” he says, saying everyone should give it a go.

He and Forster both agree that music is very subjective, so you should never invest too much in one person’s opinion. But I’ve decided to fully invest in Haenow’s, because he was able to listen to me sing at him without putting on ear defenders and running for the hills.

I’ve always fancied myself a great singer. Apart from the actual singing part, I could definitely get on stage and perform to a crowd. Why should my lack of vocal talent hold me back? So, can I convince people to buy into me?

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“Yes,” says Haenow, doubtfully. “If you come across confidently, people will buy into that. If you get up there and look like you can sing and feel like you can and give the impression that you can, people will buy into that.”

If you are more serious about your singing career, or if you just want to impress your mates when playing Singstar, here’s the experts’ take on how to do it:

Grow your own audience

Due to the pandemic, there is a bottleneck of enormous talent that hasn’t yet come through the ranks and had a chance to grow a live audience. Instead, artists have focused on growing an online audience.

Haenow says it’s important to have people on your side.

“It’s all fine having six or seven industry professionals saying they like your stuff but unless you’ve got real people coming to your shows and believing in you and investing in you with their hearts and minds, you are not building a career, you are just getting in front of a few people who say, ‘OK, we like your sound’. So it’s really important that you get out in front of the public.”

Ben Haenow onstage in Manchester: singing is only part of the story, he says (Photo: Matthew McNulty/Redferns)

Look the part

“It’s one of those things where people look for the full package,” explains Haenow. “Unfortunately, people will take shots at how you look and say you don’t look right to do this. That’s another reason it’s tough, but I think if the look fits in with the whole vibe of everything that you’re trying to do, then that’s what people are going to buy into.”

Don’t let the nerves get to you

Of course, everyone gets nervous, but try to channel it as positive energy to hone your performance.

“Nerves can sometimes come across as arrogance,” says Haenow. “So it’s about ensuring you give a really good insight into what you do and who you are rather than letting nerves get to you and coming across as too quiet, too arrogant or going the other way and just blurting stuff out.”

Be yourself

“Just let yourself shine,” says Forster, who has performed in West End shows including the Phantom of the Opera. He only learnt his calling was in musical theatre in his late twenties after trying to fit into several moulds that didn’t suit him.

“I was managed by some of the world’s top people and in a way, I just trusted them. They wanted to go to the label and say, ‘I’ve got the next John Legend’.” The penny dropped when he was doing a photo shoot for a country music album. “They said wear a cowboy hat, but I was like, ‘I’m from Sunderland’.”

Keep on keeping on

If only three people turn up to your first gig, don’t be disheartened. “It takes monumental effort to become a successful artist,” says Forster.

“It takes hunger. If you do have that hunger just keep on going because if you throw enough stuff at the wall, one part has to stick and the more stuff you have on that wall the more you will be noticed.”

Drop the sad backstory

You can talk about your break-up before you launch into a break-up song – but keep it relevant. “I don’t think saying that someone has passed away and then doing a dance song is really relevant,” explains Haenow.

“It’s nice to have diversity… and have a backstory in that sense, but we are just living in the moment. We don’t care about your life for the last 15 years.”

The Alpha Unsigned final, where audiences can vote for the winner, is on at the Indigo at the O2 London on 30 March

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