Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
It was actually a bit of a mistake – I thought the cor anglais solo in the New World Symphony was an oboe solo, so I fell in love with the oboe via the cor anglais. As a 6yr old I used to choreograph my own ballets both to that and the oboe solo in Swan Lake, so it was no surprise I ended up with long term love of the oboe. Luckily, the oboe has remained the mainstay of income provision since singing medieval music isn’t such a commercially-viable career choice!
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Initially English folk singers like Nic Jones and Martin Carthy at Lewes Folk Club. Then one member of Lewes Folk Club gave me access to his LP collection and I started to hear Irish traditional musicians like Planxty and the singer Delores Keane, whose voice I’m crazy about. Through early music it was the incredible recorder player Frans Brüggen and then my own teacher at the Guildhall Peter Holtslag. What I learnt from those two is immeasurable.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Bizarrely, it’s the same piece twice: Euripides’ Bacchae – once at the National Theatre and once at the Almeida. At the National, they commissioned Harrison Birtwistle for the music and I was the oboe soloist – it was challenging, rewarding and a bit terrifying to work with one of the greatest living composers, and it stretched my oboe playing to its limit. The second Bacchae stretched me in an entirely different way because I was one of the Bacchae on stage. We never left the stage and it was my most intense acting, singing experience (with the wonderful Ben Whishaw as Dionysus). It was particularly taxing because I’m not used to memorising nearly 2hrs of exacting material – I’m a good sight reader but memorisation is challenges me!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The Joglaresa CD ‘Douce Dame Debonaire’ because it’s simply two voices and harp performing my favourite medieval repertoire: the songs of the trouvéres. Most people expect Joglaresa performances to be very foot-tapping, particularly when live on stage – I like that too, but I wanted to make a CD of something far more intimate and with lots of space and freedom. If there are only three people, you can take more spontaneity risks. You can also take risks with your vocal sound and dynamic because there is no pressure to be heard above an ensemble.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Singing simple hypnotic songs with lots of room for improv, even better if there are chorus singers keeping it going that I can improvise on top.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am often influenced by current political themes. For example about 10 years ago during issues such as the MP’s expenses scandal, the fight for same-sex marriage rights, the move to allow women to be bishops and sending our troops to middle east resulted in the program ‘Nuns & Roses’. The Nuns & Roses CD riffs on all the same themes except that, in this instance, the songs are medieval texts – one criticising going on Crusade to the Middle East, many criticising financial corruption and religious corruption, Mary Magdalen as an equally important companion in the life of Jesus, plus quite a few other ‘subversive’ themes such as lesbian and gay love songs. In 2018 we commemorated 800 years of Magna Carta with 56 concerts and workshops. The other main driver for new repertoire is also our popular, yearly Christmas tour, which I work on from Easter onwards – constantly finding a perfect blend of the familiar and unfamiliar, yet which feels like an ancestral memory of ancient Yuletide song.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Mostly churches because the acoustics are so gorgeous. When we did Beverley Early Music Festival in May, I was at the beginning of my chemotherapy so I’d booked another singer in case I was too nauseous to sing. We ended up having an extra voice on stage, the acoustics were amazing and that was when I realised my bucket list was simply to recreate that – concerts in beautiful acoustics with lots of beautiful voices.
Who are your favourite musicians?
The Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, English folk singer Eliza Carthy and the soprano Gundula Janowitz (who was on one of my first classical music LP’s singing Haydn’s Creation).
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Watching L’Orchestre National de Barbès at Royal Festival Hall – I was in an ecstatic trance.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Society tells you it’s whether you can make a living as a musician, but my definition of success is about being strong enough to try and do the music you want to do. You make that happen when you have your own projects – you work as a self-employed musician for other people who employ you, and you use that income like a mini arts council to fund your own projects.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Freedom from the written note. In my world of early music, the distinction between performer, composer and arranger should be as blurred as it was back then, and that would apply to singers as well as instrumentalists. Lots of singers leave the improv to instrumentalists but they needn’t. I like to hear singers that have forgotten the sound of their voice and are just singing the song.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Cheesy I know, but hearing a ‘major subdominant’ chord during a Dorian mode tune (in inverted commas because ‘major subdominant’ is a rather modern harmonic term in a modal context!), listening to my cats snoring and having a swimming pool to myself.
What is your present state of mind?
Poisoned (with the chem0) but positive.
Joglaresa founder, musician and singer Belinda Sykes has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In October 2018, Belinda had a Total Abdominal Hysterectomy and Bilateral Salpingo-oophorectomy. The operation left her temporarily unable to use her abdominal muscles, which meant she could not sing or play her wind instruments. As a result, her 30 year career ended abruptly just when she was about to collaborate with Evelyn Glennie at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Five weeks after her operation, Belinda was diagnosed with Uterine Leiomyosarcoma – a very rare form of Sarcoma.
Belinda is one of the most striking and original voices in the medieval music world and her sense of humour is evident in her compositions. It is her deepest wish that she shares her story so that she can raise awareness of, and money for, Sarcoma UK charity through her back catalogue sales. She also wants to spend her remaining time gigging and celebrating life.