You can know a person a long time before you learn more about them. And such was the case for me with a professional singer as good as on my doorstep in Lancashire.
I’d seen Bianca Kinane-Ewart out and about from time to time and on the school run around our mutual adopted base, Leyland, always with a genuine smile and a quick hello as we passed, a strong Irish accent and long red hair stopping you in your tracks.
But I knew nothing of this cheery mum of two’s day-job until the last couple of years. A friend was having a birthday party, and told me ‘Bianca will be singing’, inferring I’d know who the hell she was on about. She clearly didn’t need a surname, whoever her special guest was. Who did she think she was? Cher? I didn’t have a clue. I do now.
Bianca’s toured with Jools Holland’s band and Gary Barlow, has an underground dance following, having appeared on Stars in Their Eyes at the tender age of 16. And that’s just for starters. Yet although we live barely a street away from each other, she was talking to me on her mobile phone at a local coffee shop, getting away from it all.
“I had to go out. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that my carpet guy’s going in and out of the house, so every time the door goes, four high-pitched dogs go ‘rah-rah-rah!’ I left ‘em locked in the front room.”
I’m guessing she meant just the dogs rather than the carpet-fitter too. Who knows though. As it was, the bathroom guy (no relation) was round at mine anyway, so I could hardly invite her in, another of those ‘We can fit you in before Christmas. How does that sound?’ moments that you agree too and then later question. ‘It’s the most chaotic time of the year’, as Andy Williams once sang.
Bianca’s normally busy all over with Christmas performances this time of year, including charity gigs. But a busy working schedule occasionally saps her energy, lots of late-night stints in the recording studio and daytime writing and recording sessions taking their toll, while coping with an auto immune disease.
There was just one more engagement this year when I spoke, a Friday night charity show in Birmingham for the homeless, performing with regular accomplice, keyboard player and fellow Leyland resident Tom Wilson. All a long way from Tipperary, where Bianca put on her first public appearances bakc in Clonmel. But it was in London where a career in music took shape for a girl who had a brief stint at the Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon, South London, at 16.
“I was working a fair few jobs, doing gigs, working in a launderette, and on a market in Croydon. The gigs were taking off though, and in those days you got paid an awful lot more for live work, so I was thinking, ‘Hang on a minute …’ I could earn quite a bit and not have to work here, there and everywhere.
“Then somebody heard me sing somewhere and said they were part of a writing agency. It turned out they were friendly with Chris White from The Zombies, and his wife Viv, who wrote together. These friends were saying, ‘You should hear this young girl. She’s only 16 and got a great voice. We think somebody could write with her’.
“Chris and Viv came to one of my gigs and asked if I wanted to do something serious. I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’ They said, ‘We’ve got some songs. Come and have a listen, see if you like them. We have contacts. We can put them out there and see where we go’.”
She’d already performed on ITV talent show Stars in their Eyes by then, appearing as Mariah Carey, singing ‘Hero’, giving me a quick blast down the line as we spoke, just in case I didn’t remember the song. I did.
“I was also contacted by EMI for the Pet Shop Boys, who wanted me to do one of their songs, ‘Wish’, more of a dance track, and I did a tour with them. But my actual deal came from a demo I did with Chris and Viv. It came down to signing with Sony or Warner with PWL, involving Pete Waterman and Peter Price.
“I recorded a lot of songs in a studio in Borough (South-East London), a great experience as a kid.”
Incidentally, Bianca told me the first time ’60s legends The Zombies – who are set to be (finally) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in late March 2019, these WriteWyattUK favourites having been profiled in an interview with lead singer Colin Blunstone in January 2016, with a link here – reformed was for Chris and Viv’s wedding in the mid-‘90s, when she sang with them. And the pair are now back managing her again, after a previous spell in which she was involved with my former interviewee Pete Waterman’s company. How was that relationship with PWL?
“I was told I was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Pete wanted me to be commercial and was getting frustrated they hadn’t had a hit with me. I took that on board but felt I couldn’t be held responsible for other people’s reactions. I’m here, singing, showing off, doing what I need to do and what I like doing. I really needed guidance. I was so young and so happy to be where I was and what I was doing.”
Bianca moved over with her mother from Clonmel at around 12, soon making new friends.
“I was at quite a rough school in South London, all nationalities, and loved it – quite a change and a breath of fresh air from an all-girls convent school in Ireland! I went on to the Brit School, but it wasn’t for me. I left after a year, by which time I was signed anyway.
“My mother hadn’t found out. I kind of bunked off for six months! She got a phone call asking for my address for a Christmas card, and, puzzled, said, ‘Just give it to her on Monday’. She was so pleased I’d got in, I didn’t have to the heart to tell her I didn’t like it.”
It’s a long way from singing Mariah Carey songs on national TV to playing in a punk band though, her band The Mardigras Bombers’ first engagements in 2019 including a support act role with Penetration at the Continental in Preston on February 1st.
“It’s a big, brilliant, mad leap! But I sing in another band too, and it’s good fun, a lot easier than session work. It’s not like you’re selling yourself. It’s enjoyable. The majority of the gigs we do are brilliant.”
I’m guessing you didn’t grow up with punk then.
“I didn’t, although I love people like Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, stuff like that. It’s been a blessing and a curse that I love all styles of music. I sing most styles and it’s hard to pick sometimes – it depends what mood I’m in.”
Did you grow up performing?
”I was in my first band at nine or 10, with my piano teacher from Scotland. He had a jazz band and would play a hotel in Clonmel every Sunday. Sat on the piano with a mic., doing two 45-minute sessions. And I was always getting asked to sing at weddings and birthdays too.
“My mother tells this story. She always had this fear that one of us would be electrocuted through touching a plug or walking over a wire. She was paranoid about it. She was in the kitchen one day and heard Elaine Paige’s version of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’, and raced up the stairs and told me the stereo shouldn’t have been plugged in. I swore blind that it was actually me singing, and she asked me to prove it. I sang it, and that’s when she thought, ‘Oh, my God, she can sing!”
She was soon involved in various competitions, the die cast for a successful career. And have there been any electrical shocks on stage during the intervening years?
“There was one time, when I was touring with Jools Holland’s band. I think it was in Sheffield. I was singing in the microphone and looking at the drummer, getting his attention, having spotted a fire at the back of the stage, but carrying on singing.”
I’m guessing that was ex-Squeeze drummer Gilson Lavis. Not on fire. Her stint with Jools Holland’s band was in the late ‘90s, bandmates including Sam Brown, Eddi Reader, Ruby Turner and even Paul Weller.
“That was amazing. I was 18 or 19 on that tour, and it was just something else, playing the Royal Albert Hall and some other fantastic venues.”
“I was always very shy and would never put myself forward. I more than make up for it now, mind! I didn’t even like having my picture taken. I was very self-aware. People would speak to me and I’d be very polite and very giggly, whereas now I’ll talk the hind legs off a donkey.”
Who did you get on best with in that band?
“Actually, it was Rico Rodriguez. I loved Rico. First thing he ever said to me, I was making a cup of tea and asked if he’d like one, and asked if he wanted milk, and he said, ‘No, milk is for babies!’
“Jools was signed to Warner’s too, and they had me working with him, interviewing him at his place in Greenwich. They were good times. I also did a tour with Gary Barlow, but with backing tracks rather than a full band.”
By that stage she was also making a name on the dance scene under her maiden name, Kinane, crossing over into that world and on the gay scene, touring all around Europe.
In her time in London, Bianca was based in Little Venice and Queens Park and Maida Vale. So – and this has puzzled me for a while – why the move to Leyland, of all places?
“I’d taken a year out. Warner had asked me to go with them but doing the same music, and I didn’t want that. I wanted something fresh. Instead I was working on other writing and sessions. Then I decided to try something different, auditioning for Rent and Thank You For the Music, a Bill Kenwright production. I ended up doing the latter, and Jim – my future husband – was the lighting director. One day we got chatting, and it turns out he’d been eyeballing me!”
Jim was originally from Coatbridge, east of Glasgow, but grew up in Leyland, with family from there. Hence the move.
“We met in 1999 and got engaged after six weeks, while on tour with Thank You For the Music. True romance! And I’m so glad I chose that show, not least as Rent closed after about a year. And I made a lot of good friends on that tour.”
Bianca and Jim soon got to work on a family of their own, her eldest son now 18 and the youngest 16. Does she feel she missed out on wider fame under her name, despite all her experiences in music?
“So many people say that, and my mother gets very frustrated that I haven’t. But it’s not about being better than anyone else. I had plenty of opportunities to be in groups who turned out quite famous, but it wasn’t right for me at that time. And I’ve never been the kind of person who would say I’d do something just because it would be good for my career. As long as I’m happy doing my music, in whatever capacity, that’s all that matters to me.
“And the older I get the more I realise you can have a bit of it all, really, and be happy, choose what you want to do. I certainly don’t feel bitter. I still get a lot of work, and work with younger people, working at the moment with a lad from Leeds, doing a lot of remixes, working with the Ministry of Sound, and still seeing a lot of interest in a track I did, ‘Heaven’.
“I can make a good living out of all this, with the royalties on the old stuff and collaborating with people on new stuff, while I’m out of the limelight. I work a lot with Tom (Wilson) up here, but also Tim Fraser, a songwriter based in London who also has work in Nashville. One of his tracks, a song called ‘Falling’, I did a demo for, and Tina Turner ended up putting on one of her albums (1999’s Twenty Four Seven).
“I also work with Chris and Viv still, and there’s a bit of everything really. If I have the time, I get involved. And in any one week Tom and I could be recording dance stuff with the DJ guys at the Ministry, while at the minute I’m doing vocal coaching in the studio for a 10-year-old girl with a great voice.
“We’re also doing charity work for Manchester bomb victims, doing covers and writing with people, and Tom also joined me in The Mardigras Bombers, playing Hammond organ. We’ve had some raucous times with that band.”
Bianca’s band The Mardigras Bombers, along with WriteWyattUK favourites Vukovar, are supporting Penetration at The Continental, Preston, on Friday, February 1st, 2019, with ticket details here. And look out for an interview with Penetration lead singer and co-founder Pauline Murray on this site very soon.