Capturing the essence of the Multi Award Winning Ms Gladys Knight, Hayley Ria Christian performs the magic of Gladys Knight’s hits in Midnight Train to Georgia, appearing on stage at The Alexandra Theatre on Thursday 7th July.
I had the opportunity to have a chat with Hayley about the show, her love of Gladys Knight’s music and her own experiences throughout her amazing career.
I’m so excited about the show! Tell us more about it!
I created the show in mind of Gladys Knight’s story, with hits that you know she did, but also the hits that you’re thinking “ooh! I didn’t know she did that one!” too. She did a lot of covers, but also a lot of people have done lots of covers of hers. I want to introduce people to the original music and share the love.
What was it that gave you the initial idea to create the show?
It was my mum, really. I always remember when I was a kid and dancing around the kitchen to Gladys Knight, and she has always been a massive fan. That’s how I learned to sing, my voice naturally goes to hers – my mum was always playing her music, I would hear it on the radio all the time. I wanted to do something different and celebrate her music because she is one of the biggest artists of all time and everyone seems to only know one song of hers which is Midnight Train to Georgia. I tell people that they’re missing out on so many good tunes, and that’s one of the stories I say in the show. For example, the song Neither One of Us, a lot of people will say “where do I know that song from?” and it’s because Angie Stone sampled it, and then Mary J. Blige sampled it. Everyone has sampled a little bit of her music and I wanted people to be as excited about her music as I am.
When did you realise that singing was the thing you were meant to do?
I’m an only child – that’s all I’ll say on the matter! I had dancing lessons from the age of four and music lessons from the age of seven, and I’ve always been that person in school who was in the plays and the narrator in the nativity, and I’ve always been at the forefront of stuff. At the age of 16 I did my GCSE’s and I wasn’t fulfilled and my mum could see that, so at the age of 17 she let me move to Manchester and go to theatre school. It was an amazing experience, I met a lot of good people and I’ve worked in the industry since then. It’s taken a long time to find your voice and find where it fits – when I was first starting I thought I had to sing pop because that’s what people wanted, but my voice is quite low for a female even though I can hit high notes. I do Whitney as well but that is just a guilty pleasure for me, it’s lots of fun, but Gladys is my dream.
You’ve had such an amazing and varied career right from the beginning – you’ve done musical theatre as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and Delores in Sister Act, worked in radio, you’ve toured with Sheridan Smith, and don’t you play piano and sax too?
I kind of play six instruments. There’s a story behind that – my piano teacher ran an orchestra so I thought I would have a go. I can play the flute, the clarinet, bit of the drums, piano and saxophone and three chords on the guitar. My grandparents bought me my first saxophone and I’ve still got it.
What would be the ultimate thing that you would like to do?
You’ve got me there because I have so many things – I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. I like to have a go at things – my grandparents always used to say that if someone asks you to do something say yes and then learn on the job! There’s a lady called Sharon Jones, and unfortunately she passed away, she did massive big band stuff. I lost my mojo with music a few years ago and my cousin took me to see her, and she is the only person that I’ve ever seen play Gladys Knight’s Heard It Through the Grapevine with a live band before I saw Gladys do it, so I took that as being a sign. I know Gladys is touring at the minute, and I would like to tour Midnight Train around the world and share the love I have for her and her music in places that perhaps she can’t quite get to and hopefully they would love her music as much as I do.
How is it being back on stage after covid?
It’s weird, because when we first went back on stage everyone in the audience was wearing masks, and I vibe off people’s facial reactions, and you can’t see their faces when they’ve got masks on! It was an ongoing joke for the first couple of months because I was telling everyone to ‘smize’ (smile with their eyes) and give me a sultry look to let me know they’re enjoying the show. It’s been great to be back on stage with my band – I missed them and we’d been having Zooms and stuff. In hindsight, covid gave us chance to revisit and revamp the show and see where we could improve – little bits that we weren’t quite happy with, swapping and moving songs around – so covid screwed us over quite a bit, but it also gave us the chance to restart, press the pause button. My voice was a little bit grateful for the break – 18 months vocal rest! We’re coming back bigger and better. Obviously everyone has felt the struggle and finding their feet and seeing whether they enjoy it. I know we’ve lost some great musicians where people don’t want to come back to this lifestyle, so I feel fortunate that I still have my guys and we can still carry on.
What does your touring day look like?
Coffee, coffee and coffee! I like to do the driving on the way, I like to make sure that everything is all there – we all either travel together in the same van or in convoy – and when we get down there we have the sound check, all the guys go off and have dinner and I sit in my dressing room and watch comedy. Laughter is a great warm up for me – I watch old school comedy like Billy Connolly because it makes me laugh and puts me in a good place for a show. I then have a bit of meditation, hot water, steam and then go on stage.
Do you ever get the opportunity to visit places?
If we’re there for a couple of days, absolutely – I’ll get out and have a walk around, but for me it’s about getting as much as possible. The guys will go out and visit places and explore. Most of the places we go to at the moment I have already been to, but I have to zone out, get vocal rest and zone out. I’m not hiding myself away, I just have a process in which I have to get into the zone for the show so it’s the best that it can be.
What have been your fondest memories of being on tour so far?
When people who also have their own tours and they come and see my show and say “wow, your show is amazing!” When someone told me that Gladys couldn’t do better herself, that’s amazing, a couple of people cried in a good way, especially during The Way We Were. A lady came up to me after a show, and she hadn’t read anything about me and asked me which part of Atlanta I was from! For me, it’s when my mum, husband and best friend all came to see the show and were like ‘ok, we understand why you’ve been going mental about it’. My best friend said “she said she was going to do it, and BAM! she’s done it” and that was wonderful.
I have a bucket list of people that I want to see in concert and I recently got the chance to see Queen and Adam Lambert. Who is at the top of your musical bucket list that you would want to see?
I’ve seen Beyonce. I worked at a radio station so I’ve seen people, for example we had Taylor Swift when she first started, I’ve seen Take That. I’ve seen AC/DC which was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to – I’ve been lucky to see the people that I want to see.
I would have loved to have seen Dion (Warwick) on her tour this year, but things clashed and I had gigs.
Ooh – Tina Turner. I was working that night and I couldn’t get to see her because I got to see Beyonce and everyone else got to see Tina Turner.
My mum got to see Earth, Wind and Fire in 1978, so that’s who I would want to see – Earth, Wind and Fire.
Who was your favourite?
I would say Beyonce in 2009, because it was just when she had come out of Destiny’s Child old songs and all her new songs, and then Jay-Z came out.
A friend of mine went to drama school and once said that he spent an entire day pretending to be an egg frying in a pan. What’s the most random thing you’ve had to do in your career?
I trained under a guy called David Johnson – he was in charge of the Oldham Workshop and I couldn’t tell you what the most random thing he had us doing… Squawking like a bird?
Working in radio means that you have to do lots of random things. I had to dress up as a Bassett hound, I had to stand in the middle of Stoke-On-Trent with a massive 6ft cardboard cut out sausage and play the game ‘Hide the Sausage.’ True story. I’ve been Santa’s Little Helper, but I think we’ve all done that one… I’m sure there was lots of other things that I had to do. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with flashbacks.