Keepin’ It Real with the Divas and Bill King

By Bill MacDonald

Bill King is an easy interview - not because of his accomplishments (which are many) or his knowledge of music and the music industry (which is vast).  It’s his passion.  It flows through the conversation and takes over and is, quite simply, infectious.  Right now, the focus of his passion is his current project, the Real Divas. 

The Real Divas is comprised of four young female vocalists - Lauren Margison, Josephine Biundo, Kinga Victoria, and Sophie Berkal-Sarbit.

The original Real Divas began in Toronto about eight years ago.  Every Tuesday night, singersof all ages and levels of experience were given the opportunity to perform on stage. This included such notables as Emilie-Claire Barlow, Dionne Taylor, Suzie Vinnick, Jackie Richardson, Shakura S'Aida, Alex Pangman, Dawn Tyler Watson, Melissa Stylianou, and Liberty Silver.  Also pefroming was a young singer just out of her first year music program at Humber College, Sophie Milman.  This gave rise to two compilation albums.

Bill King:  Then I thought of trying to put together a group of four or five singers rather than doing compilations.  So we tried it and had a lot of fun.  We had Heather Bambrick, Shakura, June Garber, and Emily-Clair Barlow for a while, and we went out and did some concerts together.  And then I thought about putting together some young singers who were relatively unknown. We would produce an album and see what comes of that.

At that point, King held a number of auditions but couldn’t come up with the right singers.  However, over a period of time, the group slowly materialized.  The first entry was Sophie Berkal-Sarbit, a fourteen year old singer from Winnipeg referred by Toronto sax player, Mike Murley.  King produced her first album.  He met Josephine Biundo when she approached him to produce her debut album.  King met Lauren Margison when she was about fourteen and he included her as part of a Real Divas concert at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival.  King remembered Kinga Victoria when he photographed her at a student concert at Humber College. 

With a fifth member, Jessica Lalonde, they recorded the standards based album, Cafe Society, which covers Bacharach, Ellington, Bernstein and pop hits such as First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

While Lalonde moved on to pursue her own career, the other four stayed together to form the current incarnation of the Real Divas.

BK:  While this is what I always hoped for, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen.  It’s wonderful to get four or five great singers together, but the other side of it is will they get along, can they buy into this, will they be able to put their own personal egos away. 

As it turns out, not only could these four young singers deal with being members of a group, they thrived on it.  They have toured and performed together and opportunities continue to grow.   While they still work on their individual albums, their material works its’ way into their group performances.  In a very real way, they truly enjoy singing together and backing each other up.  As King puts it, “this is something very, very special”.  And King has the knowledge and experience to make this successful.

BK:  When I plan the sets, I have to make sure they are balanced.  Everybody needs their spot to shine, and everybody needs to be positioned in such a way that they have equal space.  I always keep that in mind.  And they trust me on this. 

It helps that King has a wealth of experience in producing and performing with a number of musicians.  In particular, King credits his association with musical conductor and arranger, Peter Matz (whose work includes early Barbara Streisand recordings and long time association with the Carol Burnett Show). 

BK:  There are basically two ways to deal with people.  One is to scare the pants off them and then there’s the other way.  Peter taught me the other way. If someone made a mistake he would go backstage and work with them.  He would never brow beat somebody or embarrass them.  He would correct the problem and just make sure things worked.  At the same time, you always hire the best players.   And the best players always bring the best to the music. 

Even with the age range of the Real Divas (ages 17, 19, 23, and 29), they are all emotionally steady, allowing King to focus on the music.  He is quick to credit their strong family ties and links to their respective cultural traditions and religions that provide this foundation.  And they have become the best of friends.
Over and above this, what makes this group unique?

BK:  In most singing groups, you have one or two strong singers, the rest are relegated to singing harmony and background parts.  We started the other way.  We started with four strong singers, and then we developed the harmonies and added more and more of that.  And that, I think, is what binds them together, because they all know individually they could walk away and do this on their own, but probably not as successful.  But being together they know they will be successful as a unit. At this point, they need to be together musically and get the training they need for stage, they need to care and think about each other.  And they are doing that.

Every gig they do is something unique.  And King keeps it that way.  He sets each gig with a goal to do something new and to continually improve.  King also makes sure they are aware of the pitfalls that they are avoiding because they are being guided by people who care.

And where do the Real Divas go from here?

BK:  I want them in concert halls.  I want them to keep doing what they do and keep improving and becoming a concert act, like the Canadian Tenors.  They need to go in that direction.  And they will do things that are more contemporary in addition to the jazz and cabaret.  This is about talented women making a career out of what they do and doing the best they can.  There’s a whole world where there is quality music and quality artists.  And that’s where I want them.
With their talent and the vision of Bill King, that’s exactly where they will be.

Appearing Thursday October 22 2009 at Hughs Room in Toronto, Ontario

For further information go to www.hughsroom.com

For more on Bill King visit www.billkingmusic.com