Archives For Interviews

I was very excited to meet musician, songwriter and performer Denise Pearson to talk about her career and fantastic new album Imprint. You may recognise her from being part of the incredibly successful group Five Star. Sometimes referred to as the British Jacksons they had several hits in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The group was made up of Denise and her siblings Stedman, Doris, Lorraine and Delroy Pearson. Their father, renowned musician Buster Pearson, who played with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Muddy Waters, Desmond Decker and Jimmy Cliff, was the initiating force and manager. From their first single “Problematic” in 1983 they captured the public imagination. In 1987 their No.1 album “Silk and Steel” saw them become the youngest group and first Black British group to top the UK Charts. The group had six top 10 singles and sold over 10 million albums worldwide. Both the group and Denise have been Grammy nominated.

Having taken time out to raise her family Denise has decided to return to the industry. It seems coming from such a close knit family made her want to create her own and she has valued being a hands-on mum to her son and daughter, now aged 19 and 18 respectively. The family lived in the USA from 1994-2007. I wanted to find out what sustains her and what its like for her returning to the industry now.

Denise Pearson

She attributes her staying power to “staying young at heart, exercising, eating good food, always working out and singing each day – yes singing is my passion”.

Her family were somewhat surprised when she decided to be a contestant on the BBC show: ‘The Voice’, since she might be expected to be a coach. She embraced the opportunity to reintroduce herself to 11 million viewers and was very pleased to meet Tom Jones. It was her cousin Paulette Pearson who reminded her that she could be a mum AND a singer and no longer had to choose. This decision inspired ‘I found my flow’ on the Imprint album.

After The Voice she got signed to Universal for six months then moved to Baronet Entertainment. She is very pleased that her Dad got to see her performance on The Voice and he was very proud of her. The whole family came round to watch it and celebrate. It was a big decision for her but she is really glad she did it and has no regrets.

Her route back into the industry started once she was introduced to music publishing company Phrased Differently. Denise attended their writers’ retreats in Gothenburg where she met Jessie J and Charlie Dore who wrote the hit ‘Refuse To Dance’ for Celine Dion. This then led to her performing in Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre followed by its European and World Tour. Performances in Respect La Diva (Whitney Houston and Maria Carey songs) at the Garrick theatre would follow and this would eventually lead to her participation in The Voice.

What was it like for her performing in the theatre? She agrees it was challenging in many ways.

DP: Learning to act, lots of changes of costume in speedy time. I was sweating in my sequins and diamantes falling off from all the dancing. It requires lots of stamina. You’ve got to think ahead but still remain in the moment.

For a brief period In Los Angeles Denise was in a band called Tre’sor (three girls who are sure of themselves) but the collaboration didn’t really work. How is she finding performing as a solo artist now?

DP: When I did Thriller there were some solo parts so I could ease myself back into it. Also, on The Jacksons’ Unity Tour I performed with two other dancers. Now it’s just me but I am loving it because I love the material of the new album. Once I have that feeling inside – you can do anything once you love what you do. I am very happy being a solo artist now.

As well as being a solo artist she’s also had to adjust to not having her father around as manager or mentor since he passed away. He died in October 2012 and she went on The Jacksons’ tour in November 2012. After that she went straight into pantomime – playing Cinderella in Milton Keynes. She recalls “I had to learn lines, open the show, and that kept me busy through Christmas and New Year. Then I stopped moving and it all came back”.

What’s it like for her to be making music and performing without his guidance? She shares that “It’s different. Nowadays you have to build your profile and get the record companies interested. I love the writing, singing and being in the studio but I am quite a private person outside of that. Dad contributed so much to our career through his experience and wisdom and we were blessed to have that. I still remember some of what he used to say but I do have good guidance around too from Baronet Entertainment.”

Denise’s latest album – Imprint- is a great collection of well-crafted tunes covering pop, rock and R’n’B genres. I wanted to know how it all comes together?

For Denise “Everything just fitted. I did want that acoustic sound. ‘Kiss and Tell’ is a kind of 1960’s tune. Then ‘Freak Dance’ came about and it just matched with ‘Kiss and Tell’. Even in Five Star I would be the one writing the rock tracks or the RnB tracks.”

During her time in Five Star songwriting and musical arrangements were part of what Denise did so this was not new to her. Nevertheless her Gothenburg retreats helped to create the right space for this. She did the retreat “three times, one week each time. ‘Kiss and Tell’, ‘Here I AM’, and ‘Close To Nowhere’ all came out of those retreats. Normally I would sit in the room, write and produce myself so I was wondering how I would cope with live writing with a track guy, a melodist and me as lyricist and melodist in the room. But I did it and it was wonderful – just bouncing off each other.”

Denise seems quite a private person and I wondered what it was like for her to share so much of her life in her songs. She thinks that “if you write about life people relate to it because we’re all living, loving, hurting and happy so I think when you write about your own personal experiences or feelings there’s always someone out there who can relate to it so I like singing from the heart, it’s true”.

The songs have great melodies and are beautifully sung. I suggest that Imprint is as unique to her as her fingerprint, a sort of personal stamp of who she is now and she goes on to say, “It was the perfect title, my personal journey, a part of me. The words to the title song ‘Imprint’ are exactly how I feel about my dad. Holly Lemar, Olly Jacobs and I wrote it. You can get away as easily as you think but your impact and a connection remains. With ‘Freefall’ it’s about finding love and being in love for the first time and letting go, even if it’s a rollercoaster.”

I wondered if she saw going on BBC’s The Voice as a similar leap of faith captured in the single ‘Freefall’.

DP: Yes I think the braveness of it is similar. I get that from my mum who is very courageous and was always at the school for Sted … always there to fight his corner. Even at 5 feet 2 inches! All 3 girls are strong Pearson women.”

I picked out a few of the words in her songs such as “moon… stars… heavens… redeeming.. believing..” – and wondered how that fitted into her world view. She is not religious “but I was always spiritual, I believe in God and try to do the right thing.” Our conversation reminds her of a Jehovah Witness lady called Jenny who used to come round to their home when she was a child and their mother would make them sit and listen to her.

So, with my counsellor hat on I see the album as a journey of finding herself, coming into Denise – what does she think?

DP: Well I think it’s made me stronger as I go out and sing. I was so nervous and unsure of myself at the start in a way but when I listened to the master version I was so pleased with it. I think I’m getting to know me more.

I could not conclude our interview without asking about her experience on tour with The Jacksons. Denise gets the giggles as she remembers how privileged she felt having “front row seats to the daily sound check. Wonderful! It was a dream come true.” It seems that like all siblings they have their individual characteristics with Marlon bringing humour, Jermaine using his charm, Jackie being a beautiful dresser and Tito having the business awareness.

Did it bring back memories of touring with her family? DP: I remember my dad saying we should all stick together. We have had money and mansions and lost it, but as long as we had the family it didn’t matter what went up and down.

Denise was a great interviewee and answered all my questions honestly. When I asked how she recharged herself she did not hesitate to share her love of cartoons and her daily watching of these. Of course she keeps up with the grown up news as well but I couldn’t help but see it as a wonderful antidote to all the terrible global news we hear regularly. Films such as Frozen, Despicable Me, and Toy Story come highly recommended. Exercise, singing and chores are other parts of her daily routine when she is at home.

And is there any truth about her crashing an expensive car as a child? With much laughter Denise responds, “Yes, I did crash the Lamborghini into the Ferrari as a child.” She was in their driveway.

We speak more of her touring with Billy Ocean and how his Caribbean music mixes with her pop/rock/r’n’b tracks. She tells me about the set she used with him.

DP: I open with Kiss and Tell which is 1960’s, then I Found My flow which is jazzy, then Freefall, Chic is pop, then the Five Star medley: Can’t Wait Another Minute, Rain or Shine, System Addict and Higher Love. So there is variation in mine and they mix well.

With her knowledge of quality music over a long time I wanted to know which artists she enjoys and who she would collaborate with. Denise loves listening to India Arie, for her empowering words and her melodies. She also enjoys Nat King Cole, early Mariah Carey, early Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston. With regards to collaborations she would love to work with India Arie, Lionel Richie and was a little giddy at the thought of working with Smokey Robinson (ooh ah)

A lot has been said about women in pop recently: how they present themselves and how they are treated in the industry and in the press – I wonder how she feels about this.

DP: It’s a fickle business and can drive you crazy so you need to stand back and see what you’re putting out there. I’ll always stand by something I’ll be proud of and remain fully clothed. You can be rebellious in different ways.

Denise looks great so I wanted to know about her fitness and beauty regime. Her approach is around enjoying her life, relaxing when she can and sometimes staying in to recoup her energy. She does not wear makeup at home, which gives her skin a chance to breathe. She exercises to keep her weight down, uses cocoa butter on face, makes homemade soups, drinks lots of herbal tea, eats lots of vegetables and passes on sugar.

So, what’s next for Denise?

She wants to keep singing, making music and putting it out. If she retires she’d like to write words and melodies for adverts and other artists. She is inspired by the great melodies of the 1980’s and admires truly talented artists like: Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder. Given the chance she would like to make a record in the vein of Connie Francis, Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee – 1960’s artists.

Whatever she does I get the sense Denise is motivated to do her best. “Oh yes” she says, “I will do my best. Easy does not register in my life.”

It was lovely to spend a couple hours with Denise Pearson and find out more about this successful and talented lady. Now that she’s found her flow I anticipate many more albums and tours. You can find out more on http://www.denisepearsonmusic.com and order Imprint on iTunes.

Shirley Anstis

Pam Warren: From behind the mask to centre stage

Meeting Pam Warren was both ordinary and extraordinary.  She has been through such an incredibly traumatic experience and yet she is generally upbeat and hopeful. When I first heard Pam speak at a local business expo I was mesmerised by her skill as well as her content. From the woman behind the mask she is now the woman at the front of the stage. She is now a motivational speaker and campaigner, roles that came out of her experience as a survivor of the Paddington rail crash in 1999.

For a long time after the crash she was a campaigner for improved rail safety. In recent times her campaigning has taken a back seat as the original goals for improved rail safety have been achieved, although she still keeps a wary eye on the railways and commuters have been known to tell her their concerns.

I spoke to Pam to find out more about her life now given that crucial experience in 1999.

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So how did you become a professional speaker?

I wanted to get back to work but my health can stop me. I have to make sure work is flexible to allow me to rest when I need it. I trained in event management and project management before bumping in to someone who suggested speaking. I took a year out to be mentored by one of the best and he helped me to make my talk more relevant for my audience.

How are you able to share your story and not connect to the pain of it?

Yes, that used to be hard. I know how to get connected enough to talk about it but not to emotionally reconnect with it. I’ve done lots of work with my psychologist to help me to talk about it with some of the feeling but keep myself together so as not to burst into tears. Sometimes I take my plastic mask to do a talk.

Do people sometimes want to touch it and what is that like, given that it was your face?

What people don’t realise is that my face was so swollen that it shrank back to normal during treatment so I used 3 different masks during my healing. It gives me comfort that if someone touches the one I have, it helps to know that I have the others.

How long have you had a psychologist?

I had my psychologist before I recovered enough for work; 14 years now. He helped me to face forward and aim for new goals.  He still thinks I do too much. I know if I work hard then post traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) and depression could kick in but I’m too aware that life is too short to not do stuff. I am prepared to have 50 weeks when I can do fantastic work and possibly 2 weeks when I’m not well.  I came off the anti depressants 5 years ago as it stopped me from experiencing not just sorrow but also joy. Once off the medication then I worked on my coping strategies.

How is your relationship with your family?

Family and friends now come first. If work conflicts, then I’ll weigh up what is more important in life. The choice is not materialistic or about money but who matters most in the greater scheme of things.

How do you cope with stress given what you’ve experienced?

If anything stresses me now I ask myself two questions-

  • Has anyone died?
  • Is anyone injured?

If the answer is no, as it often is, then I realise it is not that important in the whole scheme of things and can refocus and deal with the problem.

What’s exciting for you at the moment?

Because of my experience in the crash I realised that I can’t take stuff with me when I die so I want to see the world and enjoy life. Travelling has become much more important to me and I am genuinely interested in other countries. I sometimes connect with university students learning English and see a completely different part of the country than if I just stayed in the tourist areas.

Where have you travelled to?

Malta, Russia, Egypt, America, Canada, India and Tunisia to name a few.

What is your family background?

My Mother is from Fiji, got married at 21 and moved with my biological father to Singapore. She left when I was 3 and came to England. However, my birth certificate says I was born here in Andover so it’s a little confusing. From age 8 I’ve lived around Reading with my mum, sister and step-father but growing up I always felt out of sync with my family. I explored some of this in my book and when my mum read the first draft she was quite upset but I think it has helped us understand each other better. I am used to getting on with it and that’s how it feels with the crash. I have rebuilt my life. Teenage Pam experienced lots of angst from not knowing who her dad was but it doesn’t matter anymore.

Is it hard to be in a relationship?

I am open to relationships but not yet found ‘the one’ to complement my life in any meaningful way.

How does it feel to be a role model?

I am delighted if people see me as a role model. I was and still am, very aware to stay clear of the celebrity thing. I refused offers to appear on shows that were vacuous when promoting my book. I still don’t expect people to recognise me and feel no different to anyone else.  I don’t like PR but I am happy with public speaking. I remember when I was in primary school I had a good speaking voice so every year I was the narrator for the school play. Also there was a lot of speaking during the campaigning – making a point, giving media sound bites and speaking to the audience in the room – all helped to prepare me for a speaking career.

Someone once said “when the time is right the teacher will appear” and that fits with me. It’s important to not think you know everything.

Tell me about your charity work

The Healing Foundation Charity fund university research into medical breakthroughs for disfigurement. This could be from cancer, war veterans, burns victims like me or the exciting possibility of growing back a limb. I have been an ambassador with them for 16 years.

I also support the Children’s Burns Research Centre in Bristol. Children’s burns are currently treated the same as adults but they will grow and face the challenges of adolescence. The Bristol unit is the first one in the world and being observed globally.

I support the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust – they help disadvantaged young people by using retired sports people as mentors.

How did you get involved in the DKH Trust?

I was introduced to Dame Kelly Holmes by my friend Sir John Madejski and she is one of my heroes so I offered to support her charity straight away. I believe in the vision of the Trust. I remember the first graduation evening watching the kids and how they had grown in confidence in one year – I saw their transformation.

I try to support local charities when I can and Reading is close to my heart as I consider it my home.

Were you always a career woman?

Yes, I was working very hard and doing pretty well as a financial adviser pre crash. My company turned over £1.5 million a year. I was sad when I lost my company after the crash but in hindsight I’m quite pleased I’m no longer a financial adviser. Looking back on the crash it has been a painful sometimes bitter experience but but life is better.

How do you look after yourself now to stay well?

I eat healthily and have a personal trainer. As I have a touch of arthritis from burn damaged joints, he designs exercises for me. I try to get enough sleep and will have a half-an-hour catnap in the day if I need it.  Fitness helps me to fight off infection.

Pre-crash Pam saw family twice per year now post crash Pam sees them at least every 3 weeks. My family includes my sister who nursed me after the crash, my step-father who raised me, my mother and both my mum and sister’s husbands. They were a constant source of strength during all those years of recovery and I love them dearly. Plus, I am really blessed to have a network of close friends – my safety network – they kick in if I am unwell and I like to support them too. For example, I need to take special care and find distractions coming up to the crash anniversary and they help me through this hardest part of the year.

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I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Pam Warren: the lady behind the mask. She is a survivor in life and in business.

Pam’s book From Behind the Mask is available from Amazon, major bookshops and for an author signed copy check out www.pamwarren.co.uk .

Below is my interview with Camila as published in TODAY Magazine just over a year ago. I hope the charity, its clients and staff find a way through this difficult time.

In preparing to meet Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company I came across so many people who knew of her colourfully draped image without knowing her name or her role. It was a pleasure to meet with her in her beautifully decorated and homely office in London.

Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company

Camila Batmanghelidjh and her passion for Kids Company

She heads up an innovative and effective organisation in Kids Company. For 17 years now she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of suffering children. When I asked her what these kids had in common she spoke of their “dignity being taken away by the circumstance into which they are born so they may not feel that they are worthy of the love and respect of others”. Her organisation works with these kids who have been failed and turns their lives around. The staff offer emotional, practical and educational support. So who is Camila and what does her organisation Kids Company do?

About Camila

Camila was born into a very wealthy Iranian family and lived her early life very quietly. Her father was involved in politics and when the political climate in Iran changed she became a refugee in the UK. What I hadn’t realised before the interview was that her status is still classed as a refugee. In the current political climate it is noteworthy that this refugee has raised million of pounds for charity and has improved the lives of thousands of children through her various organisations. She has set up two children’s charities: A Place 2B and Kids Company. She and her team have raised in the region of £150 million! Currently she leads a team of 600 workers “sharing their beautiful souls with 36000 children, parents and young adults” across 10 centres and in over 40 schools in London and Bristol.

Among several awards Camila won the UK’s Woman of the Year award in 2006. In 2013 she was appointed as an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her work on behalf of underprivileged children in Britain. She also has an honorary doctorate from the Open University. An incredible achievement.

The other relevant fact about Camila is that she has dyslexia. An easy label that belies the character and effort it takes to persevere. Like many sufferers she was led to believe that she was not clever but with her early confidence in herself, she knew that this was not the case. Eventually dyslexia was the explanation. In truth this is why she remains a refugee because only recently have people been allowed administrative assistance to complete the nationality tests. Now it is just a matter of finding space in her packed diary to learn and pass the test. Such labels don’t bother Camila as she loves living in England and doing a job she is passionate about.

From a very early experience in boarding school in England, Camila felt moved to work with young people who were or seemed unloved. I was surprised and inspired that at such an early age she knew what she wanted to do and be. She did theatre and puppetry at university because she realised that “children would share with puppets what they would not share with an adult”.

Camila’s dedication, to these as yet unknown children, was so sincere that she decided she could not have her own children if she wanted to take on this role. With some humour she announced this to her friends so that they would know not to try to fix her up or distract her with their dating stories. She has no regrets and there is so much more she wants to get done so the challenge continues.

Who are the young people?

It is not always mentioned that Camila is a trained psychotherapist. With my experience of counselling teenagers I am inspired by the transformation she achieves with these young people. In some ways the reasons why they come to Camila’s attention are not new but there seems to be little in the present system that is geared to improving their life chances. Kids Company is a wraparound service and it is what these kids need otherwise they fall through the various organisations tasked with helping them. At Kids Company someone will really get to know all about their world and their experiences to date to be able to provide good mentoring and effect change.

These young people are likely to have experienced:

  • Mental health difficulties
  • Severe poverty, neglect or bereavement

Their parents:

  • May have mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar, depression
  • May have long-term or serious illnesses such as cancer
  • May still be learning to meet their own needs and therefore not able to look after others

Much of what Kids Company does is intensive and reparative, and works alongside mentoring and in-school programs. With the support of the workers many of the young people go on to take up good training, university and employment opportunities.

What is incredible is that the conditions that give rise to this has not changed for decades but yet very little seems aimed at addressing those young people with these experiences. Camila continues to fundraise to do her work and without it such work will not be done. Kids Company has branches in many parts of the country, the most recent addition being Bristol. I found out that there had been some interest from Berkshire when Camila addressed a Head Teachers’ conference a couple years ago. It would be interesting to see if there is demand and support for this in the Thames Valley.

As well as working with the educational establishments Kids Company works with social services, mental health, the NHS and young offending teams to help sort out the chaos that exists in many of these kids’ lives. They have an initial battle to get the children to trust them, as these young people have already been failed by the adults their know. Before Kids Company can really begin working with a child they must ensure that she is safe at home. Only then can they begin deeper work with the child and support them in reclaiming their childhood rather than the tough exterior they have developed for self-protection. This is delicate, expert work that if not well-resourced or badly done can do more harm than good.

What effect does such early experiences have on these young people?

Camila quotes a study published by the London School of Economics last September. This analysed the work of Kids Company and explored its interventions. The report identified that a significant portion of Kids Company’s clients had witnessed or experienced violence of a traumatic nature such as stabbings and shootings! Others had been threatened or robbed and they considered the journey to and from school to be dangerous. Such trauma and violence may then affect their mental health. Camila shared that many of the young people she comes across believe they are soldiers fighting for survival in our cities. Part of the work is to begin to undo the negative impact all these early experiences have had on the young person’s brain development.

Looking after her staff

The staff can access psychotherapy, counselling and alternative therapies to help them take care of themselves. The work is challenging and could be draining so it is great for them to feel nurtured and valued.

I found the offices so attractive and all the staff so knowledgeable on what they were doing that they almost had to throw me out. The offices are colourful and expressive with graffiti like art in the corridors and dramatic installations on the ground floor. There was also a fantastic exhibit where the young people depicted their lives before and after their engagement with Kids Company. The kids were very honest and portrayed moving scenes of sleeping rough in parks and laundrettes; being hungry; sleeping on the floor; hanging out in pubs for hours on end and living in very cramped conditions. One of the kids depicted a scene where she was out in the cold before being rescued by Camila as if caught in a (safety) net. This was all part of Kids Company’s shoebox campaign involving 125 school children.

Last year they produced an art exhibition in partnership with the Royal Academy that was described as “incredible” by Damien Hirst and given a five-star rating by the Daily Telegraph. Through art, poetry, fashion and gardening young people are given the opportunity to find their passions and take these to the next level.

What’s next for Camila and Kids Company?

Camila and the team continue to have big plans for Kids Company as they see a great need for its services. The aim is to raise more funds to expand the nature of the work: more clients in more locations.

Kids Company works with many different companies and individuals to achieve its goals. There is a recent collaboration with the London Evening Standard where they are funding an initiative to help former gang members set up social enterprises.

The charity has created a professional development certificate in therapeutic communication skills for work with children. This has been developed in collaboration with The London Metropolitan University and serves to increase the supply of people skilled in this work.

Kids Company is supporting former clients to come together and make a difference in the way vulnerable children are dealt with. The group, known as Urban Wisdom, has already found themselves working with the children’s commissioner on gangs. It is hoped that their experience will make them credible with those setting policy.

Recently the artist Damien Hirst auctioned one of his Mickey Mouse paintings (drawn as one of his iconic spot paintings) and gave the proceeds to Kids Company.

Looking after body and soul

Camila speaks of having a childlike way about her where she is fully engaged in something but then able to leave it a moment later. Her ability to switch off easily helps her to make good use off her downtime. When she is not working she is able to relax easily. This is a perfect fit for this type of work and allows her to use her off time to replenish herself rather than worrying about her clients. She also “loves swimming and can do that for hours”. Swimming is very calming. I suspect she has some spiritual practice or faith but I am not able to confirm this. Her creativity with fabric and design would also be re-energising.

Her dyslexia means that she does not lose hours on the Internet. If it is not printed she cannot and does not read it. Think of all the hours saved not being online. Camila has long days, and often gets to bed at 1am. Her long days often end with the necessary fundraising events and she does this very well. Her main purpose though is not fundraising but doing the valuable work that she is passionate about. Yes she is a psychotherapist, an author and a philanthropist but most importantly I think she’ll say she is a Children’s Advocate.

Shirley Anstis