Having been a singer all her life, working with the likes of Michael Jackson, Ronnie Scott and Dionne Warwick, I’m ready to forgive Popchoir founder Helen Hampton for being a bit of a diva. Except she’s not. At all. She’s absolutely bloody lovely and it’s clear from the moment we meet that she runs Popchoir from the heart. “I wish I could have a ruthless business streak,” she tells me, “but my heart constantly rules my head.” Putting performance before profit, she was even unsure of making a return from this year’s summer show at Croydon’s legendary Fairfield Halls. But she’s determined to give her choirs what they want. “I know they want to perform and I want to give them that chance,” she says.
Helen founded Popchoir three years ago, quite simply for “people who love to sing pop music”. To give you an idea, her choirs belt out hits by the likes of Lady Gaga, Cee Lo Green and Muse in five-part harmonies to rival any X-Factor gig. She now runs three adult choirs in Dulwich, Croydon and Clapham, South London, and is about to roll out the franchise nationwide.
The popularity of Glee and games like Singstar have undoubtedly given weight to Popchoir’s appeal, but for many, being part of a choir goes deeper than just singing. You only have to glimpse at the daily stream of chatter and photo uploads on Popchoir’s facebook page to see what I’m talking about. I ask Helen to tell us more.
Do you feel you’ve created a community within Popchoir?
I really do; even between the three choirs there’s no rivalry. People feel they can come and sing together as part of a whole, and I love that. People come to choir for lots of different reasons, but many of the women (and men, of course) I’ve got to know say they were simply lonely, and wanted to meet people and feel part of something. Popchoir is not a unique concept, but I think it’s a force for good. [The proof? Since our interview, Popchoir has seen its first engagement!]
How important is it for people to feel part of a community?
I’m not a religious person, but what I see with the demise of the church is that people have no community these days. London is a very transient city. We’re all moving about and rarely know our neighbours, so anything that brings people together with a shared purpose or belief is a good thing. I’ve seen some fantastic friendships form at Popchoir, and I’m desperate to find ways for people to socialise a bit more. It’s hard not to start late because the more people get to know each other the more they want to sit and chat!
What motivated you to start Popchoir?
The lightbulb moment came during the school run, as I was singing along to Capital radio in the car with my children. Listeners were phoning in to say they were singing to the tracks and I just thought ‘everyone loves pop music, but there’s nowhere for people to go and sing it’. It was around the time that Mamma Mia the movie was released, and I decided I wanted to give women the chance to sing Dancing Queen in a choir!
What is it that people like about being part of a choir?
Singing is a fantastically uplifting thing. By nature it is a whole body experience. It’s very emotional, and experiencing that emotion with other people as part of a collective is very powerful. I sense it palpably when each section of the choir has learnt their part and we put it together – people are always surprised! And even though I know what the harmonies sound like like, I feel genuine excitement, too. When I first started Popchoir I knew that everyone else would like it, but I never imagined the personal reward I would get from doing it. It’s enormous.
Does running a business come naturally to you?
Not really. I decided to make Popchoir a limited company rather than a personal enterprise, because I wanted to be serious from the outset. I also thought that if I saw money going into my bank account on the second week of term I might be tempted to spend it all on a new wardrobe.
Do you have moments of self doubt or worry?
All the time! People don’t have endless supplies of money to spend on their hobbies. I also worry that people won’t want to come and see the shows. I could really do with more of a killer business streak, but I just haven’t got it.
What’s the best song you’ve taught so far?
Everyone loves My Immortal by Evanescence. The first time we sang the beginning of the song and broke into harmony it nearly floored me. It was so beautiful. I also had a moment on stage last year, when we were singing Circle of Life. I was conducting and thinking at the same time that ‘I could never write this arrangement’. Then I realised that I did write it! The realisation that I had done it was so profound I nearly lost the plot completely. I had no idea how I’d got to that point.
What’s been your funniest rehearsal moment?
Me toppling off my box in the middle of conducting – the choir were besides themselves laughing. [For the record, Helen doesn't wear anything under a four inch heel. Although she claims to have a good sense of where her feet are, she can sometimes get carried away.]
What advice would you give to LULR readers thinking about starting their own ventures?
Just get started! You’ll find your way through if it’s something you believe in and you’re passionate about. Often we look at others and think, wow, that could never be me. But its the people who just get on and do it who succeed. We are far more capable than we realise.
See Popchoir perform this Thursday at charity fundraiser Up The Junction at the Clapham Grand! All proceeds go to the people of Clapham Junction who’s lives were affected by the recent riots.
Popchoir’s autumn term starts on 12 September.
For more details go to www.popchoir.com.