dBs graduate Stacey Thornhill joins us to talk about the creation and release of 'What A Wonderful World' – a collaborative album with friend and performer Maurice Craft that is raising money for Alzheimer's Society.
Music's power over us is no secret. A potent catalyst for recalling long-dormant memories and reawakening parts of the brain, its use in the treatment and care for those suffering with Alzheimer's and dementia has shown remarkable results. It was this relationship between music and the mind that laid the foundation for 'What A Wonderful World'.
For Stacey Thornhill, the idea of creating such an album had never crossed her mind, but in the latter half of 2019, a chance encounter would see her embarking on a deeply personal journey that reignited and transformed her love of music.
"It was October 2019 when Maurice walked into the car showroom where I was working. Between purchasing and handing over the car we became really friendly and just clicked. Over time, he would tell me more about his life and he told me about his wife, Dorothy, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's several years ago and how he wanted to create an album to raise money for Alzheimer's Society. I said I'd love to do something like that; to put my talent into something and use it for such a worthy cause.
"It was a few weeks after that conversation when he came back and said, 'I've decided I don't want just a male voice on the album, I'd like a female voice too. Do you fancy joining me?' He auditioned me in his car - and bearing in mind I'd never had a singing lesson before in my life - I just sat there singing 'What A Wonderful World'.
"Maurice said I definitely had something there and so I said I'd be happy to sing, but felt I would benefit from some lessons to learn the correct techniques. That's how I then ended up getting lessons with Angela Hickey and I had my first lesson in March 2020. It's pretty crazy that the entire project came about because I sold Maurice a car!"
Finding a new voice
In just five months, Stacey's relationship with music had completely transformed, but it had only been a matter of time.
"I've always enjoyed music, but I really fell madly in love with it when I found my new voice, which gave me great pleasure when I was singing. I've always loved music and enjoyed how it made me feel, but when I learned how to sing properly, that was a really amazing moment."
After her first singing lesson at Angela's home in March 2020, the UK went into lockdown and her subsequent lessons had to take place over Zoom. With more time on her hands, Stacey started to teach herself piano using the Simply Piano app alongside her singing lessons.
"It was when I was learning piano that I started to want to know how all these chords and melodies were constructed and how they came together to make that song. That's what really interested me - to be able to get deeper into the why and the how. How does this all fit together; how do we put all these instruments together and make it sound right; how does it all fit in time. All these things were burning questions in my mind and it gave me a desire to learn more. That's why I applied to the Access to HE: Music Production course because I thought it suited me and what I wanted to do with music. I'm a vocal performer, I want to learn to be able to sing, play and make my own music and be a good all-round package."
The learning experience wasn't just for Stacey, either, and Maurice had to reawaken the performer in him.
"Maurice always told me a lot about his life - he's had probably 12 lifetimes worth of experiences and has so many letters after his name - it's unbelievable. He started out as a professional magician, but was losing jobs because they were taking seats out of the theatres and turning them into cabaret spots at the time. So, he restyled his act to include magic, comedy and singing, and performed seven nights a week alongside his day job.
"Before we started prep for the album, it had been around 40 years since he last sang and he needed to employ somebody to find out if he still had a voice. So prior to meeting me, he was having lessons with Josh Jones (BBC National Chorus of Wales) and they managed to get his vocals back at the age of 86, which is incredible!"
Retelling the story
Though Stacey and Maurice had to hone their voices in isolation, it wouldn't be long before they were reunited and eager to get the project moving.
"When the government announced that we were allowed to meet up with another person, we were straight on the phone to each other saying, 'so does that mean you then?' We met up and started having rehearsals every week prior to the recording starting in September, and slowly but surely the magic started to come together."
With the recording date fast-approaching, Maurice and Stacey were hard at work deciding what songs would make the final cut, which was no easy task. In order to get it right, the songs had to tell a unique and personal story, one that encapsulated Maurice and Dorothy's relationship together.
"We decided on nine covers and one original, 'Confusion', which was inspired by a poem that Maurice discovered and we adapted into a song with the help of his son as well as Josh. It took time to finalise the other songs. We were throwing songs away, bringing them in, but between myself, Maurice, Josh and Angela, we were able to find a track list that flowed well and told the story of his life with Dorothy.
"'Danced All Night' for example, relates to how important dancing was in their relationship. It's how they met, and they were ballroom dancers together for 20 years on cruise ships all over the world. 'I'll Be Seeing You' was Maurice's way of saying I'll see you again in the ballroom in the sky, as he calls it, and then the album closes with 'We'll Meet Again'. There's a lot of different feelings and emotions in the songs and how they relate to the life they had together, which I think is really beautiful."
Past and future
The last 18 months have been full of 'first times' for Stacey; a fact that's not lost on her. "I was very overwhelmed to begin with - working with other professionals in the business - I felt out of my depth, but with my continued commitment and my eagerness to learn, everything just sort of clicked into place and a new singer was born.
"Our first module on the course was studio production with Josh Hills, so I was able to not only take some of that knowledge away and implement it into our recording sessions, but I was also able to understand the technical side of things. It was great to be able to understand it and not feel like I was just the vocal performer.
"It was an emotional journey, especially with our setbacks with the pandemic, but what we've managed to capture in studio, it's all just simply magical and I think you can really hear that in the album as well. There were definitely a few tears along the way, but on the whole it's been a positive experience and an amazing journey."
'What A Wonderful World' has now been out in the world for several months, having been delayed to a May 20th, 2021 release after the UK's winter lockdown put a hold on recording, but feedback since its release has outdone Stacey and Maurice's expectations. "We've been blown away by the reactions and responses; we just didn't expect it to be as popular as it has been."
The positivity extends to the very charity the album was created to support. "As soon as Maurice had the idea for the album, he reached out to Alzheimer's Society and they've been with us since the beginning and have a been a huge support."
Speaking with Claire Frost, Alzheimer’s Society’s Community Fundraiser, she said: “We’re delighted that Maurice and Stacey have recorded an album in aid of Alzheimer’s Society. It’s a wonderful gesture and a very special collection of songs, made all the more poignant by Maurice’s personal experience of dementia through caring for his wife Dorothy.
“Looking after someone in the latter stages of dementia can be extremely rewarding but at times incredibly demanding for loved ones. It’s brilliant to hear not only how much pleasure Maurice got from recording the album, but also how much Dorothy likes to listen to it.
“Music memory is often retained when other memories are lost. Listening to music can help people, even in advanced stages of dementia, to tap into long-term memories – for some, this can mean they can communicate through singing when no longer able to do so through speech.
“Like all charities, the pandemic had a significant impact on our fundraising, at a time when the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and their families have never needed us more. Thanks to the continued support and generosity of supporters like Maurice, we can make sure people get the information and support they need, through vital services like our Dementia Connect support line.”
With both the album and the Access to HE diploma now behind her, Stacey is keen to apply the lessons she's learned and forge her own creative voice. Looking back on what she's achieved, there's one lesson in particular that will stay with her.
"The way people connect with music, and the power it has to help people in difficult situations is quite amazing. It's a real bond and one that is so vital for your wellbeing. For my own music, I'd like people to learn from it and to feel something because we do take it for granted. Someone might put on some drum and bass while they do their housework, or unwind with some classical music at the end of a long day. You forget how big an effect it has on your state of mind."
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