Aled Jones looks back: ‘It wasn’t easy being famous at school. I’d get bullied the day after doing Wogan’

Aled Jones in 1986 and 2023
Aled Jones in 1986 and 2023. Later photograph: Pål Hansen. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Sadaf Ahmad. Archive photograph: Avalon/Getty Images

Aled Jones was born in 1970 and joined the choir of Bangor cathedral aged nine. He became a household name in 1982 for his version of Walking in the Air, from the animated film The Snowman. As a boy soprano, Jones sold more than six million albums by the time his voice broke at 16. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, before starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and has since combined singing with broadcasting. One Voice – Full Circle, Jones’s duet with his treble vocals recorded when he was a teen, is out now.

I was 15 and singing the high note in a traditional Welsh folk song at the Royal Variety performance in Covent Garden when this photograph was taken. It was so exciting. Better than a day at comprehensive school. Mum would have cut my hair and the bow tie was from Burton’s in Bangor. The trousers, too – I always wore those Simon Cowell slacks that were way too high.

Because of my age, I knew people would clap like mad and stand up before I even walked on stage. There was never any fear or pressure. Plus holding that score was like a comfort blanket. Once I had it in my hands, I knew I was in control.

As a little boy, I was an instinctive singer. A real professional, who didn’t mess around, learned his stuff and also had a bloody great time. There was only one performance I felt stressed about: aged 13, singing Memory, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Royal Variety Performance. He came on stage and introduced it as the “greatest performance” he’d ever heard of the song. I was backstage thinking: “Oh my God, I had better be good.” The director asked me not to use the score as it was spoiling his shot, and as I was naive, I just nodded and went on. There was a bit between the first and second verse where I thought: “I have no idea what’s coming next.” Because I didn’t have the score, I had to make it up on the spot. Forgetting the lyrics in front of the Queen was like being trapped in a waking nightmare. Webber came bounding on as the curtain came down saying it was “better than the original”, but Rory Bremner, who I loved and followed around, came up to me and went: “You’ve just been singing Memory, and you’ve proved to everyone you haven’t got one!”

I never sang because I wanted to be famous or to get adulation. I sang because it made me feel good. When I was nine, my aunt died, leaving me a piano. I wanted to learn how to play the Beatles’ songs, so a lady working at my primary school suggested I go to Bangor cathedral to have lessons. When I first walked into the cathedral, it was totally empty. I loved it and was struck by its mystical smell – the history of hundreds of years of people performing, I thought. I later realised it was in fact a Calor gas heater.

During that first lesson, I sang and then the teacher told me to leave the room so he could speak to my mum. I sat outside thinking: “I’m crap, he’s not going to teach me.” Instead, he said to her: “This is the best treble voice I’ve ever heard. You should send him to Cambridge or Canterbury cathedral.” Later that day, perched on the kitchen surface, I spoke to my parents about my future. They said: “We’re not going to send our only son away.” And I said: “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got football to play.” So we decided that the next best thing would be for me to join Bangor cathedral choir.

There was a lady in the congregation – she was sometimes the only person in the congregation on a Thursday night – who wrote to a recording company suggesting someone should tape me before my voice broke. We went on to make an album. By sheer luck, a big producer from London bought it from St David’s Hall in Cardiff, and used the music for a show that came on after Only Fools and Horses on the BBC. The CD sold 275,000 copies. I ended up being No 2 in the pop charts behind Bruce Springsteen. After that it was a total whirlwind for four years.

I kept quiet about my fame, especially at school. It wasn’t always easy though. I’d get a bit bullied the next day if I went on something big like Terry Wogan’s chat show, which I did seven times. I had the dubious honour of being the guest who was on that show more than any other person. At Christmas, kids would take the piss and sing Walking in the Air at me. But generally, I could keep it quiet. Monday to Friday, I was a normal boy, then on Friday night I would get on the train to London, go on TV shows and meet my idols like Roger Daltrey.

I never missed out on my childhood – my parents made sure of that. And my mum and dad didn’t take a penny from me, ever. When I was singing at the Hollywood Bowl, I was more excited about going to Disneyland afterwards. Later, I even turned down the offer of having an entire episode of Johnny Carson’s TV show devoted to me because I wanted to go home and play football, and see my girlfriend. The only thing I wasn’t allowed to do growing up was swimming. Every time I went swimming, I got a cold – I still do.

Not long after this photo was taken, my voice broke. It never cracked and wobbled like it does for some boys. I was recording an album at the time and noticed the top of my voice was great, but the middle was really breathy. I was in the car with my executive producer one day, and said: “I’m not really enjoying this. Do you mind if we don’t go back to the studio?” That was it.

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Rather than panicking about losing my career, I was just sad I wouldn’t get to go to Happy Gathering, the local Chinese restaurant, which was the tradition after delivering an album. Once the calls with the label were made, I had one horrendous week where I did interview after interview with people around the world about my voice breaking. I’ll never forget one clip from an American news item where they used images of miners coming from the pit, heavy with the dirge of the day on them, as if my voice breaking were a huge moment in Welsh history.

To bridge the gap, I did a lot of Christmas stuff, like script readings for BBC Radio 2. I knew I would never be able to shake off the child star who launched my career, nor did I want to. There was a tough stage in the 90s, however, years where I didn’t really do anything at all. I call them “the This Morning years”, when I used to lie on the couch watching Richard & Judy all day. But I knew that every Christmas the Snowman would rear its head, so I could do some shows and enjoy performing again. Then all of a sudden in 1999, I started doing Welsh media. I’ve been grateful and full of wonder for every opportunity since.

I was once told that my voice wouldn’t fully mature until I was in my 40s. I’m now in my early 50s and it feels like it’s getting stronger and changing all the time. It’s not getting worse, so hopefully there will be no midlife crisis. I have just bought a battery-operated motorbike, however. It’s a really cool cafe racer which is not that fast, and very safe. A choir boy, until the very end.


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