Q&A: 13-Year-Old Welsh Treble Cai Thomas on His Album ‘Seren’ & Singing the ‘Pembrokeshire Murders’ Title Song ‘Suo Gân’By Chris Ruel
I first heard the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gân” watching Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film, “Empire of the Sun.” The moving piece is perfect for cinematic use, and if you live in the United Kingdom, you can hear it as the title song for the new television series “The Pembrokeshire Murders.” (The show is also available in the United States on Britbox.)
Whose heavenly voice sings the lullaby? It’s the 13-year-old, former treble, Cai Thomas. I use the term former because, within the past few months, Thomas’ voice has changed. Thankfully, the short-lived crystalline purity of sound that defined his time as a young chorister and soloist will live on in perpetuity through his recordings.
The story of how a young choir member progressed to a seasoned recording artist within six years will put a smile on your face.
Thomas was first approached by Decca, but the massive label ultimately passed; trebles are too risky—you simply don’t know when the voice will change. Through contacts, Thomas got connected with Rubicon, an independent label. The immediate concern was no longer a vocal one, though that was always in the back of the Thomas family’s mind, but funding.
The Thomas family knew people within the tight-knit Welsh music community, thus opening the door closed by Decca. They brought their son’s music to the masses via social media and began a Kickstarter campaign. Potential donors, wowed by Thomas’ sound, funded his solo album, “Seren” to the tune of nearly 30,000 pounds.
“Seren” showcases many types of music from Welsh tunes such as “Suo Gân” to operatic standards “Ombra mai fu” and “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Karl Jenkins’ “Ave Verum,” Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum,” and Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” give the album a solidly classical feel. Backed by London Mozart Players under the direction of Robert Lewis, “Seren” captures the boy’s treble voice at its peak.
OperaWire had the pleasure of speaking with the young artist and his mother, Janey Thomas, about his path to international stardom, the making of “Seren” and where he’s headed, vocally.
OperaWire: At what age did you start singing?
Cai Thomas: I started singing at seven when I joined the Choir of St Thomas-on-the-Bourne with my friend Harry. He asked if I wanted to go to a session to see if I enjoyed it. So, I just kept going with it and eventually got into some big stuff.
OW: You said you come from a musical family. Tell me more about that.
CT: My grandma was a music teacher and sang for the BBC Welsh Chorus; my dad plays guitar, piano, and drums, as well. And mom plays the guitar.
Janey Thomas: My husband’s family is fully Welsh, and my side is half Welsh. The Welsh sing all the time, so it’s a very comfortable activity; there are no inhibitions.
OW: What was the progression from joining the choir to becoming a soloist?
CT: When I was nine, I sang “Once in Royal David’s City” for the Nine Lessons Service.
JT: It’s the biggest concert of the year.
CT: I also went on a couple of choir tours and looked up to one of the boys who inspired me to be a soloist.
OW: Tell me about lessons and practicing. How often are you working on your training your voice?
CT: I have two choir practices and one service per week, and at school, I have two choir practices and a one-to-one lesson with my teacher.
JT: The teacher is also the choirmaster, so it’s all linked.
OW: How did you go from choir soloist to cutting your own album? Walk me through the process. Janey, feel free to jump in.
JT: Someone in the congregation had a connection to Decca. Cai did an audition with them, and it went quite far. But then, as these things do, they changed direction. We’d made some great connections by that stage because of the various freelancers involved in recording and producing Cai. We Welsh tend to stick together.
After Decca, we asked if there were any other routes to go down and we were introduced to Rubicon, and Cai ended up recording with them.
The way it works with the big record labels like Decca is that they’ll fund it all upfront, there’s no outlay but with the independents, there is. So, we had to go off and crowdfund.
Through Simon Kiln, the co-producer, we were introduced to people who could help with the crowd-funding. We got a campaign running on Kickstarter and it went nuts. You’re never quite sure which way these things will go, but it went in the right direction.
The second co-producer was Robert Lewis, the Music Director at St Thomas-on-the-Bourne, and he worked with Simon to think about what the repertoire should be and who the backing musicians would be so we could put all of that in the campaign. We also added a video of Cai’s singing along with a really creative narrative around the project.
We put it out there for five weeks over the summer of 2019 and watched it grow. The response was phenomenal and we got the full funding [28,000 pounds].
You get a sense if it’s light or not, so we had already begun lining up musicians because, with a boy, you don’t know how long their voice is going to last, so time wasn’t on our side. So, we got into recording very quickly in October .
OW: Cai, how did you feel about all this? Did you have any idea it could go as far as it has?
CT: No. In the beginning, I was just hoping to be one of the main singers in the choir. Recording the album felt surreal and amazing.
OW: Let’s talk about the repertoire. How was it chosen, and what are some of your favorite pieces?
CT: We wanted a range, so we have some classical pieces, some more modern pieces, and some musical theater.
I really enjoyed “Laudate Dominum” because it was one of the bigger works, with an orchestra and Pegasus Choir. I also enjoyed “Ave Verum” because I got to sing a duet with Aksel Rykkvin. But because of COVID, we had to record it separately and then put it together. I quite liked that concept.
JT: We were thinking strategically about which markets we might tap into, and as Cai said, it was about having a range and trying out different things.
For Rob and Simon, it was about what fit. It was a whole new world for us. You have to consider how one song flows into the beginning of the next; you have to have the right tempo at the beginning and the end, but we had a brilliant team, and couldn’t have done it without them.
Simon is probably one of the best producers/engineers in the UK and we just hit gold with him. Through the process, we’ve become good friends, and he’s more than just a producer, he’s an advisor, really.
OW: Tell me about recording. What was that experience like for you, Cai?
CT: It was really cool. We had the studio set up in a church and it took some time to get everything ready because we needed me, a choir, the conductor, the orchestra, and then the producers in another room.
JT: Rob was very clever during the run-up to the recording by putting Cai in as many performances as possible so that he felt really comfortable.
He sang with Karl Jenkins who did a big concert locally the November before, and they recorded Cai live for Classic FM with Karl conducting. The thinking was if he could deal with that, he could deal with recording in a studio.
OW: “Suo-Gân,” the Welsh lullaby is a piece I first heard in the film “Empire of the Sun” and it remains one of my all-time favorite tunes and now, your rendition with its beautiful arrangement has been picked up as the title song for the “Pembrokeshire Murders.” How did that happen?
CT: My dad’s cousin was the producer of the series and he got in touch with Carly Paradis who rearranged “Suo-Gân” into three different arrangements that I recorded at home.
OW: At home?
CT: Yes, in my dad’s garden office.
JT: They decided to do “Suo-Gân” because it’s a Welsh drama and it fits perfectly, starting off in a minor key—really creepy and haunting—and ends up in a major key when the guy’s behind bars. They couldn’t use the original “Suo-Gân” for copyright reasons, so they had Carly, who did “Line of Duty,” a series that’s really big in the UK, rewrite something original.
OW: Your most recent recording, which dropped in December, features two songs, “Wherever You Are” and “Walking in the Air.” It’s the last recording of you as a treble. Where are you headed, vocally?
CT: At the moment, I’m settling into my new voice and making sure I’m doing the right things to have a good range and continue to sing well.
I’m trying different parts so I know what type of singing, and what range would be best for me. We’ll see what happens when I get there.
OW: Beyond classical, what other types of music do you enjoy?
CT: I haven’t done much musical theater recently, but I have been doing a bit more jazzy things.
JT: You just started “Cry Me a River.” It’s kind of Rat Pack stuff that’s quite good for your range.
OW: The recording I mentioned a moment ago was undertaken to raise money for Robbie’s Rehab, a children’s brain tumor charity.
CT: We were lucky to record in the church when we could do things in groups before the second lockdown. It was quite manic because we had about four or five hours to record all the parts and get different people in and out.
JT: We thought it’d be nice to do something for charity and Robbie was at Cai’s school—a year above him. He was a much-loved pupil. His mom died, and then he died. It was just awful. Robbie loved singing, so we talked to his dad about doing the recording, and he thought Robbie would’ve totally approved.
We contacted Paul Mealor—another Welshman—who wrote “Wherever You Are” and asked if we could rearrange it. He said, “Yes, absolutely,” and then helped us publicize it on his social media.
That recording was crowdfunded, too. We were only looking for six and a half thousand pounds and probably could’ve raised it in 24 hours, but we gave it a few weeks. A lot of the original backers came back, and we had a fanbase we didn’t have before.
OW: Once your voice has settled, is your goal to record more albums?
CT: Yes, but it depends on how much I can do with COVID, but I really enjoyed recording and having all these opportunities to sing. It would be quite exciting to get to do it again.
JT: I think what the experience has taught us is that you don’t know what’s around the corner. Each time I think this is it—his voice has changed—then something else appears, like “The Pembrokeshire Murders.” Who knows what will happen next month or next year. I think what is for sure is that Cai’s got all the ingredients if he wants to go in a certain direction.
OW: Cai and Janey, what would you say to other young singers who have big dreams and who look up to you?
JT: Let me give you a quick story while Cai’s thinking about that. Cai was in the finals for the BBC Chorister of the Year in 2019, and the latest round was just on. One of the finalists sent him a message the day before yesterday and said, “Cai, I heard you in 2019 finals and I thought you’re amazing. You gave me the confidence to try out and I got into the finals. You’re a trailblazer. Thank you so much for inspiring me.” We were really touched by that.
CT: When I responded, I said thank you and that it made me feel good to have inspired him. I hoped that he could help other people do what they wanted like I helped him. In the end, I think it’s important to keep going and keep doing what you need to do.