Lorraine Bowen is feeling “overwhelmed.” Her rendition of her self-penned The Crumble Song, which has catapulted her through to the semi-final final of Britain’s Got Talent (BGT), has now got over 800,000 views on YouTube. “I really am over the moon,” she tells me, her voice brimming with excitement. “Who would have thought it?”
She certainly has a point. Who would have imagined that such a madcap ditty – performed with a Casio keyboard on an ironing board and including such zany lyrics as, “Everybody’s good at cooking something, and I’m good at cooking crumble/ In fact I’ve got one in the oven, would you like some?” – would become a worldwide hit? But for the 53-year old Brighton resident this level of success has been a long time coming. She had already auditioned several times – with no success- for the national talent show and decided to give it one last shot, after much encouragement from a friend who had been on The X Factor.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” she explains, almost breathlessly. “The thing is I’m not a Britain’s Got Talent 16-year old. I’m 53 now and have worked really hard all of my life. My creative output has always been my songs and I’ve been trying to get them out there for many years. I’ve always got good responses to my work, but have played to small audiences. The reason for going on BGT was to reach that wider audience – and it’s happened.”
Bowen’s career started in the 1980s when she sang backing vocals and played the piano in a band called The Dinner Ladies. She came to the attention of renowned singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who gave her six months to put some songs on a cassette and send them to him. He responded with a brilliant critique and told her that she simply had to go solo. Over the next 25 years she brought out five albums and played important festivals such as Glastonbury, Bestival and the Brighton Fringe. She’s become a respected performer on a small circuit, but she admits, it has never been easy.
“I think it’s very tough for women to keep putting themselves out there. I’ve always been quite shy and humble, but once I started I just couldn’t stop.”
Bowen has always prided herself on having complete creative control over her music. She’s been on courses that teach pre-production and relishes writing her own arrangements. The results are an eclectic mixture of what she self-deprecatingly deems “silly songs”. Now that she is on the brink of mainstream success, how would she feel about potentially surrendering that level of control? She answers without hesitation.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years putting on shows on a tiny budget, with the help of friends. They’ve been paid £20, I’ve taken £30, so I would absolutely love some help now!”
Bowen believes that a song takes on a life of its own – and despite the comedic nature of her work, she is quick to stress that there is often a more profound undercurrent.
“All of my songs spring from a passion I have for something at that particular time – even The Crumble Song. People listening to that wouldn’t guess that I place massively stringent rules upon myself: I never mention gender or boy-girl relationships. I’ve played a lot of gay clubs and want my work to be accessible to everyone. I’ve also written a number of very serious songs, but no one has mentioned them yet as they haven’t heard them. But writing such a variety of material hasn’t done me any favours really because people can’t pigeonhole me and these days you have to be pigeonholed to be successful, I think.”
Bowen’s favourite gig has been Duckie, the LGBT club night at south London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Playing there, she believes, really helped her prepare for the daunting BGT audition.
“I’ve always said that the best stage in the world is at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. When there are 300 people in the audience, and they can all see the shoes of the person on stage, you get a real connection. A great vibe. You only get 15-minute slots there, so you have to be really good and relaxed. It was a similar crowd to the 2,500 people I played to during my audition at the Dominion Theatre: both audiences wanted something and you had to give it to them.”
Bowen, who lived for many years in east London, moved to Brighton at the age of 42. It’s a decision that she has never regretted and one which has fuelled her creativity.
“I was bored to pieces with Hackney,” she explains. “All the quirky little venues that I loved were closing down. It was becoming too corporate and had lost that village feel.”
Not long after moving to the seaside city, Bowen became assistant musical director of the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus, a role she held for three years. The city even inspired her to write an album called Suburban Exotica, which she calls her “pledge to the suburban world.”
“It’s naughty of me to say this, but I have lived here for 10 years so I can: viewed through my Londony eyes Brighton really is quite suburban and gossipy. It’s a big village really. But I adore it. It’s gorgeous. There’s such a lovely atmosphere and I can ride around, safely, on my bike waving to people!”
In just a few weeks’ time Lorraine Bowen could be known as the winner of the ninth season of Britain’s Got Talent. It would be the crowning achievement in a career which – like her gloriously screwball songs – seems to have embraced so much randomness.
“I’ve never been trying to do any one thing in my work,” she laughs. “I haven’t got a manager or an agent and don’t really plan. But sometimes things do fall into place and this series of BGT seems absolutely perfect.”
And as for The Crumble Song, does she think there is a spirit of the moment that it has tapped into?
“It could be a post-election thing, I don’t know. There’s so much bad news about at the moment, maybe people need something to cheer themselves up. Perhaps that quirky novelty record is due again.”
Brighton’s Lorraine Bowen has toiled away for decades on the festival circuit. Now a song about a crumble could seize the day in Britain’s Got Talent and make her a star. She talks to Alex Hopkins