An 11-year-old Catholic choirboy is tipped to be Number 1 in the charts on December 25. Joanna Moorhead went to meet him and his family to find out how they’re coping with sudden fame
A few short months ago, Jack Topping was just another choirboy at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Not even the head choirboy, in fact (rather touchingly, given everything that’s happened since, reaching that dizzy height is still his biggest ambition). He was merely a young boy with a lovely voice, singing his heart out at Mass, at vespers, and at morning prayer.
And then, one day, someone who knew a record producer heard him singing at a service. A few weeks later the producer made a trip to Liverpool herself. She was smitten. Within a week, Jack and his parents were on their way to a recording studio in London; a few weeks later, Jack was sitting at the huge boardroom table in the Universal Music offices, about to become the youngest solo artist ever to be taken on by the Decca label. ‘They gave me the pen to keep forever,’ 11-year-old Jack tells me. ‘It’s one of my most precious possessions.’
When you meet Jack, his mum and his sister Emily, 13, they give the impression of people who can’t quite believe this is all happening to them; dad Paul, 47, who’s out at work when I visit, is the manager of a fork lift truck company, and the family live in a cul-de-sac in a village near Wigan. ‘It’s almost a question of pinch us, because it might not really be happening,’ says Anita, 50. They seem, in every way, like an ordinary, Catholic family. ‘The church is a fundamental part of our lives,’ explains Anita. ‘And in a way, everything that’s happened to Jack is because of our faith.’
It was in their parish church near Wigan that Jack’s gift for singing first came to light. ‘One of my brothers, Ged, was sitting next to him in church one Sunday and was struck by how beautifully he was singing the hymns,’ says Anita. ‘Afterwards he said to me, you ought to see if they’d have him in the cathedral choir school. Even then I probably wouldn’t have done anything about it but the following weekend there was a notice in the parish newsletter, inviting candidates for auditions. I thought I’d take him along though I thought it was a long shot.’
But the choir school loved Jack’s voice and snapped him up. Anita and Paul were thrilled but in no doubt as to the huge commitment it would require from them, as well as from Jack himself. ‘We live about 25 miles from the cathedral, so each day I make two 50-mile round trips to get Jack to and from school,’ says Anita. Often they leave home at 7.30am, and on days when Jack is singing in the evening they’re not home until late. ‘It takes up a lot of our lives, but the reason we said yes to it is simple: Jack loves singing, and the cathedral choir school gives him the opportunity to do a huge amount of what he loves most, which is using his voice to give other people pleasure and to bring them closer to God.’
As well as the demands of being a choirboy, of course, Jack has to do all the ordinary schoolwork expected of any Year 7 pupil. ‘It’s sometimes a lot to fit in,’ he admits. ‘And something has to go I really loved football, but I couldn’t fit in going to the training sessions any more so I had to stop.’ Nor does he get as many opportunities to go on his X Box as he’d like, and basketball another sport he enjoys has also had to take a back seat.
But then, earlier this year, came his big break. Anita and Paul were told the record producer wanted to hear Jack singing but they didn’t tell their son. ‘We didn’t want to put him under any pressure we didn’t want him to feel as though he was doing an audition,’ says Anita. ‘We thought, if anything comes of it we’ll deal with it. If not, he won’t have even known it was a possibility.’
Jack admits he was astonished when he first heard that a record company was interested in having him record some tracks. ‘I was totally amazed…I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,’ he says.
Since then, life has changed a huge amount and fast. His debut album, Wonderful World, is out on December 2; and a fortnight later, on December 16, he’s releasing a single, Tomorrow (from the musical Annie), the proceeds from which will go to Save the Children. Many of those who’ve heard the tracks think Jack is destined to be the next Aled Jones and William Hill are giving him odds of 6:1 to be the 2013 Christmas No 1. ‘It’s really taken our breath away,’ says Anita. ‘We never in a million years imagined anything like this would happen to our family.’
Since Jack signed with Decca in May, hardly a week has gone by without some magical event or star-studded occasion. In October, he made his stage debut at the Royal Albert Hall in the Classic Brit awards, singing one of his favourite songs – You’ll Never Walk Alone to a packed auditorium. ‘Seeing my name on the dressing room door was amazing…the whole thing was amazing,’ says Jack. ‘I was sitting there having my hair done and suddenly Jose Carreras walked in…and then a few minutes later Alfie Boe arrived. He gave me some cufflinks and said good luck, you’ll be fine.’
Another special meeting was with Aled Jones, whose road to stardom followed a similar path to Jack’s. He too was plucked from obscurity while a cathedral chorister at 11, and shot to fame with his cover version of Walking in the Air, the song from the film The Snowman. ‘I met him after I’d been out on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and he said I’d done really well,’ says Jack.
Anita says she thinks Jack’s musical ability comes from his Irish background: both her parents were born in Ireland, and her father John had a beautiful singing voice and often used to sing ‘Danny Boy’, which is one of Jack’s favourites today. ‘We see it as an extraordinary blessing from God, and it’s just amazing to think that through his wonderful voice he’s bringing people closer to God.’ Despite his many commitments for his record label, Jack will be singing in the cathedral at midnight Mass and, says Anita, he still finds time to sing in their parish church. ‘Everyone in our parish is so supportive of him,’
For Jack, 2014 promises to be even more exciting than the last year has been but, he says, his biggest dream is still to make it to be head choirboy at the cathedral. ‘That really would be the icing on my cake,’ he says. In the meantime, he’s determined to go on raising funds for Save the Children, whose youngest ambassador he recently became.
He’s aware, too, that while everything is so exciting in his world right now, showbusiness is fickle and also, there will come a day when his voice will break. ‘Every chorister knows that it’s not forever, that there comes a time when your voice breaks, and that you just have to enjoy every moment until that day arrives,’ he says. ‘So I know this will end sometime…and right now, I just want to make sure I make every day count.’