With the eyes of the world on him, 19 year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason shot to global prominence with an emotional performance during Saturday’s extravagant wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Personally chosen to appear by the Royal couple themselves, Kanneh-Mason’s renditions of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (chosen by Markle) and Gabriel Fauré’s “Après un rêve” and Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicilienne” (both chosen by the cellist) captivated the globe, and had everyone wondering who exactly the young artist was. For Kanneh-Mason — who comes from a family of classical musicians, first gaining notoriety on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015 — the star-making gig was just the latest in a series of stratospheric heights for the Nottingham, England native, from winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award in 2016 to February’s release of his chart-topping debut album Inspiration.
Still coming down from his wild weekend, Kanneh-Mason caught up with Billboard to talk about his royal experience, and receiving the call from Merkle that would alter his life.
Congratulations, Sheku! Your head must be spinning right now.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s been crazy.
Just how crazy have the past couple of days been since the wedding?
On Sunday, I actually had a relaxed day off, which was good. I refreshed myself. But Saturday was just such an amazing experience.
What was your day like on Saturday?
It didn’t start too early. I left the house at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at Windsor Castle at 10:00 a.m. Then I warmed up, and was in the chapel by 11:15 watching the ceremony. And then I played.
You commanded the world’s attention for a full three songs and ten minutes. Is that the kind of thing that goes through your mind during your performance?
Yeah, it was just such a unique experience. I was playing music that I really love, so that’s what I was thinking about when I was playing. Of course I’ve never performed in front of an audience like that, and I probably never will again.
Let’s rewind back to how this all happened. Meghan caught wind of you and called you personally?
It was just such a surprise. I was expecting a call from someone, so it wasn’t totally out of the blue. I was coming from a rehearsal, traveling back home.
You pick up and what do you say? “Hi Meghan”?
[Laughs.] I didn’t know what she was going to ask, so I was very honored she asked me to play at the wedding. It was something I never quite expected, so it was wonderful. I had to keep it not public for awhile, which was difficult.
Did you tell your family?
My parents knew but I wasn’t able to tell my brothers and sisters. Quite a difficult thing to do.
What was the rehearsal process like?
We had a rehearsal on Thursday, and then another on Friday in Windsor. And those were the only two we had. It was great. I was really pleased with the arrangements that were made and the pieces. It was such a wonderful orchestra to play with and such a nice acoustic space to play in.
So you’re done performing, and do you spend the day there? Did the Royals reach out to you after?
Yeah, I spent the rest of the day kind of around Windsor. It was a really exciting and tiring day. I didn’t get a chance to speak to them after their performance, but I hear they enjoyed it.
There were so many guests. Who did you meet?
It was amazing to be playing and looking out onto the audience and seeing so many faces I recognize. David Beckham, Elton John.
Have you watched your wedding performance back yet?
I’ve only seen clips, but I haven’t seen my performance yet. I don’t really like to watch myself play. But I’m sure I’ll watch it at some point.
Your debut album Inspiration is out now, where you cover Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” among other tracks. What can you tell us about putting it together?
The reason for the name is that all of the tracks are pieces that have inspired me in some way. I’ve had lots of fun creating the album and I’m really pleased how well it’s doing. “No Woman, No Cry” has been one of my favorite songs for a long time. I grew up listening to lots of reggae, and in particular Bob Marley. I had fun making the arrangement for that song, and obviously as a cellist you don’t usually play a lot of Bob Marley music. So it was a lot of fun.
Which classical artists inspire you?
The cellist I listen to the most is [the late] Jacqueline du Pre. She was, from a very young age, someone I’ve wanted to play like. She’s been a massive inspiration.
What specifically made you choose the cello to pursue?
I actually started on the piano when I was five years old and then I played the the violin for a few months as well. But when I went to a concert of an orchestra I got really excited by the sound of the cello and I began playing it when I was six. I’ve just really enjoyed it ever since I started.
Now that you performed at the wedding of the century, what’s next?
Well, I’m mainly going to be just studying and practicing. I have quite a few really incredible concerts coming up over the summer, but I also have exams I’m preparing for. So I’ll be doing a lot of studying.
I know you had to cancel a performance in Los Angeles that coincided with the wedding.
Yeah, it was supposed to be on that Saturday but has been luckily postponed to next spring, which is great. That’s my soonest performance in America.
One final question: at the wedding, what was it like right before you’re go in front of an audience? Were you relaxed? Nervous? Excited?
I don’t tend to get nervous before I go out on stage to play. I was just really excited to get to perform for all of those people.