How We Met: Jeanette Winterson & Natalie Clein

'I sat in her room with piles of books. I stayed for two hours and it felt like a two-week holiday'

Interviews,Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 01 August 2010 00:00

Natalie Clein, 33, is a classical cellist who combines traditional repertoire with experimental pieces. At 16, she won the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year, and went on to become the first British winner of the Eurovision Young Musicians competition. She has released five albums and won a classical Brit in 2005. She lives in north London

I've been a huge fan of Jeanette's writing since I was 15. I read The Passion first, then I saw Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit on TV. Her work was a very special part of my teenage years. Much later, about eight years ago, I went to see her lecture about what art is for. She is incredibly charismatic and it made me cry. I went to meet her after and invited her to a music festival to speak. She said yes, and from there we started thinking about doing some projects together [combining music with words] and gradually a friendship formed.

Jeanette once compared reading poetry with a dose of caffeine, and being with her is a bit like that. She makes me feel that anything is possible – not on a material level, but on a fundamental one. She has an intensity about the way she looks at things that brings pleasure – it can be quite simple things: food, for instance.

Our first project was in Paris – a huge, crazy undertaking that should have taken two months that we did in two days. She's very instinctive with music, but she enjoys learning more about it from me. The major difference between us is that Jeanette is a creative artist while I am re-creative [interpreting others' work]. So I have endless respect for her on that level.

I don't know that I have ever seen her as happy as she is now – it's fantastic. She's spoken openly about the dark times she went through in the past couple of years. I don't know if I could say I helped, but I felt privileged to be able to stand beside her when she wanted someone there.

Jeanette's homes are special places; you go into her little world and it's peaceful and comforting. Once, I was just back from touring and at the end of my tether. We chatted and I think she heard it in my voice, as she said, "Come round to Spitalfields." When I got there, she said she was going out but I should stay for a while. So I sat on the top floor in a room with nothing but piles of books and an old armchair. I stayed for two hours, read one of her short stories, then shut the door behind me feeling as if I'd had a two-week holiday.

Jeanette Winterson, 50, is an author who came to prominence with her 1985 semi-autobiographical debut 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit', which explored her evangelical upbringing and the discovery of her sexuality – it won the Whitbread Prize. She has won numerous awards for her novels and adaptations and was awarded an OBE in 2006. She lives in the Cotswolds and east London

I was giving a lecture – one of my saving souls, gospel tent-style lectures that I do, in the name of art not Jesus nowadays – and Natalie came to it. Afterwards she came to get her book signed. She told me she was a professional cellist, that she'd read all my work and asked if I'd come to a concert. I thought that would be pretty wonderful, so that's what happened.

I like the way she is, the way she thinks, and it's built up from there over the years. We both have this absolute conviction that if you've got art of any kind in your life, then you're better and life is better.

There is an age gap, so her influences have been different to mine, but I like that. One of the good things about getting older is that you make friends who are younger than you. Natalie's boyfriend manages bands – he's worked with Robbie Williams, Leona Lewis – so she has a big pop influence within this high classical ambit.

She was approached to do an X Factor-style classical TV show, but she deplores that learn-to-be-an-opera-singer-in-six-weeks thing. She is broad-minded, but won't dilute her art and I respect her for that, because not everything is equivalent. To play at the level Natalie does takes a lifetime.

She frets if she goes on holiday and can't take her cello to practise. We've been on holiday together and she has to buy two tickets on the plane – one for her, one for the cello. I never really notice her carrying it around now, though – it's sort of part of her body. You should feel her fingers – it's like feeling steel, quite extraordinary.

Natalie is very intense but also very gentle. You never see any rough edges. It's the music – it gives her a lot of compassion and a sense of stillness. You immediately settle around her because she is settled. And she knows how to listen, of course.

She is a great reader and we send each other books and suggestions. Sometimes she'll say to me, "Tell me how this poem works," and she'll tell me all about music. Not just classical – she think's "Wonderwall" by Oasis is a brilliant song and she'll tell you exactly why. It's fascinating, like stripping an engine.

For me, the best place she's played was at my 50th birthday – she played Bach at the beginning, then, when everyone was a bit drunk, she sat down with her boyfriend at the piano and they played jazz and stuff from Porgy and Bess. She had people crying at the beginning and dancing at the end.

Natalie Clein's album of Kodaly works is out now on Hyperion. She will be performing at next month's Schumann Festival in London ( For more on Jeanette Winterson:

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