Interview: Kirsty Newton, ‘I turned my old party trick into a show’

by Jim Keaveney

Photo: Matt Radcliffe Photography

It’s fair to say that Kirsty Newton is multi-talented. Musician, comedy performer, singer-songwriter, musical director, improviser, ‘human-jukebox’ and all-round entertainer; she’s entertained audiences around the world and worked with a series of the comedy circuit’s best acts.

Her signature interactive live show, Kirsty’s Poptastic Piano Singalong, has now seen its success stretch over a decade of performances with no sign of abating.

On television she’s appeared as one of ‘The 100’ music industry judges on BBC1’s primetime Saturday night singing talent show All Together Now, the resident pianist on Al Murray’s Great British Pub Quiz on Quest TV and in the house band for BBC Scotland’s Love Song. Meanwhile, her live performances have seen her join Paul Merton’s Impro Chums and the sold-out return of Whose Line Is It Anyway? at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Newton also has the rare honour of being one of the few regular musical improviser guests with the legendary Comedy Store Players. As her performances with the Comedy Store Players and Kirsty’s Poptastic Piano Singalong continue, I had a chance to find out more about her career and what comes next.

Q&A with Kirsty Newton

When did you first realise you had a talent for comedy?

I’ve just realised that I’ve been a musician working in the comedy industry for 20 whole years this month! As a child, I had always been a huge fan of TV comedy and tended to naturally be the louder, silly one in friend groups, but I think it was probably back in 2003, when I met a lot of established and brilliant comedians whilst first working with Radio 4’s Now Show musical satirist, Mitch Benn (as half of his band The Distractions). Whereas most comics have to work their way up through the open-mic circuit over several years, I suddenly arrived in comedy as a non-comedian but at a very high level, sharing stages in London, Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe with people like Neil Innes, Ed Byrne, Phil Nichol, Johnny Vegas, Dara O’Briain, Rhys Darby, Tim Minchin and tons more.

It was a highly unusual position, to be able to observe these skillful experts from their own perspectives and watching from the stage how the audience responded and could be conducted and moulded – like peeking into the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant, probably with a similar amount of swearing. It quickly became clear that my ability to think in the moment, adapt musically in a huge range of ways and, possibly more importantly, be able to anticipate when a joke was coming and not step on punchlines, probably made me relatively easy to work with as a musical sidekick. Apparently, these are all traits of ADHD, which is why there’s a disproportionate amount of comedy performers who have been recently diagnosed, including myself. But it was the after-show drinks where it really clicked. To have such quick-witted, well-known, smart and funny people instantly welcoming me into the fold and laughing raucously with me, made me realise I felt much more at home in those circles than I had in the music industry, despite not actually being a stand-up. Since then, I’ve been permanently employed one way or another in comedy, and lucky enough to perform with some incredible artists. I am very lucky.

What can you tell us about your upcoming shows at The Comedy Store, and beyond?

I feel extremely privileged to be one of the few regular musical improviser guests with the legendary Comedy Store Players; they’re in the Guinness Book Of Records for being the world’s longest-running live comedy show with the same cast and theirs was the first show I went to see when I moved down to London from Yorkshire in 1994. I was a gigantic fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? so they were already legends to me and I couldn’t wait to see my comedy heroes improvising live, and, my god, they lived up to the hype. They are all truly exceptional and annoyingly effortless performers and still, to this day, make me cry with laughter every show. I learned how to improvise comedy music from watching Richard Vranch playing for Josie Lawrence and Mike McShane on telly in my early teens, and now I get to magic up songs for all three of them on a regular basis, plus Neil Mullarkey, Andy Smart and Lee Simpson who are all astoundingly funny. Every show is different but equally side-splittingly hilarious. And you never know who’s going to pop in and guest! Over the past 12 years, I have played with original Comedy Store Player and international superstar Mike Myers, plus Greg Proops, Colin Mochrie, Phill Jupitus, Steve Frost, Rachel Parris, Rich Hall, Cariad Lloyd and Eddie Izzard, among many other big names.

Kirsty Newton. Photo: Martin Wackenier at Devine Times Photography

You’ve found success both as an individual performer and in collectives; do you approach each type of comedy differently?

Yes, although even when I am performing solo, I still tend to somehow involve everyone around me and definitely feel more comfortable when bouncing off others, be it fellow performers or spontaneous interaction with the audience. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to properly enjoy spending more time alone, which is a result of understanding my busy mind and liking myself more. When I did my solo Edinburgh show a few years ago, it was a bit of a departure to actually write and prepare it and perform on my own, a bit like getting used to eating a silent, solitary sandwich after a lifetime of big, boisterous, family dinners, so I did look forward to inviting special guests on and inviting the audience to participate as I love the camaraderie of comedy and, I guess, maybe a safety in numbers. There’s a euphoria in sharing laughter on stage with your friends and the audience feels the genuine warmth and becomes part of it.

Your signature interactive show Kirsty’s Poptastic Piano Singalong continues to be a hit with audiences – where did the idea for the show come from?

In short, I turned my old party trick into a show… I’ve always just been able to hear a song and play it back (I was an irritating, precocious 3 year-old with a glockenspiel, “improving” Top Of The Pops in the late 70s – I feel like this is partly why I haven’t had my own kids) and since I learned to play piano at 9 years-old, I used to take requests from my friends so if there was a piano at any party in my teens and twenties, inevitably, I would end up leading a loud and late, inebriated singalong. It just seemed a natural progression to share that with more people – it’s a feel-good thing and totally spontaneous, so has that exciting surprise element which unites everyone, while they’re all boozily boosting their mental health and releasing endorphins into the chaos. Plus my many years of being a primary school teacher have served me well, as commanding a room of noisy, drunk people is almost identical to keeping the attention of an assembly of excitable 7-year-olds. It is very old-fashioned, simple fun with a non-judgmental ethos and I think that’s the enduring appeal. Every show ends up being a party.

You’ve already achieved a lot, touring internationally, playing festivals, appearing on television and performing with people like Paul Merton; what has been your career highlight so far?

That is a difficult question! I try not to take anything for granted and I’ve been very lucky to perform all over the world in so many different, wonderful places. I loved touring Japan with my former Siskin bandmate Galen Ayers a few years ago. Touring with the Impro Chums is an amazing luxury as we have a “rockstar tour bus” and you definitely feel you’re being spoiled, plus you meet other marvellous people relaxing after their own tour dates in the hotels after shows; in the space of only 5 days last year, I was drinking in a Devon castle with Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, I accidentally opened at The Comedy Store for Chris Rock who just dropped by to try material, and had a tipsy, late-night, piano jam with Bill Bailey in Manchester. I think, though, my most special moment was being able to tell my Dad just before he died that in the next 2 months, I was both performing in Whose Line Is It Anyway? and had been booked for my first solo Glastonbury spot. He knew how much both of those things meant to me and was incredibly proud.

What can we expect from you next?

It has been so lovely to fill up the diary again after the uncertainty and quiet of the pandemic. In addition to singalongs and Comedy Store, I’m enjoying touring with Massaoke at festivals and universities around the UK, fronting an outrageously be-sequinned rock band and encouraging the crowds to lose their voices singing along with us, en-masse. I’ve got a 10-day run coming up at The Edinburgh Fringe with Paul Merton’s Impro Chums which is always a knockabout hoot and, brilliantly, I’ll be sharing a house at the festival with one of my favourite humans, Arthur Smith, which is always entertaining – no doubt we will end up doing something together again, soon.

As for new creative ventures, I’m planning to record an EP of my songs this year, and I’ve also just started work on two separate, very different solo projects, one involving painting, which is a new passion for me. I’m also part of a local, all-female collective of multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters here in Hebden Bridge called SistaJam and we are planning to play a few festivals. Plus my husband (stand-up comic and writer Nick Doody) and I have been mulling over putting together a disturbing, sinister, darkly funny show based on our annual musical comedy sketches at Distraction Club – ‘Christmas With The Doodys’, possibly for next year. Oh, and I have lofty ambitions for my cute little lockdown pup, Addy, as she has shown some performing potential – oh god, I am going to be a pushy showbiz dog mum in my old age, aren’t I? Haha, watch this space…

You can find full details of Kirsty Newton’s upcoming shows on her website.