Given the ubiquity of The Beatles in popular music, you might think an artist would steer well clear of covering any of their songs.
That’s not to take anything away from the biggest band of all time, but the unique stamp they put on every one of their songs makes it hard, when listening to a reimagined version, to think of anything but the usually superior original.
Milos Karadaglic, then, will have to forgive the fact more than a few eyebrows were raised when he announced he was releasing a whole album of Beatles covers.
“I understand any surprise, but I see music as one whole thing - music is music - and I’m not bound by the boundaries of genre,” says the 32-year-old. “The Beatles were a perfect subject to take. This is music that has stood the test of time, similar to classical music in that it’s been there for as long as we can remember, and its impact is the same as the first time it was played. I’ve taken something timeless, and brought it into my world, this is why it works.”
Milos - like all the best musicians, he only needs to go by his first name - is a classical guitar player, arguably the world’s best, born in what’s now Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia.
By the time he was 11, he was a local star, winning his first national competition that year. Things dramatically changed at 16, when he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he, too, shone brightly, graduating with a first degree, and leaving as a junior fellow some years later.
Dead set on popularising classical guitar as his heroes John Williams and Julian Bream had done 30 years previously, he began recording a series of albums. His debut, The Guitar (Mediterraneo), won him Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year in 2011 and topped classical charts. His second album Latino, in 2012, was even more popular, while more recently, his recording of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the London Philharmonic Orchestra won critical acclaim around the world, and impressive sales. His concerts sell out in moments, whether he’s filling the Royal Albert Hall on his own, or playing in more surprising venues such as the Roundhouse, as part of the iTunes festival, or in the tiny basement of the 100 Club, the central London punk hangout in the late-70s.
With such success in the classical world, why does Milos feel the need to risk his success with a lurch for the mainstream?
“With my first three albums, I focused on the strictly classical repertoire, because I wanted to establish myself as a classical guitarist. But guitar is simply the world’s most popular instrument, so from here, I believe I can go anywhere. After those classical albums, it was time to start the party and explore other directions. I feel so, so happy that I’ve done that.”
He says recording Blackbird was more fun and exciting than anything he’s ever attempted before, but he also says the songs of The Beatles provided more of a challenge than his previous albums too.
“Well, I didn’t know how to play any Beatles songs before this, for a start,” he says. “And people might think these songs are not as difficult to play as some classical pieces, but I would disagree. There is no easy way with it. If I was going to search for an easy way, the whole point of the exercise would fail. I had to do it all on my terms, but I didn’t really know what the end result was going to be, or how I was going to develop them, so it all changed along the way.
“That was quite unsettling for me,” he admits, “because I come from the classical world where you know how things are going to sound.
“The reward, however, has been much, much greater.”
Many of the arrangements were undertaken by Sergio Assad, the Brazilian guitarist and composer, and the only person Milos wanted for the job. Further assistance comes from Tori Amos, a personal friend of Milos’ since they met a few years ago. The Cornflake Girl sings She’s Leaving Home on Blackbird, while Gregory Porter shows up on Let It Be.
“I never thought I’d get Gregory,” says Milos. “I don’t know him, and he’s a superstar now, so I didn’t think I’d hear back after making inquiries, but he said yes and I was thrilled with the result.”
Finally, cellist Steven Isserlis appears on the album, as does Anoushka Shankar, in a circular kind of way. She’s a sitar superstar and, of course, daughter of Ravi Shankar, the virtuoso who taught George Harrison how to play the instrument.
The Beatles link doesn’t end there. Blackbird was recorded at Abbey Road studio 2, where the band did most of their recording, and Milos and the other players even used some of the original microphones used by the band.
“The spirit, the whole magic of this space was truly intoxicating. It was a bit like they were all there,” he says.
Ultimately, Milos believes his album has worked because he hasn’t tried to make the songs anything they’re not.
“I’ve not turned the songs into symphonies, I’ve kept them simple and pure, and direct. I wanted to preserve them with the arrangements, adding only the voice of my guitar. In a way, that’s more challenging because it’s closer to the original, but then to add too much would be to completely miss the point.”
Could Milos achieve the same success by marrying his classical skills with more contemporary song? He thinks not.
“It’s too current. I think this works because of the instant familiarity of The Beatles’ songs, and everyone knows them, whatever age, which you might not have with contemporary songs. I want people who love The Beatles already to love this too.”