Joanna Forbes L’Estrange

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is performing at Chobham Festival with her husband, Alexander L’Estrange, as the duo L’Estranges in the Night. Their concert, Love’s Philosophy, is on Friday 20th October.

Joanna is a composer, internationally-regarded soprano, a former musical director of the close harmony group The Swingles and has become one of London’s busiest session singers for vocals on soundtracks for film and television.  

Joanna with her husband Alexander

Growing up in Guildford, Bisley and Knaphill, she certainly found her voice at a young age. And as a chorister in the church choir of Bisley and West End, where she sang for 10 years as a child and teenager, she was able to delight in an innate joy of singing.

She and her younger sister Emily lived for several years with foster parents.

Initially, we lived in Guildford but then we moved to Bisley and, shortly afterwards, our foster father suggested we all join the local church choir. I loved it from the very start: the music, the singing alongside other people in harmony, the regular Thursday evening rehearsal, the Sunday services, the feeling of being part of something. 

It was my first experience of singing in a choir and I was hooked from the start. My comprehensive school didn’t have a choir so I arrived at Oxford University only having sung in that one choir. It was where I learned to sight-sing, to hold a harmony line, to blend with other voices.

One particular memory is of performing Stainer’s Crucifixion one Easter.

Our foster father sang the baritone solos and I will always associate that piece with him. By then, our birth mum had become more able to look after us so we moved in with her in Knaphill and she also started singing in the choir.

The regular cycle of choir, alternating between St John the Baptist at Bisley and Holy Trinity in West End – interspersed regularly with Sunday services at Guildford Cathedral when she and Emily were with her father – was such a constant in Joanna’s life, that it begs the question of whether without that early experience she would have made a career in music.

It’s hard to say. I think so, yes, because I always adored making music and was determined to make my living from music. Having said all that, I had no idea how I was actually going to achieve this dream! In those days, there weren’t the wonderful choral apprenticeships that we have now.

Joanna went to primary school in Bisley and then West End. There was one incident where the response to her love of singing was a little dampening!

I remember being told off for singing too enthusiastically, on the grounds that it gave the other pupils an excuse not to bother!

However, later, at West End Middle School, she played the recorder in assembly every morning and she recalls the Head Teacher being impressed that she could play the tunes without looking at the music.

Joanna at the age of 10

That was when I worked out I had perfect pitch. From I went to Winston Churchill School where I was horribly bullied and had a miserable time; the only saving grace was our music teacher, Carl Johnson, who took me under his wing and was very encouraging. I wish now that I’d thanked him more. 

For A levels I went to Woking Sixth Form College and was much happier. Again, my music teacher, Miss Parry, was completely wonderful and we all adored her.

Joanna’s musical ability has deep roots. Her grandfather was the violist Watson Forbes, who for 10 years was head of music for BBC Scotland, and her father Sebastian Forbes, is a distinguished composer of contemporary music and Professor Emeritus at Surrey University, where he played a seminal part in developing the music department.

Alexander’s family is very musical too. His mother is a soprano and his step father was a counter tenor, conductor and a school director of music. Alexander and his brother Henry were choristers at New College Choir in Oxford. Joanna and Alexander’s two sons have also been choristers at St John’s College in Cambridge.

For Joanna, there was actually a time, after she had met Alexander at university and other young musicians who had benefitted from a more rigorous musical training than she had, when she regretted quite bitterly not having had the experience of singing in a big cathedral or prestigious college choir. Is this still the case?

No…and that’s all thanks to having become a composer.

Although she enjoys singing the sort of complex, challenging pieces her father writes, as a composer she is drawn to creating readily accessible music.

I enjoy writing the kind of pieces which are singable by an average parish church choir, not just professional singers. If I’d started out in a famous cathedral choir I don’t think I’d have the specific knowledge of less trained choirs needed to write music which they can sing. 

Joanna started composing only in her 30s, spurred on by her foster father Richard Abbott, who not only asked her to compose music – the piece is called Go Forth in Peace – for his ordination at Bisley Church, but gently encouraged her in the face of her lack of confidence in her own ability.

Sunday morning regulars at St Lawrence Church will most likely have heard at least one piece of Joanna’s own music.

The St Lawrence Church Choir sang her Coronation anthem, The Mountains Shall Bring Peace, commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music for choirs across the country to mark this year’s top royal event.

That piece had a very specific commission brief: a big tune which everyone can sing! Some choirs sang the whole piece in unison ie just the tune; others sang it in harmony. The other part of the brief was to compose it in distinct sections so that some choirs could learn just one of the sections and then join forces with another choir to sing the whole piece. 

Joanna and Alexander compose, sing, perform and direct music of amazing diversity, from from sacred music to jazz. And their children, also, are following in their footsteps.

Like us, they love all styles of music from classical and musical theatre to pop and jazz. They play in the bands and orchestras, star in the musicals and sing in the choirs. We’re very proud of them!

Only a handful of years out of university, Joanna was appointed musical director of the close harmony group, The Swingles, and she and Alexander are also choir directors – Alexander has led singers at venues including Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. At Chobham Festival’s Love’s Philosophy Concert, he is playing keyboard, bass and guitar, as well as providing the backing vocals.

 Is it unusual for musicians to work in such a range of different musical styles and disciplines?

I don’t know that many musicians who work in as many different genres as we do but, having said that, we’re certainly not the only ones! Any musician who’s been a member of The Swingle Singers will be able to sing in many different styles; that’s why the London session singing scene is full of ex-Swingles!

What they have lined up for the festival includes a trio of songs in the English song tradition by Alexander of settings to three poems by Tennyson, Byron and Shelley. Around these they have created a contrasting programme of 20th century classics in jazz, pop and cabaret style, reflecting different aspects of love, including Strangers in the Night, Alfie, Vincent, Both Sides Now and You’ve Got a Friend.


You can read more about Joanna in this INTERVIEW at the Cross-Eyed Pianist and on her own WEBSITE