As Karen Gibson sat on the bus home after a busy day at work, she got a phone call from a “very posh voice”.
She had no idea this call, which was a complete surprise, would change her life forever.
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to someone who worked for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry – and they were inviting Karen and her choir, The Kingdom Choir, to perform at the royal wedding.
The 2018 Windsor celebration turned the extraordinary singers into overnight celebrities, giving them a record deal, a tour, advertising gigs and prime time TV performances.
And now, Karen, from London, has been given an MBE by the Queen for her services to music.
Speaking to Mirror Online, Karen admits she was completely taken aback when her manager told her about the honour.
“It’s a tremendous honour. It means such a lot”, she says.
“It’s wonderful to be celebrated for the work I’ve done for years and years but I thought nobody was looking.
“There are a thousand other people out there who are more worthy.
“It was quite a surprise and a shock.
“It was lovely. I’m still processing it and everything that it means.
“It creates a weight of expectation when people know you’ve got those three little letters, they look at you differently.”
While Covid restrictions stopped her having the celebration she wanted, she still managed to bring more than 70 people together to mark the achievement virtually
She hosted a Zoom party on the day the announcement came out and invited everyone who has helped her along the way – back to her early music teachers.
She said: “I didn’t get here on my own. There have been so many people who have given me advice and a hand along the way.
“There were tears and laughter, it was lovely.”
Karen, who is also a regular on Scala Radio and Songs of Praise, has loved music her entire life and started singing at Sunday School when she was five.
Since then she’s had classical training mixed with a love of gospel music at her church, and can play the piano and oboe.
“It was my mum’s idea to send us to music lessons to keep us out of trouble. She wanted to keep us on the straight and narrow.
“I took to it like a duck to water. I couldn’t wait to get up and perform, I was hardly ever nervous.”
But Karen worked in IT for 11 years, keeping music as a side project, before biting the bullet and making her passion her full-time focus after a restructure at her company.
Within just three weeks she was offered a teaching position at a school and she started setting up and running gospel choir workshops.
The sessions saw her travel around the world, spending time in Italy, France, Poland and Denmark.
But in March 2018, Karen got a phone call from a former choir member who she sung with 12 years ago.
“She called up out of the blue one day and said I was going to get a call but she couldn’t tell me what it was about, but she said it was big.
“I didn’t get this call for a long time so I just wrote it off.
“But then I was coming home from work on the bus and I got a call from a very posh voice saying they wanted to invite us to sing at the wedding.
“I thought it was a joke, so I asked if they were joking. There was this silence on the other end and I realised they were very serious.
“At that time we weren’t doing many big events and we were used to rehearsing in my font room every other Monday.”
But Karen wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the gig, not even members of the choir.
So she had to call around and check everyone was available, but without actually telling why it was essential that they were free on May 19.
Meghan and Harry had already picked the song – Stand By Me – so the group got together to start putting their version together.
Liaising through the couple’s wedding planner, the choir started piecing together their take on the beautiful song, but finding something everyone liked proved tough.
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Karen said: “I’ve never done anything like that before. It was challenging because we weren’t understanding what they were saying.
“They wanted less beat, but I’m a gospel girl – everything has beat. We kept getting it wrong basically.”
So in a desperate bid to get it just right, the choir were invited to Kensington Palace to meet Meghan and Harry.
“It was so exciting. I felt like I had stepped into one of those magazines.
“We had a little chinwag and there was tea and biscuits.
“They said they wanted it like this and like that, so I basically said let’s try this.
“We cobbled something together that was absolutely awful, but as soon as they hear Paul’s voice something shifted in the room. They were like, ‘this is what we want’.”
The choir went away and sent over several more versions of the song but they still weren’t right for Meghan and Harry.
“By the time we got to the wedding they hadn’t heard the final version. They heard it for the first time that day.
“It was very nerve wracking for me. I was just like are we going to get this right?”
But their final version was perfect and the couple were delighted with their performance, sending Karen a thoughtful thank you letter.
Recalling the wedding day, Karen says: “It was like a fairytale, walking up to the castle in all our finery.
“Sitting in the back of the church, seeing all the celebrities and the royal family and hearing all the buzz.
When Meghan entered the church she looked like a princess. It was a beautiful, beautiful day.”
After the wedding Karen and the choir were offered opportunity after opportunity.
They signed a record deal, sang on Strictly Come Dancing, went on tour and recorded a number of adverts, including Coca Cola.
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“We didn’t expect the reaction at all. Our new website crashed twice. I hid in my house for about two days because I didn’t want to go down to the road and I didn’t want to be recognised.
“It was a lot to process.
“We did some crazy things. Things were happening back to back.
“We would often look at each other and think, ‘what are we doing here’. I couldn’t believe it.
“Now that period is over it’s almost like it was a dream. It’s all still a really surreal memory.”