Portrait of the artist: Vera Lynn, singer

'In my day, songs were either ballads or bright numbers. Now, it's terribly complicated'

What got you started?

Performing in a working men's club in East Ham, London, aged 7. I was born with a passion for music.

How did you come to entertain the troops?

In 1939, a newspaper ran a competition for the first load of boys off to war to pick their favourite singer. They chose me from my radio broadcasts. That's when I became known as the "forces' sweetheart".

Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?

I have always managed to combine my family life and my career, but there came a point when I had to choose between a career in America and my family. I chose my family.

Do you suffer for your art?

I don't have a good memory, so learning all the songs for my TV performances was a real challenge. I always suffered terribly from nerves. I was anxious every performance should be my best.

Do you believe in music as a force for good?

Music helps so many people; I don't know where the world would be without it. During the war, my music touched people because it was so simple; it was a way for the troops to express what their wives and sweethearts meant to them while they were far from home.

Which songs would feature on the soundtrack to your life?

We'll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover. We'll Meet Again is optimistic, while the White Cliffs is a celebration of home.

What's the greatest threat to music today?

Music is terribly complicated today, and it isn't always easy to understand what people are trying to say. In my day, songs were either ballads or bright numbers to dance to. Now there are too many different styles.

If someone heard one of your songs in 1,000 years, what would it tell them about the 20th century?

I hope they would still be able to relate to my songs. I have a very normal voice, nothing exceptional, and the songs are everyday songs. Their sentiments are simple to understand.

What cultural form leaves you cold?

Modern art. I don't get anything out of a canvas that just has blotches of colour and shapes. I like to see the artistic work in a painting.

What advice would you give a young singer?

Get as much experience of performing as you can. Do charity shows and concerts, no matter how small. Don't expect to be a star overnight. And appreciate it when you are - because it may not last.

Do you ever tire of hearing We'll Meet Again?

No. It has meant a great deal to my career, and to a large part of the general public. And it still speaks to current generations. When I visit schools, I find they all know the song. They've been brought up with it.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I was always told to stay British - not to acquire an American accent, and not to try to be somebody else. When I was quite young, I stopped listening to other girl singers on the radio so that I couldn't start to copy them. People should be able to recognise your voice when they hear you. You need to be as individual as you possibly can.

· The Very Best of the Legendary Vera Lynn, 1960-1977, is out now on EMI.

In short

Born: London, 1917

Career: Sang with dance bands from the age of 18, and was named the "forces' sweetheart" during the second world war, when her song We'll Meet Again became an anthem. Continued recording and performing until 1995, and celebrated her 90th birthday last month.

High point: "All points have been high as I progressed."

Low point: "It was hard to decide to retire. I do miss performing."

Contributor

Interview by Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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