For a band who have yet to be signed to a major label, the hype machine has been rolling hard for this Glasgow foursome. Bigged up by the BBC, feted by the NME (where their forthcoming single is currently Track of the Week), praised by former Creation boss Alan McGee (“the most important band of the last twenty years”), and even schmoozed by Lisa Marie Presley, their future success already feels like a done deal.
Having all but killed the anticipatory buzz by subjecting us to a thirty minute tape of slow 1950s doo-wop, the band sauntered on stage in a haze of dry ice, and launched into a half hour set of extraordinary intensity.
Their reference points might be well worn – Phil Spector, surf-rock, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine – but the sheer strength of the songwriting ensured that Glasvegas effortlessly transcended their influences. Quiffed up like a young Joe Strummer, singer James Allan belted outfuture anthems such as Go Square Go and It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry with articulate conviction.
The set climaxed with the remarkable Daddy’s Gone – part accusation, part pledge – and a fuzzed-out thrash through The Ronettes’ Be My Baby.
Generally speaking, the seasoned showbiz pros tend to be the easiest to interview. No strangers to the rules of the game, they are the ones most likely to give generous, articulate, eminently quotable answers. Deploying their natural charm from the off, they will quickly establish a friendly rapport.
All rules of thumb have their exceptions, and Dionne Warwick has not always given her interrogators the smoothest of rides. Talking on the phone to EG earlier this week, she was certainly never less than courteous – but it was a cool, distanced, rather formal courtesy, which left you in no doubt that telephone interviews are not exactly her idea of fun. It took a concerted charm offensive to soften her guard – but as the interview progressed, her tone grew warmer, her answers more fulsome, and her laughter more frequent.
In recent years, Dionne has become something of a regular visitor to this city, which has been chosen as the first destination on her forthcoming British tour. Clearly, we must be doing something right. “Nottingham has always been very good for me, of course”, she explained. “It’s like most of the UK, which has always been wonderfully receptive.”
On this tour, which goes out under the title My Music and Me, the music will be interspersed with anecdotes from the singer’s 47 years in show business. “You’ll be getting my life story through my music”, she revealed, but she seemed reluctant to be drawn further.
Would this be “from beginning to end”, I enquired, pressing for a little more detail. “From beginning to now”, she corrected, smoothing over the gaffe (and subsequent stuttering apology) with a light peal of laughter.
Naturally, no Dionne Warwick show would be complete without a selection of the Bacharach/David material with which she earned her reputation in the 1960s. Forty years on, these finely crafted classics have been “updated and brought into the 21st century, but primarily you’ll be getting them as they were first recorded. I still enjoy singing them. They’re a big part of me.” The songs were also written specifically for Dionne’s voice, rather than being plucked from a pre-existing pool: an enviable position for any artist to be in.
For many of us, the likes of Walk On By, Anyone Who Had A Heart and Do You Know The Way To San Jose have the power to evoke a kind of lost golden age. Although too much nostalgia can be deceptive at times, Dionne is happy to help us indulge for a while: “It’s always wonderful to remember the good times in your life.” However, when asked to identify her own golden age, the reply was unexpected and somewhat puzzling: “I’ve been truly blessed, but I think I’m still heading towards that golden age.” As to whether she could imagine anyone looking back on the hit music of the 21st century as a golden age: “Not too readily”. The knowing chuckle which followed spoke volumes.
One of Warwick’s greatest qualities as a vocalist is the restrained elegance which she brings to her interpretations. The emotions are clearly expressed, but without resorting to the sort of over-elaborate trills and cadenzas which have infected so many of today’s aspiring divas. Again, a diplomatic reply: “That is their way of approaching things, apparently – and it’s not something that I would practice.”
A new gospel album, Why We Sing, is due out soon. Although many wouldn’t associate Dionne with the gospel tradition, it was in fact the music that she started out with: singing at the local Methodist church from childhood onwards, before forming a vocal quartet (The Gospelaires) at the age of eighteen. Her first big break in the music industry followed a couple of years later.
“I was doing a background session with the Drifters, performing a song [Mexican Divorce] by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard. Burt approached me to do more background work, and demonstration records of songs that he was writing with Hal David. I agreed, and that’s how it all began.” The new three-way partnership soon led to Warwick’s signing as a solo artist, and a debut single (Don’t Make Me Over) that became an instant national hit.
Following such swift success, when did Dionne first realise that her career was secure? “Never. That would have been a little presumptuous, I think! The business is so fickle, and it’s always what the listening ear decides that they want to be listening to. You can’t second-guess people’s thoughts and emotions, and how they happen to feel about a certain sound.”
Another key stage in most artists’ careers comes when the hit-making period is over. Dionne had a longer run than most – indeed, only Aretha Franklin has placed more solo female hits in the Billboard Hot 100 – but how easy did she find it to adjust when the hits began to peter out?
“I happen to be a realist. I approach not only my recording career, but my life generally, as it is. Life has its ups and downs, but it also gave me opportunities to do some of the things that normal people do, as opposed to running around through airports and onto planes. I had an opportunity to start my family, and to realise that there are other priorities that take precedence.”
Although this 67-year old veteran has shown no signs of slowing down, that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been thinking about it, with some measure of anticipation. “Soon I will be. This is 47 years now, and I’m looking at putting a little bit of a trim on it, very very soon. At this time in my career, it’s time to start thinking about that.”
With these remarks in mind, that earlier comment about a golden age yet to come makes a lot more sense – and perhaps, with imminent retirement looming ever closer, it might also explain that initial frostiness. Why should she have to play the game, when the match is nearly over and won?
That said, there is another key aspect of Warwick’s public life which shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m still supportive of the AIDS issue. Unfortunately it hasn’t gone away, and I made a complete promise that I would stay on board. I likened it to a train ride: we must stay until we get to the very end, and everything is the way it is supposed to be. We have to eradicate it; we really do.”
Following a wretched eight year struggle with her old record company, Alison Moyet emerged from the musical wilderness in 2002. Three albums later, with full artistic control firmly established, she has never sounded happier, more confident, or in better voice.
Last night’s set began in subdued style, with a selection of smouldering ballads that ranged from a cover of Windmills Of Your Mind to a sultry, stripped down, bitterly accusing All Cried Out. The pace quickened for a rapturously received Love Resurrection, making a welcome re-appearance after many years in mothballs. An audience request for Dorothy was instantly and cheerfully granted, with characteristic disregard for the strictures of the set list.
Current album The Turn was well represented, with seven selections. The more intimate, theatrical numbers worked best of all, particularly a heart-stopping rendition of The Man In The Wings. In stark contrast, a messy attempt at It’s Not The Thing Henry was stopped short after the first minute. (“I just didn’t feel like it” explained Alison, with a casual shrug of the shoulders.)
The twenty-three song set covered the full extent of Moyet’s career, stretching back to her early days with Yazoo. Of her solo albums, only 1987’s Raindancing was given the cold shoulder — a snub which suggested that she was never too happy with the bland MOR pop direction that was being foisted upon her at the time.
Perhaps the highlight of the whole evening was an all-acoustic “unplugged” version of Whispering Your Name. Like many of the strongest performances, it benefited from the absence of the drummer, who struggled to quell his desire to rock out during some of the quieter numbers.
An extended encore started with a Jacques Brel number, sung in the original French, and ended with a rip-roaring, triumphant Don’t Go.
Set list: One More Time, Wishing You Were Here, Windmills Of Your Mind, All Cried Out, Fire, Can’t Say It Like I Mean It, Ski, Love Resurrection, Dorothy, The Man In The Wings, Only You, Love Letters, The Sharpest Corner (Hollow), This House, Whispering Your Name, Footsteps, It’s Not The Thing Henry, Come Together, Momma Momma, La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Smaller, That Old Devil Called Love, Don’t Go.
As a warm-up to British Sea Power’s aural onslaught, Glasgow six-piece Make Model provided an amiable if underwhelming set of chunky, chugging, mid-paced indie-pop. Melodically strong but rhythmically restricted, the band were held back by under-confidence.
Thirty minutes later, the onslaught began. Thanks to its cannily timed release date, which has taken full advantage of the traditional January lull, British Sea Power’s third album has gathered plaudits from all quarters, placing them very much as the band of the moment.
With drummer Woody laid up with a back injury, stand-in Tom White (Electric Soft Parade/Brakes) did an outstanding fill-in job. Numbers were further swelled by a violinist and a keyboard/brass player.
The set was dominated by cuts from the new album, punctuated by crowd-pleasers such as Please Stand Up and The Spirit Of St. Louis, which saw guitarist Noble scaling the outside of the balcony, tambourine in hand, before dropping down into the crowd below. Of the new material, current single Waving Flags drew the biggest response, showing clear signs of being a future festival anthem.
As usual, vocals were shared between Yan and Hamilton, who matched each other in concentrated intensity. For Atom, a 1940s air raid siren was hoisted onto the middle of the stage; it returned for the encore, which climaxed with an ear-splitting and cathartic twenty-minute version of No Lucifer.
Regular visitors to the Rescue Rooms over the years, the band have never sounded so focussed and confident. On the strength of this stunning set, 2008 could be theirs for the taking.
This interview was originally scheduled for the Nottingham Evening Post, in order to promote the touring show David Gest is Nuts: My Life as a Musical. As the entire tour was subsequently and indefinitely cancelled, the interview never made it into print – so here’s more or less the full transcript.
How’s it going there in Nottingham?
I had a bit of a rubbish morning, and I need cheering up. So hopefully you’ll do that for me.
Oh, I’ll make you laugh.
Good stuff. Well, first and foremost, I want to ask you about this forthcoming show which you’re bringing to Nottingham. It sounds like it might be one of the most extraordinary shows this city has ever seen. It’s essentially a comedy musical based on your life, but with a lot more besides. Am I right?
Yeah, it’s a musical with comedy and dancing and singing, and it’s kind of a show that you really want to come to if you’ve had a few drinks, or on ecstasy, a joint, or absolutely out of your mind and like to laugh the night away, or dance the night away, because that’s what you’re going to do. It’s really a ball. You’ve got such a great cast. You’ve got K-Ci and Jojo, Shalamar, Coolio, Candi Staton, Martha Wash of the Weather Girls, Gloria Gaynor, Peabo Bryson, Deniece Williams, Billy Paul and Patrice Rushen.
It’s an incredible line-up. I notice that all the artists are from that soul/funk/r&b tradition. That must be the music that’s closest to your heart, I guess.
Yeah. And then there’s characters like the Little People of Davidland: eight midgets, who travel with me for good luck. Every time I see one, it’s good luck for a day. If I see two, it’s good luck for a week. But eight makes the month work fine. Then I have the Chinese Girls With Herpes…
What on earth are they?
Well, they were my charity when I was in the jungle. Girls with herpes in the mouth and in the vagina. What I do is that I raise money for them, on the side – because there’s 75,000 Chinese girls with herpes, in different places. Some get it from sucking cock, some get it from other things. Some just get it from not having safe sex. So I try to help them, because I love them so much. And then I have the Tess Tickell Dancers. Tess Tickell is one of the great dancers of all time, and she put together a troupe of dancers, which are so exciting. They’re – what’s the word – ambidextrious? They’re like contortionists, but they can actually have sex in fifteen different positions, all at once. They can use every orifice to its fullest extent.
We have never seen the like on a Nottingham stage, I tell you. But there’s so many artists appearing with you, how are you going to fit them all in? Are we going to be there until midnight?
No, it’s a two and a half hour show. And I have the Von Snatch Family Singers. You’ve heard of the Von Trapps, but the Von Snatches sing “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every byway, till you’re on your knees.”
[after a shocked pause] That’s a significant departure.
Do you follow?
I think I follow, yeah.
Well, you have to be on your knees to use the snatch. Right?
So I’m taking it that this is a show with adult content? This doesn’t sound like a family-friendly experience…
I don’t use any foul words. I use foccacia. I use very good language, and am on my better behaviour. And so the children come, and I tell stories, and there’s no foul language or nudity. It’s uniqueness. You have to see it to believe it.
I’m trying to work out what your role is going to be on the night itself. Even your own best friend Michael Jackson has publicly stated, and I quote, “David can’t sing and can’t dance.” So what can you offer us as a stage performer? How do you fit in?
I’m singing now, and I’m dancing, and I do a double or triple flip with Deniece Williams. We do the Footloose dance for Let’s Hear It For The Boy. With Marsha Wash we do that song, Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), with little midgets. I go [sings] “EVERYBODY DANCE NOW! OOH, BA, BOOM!” and I get the little midgets, and they bring me good luck, and then I jump in the air and she catches me, and I’m on top, and she’s on the bottom, because it would be a hell of a hard time if it ended up the other way.
Well, she’s a well-proportioned woman. I’m sure she can cope.
Yeah, I mean, this is a kind of family entertainment where you never know what’s coming next.
Is it loosely based on events in your own life? Is it like a life story?
Well, I tell the story of my life, you see clips from the jungle, and you see clips of Michael Jackson and myself, and I tell about my wonderful marriage, ha ha ha!
I wondered whether that was going to come up…
It does. It’s very short. But I tell how Gloria Gaynor and Candi Staton were so good to me when I had this head concussion from Miss Minnelli, and how they came over when I was getting eighty shots, and they gave me the impetus to go on.
I Will Survive, indeed…
Yes – and look what’s happened. I had my own three shows; she didn’t.
She is actually performing in the same venue, two months later.
I know. I’ll warm it up for her! But she doesn’t have my whole cast of characters.
No, I think she’s just… she’s just got herself. And a few musicians. Well, are you going to cover the more painful aspects of your life? It’s more of a celebration, I guess. We’re not going to get: boo-hoo, my unhappy childhood, and all that…
It’s more of a celebration. I talk about it a little bit. I talk about what you can learn from something bad, how something good comes out of it. It’s really a fun time. I talk about my cousins, I talk about the people in my life who have influenced me, and the things that have been so important to me.
A lot of people in this country only really got to know you after your stint in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here, and the light entertainment shows which followed on from that. So they’ve seen a lot of you goofing around, and not taking yourself too seriously. Because we haven’t seen the various award shows and TV spectaculars that you’ve produced in the States for decades, people may not realise that you have that professional background. So they may be expecting a bit of a shambles, and maybe they need to understand the background that you have.
Well, they’ll get to see a little bit of the Michael Jackson special, and they’re going to see some things I did with Whitney, and they’ll get to see clips, and they’ll get to see a whole celebration of all of us, singing together and dancing. They’re going to see me doing things they’d never expect. But you know, it’s all done in fun. It’s just good, wholesome entertainment, with a twist to the wild and weird. But then, you know, I’m nuts. So that’s what you’re getting: David Gest Is Nuts.
Well, you have great taste in guest artists, I have to say. There are a lot of my favourite artists appearing.
Oh yeah, who’s your favourite?
Shalamar. I saw them playing in Nottingham twenty-five years ago, and they were fantastic.
I’m singing with them.
Which song are you doing?
[sings] “I can make you feel good…”
Wonderful. And Patrice Rushen is a big favourite of mine.
Isn’t she good? And she doesn’t perform any more. I called her and said: Patrice, get off your tushie, and come on over. She can sing Forget Me Nots for the people, which Donny Osmond said was one of the ten greatest records ever made. He was at my wedding too. Who wasn’t? I had eighty people perform at my wedding.
Oh well, this is small scale by comparison.
But I wasn’t an entertainer then. I was just a mealy old producer.
I’m curious about that change of image. I was watching an interview clip from about four years ago, when you were still married to Liza. During that interview, you came across very differently to the person that we see today. You had a very conservative suit on, and you were quite reserved and softly spoken. Now we’re seeing your extrovert, almost rock and roll side. Has the person on the inside changed, as well as the public image?
Totally. Inside, I’m a twenty-four year old wild person. I hang out in Camden. My best friends are Matt Willis, Alfie Allen – Lily Allen’s brother – and my best friend here is Mathieu Flamini, who’s on the Arsenal team. I’m the mascot for Arsenal this year. I go to all the games. I’m friends with Gallas the captain, and they made me their mascot.
So it’s a real lifestyle change that’s happened.
Yeah, and I will never wear suits and ties again. I don’t do that for anybody. They ask me and I say: I’m sorry, I don’t have it. I wear very David kind of outfits, that kind of make a statement, and jeans, and tennis shoes, and that’s who I am now. I live the life. There’s been four parts to my life. There was the part with the movie stars, when my best friends were Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly, and Bette Davis, and Ginger Rogers, and Joseph Cotton, and Anthony Perkins, and Glenn Ford, and…
So it’s like you’re growing up in reverse, really.
Yes. I am a nutcase.
And you’ve also moved from being behind the scenes to being the person on the stage. Was there a frustrated performer inside you all the time?
Never. I don’t know what happened to me in the jungle. It was like someone cast a spell on me. I came out of there, and all of a sudden, I’m just this outgoing person: talking to the fans, talking to people, telling jokes, just having a great time. I don’t know what happened. But I transformed into maybe who I’ve always been and never knew it.
Do you spend most of your time in the UK these days?
I live here in Cambridge, and I just moved into my flat in Hampstead two days ago.
Have you had your first winter in Cambridge yet? It’s bitter. The wind blows straight in off the North Sea and across the fens; you’ll want to invest in a woolly hat.
I think I’d better get one. And also I’d better get something for my balls, so I don’t freeze to death.
Yeah, you’ll need that in Cambridge. I also want to ask you about fame, because you’ve spent most of your life in the company of extremely famous people, while not being famous yourself for most of that time. Most of us rarely come into social contact with a star, and when we do, it can be a nerve-wracking experience. We can become very self-conscious. I wondered what advice you would give to a non-famous person who finds themselves in the presence of a star?
Well, my philosophy is this. We all go to the bathroom the same way; we all pull down our pants. So there’s no difference between you, in my eyes, who writes for the paper, and the guy who is a dish washer at the local diner, to the person who delivers the papers. I’ve never felt, even throughout my entire life, any superior or any better than anybody. We’re all created equal. Just because you may be in the public eye doesn’t mean that makes you any better or any worse than anyone else. I’m a real stickler about that. You know, we’re here to do something good on this planet, and if we can use our fame to do something good and help other people, then we’re that much more of a mensch. You might shine in life, but I never look at it as social status. I’m not impressed with celebrity. I am impressed with writers. Not writers for papers; I’m talking about, like, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If he was in front of me, I probably would go up and say: I’m your biggest fan.
That’s the difficulty for us non-famous people, you see. We wonder if we should say: wow, I’m your biggest fan, and start telling them how wonderful they are, and risk flattering – or do we play it cool, and run the risk of looking like we’re stand-offish or not bothered. These are the sort of thoughts we have. We think we know the famous person, because we’ve seen their public image – but actually, we don’t know them at all.
I love it when somebody comes up and tells me that they love me, or that I make them laugh. To me, that’s a thrill. So I’d rather people say it, than not say something. When you write an article, don’t you love it when somebody says: wow, what a great article that was? It’s better than hearing somebody say nothing! We’re human! If someone tells me: oh, I don’t like it when I get comments from people – bullshit! We all like to know that we’re loved, and that what we’re doing makes people happy. It makes you feel good, and you want to do even better.
Well, that was my last question, David. Thanks very much for that, and I can’t wait to see this show.
Come backstage and say hello!
OK. Tell the people who’s going to be on the show! They don’t know! So they know they can dance the night away and have a party!
It has been the thick end of three years between your last album (Open Season) and the new one (Do You Like Rock Music?) Why such a long gap?
It wasn’t going to be quite so long, but it turned into a bit of an epic recording adventure. The new album took about two years to make. After touring with the last album, we ended up going from Canada to Cornwall to the Czech Republic, trying to finish this one off.
You recorded in three different locations, all starting with the letter C. The letter C is the third letter of the alphabet, and this is your third album. Was this a significant factor?
You’re the first person to bring that up, actually. It must be pretty meaningful! (Laughter) We started in Montreal, basically because we were a bit suspicious of clean studios. We worked with Howard Bilerman [drummer with the Arcade Fire], and Efrim Menuck [from Godspeed You! Black Emperor], and they ran the studio more like a musician would. It was a way of getting away from the technical sort of people, to have a bit of an adventure, and to live in a foreign city for several months.
As regards the album’s title, I’m intrigued as to why you feel the need to ask the question. It feels like you’re saying: put up or shut up, either you’re with us or you’re against us…
Yeah, it’s a bit like that. I also thought it was quite funny; it’s a different kind of title than we’d normally go for. Maybe it’s asking what rock music is, and what it should be nowadays, and whether it’s capable of expanding and taking on a few new subjects.
You’ve also hinted that the theme of the album is a kind of Good versus Evil, where you’ve equated rock music with Good, and non-rock music with Evil. It’s not as clear-cut as that, surely?
Well, we’ve kind of redefined “rock music” there, and we don’t mean a lot of the things other people might take as “rock music”. To a lot of people, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are rock music, but to us they fall completely outside that category.
I’ve noticed a little game developing, in which you’ve been deciding what “rock music” is, and what it’s not. Looking through your list, I see you’ve got Iggy Pop and Little Richard down as “rock music”, and U2 and the Chili Peppers as “not rock music”. OK, I can see what you’re getting at there. But then you’ve also listed dominos, Bill Clinton and soap as “rock music”, whereas malnutrition, George Bush and shower gel are “not rock music”. So there are some interesting criteria at work!
(Laughs long and hard) It’s confusing isn’t it? But yeah, it is up for some debate, and that’s part of the fun of it.
Another emerging theme is economic migration, particularly from Eastern Europe. Apparently the album contains, and I quote, “uplifting odes to Slavic beauties and Polish taxi drivers”, and your current single Waving Flags is apparently a tribute to Polish plumbers. I guess this must have been partly influenced by your stay in the Czech Republic, when you were applying the finishing touches to the album, but how do you view the current situation? Are you suggesting that it’s a positive development?
Yeah, I’m suggesting it’s a positive development. I’m interested in migration in general. Birds do it with no trouble at all, but people seem to have a lot of trouble migrating. They put up all kinds of barriers and rules and stuff, and I’d prefer to do it a bit more like the birds, really. It seems to not be quite so bad at the minute, but certain people seem to be verging on a kind of “keep these people out” attitude. It just seems pretty ignorant, so we thought we’d redress the balance a little bit.
You have also been quoted as saying “The East is maybe the future of all of us lot in the West”. What did you mean by that?
I think it’s possibly that we’ve had quite a long run of new ideas, and of changing things dramatically. Maybe it’s time to swap over, and take ideas from the other end of the spectrum. Eastern Europe is a place that’s changing a lot, and modernising. Maybe they’ll do it in a slightly better way. And then there’s China, which is obviously economically the future of the world.
OK, so you’re not exactly shy of covering big, ambitious themes. You’ve got a track called Atom which even touches on quantum theory – but it also sounds as if it’s describing the dangers of trying to analyse everything to bits. Is that a danger with your music?
They’re the kind of songs which have several levels to them, and if you have that kind of mindset then they probably do attract you. I wouldn’t like to analyse them, because I’d just be analysing myself, and that would lead to all kinds of bother. And I think I did enough of that! (Laughs)
In terms of musical style, are you aware of any significant changes in the sound of this album? Tracks like Atom certainly sound thicker, fuller – more aggressive, if you like.
Yeah, that was generally how we wanted to approach the whole thing, even if it was a slower song: to keep it kind of rusty. Not to have everything too hygienic and clean and perfect.
Your tour is just about to start. Last year, you played some notably less conventional venues, including a ferry across the Mersey, and Britain’s highest pub. Is returning to the regular gig circuit going to feel like a bit of a comedown?
There are pros and cons. The ferry was a fun evening, but musically it was almost impossible. It had a seven foot high ceiling, and we couldn’t even fit the speakers in properly. Whereas the highest pub in England was a success on both fronts: it was fun, and it was good musically. There is always that risk, so there’s something to be said for being able to play our songs properly.
What happened with the pub? Were your supporters shipped in, or were you playing to bemused regulars, nursing their pints?
There were about thirty regulars, and a hundred others – but to be honest, the regulars were much crazier and stranger than even our most obsessive fans.
Isolated villages can be very “rock music”, in my experience.
Yeah, and they keep the bar open all night. At about three in the morning, they had us doing a charity singalong for the mountain rescue!
During the course of the interview, I challenged Yan to a game of “rock music”/“not rock music”, using a pre-prepared list. Here are the results:
Rock music: Morrissey, Pete Doherty (“against my better judgement”), Girls Aloud, socialism (“but it depends on who’s spouting it”), Dolly Parton, 50 Cent (“but I’m not sure why”), Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean (“but I hoped you were going to say Eddie The Eagle, because he definitely is”).
Not rock music: Morrissey fan David Cameron, Coldplay, V-necked sweaters (on boys), polo-necked sweaters, Buxton Spring Water, Bacardi Breezers, free market economics (“it’s just money, that’s no good”), the “Rock & Pop” sections of regional newspapers (“but there are probably exceptions”).
Before we talk about the new album, I want to ask about your blog, Letters Home. As a blogger myself, I’ve been enjoying reading it. Do you enjoy having a place to vent your spleen, and to communicate directly with your audience?
Yeah, I do. It’s a funny thing: you’re aware that people are reading it, but at the same time, there’s this feeling that you’re still at home with it, and you’re saying it to yourself. Do you know what I mean by that?
I know exactly what you mean. It’s like you’re in the confessional booth…
You have a greater honesty. You can use a language that you might not use somewhere else, but that is your own language.
You have a very particular writing style, which comes across well. I perceive you differently from having read the blog, I think.
I think a lot of people have got that, and that’s one of the great things about having it. Being in the public eye, there’s sometimes an intimidation about being on the television or speaking to a journalist, which can curtail your natural language. The fact that I’m also a bit of an insular character means that I stutter and start, and can’t always be particularly cohesive in a public forum – and so when I’m on my own, just writing, it’s all much clearer to me.
And you don’t have to be consistent, either. There are pieces written in different styles, and it’s however you feel on that day.
Absolutely. The record company said I should do something every day, but I said that wasn’t the point. I’m not doing it to pull anybody in. I’ll write when I feel like there’s something that strikes me, and when I’ve got something to say. The only reason it’s readable is because you’re not particularly searching for something to say.
I’ve seen so-called “celebrity blogs” before, and they can be very PR-driven.
Either that or they’re like a diary, and I’ve no interest in that. My life is no different to anybody else’s, and it sometimes makes me laugh when you come across people who say: why don’t you go and do a photo session for Hello, for example. Oh yeah, here’s me by a Dust Bunny! Here’s me by a pile of laundry! Your life is no more interesting than anybody else’s. You just have these kinds of little actions, these little activities that people will find fascinating, because they’re different to what they do. You see what I mean now? I can’t even be coherent! (laughs)
Well, it’s smoke and mirrors in a way. You give people the feeling that they’re really getting an insight into you, but actually you’re controlling what you put out about yourself.
Of course you can be controlling – but more to the point, you can be concise. You can think about what it is that you really mean. If there’s something that I really didn’t want to expose, then I just wouldn’t write about it. So the things that I do write about are things where I’m really happy to tell it like it is.
Do you read other blogs? Do you take part in that kind of community building aspect?
No, I can’t say that I do – because in some ways, it’s something that I’m writing to myself. It’s for when I feel like a rant, and I don’t have any ears that are listening to me. My husband’s got no interest in me going “nyeh nyeh nyeh”, the kids are too self-absorbed…
So it’s like: go tell it to the PC!
Exactly. I have other areas, though. I go onto forums, and I’ve got an Internet fan base, and we’ll be pretty straight with one another. I kind of like that. That fulfils the role that I might have had on the Internet, had I not been somebody that was known. What I like about doing it with the fans is not because I’m looking for someone to tell me that I’m great, but it’s about people who have, in a way, gotten over who I am. If I was to go somewhere else, and write with another group of people, then I would do it under a disguise – but then you could never be completely open with anybody, because you wouldn’t be telling the truth about who you are. And if you do tell the truth about who you are, then you’ve almost kind of separated yourself.
Those people who write a personal blog under a disguise will all too often come a cropper, because there’s some identifying detail that gets traced back to them. It’s a very dangerous strategy.
There are some things that I’ll choose not to say. For example, people have wondered why I don’t write a biography. But my kids have got different dads, and we’ll have had altercations during that time. So you could sit there and dive into another human being, or you can say: well actually, that’s somebody that somebody who’s close to me cares about. I’m not going to share somebody else’s life with you.
And what need are you fulfilling on the part of a reader? What insight are they going to gain by rifling through the dirty laundry, if you like?
Exactly. Why would you want to do that? Why would you do that to your kids, or to anybody you’ve ever cared for, you know?
And then you cross a line, and then people can use the defence of: oh well, she makes herself a public figure, so we can dig all the dirt we want.
OK, let’s talk about your new album, The Turn. There was a mix-up in getting a promo copy to me, so I actually went out and bought it. With my own money! In a shop!
Thank you! Let’s hope you can charge somebody for it, eh? (laughter)
I think there might be a few meanings associated with the title. Obviously, there’s you as the cabaret “turn”, posing in your feather boa on the sleeve. I presume that no menopausal reference is intended, though. I mean, it’s not called The Change…
(Laughter) That’s one I hadn’t thought of. I probably would have used that if I had! But the thing about The Turn is that, if you look in that face, there’s something kind of resilient and tragic about it, all at the same time. It’s the idea of being a 46-year old, and still having to shake your arse out there, and still having to sell yourself, even when you’d really like to say to someone, why don’t you just fuck off? You’ve still got to take it up the arse sometimes. Whatever anyone says, when they talk about never compromising themselves, that’s just not true. In every walk of public life, there is a compromise. And that compromise is what makes one a “turn”.
But for me, what I can genuinely say to you, hand on my heart, is that musically, I haven’t compromised. There are other compromises that you make.
Well, your whole career took a “turn”. After an eight-year hiatus, you’re now well into Chapter Two, which seems to be much more about establishing artistic control, and making the music which you want to make. You’ve also indicated that this is your favourite album to date. Why so, and why now?
It’s something that you can say with every new love affair. You’ll tell them that you love them better than you’ve ever loved anybody else, and at that point it’s probably true – but you’ve also been at that point with somebody else at another time. It’s just that time has rid you of it.
Going back to why I think this is my best record: firstly, I’m singing much better than I have sung before. As for the lyrics, I’ve always been slightly anal about them. It’s always been important to me to make a lyric intelligent. Sometimes I’ve succeeded in that, and sometimes, due to my lack of education or my lack of nous, it hasn’t happened. But there has been a progress, and it has been something that I’ve been going towards. With this album, I’ve tried to write intelligent lyrics, but ones that lose the self-conscious obliqueness that is present in some of my older work. And so lyrically – as a kind of prose, or as verse – it’s my most coherent work.
I have approached this whole record as a melodic collection – and melodically, I feel that there’s great form and great shape. I think there’s passion, and I think there’s restraint, and I think there’s intelligence.
It certainly pushes the envelope a bit further than I was expecting. I’ve not followed every inch of your career over the years, and so it took me somewhat by surprise. Vocally, a different quality is coming out in your singing. There’s something about the technique, and the precision, which has maybe come after all the stage work that you’ve done. Has that had an impact on the way that you approach your singing?
The reason why the stage work has helped is that up until then, I had never got to work consistently. Instead, I would have these little bursts of activity. I might do a thirty date tour, and then I wouldn’t work again for three years. I could never learn from the previous experience, because you always have to go back a step and build yourself back up – and just as you’re ready to start learning again, the work stops.
The great thing about doing theatre – seven shows a week, for eight months – is that every night, I was learning, and adjusting, and applying. By the end of it all, I had lost any residue of the stage fright that I used to have. That’s one of the most important things for a singer, because when you’re frightened, your larynx is up. It’s as simple as that: all of the stress goes into the voice, and so the whole time that I was touring, I was completely neurotic and paranoid that the voice was going to go, and that I was going to cancel a show. So it’s just learning how to get rid of that fear, dropping the larynx, and just singing with an open throat. Obviously, as I’ve got older my voice has dropped anyway – but there’s just less fear in it, and I’m more able to manipulate it.
What is interesting is that people will see that I’m singing differently, but they might not realise that I’m singing differently for that record. I can still do all the other stuff, but for that particular project I choose not to. For the next one, I very possibly would do again.
There’s also a marriage between the tone of your voice and the age that you’ve reached. When you first came out, there was that slight disconnect: an old voice, but on young shoulders. In a way, it’s like what happened when Joss Stone first appeared. But now I think the two have melded together very successfully.
I think that with Joss Stone, there is an element of being a tribute singer. You can hear that with a lot of young singers. You can hear who they’ve been listening to.
But they haven’t lived it yet.
Yeah. You hear their influences, and what they’re doing is moulding their voice to suit the style that they enjoy listening to. When I first started singing, I was listening to a lot of British R&B such as Doctor Feelgood – but also to people like Sonny Boy Williamson and Billy Boy Arnold, so there was that slight American twang on an estuary voice.
As I’ve gotten older, two things have happened. One is that I’ve become very protective about my English accent, and I’ve become determined never to sing with an American accent. People often see that as being an older approach. It’s absolutely not; it’s just claiming your nationality. The other fact is recognising what you are as an instrument, and the sound that your body makes. If you’re a cello, you can sit there and mimic a flute as much as you like – but it’s not until you recognise that you’re a cello, and try to make the sound that cellos make, that you’ll find what your voice is.
But you’re also blending in some of your French influences on the album – by including the veteran French accordionist, Marcel Azzola, for instance. He certainly plays well for eighty.
It was the most incredible thing. He played on Jacques Brel’s Vesoul. When Brel is going “Chauffe Marcel, chauffe!”, that’s who he’s talking to.
French music has been a big influence – but more than that, it was my French upbringing. Culturally speaking, I most definitely had a French upbringing. In the same way, I suppose British Asians could say that culturally they’ve been brought up as Asian, but that they’re British and that their British culture comes from a different place. That’s what it was like for me. Outside of the home, my reference points were British, but inside the home they were French.
My family was very heated. There was no restraint. I wished to God there had been restraint, many a time, but everything was on the surface of everyone’s skins. It was in your face all the time. As such it informed my music, and so I never felt self-conscious about emotional display.
Following the recent DVD release of his London Palladium show, Wainwright fans can now enjoy a double CD version of his widely acclaimed song-by-song re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, as recorded at that very venue in 2006. Given that this was his debut performance, the practised slickness of the London shows can’t quite be matched – but the sheer excitement in the air is tangible, and not lessened by the occasional fluff or re-start. As with the DVD, Rufus’s emotional rendition of Noel Coward’s If Love Were All is both the highlight and the evening’s turning point – although two songs later, his sister Martha threatens to blow him off stage with a truly incandescent Stormy Weather. Touching sleeve notes from Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle complete the package.
Never shy of making somewhat grandiose claims for their music, British Sea Power’s third album sees them addressing some fairly weighty themes, ranging from quantum theory (on Atom) to Eastern European migration (on the anthemic current single Waving Flags). Of course, by flagging your work as Big And Important and suchlike, you also run the risk of promising more than you can deliver. Although this risk has just about been avoided, prepare to be initially underwhelmed by the somewhat generic material on offer (Arcade Fire, anyone?), which sounds as if it has been made by pale and earnest young men in big overcoats, gazing out to sea from a suitably craggy cliff-top. Give it time though, and the undeniable power and majesty of the music will eventually win you over.