Mike Atkinson

Interview: Alison Moyet

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on January 19, 2008

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.

Precisely.

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.

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