Mike Atkinson

Interview: Beverley Knight

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on August 30, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

When I saw the track listing for your new album (Soul UK), I thought “we have to talk”.  You have covered a lot of my all-time favourite British soul tracks, so I must commend you for your impeccable taste.

Thank you!  Honestly, this record is an absolute labour of love.  I’ve always banged on about how British soul doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and people always say that about me: “you don’t get the respect you deserve.”  But you have to honour the people who put it in the spotlight in the first place.

Some of the blame lies with British soul fans, who could be quite snobby: if it comes from the US, it must be authentic, and if it comes from the UK, it’s just an imitation. 

Completely right.  That attitude has infiltrated the minds of a lot of people who are outside of the soul fraternity, and that’s a dreadful shame, because we know that’s not true.  That’s why I made this record: to say “come on guys, celebrate your own”,  and to reintroduce the songs to a wider audience, who will hopefully not see the difference between the continents.

You must have started with a massive shortlist of possible tracks.  How did you go about whittling them down?

It was a massive list; I’ve got Soul UK Volumes 2, 3 and 4 here!  I started by thinking: right, which songs can I tell you a tale about?  Is there someone who I connected with over the years – someone who I went on to work with, or became mates with?  And of course, with these guys being British, I pretty much had a story or a connection with everybody on these songs.

So you’ve met most of the people who recorded these songs in the first place?

I’ve met absolutely all of them.  Some very briefly, like George Michael at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising event, and some are actual proper mates, like Jaki Graham. 

I like what you’ve done with Jamiroquai’s debut single, When You Gonna Learn, because you’ve taken the track in quite a different direction.

I’ve sung with Jamiroquai on stage, but people have forgotten that Jay isn’t only famous for racing cars, and going out with models, and having punch-ups.  He’s well known because he’s sold thirty million albums and made some great British soul/funk records.  The original track is very much of its time, so I thought: let’s slow it down so that we can get the lyrics, because the lyrics are so pertinent; they were twenty years ahead of their time with that one. 

The production on some of the Eighties tracks might sound a bit dated to modern ears, but you’ve produced an album which has its own particular stamp on it, with a production that hangs together all the way through.

It needed to be a cohesive record.  With a lot of albums I’ve heard, where people have covered other people’s material, they take the guts out of the song and it becomes some kind of boring, bland old thing.  I think: why have you done this? I can’t see the connection.  I didn’t want to make a “covers album”.  I wanted to make an album which was a concept of something which I feel desperately passionate about. 

Just from reading the track listing, I sense you were one of these people who were always going down to the record shops and keeping tabs on everything that was coming out.  Were you that kind of diehard soul girl?

My music tastes are really eclectic, but I’m soul at heart.  I was a bit like a DJ in a way, with anything that came out: what is it, who is it, who’s released it, who’s the A&R?  So I was one of those people who you’d find on a Saturday, when I was doing my degree, down at Cheltenham town hall, digging through the crates and finding these soul gems. 

There’s an interesting mix between tracks Soul II Soul’s Fairplay, which was a drop-dead cool club cut at the time, and the poppier end of the spectrum, such as Jaki Graham and Roachford.  So you’re reclaiming that side of things as well.

I wanted people to understand the diversity of what we were doing in Britain.  I didn’t want it to be one of those intellectual [adopts ponderous, po-faced voice] “Yeah, this is one of these musical albums which chronicles 1974 from March to May.”  That’s not the kind of tribalist, elitist thing that I wanted to do.  I wanted everybody to come to the party.  So Lewis Taylor is on there; you and I might know who he is, but other people would be like, who? Even some soul fans don’t know who he is.

I’m very pleased with your selection from Loose Ends.  Everyone knows and loves Hanging On A String, but I was really pleased you went for Don’t Be A Fool. 

And ditto Fairplay.  The reason I went for Fairplay and Don’t Be A Fool is: what the hell am I going to bring to Hanging On A String?  That song is not only iconic; it’s sacrosanct in my world.  Even the way it starts, with the little electric toms, and the way it comes in, and Carl Macintosh’s little guitar licks, all of it – that’s what I want to hear, when I hear Hanging On A String.  It’s not just the melody; it really is the production.  It’s the same with Keep On Moving, and it’s the same with Back To Life.  It’s not about taking the song out of the production and updating it, because part of it is the production.  I’m not touching those songs.  They are the Holy Grail.

One of the earliest tracks on the album is Freeez’s Southern Freeez (from 1981), which is a pretty sophisticated track for a young girl to be into.

I think it’s because I grew up with music in my system.  Growing up with gospel, I didn’t grow up with straight up and down pop.  That came when I started to nick the radio out of Mum and Dad’s room.  I was growing up with sophisticated chord changes, which I completely understood because they were a part and parcel of my DNA anyway.  I didn’t appreciate that they were sophisticated until I tried to replicate them on piano.  So for me, Southern Freeez was just a song which I appreciate now has loads of changes, chord progressions and movements – but as a kid, it was just something which I totally understood and loved.

You’ve also covered a track by George Michael, who isn’t a name that you would directly associate with the British soul movement.  Did you know right from the start that you were going to take One More Try in a Southern soul/gospel direction?

When I first heard One More Try as a kid, my first comment to my sister was “this sounds like church”.  It had the chord progressions of a proper, old school, Charles Wesley hymn.  Then when I did my version, I said to my sister “do you get what I mean now?” 

You’ll be getting married next year.  Is that all planned out, and what sort of music have you got lined up?

We’re trying to get married out of the country, maybe in Italy.  That’s where we first went away together, so I thought it would be romantic!  I’m going to beg my band to do the honours. It’s going to be old school soul with a little bit of funky house, because some of my singers have had funky house records in the charts in their own right.  My best mate is DJ-ing, and he knows the kind of stuff I like.  I don’t even have to tell him what to play; he just knows.

Do you know what your first dance is going to be?

We know, but we’ve got to keep it a secret.  It’s an absolute classic from the Eighties.  We’re not doing a slowie. We want to throw some shapes.  We want to shake our butts!   Once I do the business and get married, we’ll have a chat again, and you’ll be like: oh my God!

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Nottingham Waterfront Festival 2011, Saturday August 21

Posted in Canalhouse, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on August 22, 2011

A shorter version of this review first appeared in the Nottingham Post.

Forget The X Factor – the best way to appreciate fresh musical talent on Saturday was to head for The Canalhouse, where nearly forty Nottingham acts provided twelve hours of entertainment.

With three stages to choose from – one downstairs, one upstairs and one outside – it was easy to wander around and take your pick from a diverse range of musical styles.  For those wanting to relax in the sunshine, the waterfront stage was the place to be.  It wasn’t the easiest place to play, especially when noise from the louder acts inside the building leaked outside, and many of the performers struggled to hear themselves through their monitors – but for the most part, these difficulties were overcome.   Performing with guitarist Rob Harris and beatboxer Motormouf (who also performed with Just James on the downstairs stage) Nina Smith charmed the al fresco onlookers with her delicate acoustic pop.  She was followed by the deliciously soulful Harleighblu, whose band packed themselves tightly into the tiny space, sending ripples of pleasure into the night.

Elsewhere, the music ranged from the experimental and unorthodox (Apparatus Of Sleep, The Barnum Meserve) to the hard and heavy (Hot Japanese Girl, Baby Godzilla), with bands such as Captain Dangerous and Dick Venom and the Terrortones providing rowdy relief from the emotional intensity.  In the larger upstairs space, Rebel Soul Collective provided one of the standout sets of the day, fusing indie-rock with electronics and vocal samples, and performing with confidence and authority.

Bringing the marathon to its climax, Royal Gala proved to be the perfect choice for the last act of the night.  Led by the charismatic, compelling and downright bonkers Louise Barnell, they demonstrated why they are currently Nottingham’s premier party band, sending an already well-oiled crowd into a sweaty frenzy with their dirty, demonic blend of funk, ska, Latin, Balkan and electro.  “Let’s have a big cheer for Nottingham!”, yelled Louise.  The roar that followed was richly deserved.

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Nottinghamshire Pride 2011

Posted in Nottingham Post by Mike A on August 1, 2011

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Nottingham Post.

Sunshine and smiles were the order of the day at the Forest Recreation Ground on Saturday afternoon, as the city’s annual Pride festival – now renamed Nottinghamshire Pride, to encompass the whole county – drew thousands for eight hours of good-natured celebration.

The day began with a march from the Old Market Square to the Forest, led by a marching band and joined by the Lord Mayor and the chairman of the County Council.  The marchers entered a huge site, which divided into four main areas: a main stage with bar tents, a smaller acoustic stage, a fun fair and a “village green”, bordered by stalls from small businesses and community organisations.

This was the second Pride to be held at the Forest, as the sheer size of the event meant that it had outgrown its traditional home at the Arboretum.  And despite the misgivings of some, who missed the old “village fete” atmosphere, the decision to move was fully justified, giving everyone a chance to spread out and enjoy the full range of activities.

The theme of the festival of was “celebrating diversity”, and this was reflected in the mix of people, who spanned all ages, backgrounds and sexualities.  Many families were in attendance – there were prams and pushchairs everywhere – and the mostly lesbian and gay crowd mingled happily with their “straight” friends and supporters.  “It’s good to see so many straight people here”, quipped one of the drag queen comperes on the main stage, “as they get to see what real women look like!”

An equally diverse range of performers provided the day’s entertainment.  On the main stage, you never quite knew what was coming next: a raucous indie band one minute, a troupe of lip-synching drag queens the next.  In the comedy tent, an all-female line-up brought the laughs throughout the day.  And over at the more relaxed acoustic stage, a fine array of local talent included up-and-coming singer Nina Smith duetting with beatboxer Motormouf, the singer-songwriter Gallery 47, and the “gypsy jazz” ensemble Maniere des Bohemiens.

The crowds gathered at the end of the day for the hitmaking dance duo Booty Luv, who were preceded by an extraordinary performance from former X Factor contestant Ruth Lorenzo.  Scarcely recognisable from her television days, Lorenzo has transformed into a raunchy rock chick, all heaving cleavage and black-stockinged swagger, with a lung power of such force that you could probably have heard her in Arnold.  Her covers of rock classics such as Highway To Hell and Sweet Child Of Mine went down a storm, providing a memorable climax to the proceedings.

Now that almost all of the gay community’s battles for equality have been won, the campaigning political edge that characterised the Pride festivals of old has inevitably slipped away.  In its place, a new mood of confident celebration has emerged.  Pride has become a reflection of an established, integrated community at ease with itself, welcoming all well-wishers to the party, and more ready than ever to let its hair down and have a great time.