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Sharleen Spirteri

The Scotsman (September 2003)

Sharleen Spiteri is talking about Pop Idol. It’s a subject that’s been on her mind a lot recently and, judging by the look on her PR’s face, who stifles a laugh and rolls his eyes as he scuttles out of the ornate drawing room we’re occupying at London’s celebrity sanctuary Home House, it’s one she’ll clearly be returning to for a while yet.

"I think it’s a very cruel and dangerous place to be," Spiteri declares, sparking up the latest in a string of cigarettes with a determined matter-of-factness, like she’s making sure everything’s in place before settling down to a bout of hard labour. Having spent the last two years dealing with pregnancy and then new parenthood, raising her daughter Misty Kyd who’s due to turn one year old four days after our interview, the Texas singer looks like she’s enjoying getting back to what she’s known and loved for. Offering honesty where others opt for diplomacy. Favouring truth over spin. Serving up a cast iron, take it or leave it opinion about this world we live in.

"All the big TV shows in Europe at the moment are these [Pop Idol-style programs] and they’re all saying ‘you’re a musician, why don’t you come in and do a class on songwriting?’ And I’m like because it’s not real. I don’t believe that you have to pay your dues, but the amount of attention, first of all, to go in at that level is massive. You will never get that coverage ever, if you start off in the music business. I’ve never had a choreographer, I’ve never had a singing teacher, I’ve never had a stylist, I’ve never had a make up artist. Obviously [I do] now, but I never had a make up artist until ‘The Hush’ record. And I’d made a lot of albums by that point. I remember watching Pop Idol and they went off in that big fancy tour bus and I went ‘my tour bus isn’t even as fancy as that!’"

One day someone will invent a form of typography that will be able to reflect the varying levels of emphasis Sharleen Spiteri can place on a different words in a single sentence. For "real", she sounds calmly indignant, like a teenager explaining the obvious to a stupid adult. With "ever", you can almost hear her gritting her teeth, the blood starting to boil. From "choreographer" to "make up artist", each job title is imbued with just slightly more ennui, like she’s dismissing the need for any of these people, until, of course, she has to admit the reality of the situation she’s in now. And when she gets to the tour bus, she’s shrieking, falsetto with disbelief. If you hung on her every word, you’d be seasick within minutes, a smile on your lips as you struggled to keep up.

"Anybody that’s truly talented will be fine," Spiteri goes on, starting to find her natural, unstoppable momentum. "Anyone that’s really shit will be fine. Because they so believe they’re good that nothing’s going to hurt them. But the people in the middle, that are neither here nor there, are fucked. Because to take that amount of abuse publicly and to be left as dregs by the roadside. Can you imagine being in Sainsbury’s and the public going (adopts excellent sotto gossip voice, half hushed attention, half instant disapproval) ‘There’s that person…yeah, they weren’t very good, were they?’ You’re judged instantly on that but you’ve never done anything. What kind of life is that?"

How does she think Pop Idol affects the drive for individuality? Red rag meet bull.
"I think it’s really sad because when they start off they’re better and they end up shit by the end of it," Spiteri sighs. "They get really blanded out. Anything that was any good that needs nurturing is whacked out of them and they’re made to do it apparently how it should be. The whole point of creating something new and fresh is not to do it the way it was done before. So you’ve lost it before you’ve even started it."

Once upon a time, Sharleen Spiteri was ashamed to admit she was a pop singer. She played dirty slide guide, leather jackets were involved, pop was a nasty word. Now she’s pop’s conscience, a household name who’s so comfortable with inhabiting the mainstream that she wants it to be the best it can be. Texas’s first new single for four years could easily have been a strategic replay of familiar elements, a marketing exec’s dream amalgam of 1997’s multi-million selling "White On Blond Album": a touch of soul, a dash of new wave, a dose of straight-talking tenderness. Instead, "Carnival Girl" is a ragga single. Well, practically.

"We’d been listening to a lot of dancehall in the past two years and we were very influenced by it and it seemed to us that it merged very much with that song," Spiteri explains. After hearing Canadian toaster Kardinal Offishall on the N*E*R*D song "Belly Dancer", they asked him to provide a spoken middle section that reflected the celebratory feeling of the tune. "It’s been a natural progression. We came from the northern soul section into the whole [legendary reggae label] Studio One thing and dancehall was the natural movement into that. It’s just having a massive love of music. I still enjoy going into a record shop and looking for CDs. Not that I get to do it that often now, because now I’ve got the baby it’s a pain in the arse standing in the shop when she’s screaming. But when I’m doing something like this [interviews in central London], I can nip off to a record shop and have a nosy."

The new album, "Careful What You Wish For", is also a significant step forward for Texas. While Spiteri views the last record, "The Hush", as being "very chilled", this is "the challenger to ‘White On Blonde’. It ups the ante on everything. Songwriting, musicianship, production, variation, artwork, the lot." From the sleek new wave of "Broken" and "Telephone X" to the classic balladry of "See It Through" and "Another Day" (the former written with Guy Chambers, Robbie Williams’ onetime songwriting partner) and the neo r’n’b and electronica of "A Place In My World" and "Carousel Dub", "Careful…" feels like a decidedly 21st century album. There’s even a reference to that most contemporary of vices, phone sex, on "Telephone X".

"Telephone sex is very much part of now, isn’t it?" Spiteri observes. "Communicating through text messages and emails. It was something that I found really funny. All these little messages on their phones. Alright, OK. I can take one guess what you’re writing on that phone." There’s only so far technology can take you, however. "Video phones will never work because too many men will get caught having affairs. Mark my words. I don’t think they’ll last."

Isn’t she now going to face queues of interviewers asking her if she’s ever had telephone sex?

"Yeah, probably. They can keep asking me. Why would I tell you the answer to that question anyway? Think what you will. Like I care."

It’s probably a good way to keep long distance relationships going.

"That’s the most lame approach I’ve heard in my life," howls Spiteri. "Trying to get me to answer the question. Because you’d really have to get up a lot earlier than (I)this(I) [in new typography: tongue jutted between teeth for the TH, firm but amused somehow] to get the answer out of me. I live with a journalist for God’s sake! Do you not think I know there’s about ten approaches throughout this interview to see if you can get me to answer this question?"

Folklore tells us certain things about Sharleen Spiteri. She’s hugely engaging company. You’d have a riot down the pub with her. Don’t even think of getting in her bad books. Listening to her demolish popular culture and sparring with her every now and then in conversation is great entertainment: she’s interesting, often hilarious, upfront and challenging but you never feel you’re battling with an over inflated ego. It’s why we like her, the million selling, universal Essence Of Spiteri. But will motherhood change all that? Does mellowness beckon?

"It’s really weird because so many people say to ‘oh my god, having children changes your life’. And it hasn’t changed my life. At all. It’s just made everything a lot better. I don’t know if Ashley [Heath, Editorial Director of The Face magazine and Spiteri’s partner of eight years] and I had a really different approach to it than anybody else, but I don’t think we did. Some people change their lives for the baby, but we didn’t change anything. We were like ‘you’ll fit into our life’. She’s very chilled, she’s very laid back, she’s into her own thing and does whatever she feels like doing, unless it’s something really bad then I normally have to drag her off it. Which would probably entail her trying to climb something in this room. But generally she’s a good kid that you can take anywhere. When she was three weeks old she was in the studio with me. She was in a little chair. Now you can’t take her into the studio because she wants to press all the buttons."

She wants to produce the record.

"I’ve got photographs of her singing into mics and everything," laughs Spiteri. "I’m like ‘you ain’t a star yet, baby’. But she’s such a show off."

Was "Careful What You Wish For" recorded while Spiteri was pregnant? "Yeah." Did she record the vocal tracks when she was pregnant too? "Yeah." Which ones? "I’m not gonna tell you. Because it’s too much information for you to take in. You’re going to have a picture and you’ll never be able to get past that when you listen to the record. Of me being big and fat and having a baby and it’ll take that personal thing out of the record. I’m stealing it back from you. So it becomes mine again."

Did Spiteri sing differently for being pregnant?

"Yeah, because my stomach was up here. So my voice sounds slightly different. The resonance of my voice was different. Your breathing’s different, because your breathing’s a lot more shallow, so your phrasing’s different because of it. Now you’re going to go away and listen to the record and try and figure it out, aren’t you? I’m sure someone will write something about it."

Is there an emotional difference?

"It’s weird because emotionally. . . I had a fantastic pregnancy, I had a great time. I didn’t have any sickness or anything so I was dead lucky. But I didn’t do the whole ‘I’m a mother’. I didn’t go through that at all. I adore being a mum, I love it. but I didn’t do the ‘I feel like I’ve found God’ shit. I just remember even when she was born and they held her up and said it’s a girl, I remember just being ‘cool’. That was my attitude. I was just like ‘coool, that’s exactly what I ordered’. Both me and Ashley were very like that. Yep."

You just felt "at last, I can smoke now!"

"No, I didn’t. I very rarely smoke, to be honest with you. But today I’m kind of on one. I’m like ‘ah, I’ll have another cigarette’. They’re not even my cigarettes, they’re Mark’s [her PR]. But, as I said, it’s just made everything a lot better. My sister’s got an eight month old and she had to go back to work, literally as her pregnancy leave was over. I think Abby was only like a month or two months old or something. It’s her second kid, and it was really difficult for her to go back to work, [saying] ‘I don’t want to leave her’. For me, I’m really lucky. I don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage. I can take her to work with me when I want, if I want. I can have a nanny."

Spiteri actually keeps her mobile on during the interview, just in case the nanny calls with any urgent news. Consequently, she’s constantly fielding calls from friends and ignoring beeps when she gets a text (Just as she’s saying "I can guess what you’re writing…" when talking about phone sex, her mobile beeps, exactly on cue. An incoming text also heralds the end of our interview, Mark the PR reappearing with a cheery "And at the buzzer, I’ll have to stop you".)

So how will having Misty affect Texas’ touring?

"I’ll take her with me. It’s not going to affect it at this point because she’s not to school. As soon as she goes to school, then it’s going to have a big effect because I’ve got a kid in school and am I willing to take that amount of time away? Which I don’t know if I will. I can’t answer that right now. I’ve got to see how she turns out. She’s only a year old. The really scary thing is that, even though I’ve got loads of nieces and nephews and I’ve got three god children, it isn’t until you have your own that you see how young their personality develops. It’s there. It starts coming through at six months. Oh man it really starts coming out."

What’s she like?

"She’s so cheeky. She’s a pest. She’s very determined. And anything you do, you show her something once and she really pays attention. She’s really like ‘uh huh’. You can see her going ‘hmm’. And then you try and show her again and she’s like (makes annoyed baby growl) and she wants to do it herself. She’s very headstrong. She tried to climb up her chute the other day. And she sat at the bottom of it. You’re like ‘no Misty, you don’t go up the chute you go down the chute’. She was like ‘grrrr’. And she worked out if you get your feet on the edges you can actually get up the chute. And it was hysterical watching her trying to get up this chute. I was pissing myself. It was like ‘You stupid child. What are you doing?’"

Cheeky, headstrong, determined. Where might she get that from I wonder?

"I don’t know," Spiteri muses, either missing or ignoring the irony. "Ashley and myself are pretty headstrong. But she kind of shapes us. Because she’s on a mission if ever I’ve seen it. She’s very funny. And she does show off as well. She’s a flirt. I cannot believe how smart they are. They really know how to manipulate you. They really push it at that age already."

For some artists, of course, parenthood is too powerful a lyrical theme to resist. Would Spiteri ever be tempted to write a song about her daughter?

"No," she says, firmly. "It’s something too personal. I write personal songs, but it’d only be relevant to parents maybe and that would be a selfish thing to do. Are any [songs about pop offspring] ever hits records? Nah. Because people are like, ‘yeah whatever. Yeah OK, fuck off with your kid, don’t want you any more’. Especially people who haven’t got kids. It’s just selfish and self obsessed."

Beyond motherhood and the band, Spiteri says she just wants to enjoy herself, to see and appreciate life for what it is rather than wishing there was something more. That’s where the title of the album came from: "Careful What You Wish For". Along with the pernicious devilry of Pop Idol, it’s another topic she’s been exploring a lot during those precious few hours after Misty’s gone to sleep.

"It’s one of those things that your parents say to you when you’re growing up and it’s one of those things that sticks with you," she explains. "Be careful what you wish for. But when you say 'be careful when you wish for’ it’s lecherous whereas when someone says ‘careful what you wish for’ it’s more in a friendly sense. Watch out."

Is there anything she wishes she could have warned herself about ten years ago?

"I don’t think there’s anything. There’s been good times, there’s been bad times. And I reckon there’s a path for all of us, that’s etched out roughly for us. And then there’s all those choices that surround them and it’s what one you decide to follow. And sometimes even though you think it’s the wrong one at the time, it comes around again and leads to somewhere else and actually maybe it might have been the right one. But if you look too deeply into that…it’s like do you really want to know so much information that it’s going to help you, that it’s going to enhance what you’re doing, or is it better to just think ‘well it happened for a reason and that’s where I got to?’"

You’ll never sleep at night.

"Exactly! I think sometimes we’re here for a reason but do I really need to know the reason why I’m here? Maybe I’m just supposed to be here to enjoy it. That surely is the point. I feel really lucky to be here. I feel really lucky to have the life that I have. I’m very very lucky. But even just to be able to exist in this world I think is pretty special. Some people are so obsessed with finding the answer to why we’re here. How everything works. They have to know every little detail. And it stifles what it really is about. It stops you living in a sense. I don’t know if I’ve become a little ‘wooooh’ [scary, cloudcookooland noise]. But you know where I’m going with this? Just last night we were lying in bed and we were talking about that. And I went off on a rant about ‘Jesus Christ. Do people not just want to enjoy it?’"

And she turned round to find Ashley asleep?

"Yeah! Meanwhile, ‘Takeshi’s Castle’, which is like Japanese ‘It’s A Knockout’, is on TV. We’re having this really surreal conversation with ‘Takeshi’s Castle’ on in front of us. It’s like ‘welcome to the real world’."

And welcome, real world, to the non-stop mind of Sharleen Spiteri. Pop’s conscience, motormouth supreme, no-nonsense mother, and the closest thing to a perfect star that Britain’s produced for years. It’s good to have her back.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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