Ipswich Star interview:
Celebrating 20 years since the release of seminal album Elegant Slumming and as a full live band, M People are setting out on their first full tour in eight years. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to Heather Small about it and how a voice operation threatened everything.
Small’s juggling errands and having the builders in when I phone to talk about M People’s visit to the Ipswich Regent on Tuesday. She’s looking forward to it - at the moment anyway.
“At this stage I really am, a week before I’m always a bit terrified but I am looking forward to it. It’s been a while since we’ve toured so it keeps it fresh still. I did a few festivals last year and thought ‘you know what, that’s just so fun’ and I had an operation last year on my voice that nobody knew about really.”
The singer, who together with Mike Pickering, Paul Heard and Shovell has sold more than 11million records, first thought she just had a sore throat. When it didn’t go away she realised something was wrong. Turns out she had was a growth on her vocal cords, which had turned grey instead of being the usual white.
“They were bleeding as well so it was quite bad and scary at the time. I had six weeks of no talking, nobody can believe I was able to do it. I was writing down everything but I followed the specialist advice to the T and come through it the other side, the voice feeling fitter and better than ever so I thought I owe it to myself to sing that bit more.”
Small, known for belting out Top 10 hits like Moving On Up, Search For The Hero and One Night In Heaven, was worried she might never sing again.
“I’ve got that first image of them (the cords) being damaged so I don’t forget. I’ve always looked after my voice, but wear and tear is wear and tear. I love singing. It’s one thing if you decide not to sing as often but it’s quite another thing, it’s quite scary, when the potential to sing is taken away from you.”
The Mercury prize winners emerged out of Manchester’s club scene in the early 1990s and became one of the world’s biggest dance acts. First album Northern Soul was released in 1992. Hailed as one of the best dance albums of that year it resulted in their first top 10 single, How Can I love You More.
It wasn’t until the band’s line-up was complete in 1993 with the addition of percussionist Shovell that M People went on to win a Brit Award and the Mercury Music Prize with second album Elegant Slumming.
Third album Bizarre Fruit in 1994 stayed in the UK chart for two-and-a-half years, earning them another Brit Award. Fourth album Fresco was released a few years later.
When the chance to go back on the road came up, Small jumped at it.
“The live things I’ve done I’ve really enjoyed, it feeds your soul. It’s not an annual event (touring together), I thought people would be ready to see us again as much as we’re ready to go out on tour. It’s not a long tour, I feel pressure anyway... it’ll be a nice way to underscore the year.”
Twenty years have passed in the blink of an eye says Small.
“It seems to have gone by so quickly; it’s crazy. I don’t really look back that often... I appreciate what’s come before, don’t get me wrong, it’s helped me to be where I am. Looking back, I just think to myself I always wanted to sing and being in the band was such fun. It was hard work but (something) I loved so much. When I look back I think ‘I did the best I could do at that time’, that’s where the satisfaction comes from – it’s not about everybody knows the song or we’ve sold X amount of songs it’s that you put heart and soul into something and you’re very lucky it came together.”
Small puts the success of Elegant Slumming down to them operating as a group, not a collective with a changing line-up. More importantly, they knew themselves and each other more.
“The second album it was just us together, we knew it was the way it should be; the group should be just us. I’m the only singer and we knew the musicians we wanted to work with. For the guys, they fitted songs to my voice and personality and that was another thing. As songwriters they were able to absorb who I was even though I was shy and we were able to make songs reflected all of us and where we were at that time. That’s quite a difficult thing to do, especially when you’ve got different personalities, different people... the things we focused on is what we had in common. We were human beings who wanted to work hard, loved music and wanted to make our way in music and do the kind of music that made the everyday process of life more enjoyable.”
To go back and revisit something that was a springboard for the shaping of her life is a positive because she’s had a ball.
“To go out and sing those songs... we don’t do it often, I want that audience to enjoy themselves. When I go out there, as nervous as I am, the audience is willing me to do well and you feel that and that touches you and enhances your performance.”
Surely she doesn’t still feel nerves?
“Even talking to you I’m sat, seeming like I’m laid-back but I’m always terrified ‘oh my goodness, what have I said yes to’. The nerves are quite bad and have always been so now I just accept it, accept it’s a process I have to go through to be able to get on stage... it is what it is,” she laughs.
Like many performers she has her rituals to settle the nerves; lemon and ginger tea, vocal lessons, listen to the songs. After all that she’s still nervous, but says at least she knows she’s put in the work and preparation.
“I absolutely love it (being on stage), I feel it’s what I was born to do when but find it absolutely terrifying beforehand. I’ve never been a natural out there kind of person, but age has shown me a bit of confidence... my son laughs when I talk about being shy because he thinks I’m the least shy person he’s ever met. I’m a grown woman now... I’ve always known my own mind but I speak it, I speak it (now). You can’t waste time. I used to be so quiet and shy and people have no confidence in you, they think you can’t deliver what you say. I still have my moments but I was always very shy and (I’m) still that girl on stage saying ‘look at me’. If you say (that) to people you better give them something to look at, you’ve got to deliver...,” Small’s infectious laughter echoing down the phone. “You’re a) vulnerable and b) they may not like what you’ve got and if it’s all you’ve got you’re in trouble. I’ve got my mic in my hand I’m like ‘I’m in charge’ but until that point I’m not in charge, I’m laughing but can you hear the nervous laughter,” she roars.
Small, Heard and Shovell bring M People’s 20th Anniversary Greatest Hits Tour to the Ipswich Regent on Tuesday when they will be joined by Tunde Baiyewu.
As the voice of Lighthouse Family, he has sold more than 20million records worldwide. With albums Ocean Drive, Postcards From Heaven and Whatever Gets You Through The Day the band had numerous top 10 singles including Lifted, Ocean Drive, High and Raincloud.
Tunde returned to live circuit in 2011 with Lighthouse Family for a hugely successful tour and earlier this year released his second solo album, Diamond in a Rock, his first new material in over eight years.