Legendary Madchester trailblazers Happy Mondays are set to return later this year for a 25-date UK and Irish tour, their Twenty Four Hour Party People Greatest Hits Show, with those November and December appearances marking the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut LP.
But don’t think for one moment that Rowetta is having the summer off ahead of those 25 shows. In fact the band’s esteemed guest vocalist is busier than ever. That said, the day we spoke, the sun was out in her home city and she’d managed to sneak off to the park to walk her dogs.
Born Rowetta Idah, later taking the married name Satchell, she’s one of those music artists best known by her first name, like Madonna, Prince and … err, Bez, having recorded and toured with Happy Mondays from 1991/2000 and now back with the original line-up.
She was already on the scene when she joined the band that took her to that next level, a dance hit with Sweet Mercy, Reach Out, later sampled by various acts, most famously by Black Eyed Peas on their hit Boom Boom Pow. It’s also likely that you know her for her stint on The X-Factor in 2004, ending up ‘last lady standing’ in that hit ITV talent show’s first series, and in recent times has been working with Joy Division and New Order bass legend Peter Hook and his band, including her part in the Hacienda Classical project. But we’ll get to all that later.
Rowetta was between festival dates with the Mondays when I called, 17 years after her initial nine-year journey with Shaun Ryder, Bez and co. ended. And she’s loving it again.
“It’s more a greatest-hits set with these dates, but we’re really looking forward to adding songs for the tour. We played Sunderland at the weekend and we’re playing better than ever. Everyone’s getting along. It’s not going to be easy, with around five days on some weeks, but when you’re all getting along it’s a joy.”
A bit different to first time around?
“Completely! For a start Bez and Shaun don’t travel with the rest of us, as we go for soundchecks as well. But in general it’s just a lot easier.”
Are you suggesting you’ve all grown up?
“Well, you have to! I had children first time around, but a lot of them hadn’t settled down with partners and so on. Everyone’s different now. My children have grown now, while Shaun has little ones and likes going home to them. Completely different. It was one big party before, but there was a lot of addiction involved. That’s all gone out of the window and it’s a joy. You can really enjoy life now, and the music, and the gigs. It’s fantastic.”
So how old are your children now?
“They’re 33 and 34 … they’re older than me!”
Personally, I’d say Rowetta doesn’t seem any older now than when she was guesting with US dance collective Inner City in the mid-‘90s.
“I was only on one track, Your Love. Paris (Grey, vocalist) was pregnant at the time and we did this Serial Diva mix. And it’s a good tune. Actually, I was walking through the park with my kids one day in Manchester, and Johnny Marr was walking past with his kids and said, ‘I’ve just heard you on this track!’ He recognised my voice. That made my year!”
So how did she get involved with that Detroit outfit?
“Well, they got somebody to remix that track, and came to Manchester quite a bit. My voice was quite well known then, so rather than sampling me, they wanted me to come in, and it turned out really well. The problem was that they were about to tour but Paris changed her mind when she got pregnant, so they didn’t do any promo for that single.”
Rowetta’s first tentative steps into the business came in the late ‘80s, releasing club favourites Back Where We Belong and Passion with Vanilla Sound Corps, and Stop This Thing with Dynasty of Two. She also worked as a backing singer, credits including added vocals on Manchester outfit Simply Red’s hugely successful Stars album in 1991.
But it was with Happy Mondays that she truly crossed over, 1990’s top-five single Step On catapulting her to fame, followed by the albums Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches – given a 25th anniversary tour in 2015 – and less-lauded Yes Please! plus three hectic world tours. You could say that several uppers and downers followed before the turbulent Mondays split in 2000. But that wasn’t the end of the story, as it turned out.
Rowetta finally resurfaced, playing herself in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, with Steve Coogan in the key role as Tony Wilson in a memorable comedic take on the Factory Records story.
It seems her past was never far behind. As we touched on addiction before, I asked how involved she was in the house and club scene.
“I sang a lot, including that big tune sampled by Black Eyed Peas and Robin S, so I was more known for my singing. I had two young children back then. Luckily I’m not an addict and I left all that behind. But I then joined the Mondays, not realising the sort of things they were on and how heavy it was. When I found out I just thought, ‘Oh no, not again! Do I know anyone who’s not on drugs?’ It makes life so much harder. I‘m just so lucky I’ve not got an addictive personality, surrounded by people who have.
“I like a whisky, but a lot of the time you drink because you’re bored or because of the people you’re around. Sometimes you just need to stop associating with those people. It’s all just part of growing up.”
First time around with the Mondays, the rest of the band had already been together a while. Were they on your radar from the start?
“Only through Tony Wilson. I watched his programme on Granada. I remember him saying in 1976 about the Sex Pistols being the greatest band in the world. Then he was saying the same about the Mondays in 1989. I decided I had to see this band. When I did I just went, ‘Oh my God, I can see myself on stage with these! It took me about six months to persuade everybody else though.
“I sat in the office all the time. I was managed by Elliot Rashman and his office was opposite Nathan McGough’s. I’d see mine then pop in to see theirs. Eventually I persuaded them they needed me! I could see myself doing a T-Rex type of thing, when Gloria Jones was involved.
“I wanted to be in a punk band but didn’t have the right voice. This was the closest I was going to get, apart from working with Hooky on Colony. That’s where I’m really at home, it’s just finding the opportunity to do things like that. As a kid I could never see how I could be in a punk band, but the Mondays found that role for me.”
Born to an English mother of Jewish origin and a Nigerian father, who left when she was three, it took Rowetta a while to realise her potential. Was this Bury Grammar School pupil always confident of her abilities as a singer?
“Absolutely not! It was the last thing I wanted to be. There are those who say, ’I came out of the womb singing!’ I didn’t. My Mum would say, ‘Shut up!’ all the time. I wasn’t allowed in the choir. I stood out too much. It was never encouraged. I didn’t think I had any talent and wasn’t bothered. I never sang anything.
“Shirley Bassey said – and this might have happened to a lot of black American singers if they hadn’t been surrounded by people similar to them – when you’re in an all-white school with very clean, pure voices, and open your mouth and maybe sing an octave lower than some of the boys, people don’t appreciate that’s talent. You just don’t fit in.
“I was never encouraged until I was singing along to something while looking after this woman suffering cancer. We were sat upstairs in her pub and she told me I should go downstairs on to the stage and sing. I did, and the reaction was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. It was a rubbish song, I can’t even remember what it was, but later I entered a talent competition at Butlin’s, Barry Island, and never looked back. I couldn’t believe I won that competition. I thought I was older but was told I was only 10.”
It was in 2010 that Rowetta first appeared with Peter Hook and the Light on his Unknown Pleasures tour, going back to the Joy Division catalogue. And the following year she also recorded with the band. Before we spoke, I reminded myself of that collaboration, watching a powerful live performance of Atmosphere recorded at a church in Macclesfield.
“Oh, amazing – the whole night! Howard Marks introduced us, someone else no longer with us. There’s a clip of him watching me while I’m singing New Dawn Fades, and he wrote the most incredible review. I get goosebumps reading that. It gave me the biggest confidence boost. And I’m so lucky I work with Hooky and the Hacienda Classical.
“I often spend Christmas with him and his family. I love them and he treats me like one of them. Singing with him is just a joy. He’s one of the greatest bass players in the world, his music’s phenomenal, as are Ian Curtis’ lyrics and melodies. I don’t think you can get better than that.”
Rowetta’s Manchester link was underlined recently with an impassioned performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show backed by a Manchester Camerata string quartet, covering Candi Staton’s You Got the Love in memory of the victims of the Arena bombing. That spine-tingling moment came six days after the tragedy, and after an equally-emotional London show with Peter Hook and the Hacienda Classical (hence the Camerata link).
“I couldn’t believe the response. I was buzzing after playing the Royal Albert Hall, yet still devastated by what had happened, and stayed on to do Andrew Marr’s show. My kids had a joint birthday that Tuesday, the day after the bombing. I said, ‘Let’s cancel your birthday this year’, and they were really understanding. I didn’t want to celebrate while children were missing.
“It was a really weird week, with the elation but also the devastation, so to be asked to sing on that show, which I love anyway, with a string quartet was just phenomenal. An honour any week, but on that Sunday in particular, with the Home Secretary and Diane Abbott there, it was surreal almost. And the response after … something like 200,000 people watched it immediately after, leaving all these comments, Twitter going mad, all these people with so much grief, saying how it affected them.
“I then got on a train to Leeds to meet a friend there, and got a round of applause. I started crying there and then. I couldn’t believe it. It was pure emotion, people telling me how they were feeling. Each night I kept thinking about that little girl and whether she’d been found, although you knew she’d passed. It brought the best out of Manchester, but was so horrible.
“We had that bombing in Manchester years before, but there were warnings before and no fatalities. This was completely different, and at a kids’ gig! I’ve played the Arena so many times, and was thinking of all the great nights there. Also, Peter Hook’s daughter was there, and the thought of that stampede to get out … I can’t imagine how bad that’d be.
“But we have to carry on, and we were honoured – myself and Hooky – to be asked by the Eavis family to lead a minute’s silence at Glastonbury Festival. Hooky asked me to say a few words at the end too. And to perform with the Hacienda Classical straight after …”
Those performances saw Rowetta truly back in the spotlight, 13 years after her successful stint on the first series of The X-Factor. On that occasion, having impressed the judges with a rendition of Lady Marmalade, she was placed in the over-25 category, her soulful, powerful voice soon proving a hit with audiences, her performances earned rave reviews. She went on to reach the final four, finishing as the highest-ranked female, even leading to an opportunity to release a self-titled album the next year.
Apparently Steve Brookstein won that year, but this is where my musical snobbery comes into it, and I borrow a phrase from my former boss Pete Storey when I tell Rowetta that – no offence – I missed all that, and if The X Factor was being filmed in my back garden I’d draw the curtains.
“I’ll be really honest and say that was for my Grandma. She didn’t like the Happy Mondays and didn’t like house music, and didn’t reckon I’d made it. If it wasn’t for her I probably would have walked away. But she loved the idea of me being on telly every week and was able to come and see me, and all her friends could see me singing songs she liked, including River Deep, Mountain High.
“I played along and got drunk before the audition, and enjoyed it. I wasn’t doing much else and thought, ‘What harm can it do?’ You then get right into it and wonder what you’re doing! Then there comes a point where you feel, ‘I’m not singing that song, and I’m not wearing that, after a few weeks. I look like a tit!
“At the beginning you don’t mind, and it’s ‘anything for Grandma!’ But I got a fantastic gay following from it, and to be the top woman in the show … It wasn’t my kind of scene and I was right out of my comfort zone. Not many songs I wanted to sing were allowed. I wanted to do Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis, but Simon (Cowell) said that wouldn’t work. But a few years later he got Leona (Lewis) to do it! But it was good really, and got me back in the public eye.”
Simon Cowell described you as ‘Amazing, but barking bloody mad’, apparently.
“Well, I was drunk at the time! When he found I wasn’t really that mad he wanted me to be madder on TV. I can’t just perform like that though. I wanted to learn my songs. Then there are press stories coming out. My head was absolutely battered. And everywhere you go you’re recognised … for something you don’t really want to be recognised for! They say, ‘Sing Over the Rainbow to my Mum’, and you think, ‘I don’t really want to!’ That went on for a few years. But I’ve no regrets. I did enjoy it really.”
It was during her time on The X Factor that it was revealed to the wider public that Rowetta had been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, a former drug dealer who she married at 18. She left him in 1987, the couple later divorcing, Rowetta since becoming a spokesperson for domestic violence awareness, and in 2005 featuring in BBC documentary Battered and Bruised.
You mention past run-ins with alcoholism, and spoke out on the issue after your personal experiences …
“The thing with me though, I drank too much, but there were reasons why I was drinking. The only thing I drink is whisky and I used to smoke cigarettes when I was down or when I was bored. When I decided to stop that and go around with different people all that stopped. My thing was that I was a battered wife. I got therapy, and now I don’t drink ridiculously, and don’t even smoke cigarettes.”
You talking about your experiences has helped other victims of domestic violence too.
“Definitely, and it’s an honour to be involved. I was lucky I wasn’t an addict. Sometimes you just need a cuddle. If you haven’t got anyone to get a cuddle from, that’s when you turn to other things.”
I get the impression you’re in a good place in that respect now, with relationships and so on.
“Fantastic, although I’m too busy to have a proper relationship. But I’m in a very happy place.”
Rowetta’s certainly remained busy since The X Factor, including TV appearances for the BBC’s Children in Need, and a cameo as herself on ITV’s Footballers’ Wives: Extra Time. She was also looking to forward to playing Preston Guild Hall’s summer ball when we spoke, while her cult club status has led to gigs as far away as Japan, as well as playing the Pop Goes the ’80s UK circuit.
Away from all that, she made her musical theatre debut in 2007 with Suranne Jones at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in The Best of Broadway, followed by a spell at the Indigo with Marti Webb, Stephen Gately and Maria Friedman in Christmas on Broadway. Later there were nationwide tours of The Songs of Sister Act with former Three Degrees star – and good friend – Sheila Ferguson and the London Community Gospel Choir. She’s also presented shows on Gaydio, community station Salford City Radio, and Manchester United FC fanzine show Red Wednesday on BBC Radio Manchester. So is it likely that her future is in radio or as an actress?
“No, I’m too busy singing! I’ve been offered musicals, but I’ve not got time with all the gigging and writing, rather than stopping in one venue for one show. I don’t think I could really do that for six weeks at the moment. I’m enjoying the way life is and I’ve just got a gig today to sing in New Orleans on Bourbon Street, a big gay event called Southern Decadence.
“With things like that and Happy Mondays, the Hacienda Classical shows, and singing in Ibiza – doing my house tunes – there isn’t the time! And hopefully life will continue like that. It’s just great. Yeah, I’ll try and stick with my music at the moment.”
Happy Mondays’ tour opens on Tuesday, November 14 at Bristol’s O2 Academy and includes visits to Brighton Dome (November 15th), London Roundhouse (November 16th), Cardiff Great Hall (November 17th); Portsmouth Pyramids (November 18th), Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall (November 22nd), Norwich UEA (November 23rd), Southend-on-Sea Cliffs Pavilion (November 24th), Cambridge Corn Exchange (November 25th), Preston Guild Hall (November 28th), Scunthorpe Baths Hall (November 29th), Carlisle The Sands Centre (November 30th), Liverpool Olympia (December 1st), Leeds O2 Academy (December 2nd), Birmingham O2 Institute (December 6th), Lincoln Engine Shed (December 7th), Newcastle O2 Academy (December 8th), Nottingham Rock City (December 9th), Manchester Academy 1 (December 13th), Llandudno Venue Cymru (December 14th), Dublin Vicar Street (December 15th), Aberdeen Beach Ballroom (December 20th), Inverness The Iron Works (December 21st), Kilmarnock Grand Hall (December 22nd), Glasgow O2 Academy (December 23rd). Tickets are available from www.alttickets.com, www.ticketweb.co.uk and www.seetickets.com, with more details via the band’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
For this site’s interview with Shaun Ryder in September 2015, click this link.