After his latest successful tour with Mike + The Mechanics, Andrew Roachford is back on the road with his band this autumn.
Know the name but struggling to place the back-catalogue? Well, his biggest hits came with his first collective in the ‘80s and ‘90s, going out under the name Roachford, their big UK hit Cuddly Toy a top-five smash when reissued in early 1989 and seven more top-40 singles following.
He’s remained busy ever since with his band, as a solo artist, and as a guest for the afore-mentioned outfit led by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford, impressing audiences with his own take on Mechanics and Genesis classics and a few of his own numbers.
To catch him live is to be convinced by his stage presence. Yet as he revealed to me, there was a time when he was reluctant to show his face on a stage, still seeing himself primarily as a musician rather than singer, despite that wonderful soulful voice.
So what came first as a performer? The voice, the keyboards or his percussion skills?
“I started as a piano player, and it was down to people like my uncle, Bill Roachford, who brought the rest out of me. He was a saxophone player who played a lot of clubs from the late ‘50s through to the ’80s, known well by the likes of Ronnie Scott, a bit of a legend in muso circles and rightly so – a truly amazing musician. He heard me singing in a bedroom and was the one who said, ‘Right, we’ve got to get you singing out there’.
“For me, singing was something very personal. It was like being naked. Doing that in front of an audience was an absolute nightmare for me. But he pushed me and pushed me, eventually settling the nerves a little. That said, I remember when I got signed how the record company came to the first gig and were horrified because I was surrounded by keyboards and you couldn’t see me! They said, ‘We want you to be a pop star! Can you at least take away one keyboard?’ They had to literally wean me off these keyboards I hid behind.”
At least when Howard Jones did that around that era, his hair was poking out over the top.
“Yeah, exactly! Eventually I got used to the idea of singing, yet never really defined myself as a singer. To this day I’d still say I’m a musician with the singing just part of it, an extension of the music.”
The past few years have seen Andrew co-writing and touring with Mike + the Mechanics, and even enjoying a little cinematic success through Cuddly Toy being included on the soundtrack of the film Alpha Papa. And the 52-year-old seems remains a fixture on the road, having been around the music business all his life, including a teenage stint with The Clash – which we’ll get on to later – and that commercial breakthrough with his first band at the close of the ’80s, having formed Roachford two years earlier.
That four-piece were soon building a reputation for live and studio work, and by 1988 Roachford were supporting Terence Trent D’Arby and The Christians. A seven-album deal with Columbia followed, the band becoming the label’s biggest-selling UK act for 10 years.
Andrew’s first solo LP, Heart of the Matter, saw the light of day in 2003, before follow-up Word of Mouth in June 2005 back under the band name. Then in 2010 he joined Mike + the Mechanics, sharing lead vocals with Tim Howar on the following year’s album The Road, the start of a happy alliance.
I caught up with him at home in Balham – that Gateway to the South immortalised by Peter Sellers – having been based in South and South West London for most of his days. Is he between dates at the moment?
“Exactly, although I think I’m always between dates! I’m constantly between dates and recording, and I’m also starting to write another album.”
Let’s start with current release, Encore, though, an emotive, soulful album showcasing Andrew’s unique interpretation of classic tracks, all given something of a fresh Roachford twist.
“There’s an original track on there, but it’s more my take on songs I’ve always loved and I thought it would be interesting to put a twist on.”
That seems to be your general approach – making songs your own.
“I guess that’s because I’m a musician, not just someone who sings. I play piano and was bought up with an improvisation culture that my family taught me. I like to move things around. I don’t think I’ve ever done two gigs exactly the same.”
The Encore album sees Andrew with a full live band, capturing the kind of powerful performance he’s gained a reputation for, explaining, ‘Simplicity is the key’. Stand-out tracks include Sly and the Family Stone’s Family Affair, and Bill Withers’ Grammas’ Hands, both showcasing an artist on top of his game.
“This album showcases some of the songs that have fired me up over the years to become a performer and to look, to bring the magic in every show I play. I once read that a sign of a good singer wasn’t just about ability but more importantly about someone that when they sang you believe every word.”
He told me he switches between workbases, often working from home when starting out writing, but also at various studios, ‘depending on what vibe I want’. And what vibe is he heading towards with the next album?
“I think it’s going to be quite stripped down, all about the songs and the feel. When I listen to the great music I grew up with like Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, I listen to the simplicity in the set and what it does to you, how it moves you. It’s important that music should have an emotional impact. That’s what I’m going for. It’s essentially soul.”
I love the albums Al Green did with Willie Mitchell, I tell him, not least Let’s Stay Together, Call Me and Still in Love With You, around that early ‘70s era.
“You know your stuff! I know that inside out and can’t get enough of that. It’s an education to someone like me when you hear the way they put the music together. It always feels so joyful, so effortless and yet so powerful.”
Al Green was another artist who reinterpreted songs, taking tracks by the likes of Barry Gibb, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, making them his own. You do a bit of that too.
“Definitely, and with Encore that was what it was all about. The originals are so perfect, classic songs like Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, so you have to take that somewhere. It’s my nature to explore where things can go.
“With some of Al Green’s songs I thought his were originals but then found out they weren’t. First time I heard Jimi Hendrix doing Hey Joe I assumed it was his song because he put that spin on it. When Marvin Gaye sang I Heard it Through the Grapevine it was the same. I guess what they have in common is that they’re musical, so they can do that.”
He mentions a love of performing live, and is fired up about his forthcoming autumn tour.
“I love to be out on the road. I see myself as a working, gigging musician. That’s kind of what I’ve always done, no matter what’s happening as far as records are concerned. And it’s a great buzz you get when you connect with a crowd. There’s nothing like it.”
“Yeah, I think we’re on year six or seven now, and it’s going from strength to strength. We’re also out next month around Europe for quite an extensive tour, then I come back to do my UK tour. At the moment the Mechanics have a new album out, Let Me Fly, and it’s going down really well, getting lots of airplay, well received. So there’s a lot going on.”
A few years ago Mike Rutherford had Paul Carrack and Paul Young (of Sad Café fame, rather than the former Q-Tips singer) as co-vocalists, and I guess it’s a similar dynamic with yourself and Tim Howar.
“It’s very similar and I think Mike had that plan. When he was working with the two Pauls, Paul Carrack was more the soul, r’n’b voice, while Paul Young had more of a rock edge, even though he was quite soulful too.
“Sadly, Paul Young then passed away, and they carried on with just Paul Carrack, but then after a while the energy had gone, Mike wanted to take a break, and Paul wanted to pursue more of a solo career, having been with the band a long time. Years later, when Mike started writing again, he wanted someone to co-write, finish songs and actually sing them. But who? That was the big question … and my name came up.”
Did you already know each other?
“Yeah, we’d bumped into each other over the years at Top of the Pops and things like that. I knew Paul Carrack too. I wasn’t sure it would work, and don’t think Mike was. But then we got in the studio, jamming, and within 10 minutes it just started to happen. There was something there.”
Did you know Tim Howar?
“No, Mike introduced us in the studio. But we clicked straight away. We’ve got a great synergy together and Tim had this amazing ‘full of rock’ voice, whereas mine’s more old school r’n’b. That’s where I’m coming from. But I love guitar too, harking back to when soul music used guitars and had more edge to it. That’s what I love.”
No disrespect intended, but it would be easy to suggest that being with Mike + The Mechanics offers a more Radio 2 friendly approach – a bit safe, maybe. But that’s not necessarily the case, is it?
“Yeah, Paul Carrack has an amazing voice and is an amazing singer, but I think we’re quite different. And I think that difference works. The Mechanics needed to move on. With the first tour we did, people didn’t really know what to expect, having known the old line-up so long. You could kind of feel that in the audience, wondering how this was going to work.
“In the beginning ticket sales were okay but not great, but then people started to get their heads around the fact that it’s a different thing. And when we do songs like The Living Years people are just in tears. It’s a great song and I think I sing from a place people really relate to. It’s an amazing song and it’s an honour to sing. When I really relate to a message, it’s a lot easier to put myself into it, make it my own.”
It worked very well for Paul Carrack, serving as a bridge between his time with Squeeze and being his own man. I’m guessing this has helped you reach a wider audience too.
“It definitely has. And a lot of people have come to gigs not knowing much about me, but now I see a cross-section of people at my shows, and some of that has something to do with my work with the Mechanics. Sometimes you have to bring the mountain to Muhammad, so to speak! When they come along I don’t think they know what to expect. But after I generally get, ‘We didn’t expect that!’”
There must come a time when you’re having to explain to people – or shout at the radio – it’s not just about Cuddly Toy though. Don;t get me wrong – it’s a great song, but there’s much more in your armoury.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things.”
Do you think you get tarred with that one big hit brush?
“You can be. Take Rick Astley, who has a really lovely voice, and writes material, but came on the scene with Stock Aitken Waterman – it was almost impossible for him for so many years to get taken seriously. And I can really understand that frustration.
“It’s different for me – I’ve never seen myself as a pop star, but a musician out there rocking and rolling. And people who have come to my gigs over the last 15 or 20 years don’t really come just for Cuddly Toy. But when it gets played again or is on a film soundtrack, the old crowd come back, trying to work out what I’m going to do as well as Cuddly Toy and Family Man. Then they realise they’ve missed so much.
“When I tour Europe, Mike likes me playing my own songs too, and at first they said, ‘Well, we’ve got to include Cuddly Toy. But outside the UK that song is not my big tune. I was discovered there later.”
There’s a fine example online, a cracking live version of This Generation (from 1994’s Permanent Shade of Blue album) played in front of a studio audience in Liechtenstein in 2014. That’s just one song that seemed to be missed by the wider public.
“Yes, at some point I feel I should revisit and maybe re-record some of the old songs. My core fans want more people to hear those songs, getting frustrated on my behalf. I believe in that music, and feel sometimes it’s about timing.”
It’s not as if Cuddly Toy was a novelty song. At least you can be proud of it.
“Yeah, I guess what resonates about that song is that musically it had something going on. It wasn’t just manufactured pop. And people can tell the difference.”
You mentioned Bill Withers covers. What else is featured on Encore?
“Well, I love Sly and the Family Stone and bands from that era that weren’t in a particular pocket, and couldn’t be that narrowly categorised. And Family Affair is probably one of my favourite songs on this album. I also did a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Under the Bridge, in a more soulful style.”
I guess the soul’s there in the original somewhere too.
“It is! But people don’t always hear it in that way until you do it in that way. It’s the same with Elton John. He was well into soul music, and although not obvious, that was at the root of what he was doing.”
I agree, and while you’ll probably laugh at me for this I’ll add that it was only really in the last five years or so that I truly realised Van Morrison was a soul singer.
“I’m the same! And it seems so obvious, once you know. It’s the same hearing the band Free, the singer – Paul Rodgers – saying he was trying to be Otis Redding. Now you think ‘of course!’
“Otis is another of my favourites. Again, he kind of cut through all the genres of the time. He was so powerful, so emotionally strong. I don’t think there’s a lot of that around now. There are a lot of people who are great technicians vocally, but who don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable or open up in that way.”
You mentioned never playing the same way two nights in a row, and Otis Redding was a master of that, to the point where he must have frustrated those recording him trying to get those previous performances down on tape.
“Yeah! And I guess the greats of our time include Amy Winehouse, yet you hear the producer Mark Ronson say how recording her was a nightmare as she did a completely different vocal every take.
“With Mike and the Mechanics I’ve had to rein it in a bit, as I’m pretty much free with my style, singing how I feel in that moment. But you have to respect the nature of the material and curb the movement a little.”
You mentioned earlier your uncle, Bill Roachford, being a musician. Was he a first generation UK arrival?
“Yeah, on my Mum’s side (Andrew’s surname is his mother’s) there were seven of them, but Bill came over on his own, around 18, quite a big deal coming to a country he’d never been to, and so different from the Caribbean. It may have looked glamorous watching snow scenes back in Barbados. but with no notion of how cold it must feel, and that damp British thing. It was kind of a shock.
“But then my Mum came over and they ended up living in the UK. The plan was never to stay but they ended up here longer than they were in the Caribbean, although my mother and uncle ended up moving back to Barbados.”
Andrew adds that the Roachford family were better known as teachers than musicians in Barbados.
“I wasn’t the first though, my mother and great-grandparents were in music. And I was very happy I could show my grandma before she died a massive poster for one of my gigs, marked ‘sold out’. That was lovely. She’d never been to England, but she was the one who insisted we learn to play piano.”
Andrew reckons he grew up ‘surrounded with jazz and soul’. Was there a lot of music around the house growing up?
“We’re talking literally bands rehearsing in the living room, so I heard a great level of musicianship. My mother would go to clubs, and my father played drums and is now a conductor. When my mother was pregnant with me she was going round all the gigs they were playing. So I was hearing music before I was born, and I think that makes a difference – it has an effect.”
Looking at the music you’ve played over the years, I guess you’re no music snob and you’re not one to lazily label bands and songs, categorising everything you hear.
“No, I really like Prince’s music, for example – there are influences of Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, but he makes it his. He started through the r’n’b route, but was also into David Bowie and all sorts.
“People expect your tastes to be narrow, and reflect who they think you are culturally and socially, but I can fit quite comfortably with all kinds of people, and my music is a reflection of what I listen to. If you see my CD collection or my playlist, it’s very eclectic, but what it has in common is that is has some kind of soul and real grit to it. I love artists that move me, no matter what genre.”
There was the seven-album deal with Columbia. Yet you then made that solo move, and had the best of both worlds in that respect.
“I really enjoyed my time at Columbia. As it was so long I saw so many come and go, and when you’re in the music business the people who sign you are the ones that really believe in you. So when they leave the company you’re at the mercy of the new guys that come in, who might not have the same vision or passion, or it takes them a while to get it. That was happening for a bit and while the time I spent with Sony was great, by then it was time to move on. And there’s always going to be that struggle between art and commerce, so often contradicting each other.”
Any other original Roachford members in your current band?
“No, the guys from the original band all have their own projects these days. For years the bass player (Derrick Taylor) was working as a musical director for Gabrielle, Hawi (Gondwe) the guitarist was with Amy Winehouse for a while. And the drummer, Chris (Taylor), who lives in Brighton, is more into world music and percussion.
“I think people seem to think it’s going to last forever when you have a group, but I don’t look at it like that. It lasts as long as it lasts, then something else happens. And I really love where I’m at now. I still see some of the guys and have a lot of respect for them, and was really lucky to work with them, but it was like a marriage and when we went our separate ways it was amazing to see other people and find so many other influences out there I had no idea about.”
With that in mind, excuse the pun but away from the studio and the road, are you a family man?
“Ha! Well, they call me the king of puns, so I may have heard that one before! But do you know what? I’ve spent so much of my life on the road I haven’t really had time. I kind of missed that one. I don’t really have a family in that sense but I’m on the road with my brother, and my cousins are around all the time. I’ve always had family around.”
Also on that rich Roachford CV was a stint working in the studio with The Clash as a teenager, something he felt helped give him ‘an incredible grounding in music’. How did that link come about?
“It’s a crazy one really. When I started music college, Clash manager Bernie Rhodes was trying to start a record label, and needed to get some people into the studio to help with that, and one thing they wanted was an in-house keyboard player.
“They found me, and I didn’t really know anything about The Clash and definitely wasn’t a fan. When I started at the studio they were away in America, touring with David Bowie I think, so I didn’t see anyone from the band for six months. Then one day they turned up, just after they’d got rid of two members. I was basically there every day for a year or maybe more while they put that album together.”
So we’re talking about the final album, 1985’s Cut the Crap. Did you get to know Joe Strummer?
“Yes, very well. He was a lovely guy, a very intelligent guy and big-hearted, and that educated me about The Clash. He really felt what he was singing about and really meant it. Even though maybe he came from a nice background, he really was a working-class hero. He’d travel on the tube every day to the studio in Camden, and never went for all that pop star status.
“The last time I saw him was at Glastonbury Festival, with his band The Mescaleros. He was living in that area and found me, telling me he’d recorded all these jam sessions I was involved with, and had all the master tapes but couldn’t find a machine to play them on! It was an old eight-track two-inch tape.”
Have those sessions seen the light of day since?
“No, I haven’t heard anything about them. I need to talk to his family about that. But he invited me over. He was into his rave culture and invited me to this campfire gathering where they were going to be jamming. But I turned it down – I was getting a bit cold. It was the end of the evening. I wish I’d gone though. Instead, I went off-site, and that was the last time I saw him. He had a heart attack that following winter.
“But we really connected and I really liked him as a person. He also helped when I was still finding myself as a singer, telling me, ‘You’re great. If I sang like you I wouldn’t be in this band! That was his sense of humour. He was also into the whole soul scene and reggae thing. He was great.”
I was expecting you to say your link was through Mick Jones rather than Joe Strummer, through his time with Big Audio Dynamite.
“I met Mick afterwards. We were both on Columbia, although of course he knew my Clash connection. And of course you couldn’t help but notice Bernie Rhodes. He was so prominent, and had this strong connection with Sony and Columbia. Malcolm McLaren was connected with that whole thing as well.”
Did you get to know Mick Jones pretty well too?
“Yes, he’s a lovely guy as well. And it was great through Gorillaz seeing Mick and Paul Simonon back together again all those years later.”
Finally, you talk about a connection when you play live, and I guess that’s irrespective of the size of the crowd or venue on certain nights. There seem to be a few intimate venues on this autumn tour. Yet I get the impression audiences will get nothing less than a full-felt Roachford performance.
“Oh definitely! You have to honour the music and honour the people who bought a ticket, and whether it’s 65 people or 65,000 you’re going to get 100 per cent!”
Andrew Roachford’s UK tour visits Southport’s Atkinson Theatre (October 13th), Leicester The Musician (October 14th), Birmingham Academy (October 20th), Sheffield Academy (October 21st), Southampton The Brook (October 27th), Seaton The Gateway (October 28th), Chester Live Rooms (November 2nd), Darwen Library Theatre (November 3rd), Selby The Venue (November 4th), Newcastle Academy (November 10th), Glasgow Oran Mor (November 11th), Aberdeen The Assembly (November 12th), Hull Fruit (November 17th), Norwich Waterfront Studio (November 18th), Lewes Con Club (November 19th), Farncombe St John’s Church (November 24th), Islington Academy (November 25th), Manchester Academy 3 (December 1st), Bedford Esquires (December 2nd), Douglas Villa Marina Prom Suite (December 7th).