That’s Heather Small, talking about her beloved toy poodle, who goes by the name of Nina, after Ms Simone, which gives me my first point of reference, a chance to mention another great vocal talent and interpreter of songs, telling my interviewee I’d only been listening to Nina’s stonking version of Barry and Robin Gibb’s To Love Somebody that morning.
“Ah, she’s a mistress at interpreting other people’s songs, such as her version of Suzanne.”
Indeed, from that same 1969 album, not only tackling the Bee Gees and Leonard Cohen but also Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger numbers. Mind you, I say, I always get the impression that she wouldn’t play a song live if you expected her to though.
“Yeah – don’t make a request! Ha! ‘I’m not here to please you – I don’t care if you’ve paid!’”
Heather, not so long back from a trip to Barbados and now dealing with snow in London, was in fine voice, as you might expect, the day I called her. And when she’s on a roll, it’s hard to equate her with the younger performer said to be remarkably shy at the start of her career.
Somehow, it’s now 27 years since the first M People album, Northern Soul, let alone her first ballad with fellow Deconstruction dance outfit Hot!House back in early 1987, Don’t Come to Stay.
“I know, and for me it’s the fact that I’ve got an hour and a half of hits these days. That’s amazing, and what’s even more amazing is that people are still willing to come and see me sing those hits.”
Let’s tally up those hits before we go much further. With M People alone we’re talking 20 top-40 hit singles in the 1990s, of which 10 made the top-10. Including How Can I Love You More?, One Night in Heaven, Moving On Up, Renaissance, and Search for the Hero. And there were also four top-five albums, a Mercury Music Prize win for second LP, Elegant Slumming, in ’93, and a Brit award for Best British Dance Act in ’94 and ‘95.
Going right back, with Heather born in late January 1965 and brought up on a West London council estate, I understand religion and faith became an important aspect of her life. Was it through her church links that where she found her voice?
“I never went to a church where I could sing gospel music or anything like that. I never sang in church. I sang from my own endeavours. I didn’t really do anything until I was 18.”
I got the impression you were initially shy, so assumed it was singing that brought you out of yourself.
“No, I never sang anywhere or did any performance. When I started to perform to an audience was when I did The Tube. I was terrified. I didn’t move! I just sang, concentrating on making it through the song.”
That was with Hot!House in early 1987, on the final series of the Jools Holland and Paula Yates-fronted Channel 4 show, and you can find it via Heather’s YouTube link, Heather battling shyness and severe nerves and going on to make two albums – in 1988 and 1990 – with bandmates Mark Pringle and Martin Colyer. But it was with her next Deconstruction outfit that she reached her promised land.
“I joined M People after Hot!House disbanded. They were going in one direction and I wasn’t really interested in that, but the guys in M People had the same management and said to their manager, ‘Let Heather know if she does leave that we have two songs we’ve written especially for her and we’d love for her to record them, see what she thinks.’”
That was in 1990, Manchester-based DJ and musician Mike Pickering and his London bandmate Paul Heard getting in contact (percussion player Shovell also soon in the mix), with those two songs Colour My Life and How Can I Love You More? And word has it that Mike and Paul were looking at just taking on guest vocalists, until they heard Heather.
“They let me do what I wanted to do with the song, and I brought a gospel element to Have Can I Love You More? They went with that and let me do the songs the way I felt them. I hadn’t had formal training and still always go for feel. I can’t read music and can’t play an instrument.”
She laughs at this, hearing herself say that, and I ask where she thinks that mighty soulful voice came from.
“I found out after that there were people in my family who would sing in church, in the Caribbean. They would sing for people – for religious gatherings, funerals, stuff like that. But my grandfather would never have condoned them singing outside of church. Making pop music wouldn’t have gone down well at all!“
Heather’s parents arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the ’60s, and while it’s easy to place the soul influences in her voice, it turns out that she was also a fan of 2015 writewyattuk interviewee Elkie Brooks. Which, on closer reflection, also makes sense.
“Yeah, and on the last tour I did Pearl’s a Singer. What a great singer, great interpretation, very soulful, and you know straight away it’s Elkie Brooks when you hear her, at a time when it’s quite difficult to differentiate between singers. And I grew up in a time in the ‘70s when you’d have Bob Marley and ABBA on the same radio station. So for me it was about being on top of your game … whatever your game was.”
Growing up in 70’s Britain and not wanting to be stereotyped or treated differently, Heather knew she wanted to make something of herself. I mention how Martha Reeves told me in a 2015 interview that being one of 11 children led to her making herself heard, helping bring herself out. How about Heather? Was she aware early on that she had this great voice?
“I was very shy, and when it comes to my voice, all I can say is that singing made me feel great. It was more intrinsic to me, in that I didn’t feel right if I didn’t sing. I told myself I had to make it as a singer, because of the joy it gives me. Purposefully, I didn’t learn to type or anything like that, so I didn’t have anything else to fall back on. If you heard a young person saying that now, you’d say, ‘Oh no!’ But I had to make it!
“And it’s so much fun. No two days are the same. It’s still like that for me after being in music for over 25 years. There’s that element of surprise, and right now, I’m writing songs with a young writer/producer, and it’s exciting and still has that power to surprise me.”
In 2008, Heather was back in the public eye as a contestant on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, that infectious personality and sense of humour leading to many more TV appearances, including several high-profile chat and quiz shows. But the live work never waned, either as a solo artist – having recorded two albums under her own name – or with M People. And then there was her 2010 tour with 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu and US singer Anastacia on the ’Here Come the Girls’ tour (Heather replacing Chaka Khan from the initial tour). But did she realise there was another link there? For 18 years before Heather recorded her debut LP with Hot!House at Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Alabama, Lulu recorded in the same legendary studio, for her New Routes album.
“Oh, my God, I didn’t know that! That’s where I did my first recordings. I tell you what, there’s a real aura in that studio. I’d been nowhere before, and here I was, this British girl, in Muscle Shoals, and yet I felt so at home. I started singing with a live band and thought, ‘This is it, this is my life, being in that environment with other musicians, and the way it made me feel. I’d be interpreting something, and they’d do the same. To this day I still get that same joy. And I’ve just realised I closed my eyes while explaining that!”
So many great songs were made there, from The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar and White Horses to The Staples Singers’ I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself, via Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Wilson Pickett’s Land of a 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally, Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind …
“Listen, there’s an aura there. And people say about Aretha Franklin, and how she wasn’t happy there, going through a bad time with her then-husband and then she just let it all out in her vocals. And that’s the thing about experience. You’ve got to be brave enough to let those experiences come through. I think that’s what I’ve learned with live performances.”
Heather’s talking about Aretha’s mighty I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) there, a great story neatly retold on the entertaining and informative Every Record Tells a Story website. And what an advert for Muscle Shoals, recorded in 1967, the year I was born.
But let’s fast forward 22 years, because I’m a little confused over this. Is that right that we heard Heather some time between Hot!House and M People, through a re-recorded vocal take on 1989’s Ride on Time mega-hit for Black Box? I realise it was originally half-inched from Loleatta Holloway, but …
“Do you know, I’ve never confirmed this, with all this folklore around that. Someone recently told me, ‘Well, it’s on Wikipedia!’ Ha ha!”
Well, I’m always very wary about what I repeat from the internet.
“I’ve never ever said that. People just take it for granted. But if you listen … I was a younger woman then, and if you hear the two versions you can hear which is the woman with the real experience and which one is the pretender! If you listen to it, you can tell.”
I try one more time for a definitive answer, but she’s not playing, and just laughs when I say we’ll have to leave that a little ambiguous. So with that we move on to Proud, the title track of her debut solo album in 2000, an inspirational worldwide hit soon heard in so many situations – including the launch of Queen Mary 2 and England’s victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2003, the VE Day 60th anniversary commemorations in Trafalgar Square and the Tsunami Relief Concert in Cardiff in 2005, and the London Olympics’ bid and a ceremony marking the handover from Beijing in 2008. In fact, I put to her, the song (co-written with former Jethro Tull keyboard player Peter-John Vettese) seems to have a life of its own.
“It has, and it’s taken me to so many different places. It’s unbelievable. It’s flown around the world, so people can hear me sing that one song live.”
And when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she’d been striving to achieve over a 20-plus year career, she got in touch with Heather, who squeezed in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show in the middle of her last M People UK tour in 2005, explaining, ‘If Oprah calls, you go!’
“Which is very flattering. But like I’ve said before, it doesn’t make it any less flattering if it’s somebody who is watching their son or daughter in a school play and they use ‘Proud’. I attended a school where the pupils were all talking about their experiences and they started singing Proud at the end. I thought, ‘Hold it together, Heather,’ and then this one boy started crying and I was gone! When you experience something like that … it’s been used for school anthems and assemblies. Oh my goodness! Especially going over to Chicago to sing it for Oprah, because it’s about celebrating those small, joyous moments and those private moments.”
That pride theme fits neatly with Heather’s charity work for anti-racist and anti-bullying causes, for a campaigner who is also an ambassador for children’s charity, Barnardo’s. And she comes over very much a spiritual person, I put to her.
“Yes, I go to church and always seek out some kind of spiritual life and connection, and other people. That’s why I like doing what I do for those charities. It keeps me in touch with my own humanity. They’re doing something for me – keeping me in a place where I will always feel sensitive. I don’t deserve any praise for it. I say if you have an abundance of something money or whatever … I can sing, so I go and sing, and there are people who have lots of money so they give lots of money, and there are people who have time and they give all of their time. And no one thing out-trumps the other.”
She laughs at my next question, mainly because I suggest I don’t want to pry into her private life but do so all the same, her shouting, ‘Go ahead! Go ahead!’ in the background. In short, she spent a fair bit of time in the North West of England through her past relationship with Wigan rugby league legend Shaun Edwards. Does she miss this part of the world?
“Well, the North West came to London, so that was alright!”
You were based around Standish, weren’t you?
“They were so lovely to me. My son is still a regular visitor there, because his grandparents are there. So he’s fluent in Wigan-ese!”
Is Heather’s son, now 21, following in Mum or Dad’s footsteps, career-wise?
“He doesn’t sing but he’s at Edinburgh Uni now and he’s a sportsman like his father. He’s in the uni rugby team. But I don’t like to talk about him too much, or I’ll get a little phone call!”
Heather Small – The Voice of M People visits 14 UK venues in April and May, opening at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre (April 13) and calling at Hull University Union (April 14), Wrexham William Aston Hall (April 15), Bristol Marble Factory (April 17), London ULU (April 20), Sheffield Foundry (April 21), Manchester Academy 2 (April 22), Preston Charter Theatre (April 24), Salisbury City Hall (April 25), Oxford 02 Academy (April 27), Isle of Man Gaiety Theatre (April 29), Wakefield Warehouse 23 (May 4), Glasgow 02 ABC (May 5), and Norwich Waterfront (May 16). Tickets also available from Ticketweb (0333 321 9990). For more details head to Heather’s website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.