tea with moyet
After the maiden voyage of the Tea With… series had taken me teetering off the edge of the flat-earth in search for the home of Paul Hardcastle, it was somewhat of a relief/disappointment to be offered an interview with Alison Moyet in the relative nearness and familiarness of a record company in suburban Acton. Initially the idea was to do the interview in Brighton at Alisons home, but, alas, that never materialized – so any anecdotal humour derived from a comedy journey was reduced to the slim pickings of the London overground line which, if you use it regularly as I do, youll know is totally devoid of fun. Acton, on the other hand, is full of humour. The bleak kind. Through some sort of misunderstanding with myself, I managed to arrive for the interview an hour early, and what you forget about Acton is just how fucking huge the place is – and with that, how empty.
Its got 5 of its own train stations, Acton – if London was continental Europe, Acton would be the old USSR. But you try and find a place to sit down and have a coffee at 2pm when youve got half an hour to kill. A cafe open at 2pm on a mile stretch of High Street in London? Nothing. Zilch. One chinese takeaway that was shut until 5pm. Desolation. I wandered passed corner after corner on the high street, straining my eyes at the occasional cafe mirage in the distance that turned out to be a bookies or an offie. Eventually I came across an Irish pub at a cross roads. The type of pub where they still have no smoking signs in the window and the curtains are always drawn. Not the kind of place to walk in with a man bag and ask for a latte. But I was half mad with coffee fixation now, and the pub was my only option.
The pool ball stopped rolling as I came through the door and the clock stopped ticking when I asked the barmaid if they served lattes. An audible, extended groan came from the mass of midday whiskey drinkers behind me. The very lovely barmaid did, infact, have a Latte, and she went off somewhere out of view to make one, leaving me with the uncomfortable stares in the half light of the pub for what felt like the special extended disco mix of eternity. When it arrived, my latte was in a tall glass and looked like a knickerbocker glory. All it needed was a cherry on top. In my research for the interview Id come across Moyet talking about the cultural wasteland in which she grew up – 1970s Basildon – and how the sheer lack of local entertainment had spawned a creative DIY music scene out of nothing. Now, through the huge success of Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Basildon has since been viewed as a sort of synth-pop-star-spawning mecca. Maybe, I thought, theres going to be an explosion of futuristic pop emanating from deep within the bowels of Acton. Maybe theres hope. At that point an old grizzled staffordshire terrier sat splayed on the floor of the pub let out a long, wet fart and broke me from my reverie. I knocked back the knickerbocker latte and headed to the record company HQ for the interview.
In my eyes, the material Moyet and Vince Clarke put out as Yazoo in the early 80s is some of the best electronic pop music thats ever been made. Upstairs at Erics, Yazoos debut LP comes on like a rawer, gutsier Eurythmics. Full of synth bangers like Dont Go:
and Situation (In VHS for the full effect):
and crowned by the uber robo ballard Only You)
its a tour de force of fire and ice futurism. Moyets voice sat perfectly in the machine driven mechanical stomp that Clarke artfully crafted.
Unfortunately, Yazoo didnt last long – behind the tight facade and the brilliant music, Moyet and Clarkes relationship was anything but harmonious and they broke up in 1983, having made only two LPs. Having initially gone on to massive quadruple-platinum commercial success as a solo artist, the intervening years have seen Alison in and out of the spotlight, with the 7 albums dotted throughout the 20 odd years varying in palette (and quality) from album to album. For me, neither Moyet nor Clarke ever quite replicated the brilliance of their early work together. Now, after a gap of six years between LPs, Moyets new album The Minutes (a collaborative effort with writer and producer Guy Sigsworth, whos previously worked with Madonna, Bjork and Robyn) is being billed as Moyets big Return To Electronica.
The remix of single Changeling from Ali Renault, in particular, caught my ear and gave me hope that Moyet had again found a musical frame that really suited her voice. On arrival at the office I was take upstairs by a receptionist to a meeting room where Alison sat beaming, flanked by a member of her management. I must have looked uneasy, because once the introductions were over Alison reassured me that the management werent there to vet the interview, they were just hiding from someone roaming the corridors. That was fine, I think I was probably just recovering from the latte and the farting dog. I set up my recorder and we began….
Firstly, Ive heard you say that in the process of writing and recording this album, youve had your happiest musical experience to date – is that because life is going well generally, or specifically down to the musical process itself?
Both of those things, working with Yazoo was brilliant – it was a fresh sheet and there were no expectations, of course the first time you do something is really exciting. But my relationship with Vince at the time was a bit fraught, so there was no real communion going on there. I never wanted to be a solo singer, Vince split the band and by dint of the fact that Id become reclusive at that point I wasnt part of any social group I wasnt meeting any musicians, so I just fell into being a solo singer you know? What made it so great with Guy (Sigworth) was that it felt like the first time I was recording in a band again, rather than the producer/singer setup. The very fact we didnt have a single argument during the making of the album is quite remarkable.
How long did it take to make the album?
About three years. The thing was Id been offered a lot of deals, but they were all for cover albums. I dont have an issue with covers, in the same way a cellist doesnt view playing Bach as a cover – as a singer, you sometimes try your instrument on other peoples writings. Its a bonafide thing to do. However in this instance I wanted to make a creative work and there was no label that wanted to do new material with me. I dont feel bullish about this, I know its an imploding industry and a 50 year old middle aged woman is not the natural place that labels want to invest. However, I knew what I was about and I wanted to do this – and Guy felt the same way. So we worked in his downtime and got the album down. We had no wastage, we wrote 11 songs and theres 11 songs on the album. But, because we do our respective things separately – the songs and lyrics are mine and he arranged and composed the soundscape, it worked really well.
Did you start off writing an album or did it organically evolve?
What it was is that my management company knew that I wanted to work in Electronica, but it was a difficult thing because for one I find socialising quite difficult to go out and meet someone I always feel quite reticent. Also, as a female solo singer theres this culture where theres these myriad writing teams who arent interested in doing an album with someone, they just want the single you know, the PRS! So, mainly I went to this meeting so I didnt look like I was always saying no to everything! I didnt hold out much hope for it, I didnt really know Guys work but I went along so as not to be truculent. As it happened we clicked straight away, in the sense that were both similar creatures – were both socially awkward, were not movers and shakers, networkers. But at the core, we both know who we are, within our work. I told him that I didnt want to make anything that was expected of me – with my age and my musical history – I know Ive been part of the mainstream and that closes certain peoples ears to you, Im not insensible to that. But Im a cheap date too! I sold a lot of records early on and Ive no desire to possess anything, so consequently Ive been in this brilliant position for decades where Ive been able to say no, and Ive got very good at it!
On that, I heard you recently smashed up your collection of gold discs. What was the catalyst for that?
Moving house. I just dont want to own things, I think possessions are the death of us. Ive had the gold discs in the loft forever. I grew up on a council estate and the first thing you do when you get a bit of money is a get a big, fuck-off house. It suited me because I was reclusive and I didnt want to see anyone, so I was in this big, remote house. However, Im not very good at beautifying things, so this big house was just full of rubbish and the gold discs were just stuffed in the loft. Id never put them on the wall, its like saying look at how much money Ive made, thats all they stand for. Its funny how people see it as some kind of a meltdown – smashing up the gold discs. I came from having nothing, I did the thing in the 80s of getting a bit of money and buying loads of shit and then I actually realised that possessions were just more things to clean around. Im not someone who looks at my career backwards, my glory days are what other people imagine they are – and the nice thing now is I havent got any gold discs so if I get one for this, itll be fresh!
So, as youve touched on already, youre quite reticent and socially awkward – when it comes to performing, how do you deal with it?
Ive played live since I was 15, its the forum that I know who I am within. I know its weird for people to get, in between the songs Im a bit all over the place, a bit crap – but when Im singing Im completely in that moment. I take it very seriously, I know the words in my palette and I just feel comfortable within it.
Was that from the word go then?
Yes, but when I was doing Wembley Arena and all that, it was a different kettle of fish. It was a big band, no community within it – separate factions and no love within us. It becomes about everyone out noodling each other and becomes a big cacophonous mess, with all those horrid 80s drum sounds! Its a bit hideous. But Im not frightened of making mistakes, Im not intimidated by my failings – but I am frightened about not testing myself. You dont know if you’re shit at something until you do it. I think its so much better to put your toe in the water and get horribly wet and look stupid, than to just stand on the sidelines and opine about what people should be doing without having the guts to put yourself on the front line.
Yeah, I agree – and you started off within punk, which must have been quite combative, a baptism of fire?
Well, yeah, then – in 70s Basildon, it was all about factions. It was a new town music became very, very important because there was no other culture – there was no money, no theatre – even if we wanted to go to a theater we couldnt. I think there was one chinese restaurant, that was the culture! So you had all these factions, you had the Punks, the Skinheads, The Market Boys, The Teds – there were spies on every corner, saying Here come the Teds, leggit!. The thing is with me is that Ive always looked like I could pull a cart and I had that Myopic stare, my head was shaved – I looked hard. I think I was hard, Id grown up in this very peasant French family – the girls were expected to do the manual work along with the boys, there was no gender division there. I was surrounded by these quite fragile boys, and if theres one thing more frightening than a mental bloke, its a mental woman, you know!? So sometimes you had to put a front up, and there were times when fights could be put down by fronting up. Doesnt mean I wasnt shaking afterwards, but you had to front it out. That was the atmosphere that I grew up in. Also the fact that I always looked odd – I never had a dress or a doll, even the language of girls seemed odd at that age which naturally set me apart from these waifish girls of the 70s. So when punk happened, it seemed akin to the ethos of my upbringing and I knew myself within that.
Staying on Punk – its political in itself isnt it? Were you political at that point in your life, was that part of being a punk for you?
To a certain degree yes. Politics were spoken about in my house, but not party politics. My father never gave up his French nationalism so he dint vote in this country. My Dad was a very dominant figure and my Mother was a very silent figure, so I never really knew of her politics. I just knew that we came from a working class family, so thats where the sympathies lay. But like you say, theres a cultural politicization of the punk movement that was about not possessing things and valuing people on their status etc.
Yeah, and thats how I read your destruction of your gold discs – not a breakdown, more a political, punkish gesture...
Yeah, exactly. Going back to the start – working with Vince, I only recorded a demo because I wanted a record of my voice – I never imagined Id turn into a pop star. I didnt even have a tape recorder, none of the early bands I was in ever even recorded anything, we didnt have the means. Consequently, music for me has never been about collecting gear or anything – its about participation, the here and now. People imagine the 80s as my heyday, one of the things that offends me more than anything is being called an Eighties Singer, if anything call me a fucking sixties singer, you know, thats when I started! Gold discs are big ugly status symbols, and I dont judge people on that basis. Im interested what Im doing now.
So, coming back to the present, the here and now, and you making electronic music again -whats your take on the various scenes that are going on at the moment within electronic music- are you au fait with it?
No, Im oblivious to it. Thats the point, as I said – its about participation with music for me, rather than intellectualizing it. Ive no issue with anyone else doing that, but its not how it works for me, you know. Its always been about doing rather than owning or watching.
Did you have a hand in the choice of remixes for the lead single?
Errm, no. In terms of the things that they do to sell a record, its never really interested me. I dont go clubbing, you know – and to be perfectly frank, I dont really care. What interests me about electronica is the many and varied palette you get from it. I like the fact that you can do a really broad range of songs, in terms of where theyre sourced from, and they hold together within electronica that doesnt happen in the same way with the trad, generic band lineup. But what put me off in the nineties was this flux of errrm, record makers, who were brilliant at technology, but didnt have much musical nous. So, consequently, you get these remixes where all the fidelity is going to the beat they want to display and none really to the chord structure or even the tempo of the song in general. So you get these vocals sped up and jammed in there to the point where you think well just take the fucking vocal out, you know? It would sound better as an instrumental. I liked the remixes of the 80s, you know the extended 12 inch versions, where the song was often left more in tact.
Again, to me its like single shmingles, Im not so geared towards the BIG SINGLE.
Have you turned down a lot of remix requests then, over time?
Yeah. I mean, I dont even really know – Im a bit oblivious to whats going on around me sometimes. There have been periods where theres been some really great collaboration ideas and offers that have come my way, and if theyd come to me now, within this head space, Id definitely have taken them on. But at that time, I was reclusive and, you know, not picking up the telephone, so they didnt happen. All Ill say, is that I wish age had come to me sooner, as I was tortured in my younger years.
Ive also heard you talking recently about the state of singing, that its turned into a form of histrionic gymnastics…
Yeah, and mimicry! Theres just templates, theres so many facsimiles going on – where its really hard to define one singer from another. People have said to me, would you consider being a judge on one of these talent shows? and the answer is NO. and NO. Theres this assumption that were all going to moved by this style of singing, people go on like a singer is a sort of second coming and you say, well what? Im so untouched. I recognise the physical endeavor, I know what it takes to produce that sound but it sounds entirely like an academic exercise to me.
X Factor case in point:
You can be so much more moved by Lou Reed on Coney Island Baby singing his three notes, than this picture perfect act of mimicry. Theres no character, no sense of the person at all – its dull and academic.
Coney Island Blues case in point
That point you touch on is apparent in a lot of modern electronic music in general, the lack of colour, of character – a kind of dull homogenization of things – have you actively pushed that away during your career, have people tried to pin you into whatever is modern or now?
Yeah, thats happened a lot. That kind of A&Ring is ridiculous – Where you sit down with people who get music week out and look at the top album and expect you to just emulate that. I think I suffered from that more than many acts. When youre considered to have a good, or classic voice, then no-one wants to really fuck with you. What you get offered, the palette, is so asinine. Its just led by the colour of your voice. At this point of time, as I said before, all people want to see a middle age woman do is covers. Like Etta James At Last, I mean fucking hell, does anyone really want to hear another version of it? If you want to hear it, just listen to the Etta James version. I know that its my fault for confusing people with That Ol Devil, when that song came out I had my first solo album out and was on tour, and at the start of your career you sometimes have to go beyond your recorded catalogue to fill a live set. The album had gone quadruple platinum and they wanted to pull a fourth single off the album, and I said enough – youve rinsed my fans already, they want to hear something different now. So we did That Ol Devil.
That Ole Devil Called Love
Now, at that time there was no Billie Holiday on the radio, it was not in the record shop, it wasnt talked about, it wasnt referenced like it is today. I heard Billie Holiday through getting into blues, people like Billy Boy Arnold and Sonny Boy Williamson – the grittier male blues stuff, but I came across Billie through that. I did it live and it went down well, so we released it as a single.
Sonny Boy Williamson – Your funeral, My Trial
I didnt imagine for a second it would be a safe bet, but when we released it and it sold millions of copies. Consequently, everyone started thinking of me as a fucking jazz singer! And I knew next to nothing about Jazz! So, when I signed to CBS it was unfortunate that I thought I was signing to a label that had some understanding of my musical history – coming up through punk, getting into electronica and that there was always an edge to my thinking. You only have to compare Yazoo to Erasure to hear what I brought to Vinces collaboration. I never had a pop sensibility, I didnt really listen to it. But CBS signed me when I was number one in the charts and I was straight away pushed into this particular arena -whos making what this year?. So when it came to making this record with Guy I was adamant that I didnt want to make pretensions of being connected with whats going on in the music industry, I just wanted to make an album that related to the voice I have now. Im not talking singing voice, I mean the musical voice – that Ive picked up through all my influences, through punk, through prog rock, through everything – but not thinking about what the current crop is doing now. I dont want to pretend Im part of the youth movement, Im not and I have no aspiration to be. I just wanted to make something that was intelligent and melodic, moving and with that beautiful palette that Electronica is able to provide.
With that, were done – Im ushered back out onto the streets of Acton. Alison Moyet in person is great – shes fiercely independent, honest, funny and very intelligent – but shes also complicated – a bit bristly about the 80s, when in truth – itd be disingenuous of me to suggest her best work has happened since then. She does possess a great, distinctive voice and, personally, Id love to see her collaborate with someone like Funkineven – not because hes voguish, but because he creates raw, forward-thinking machine music and that, for me, is the context in which Moyets voice works best of all. Actually, I think Funkineven grew up somewhere round Acton. Maybe it is the modern 1970s Basildon after all.
the minutes is out now on Cooking Vinyl. Buy it here: