Paul Heaton in conversation with Fergal Kinney
SINCE the formation of the Housemartins in the mid-1980’s – fuelled by the dual passions of soul music and left-wing politics – Paul Heaton has spent nearly three decades growing in stature as one of Britain’s
most admired songwriters. The Beautiful South, who split in 2007 citing ‘musical
similarities’, spawned a string of million selling albums over two decades and
some twelve top twenty hits. The vocalist on many of those hits, Jacqui Abbott,
re-united with Paul Heaton on his incredible soul-opera ‘the 8th’ in
2011, and this week Heaton and Abbott release an album together. ‘What Have We
Become’ features some of Paul Heaton’s best songs in over a decade, and Louder
Than War’s Fergal Kinney spoke to Paul Heaton about the new record, the
Beautiful South and the increasingly strange political climate in the UK.
After over ten years of not speaking,
how did you and Jacqui get to first doing the 8th together and then,
more surprisingly, recording an album together?
Well it was actually a mate of mine who said “Do you know Jacqui’s on Facebook, but
under a different name?”, so I contacted that name and said “Is it you?” and
she messaged me back saying “Yes it is”. I genuinely hadn’t spoken to her at
all – I would have spoken to her if I’d seen her but she was in St Helens – so we got in touch and I asked if she wanted
to do a bit of singing on the 8th. It was nice; it was quite moving
speaking to somebody who’s been a big part of your life for a big chunk of your
Listening to the album I’d say Jacqui brings out something quite different in the lyrics than if you were to perform
them, does writing for Jacqui alter the way you write at all? Is there a
difficulty when you’re quite an opinionated songwriter when it comes to putting
your words into someone else’s voice?
Well with my voice, the mixture of my voice and the lyrics, my voice can sound a
bit, not opinionated but, you know, “oh it’s him going on about that again!”.
And I think, you know, there’s only so many times you can say the same things
in the same voice, and that was always one of my big fears anyway, with leaving
the Housemartins I thought “I can’t really go solo because people will just get
sick of my voice”, which was one of the reasons why since I’ve used different
voices. It was nice with the album just being able to say “I don’t think it’s
right me singing this” because it just sounded too familiar to things I’d
already done. So Jacqui took a couple of songs that I didn’t write for her,
‘When I Get Back to Blighty’ hadn’t been written for her, but when I heard her
sing it I knew it sounded much better with her. That was often the case in the
old days, she just gives a song a different meaning.
What is it about Jacqui as a vocalist that made you want to go back to working with her?
She’s got that sort of voice that can sit back in a song, Karen Carpenter had it,
Carole King had it, there are certain vocalists that just draw you into a song.
One of the things I don’t like in modern singers is they go up into the gears
too quickly, you know, it all becomes a performance, I think it really stems
back to the X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and all those shows where you’ve
got a minute to show what you can do. What I like about her voice is that it
can be as quiet as just tootling along on a bicycle on a country lane, but it
can go through the gears and get something else out of a song. She reads a song
really well and gives respect to a song.
The track that I enjoyed the most on the album was ‘I Am Not a Muse’, you seem to be gently prodding a few people there…
that’s Jacqui’s favourite actually…there’s an ambivalent group of rock stars
that you see wandering into venues and hotels – as you said it’s only a gentle
prod in the ribs, they make me laugh, they make me smile, they don’t make me mad.
You know, those people who quote Robert Johnson as being the best blues artist,
they’ve got a list of things you’ve got to listen to, a lot of them seem to
come from Liverpool but I shouldn’t say that…there’s a sort of treadmill, not
as dangerous as the other treadmills, but it’s like they go through something
that zaps them and they come out the other end with a certain hair and a
certain look and certain bands they’ve got to like. It’s not about anyone in
particular, but it’s a lot of people in general. I remember meeting Coldplay
before they were dead big, they came to one of our gigs in America, and one of
them was just dressed like Gram Parsons – there’s a line in that song about
Gram Parson’s soft shoes – I think it was the bassist, and I just said,
assuming he’d know, that he must have been listening to a lot of Gram Parsons
lately, and he was all “How did you know! How did you know!” Bless them. I
suppose it’s my age…
I can see what you’re getting at with it, there’s the line “I didn’t form a band because daddy didn’t understand”…
Yeah, there’s that sort of person who’s just a rebel because they’ve seen a Jim
Morrison poster, you know, I formed a band because I was angry but not at my
dad, I was angry about politics, and there’s a certain kind of leather jacketed
rebel that seems to be in it to rebel against their dad more than anything.
On “One Man’s England” you address a lot of the hypocrisy in how a lot of people deal with immigration in this country,
certainly how politicians do, it’s interesting listening to a song like that at a time when UKIP seem to be dominating the political discussion in this country…
Well people are cowering aren’t they, behind what they think is popular sentiment,
and I think the reason UKIP seemed to have gained a lot of popularity is
because they’re ‘saying it like it is’, but they’re only saying it how it is
for a certain type of person, and I think the appalling feeling we feel on the
left is that if we had a party on the right, like the People’s Assembly, if they
had equal popularity, do you understand what I mean? They’re only saying it
like the Tea Party said it for the right wing in America, and it’s because they’re
saying it and because they’re being honest about it. Whilst we also have the
same problem on the left, we also have a Labour Party who won’t say anything on
the left, they won’t say anything socialist, they won’t re-nationalise the
trains and all these things we want them to. That’s equally frustrating for me.
And you know, people say Nigel Farage, ex-banker and whatever, is socking it to
the man, he is the man, he’s part of the machine, and he’s managed to fool people. On the subject of racism, I don’t
think it’s much of an issue in Manchester, not in my part of Manchester and a lot of parts of Manchester I know, it’s
almost a bit of a country issue.
You speak about frustration, there’s a lot on this album like “One Man’s England”, “What Have We Become” that could be
interpreted as almost state of the nation addresses, what is it you find so frustrating to articulate?
All sorts of things really. (Laughs) everything. I don’t find it too difficult to
articulate but I’m one of these people who sticks the news on and starts
shouting at it. Only in a humorous way, me and my daughter just sat there
saying “You’re lying!”. Everything really, right-wing bias, the Americanisation
of society’; this is the most annoying thing about UKIP, they’re all screaming
about the influence from the East, this ‘devilish’ influence from the East,
whilst the West is taking over our whole country. And that’s the irony of
it. Americanising the country whilst they’re complaining about immigration levels from the East. I could keep going.
It’s something I’ve written a lot about it, and ever since breaking up with the
Beautiful South I find it easier to get on my high horse and rant. And as long
as it comes with a bit of humour, and as long as people know it’s not party
political with me, and I think people do know that.
You mentioned breaking up with the Beautiful South, did you ever feel constrained when in the Beautiful South to talk about politics?
I think you become constrained, and you can become conservative with a small c, I
don’t mean that just lyrically, in everything, musically, on stage…if anybody
has seen me onstage as a solo artist I quite often talk to the audience or make
a joke, but with the Beautiful South I said nothing. There was plenty of
political stuff in the Beautiful South, very political, but I did become conservative
with a small c, just because there were fifteen of us and we carried on writing
songs that we knew would be popular with the people that bought them. And that’s
capitalism isn’t it? That’s me playing capitalism when I shouldn’t. And now I’ll
open my mouth much wider because I just feel, what can I do that’s offensive? It
doesn’t offend anyone, the record company have said nothing about the Phil Collins
Yeah, where the line ‘Phil Collins must die’ could be problematic on a major label…
Yeah I think that. I can’t remember there being any cases in particular but yes, you’re
right. It’s something I drifted into. I don’t think I ever became like that. It’s
the same with everything; drinking, weight, smoking. There’s all sorts of
things you drift into, I wouldn’t say I became conservative but you know, it
was lazy behaviour for the writer, and as a performer, and when everyone was
cheering every single song I just thought there was nothing I could say that
could match that so I’d just get on with the next song.
Speaking about politics, you’ve cancelled a concert because you refused to cross a picket line, you’ve ran your bands as worker’s co-operatives, is it ever a challenge maintaining values like that in an industry notorious for being a vacuum of values?
Well it can be a challenge but it can also making things a bit easier. I’ve managed
to run bands as a co-operative because I haven’t had a heavy corporation
breathing down my neck; in one way it’s a lot easier. It’s about being small
enough to run like that too, we didn’t even have management in the Housemartins
and we employed two other people, but they weren’t management…so in that way it
was easier. But yeah, in early days there was arguing, but what people don’t
understand is that I put my part of the songwriting, which 99% of the time was
me, and I would put those out and share the money. Then you find out that
people in the band are buying property with it. People getting rich on
something I don’t agree with. I live in a terraced house, I don’t have a house
abroad, I’m not materialistic. To see my money get taken
from the co-operative to make other people rich, particularly one member who
was the landlord of around ten houses, that was incredibly difficult. I was leading
people but I wasn’t able to give them an education about politics, you know. It
felt bad, you know, but thankfully I carried on my principles and didn’t alter
On the title track “What Have We Become” you speak about obesity, would you link that with the influence from the West nthat you were talking about?
Yeah, it’s like the twenty second generation, with films and books, I notice with films
my daughter watches, they can’t have a film that doesn’t have an action change
every twenty seconds and I’m sure it’s the same with the books, obviously I don’t
read those. I think all sorts of things, I don’t know, I like to bitch about
the little things that annoy me like people running around carrying cups of
coffee everywhere and the Americanisation’s of the things we say that annoy me,
but on a serious note I suppose that it’s that business – big or small – is in
every decision you have to make now. You can’t walk through the door without
capitalism clogging up your letterbox. You can’t go to the shop. You can’t go
to the bank. They’re trying to sell you everything, and they encourage you to
be competitive. I still keep my gas to the one that was nationalised, I just
don’t want to get into that shopping around, I should do but that you’ve got to
be capitalistic and competitive about everything down to your mobile phone
having to be the latest, we have just become so forcefully engrossed in having
to make these decisions. It’s a real shame. Particularly when you see your
daughters being sold to.
In terms of both pop culture and parliamentary representation there’s been a huge demise in left-wing voices
between the time you were in the Housemartins – when there were popular
left-wing artists like the Style Council, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg – and now…
No, it doesn’t exist because the Labour party moved so far to the right and
unfortunately I think pop music only ever apes what they think is the most
left-wing thing they can get away with. It’s that vacuous. They will only
position themselves broadly to the left of the Labour party, and a lot of the
papers like New Statesman have moved to shadow it. So unless the Labour party
is moved to the left – and I only think the People’s Assembly or something like
that could do that – could do that. Pop culture figures will only ever be just
slightly to the left of that.
All words by Fergal Kinney.
‘What Have We Become’ by Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, is out now.
Paul Heaton is on facebook