Videos & Gallery: Alison Moyet - more mellow these days
With more than 25 million records sold and a clutch of Brit Awards in her pocket, Alison Moyet's got much to be happy about as she celebrates her silver anniversary as a solo performer.
With more than 25 million records sold and a clutch of Brit Awards in her pocket, Alison Moyet's got much to be happy about as she celebrates her silver anniversary as a solo performer. Steven Russell finds the edginess of the 1980s has faded and the Ipswich-bound singer is more chilled these days. Additional reporting by Polly Weeks
THERE was a time in the 1980s when, despite being worshipped as the Queen of electro-pop and a sorceress with a powerful bluesy voice, Alison Moyet was a bit . . . well . . . spiky. Twenty-five years on, things have certainly changed. Blimey, she's just sung live on Woman's Hour, on BBC Radio 4. The publicists have also secured appearances on Paul O'Grady's programme and The Alan Titchmarsh Show to bang the drum about her new “best of” albums and 26-date tour that kicks off at the Ipswich Regent. All this, plus a round or two of media interviews like this one . . . Sounds like she's more comfortable nowadays with the PR circus.
“I am, yeah. When you're younger, you always suspected larceny! Now you're in a place where you realise why you're doing this stuff. We're just all doing a job together, and you can either make it difficult or just get on with it, you know.”
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Britain's biggest-selling female solo star - between 1984 and 1987 - did detest the hoo-hah all those years ago, though. “But I hated it because I was defensive, I think, and always wondering what the angle was.”
Mind you, she was very young when fame arrived unexpectedly, like a battering-ram. Sorry, that sounds condescending . . .
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“No, no, but it's true. I was young, and it's a shocking world to move into. I was always a bit of a black sheep and was left to my own devices, and suddenly having somebody interested in you . . . god,” she half-laughs.
Here, for anyone who missed the poptastic eighties, is the story.
Born in the summer of 1961, Genevieve Alison Jane Moyet was the daughter of a French printer (a patriarch who spoke poor English) and his English wife (who taught French), and grew up in Basildon.
“I was playing in a couple of bands, but never imagined I'd be doing that full-time. It was always going to be a semi-professional thing as far as I was concerned.”
She knew Vince Clarke “because I was in a class with a couple of the Depeche Mode boys at college. Vince's best mate was a guitar player in my punk band, and when Vince left Depeche and was looking for a singer, I came to mind because I was a little face on the local scene.
“He called me up and asked me to demo Only You with him, and then he said 'The record company have heard it and want you to stay on the record.' The label were really happy and said we should do an album together.
“Within a couple of months I went from having been at college studying restoration to having a single out, made an album and suddenly we were massive pop stars.”
Oh yes; it all went ballistic in 1981 and 1982.
Alison and Vince, as the synth-pop duo Yazoo, got to number-two in the charts with the ballad Only You, while Don't Go peaked at three. And then, like a Roman candle, it was over almost before it had begun, with a parting of the ways after two albums. Was she expecting Yazoo to break up?
“No, but then I wasn't expecting it to go into formation. We were only working together for 18 months. At the time we never even had time to go for a drink together. We never became mates, so there was no bond there and it finished as quickly as it began.”
A solo career, begun in 1984, proved even more triumphal, however.
Debut offering Alf (her nickname from punk days) topped the album charts and produced three hit singles, including All Cried Out, which got to number eight.
The following year, That Ole Devil Called Love reached second spot in the singles chart, and in 1986 Is This Love? got to number three. Weak in the Presence of Beauty was number six in 1987. Along the way, Alison had son Joe and combined single-parenthood with the life of a somewhat reluctant pop star, rarely socialising with anyone in the industry.
Fame had been like the birth of the universe: a big bang from a standing start, with no warning.
“Absolutely. I'd never even had ambitions to have a solo career. It was all unexpected and all of my achievements outdid my ambition, which is really strange.”
Unexpected fame . . . being a mum . . . the mixture of her parents' backgrounds . . . It must have been hard to know who she really was and where her true roots lay.
“Do you know, I always thought that. When I was young - not as an adult - culturally I always felt a foreigner here, and yet when we were in France we were always 'The English'. You felt kind of homeless in both places.
“I loved growing up in Basildon . . . yet at the same time my character never quite fitted in. There was always too much aggression coming from me.”
A defensive shield to protect a vulnerable core?
“I think it's that, and then it's also about how you learn to communicate. You learn that in your family, and I come from a very combustible family. It was loving and it was loyal, but you did what you were told to do the minute you were told to do it - at volume.”
Has that upbringing moulded her as a mum? (Apart from Joe, 24, who recently graduated from Cambridge), there's 21-year-old daughter Alex (at Cambridge herself) and Caitlin. 13.)
“Yeah, I think it does. I think that when I was younger I was certainly very quick to ignite and it was something I always found unpleasant as a kid, and has been one of the biggest things I've worked on.” Is the trick counting to 10? “It's either 'count to 10' or just recognise the unreasonableness of it, and how it just creates an atmosphere that no-one wants to live in - including yourself.”
A bit of a stand-off with her record company stopped the flow of releases. A switch to another company led to her first studio album in eight years, Hometime making her one of the top five best-selling female UK artists in 2002 and bringing a Brit Award nomination for best female vocal.
Here's another condescending query. The singer's recently talked about issues from the past such as agoraphobia and depression, which seems brave considering her appreciation of privacy. She's also had to field continued questions about weight, including recent weight loss. Twenty-five years ago, dealing with such prying would have been hard, wouldn't it?
“When it comes to weight, I feel no shame about my various forms, but I have got to a point in my life where I think 'Do you know what? I'm a middle-aged woman now - I'm 48 - and since I was eight years old I've had people commenting on my body. Enough!' Which doesn't mean to say I'm rebuffing the question - I'm happy to have the question asked of me - but my answer now would be that the only person with any business about the shape of my body is the person I'm sleeping with! As I'm not looking for new contenders, it shouldn't matter to anyone!”
A powerful motivation has been the fear of becoming an obese old person, having to be looked after by someone else. Loss of independence is a scary prospect.
“That is precisely it. I'm of an average weight now, which is something I've never been in . . . well . . . since I was an adolescent. However, my psychology is always that of a fat person; I don't ever want the weight that I've lost or the weight I've gained to be something to hit somebody else over the head with when I know what it's like to be in that state.
“I've been really lucky with my physical health. Probably because I've always been big, I've got the physical infrastructure to support that. I've always been much fitter than many of my girlfriends who were deemed to be in the ideal bracket. But, I was aware that as I was getting older, and your metabolic rate changes, weight goes on and on. It seems you can eat smaller amounts and put on weight (more) than you could when you were younger. The idea of being incapacitated and in the hands of some patronising 'thin' was just too awful. Just couldn't cope with it.”
Wild horses won't drag from her the secret of shedding the kilos, however.
“Let them (sections of the media) speculate what I did - just like they did when they said I ate all the pies. My career has not been about my body, and I don't intend it to be about my body. I'm no cleverer than I was; I'm no more talented than I was; and I want more than anything for it to be inconsequential. Like I say, I'm middle-aged; it shouldn't matter. I'm not about to do a fitness DVD or diet pages!”
I guess everyone wants to know your secrets so they can use them themselves . . .
“Yeah, but don't! Me knowing other people's secrets never worked for me. What difference does it make? I'm not someone's role model; I'm just someone that has muddled along like everyone else does. I'm bored with it! Forty years of it . . . find your own secret!”
The Revisited tour, marking the singer's silver anniversary as a solo performer, is complemented by two albums - a 20-track The Best Of: 25 Years Revisited CD and an 11-song version featuring new interpretations of Alison's favourite songs recorded with her band.
Compared to electronica and the thick '80s sounds, the pared-down approach of the second collection leaves more elbow room for music and lyrics. There's more texture; and the pauses are like punctuation.
“That's exactly what I like about a live band. I like there to be space in the sound; I don't want to be inundated with dense noise. It enables you to strip something back to the song. It's quite interesting when you do that; sometimes you find your strongest songs are your weakest and your weakest songs are your strongest. When you don't have the bells and the shimmer to gloss everything up, or put fairy dust on stuff, you actually find out what is a decent melody and what is a decent lyric.”
At the moment she's embarking on writing, though admits it's not her favourite part of the job.
“As you get older, you lose the early quick-referencing you're not even aware of (when young) - because you're constantly listening to music and you're happy to use a language that is na�ve and just fits into a groove. When you get older, the language becomes much more important. Finding some depth to what you write becomes much more important. I find it difficult just using words that scan - because it always has to ring true to me.”
That's why she now fights shy of singing Invisible, the song written for her in the 1980s by Motown legend Lamont Dozier.
“Because - going back to that thing we were talking about earlier, about language - the lyric is very American, and as I've got older I've become more entrenched in my European identity and as such find singing about 'dimes', and stuff like that, slightly ridiculous.
“In the same way, I endeavour not to sing with an American accent in the way you do, more, when you're young - not because of an anti-American feeling, just because it's silly. It's posturing.
“And the other reason is because the lyric is for me so submissive that as a grown woman, as a feminist, I can't countenance that any more. When I was younger and influenced by Janis Joplin and a lot of the blues singers that were all about 'my man done me wrong', there was a romanticism to that. As I've got older, I just find it slightly irritating.”
Of the mid-1980s, Alison has said “it was amusing to be a pop bitch”. She's also described herself variously as an oddball, fiery and argumentative, and gauche. How about today?
“I wouldn't have a soundbite! I'm in a pretty good place now. I like who I am. I think I've got a lot of compassion, and I'm reasonable and I'm loving. That's where I got in the end, and I got there through a lot of reflection.”
Alison Moyet is at Ipswich Regent on Wednesday, November 11. Box office: 01473 433100
Sang at the Live Aid concert in 1985
Was married to hairdresser Malcolm Lee and had a relationship with tour manager Kim McCarthy
Has now been married to David Ballard for well over a decade
He has a background in teaching and social work
David is credited with curing Alison's agoraphobia by taking her to football matches at Southend!
The singer lives in Hertfordshire
Made stage debut in the West End production of Chicago in 2001, playing Matron “Mama” Morton
The singer reunited with Yazoo colleague Vince Clarke last year for a series of live dates