Interview with Alison Moyet
If the Eighties were a decade where gender expectations were turned on their head, two female artists stood out as the true deconstructionists of the masculine/feminine divide – Annie Lennox with her short-cropped hair and pencil suits, and Alison Moyet with her who-gives-a-shit-about-fashion sensibility and a bluesy contralto voice that often saw people mistake what they heard on the radio for a male singer. Heck, Moyet even went so far as to call her debut album ‘Alf’.
This unique, outstanding voice has helped Moyet land a certified 2.3 million sales in albums in the UK alone, with all seven of her first LPs charting in the UK Top 30 – two of them reaching number one.
Her latest album the minutes is themed – if picking a theme is a necessary – around the notion that our lives, as insignificant as they might seem, are indeed full of minutes of plenty of fabulous experiences and emotions that we oughtn’t take for granted: be these minutes of joy or disappointment; feelings of elation; even feeling down. It’s as though Moyet wants to remind us that the lows make the rare highs feel even higher.
Here she chats to Cream about the highs and lows of her own brilliant career, the pros and cons of digital media, what the shift was like going from punk in the Seventies to pop in the Eighties, and just how she herself thinks she sounds “like a bloke”.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
What I’ve so far heard of your new album sounds great. I’d like to say ‘back to form’ but you’ve always been there. Just a little quiet between albums.
Yeah, in thirty years there’s going to be times when you come to prominence and other times when you slip under the net, and I’m pretty cool about that.
When I Was Your Girl is an interesting choice as first single from the new album. What made you go with that track?
At my age I’m not at all interested in singles. I like the body of work [of the album] in its entirety so in terms of choosing the first single, somebody else can do that; I don’t give a shit. That sounded aggressive, didn’t it? I didn’t mean it like that. What I mean by that is that I’m quite aware the record company are thinking of what track on the album is most likely to get radio play. But from my perspective, singles don’t have a real significance because I like to listen to bodies of work rather than key tracks.
With the erratic nature of the internet, do you find entire albums are often overlooked whereas once upon a time a whole album was listened to and appreciated?
Yes, it certainly seems that way with technology. It’s like people are used to the short story now, rather than the novel. I myself will still listen to an album. I’m at that stage in the game now where I’m not making records thinking about what somebody else is looking for. It’s very much an artistic intent, and you can’t affect how anyone can receive that.
There are certainly many pros with digital media. To start with you can get feedback from fans even through something as simple as a thread of comments on Youtube. Very different to the days feedback would be filtered by a PR manager.
Absolutely. And the internet gives you a voice. You’re able to put yourself out there in your own language. Some of it is a bit odd. The whole idea of giving a track away for free – for someone of my generation that seems like a strange thing to do – but at the same time what’s great about it is that you can be in control of getting music out there, rather than rely on what the record company’s marketing budget is going to be.
Can we go back to the beginning? You were born the child of a French father and an English mother. Would you say your Dad instilled a certain Euro-sensibility into your upbringing?
Definitely. I felt foreign growing up. It was a town that didn’t have a great deal of diversity. There was a typical type of English family at the time. Everything that we did – right down to the fact that my Dad’s family were very much a peasant family. We’d work the land, so we were very hearty kids in a place where there was still some female gentleness around me. The other thing I could see – and I could see it in my voice – is that there was far more aggression; more verbal aggression and arguments. There was more passion evident in my family, and consequently I had no inhibition about being, well, being raw.
Did you like that the Eighties were a very flamboyant period for pop music? Did you feel there was a lot more scope then for women to be a lot ballsier?
It was a great space for freaks, certainly. We were the generation that started to benefit from the women’s movement. There was that first sense that women didn’t just have to be objects of seduction. Before that there was a gentleness that was expected of women. But in the Eighties you started to see the more angular kind of women; do you know what I’m saying?
Again, it was a better place for freaks, so consequently I fit in well with that decade. At the same time I was quite a dark character at that age. I didn’t set out to be a pop singer; in fact I was quite a dark, unsociable character. So I wouldn’t say the Eighties were a decade of absolute joy for me; rather, it was a difficult time of transition.
Indeed you started out in a punk rock band in the late Seventies.
Yes, and it was a prime time for me to realise that I was always going to be different. Not only did I not fit, but I didn’t really want to fit in. And that was great with the whole punk thing coming up. It was a place where I could express my aggression without it needing to be explained in quite the same way as it needed to be before.
During your punk phase, did things get messy on stage?
Yeah. It was about factions very much then in the Seventies. You had your punks, you had your skinheads, you had your Teddies. And everybody was kicking somebody else’s teeth in. Yeah, it was a rough time but we were streetwise and we knew how to circumnavigate that. So you came away intact most of the time.
What about fashion from then, and into the Eighties?
I was a bigger women then, and as a bigger woman you’re clothes choices had a lot more to do with what fit you then with what expressed your personality. So I don’t think anyone quite understood what sort of character I was with the way I dressed. But then[with the pop career taking of] I was shocked by the amount of attention I got. I was this black sheep in town and to suddenly get that much attention, you again go through this whole period to just wanting to minimalise how remarkable you were. And of course when I say remarkable, I don’t mean fantastic, I mean it in the true sense of the word – someone always had something to say about me. There was a time when I tried to make myself invisible – bizarrely within that – and it was just never going to happen.
Did you find song-writing, or even singing particular covers, helped you and others make sense of that dissonance?
Yeah, to a certain degree. A problem that I found was when I did the cover of That Ol’ Devil Called Love. My first album in England had gone quadruple platinum and the record company wanted another single. I was thinking, my fans have already bought the stuff [ie: the whole album] so why sell them the same thing in another format? If you wanna bring out another single, let’s just [throw] a complete curveball. But you’ve got to put in context of the time. There was none of that music in the shops or on the radio back then. It was a real left-field move. When it came out and I sold millions copies of it, then you had record companies going, ‘Oh my god, there’s a real market for this genre of music’. So then the true greats – the real deals – the Billie Holidays – all that stuff started being put back on the market and advertised. Consequently, it looked like me doing That Ol’ Devil Called Love was a safe move – like I was doing something to fit in with the commercial marketplace – but when I did that, there was no commercial marketplace for it. And then I was kind of thought of as a gentle jazz singer – which I never was. I knew nothing about jazz at all.
When you’re singing standards like that, is tongue firmly planted in cheek?
I don’t think so; there’s no irony with it.
You certainly injected some humour into some of your videos for songs that first appeared to be ‘love’ songs; like the ones co-starring comedienne Dawn French…
Possibly some of the video treatments that someone else has done has made it look that way. But that’s just because I’ve not shown enough interest in [the video making]. I have a real problem staying focused. I’ve got a bit of ADHD in me and if things [like video] don’t interest me I don’t give a shit, and that’s not always a good place to come from.
Why did you choose the title the minutes for your new album?
What happened was I’d had a very big weekend in Amsterdam and I’d gone in to see a film on a rainy afternoon to try to while away the hours. It was a Brad Pitt film and I thought I was looking for a bit of fippery. The film was Tree Of Life, you know – this really slow, ponderous art-house film which no-one was expecting. And people were getting up in droves and walking out. And in the last five minutes of the film there was this really redemptive moment that if they had stuck around long enough for, they would have felt it was worth watching. It made me think about how often we jump too soon; how often we leave; how often we’re disappointed we feel we’ve been cheated or that we’ve missed out. That we’ve made the wrong choices when everyone else is getting it right. When you get to a certain stage in life, you realise that those glorious times happen in minutes, and those minutes are strung in pedestrian years. You are not always in love; you’re not always safe; you’re not always rejoicing. Those times are sporadic, but just because they are that, they’re no less valuable. And for me in this long career, where you come to prominence, where you are dismissed – all of this stuff that happens – you have minutes, you know? Minutes of joy, minutes of imperfection. For me, the making of this album when no-one was interested in a middle-age woman writing her own original music – these are some of my minutes.
It’s kind of a Zen approach of looking at life, really.
Yeah, I mean some of the songs are about the joy of being insignificant. When you actually realise quite how insignificant you are and quite how dead you’re going to be it’s quite comforting.
I interviewed trip-hop artist Tricky recently and realised you provided vocals on the song Make A Change for him.
It was weird, that. I got a phone call saying Tricky was in the studio around the corner and did I want to go around and see him. So I did, and we didn’t even really talk. He just played a couple of tracks and said, ‘Do you like any of those’. And I picked one, he turned the microphone and said, ‘Go and do something’. So I just sang the first thing that came into my head – twice. I thought he’ll probably just use these as samples, but he put down the full jam. In one sense I celebrate that, because I love the whole kind of just doing things for the sake of doing it. I don’t think it’s the greatest track in the world, but I love where it came from.
You spoke of gender deconstruction to a degree a little while ago. I think it’s trippy how on that Tricky song, your voices are on very similar registers.
It’s a funny thing – my keys are very male. I can sing more to men’s songs than I can to women’s songs. I’ve kind of wondered how my voice has become so low. Even in speaking, like, you can hear me now and it’s fairly monotone. I’ll pick up the telephone and people will call me ‘Sir’. I think it goes back to when I learnt how to drop my voice in speaking. Because when you speak high, you cause more vibration on the vocal chords and can cause more damage. It was about preserving the voice, and I’ve learnt how to drop it to take it out of an abrasive area. So now I just sound like a bloke.
the minutes is out now in good record stores and also available through iTunes.
Alison Moyet hopes to tour Australia soon.