Paul Heaton - ‘My audience is used to me being a grumbleweed’

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott.

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott.

AFTER 19 highly successful years, The Beautiful South called it a day in 2007 humorously citing “musical similarities” as the reason for the split. It marked the close of the second chapter of band leader Paul Heaton’s career - his first having been as leader/singer of The Housemartins - opening the way for his ‘third act’, that of solo artist.

Yet, in spite of excellence of solo albums like The Cross Eyed Rambler (2008 ) and Acid Country (2010 ), neither did particularly well, despite the fact Heaton could still command audiences when touring Britain and Ireland. His fortunes were to improve however when, in 2011, Heaton’s musical The 8th, based on the seven deadly sins, was staged as part of the Manchester International Festival. Not only was it a success, it also marked the return of Beautiful South vocalist Jacqui Abbot to the stage, giving Heaton’s manager an idea.

Singing with Jacqui Abbott

“I’d done a couple of, and to be blunt about it, unsuccessful solo albums,” Heaton tells me during our Wednesday morning conversation. “I enjoyed doing them, and thought they were alright, but my manager said ‘Why don’t you write a song for Jacqui or do an album with Jacqui? That would get you signed up to a record deal and give a push on the album’. I approached Jacqui and she said ‘Yes’.”

Heaton was already working on his fourth solo album, but with Jacqui now on board, “I wrote some more songs with suitable lyrics for her to sing”. The result was What Have We Become? (credited to Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott ), released on Virgin EMI in May, and winning critical acclaim and soaring to No 3 in the British charts. As his manager had predicted, Heaton was back with a bang.

Although The Beautiful South had three female lead vocalists throughout their career - Briana Corrigan, Jacqui Abbott, and Alison Wheeler - Abbot, alongside Heaton, is for many, the definitive voice of the band, a status she copperfastened on hit singles ‘Rotterdam’, ‘Don’t Marry Her’ , and ‘Perfect 10’. Heaton regards her as the best interpreter of his work.

“Her voice, her diction, and her translation of my songs, straight away she seems to get it,” Heaton says. “With all due respect to Briana, she translated my songs really, really well, but outside of mid-range they were not for her. Alison was a better impersonator of the other two, but didn’t have her own style. Jacqui is more of a chameleon, she can do a range of styles, and gets to the heart of the song quicker, more than any other singer I have worked with.

“With Jacqui’s voice, you hear the song first and then you hear the lyrics. When I sing, you hear my voice first and then the song. Jacqui’s voice is more suited to radio, to people listening at home. In England, and I’m sure it’s the same in Ireland, people don’t want to go for something too close to the edge. They want a song, they don’t want to be canvassed or have someone pressing an agenda. That gives me a two pronged attack. Jacqui’s song can be on the A-side, while I’m on the B-side with my B-side voice,” he continues, before humorously adding, “It’s not as severe as The Sugarcubes where everyone wants to see Björk and nobody paid attention to the other vocalist, Einar Örn Benediktsson. We’re a scaled down version of that.”

Pop and politics

Heaton is arguably one of the finest British songwriters of the last 35 years, as testified by such woks as ‘Happy Hour’ (The Housemartins ); ‘A Little Time’, ‘Old Red Eyes Is Back’, ‘Rotterdam’, ‘Don’t Marry Her’ (The Beautiful South ), and ‘DIY’, ‘What Have We Become’, and ‘One Man’s England’ from the new album. There is a narrative quality to his songs – a story to be told – done with wit, insight, and a storytellers eye for detail and place. Not surprisingly, for Heaton, the lyrics come first when writing a song.

“Yes they do. In fact I can’t do it the other way around,” he admits. “I write ideas on pieces of paper and on my phone, then I put them all into a book and expand the idea into a song. Songs like ‘DIY’ and ‘What Have We Become’, I had the whole thing in my head, and I’d sing it to the rest of the band. They have to find the chords to fit what is sung.”

Heaton has never hidden his socialist leanings either, in his approach to life or in his music, and his Marxist point of view is detectable on the aforementioned ‘One Man’s England’.

“I am of the broad far Left,” he declares. “It’s a view that has never really flagged. It makes songwriting easier for, being of the Left, but not of any political party, I can just mouth whatever is on my mind. I don’t have to worry about a constituency or a party hierarchy. My audience is used to me being a grumbleweed.”

Fellow socialist songwriter Billy Bragg, once said: “Music can’t change the world, but it can change your view of the world”. It is something Heaton has direct experience of.

“I’d agree with that,” he says. “I think music makes a difference. I’ve had some really heart-warming letters from fans, one recently was from a man who said listening to my songs led him to join a union, he’d never joined a union before in 25 years of working and now he was a union rep, so music can influence people.”

Some fans though, beg to differ. “I used to get a lot of letters that were anti-political and saying I shouldn’t write political songs,” Heaton says. “I keep them all. Some are quite angry, saying I shouldn’t use pop as a stage for politics, but variety is the spice of life.”

Heaton’s own journey to politics and music came through one source - punk.

“I turned 15 at the beginning of 1977. It was a good time,” he says. “My brother got into punk  and I shared a room with him. In June 1977 I saw The Jam. They were so young and full of energy. I went to see The Clash when I was 16 but it sounded too political, like they were ramming it down my throat. I didn’t understand what The Clash’s lyrics were about. Then I heard Stiff Little Fingers, and the Sex Pistols, to a degree, although they seemed to be just against everything. Eventually all that political music started seeping into my consciousness, so it’s no surprise, four or five years down the line, I started writing songs that were politically influenced.”

The 1984 miner’s strike was a seminal moment in modern British history, forcing people to choose sides. That also left its mark. “It inspired me to get up and do things for myself and it gave me drive,” he says.

Even office politics went into the mix. “I went from school into an office job, but that was quite an inspiration as office politics inspired songs like ‘Happy Hour’,” he says. “The Housemartins was me going towards a sound that was like The Buzzcocks with Stan Collimore pulling in a more folk direction, as he was really into John Martyn.”

The Galway connection

Aside from music and politics, football is Heaton’s other great passion, and he was interested to hear about Galway United, the demise of the club, and how the city now has a football team again, Galway FC, thanks to the work and passion of local fans.

“I’d like to catch a game at Galway FC’s ground,” he says. “I remember Dave Rotheray of The Beautiful South used to have a Galway United jersey.”

Indeed Heaton is no stranger to Galway, having played here numerous times over the years. He also went on a cycling tour of the county in 2012. “I’ve had a lot of walks around the city,” he says. “I’m always surprised how musical it is. Every bar you go into there is music, like the Róisín Dubh. In 2012 I did a cycling tour and bypassed Galway to get to Kinvara. I went into a pub there, Tully’s, and there was a music session going on.”

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott play a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert at the Seapoint Ballroom, Salthill on Thursday October 30 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh. Check out our playlist of Paul Heaton’s best songs on www.advertiser.ie/galway/entertainment/playlist

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