By MIKE CHAIKEN
When the duo Yaz released its first album, 1982’s “Upstairs at Eric,” the sound of singer Alison Moyet’s voice was a revelation.
The album was firmly entrenched in the synth pop sound that was popular at the time thanks to Human League, Soft Cell, and the Thompson Twins.
But, Alison’s voice was more soulful than quirky. And that sound helped elevate Yaz above the rest of the new wave pack.
Eventually, she and synth player Vince Clark parted ways. And Alison went solo with “Alf,” which solidified her popularity in the states and turned her into a superstar in her homeland of the U.K. From there, it was a long road of solo albums, which according to Moyet’s website, left the singer less than satisfied.
Thirty years after she entered the public eye, and a bit of a musical hiatus, Alison released “The Minutes” this year. And the album soared to the top 5 on BBC. The album has now been released in the U.S.
The Observer caught up with Alison via email from the U.K. to talk about her latest effort and her previous work.
Observer: In the U.K., ‘The Minutes” went top 5 in the U.K. How does it feel to still have that kind of support from fans?
Alison: It was a brilliant thing without doubt. I don’t want to be disingenuous and say I am surprised people like it, because I do – very much, I feel it to be my most cohesive work to date, but I am surprised they got to hear it. It can’t be forgotten that it is a very large playing field and marginal artists of my generation are not sought out as often for their newer original works. I did not expect to be. All I knew is that I wanted to make an electronic, creative album of original work and beyond that and my own will to support it, the rest is out of my control. Sometimes, everything falls in the right place at the right time and that was the case here, for which I am delighted.
O: When you listened to the finished product from beginning to end, do you remember what your thoughts were about what you had just accomplished?
A: I remember thinking that I found no complaint. This is a record that interested me beyond the making of it and that is rare. I like un-peeling the layers and listening to it from different perspectives. Sometimes lyrically and at others being thrilled by a detail in the arrangement that Guy (producer Guy Sigsworth) has created. I was pleased that it worked on every level for me, that I didn’t have to isolate one part to be comfortable.
O: You’ve had success over the years. And looking at your website as you review your own work, you felt sometimes as if you were lost in the final product. How does “The Minutes” reflect Alison Moyet’s true sense of self?
A: I think perhaps they all reflected me, even when that was in the flaws and the disinterest, the frustration, the dislocation. In this case, perhaps, it does in that I am no longer torn. I don’t feel I should fit in. I am comfortable in my middle age, recognising that it does not mean what you imagine it does in your youth. It is neither a safe nor an asinine place but rather less needy. I feel less driven to belong. I am more settled in the language I use. I am pleased with what I have written and imagine that feeling will last.
O: For “The Minutes,” you worked with producer Guy Sigsworth, what was it about his approach to the record that said to you, he is someone you wanted to work with?
A: Before we even started I think I knew. At the outset… I told him I wanted to make an intelligent album with an electronic palette aimed at no one in particular beyond myself.
He was happy to approach it from a creative place and we did not cite records at one another nor did he ask for a template. He was happy for us to do our own thing and bring that together. I didn’t want to direct him and I didn’t want to be directed. I like to do my bit alone… This all worked for us both because we delighted in what the other brought to the table. I told him about what I had written and what it meant to me and he painted me the landscape that best illustrated that. He is brilliant in that not only is he an inventor but his musicianship is exquisite. I had been wanting to work with someone with those skill sets for a long time. Someone that is not merely driven by ever wanting to elevate his own star or being lead by commercial status, which is obviously an obstacle when working with someone like me in the later stages of their careers.
O: Your voice is noted for its very earthy, bluesy tone. But as early back as your days with Yaz, some of your earlier solo material, to “The Minutes,” you sometimes have contrasted that sound with electronic production. As an artist, and a fan, what do you like about the contrast between the two sounds of natural vs. manmade?
A: I like the air that electronica produces. The space. I have quite a woody voice and the harmonics can be absorbed by other organic sounds. I like that an organic band can adjust itself to my live idiosyncrasies but sonically I prefer the contrast that is had between me and electronica. I like the breath of color you can achieve.
O: You’ve been singing since the 1980s. A lot of your peers in those days have moved on to other things. Why does music and singing still fuel your passions? What do you think your life would be like if you couldn’t sing any more?
A: There have been many times I have hoped my voice would fail me because I felt trapped by the cycle of a recording artist’s career, and yet I have no other skill sets. I left school without passing my high school examinations and have no work experience to speak of. I was both fortunate and handicapped by my early successes. Lucky that the income it raised allowed me the space to say “no” and hindered by being defined by the early choices of my youth, before I knew who I was. That has been a more significant factor to me in the UK where my career was much more successful than in the states, and where I was deemed to be a mainstream act, when the mainstream has never been a place of great interest to me. If I could no longer sing, I believe I would make things. I am driven by a desire to understand myself better, what I am able do. It is not enough for me to rest on my laurels. I would rather fail than to be endlessly repetitive.
O: You had your flirtations with major labels when you were younger. And clearly from your website, it wasn’t the best of times for you. Now you’re on Cooking Vinyl (and Metropolis records). Why is that an advantage for you now?
A: It is not really fair of me to lay my gripes solely at their door. It is the job of major labels to make money and I did make a lot for us all and that was all well and good until I didn’t. As far as they were concerned it was I that changed the goal posts. They believed in me as a particular kind of act and my ability to continuously sell records, but did not comprehend that that was never my main objective. I am a good musician but a poor celebrity. I didn’t care for that life. I certainly wasn’t driven by fame. They didn’t believe me when I told them that I couldn’t be the kind of act they wanted and would neither release me from my contract, nor allow me to make the kind of record I wanted. That was a hard time. Being prevented from working. My only sadness aimed at them is that they didn’t say “Thanks , we think you’re going to fall on your arse but good luck to you, you did well for us” and allow us to part ways sooner. Beyond that, I worked with many good and decent people at my days with Sony.
The difference with Cooking Vinyl and Metropolis is that when they signed me, they were very clear on who I was. There is no confusion. I came to them with a project complete and they signed me on the basis of that, rather than from any misconception. They loved my album. They also have in me an artist who knows what they are, where they’re at and is entirely grateful for the opportunity to work progressively. We are all grown ups pulling together with the same goals and there is mutual kindness and respect. It feels even handed. We each have a creative outlook.
I take nothing for granted and enjoy every brilliant thing that comes my way without a sense of entitlement.
By MIKE CHAIKEN