The girl can't help it
Good news from Texas. Lead singer Sharleen Spiteri has stopped pretending to be one of the boys. 'I love being sexy, of course I do,' she declares. No kidding, says Max Bell.
Sharleen Spiteri was free-climbing in the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye a year ago, when she made two uncharacteristic blunders. Firstly, she fell behind her companions. Secondly, she made a near fatal error of judgement. “I was a bit slow getting to the ledge, and because I'm quite small, my body-weight swung me around…I was hanging in midair. If I'd gone then, I would have been dead. The others had to come back to get me. I couldn't walk. My legs had buckled and turned to jelly. It was the weirdest feeling I've ever had.”
Shaken but undeterred, Sharleen was back on the mountain the following day – because she adores the feeling of reaching the top and surveying the landscape: “I love the challenge. I love that 'oh shit' sensation you get when you're water-skiing or snowboarding. Give me a dare and I'll take it, no sweat. No problem. If I'm available.”
Sharleen recalls her real life drama over reviving beakers of lemonade in The Dome café in north London's Islington. She's been up all night toasting the election result with friends at her nearby flat, and celebrating the painless labour of a platinum-selling LP, White on Blonde (Phonogram) for her band, Texas.
“I am very happy today,” she beams, interrupting her machine-gun patter to stuff a wad of napkins under the rickety table. “But when it comes to my own success, am I fashionable now? It's ironic. Everyone knows we couldn't get arrested here after our first album. Suddenly, in 12 weeks, 300,000 people have bought our record.”
But the question is, what kind of people ? The answer is provided a week later when Texas fill the Royal Albert Hall with far more torch and twang. These are everyday people without preconceptions: blokes, tourists, couples, gays, dykes, heteros. Nearly all of them are twentysomethings in smart clothes, united by a shared interest in this 29-year-old woman dressed in baggy pants and a Chinese Prada jacket (to match the paper lanterns and Chinese scripted fabrics that are Texas' stage set). The love her and she loves them back. When a heckler harasses Sharleen with a fatuous comment about her birthplace and gender she cuts him down. “That's all I need – another man in my life with a loud voice.” Everyone cheers, and lots of them buy sweatshirts on the way out.
So how did this happen ? How did one of the numerous Scottish bands that time forgot to make such a big comeback ? The standard line is that Texas were remodelled by shadowy style gurus (because Shar's boyfriend is a fashion journalist), given a crash course in easy listening hip-hop, and told to lose the bluesy slide guitar fixation they'd appropriated from Ry Cooder's score for Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas – the film that inspired their name as well as their sound.
Cynics say there were other things: Juergen Teller's stark, lift-lit cover art for White on Blonde, and a career-changing single in the shape of “Say What You Want” (itself a homage to, and virtual three minute rewrite of, one of Al Green's greatest hits). High profile PR was provided by Savage and Best, Camden Town publicists to the new pop gentry. But nothing these cultural idealists could muster compared to the unsolicited patronage and 7am morning glory flirtations of Chris Evans. He not only played the record on his former Radio 1 Breakfast Show, and demanded to know why he couldn't get it in the shops, but then promptly played it again. Three appearances on TFI Friday later and Sharleen Spiteri had become a Nineties icon, while Evans was being jeered by urchins outside a Blur album launch party.
But maybe this is all far too wise after the event; you can't reinvent a face, or a voice, or an attitude. Besides, the woman cradling a Nokia in front of me, in white T-shirt and blue jeans, phone numbers scrawled in Biro on her hand, doesn't look like she needs to be told what to do. “Some people say it's all a big career move,” Sharleen, fiddling with the sunglasses pushed into her hair. “But if I'd know how to please the public, I'd have done it a long time ago. No matter what's supposed to be cool or popular, you can't get your record out in time to cash in. This album was finished a year ago. I wrote “Say What You Want” in 1996 in Paris, sitting on a roof top with a glass of red wine.”
The more animated Sharleen gets and the more faces she pulls, the better she looks. Standing 5'5” in her Reebok'd feet, with four times broken nose (from various sporting activities, including jumping off a diving board) and no make-up, she looks like someone who would help you out in a ruck and then get her round in. Yet, she also has an air of effortlessly assembled chic. The black hair, brown eyes and olive skin come from the Sicilian and French sides of her Glaswegian family (“Dad was a captain in the merchant navy, I was born on the water”), but her mother is German. “Blue eyes, blonde hair. Total Aryan. We'd walk round Newlands as kids, me and my sister, and people would say to my parents, 'Are you sure those are your children?'”
Although her sister is said to be a dead ringer for Beatrice Dalle, it's Sharleen the tomboy who has cultivated the French film star look to go with that haircut. Sophistication is never inhibited by success, and she now has both commodities in abundance. Maybe she did before. Texas' previous album, Ricks Road, was only big in Europe (the Latin parts mainly), but it still had a Jean-Baptise Mondino snap on the sleeve. Nobody noticed.
“It's our time now,” Sharleen reckons. “When our first album, Southside, came out, the record company said, 'She's the girl, let's plaster her face everywhere.' I wasn't ready. Now it's not their decision, and I am ready.” So, Sharleen Spiteri has decided to move forward and speak up, leaving the boys in her band to do a job. It is one they do well, although they are plainly anonymous. She certainly isn't. “I was ready for a change, and we all knew we couldn't just go to the studio and say 'here we go again'. I never gave up, because I knew we could make a great record.”
Sharleen considers her year off in Paris in 1995 as more than just taking stock. “I just couldn't bear to go back to Glasgow. It was a safe haven full of family and friends, but the endless tour stories were winding me up. 'What did you do? I did this, I did that.' I wanted to go somewhere else and take a shot in the dark. I stayed with a friend in her one-bedroom flat opposite the Louvre. But there was always a phone line between me and Johnny (McElhorne, her songwriting partner and the band's bass guitarist), and the ideas moved on. It was a slap in the face for me. Y'know, cities have definite smells. Madrid is cigarettes; it's all brown, beige and nicotine. Paris is bread and coffee. I was happy there, which has a lot to do with now.”
If her rich European blood makes Sharleen stand out, so too does her anti-babe demeanour. She didn't get where she is today by taking her kit off, or flashing any cleavage. There had been talk of asking her to wear a bikini. It is summer, after all! “No way! I'd like to meet the man who came up with that idea. Can you imagine me doing that? You say I'm a sex symbol. What, for opening my mouth? I think my look is very androgynous, but I'm still very much a woman. I love being sexy, of course I do. I love dressing up…wearing a Ralph Lauren gown and high heels. I love classic, beautiful clothes. But I can't see the point of women in short skirts; they're always pulling them down. Why bother? Wear it or forget it.”
When your face becomes a saleable image, clothes are suddenly an issue. Sharleen has been offered plenty of fashion lines to plug but she refuses to contemplate padding down the celebrity catwalk. Miuccia Prada tried to tempt her with the young Miu Miu range. “Doesn't interest me.” Tommy Hilfiger wants to sponsor Texas' next American tour. “I don't need sponsorship. These people are on another plane. They're talking clothes; I'm talking music. If the music was shit they wouldn't be asking. But it's not, which is handy for both parties.”
And being in demand means keeping your guard up. No, she's never had a thing with any of her band – that's just too tacky and leads to intolerable tensions. She draws a line in the sand about her home life. “You have to mind your enemies. Some people are arrogant and think they know about my private life, when they don't. Apart from that, I'm the same as anyone else. I see my picture on a newsstand, and sometimes it's a bad one. My niece adores seeing me in magazines, and my sister is pleased when I'm on TV. My mum's more likely to see me in one of Juergen's photographs, looking brutal in a black vest, and she'll say, 'That's not very flattering Shar, you look too skinny. You need a good feed.'”
Sharleen recorded the vocals for White on Blonde lying on her back and thinking of Marvin Gaye. Ask her about singers and she'll repeat the soul litany: Marvin, Al, the Staple Sisters. She'll mention rap crews such as Wu-Tang Clan, plus Debbie Harry or Gene Clark. Add in the bands of her youth, her mother's favourite crooners, her father's hippy heroes – there isn't much music that bugs her. “Well, I don't like Joni Mitchell's voice. To me it's like fingernails grating on a blackboard. Now, Liam Gallagher is a soul singer. He's very underrated. Noel's a good writer – without Liam? Nuh. I like Jamiroquai too. I don't care whether that's cool. I've never been cool and never intend to be. I like disco music. And John Lennon. White on Blonde could be a Dylan reference, or it might be the White Album.”
When Sharleen was a child she thought everyone was a singer or a musician, because her grandparents' house was full of instruments: banjo, accordion, guitar, trumpet, even a full-sized Hammond organ. Yet when Johnny McElhorne invited her to an audition in 1988 via a mutual friend, she didn't turn up. And she never really considered quitting her job as a hairdresser in Glasgow until “I Don't Want A Lover” hit the charts.
“It was no big deal for me to sing,” she says. “I loved it immediately. Singing is bliss to me. When I'm in my own world then no one can touch me. I can feel the smile on my face. It's like the Marvin Gaye documentary. I've seen it 40 times and I still smile from beginning to end. Sister Rose Stone (Sly Stone's sibling) told me once that my voice would grow and get better. She was right. I'm looking forward to being 30 because of that. It doesn't bother me at all.”
Perhaps the Texas tale will only be complete if and when they conquer America, where the record companies have been jumping up and down for the album since they realised it was Sharleen singing “So Called Friend” over the credits for Ellen. And of course, the Americans won't give two hoots whether someone in Sharleen's social circle suggested getting Manchester mixers Grand Central on board. What they will like is that she rides a black Vespa Piaggio, takes her friends mountaineering in her Land Rover, and has a name out of trailer park heaven.
Meanwhile, “Say What You Want” is heavily featured in Picture Perfect, a Jennifer Aniston/Kevin Bacon film which is released here later this year. Naturally, the album, single and tour will follow. You can hear Manhattan toppling already, especially when she delivers her line about “act like a total woman, think like a man”.
A few weeks ago, Sharleen was invited to a Capital Radio awards lunch. To her surprise, she won Best Female Vocalist. “I'd never been given anything like that before in my life,” she relates, wide-eyed in amazement. “They didn't even tell me, so I didn't have a clue. Somebody came up to me, it was George Michael, and he said, 'Good things come to those who wait.'” She pauses, then adds, “It's been a long time coming.”
By Max Bell
Taken from "GQ Magazine", August 1997.
Transcription by Sophie van Rooijen.