The Irish Articles
From The Irish Times, August 2, 1997.
Joe Jackson talks to Sharleen Spiteri of rock band Texas about a revamp so successful that many fear the music may suffer to feed the hip, new image.
Sharleen Spiteri knows there are those who will say, "so, what is she, a model or a musician ?" as they see her stare from the cover of the current issue of GQ. Likewise in relation to the fashion-spread Sharleen did for Tatler, or the news that she is to do another for Vogue and is now widely known as "The Face of 1997". She accepts that cynics will claim that the so-called "revamp" of her band, Texas, and the surprise success of their White On Blonde album have less to do with music than marketing, stemming largely from Spiteri's new-found status as a cultural icon, particularly for twentysomethings.
None of these accusations is new to her. She knows exactly how she'd respond if someone held up that issue of GQ and asked, "Well, Ms Spiteri, are you a model or a musician ?".
"I'd say, 'thank you very much, isn't it amazing what a photograph can do ? Especially when they use computers !' " she responds, laughing, her Scottish accent as deep as the Tyne. "I've no problem with questions like that. There's nothing wrong with being seen as talented, and attractive. And when it comes to whether or not my 'new-found status' is based more on my reputation as a cultural icon or talent as a musician, I'd say it's a bit of both. But if we hadn't made a good album, people wouldn't be paying attention to me at all.".
Sharleen has been asked by influential Italian designer Miuccia Prada to model her young, hip Miu Miu range and "American casual clothes designer du jour" Tommy Hilfiger says he wants to sponsor the next Texas tour. Meanwhile, the band used Vogue photographer Jurgen Teller to do the portrait of Spiteri on the new album-cover and her boyfriend, Ashley Heath, is a fashion journalist with The Face. Shouldn't fans fear that style and packaging may get out of hand ?
"I certainly don't want to be in a fashion show," says Sharleen. "I'll stick to what I do best, which is making music. And, no, I don't think the music will suffer because of all this, or think it has".
"Using Jurgen Teller to do that portrait just reflects the fact that I'm now fully aware that being a pop star does involve an overall package. And I have an advantage - I know some of the best photographers in the world. You've got to be clever, one step ahead of everybody else. You've got to find a way of representing the music with a particular image and that's what we really worked hard at doing for this album. But it's not like the record company told us to do this".
"We're a band that controls these things. "Years ago, when the record company wanted to plaster my face all over the place, I wasn't ready to be a glamour-puss. This time round, I am . . ."
"And that's what the band wanted. And it's obviously worked!". Obviously. Recently, Sharleen claimed she can't "see the point in women in short skirts". So where do the "glamour-puss" looks fit in ? "A woman is a woman. It's either there or it's not. And if you try too hard, you'll get it wrong. You should always please yourself first. I do. So, yeah, I would say to fans, `don't wear minis, don't dye your hair, don't wear make-up, don't do anything' for other people".
"I've always been lucky in this respect. I was brought up by parents who always told me to be who I am. That's why I can go from dressing in dungarees at home to wearing, say, a Ralph Lauren gown." The same is true of Spiteri's base as a musician. If the Texas hit, Say What You Want is what she describes as an homage to Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing, that's because this 29-year-old Glaswegian, of part-Italian extraction, grew up listening to classic rock, pop and soul courtesy of her parents' musical preferences. She also claims she "found" her "own voice " as a singer roughly five years ago when Texas recorded their version of Al Green's soul classic Tired Of Being Alone.
"That was a big turning point for me because those are the songs I listened to as a kid," she says. "And Tired Of Being Alone was one of the songs I did at a soundcheck to get my vocals right. But let's not forget my Scottish background. Like the Irish, Scottish people love to sing ! In bars, at parties, when you go to your granny's house, you find a piano and have a good old sing-song, right ? In fact, everybody in my family sings. So, for me, getting up to sing is natural. The only difference now is that I get paid to do it !" Nice plus, but these days Spiteri also wins much-coveted awards. Such as recently being voted Female Vocalist of the Year by London's Capital Radio, on the back of the success of White On Blonde. Sharleen suggests that "the songs, pure and simple" are the "real key" to the popularity of the album, suggesting that "songs are back, in a big way. People want something that gives them a wee tune they can hum".
And it's true: songs such as Breathless have a characteristically soulful Sharleen Spiteri vocal line and, indeed, a harmonica solo that could have come straight out of her daddy's beloved collection of Dylan albums. But White On Blonde also embraces some of the better elements of 1990s dance music. As in looping, sampling and chopping. Spiteri admits Massive Attack's ground-breaking Blue Lines album was a "huge influence": it was orchestrated by ex-Texas member Craig Armstrong.
"Those are specific references, but there are tons more influences on White On Blonde," she explains. "My listening to the likes of MC Solaar, working with Grand Central. Or hearing the way Radiohead use guitars on The Bends, in a very modern sense that avoids the big solo and made us try and take instruments in a different direction. All that proves to me is that Texas are a band willing to grow and change, if that is necessary."
But wasn't White On Blonde a matter of do-or-die for Texas in that they hadn't had a major hit in at least five years and surely, desperately needed to prove themselves again ?
"I definitely didn't feel desperate !" Sharleen responds. "And, at the end of the day the only people that make a record happen are the musicians themselves. You can have a million people saying, 'try this, try that,' but if your heart's not in it you won't make music that works. You've got to believe in yourself, believe in your music. And we've always had that faith, no matter what happened. Texas is a band who fight for what they believe in, fight for their music. So, to me, White On Blonde, above everything else, is an album that captures the sound of a band coming to maturity, not the sound of desperation, in any sense. It's an album we could have only made at this stage of our lives."
"But if we hadn't made a good album, people wouldn't be paying attention to me at all."
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From The Irish Times, Wednesday, December 17, 1997.
Texas, The Olympia (Dublin), by Kevin Courtney.
No, I don't think we're in Texas anymore. We're closer to Philadelphia, or maybe Detroit Motor City, in a place where Sharleen Spiteri has recently found her soul, and uncovered a new old-fashioned sound for her band. Scottish band Texas, erstwhile purveyors of arid country-rock, have now "gone r & b", and they've underlined their new commitment by bringing a DJ onstage with them at the Olympia last night, and as he scratches out the vintage vinyl rhythms, guitarist Ally McErlaine starts the shakatak alert, and Prayer For You makes its grand entrance.
Halo is a big, brash tune, and Sharleen's voice is its crowning glory, spitting righteous fire over an adoring crowd. Insane pits Sharleen's piercing screams against some discordant keyboard runs, resulting in a calm, balanced tune, but You Owe It All To Me exposes some conflict between the old country and the new rhythm. Ditto I Don't Want A Lover, which now sounds like something from another band in another era. White On Blonde and Postcards are more up to speed, and they cruise nicely on Sharleen's odulating vocals; when a day-glo ghettoblaster is brought onstage for Put Your Arms Around Me, the mood is lifted to high tide level.
A Brian Wilson song, I'm So Lonely, proves a strange but well-chosen cover, but a version of TLC's Waterfalls does little more than show off Sharleen's impressive technique. Marvin Gaye's You're All I Need To Get By, however, hits the spot, letting Sharleen and the band unchain their souls. Black Eyed Boy ends the set with a bang, but Texas bound quickly back onstage for an encore, eager to hold onto the mood. A big, scratchy intro leads into the rolling guitar lick of Say What You Want, and Sharleen adds in another dash of Marvin Gaye, smiling at the mischievous hint of sexual stealing. Texas used to be a sputtering old steam train - now they're a purring Cadillac with white walls and velvet seats.
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From The Irish Times, Monday, May 4, 1998.
Texas, Dublin Castle (02/05/98), by Alex Moffatt.
Texas's music is for the most part unexceptional, radio-friendly stuff, which inevitably makes for polished but decidedly uninspiring concerts. Their performance at Dublin Castle was technically fine, but it lacked any serious sense of drama or excitement.
The band's greatest asset is singer Sharleen Spiteri, who combines a powerful voice with an assured technique. And behind her, guitarist Ally McEraine worked hard to avoid clichés and introduced an array of guitar techniques, from bottleneck to wah-wah. However, Texas still have a fairly limited range and the concert quickly began to sound repetitive.
Hit singles from their most recent album, White On Blonde, were all received rapturously by the crowd : Spiteri gave an exceptional performance of Halo at the start of the concert, and made the encore, Put Your Arms Around Me, sound a lot better than it does on the album. Also, Black-Eyed Boy stood out for its focus and intensity. These were the highlights in a concert that had more than its fair share of dross.
There were two cover versions, and the choices (passable versions of Al Green's Tired of Being Alone and Marvin Gaye's You're All I Need To Get By) were indicative of the band's eagerness to be seen as not just a pop band, but as serious soul musicians. This eagerness reached its less-than-impressive apogee with the final encore : a rambling rendition of Say What You Want, weighed down by Spiteri's tiresome, exhibitionist vocals. The concert closed with a distinct sense of anti-climax.
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From The Irish Times, Saturday, May 1, 1999.
Making a sexy sound of hush, by Brian Boyd.
Five years ago, Texas singer Sharleen Spiteri got herself some new clothes and a new image. Four million album sales later and now a `sex symbol', she says that a change is always for the better.
Sharleen Spiteri comes out of recline position on the couch, moves her head forward, looks me straight in the eye and says, "Could you pass me the sun-tan lotion and rub it all over me very very gently." Gulp. It's not what it seems, officer, the woman who speaks with a tough Glasgow accent but sings like a honeyed chanteuse is merely illustrating, in her own sensuous way, why her band's new album is called as it is. "We called it The Hush", she says, squeezing ever ounce of sibilance out of the album's title, "because hush is just such a sexy and sensuous word, as are all these songs. That's what I mean by rubbing the sun-tan lotion over me, that's the feeling I'm after with these songs." From the outside chance of getting low-down and dirty with the Ambre Solaire in the company of rock's latest pin-up to a mini-thesis on the role of onomatopoeia in marketing a new bunch of songs - a minute is a long time in a rock interview. Sharleen is back home in Glasgow, entertaining the European media - "I hope you like our city . . . you better like our city" - to get the ball rolling on the album that, if all goes to plan, will do for Texas what The Joshua Tree did for U2, - elevate the band from being merely huge to mega, global-hugging huge. "I don't want to sound arrogant," Sharleen says, sounding anything but, "but I hope this is an album that people are going to look back upon and think `that's a classic record'. This is the sort of album that you'd play in your car, like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, an album that creeps up on you and smacks you all around the head."
It's not just the five-piece Texas, (even ardent fans have difficulty naming any member except Sharleen) who have placed all their chips on The Hush doing a Rumours for them in the charts; there's also a mini-army of producers/re-mixers and photographers/ stylists in on the deal as well. The first category above has helped take Texas away from their rock ordinaire sound and imbued them with all manner of contemporary hip-hop sounds - making them palatable to a whole new, younger generation, and the latter have carried out a similar refurbishment job on Sharleen herself. "Makeover" is only the half of it.
Now 30, Sharleen grew up in suburban Glasgow, inheriting her gorgeous olive skin and dark eyes (and atypical Scottish name) from a mix of French/Italian and Maltese forebears. Part of a musical family, the young Sharleen whiled away her childhood sitting on the window ledge of her bedroom, thinking she was Audrey Hepburn by singing Moon River into a hairbrush. "When you're born into a musical family you just take it for granted and think everyone else's family is just the same," she says. "It'd be like `my dad plays the violin, what does your dad play?' and stuff like that around the neighbourhood."
More taken by fashion, though, she was supposed to enrol in the Glasgow School of Art, but while still at school she had a Saturday job cutting hair with the international hairdressing chain, Irvine Rusk. It wasn't that she was a good hairdresser, she was a brilliant one - college plans were soon forgotten as she found herself being flown out to New York, Milan and Paris to tend to the tresses of models and actors. Sixteen years of age and travelling the world; life was sweet. Then The Clash entered her life.
Sharleen was at home watching television when the Clash's mainman Joe Strummer cut his hand open and bled all over his guitar on screen in front of her. Impressed by the passion, commitment and sheer punk rockedness of it all, the next day she went out and bought a black-and-white Telecaster guitar. The clippers were out. Luckily, a friend of a friend, Johnny McElhone, was looking for a female singer/guitarist to join his new band (McElhone had a good track record - he had previously led another Glasgow band, Altered Images, to some degree of success in the 1980s.)
Calling the band Texas, not after the US state but after the Wim Wenders movie, Paris, Texas, Spiteri and McElhone, alongside drummer Richard Hynd, guitarist Ally McErlane and keyboard player Eddie Campbell, hit pay dirt with their first single, I Don't Want A Lover, in 1988. Subsequent albums, Southside, Mothers Heaven and Ricks Road all sold healthily (maximum 1.5 million copies, minimum 500,000 copies). By the mid-1990s, though, the band had run out of steam, sales were on a downward slope and Sharleen was perturbed by everybody asking her, "When are the band going to break up?"
Back then, Sharleen prided herself on her androgynous image - it helped her fit in with "the boys" in the band. She never did interviews on her own and never released solo photos of herself - on stage she used to hide behind her fringe and gaze at her shoes for the duration of the gig. But just before the band released the huge-selling White On Blonde two years ago, they sat down and decided that something must change and that something must be Sharleen: "I knew how I looked and I knew how I thought I could look because I'd worked in a hairdresser's and done lots of photo shoots," says Sharleen. "It was just I never had the confidence to do anything about it until then."
Before you could say "born-again sex symbol" Sharleen threw out her jumpers and denims, invested in some cutting-edge designer gear, got her hair cut and learnt the value of swagger in an industry that values it over talent. Enlisting the services of some top-notch style magazine photographers, the suddenly sexy Sharleen soon found herself not on the cover of Q or NME but of Vogue and The Face. So dramatic was the transformation that Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein soon came running with contracts for product endorsement.
"When my face started appearing in these fashion magazines, I remember someone describing me as `sexy' and I just thought `oh my gawd, that's so stupid', but then I just got to feel, `well that's fine, that's ok, if that's how I come over in the photo, just as long as I don't take it seriously. I mean you look at some of the photos done for the new album and I'm on this beach looking all pouty - people just don't realise how much of that is down to lighting, make-up and having a style photographer who can make you look like that. We weren't successful with the old me so there had to be a change and I went about that change in my own way," she says. Cynics point to the fact that both Texas's new contemporary sound and Sharleen's image change coincided with the beginning of her relationship with Ashley Heath, who is the editor of the fashion magazine Arena Homme Plus - he was supposed to be the string-puller who, being hip to rap music, pulled off their credibility boosting duet with New York gangsta rap crew, Wu Tang Clan, and brought in the style photographers. "To think Ashley masterminded all this is ridiculous," she says, "he simply hasn't the time. It's pathetic that people think like that."
The one thing she's not changing, though, is her nose, which was broken three times over the years in a series of childhood pranks. Somewhat undermining the style-is-everything image, she says she couldn't care less if her nose looks the way it does, and even though doctors have warned her about the build-up of gristle around the bone, she has no plans "whatsoever" to get it surgically corrected. "People go on about the fashion thing a lot, but they don't realise that fashion has always been a part of my life. I was originally meant to go to fashion college but didn't because I was a hairdresser. The only difference now is that when I'm flicking through a fashion magazine and I see something like a new Gucci campaign, I want to know who did the photographs. It's `get me their agent's number' so maybe they can come and work with us," she says. "It wasn't really a problem to see myself on all these front covers all of a sudden - I mean working with some of the greatest photographers in the world and seeing yourself look the way they make you look; anybody who says they don't like that is obviously lying."
Whatever about the bitching in regards to her transformation (and remember she is a successful woman in a male-dominated industry) the first Texas Mark 11 album, White On Blonde (which came complete with a Jurgen Teller cover), became a massive four-million seller, spawning four hit singles. Its mix of traditional rock melodies and hip-hop beats saw the band crossing over to a younger audience for the first time. "The best thing about White On Blonde was that it went to number one in the charts and then a few months later, after we'd released a few more singles, it went back to number one again, which is pretty unheard of. Even at the end of that album, though, we were moving to a new place musically. There is just so much new music coming out all the time and that changes what you want to do with your own music," she says.
Later the same day, in an old church in Glasgow, Texas take to the stage to play their new album for the assembled press. They open with the first single off the album, In Our Lifetime - "it's our tribute to Hong Kong Garden," says Sharleen, name-checking a Siouxsie and Banshees song from her youth. The new songs are mightily impressive, particularly the predicted new single, Summer Son, and the Prince sound-alike Tell Me The Answer - "I always wanted to do a Prince song like that. The best thing about it is how I get to stretch my vocals." In acknowledgement of their new fondness for break beats, there's now a DJ alongside them on stage, who scratches away merrily and generally adds a more contemporary feel to their sound. Sharleen's at the front, with an expression on her face that you just can't pin down. "Oh that?" she says later, "that's my comfortable, confident, happy and positive expression."
The Hush by Texas is released on the Mercury label in two weeks.
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