“If you just chase the money then you're in trouble” – Heather Small
"One of the great things about music is that you can present something quite unexpected and people don't flinch"
Heather Small shot to prominence during the early 90s as the lead singer of M People, and released her debut solo album Proud in 2000, along with the global smash hit single of the same name. Jack Rayner caught up with Heather ahead of her performance at Rewind Festival in August.
Hi Heather, didn't you provide did the vocals for the re-recording of ‘Ride on Time’ back in 1989?
Haha, I never say 'yes' and I never say 'no', I just say 'listen to the track!', especially because it gets played on rotation at the minute. I don't really talk about it because they didn't put my name on the tin.
Very enigmatic! How did it feel to have your first chart successes back in the day?
To tell you the truth, I didn't chart with Hot House. I was really proud of that album, we got really good critical acclaim and we were on the cover of NME, but we were dropped and the label didn't release our second album. It's quite sobering when something you've been working towards is within tasting distance, but then it doesn't happen. By the time I joined M People, we'd all been in similar situations where we all thought we were going to be the next big thing, and it felt very much like a second chance. When Hot House got dropped, I realised that singing was all that I wanted to do and I'd do it under any circumstances, so it was about showing that I had the talent and the belief. Of course, if you have hits it's easier to get money out of a record company, but success to me just meant more singing. It's about the creative process and doing something you love, and if you just chase the money then you're in trouble.
Did your success with M People change that attitude at all?
I think it just made me redouble my efforts. It's one thing getting a few hits, but then you have to prove - not only to the people outside but to yourself - that it's not a fluke. Every time I went on tour with M People I never went out and partied, and I don't drink or smoke. Not that it's a moral thing, I just don't like the taste of alcohol, and I'm asthmatic so as a singer I never wanted to risk smoking. I've always found it difficult to sing in the studio, it's not a natural environment to me, and a lot of people have certain routines in the studio environment to make them feel comfortable. With M People, a lot of people thought that we wouldn't be able to pull off the 'dance band' format live, and it was a much more studio-focused project than I was used to, but performing live is what we did and what we do as musicians.
What was your routine in the studio environment?
Well, I sing with no shoes on.
I feel more rooted and more in contact with myself. I'll usually have the room darkened, and there's usually a window from the recording booth to the control room where everyone in the studio can see you whilst you record - that doesn't happen [laughs]. I have to have that blacked out! I know Prince used to sing in the corner of the room with his back turned to everyone, so I guess we all have our own different methods.
There's less pressure on you if no one's watching you.
Not only that, but when you think you're not being watched you're naturally more yourself and whatever it takes for a good vocal, you have to do it.
You're playing at Rewind Festival this year. What can we expect from your set?
I always choose an uptempo, joyous, happy, danceable set. It's about expressing yourself outdoors, live, with an audience, and getting everyone dancing. One of the great things about music is that you can present something quite unexpected and people don't flinch.
Do you still get nervous before these big shows?
Yes, I'm always nervous. I always think 'I'll be alright this time', and people say 'you know you can sing, why would you be nervous?', but it's about meeting your own standards rather than what anyone else might think.
Do you set a bar for yourself and have an idea of how you want each show to go?
Yeah, well I want the show to be brilliant every time and I work hard to meet those standards. As time goes on, you find ways of making sure that happens on a regular basis.
What do you have planned for the future? Are you still writing and recording?
Yeah, I'm wanting to release a new album next year so I'll definitely be writing and recording over the next few months. I've just got back from Russia and I'm going to Denmark and Sweden soon, as well as some more live gigs in the UK.
Do you see a difference in the crowds at your international gigs compared with in the UK?
There isn't so much difference. In Russia, the audience was quite literally 8 to 80, and this is what I love about singing live - you never know who's going to turn up and what song is going to be 'THE' song of the evening, and it's very exciting. No two shows are alike.
Heather Small appears at Rewind Festival in Henley-on-Thames on Sunday 21st August. Limited Saturday & Sunday tickets are available at rewindfestival.com