With her ninth album imminent, we meet a songwriter who’s been quietly getting on with it for nearly 30 years
Born in Germany to southeast Asian parents but raised in Basingstoke, Hampshire, Tanita Tikaram began singing in local clubs in her teens. By the time she was 19 she’d signed to WEA and released her debut album Ancient Heart, which spawned two big hit singles, Good Tradition and Twist In My Sobriety, and went on to sell over four million copies worldwide.
A string of albums in the early 90s failed to reach the same commercial heights, and after her contract with Warners expired following the release of the Lovers In The City album in 1995 and a Best Of Tanita Tikaram compilation in 1996, she’s eschewed a long-term contract in favour of releasing albums spasmodically through a variety of labels – The Cappuccino Songs in 1998, Sentimental in 2005 and Can’t Go Back in 2012.
Next month sees the release of her ninth studio album, Closer To The People, which she’ll be promoting with a major European tour. So with the first single from the album, Glass Love Train, dropping next week, we got her on the phone for a chat…
You’ve kind of drifted in and out of the scene over the years… have you been making music constantly, or would you put it to one side for a while and then come back to it?
“To be honest, I’ve been on and off. I started when I was 18, then I probably did about three albums quite close together, and then I took quite a long gap – like, eight years between albums! I didn’t really know I was going to be not doing anything for eight years – I guess I was just growing up, really. It’s natural that at some point you drift a bit. I was always learning about music, and I was always writing, but I probably had periods where I wasn’t sure that this was what I should really be doing.
“When you start something when you’re very young, you almost don’t know why you’re doing it, and at some point there’s a bit of a wilderness moment… and then you go, ‘Oh, yes, this is what I’m supposed to be doing!’.”
Many older songwriters tell us that, although they had their big hits when they were young, they feel the songs they write at 40 are much better than the songs they wrote at 20. Is that true for you?
“Not really, to be honest. It’s funny, because I also didn’t perform live for a long time, but in the last three of four years I’ve done a lot more live performance, and it’s actually reconnected me to my early songs. And I think that’s influenced this album quite a lot.
“What’s influenced me the most is actually playing live”
“I realised, when I was performing some of the songs I wrote when I was very young, that I had a real freedom of imagination back then that I really liked, and I think that ended up influencing some of the songs on the new album. I can’t say that I have a real sense of… some people have a real sense of where their life is going. Mine is a bit random, to be honest.
“I do know that what’s influenced me the most is actually playing live in the last few years, and having a relationship with a band, a permanent set of musicians.”
Was there a particular ‘getting back on the horse’ moment for you or did it just sort of come about naturally?
“No, there was definitely a moment where I got back on the horse. I was really lucky to work with a musician called Bobby Irwin, who’s on the new album, though unfortunately he passed away recently. He was somebody who really gave me a sense of being in a band with other musicians, that sense of kind of being in your gang. He introduced me to a lot of the musicians I work with today, and he made me understand that music is really about that as well, belonging to something and putting your gang together. That’s something that’s really changed a lot for me in music, and it’s made it much more joyful.”
Let’s talk about your songwriting technique. With Closer To The People, have you written all the songs yourself, or are they co-writes with other band members?
“It depends. Songs like Food On My Table or Closer To The People I wrote by myself, but a song like The Way You Move, I co-wrote that with my guitarist Brian Day, and other songs on the album like Gris Gris Tales or Cool Waters I co-wrote with my clarinet and saxophone player.
“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about working with a permanent band, with really having a deep relationship with other musicians, is that you want to use them when you’re actually writing. There’s something about their voice that you’ve come to understand, and that you want to bring out in your song. And that’s been a new thing for me, and a real luxury. So when I’m writing a song, I’m also thinking about the arrangement, about an instrumental break, things like that, which for me is very exciting, because I listen to a lot of instrumental music, a lot of classical music and jazz. So now I feel that I’m not just writing a song, I’m also writing with someone else’s voice in my head.”
So how did it work before?
“Well, it was more… I was just writing the song, really. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the other people I was working with, I was just writing for myself. But when you start to work with other people quite intensely, you start to think “Oh, I’d really like to hear Martin play on that”, or I’d like to hear him play something I’m humming. Like the break on The Way You Move, I originally played it on the guitar, but I think it sounds lovely on the saxophone. Those are things that… it’s a kind of luxury you have when you work closely with other musicians.”
“I write a lot more on the piano now”
Do you think you’ll stick to this formula for a while, then? You sound like someone who’s got a sense of coming home, or finding where it is you want to be…
“Yeah, I think so… but at the same time, when you have that feeling you want to break it as well so I don’t know! I mean, as long as nothing feels tired… I think the thing that’s important is that you feel excited and you feel inspired, and I feel that other musicians for me, especially with this album, have been very inspiring. I think it’s just lovely to say, oh I really hear a double bass playing the rhythm on this, and then that ends up being the song… that’s a new way of writing for me.
“It’s almost the music I’ve always heard in my head, but I couldn’t play it by myself, because I can’t play the clarinet, I can’t play double bass. But if I know people well enough that I can say, can you play me something, can we try this idea, at the early songwriting stage, I find that very exciting.”
What about the songs you do write on your own? Is it always on the guitar, or do you write on the piano, or…?
“I write a lot more on the piano now. Songs like My Enemy and Food On My Table and Closer To The People, they were all written on the piano. Again, it’s about being able to have more freedom, and on the piano, if you have a melodic idea you can just play it quite easily, and you have a different range. On the guitar I have a tendency to go to a certain part of the guitar, whereas on the piano it’s a bit different. I think I can sing out different ideas on the piano.”
Have you ever tried writing on any other instruments?
“No, but the other instrument I really love is the double bass, and Matt Radford my double-bass player, we wrote The Dream Of Her together, and I find that very inspiring, just to play together and say oh, let’s try this. I think naturally, if you play a lot with people, you end up wanting to write with them. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”
But lyrically, are all the ideas your own?
“Yes… the band don’t come up with lyrical ideas, unfortunately! That’s all me.”
“I think of an album almost in terms of a dinner party”
Talking about the new album, then… someone asked me what it’s like and I couldn’t really describe it. It’s a bit folky, it’s a bit blues-y, it’s a bit jazzy… it’s also a bit pop in places, and it’s a bit indie-ish in places. How would you describe it?
“I’d say that the album is very me! I think it has many elements of different kinds of music, because I love all kinds of music, and I think that when I think of an album, I’m thinking of it in terms almost of a dinner party – I want people to enjoy each separate course. Making a balance of flavours, that’s how I think about music. I don’t think of any of those elements being in conflict: I think that’s the music I’ve grown up with and it all ends up in my music.”
Is there anyone that’s influenced this album in particular, anyone you could point to and say I’ve been listening to a lot of So-And-So?
“I think in the last few years I’ve listened to more jazz. The influence is quite light, it’s not like I’m going to suddenly go off and make a jazz album, but I definitely love certain repetitive rhythms.
The vocal phrasing’s quite jazzy in places…
“Yeah, and I also think harmonically the album’s very rich. I love textures and grooves, and when I listen to the album I’m happy because it really moves. Somebody wrote to me who I’d worked with in the past and said, ‘I couldn’t wait for the next song, I wanted to see what would be the next idea’, and for me, that’s what I wanted the album to do: to have a real mix, because that’s my taste in music.”
You’ve got a big tour coming up as well… are you looking forward to it? Do you enjoy touring and playing live?
So out of songwriting, recording and performing…
“Well, when it comes to songwriting, I kind of know who I am, and the process isn’t as fraught with danger. When you go to make an album, there are so many things that can go wrong! Even if you make a nice-sounding track, it can go wrong in the mixing, it can go wrong in the mastering, it’s like a continual obstacle course. Whereas when you write a song, it’s just a beautiful thing that exists. There’s nothing that can go wrong with that.
“And then when you play live, it has a lot to do with the audience, and that sense of one-ness you can have with the audience, which is very important. So I suppose the most scary one is making records.”
We really like the album, and we could see it propelling Tanita Tikaram to a much higher-profile place than she’s been for a while. But would you want that? In the past you’ve talked about intrusive press and so on… are you ready to do all that again?
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m the kind of person where the press would get that intrusive even if the album did really well! I think I was talking more about if you’re young, it must be quite a frightening prospect. Because when I started, there wasn’t social media, there wasn’t a constant 24-hour appetite for gossip. And I think in a way I was protected by that.
“So I would love the album to do really well, for all the people who… as I’ve said, because I now have much more of a feeling of being part of a group or a gang, it would be great for all those people – well, and for me as well! – after all the work that’s gone into making this record, it would be great for it to reach a wide audience. That would be wonderful.”
Interview: Russell Deeks Pictures: Kurt Stallaert
Closer To The People is out on 8 April. For Tanita’s tour dates, see Tanita-tikaram.com