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Tanita and Pete in conversation

Tanita interview with Pete for Chickfactor

Tanita Tikaram in conversation with Pete Paphides


Every release on Needle Mythology has been a collaboration born of friendship and a shared outlook on music and the way records should look and sound. The third album released on the label was no exception.

I first met Tanita back in 2016 when she and Helen O’ Hara appeared on the show I host for Soho Radio every Tuesday. Prior to that, we had gotten to know each other via social media. It seemed extraordinary to me that an artist who has continued to evolve and define her songwriting continues to be mostly remembered for a brace of hit singles dating back to the late 80s. In the wake of that encounter, I told her about a record label I was hoping to start up – and, if we ever got around to it – would she be up for collaborating on a record that re-presented her to a wider world that remembers her as the serious young artist who gave us Twist In My Sobriety?

Not only was Tanita up for the idea, but she has been actively involved in the project at every stage. The resulting album To Drink The Rainbow was released in November 2019. Sometime between that initial meeting and the emergence of the record,  I also interviewed Tanita for Gail O’Hara’s legendary Chickfactor fanzine.

Tanita and I met in a cafe in East London. I had decided to run the five mile distance from my house. I was sweaty and smelly when I got there, so for Tanita’s own protection, I flinched when she tried to hug me. She told me not to be so silly and hugged me anyway. Which, I think, not only says a lot about her, but also says a lot about how far removed she is from the teenage Tanita paused in the videotape of folk memory. She also laughs like Basil Brush. And let’s face it, more people should laugh like Basil Brush. Here’s the full transcript of that interview.

Pete Paphides, Needle Mythology Co-Honcho.


Hi Tanita. You seem a little flustered.
Yeah, I am. I’m a bit ditzy at the moment. I got on the wrong branch of the Northern Line from Chalk Farm. I ought to know better by now.
That suggests you’re at a fairly carefree place in your life, right now.
I think when people start doing things like getting on the wrong branch of the Northern Line or something, all is well with the world, so they kind of turn off a bit.
Yeah, maybe!
You don’t have to agree!
I’m overly polite, I always agree with everything! It could also be the menopause, but I probably don’t want to go there…
Is that a thing? That you kind of get ditzy when you reach the menopause?
I think so. Yeah, apparently you just forget things.
Does the menopause just happen one day, like that, or is it a gradual thing? I don’t know too much about the menopause.
Haha! I don’t want to sound like an NHS leaflet, but it affects all women differently. Some women experience real memory loss, and I think I do. I hope it’s that and not something else! Some women experience really terrible sudden lack of self-confidence and awful symptoms, which I haven’t experienced yet.
Your exceptional politeness is a thing I’ve noticed about you. You try your best to agree with the tenor of the questions. I found this interview on YouTube that you did with a Turkish journalist. He says, ‘What about your feelings of your connection to 80s music? Do you love Kim Wilde? Do you love Samantha Fox?’ Do you remember that?
No, I don’t actually. What do I say?
It’s brilliant. For about ten seconds, you really try and be that person who loves Kim Wilde and Samantha Fox. Then you just burst out laughing, you can’t hold it in any longer.
Well, yeah. Not to say that they’re not great, actually, but… yeah, it was a very random question.
You were saying earlier that after this interview finishes, you’re going to get a haircut. Tonsorially, you’ve been quite experimental over the decades, haven’t you?
What factors determine your hairstyle at any given moment?
Well… at the moment, I’m not happy with my hair, and so that probably made me just not even know how to dress.
Because it’s just grown out and maybe the colour’s a bit mad.
OK, so what are you going to say to your hairdresser?
I don’t really know, because I’ve not had a haircut from him, he’s Japanese, that’s already a good point. The hairdresser before who worked at the salon has just gone back to Japan, so… and actually I’m not sure how good his English is, so I’ve just brought him a couple of pictures. 
Are you quite que sera sera about it?
Yeah, I am. Well, when I was there last time, this hairdresser was wearing the most amazing trousers I’ve ever seen on a man! So I take that as a good sign. He was just… he was just like, if I was a man, I would dress like him. He had flared jeans, jeans that were vintage even, maybe.
I saw a picture of you, some years back, where you’d shaved your head.
I did, I’ve shaved my head twice. I think when I was in my early 20s and then in my late 20s. The first time, I always liked short hair, I always liked shaved hair on other people, and I thought it was such a dramatic look. Also, when someone has no hair, you really have to see their face. So you have to be confident to expose yourself in that way. When I first shaved my head, I’d had long hair, and I felt like a completely different person. And then the second time I did it, I’d a bad haircut, I just wanted to get rid of it, so that was dramatic. It’s definitely something I would say to every young woman, ‘Go and shave your hair,’ because it’s just a refreshing thing to do.
No regrets immediately after?
I don’t have regrets like that. Disappointingly, when my family saw it, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s quite nice’. They’re easy going. I think my mother would have liked a slightly rebellious child, so if you do things like that, she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’
Is it better to be a pop star or to not be a pop star?
Ooh, well, I have really come to the conclusion that everybody’s a pop star now, so it’s not that interesting! I just realise now, I think with social media, I think the game is up. I think that everybody can be a star, I think that’s a really interesting thing. Everybody can look fabulous, everybody can look like they have a story and you know, that they can create a mystique around themselves, even if you’re a plumber, you can get on social media, it doesn’t really…
Everyone can experience first-hand what a silly thing it is.
When I was a kid, can you imagine even talking to a pop star or somebody who you admired: it wouldn’t be possible. Now you can just message them, and that is so strange.
I guess partly what I was getting at is is it better to be you walking down the street now, or walking down the street in 1989?
It’s better now, yeah.
At your very first gig, supporting Paul Brady at the Mean Fiddler in North-West London, you apparently stared the chattering people into silence. How did you summon that sort of confidence?
I was a bit arrogant when I was young, and, well, maybe young people are a bit arrogant – and I would have expected them to have… I would have been aghast at them. You know when you’re a kid, you just have that sense of your own value. I think it’s a good thing, I think it’s a good thing.
I love that – especially in young women, and often it gets knocked out of them through life. But there’s a point where teenage girls, can be a little bit terrifying to older people. If that fearlessness can be preserved somehow, it’s a great asset.
I know, it’s funny, I have a friend who, we both come from Basingstoke, and I said, “Sometimes I’m a bit bolshy,” it’s such a Basingstoke word, bolshy, and he said, ‘I think that’s a good thing, I don’t think you should lose it’.
Would the Tanita Tikaram of now be assertive enough complain about poor service in a restaurant? When did you last complain?
Recently. I think I was in Berlin. I didn’t complain – I just didn’t leave a tip. The reason wasn’t poor service, it was underlying snobbishness, and I can’t bear that. I thought the food was a bit pretentious! And I thought the waiter had this sort of slightly sneering attitude. First of all, I thought, if you’re trying to be hip, that’s not… that’s so not how people are. People are genuinely really friendly now. I’ve noticed that people are quite open and, you know, I’m amazed at how much friendlier London is. When I was younger, there was definitely that kind of weird sort of snobbishness. I don’t like unkindness and I don’t like snobbishness, and I don’t like people being superior, and that’s a sort of red rag to me, so that’s when I would make my feelings known.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Imagine I’m giving you a £2 coin, and just across the road, there’s a corner shop, you can buy anything you want to with the £2 coin. What are you going to buy?
Ah, £2. A corner shop. They have sweets, don’t they?
They have sweets, they have magazines and newspapers, they might have a little grocery section, they might have some stationery. But you have to be careful, because it’s only £2.
I know, I was just thinking, you can’t get anything for £2, you can’t even get a magazine for £2. Can you buy a newspaper still?
I think The Times is about £1.50, so you’ve got 50 pence left.
There’s no way I would buy a Rupert Murdoch paper! Sorry! I think I would buy a pencil. I love pencils. I have a lot of pencils around the house.
Have you ever got to the end of a pencil?
Where do they all go?
I don’t know. But I am going to find out, because recently, for my birthday, a friend bought me the most beautiful proper pencil sharpener, one that you attach to the desk, so my life is changing.
You might finally get to the end of a pencil.
So you probably have a bit of change left over for a bar of chocolate. 
What would be your go-to chocolate? 
The dark one with sea salt. 
The Green and Blacks one, maybe? 
No, not the Green and Blacks, it’s … it begins with L. Lindt, the thin one. 
So it would have to be a small one, because otherwise we’re going over our £2 limit. 
If we’re talking about real chocolate though, I would buy Marcolini, but that doesn’t cost £2. Yeah, Marcolini chocolate. He’s a Belgian chocolate-maker.
What are you like when you’re drunk? 
Well, er… well, yesterday, I had a nice rosé, so I would say I was quite giggly and chatty, yeah.
What are your top three Madonna records?
Ooh … Secret, the one where she’s smoking a cigarette in the video. I think that album’s great, that whole album.
Is that Bedtime Stories?
It’s the album where Meshell Ndegeocello does a rap. I love her. I once asked her where the toilet was in a club, and she was so nice!
Really? How nice can you be when you’re telling someone where a toilet is?
It was at a gig she was playing – she wasn’t playing under her name. She was playing bass with some friends. She told me where the toilet was. She wasn’t remotely, like, ‘Do you know who I am?’
You need to tell me your other favourite two Madonna songs.
Ray of Light’s amazing, and also Don’t Tell Me.
Which was co-written by Joe Henry. Have you heard the Joe Henry version of Don’t Tell Me?
Yes! What she did with the song makes her a genius! Sorry! It really does.
Ok. Let’s go onto Abba. I know you love Abba because of your magnificent cover of The Day Before You Came. Let’s hear your Abba top three.
Oh, OK, so … there’s happy ABBA and there’s sad ABBA, isn’t there! There’s Scandinavian ABBA. So of the sad ABBA, I would obviously say The Day Before You Came. That was definitely … I mean, I remember that song very strongly, because I was a kid growing up in Germany, and it was like number one in Holland – we were on the Dutch border – forever. I’d also have Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me, Voulez-Vous! [sings], ooh, what else? … Oh, man! Why don’t we throw in a wild card? Why don’t we throw in Frida’s song which she did when she left ABBA…
I Know There’s Something Going On? 
Yes! Yeah, that’s a Phil Collins production, isn’t it? 
And it also brings us back onto the subject of brilliant hair, because that was Frida’s the classic post-divorce haircut, wasn’t it?
But she was punky, it was leather, wasn’t it? She had leather trousers too. I just thought it looked a bit sophisticated for that market, or whatever. Like she ran an art gallery or something, but maybe that was really what she always wanted to do, secretly! I love that record, that’s a cool record. And Frida had a very special kind of beautiful… she really looked European.
I liked the fact that she came from jazz, you can hear it in her voice and enunciation that she came from another world.
I think that’s very true about ABBA, is their rhythms, their harmony: I couldn’t sing one of their songs. They’re absolutely impossible to sing.
Apparently it shouldn’t work because you would not normally pair those two up, one’s a soprano and one’s a mezzo soprano, so when they sing together, there’s an edge of dissonance, which Benny and Bjorn, they varispeeded their harmonies, so it accentuated the difference between their voices. I think the unique ingredient you get with their vocals is the sense of something about to break apart. 
Yes, I think so. A real vulnerability about it, and it’s kind of the opposite of how we make records today, and especially pop records, where there’s this kind of awful feel of perfection, and I think people are missing, there’s a kind of fake vulnerability and over-emoting, but that real quality in the voices is being hammered out of records.
Have you ever made your own chutney? 
Well, yes!
I thought you might have done.
Well, chutney… the thing is, Malaysians call everything chutney, so I would just be talking about just making a load of coriander and chili.
Talk me through the process. 
I haven’t done it for a long time, but my mum would definitely – no, my dad used to make this chutney, and it was so nice. It was definitely garlic, chillies, coriander, tomatoes, lemon, everything.
If someone passed out in the street nearby, would you know what to do? 
No. I wouldn’t! I’m so sorry! I would flap [laughs]. 
Would you just run over to someone else and just sort of say, “Excuse me! Someone’s passed out?”
I would do that.
You can’t do CPR or anything like that? 
No, I’m not good in things like that. I wouldn’t be good.
Do you drive?
No. Well, I did, but no! It’s not good!
What happened?
Well, it took me forever to get my licence, and then actually what I found was – I did have a car for a year, and I just found that I was using the car when I could have walked, and it was so stressful in London, I just thought, ‘This is awful, why am I doing this?’
Did you ever succumb to road rage? 
I was often on the receiving end of it! But yeah, you start to have that thing, don’t you, where you get all tetchy about nothing.
How did you react to other people’s road rage?
Well, I am really bad at reacting to people when they shout at me or get angry, so not very well.
Are you one of life’s capitulators? Do you immediately defer?
I think, well… give me a context.
You step into the street without looking and I’m driving, and I brake suddenly, and I wind my window down, and go, “What the hell,” give you a load of abuse.
Oh, well … actually, I was in the wrong, wasn’t I, because I stepped into the road. I might just go, ‘Hey, just take a chill pill,’ Actually, I wouldn’t probably say that, in that that would be totally ineffectual! It wouldn’t help.
I’d love to see a lorry driver’s reaction to being entreated to ingest a chill pill!
I’m sure I would say something like that and it would be awful! 
Is there a chord sequence that you wish you’d written? 
Ooh, yes. Many. All of Cole Porter! Nature Boy. I am really sometimes scared that I like chord sequences which are not necessarily particularly poppy, so I’ve started to listen a bit to Barbara, this French singer-songwriter who died a few years ago. Barbara. And she… she famously, she’s great. Mal de Vivre is one of her songs. I think she had come through that experience of, you know, the Second World War and the Holocaust, and I think she was Jewish, and she had kind of an abusive childhood. When I was younger, I couldn’t listen to her music, because it was so… French. So French and she has a very particular way of singing which to our ear can sound so French, it’s almost impossible to understand it, and she really rolls her r’s. But recently, the accordionist I’m working with, he’s a very young guy, I asked him what he really liked, and he said Edith Piaf and Barbara. I’m really intrigued, because she has such a unique harmonic universe and melodic universe, and as you get older, some of those things are really… it’s really intriguing to find people with their own language… yeah, I’d love to, for example, sit down and try and understand how she creates one of her songs. Also, I love The Beatles, but it’s … they’re so imitated, it’s difficult to – sometimes it’s difficult to go back to them and discover again who they are, because you just – they have been mercilessly ripped off, so … yeah. Do you not find also that George Harrison has something really special about the way he plays a chord and yeah, I can understand why he felt slightly overshadowed, because his voice is really beautiful, too, and his writing voice is beautiful, it’s very distinct from John and Paul’s.” 
His hit rate in the Beatles – there aren’t many songs, but the quality is outstanding. And also, the harmonic oddness of some of them. 
Yes, exactly, it’s really unexpected, isn’t it, and yeah. I love so much black American music as well, but that’s also about being in the groove and all those things which are so elusive. I mean, people can try and imitate that but it comes through the church, it comes through having that way of speaking, and yeah, that’s music that I find really mesmerising.
This is going to sound weird. You were the person that broke the news to me that Donald Trump had become President.
Oh, my God, really?
Yes, because the night before it happened, I sent you a DM about setting up an interview [for Soho Radio], and I signed off with, “Enjoy the rest of your evening”, and then when I woke up, I picked up my phone, and your reply was on my screen, and you said, “Not such a great evening, Trump is President”. It’s quite funny that of all the people, you broke the news to me. What were you doing that night? Were you just watching it unfold on the television? 
You know, there are two nights, obviously, Brexit and Trump, and I think I was trying not to watch and I kept disappearing in the bathroom with my phone, I went, ‘Oh, God, it’s just not’. It’s funny, I remember Brexit more clearly, and then Trump’s presidency had an inevitability after that. There are so many huge question marks about the whole legality of Brexit and Trump, but you’re just like, “Can we not just put a stop on this for now and actually have a proper judicial investigation about what the hell happened?” I don’t understand why our political system cannot react a bit more efficiently to these huge scandals. At the moment, we’re really lagging behind, and, you know, because there are things that are so dark and difficult to understand. 
When I mentioned to my friends I was going to see you today, my friend Ian, about 25 years ago, fell in love with a Siberian woman and moved to Siberia, and he did some English lecturing at a state university there, and one student apparently would persistently ask him every week, “Please, what is the meaning of Tanita Tikaram’s Twist in my Sobriety?”
That’s really sweet! And I have a question for you: are they still together?
No! They had a baby and then when the baby was born, she disappeared back to her family. He’s fine now, he’s married again, he’s got another child. 
In your most recent studio album, Closer to the People, you appeared to be posed equidistantly between a whole bunch of European influences and a whole bunch of American influences, is that something you feel like you’ve done now, or are you just going to see where the muse takes you? 
Well, I have such a big love of both, and I wonder if that tension is what makes what I do interesting, and maybe I should always try and, you know, I love that open American sound, that way that their records, even today, they can capture something very special. I have such a love of Dusty in Memphis, and I have a huge love of those European-sounding records and Serge Gainsbourg, and also their harmonic richness. So no, I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but somewhere I’d like to marry them!”
I guess in any creative process you have to be open to serendipity.
“Exactly. I’m just waiting to know. I think one thing will come along, and I’ll go, ‘Ah, yeah That’s the way forward!’”
Needle Mythology