Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features backup vocalist Tessa Niles.
On July 23rd, 1983, 22-year-old backup vocalist Tessa Niles walked onstage with the Police for the first time when they kicked off their Synchronicity tour at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Niles had never played to more than 100 people at tiny clubs around her native England, and here she was facing 50,000 screaming Police fans.
“It was absolutely the maddest thing,” Niles says. “It was like baptism by fire. Literally just one week earlier, I was playing in a pub. I cannot over-exaggerate how mad it was to hear that many people screaming for a band, who at that point were at their absolute zenith. They could not get any bigger at that point. It was crazy.”
It was the beginning of an amazing career in which Niles had the chance to share the stage with David Bowie at Live Aid, Eric Clapton at his MTV Unplugged special, and George Harrison during his 1991 tour of Japan. She also sang in the studio on timeless hits like Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and Duran Duran’s “Come Undone,” along with tunes by the Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys, ABC, Gary Numan, Seal, Tom Jones, and many, many others.
We phoned up Tessa at her home in Tunbridge Wells, England, to hear how it all happened and what she’s doing now.
How is your quarantine going?
Oh, God. I’m so bored! I’m even considering doing a history-of-art course online. That’s how bored I am.
I know! To be honest with you, things could be way, way worse. One has to be grateful not to be on the front line of these things. I’m still working and doing stuff online, but friends of mine are really, really struggling. They just haven’t had work for too long and not too much in the future. I feel for them, terribly.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. Tell me the music you loved as a child. Who were your favorite artists?
That’s very easy. I was hugely influenced by my older brother and older sister’s music collection. I think anyone with older siblings, via osmosis, develops a love for their siblings’ music. And so Stevie Wonder was a huge, huge influence. And the Carpenters. Perhaps it was a bit of a precursor to what I would become because I was fascinated by their background vocals and harmonies. I always had a fascination with layered vocals and how they were made up.
Then I was into bands like Chicago and the Jackson 5. My sister loved R&B, so I had an R&B influence and lots of Tamla. It was all very eclectic.
How old were you when you realized you could really sing and impress people with your voice?
I think I must have been about 11 or 12. I won a radio talent contest. It just kind of clicked. “Perhaps this might be something …” It was the only thing I really loved. I was not academic at all. Thank goodness I went a different route because I failed miserably at school. I just felt that was a little bit of a turning point for me, winning this competition.
My brother’s friend good friend used to work for a recording studio, very small-type situation. I used to go down after school in my school uniform and sing harmonies for the local artists. I’d be paid a few shillings. That blew me away, the fact that I could actually make money doing something that I loved. Those were the two things that really made me think, “I’m alright at this.”
In your teenage years, did it start seeming like a viable career?
Yeah. I started doing more of these small-time sessions at studios. When I finished school at 16, my parents were, looking back at it, extraordinarily supportive. Higher education sort of wasn’t a thing much in the late Seventies. There wasn’t an expectation that I’d go to University. They didn’t really have any knowledge of the music industry, but they were hugely supportive. That’s the story throughout my life that, as luck would have it: I’ve always been surrounded by very, very supportive people.
What was the big break that allowed you to make this a career for yourself?
That would have to be getting a call to go work for the Police on their Synchronicity tour. Up until that point, I had been working as a pub singer, really. I was part of a jazz-funk band, and we were doing gigs to 100 people a couple of times a week. I thought that was pretty fabulous since I was doing what I wanted to do. I was singing and getting paid for it. It was just amazing.
And then I got a call asking if I could come down to a rehearsal studio the next day. They wouldn’t tell me who it was for. “You’ll be auditioning for a band that’s going on tour.” That’s all I was told until I actually pulled open the steel doors of the studio and saw Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland standing there and realized it was the Police.
How did they hear about you?
It’s actually a weird story. I was married at that point to a producer-arranger named Richard Niles. He was good friends with a woman named Marsha Hunt. She was the face of the Sixties, in some ways. She was used on the cover of Hair to advertise the musical with a great, big Afro. Then she went on to become a successful actor and performer. She then had a child with Mick Jagger as well.
She and my husband knew each other very well and she had been chatting to Sting at a social event they were at together. She said, “Let me call this person I know who might work for you.” That was my luck.
When you walk in and see the Police, are you in a state of absolute shock?
Yeah. I was terrified, number one. And also, catatonic. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to go and introduce myself.” There was nobody there to introduce me. I literally walked into this rehearsal room with just the three of them in there and had to find the courage to, in the closing bars of “Roxanne,” or whatever they were playing, introduce myself.
I was very clumsy and I felt very embarrassed, but the upshot of it was Sting said, “Listen, come to my house tomorrow and we’ll have a bit of a sing.” That was exactly what happened. That was my audition.
They had never had anyone on the stage with them before. Did he explain why he decided to bring in background singers?
Yeah. It was explained to me that Sting had problems with his vocals in the past on long tours. He sings at great volume and he doesn’t use a lot of vibrato. It was all full-on, massive, out-front singing. I think we were a bit of an insurance policy so he wouldn’t feel the need to sing every chorus. He’d have three backup singers there to carry the chorus for him if he didn’t want to sing it. As it was, that never happened. He sang everything fantastically and at full tilt. But that was the original thinking, that he’d lean on us.
Tell me about rehearsals. It must have taken a lot of work to weave three new people into the mix.
Yeah. It must have been really weird for them. As you said, up until that point, they never, ever had anyone else onstage with them, not even a brass section. Nothing. It must have been very odd for them.
But we were given very little instruction. We were told, “Go away. Listen to the entire catalog.” We had two days to do that and then we had five days’ rehearsal. Then the tour started. It was insane. To look back on that now, it was bonkers. Completely insane. But we did it.
The thing that background vocalists get used to is doing things and carrying out things with very little instruction. It’s one of the fortes we have is being able to do that. It was definitely like that on that gig.
Did you have to learn how to sing while the audience is screaming and there’s so much noise on the stage? It must have been hard at first to find your way through that madness.
It was. It really was something that nobody could teach. It was something we had to find out. To my detriment, during the tour, I found it really hard to sing like that every night. The gigs weren’t every night, but we were having to sing like Sting. We weren’t able to sing with vibrato either. We had to do that intense, piercing tone and kind of mimic him somewhat. That’s tough on the voice because vibrato really helps cushion, in some ways, your voice. By the end of the tour, my voice was shot. I think Sting’s was fine, though. It really was a steep learning curve for me.
Did you grow close to your fellow background singers, Michelle Cobbs and Dolette McDonald, on the tour?
Yeah. Very, very close. They were a phenomenon to me because they came in a little later. The initial two singers I was with were fantastic singers; they were brilliant, but they weren’t backing singers. They had rather unique voices and the blend wasn’t great. It just wasn’t their gig, to be fair to them. It just wasn’t. And then Michelle and Dolette came in and they were just seasoned pros. Dolette had done Talking Heads and Michelle had done Chic and so much work. I was really fortunate that I got to be around them and learn from them.
Entering a world of private jets and four-star hotels and everything must have been a real trip.
So insane. It was quintessentially what you would imagine a rock & roll tour to be. As you say, it was private jets. And at that point, they had three separate limos picking them up and taking them places because there was tension and they weren’t getting on great. They clearly wanted to keep the traveling to a minimum en masse. I had never dealt with anything like that before. I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights so much of the time.
As the tour was winding down, did you get the sense that it might be the last Police tour?
I felt that ahead of that time. I actually left before the end of the tour. Looking back now I’m like, “What the hell were you doing leaving one of the biggest tours of all time?” But I’ve kind of always done that. I’ve often bailed out before the end of something, perhaps because I sensed that the end was coming. I’m not quite sure. It wasn’t any real negative experience that I had, but I decided to move on. I don’t know how I had that presence of mind.
How did you transition from the tour to working in the studio with big-name artists?
I did an album [The Lexicon of Love] with a band called ABC. They were produced by Trevor Horn. That was the first time I met him and he became hugely influential in my career. I worked for him for decades.
That album was a huge success. I think it did well in the States, but it was huge here [in England]. Everyone wanted the girl that was on the ABC album. That’s very much how it used to work. People used to look at credits and that was your calling card, so that was my huge launch.
Tell me about working on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. That’s such a landmark, amazing record.
It is a landmark. Just phenomenal. I just had a call to go down to Mayfair Studios. I knew the writer and the producer, so I knew it was going to be fabulous. But I didn’t know it was Tina Turner when I showed up. I remember so well sitting in the control room and the fader is being pushed up and this hypnotic track came out [“What’s Love Got to Do With It”]. It just felt unbelievable. This was minus Tina’s vocals and it just felt so sexy. It was such a groove. And then Tina’s vocals came up and I went out of my mind. I could not believe how good it was.
Myself and the writer Terry Britten recorded just the most simple vocals. It was almost in unison to Tina, nothing fancy. It was just that little bit of flavor, just the little bit of color. I don’t know if the track needed it, but it certainly sounded great when it was all mixed. And then who knew? Who knew that was going to be the smash hit of the decade? It planted her firmly back on the map as well since she was making a comeback. And that became a calling card for me ever since, in a way.
I worked on four albums with Tina. There was “Simply the Best,” which was the anthem that everyone plays; whether it’s a sporting event or corporate event, they roll out “Simply the Best” because it’s just one of the tracks. I was so fortunate to have recorded on that.
What’s it like when you hear these songs that are all over the radio like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and you hear your voice, but few people really know you’re on it? That must be a weird thing.
Yeah, but it became so normal for me and so wonderful. People say to me, “You were successful as a session singer. Why didn’t you pursue a solo career?” I think I figured out pretty early on that I was a team player. I was really happy playing that supporting role. I didn’t have any real desire to be pushing myself. I don’t think I’m made of that stuff. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I think some people’s ego demands the spotlight. They need to be center stage. Then there’s people that simply don’t feel that urge.
A hundred percent. I was carving a route for myself and being successful. I didn’t crave anything else. This was my gig. I remember Lisa Fischer — who is a fantastic session singer — she said she questions anybody that says it’s not a worthy career. I’ve met so many people in my life that are under this misunderstanding that it’s a lesser job. “Oh, what a shame. You didn’t get to be a solo artist.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
You’re every bit as important as the drummer or the guitarist. It’s all part of creating the overall song.
I appreciate that. I think perceptions of backup singers are a bit skewed for some reason. I think they don’t quite understand what we do. I always say, “Try and imagine Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ without the backing vocals, without that call-and-response thing. You’d really miss them.” People kind of get it then. Because there’s a glamour element, particularly in the live setup … people say to me, “Are you there for the glamour or are you there as a musician?” Some people don’t get it.
Tell me about the Bowie/Jagger duet “Dancing in the Street.”
That was mad. That was a mad time. That whole Live Aid situation came about so quickly. It was one of those things like, “We have five days to rehearse and then we’re doing one of the biggest gigs of all time.” But we didn’t know it would be one of the biggest gigs of all time. We just thought it was a “charity” gig. We were all up for doing it, and working with Bowie was just a ridiculous pleasure. We were all so thrilled to be doing it.
Then they said, “We’re going to record ‘Dancing in the Street.’ Would you pop down to the studio?” This was a day or two before Live Aid. Mad. The timing of it was all very exciting and a bit bonkers.
I went down the studio. It was myself and Helena Springs, who was the other singer on the track, and recorded “Dancing in the Street.”
I’ve always heard they did the whole song in a single day and shot the video that night.
Yes. We went down to the shoot because they weren’t quite sure if they were going to use us in the video. As it turned out, it was like, “Please, we have two absolute dames.” They didn’t need anyone else [laughs].
Were they in the studio when you laid down the vocals?
They weren’t. I guess they were off doing press for Live Aid or goodness knows. They had already done their vocals. And that happened so much in my career. I’d be possibly one of the last things to go on a track. Basically, most of the track would be recorded and very often the background vocals come in at a later date. A friend of mine used to say it was like sprinkling fairy dust over the tracks when the background vocalist came on since it gave them a very different color and flavor. But it very often happened without the artist being there.
Tell me about rehearsing for Live Aid. David hadn’t played live for two years and this was a brand-new band.
I don’t think any of us had worked together before. Maybe Thomas Dolby, who was the musical director, had worked with the bass player [Matthew Seligman] and the drummer [Neil Conti]. I’m not quite sure. But most of us didn’t know each other quite well, so we had to learn a lot of songs because we didn’t know what songs Bowie was going to want to do.
When he came into rehearsals, the room light up. The only other experience I’ve had of someone with that extraordinary charisma that is tangible was working with Tina Turner. And she also had that energy where they walk in and it’s like 1,000 lightbulbs going on.
So he walks in and he’s so iconically cool and relaxed that it hurts. He turns to me and says, “So, what songs do you think I should do?” He turns to me! It was another one of those, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments. I remember saying, “My favorite song at school was ‘Rebel, Rebel,’ so you ought to do that somewhere.” He was like, “Yeah, yeah. OK.” It was like, “Oh, my God!”
He got a general consensus from the band about what songs they’d like to do, but I always like to think we did “Rebel Rebel” because of me. I’ll take that credit.
On the day of the show, did you get a chance to watch Queen play? Where were you?
Well, we were backstage. We were getting ready because we went on right after Queen. We were actually in a kind of makeup truck getting ourselves ready. I remember hearing when “Radio Ga Ga” was playing and hearing this crowd participation. I just thought, “Wow, this is so special.”
I can’t imagine walking onstage to not just a full Wembley Stadium of about 90,000 people, but the whole world watching on TV.
Oh, my God! Literally. Even at that point, I don’t think anyone of us realized just how big it was. It was really brought home to me when I watched the Queen biopic [Bohemian Rhapsody] because it opens up with Queen walking through those red velvet curtains backstage and walking onto the stage. That was exactly my viewpoint as well. We did the same walk. I remember being so surprised that the sound was brilliant as well. How could it have been that good? Nobody had time to soundcheck.
So he does the band introductions and he calls you Theresa.
Yes. There was that. In front of a third of humanity.
What was going through your mind? In the video, I can see you laugh.
What could I do? I did think it was kind of funny. He managed to get everybody, but when he got to me and Helena, he got us muddled up. He called me “Theresa Springs” which is half her name and not quite mine. There was nothing much I could do, but he did apologize profusely. He said, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” Needless to say, I forgave him. But that was a moment.
Tell me how you wound up working with Duran Duran on Notorious.
That’s another band I had to pleasure to do four or five albums with. They were just quintessentially cool, the ultimate party band. Way too much fun to be with. I got a call saying, “Come down to AIR studios [in London]; Nile [Rodgers] is producing us.”
I seem to remember I sang on a couple of tracks, but “Notorious” was the one that did incredibly well as a single. Again, I wasn’t shouting or screaming on it. There wasn’t that many vocals, but there’s a little bit at the beginning in the intro where there’s a very sharp intake of breath and I’m proud to say that it’s mine.
It’s that sprinkle of fairy dust that can make a song.
Yeah! You’re so right! Sometimes it is not what people imagine. A lot of times, you are boosting and reenforcing the chorus to really hit that hook home. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a tiny little sprinkling of fairy dust. Sometimes it’s mixed way back. Sometimes it’s way at the forefront. It can be really different things. It’s not always the real power vocals.
What were your other big jobs after the Police tour?
I did lots of time in the studio and lots of jingles. I used to do a lot of voiceover work as well at that time, which I loved. I love that mad thing of quickly going in and learning something and having to adjust. I think being a session singer is like being an actress, but you’re using your singing voice more than your spoken voice. I absolutely love that. And I was also on the road a lot with Clapton.
How did that start?
That came about by a recommendation by someone that became my singing partner throughout the Eighties. That’s a lady called Katie Kissoon. She and I had worked on a session together and she got the call from Eric saying, “Come down and do vocals on the album [August]. Do you know anyone you can bring along?”
Thankfully, she recommended me. We went down and Phil Collins was producing along with Tom Dowd. That was the beginning of the beautiful friendship. That went on for 12 years, working with Eric.
How did the album lead to the tour?
The album lead to some TV work. Then I got the call to join this insane, ridiculous bunch of musicians who … talk about a privilege to work with people like Nathan East, Steve Ferrone, and Greg Phillinganes. Honestly, they are the holy trinity.
Clapton can basically handpick any musician on the planet for his tours.
Yeah. You’re so right. They were halcyon days. It really was an incredible time. Eric was at his zenith. He made this phenomenal comeback. I think a lot of his pure blues fans didn’t really always like the stuff that he was doing in the Eighties. But it was the Eighties and we were making great pop and rock. They had to suck it up.
Tell me about Eric as a bandleader. How did you work with him to figure out your vocal parts?
That’s a really good question, since it speaks to me having to work and do things without any instruction sometimes. The thing about Eric is that he probably expected you just to know. I guess he felt, “Don’t hire a dog and bark yourself.”
He would just lead you to it. He trusted that you were at the top of your game and you were going to do your best possible. Of course, he would comment on things if they weren’t right or he wanted changes, but he largely left it up to you. That’s a great feeling, since there’s a huge sense in valuing people and we did feel very valued.
On a song like “Wonderful Tonight,” there’s a lot of space for you to do your thing.
Exactly. That was a fabulous one. He loves backing vocals and he loves the visual element it brought to him. He’s not a showman like other artists. He’s very much about the guitar and that’s very cool. But he loves the fact that Nathan, Greg, and Katie would dance about and loom about the stage. He loved that.
Tell me your other favorite Clapton songs to play with him.
We loved the track “Pretending,” which he very often opened with, actually. I loved doing that. Then when we got to the Unplugged stuff, that was a whole other gorgeous moment.
What’s your first memory of hearing “Tears in Heaven.”
We were rehearsing for MTV Unplugged. We hadn’t seen Eric for a while. He was basically still grieving. We all came back together and sat in a small circle on the rehearsal stage with almost nobody there. He said, “Listen, I’d like to do these broken-down versions of a lot of my well-known stuff. But I’ve written a few new tunes as well and I want to play them for you.”
He started to play “Tears in Heaven” and another song called “The Circus Left Town.” I just lost it. I think everybody did actually. We were all so emotional. Clapton’s emotions were so raw and so on the surface still. This was clearly a form of grieving for him. It was so emotional. I think we all collectively felt, “How will we be able to perform these songs?” They were so raw and so tender. Then, of course, if Eric could do them, we could too. But I just remember it was sheer emotion. We were not prepared for what we heard. It was deeply, deeply, profoundly personal songs.
How about working out the new arrangement of “Layla”?
A lot of those arrangements were worked out with Andy Fairweather Low, who was his support guitar player. I think Andy had done a lot of work on the arrangements. When we came in to rehearse, the guys sort of knew what they were doing. But it still required a huge amount of sensitivity to be able to change what was so well-known and turn them into something else, something uniquely different.
But it was a very organic experience. I think we knew each other all so well. We knew when to step forward and sing and perform and when not to. Very often, the taste that experienced musicians have is not playing at certain points. Spaces are as important as fills, if you like.
That Clapton Unplugged special became a sensation, and you were on camera a lot. Did you start to get recognized in public?
Not really. It was still very much like, “I do what I do” and I go home and I have a private life. I was very grateful for that since people in the public eye can’t do that. It’s not simple. I always thought I had the best of both worlds.
How did the George Harrison chapter start?
That came about because of Eric’s friendship with George. George wanted to do some live gigs, but he was really nervous about performing. The last time he’d done something it was the Dark Horse tour [in 1974] and that was a heck of a long time before. He really had some bad memories about it, not least of which was he lost his voice during the tour.
Eric said, “Listen, why don’t you use my band?” It just made perfect sense because George had been to see him so many times and he knew the guys in the band. I think it was very comfortable and familiar for him. And so we started rehearsals, and from Day One it was utterly fantastic, just brilliant.
Also, it became apparent quite early on that Clapton was not entirely happy about the situation. George came in and he wanted to move the musicians around a little bit. He didn’t want Ferrone straight behind him. He basically wanted to move things about for his needs and I think it irked Eric a bit that this was being done. And possibly, I don’t know, but I think maybe Eric was having second thoughts about it and having to be the sideman a little bit.
How was George different as a bandleader than Eric?
Oh, gosh. Eric is very cool and very, very laid back. He’s just comfortable with himself and so experienced. It’s like falling off a log for him, touring and working with a band. It was just easy and comfortable. It was no shock or thrill. It was a well-oiled machine.
With George, it was a lot more almost experimental in a way. They are very different characters. George would come in and he was the quintessential Peter Pan type of character. He was very funny. It was that wonderful, dry, Liverpudlian-type of humor that he had. He was generous in a different way. He’d give little gifts to people and he made a giant cake of the stage set with all the players on it. He was just quirky and funny. Maybe that’s because this was a different thing for him and he hadn’t done it for so many years. You kind of got the sense that he was very nervous for it, but excited as well.
Do you think he enjoyed the tour?
I think he really did. I think he felt safe. I think he felt supported and comfortable. Also, we were in Japan, which was done for a reason. Sadly, the tour didn’t go anywhere else, which was an absolute crime since it would have been so well-received. But I think he wanted to go to Japan and do it just because he wasn’t sure entirely how well it would work out and he wanted to test the waters. But oh, my God, in Japan he’s a demigod.
You got to sing with him on “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” These are some of the greatest songs of all time.
We were all having to pinch ourself and trying to look cool, but we got to sing with a Beatle every day. It was just magnificent working out those harmonies. And George would sit down with us and tell us the parts that John and Paul used to sing. We were like, “What? This is insane!” It was lovely and lots of fun.
Going back a few years, can you tell me about singing on the Stones album Steel Wheels?
That was fabulous. I was thrown in the studio. I remember that Mick was very preoccupied with what was happening in his love life at the time and someone was telling me he was dating some Italian supermodel [Carla Bruni], which turned out, I think, to be Eric’s ex-girlfriend. That was a little bit fraught.
But the energy in the studio was unbelievable. Jagger is like a kid. He’s dancing around and having fun in-between vocals.
Tell me about “Come Undone” by Duran Duran.
You’re mentioning such great stuff! That came around when [guitarist] Warren Cuccurullo was in the band. I’m a huge fan of Warren’s. I think he really elevated their sound enormously. They were a great band, but Warren had serious chops. He was a serious musician. I think he really changed, for better, the Duran sound. Doing that track was fantastic. I remember it was recorded in Warren’s house, in his studio. He kind of brought the entire studio into his little house in South London.
I remember that Nick [Rhodes] and he were basically producing the session and asking me to jump through various vocal hoops and try different things on the chorus and try it in different ways. My initial idea for the female vocal was quite soft and breathy and sexy. I think at one point, Nick said, “Listen, unleash the diva. Just go for it. Bring her out and let’s see what you got.”
I tried all sorts of different things and didn’t quite realize it was a solo piece in a way. It turns out to be such a fabulous thing for me since so many people remember the track and like it and like the vocals.
You’re doing more than background vocals. It’s basically a duet with you and Simon.
At times, yeah.
How did it feel to hear that song everywhere when your voice was so prominent?
It was a real thrill. Perhaps that was a point where I thought, “Damn, it would have been nice to have had a credit.” I’m sure it probably said “backing vocals T. Niles,” but I felt it was more than your average kind of vocal part. It might have been nice. You know what? It is what it is. When you’re a voice for hire, you’re a voice for hire.
You could easily make an argument that it should have been “Duran Duran featuring Tessa Niles.”
I think so. I think nowadays there wouldn’t be a question about it. In those days, maybe the “featuring” thing wasn’t done as much. It would be much different now. But you know what? Honestly, it’s water off a duck’s back. I was working so much and had so many wonderful opportunities that I didn’t give it much thought.
You never went on a long tour with them, right?
I never did an extensive tour with them, but probably a few weeks at a time. I did TV with them and did Letterman. We opened the first Hard Rock Hotel and that was so much fun.
I think the first time I saw you live was the Clapton Crossroads concert at MSG in 1999. Tell me about playing with Bob Dylan that night.
It’s just another “pinch me” moment in a lifetime made up of them. It wasn’t until I wrote a book that I realized quite what I’d done. When you’re on your path and you’re moving forward, you’re not really overwhelmed by what you’re doing. It’s just what you do. It’s “another day, another artist, another gig.” It was only when I stood back from it and decided to write about all these things that I thought, “Damn. This is something.” It just felt extraordinary. I remember working with Mary J. Blige that night. I was a huge fan of hers and I remember being so intimidated by her. She’s intimidating.
Did you meet Dylan?
I didn’t really interact with him, no. That’s a shame. I think I have the kind of personality where sometimes I’m so busy doing things and maybe in my head a little bit, I forget to understand the importance of something. I remember specifically working with Billy Preston [on tour with Clapton] and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t hang with him or spend more time with him. He’s someone I just think would be extraordinary to be around, learn from, listen to. Sometimes I was just busy being the side person and not pushing myself forward to experience these things in a certain way.
Tell me about the Prince’s Trust charity concert in 2004 where you did “Video Killed the Radio Star” with the Buggles.
That was a heavenly show. Working with Trevor Horn is such a joy in my life. I’ve done so many things with him that I’m proud of vocally. Trevor was the kind of producer that was desperately unimpressed by my bag of tricks. Trevor always wanted me to push the envelope, to do more, to do something crazy, to think out of the box. That’s a fantastically creative way to work. There were so many producers I worked with that knew exactly what they wanted, where they wanted it, how they wanted it. That’s always totally cool. I like to work like that. But with Trevor, it was always an adventure. You never knew where it was going to end up.
Why did things start slowing down for you in the 2000s?
The industry was changing and I had become a mother. I had twin daughters in 1998 and, to be honest, the very last thing I wanted to be doing was leave them behind. And I’d waited a good few years. I was 36. The idea of not being a full-time mother was not in the plan. I felt I had those best years and the industry was really changing so much around me. I decided perhaps it was time to back off a bit.
Then we made the decision as a family to move to South Africa so that I could support my husband’s business, continuing on in a supporting role as mum and wife. But I was really ready for it because I had those wonderful years and I did the things I wanted to do. There was no place I wanted to be other than bringing up the kids.
Doing the book must have been fun.
Huge fun. Piecing it together and doing timelines and figuring out when things happened and forensically going through it was quite the experience. Literally, my life was flashing before my eyes, at times, the good and the bad and some of the ugly. It was the most fantastic thing I’ve ever done. The discipline that was required to sit down and write it was very new for me, but I think I grew having done it. It was the most wonderful experience.
Tell me about your work now.
I wrote a show with a girlfriend called Gina Foster, who is also a session singer. We wanted to kind of, if you like, set the record straight. We wrote a show called Unsung Singers: The Brits Behind The Hits. It’s a revue-type show where we sing a lot of the hits that we’ve been involved with. We talk about the backstory, talk about what the recording sessions were like and I talk about Live Aid and the Police and jingles. There are four singers and we all tell our stories.
We’re also documenting the history of British backing singers. That’s a story that hasn’t really been told. It was told in 20 Feet From Stardom, which was really interesting and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. When I saw that documentary, I was like, “This is amazing! Finally, background singers are being celebrated.” But I thought, “Where are the Brits? There are loads of us that have been doing it.”
Also, the main difference in what we do in the show and 20 Feet From Stardom is there was a little bit of “Oh, poor me. I could have been a star” element to that movie. That’s probably true. They should have been extraordinary stars, people like Merry Clayton. But ours was much more of a celebration. We are like, “We had the best gig in the world.”