Sharleen Spiteri on Texas’ 25th anniversary

Sharleen Spiteri. Picture: Contributed

Sharleen Spiteri. Picture: Contributed

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TEXAS are celebrating their 25th anniversary. For Sharleen Spiteri it might be a chance to take stock, but don’t expect her to get lost in nostalgia, she’s too busy looking to the future, writes Claire Black

What does a pop star get for a 25 year anniversary present? A carriage clock? A Rolls Royce? An island in the Caribbean? “Jackshit,” says Sharleen Spiteri in that inimitable, deadpan Glasgow voice. “No,” she corrects herself, “I did get a top five album which I’m very, very happy about. That’s pretty good going. F*** the carriage clock, just give me the record sales. Give me the chart position, that’s what I want.” She laughs.

I kind of think if you’re going to do something do it completely or don’t bother

Sharleen Spiteri

Sweary, sardonic, straight-talking, some things don’t change even in a quarter of a century.

Texas got their first record deal in 1988. Since then there have been six number one albums and 38 million records sold. Southside, the band’s first album debuted at number three. Texas 25, the latest, a collection of reworked classic hits as well as four new songs, pitched up at number five. You can understand why the band’s front-woman is happy, carriage clock or not.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say she’s a little bit distracted. We were supposed to be meeting in person but it hasn’t happened. It means that instead of trooping into an office in central London, she’s stayed at home in Primrose Hill for a blether on the phone. “I have actually got dressed,” she says when I mention she might as well have just stayed in her pjs. She is, though, watching The Dog Whisperer. No, not just watching, she is “mesmerised” by it.

“I’m sitting in front of the fire, doing interviews and in between I’m watching him,” she says. “It suits me right down to a T.” I tell her I’ve interviewed Cesar Milan, the man himself. “You have not,” she says, sounding genuinely impressed.

How funny that a woman who has more famous mates than you could shake a stick at (Madonna, tick, Gwyneth Paltrow, tick, Stella McCartney, tick) is impressed that I’ve interviewed the diminutive dog man. She’s less impressed when I tell her that he tapped me the way he does the dogs a couple of times during the interview. “Tapped you where?” she asks, sounding as though if she’s not pleased with the answer she might head round to his for a stern word. Just the shoulder I tell her, he was demonstrating a technique.

“I remember years ago there was a Scottish guy, I tried to find him for years, he was a dog whisperer,” she says. “He was on Richard and Judy [This Morning] – it was about 20 years ago – and he was like, a dog psychic.” He was, as she remembers it, amazingly accurate in his interpretation of a dog’s behaviour. “I needed to find this guy. I looked on the internet and everything but I never did track him down. Blond hair…”

I suddenly realise that I don’t know if Spiteri even has a dog. “I’ve got a dog,” she says. “I’ve got a terrier. Of course. Why would I have anything else but a terrier?”

It fits. Spiteri has always had attitude. She’s always done her own thing, always had her own look. The short hair, the guitar slung round her neck, the androgynous style. Born and raised in Glasgow, the elder of two daughters of a Maltese/Italian father who was a captain in the merchant navy and an Irish/German mother who was a window dresser and seamstress, there was always the sense that Spiteri was doing exactly what she wanted to do and on her own terms. And maybe in the attitude there was always a sense too of her vulnerability, of something more tender being hidden just beneath the surface.

Blethering to Spiteri is easy; she’s funny, quick-witted, never short of an opinion. She’s got timing and that laconic delivery that you find in Glasgow boozers where there’s usually someone lurking near the fruit machine who is funnier than half the folk who appear on Live at the Apollo. When she tells me the story of her doing a turn at her granny’s, it’s properly hilarious. “I’ve told this story before,” she says as an opener.

I know, I’ve already read it before, but that doesn’t stop it from being laugh-out-loud entertaining. There was wee Sharleen standing “in the wings”, that’d be the hall, watching her big cousin Caroline singing I Once had a Dear Old Mother. And all the aunties would be lapping it up. They’d be moved to tears, sniffing into their hankies, by the story of a woman dying and leaving her daughter behind, then becoming an angel to watch over her. And what was Sharleen thinking? “Oh my god, this song is so boring,” she says. “This is mind-numbing. I was about eight and I was thinking, this is s***. I’d be standing in the doorway waiting to get on and do Ten Guitars or Banks of the Ohio and it was like, come on let’s liven things up a bit, let’s get everyone going. I’d go on and clear the room. ‘Let’s go and make a cup o’ tea, Gina’” she mimics the aunties. “I’d be like, motherf***ers. They wouldn’t know a good song if it hit them in the face.” She laughs.

In a way, she says, that’s been the story of Texas. She can remember sitting in a record company office playing Black Eyed Boy and the feedback was less than effusive. They weren’t really ‘hearing it’. “I remember that conversation exactly,” she says. “It was like, ‘oh we don’t know if you’ve got any singles.’” She reels off the songs they were playing, each one a hit from the six-times platinum, White on Blonde. “Black Eyed Boy, Say What You Want, Halo, they were all there.”

They were sent away to work on what they’d played. And they did. Not on Black Eyed Boy, they knew it was just fine. “We sent the exact same track back to them a while later and they were like, ‘amazing, you’ve nailed it’. And you think, what a load of wankers.”

Texas have always been about pop, perfectly honed three-and-a- half-minute singalong songs influenced as much by Motown as anything else. There have been huge successes, but there have been times too when they’ve been out of fashion. Truth be told, they’ve never really been cool but you’d be hard pushed to find a CD collection that doesn’t have a sneaky wee copy of White on Blonde, or The Hush or The Conversation. Maybe never being cool is why they’ve lasted so long. Recorded in New York, London and Glasgow and mixed in Nashville (“It’s not a bad life, is it?”) Texas 25 really does breathe new life into their songs, some of which are more than 20 years old.

Spiteri is obviously pleased with it – not just how it’s selling – and so she should be. Whatever they did in the Queens studio of Truth & Soul where they did most of the recording, the tracks sound rejuvenated. “It could have gone horribly wrong but we never really thought of that,” she says. “We just thought, of course, that’s what we’ll do, we want to give people something new. Then after you finish it and certain people hear it they’re like, ‘oh, it’s really good. I was a little bit worried….’ And it’s like, what did you not say that in the first place for? But it turned out amazingly well.”

What they really wanted to show, she says, was their songwriting. It’s that which has allowed them to stick around for 25 years she says. “They’re well-written songs and they sound timeless,” she says. “With some of those songs I was 18 years old and then others I was in my twenties and thirties and forties, a lot of songs have been done at different times in our lives so it was like, what would it be like if 
we recorded these different periods of our lives as one journey alongside where we are right now, with the new songs. That’s what our aim was.”

As well as a chance for a celebration, anniversaries usually also prompt a bit of looking back to what’s gone before. But Spiteri is not the nostalgic sort.

“I don’t look back, I’m always looking forward. I’ve done that, move on. Move on. Forward, forward, forward. When I’m in the moment I thoroughly enjoy it, I literally take everything from it. And then it’s like, right, we’ve done that, move on.”

I’m not surprised by this. It fits with Spiteri’s straight-talking, no nonsense approach. I’m thinking terrier here. “I mean, you can be talking and remembering things and it’s like wow, we did that. I was talking recently about grunge. We did festivals with The Pixies, with Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam. We did all that. I forget that we did all those things sometimes.”

When Texas formed in 1988, they were just kids. The four band members (Spiteri, Johnny McElhone, Ally McErlaine and Eddie Campbell, who joined a while later) have known each other their whole adult lives.

“We were teenagers when we met,” she says. “We knew each other in our twenties when we were living it large, then through girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, divorces, near-death experiences, the whole lot.”

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It’s true. When guitarist Ally McErlaine suffered a massive brain aneurysm in 2010 when he was just 41, not only did it look like he wouldn’t recover, it looked like Texas was over too. His recovery was nothing short of miraculous and a week after coming out of his coma he was talking about wanting the band to go on tour. There have been other bumps along the way, too. The end of Spiteri’s first marriage to the father of her daughter, Misty, 12, was the catalyst for her solo album, Melody. The sound is trademark Spiteri, but the subject matter demanded she worked alone. “With that record I had to mentally and emotionally get stuff out of my head,” she says. “It was a very feminine, personal record to me. It was never going to be about us going into a studio to make a record that then we could go on stage with.” Even then, though, she never thought of herself as a solo artist, she was always clear that she wasn’t launching a solo career. “There’s nothing that I do that doesn’t involve Texas,” she says.

The fact is, Spiteri never wanted to be a solo artist. She always wanted to be in a band. It suited her. It still does. The first part of the tour for Texas 25 is something completely different. It’s pared back, Texas as four-piece skiffle band, a chance for audiences to see and hear the band in a much more intimate way. “The show pretty much depends on the audience,” she says. People have been saying it sounds like a request show but she’s having none of it. “Is it hell a request show, I don’t do requests,” she says. “There’ll be a skeleton set list but depending on what happens we might play something that we’ve not played for years or whatever, but the show is really based on conversation, talking about the records getting made, the people behind them, the tours, all that. It’s not scripted so god’s honest truth, I don’t really know how it’s going to go.”

It sounds terrifying. “Once a hairdresser, always a hairdresser,” she says. “That’s the way it is. It’s good to be scared, it’s good to be nervous. I live in fear of becoming one of those people who walks on stage and it’s literally like they’re going through the motions. Personally, I can’t understand how you can even do that when you’re playing music because it’s such a physical thing. But I still fear it – oh god! I know how it makes me feel when I go to see someone and it’s like, come on, put your back into it. It does really piss me off.”

Hairdressing gets mentioned a lot. Maybe it’s a bit surprising that a job she did 30 years ago still feels so important. But then again, hairdressing was more than just a job to Spiteri.

After a bruising time at school where she was horribly bullied, getting a job in Irvine Rusk where everyone was fashion forward with “mental hair” allowed Spiteri to start becoming exactly who she wanted to be. She’s still pals with people she worked with then. Listen to the “Primrose Hill set” sniping if you want, but Spiteri knows who she is and what she’s about. She always has. The attitude she’s talking about – the gallus, get on and do it approach – has been around since then. That’s how she landed the Texas gig in the first place. Spotted DJing in a club in Glasgow one night, a man approached and asked if she could sing. She said yes. He asked if she could write. She said yes. It was, she has said, “pure brass neck”. It was also pure Spiteri.

“I kind of think if you’re going to do something, do it completely or don’t bother,” she says. “And in all seriousness that’s if I’m cooking dinner. I’m either like, are we getting a carry out or am I cooking?” The tone of voice in which this is delivered brooks no malingering, indecisive replies. Know what you want and do it. It makes me laugh because Spiteri’s partner, Bryn Williams, is a chef. “I don’t really dip my toe into anything,” she says. “I’m either in or out and that’s it. I’m like that in my friendships, my relationships, everywhere.”

She doesn’t really know where this approach comes from. But she’s clear that in her family the emphasis was on enjoying life and treating everyone the same. “I can walk out from meeting someone and think, what an arsehole, but before I go in I’m not making any assumptions,” she says. “I enjoy people, I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy chatting with strangers. I like hearing people’s stories. I’m a songwriter and that stuff is an essential part of what feeds my songwriting.”

The truth is, she says, musicians are geeks. They might become rock stars but that’s not how they start out. “It’s that bit of not quite fitting in that takes you to the place you get to,” she says. “Once you’ve got to that stage you don’t need to fit in and people don’t want you to fit in, they want you to be something else. But that’s the thing I got bullied for at school.”

The bullying Spiteri suffered at high school was brutal and it had a massive impact. She didn’t tell her mum and dad. She used to buy bottles of Benylin to help her sleep at night. It ended with a fight. Spiteri, threatened one too many times, snapped. It put an end to the bullying but it put an end to school too.

“The weird thing is I was relatively quiet at school. I was quiet because I was thinking, what am I here for? That was my big thing. I was in with a whole load of people a lot of them that I didn’t have anything in common with but we were all being pushed in the same direction. It wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in.”

She remembers her report cards from school. Her mum “used to go mental” when they arrived. For a number of years, the message remained the same: it said Sharleen’s in a world of her own. They quibbled over her understanding and use of language.

The irony isn’t lost on her that’s she’s made her living writing songs. “[Being different] becomes a strength. When you’re quite straightforward and you don’t play games, people don’t like it. It isn’t until later in life, when you’re an adult that it can work for you, but there again it works for you in a certain environment. As a musician and the front person of a band it works really well. But maybe if I worked in an office it wouldn’t work so well.”

I can’t imagine Spiteri working in an office. But I can imagine her cutting hair, setting the world to rights over a set of lowlights. She’s still got that kind of chat, that ability to just talk and be smart and funny. That’s why these intimate gigs are a tantalising prospect, a chance to just hear Spiteri shoot the breeze. Whatever happens, it won’t be scripted.

For now, though, she can get back to The Dog Whisperer. “I’ve still got it on,” she says. “I don’t fancy him tapping me on the shoulder,” she says. “I might bite his finger off.” She laughs. But I believe her.

An Evening With Texas is at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall on 22 April, Dunfermline Alhambra on 24 April and Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on 25 April. For tickets go to www.livenation.co.uk or www.ticketmaster.co.uk

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