Growing older suits Alison Moyet far better than fame ever did. But she is puzzled at the enthusiastic reception for her comeback, when she and her music have never been away
FOR many in the public eye, growing older really is a fate worse than death. They fight gravity and time with an arsenal of knife, poison and gruelling workouts and then, when that cocktail stops making any kind of difference, they disappear quietly, refusing to be photographed lest the photoshopped memory of their lithe, youthful selves is replaced by something a little more real, a little more honest.
In the 1980s, Alison Moyet had it all going on. Part of synth-pop duo Yazoo, she helped reinvent British dance music and, when she and Vince Clarke went their separate ways, she was an even more successful singer in her own right, winning a Brit award in 1984 for Best Female Artist.
But when I ask her, nearly 30 years on, and now aged 52, what the best bits are about growing old, she doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, there are so many things. No longer needing the approval of other people. It gets to the point where you’ve figured out what your moral compass is and what you deem as success, you follow your own rule book – that’s a brilliant, liberating place to be.
“I like the invisibility of age,” she adds. “I know lots of people don’t, but that happens to be a bonus for me as I’ve felt stared at for most of my life. Even as a kid, I was one of those kids who was remarkable, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
That sense of coming to terms with who you are is, in a way, what has inspired her first album since 2007, the critically acclaimed The Minutes. “I saw the film The Tree Of Life,” she says. “Loads of people were there and they were all thinking they were going to get something light and throwaway, and it’s this slow-moving arthouse film that is actually quite ponderous. If you’re in the mood for that, you get the point. But all these people were leaving – then right at the very end of the film there’s this redemptive moment. It just occurred to me that sometimes we jump too soon.”
She started writing the album from a romantic standpoint, as she has done so often in the past, having grown up in the wake of Janis Joplin and her ilk. “And I actually thought, ‘I’m not remotely motivated by romantic love, it’s not what interests me’. It’s far more about observation and enjoying the fact that I’m entirely insignificant, as are we all. And there’s real freedom in that, in knowing that we’re all transitory and that we come and we go and we’re gone, and that really is all right.”
Born in Billericay to a French father and English mother, Moyet left school at 16 and was training to become a piano tuner when she placed an ad in Melody Maker, looking for a semi-professional band. What she found was Vince Clarke, fresh from mainstream success with Depeche Mode. She was 21 and, with Yazoo’s debut single Only You charting at No 2, officially famous.
“I didn’t react well to it,” she says. “For one thing, it wasn’t something I was seeking, so it came upon me accidentally, very, very quickly, and when you’re this black sheep, odd, awkward girl, it didn’t fall naturally on my shoulders. You go out to work and everyone seems well socialised and urbane and confident and I was this dark, awkward, aggressive stutterer and it just didn’t marry.”
However, creatively, it was enormously rewarding and experimental. “I was blown away by the whole process of it. It really was an exciting time. There was a lot of artistic leeway and record companies trusted acts to come up with music that was interesting to people.
“Only You entered the charts at 157. You can imagine what would happen now – there would just be laughing then you’d never record again. But the brilliant thing about those days was that you could go in there, radio DJs could choose their own playlists pretty much, and we just went up ten or 20 places and it took a couple of months to get to No 2.
“Again, in those days you didn’t have any mid-weeks or predictions or any of that, so you only found out where your record was when you were tuning into the countdown on the radio stations – it was a really fantastic time.”
Yazoo lasted two years – spawning five singles and two albums – before imploding, Clarke going on to form The Assembly; Moyet launching a solo career. The hits continued to come, including Invisible, Love Resurrection, All Cried Out and Is This Love?, as well as covers of Love Letters (whose video featured French and Saunders) and That Ole Devil Called Love. She also appeared at Live Aid, giving an impromptu performance with Paul McCartney on Let It Be when the former Beatle’s microphone failed.
In the interim she has had three children (two are now grown up, one is a teenager), released a Grammy-nominated album, played Chicago’s Mama Morton on the West End stage, toured with Michel Legrand and with Jools Holland, climbed back on stage in Smaller with bosom buddy Dawn French… and yet The Minutes is considered a comeback?
“I’ve worked continuously,” she agrees, “but that’s all right. A career is like soundwaves: there are times you come to prominence and are noticed and other times you go under the radar, and that’s not always reflective of the quality of the work. Some of my biggest hits I’m not particularly fond of; some of the stuff people haven’t really noticed at all I think is fantastic.
“I’m 52 now and I started off when I was 20 as a recording artist. Your voice changes in that time. Things that are relevant to you when you’re 20 are not when you’re older, so it’s not a matter of dissing that material; I’m also aware it has formed important points of people’s lives, and one of those numbers will always be their beloved song.”
But she adds: “I can’t sing Invisible any more. That’s got so much to do with the fact that as I’ve got older I’ve got more entrenched in my Europeanness and the idea of faking this mid-western accent and using words like ‘dime’ just starts to feel foolish.”
Having children, Moyet says, has also made a difference to the way she works. “It changes the way you write music just in terms of the fact you then have to write depending on how full the house is. I imagine men having these facilitating wives so they can just go off saying, ‘Writing is my art’, but that didn’t happen in my life and I don’t know for how many women that does happen. And it changes how you tour.
“But at the same time, it saved me from myself. I think I’ve got an addictive personality. I’m socially awkward, I’ve had long periods of bad depression and the kids changed that. You stop being eccentric and that’s really important for someone in my job because it’s very easy to think that what you’re doing is actually important when it so isn’t.”
Looking at female stars now, she’s saddened by the compromises they’ve made. “I don’t want to sound wanky about it, but I feel disappointed about how far we’ve moved away from the freedoms we won for women in the 1970s, during punk. As a young girl, I always felt very different from other women and the goals they seemed to have – the nice marriage, nice shoes and happy kids. With punk there was a different edge being offered up for women. So I find it a little disappointing that so many cover shots are kind of wank pictures. Some of these young women feel they have become strong and powerful without actually understanding they’re still playing the same game and a lot of people don’t really care what they sing.”
But it’s not just the female artists who have lost control in the increasingly homogenised music industry. “It’s a medium that’s not as important as it used to be and is incredibly expensive to market,” she says. “So much has been taken over by The X Factor and The Voice artists because, for the record companies, they’ve already had their promotion paid for and they don’t even have to develop those careers. They just dump them and tout the next lot that come in.”
And while you could argue that the 1980s, with its new romantics and bonkers haircuts, the Lycra and make-up and expensive videos, were all about image, she adds: “Everyone’s so stylish now, aren’t they? Looking back at the 1980s, it really was a period for freaks; great or rubbish, you really had a sense of who you were listening to and you could get a sense of whether someone was a bit of a knob or not. Now everyone is beautiful, they’re incredibly trendy and stylish, so you’re not buying into that person any more. You’re buying a lifestyle. I don’t know if that’s my age. I’m so f***ing bored of the sound. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard the music from years before and now you hear these rehashes and they’re tired and there’s so much mimicry you can’t tell one thing from another.”
Which makes it even more surprising that Moyet was given the freedom to produce an album of original work at this stage in her career. “When you’re an act of a certain age – solo female singers – they want you to do Etta James covers and stuff like that. You get stuff whispered in your ear: ‘Nobody’s going to be interested in this; no one’s going to want new material.’ They want a Mother’s Day record or a Valentine’s Day record. There really is an element of underestimating the audience of my generation. We had prog rock and punk and really edgy folk and interesting music formats – much more cutting edge than my kids get to experience – so to assume someone of my generation only ever wants to listen to cover versions is a folly.
“Sometimes you think, ‘OK, is this a career? Is this a vocation? Is this a job?’ There are times you don’t want to be battling upriver. But every time I’ve tried to make myself compromise, to make life easier for other people, I’ve ended up regretting it so it comes to the point that I’m a cheap date. I’ve sold a lot of records, I’ve made a lot of money, so I don’t have to work. Not so that I can live on yachts, but it just means I don’t have to. The only thing that motivates me, and it’s the same thing that always motivated me, is to learn and to try and find out what else I can do with my writing. Those are the things in my life that have given me the greatest pleasure,” she adds. “It’s not the multi-million sellers; it’s standing behind something I really believe in, that I really think is quality, and actually seeing it into being.”
And that, it turns out, is what The Minutes is all about – those brief moments of happiness in a life that is, for the most part, pretty average. “All this time you felt you were getting it wrong, that everyone else was living their life better than you, that you’ve messed up your loves or your life… all these things,” she says. “Then you get to a point where you understand that joy only does happen in those brief minutes that are suspended within pedestrian years. When you get your head round that, you feel less cheated and you feel more sanguine about it all.”
Fame, she reflects now, was wasted on her. “There’s a part of me that feels very ungrateful for not realising quite how lucky I’ve been. But the fact that I’m still here now, singing for a living, is an incredible thing. That heady time of being a frontline popstar, I’m not sorry to see the back of it. But to have actually got to a place where you can record your own art without any interference, that for me is one of my minutes, one of the glorious times strung between pedestrian years.”
• Alison Moyet is performing at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 4 October, and Edinburgh Usher Hall, 5 October. www.alisonmoyet.com
• Follow Ruth on Twitter @Ruth_Lesley