DCSIMG

Pellow talk

From a distance, you could almost mistake him for George Clooney. The sharply tailored black suit and crisp white shirt set off the caramel tan and salt and pepper stubble to perfection. Marti Pellow has gone all Hollywood on us. Until he opens his mouth, that is. "This place has changed, hasn't it?" he says in a pure unadulterated Clydebank twang. "I remember I used to come here to visit the old soldiers when I was in the Boys' Brigade."

We're sitting in the grand Gothic surroundings of Mar Hall hotel, where chandeliers, tapestries and vases of artfully arranged flowers are the order of the day. Back when Pellow was growing up just across the river, this was the Erskine Hospital for ex-servicemen. Like the building, the man born Mark McLaughlin, has changed.

Most of us feel we know Marti Pellow. Since Wet Wet Wet's first hit with Wishing I Was Lucky in 1987, he's been a fixture in our collective consciousness - popping up on our radios, TV screens and occasionally on the front pages of the papers. He splits his time between homes in England and America but, unlike other famous ex-pats, the 41-year-old singer hasn't lost the goodwill of his peers. Certainly, Pellow is never away from Scotland for long - he's always coming back, to perform or visit his family.

"I was having an argument, well, more a heated debate with my father about the Clyde this morning," he says. "I said, 'Look, they're bringing all these houses and redevelopment back in,' and he said, 'Aye, but they'll charge you three or four hundred thousand pounds a flat and what part of the community's going to be able to afford that?' It really has changed and you've got to hope it's for the best."

When Pellow gets started about Glasgow he doesn't stop, praising the architecture, the people and the energy of the city. "After the tail end of Thatcherism we had to get quite canny, and when Glasgow became the city of culture in 1990 you could get your square slice and your croissant. We had discovered culture - as if we hadn't been bathing in it for hundreds of years before," he says. "I love the way Glasgow makes me feel inside."

Not so long ago, you wouldn't have caught Pellow wearing his heart on his sleeve like this. His rise and fall was played out in the public eye - first the Wets split up acrimoniously and, not long after, Pellow's heroin addiction was revealed, following an overdose. He wasn't grinning any more and interviews painted a picture of someone sick of playing everyone's favourite pop star.

The comeback started in 2000 with his debut solo album Smile. Since then he's carved out a niche for himself, touring on his own and with the Wets, recording a further two albums and treading the boards on Broadway as Billy Flynn in Chicago. He's back, tougher than before, but more comfortable in his own skin.

Reaching for his cup of coffee, Pellow says, "This is about as dangerous as it gets for me these days, it really is". Without coming out and saying so, it's clear that there are some subjects he's not going to get into. And so the heroin days are dismissed with a quip, as is speculation about his long-term relationship withhis fiance, Eileen Caterson. He'll tell you about his childhood spent swimming over at the Bowling Basin on the Clyde or admit that his dad brews tea so strong it looks like tar, but aspects of his private life are off limits. So it's just as well we're here to talk about his music. Moonlight Over Memphis, Pellow's new album, was produced by Willie "Pops" Mitchell, a legend in soul circles for his work with singers including Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and a certain Al Green. He and Pellow have been friends for more than 20 years.

"When Wet Wet Wet signed our first record deal, the company asked, 'Who would you like to produce it?'" says Pellow. "So we looked at records we loved, and Willie Mitchell's name kept coming up. When we told the record company they had other ideas. They said 'There are these new guys called Stock, Aitken and Waterman...' I was saying, 'Don't make me get my gun.'" So it was that a young Marti Pellow and bandmate Graeme Clark knocked on the door of the Royal Studios in Memphis, to be met by a slightly baffled Willie Mitchell. He was expecting someone much older.

It was Mitchell's Memphis soul sound that helped the Wets stand out from the crowd, clocking up 12 British top ten hits and three number ones. And to think they could have gone the way of Rick Astley had they followed the record company's advice.

"He was wondering how these two boys from Glasgow knew his stuff, but for us it was the beginning of a relationship that's lasted over two decades, from boy to man," says Pellow. "He's seen me grow as a person and as a singer. I spend a lot of time in Memphis just hanging out and talking and learning. It's no bad thing to be tapping into the wisdom of a man who's a certain age."

The catalyst for the new album began with just one song. Still Standing is the sort of tune that gets into your head and won't give up, instantly hummable and seriously funky. Pellow first came across it on the day of Mitchell's wife's funeral. He'd been asked to sing at the service, an event he says was both sombre and celebratory. "I'm not saying it was like that segment in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, it wasn't, but a lot of people in Memphis came together to celebrate Anna Barbara's life." Late in the evening, Mitchell asked Pellow to take him to the studio where the producer played him Still Standing, a track he'd earmarked for Al Green. Retelling the story, Pellow can't help bursting into song. "I got the money now," he sings. "It got my attention right away with that opening line. He wrote it for Al Green, but I got first dibs on it."

There's no over-produced slickness on Moonlight Over Memphis, rather the raw sound of a real band having a real good time. Having decided to record an album of modern soul classics, Pellow set about putting the perfect band together, Blues Brothers style. With the help of Mitchell's contacts book, he was able to track down his dream team. "When you reach a certain age you don't want to hit the office all that much," says Pellow. "So if a letter comes through your door saying, 'Do you want to work for Marti Pellow?' it's like, who's Marti Pellow to an 80-year-old who's played with Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin and probably hasn't been coming to the studio for a long while?"

The names Lester Snells, Steve Potts, Leroy and Teenie Potts and Charlie Pitts might not mean much to most of us, but between them their studio credits include Isaac Hayes, Neil Young, Booker T, Al Green and many more. "I suppose it's my Buena Vista Social Club really," says Pellow. "I knew that by putting them all under the one roof I would be ahead of the game, because that would be special in itself."

Despite being surrounded my his heroes, Pellow says he didn't feel daunted. "I don't see that as being arrogance, because I believe so much in my songs and my music. I think if you're going to fly with the eagles, you've got to have your shit together. I knew I had wonderful songs with great arrangements and they wouldn't let me fall on my feet."

There's a confidence and maturity about Pellow when he talks about his album, suggesting a new phase of his career. "I think you should be ever-growing and changing," he says. "I'm lucky enough to have a strong fanbase who'll allow me to do that and who get on board and lend me support."

It's true that Pellow could more than get by just relying on the back catalogue royalties and doing the occasional greatest hits tour, but he seems as hungry now as when he first started. Starting his solo career was a key moment and though he had a few nervous pangs, it never kept him awake at night.

"In the wee small hours of the morning you could go down that road of 'what happens if...', but I'm old enough now to know that all you can do is make the best record you can, go out and talk about it and if people like it then they'll put their hand in their pocket. If they don't, well apart from me chapping on your front door and physically grabbing you, what can I do?"

Moonlight Over Memphis was financed by Pellow, but it doesn't sound like a vanity project. He describes being able to work with his wishlist of musicians as a luxury which has given him artistic freedom, but adds that his key concern with his music is that it's got to be accessible, it's got to have a melody.

"There's an honesty to the music that will prevail," he says, before bursting into laughter. "Do you see I'm using these key words - gravitas, dignity, honesty. Jeez, who am I kidding?" I might be sitting across from the grown-up Mr Pellow, but the grinning Marti can't help but burst through every so often.

"I hope I never become blas about performing or lose that sense of wonder," he says. "When I sing for Wet Wet Wet I can play to 20,000 people a night whereas as a solo artist I might play to 2,000. I love both environments." This might sound like more than enough for most people, but Pellow's stint on Broadway has left him with the urge to push himself even further.

"It was great for me to have the challenge of being in Chicago," he says. "I really worked hard at it and I'd be coming home at night, walking through Times Square and seeing my name in lights. You'd think, 'This is crazy, this is surreal.' But I was very proud of that achievement." He mentions seeing Antonio Banderas in the musical Nine and hints that if anyone would like to offer him the part, he'd jump at it.

"I would hate to be of a certain age and not have tried these things - the what ifs," he says. "I know my football career is well and truly over, it's gone. But I think you've got to keep setting yourself new goals." For Pellow, one of those ambitions includes a film role. "My enthusiasm might outweigh my talent, I don't know, but with good people and a piece that's relevant . . . I think you should embrace those challenges."

George Clooney had better watch his back, because Marti Pellow isn't about to retire any time soon. "I'm still working, still grafting," he laughs. "Hey, a real job would kill me."

• Moonlight over Memphis is out now on DMGTV. Marti Pellow and Chris Difford play the SECC, Glasgow next Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost 27.50-30, tel: 0870 040 4000 or visit www.secctickets.com

 
 
 

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