Sitting in an Italian wine bar in Manchester, Lisa Stansfield is tucked into a corner booth. She’s skinnier than I remember from Top of the Pops and her hair is long now, scraped into a side parting with a ponytail.
It’s a boiling hot day and she’s wearing a vest and shorts, a silver magnifying glass on a long chain dangling from her neck. Her manager of nearly 20 years is sitting beside her which makes me feel a bit like I’m gatecrashing a couple of ladies who lunch. “Have you come all the way just for this?” she says in an accent that is a wonder to behold, as northern England as it ever was, no transatlantic twang, no softened southern vowels. “Aww, thanks,” she says, sucking her drink through a straw. Sitting in an Italian wine bar in Manchester, Lisa Stansfield is tucked into a corner booth. She’s skinnier than I remember from Top of the Pops and her hair is long now, scraped into a side parting with a ponytail. It’s a boiling hot day and she’s wearing a vest and shorts, a silver magnifying glass on a long chain dangling from her neck. Her manager of nearly 20 years is sitting beside her which makes me feel a bit like I’m gatecrashing a couple of ladies who lunch. “Have you come all the way just for this?” she says in an accent that is a wonder to behold, as northern England as it ever was, no transatlantic twang, no softened southern vowels. “Aww, thanks,” she says, sucking her drink through a straw.
Lisa Stansfield is a bit of a puzzle. On the one hand, she’s an open book, as un-starry as it’s possible to get. She has a laugh like a foghorn and the saltiest language of anyone I’ve ever interviewed. She has no qualms about telling a story about “trumping” on the tour bus to make her backing singer, Andrea, laugh. On the other hand, this is a 20 million album-selling, Grammy-nominated pop star who, ten years ago, did the unthinkable and simply stopped making albums, apparently for the simple reason that she didn’t think the time was right for her music to get a fair hearing. Ordinary northern lass or pop star diva?
Stansfield is just, and I mean it in the most complimentary way, herself. And when you think about it, she always was. When she first appeared in 1989 singing All Around the World, taken from her debut album, Affection, which sold more than five million copies, she looked different to pretty much everyone else who was around. She had short hair, she wore oversized jeans and chunky shoes. But more than that, she sounded different. Stansfield is a proper singer. Before Adele or Jessie Ware, Lisa Stansfield was singing proper soul. She duetted with Barry White. On Red, Hot and Blue she sang Cole Porter as well as anyone ever has. Have a squizz around YouTube and you’ll find a live set she did at Ronnie Scott’s. There she is, cropped hair, white tailored three piece suit, perfect soul voice blending with a tight band. Proper singer.
“I was probably about four when I really wanted to start singing,” she says. “My mum used to listen to Motown. Diana Ross was my first singing teacher, really. I’d just sing along all the time.” Her mum played Country too – songs with stories of heartbreak and redemption. That’s Stansfield’s bag, the songs she’s always written and sung. All Woman and Change were the big hits, but the new album, Seven (her seventh) is full of tracks that do something similar, lush string-backed R&B about broken hearts and love triangles and surviving.
“It’s very fortunate,” she says, “because it’s like I knew from right back then, being four, what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be famous, I just wanted to sing.
“To me to singing is like a freedom. It’s a very therapeutic thing. It’s incredible. I can just lose myself. It’s sort of like meditation.” She pauses and stares at me. “Do I sound like a dick?” No, I tell her. “It’s lovely. If I was to put my mouth on your chest and sing a note it’d go right through your body – that’s what it feels like when you sing. It’s gorgeous.”
Born in Manchester in 1966, Stansfield moved to Rochdale aged ten. She always sang. In 1980 she won the Search For A Star talent competition and her debut single, Your Alibis, was released the following year when she was 15. She met her husband, Ian Devaney, at school when she was a teenager. They became a couple when she was in her early twenties. They write together – Devaney does the music, Stansfield writes the lyrics. They’ve got a recording studio at their home in Rochdale called Gracielands, a tribute to Rochdale’s other entertainer, Gracie Fields. The first album she and Devaney made was recorded there. “I recorded some of the vocals in the toilet,” she says proudly. “Everyone thought it was such a great sound. The last track on this new album, Love Can, we recorded in New York but we recorded the vocal in our wardrobe. I mean it wasn’t a tiny wardrobe, it was a walk-in closet but we made it into a vocal booth.” She smiles. “It’s like, make do and mend, innit?” She laughs. You can do whatever you like if you put your mind to it. We just do it. We just get on with it.”
So what about when she wasn’t just getting on with it? The reactions to Stansfield’s ten-year hiatus were interesting. Some people seemed to take it quite personally – how dare she think she can waltz off for a decade and then just, well, come back. Others wanted an explanation – was she bored? Burnt out? She rolls her eyes and at first I think she’s not going to offer an answer at all. And to be fair, I know some of the story already. Stansfield’s first three albums had been a massive success, not just in the UK but in America too. The sales were dizzying, the demand enormous. That meant a gruelling promotion schedule, flight after flight, a day or two in each country, a never-ending succession of TV studios. Stansfield turns to her manager and they laugh, remembering 12-hour flights to LA on which they chain-smoked and drank champagne. It was obviously fun. But it was hard graft too.
“It gets a bit too much sometimes,” she says. “After the third album I was despondent about things. I couldn’t walk down the street without people looking at me. At that time I thought I’d love to not do this. But I’d stop for a month and then I’d feel it again. You can’t help it. It’s in you and you want to get it out. It’s lovely but it’s a curse sometimes.” She laughs.
“It doesn’t bother me much now,” she says. “I think when you’re a lot younger it’s harder, but when you’re older it’s like, f*** it, I don’t care. If this person wants to hassle me I’m going to tell them to eff off. I’m not being rude but I need to be on my own. I think when you’re younger you don’t feel like you’ve got the authority to say that to people.
“Everyone’s got a life and you’ve got to live it. I mean, if you work in an accountant’s office you don’t go to the pub at night and do people’s books, do you?” She cackles.
“If you’re not in the public eye people think you’re some sort of weird recluse. I’m not a recluse at all but I just get on with my life. I don’t go to the places where all the other famous people go because I’m not particularly bothered about getting my picture taken. It annoys me when people go to these really swanky places and then they complain about paparazzi. It’s like, well you f***ing went there and you know that there are going to be photographers there, so why are you complaining? Go to the local pub and nobody will bother you. Don’t bother with any make-up, put on a baseball cap and have a few drinks.”
The last time around for Stansfield there was no social media, no 24/7 news coverage. But even back then, when she was racking up gold discs and top five singles, sell-out tours and launching an acting career, she was never interested in publicity outside of the official promotion that she had to do. “I find it the most boring thing to have to get your make-up on and choose your outfit and get all dressed up and look glamorous,” she says. “That is part of my life because it’s work, but when I’m not doing anything I just like to be a complete slob. We all do, don’t we?”
Stansfield doesn’t look very slobby today. But maybe in her downtime, at home with her husband and their two Yorkshire terriers, that’s exactly how she likes to be. She and Devaney split their time between Rochdale and London. And maybe they’ll spend a bit more time in LA soon, where they have an apartment. “We bought it a year ago but we’ve hardly been there.”
It’s clear that Stansfield quite enjoys the fact that she’s a bit of a puzzle. She’s not interested in laying her whole life out for anyone’s perusal. There’s something nice about a bit of mystery, she says. “If people know everything about you then it’s boring. The truth is boring. It is. So I’d prefer people to think what they want and then it’s their fantasy. I don’t think people want to think that celebrities are the same as them. They want to think they’re really weird and wonderful.”
So what happened to all that creativity in her ten-year break?
“It’s quite strange because you go through phases,” she says, “or I do, and...” she pauses. “I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Wurzel Gummidge?” I nod. “Well, it’s like putting on different heads – my writing head, my publicity head, my video head. I just go into a mode and that’s it. And if I’m not in it then,” she shrugs, “nothing.” She hoists her eyebrows skywards. “I’ve been doing it for so long it’s just a thing that happens. I don’t know why.”
That’s interesting, I say, creative people are...
She leans forward, finishing my sentence, “...up their own arses.” She booms a laugh. “It is what it is. It’s like when actors say they’ve got to stay in character. It’s like, oh piss off. If you have to stay in character you can’t be that good an actor because you can’t just turn it on.”
I’m glad she’s mentioned acting because that’s the other thing that, without fuss or promotion, Stansfield has just done. There was an episode of Marple with Geraldine McEwan, the film The Edge of Love, starring Keira Knightley, and later this year the film Northern Soul will be released. Starring Steve Coogan and Ricky Tomlinson, it’s about the 1970s dancehall movement. Stansfield plays the mum of one of the characters.
“I really like it. There’s a lot of waiting around but it’s totally worth it for the satisfaction you get from the bit that you do. I don’t have an agent. I don’t take parts because I need to take them, I do it because I like the sound of them. I don’t hardly ever do auditions because I’m shit at them. I’ve never got a part that I’ve had to audition for. I just completely lose my nerve and make a complete tit of myself. But once I’ve got the part, I’m fine.”
The songs on Seven were written over ten years. She started with a longlist of around 50 and they were whittled down to the ones they recorded. The timing felt right. “If I hadn’t have done it then, I’d have never have done it,” she says. “Maybe you have to wait seven to ten years to get there but there was nothing I was into that fitted what I do. I’m not going to modify anything because then it’s like I want to be famous, and I don’t want that, I want to do my music and hopefully people will appreciate it.”
It also means there’s still plenty of material just ready to go. “We’ve started thinking about the next album because we’re seriously considering going back over to the US and doing stuff over there,” she says. “We need to get cracking because if I need to promote this album over there I won’t have any time for anything else.”
That would be a bit ironic, I say, a ten-year lay-off and then two albums back to back. “Well it serves me f***ing right, don’t it?” she says, and then laughs her head off.
• Lisa Stansfield plays the O2 Academy Glasgow on Saturday 13 September. For tickets, from £27.50 plus booking fee, visit www.o2academy glasgow.co.uk; the album, Seven, is out now.