Texas’ Sharleen Spiteri on the band’s comeback

Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of Texas. Picture: Contributed
Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of Texas. Picture: Contributed
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PART tomboy, part rock chick, part soul siren and complete Glasgow girl, Sharleen Spiteri and texas are back. And after 25 years in the business, she’s still got plenty to talk about.

When I arrive at the Primrose Hill cafe Sharleen Spiteri has chosen for our meeting, she is already there. This is a surprise. I’m 20 minutes early and expecting my first encounter to be with her publicist, not the frontwoman of Texas herself. Yet here she is, propped up at the bar, talking loud and fast, cooing over a friend’s baby and finishing a plate of cheese. From behind she’s instantly recognisable thanks to that signature choppy black cap of hair. The hair of someone who was once a hairdresser, which of course, decades ago in Glasgow, she was. Now she is 45, still as chatty as a hairdresser, and back with a new Texas album, the band’s first in eight years. She still looks the part, pale-faced and smoky-eyed, in beige capri pants, white trainers, polo shirt, and pastel green cardigan. Part tomboy, part rock chick, part soul siren, and – when she opens her mouth – complete Glasgow girl.

It transpires that Spiteri is never late. It brings her out in hives. “It’s the straight little geeky kid in me,” she says. “She’s still there, keeping me right. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had members of the band having their moments with drugs and alcohol, which was difficult. But I never had any of that because I was always too busy working. I’ve had my blow outs but that’s been it.” She pauses, which for Spiteri is rare. “I’m quite OCD really,” she says with a grin.

This is a typical exchange. Spiteri, who is the kind of interviewee you wish you’d met in the pub instead of over a rose lemonade in a yummy mummy cafe, often begins by answering a question and then ends on another plane entirely. Basically, she’s always going off on one. It’s why she’s such good fun but it can get her into all sorts of trouble. She once, for example, filled a straw from her drink and blew it at Paris Hilton for standing on her friends’ jackets at a party. Recently she referred to Liz Hurley as “a fat b*tch” who “can f*** off”. She is queen of the rant, and it’s rather refreshing in these media-trained times. She has made it to 25 years in the business without any of her edges being smoothed. She still says exactly what she thinks, using as many swear words as she can muster. The effect is a bit like being bulldozed into submission. In a 
good way.

“It’s funny seeing journalists’ faces when you actually express an opinion,” she laughs. “It amuses me no end. Clearly they’re used to speaking to people who are away with the fairies. Well I’ve been ripped to shreds and put through my paces but you need to be in that position sometimes. It’s how you learn to swim. Sometimes you have to f*** up.”

“I think it’s to do with being Glaswegian,” she continues. “Don’t have an opinion on me when you don’t even know me. OK? Glaswegians will stand by that to the bitter end. We’re like terriers. We don’t give in. You know, maybe I wouldn’t have had such a long career if I hadn’t been from Glasgow. It makes you stick at things. Peter Kay once said to me ‘you know what it is with you, Shar? In your head you’re still the hairdresser who thinks she’s going to get found out’.” She laughs her head off. We do get to her childhood eventually, by the way, but it takes time.

For now, today’s rant is about a phone interview she did recently with a journalist from Holland. Her opening gambit to Spiteri was how pleasantly surprised she was by Texas’s new album, The Conversation. “Pleasantly surprised?” Spiteri rails, her dark eyebrows rising up under her fringe. “At that point I should have told her to f*** off and put the phone down. Anyway she obviously had an agenda and had decided not to like me even before she picked up the phone. Eventually she asked if the new album was for 45-year-old women because I’m a 45-year-old woman. At which point I said ‘are you f***ing stupid?’” Spiteri is actually shouting now. Her publicist, sitting quietly at the next table and clearly used to this sort of thing, doesn’t bat an eyelid. “It kind of took her by surprise,” she continues, looking pleased. “Anyway, I told her she was being a smartarse.”

The Conversation is vintage Texas, the sound of a mature band revelling in what they do best. A bit of toe-tapping country, Fifties inspired rock ’n’ roll, Motown melodies, Debbie Harry posturing, and pure anthemic pop. They’ve got serious names such as Richard Hawley and Bernard Butler involved too. It’s an impressive and many would say long overdue comeback. “It’s certainly got the point factor,” Spiteri says, raising a pale finger to the ceiling. “As long as you have pointy moments on a record, you have hits on your hands.”

It’s easy to forget that Texas, in their heyday, were a huge band. They’ve sold more than 30 million records (which, if converted to people, is more than the actual population of Texas), released a string of multi-platinum albums, and toured the world. There was a moment in the Nineties when every home you entered had a CD of White on Blonde beside the hi-fi. “Part of the reason we took the time out was that we felt people were a bit fed up of us,” Spiteri admits. “We had sold so many records, done so much TV, headlined all the festivals. There was a point where you couldn’t switch on the radio without hearing a Texas song. It was like eating too much chocolate. Eventually you need to stop.”

And so they did. Spiteri went off and recorded two solo albums. One of them – Melody – was a Sixties-infused confessional about her 2004 split from longterm partner Ashley Heath after he was unfaithful to her. They have a daughter together, Misty Kyd, who is “ten going on 30” and remain on good terms. Spiteri now lives with Welsh chef Bryn Williams, whose restaurant Odette’s is on the same street as the cafe where we meet (they are very much part of the Primrose Hill set and count the likes of Madonna, Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow amongst their friends). “He’s good for me, but not for my hips,” she laughs. Anyway, Spiteri only realised once she started writing with Texas’s Johnny McElhone that she still had a lot to say about the break-up.

“I’d been asked to do a solo record for years but had no interest in it,” she says. “I’m in Texas and that’s it. But then Johnny and I started writing and I realised I hadn’t come to terms with the split. It was almost like a hairball. I needed to cough it up. All the albums have been personal but the difference with Melody was that it was painful. Once it was done it was like taking off a suit of armour. The weight just lifted.”

Then came another shock. In 2009 Texas guitarist Ally McErlaine collapsed with a massive brain aneurysm. He went into a coma and everyone was told he was unlikely to survive. “It was unbelievable,” Spiteri says. “He’s not the mad rock ‘n’ roll member of the band, and he’s the youngest. So why him? All the doctors were saying he wouldn’t make it. Basically we weren’t thinking about Texas at all. We were just thinking about our friend. We thought we were going to lose him. We nearly did a couple of times.”

McErlaine’s family and friends were told that if he ever woke up he would be severely brain damaged. The unspoken consensus was that Texas was finished. “We didn’t need to have the conversation,” she says. “But we were all thinking that’s it – over.” Then three months later, he woke up. His words were jumbled and his memory confused but his recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Not long afterwards, his wife called Spiteri and asked her to bring a guitar to the hospital. “I arrived with this little acoustic guitar and he just turned away,” she recalls. “I thought oh god, it’s all too raw. But when we were leaving he suddenly picked it up and started playing. We were filling up. God, that was an emotional moment.”

Two days later McErlaine said he was sick of hospital and wanted to go on tour. “We were like, ‘are you serious?’,” Spiteri says, shaking her head. “At this point he was still learning to speak. But he kept on at us and eventually we got some dates sorted. And when we played there seemed to be this amazing feeling out there for the band and so we decided to get a record out. I think you can really hear the pleasure and joy in this album even though a lot of the time we were huddled around a heater in Richard Hawley’s Sheffield studio, freezing our bollocks off. We were just so happy to be together again making music, because that’s what we do.”

Spiteri grew up in Glasgow, the elder of two daughters. The family was and is very close. She is just back from Glasgow, in fact, where she attended her sister’s wedding to Texas guitarist Tony McGovern. McErlaine took the photos and Eddie Campbell, the keyboards player, was best man. Her father, a Maltese/Italian captain in the merchant navy who left school for the seas at the age of 15, still accompanies Texas on tour. “He drives my mother insane so he comes with us,” Spiteri says fondly. “We find stuff for him to do.”

When she was growing up, her father would be away for three months then return for a month with a full beard, which Spiteri and her sister would ceremonially chop off with nail scissors. “We thought he looked so handsome,” she laughs.

Her mother, an Irish/German window dresser and seamstress who would teach her daughters to jive in the evenings, was an excellent singer. In fact the whole family could carry a tune. “My dad plays guitar, my sister sings, my cousins sing, my aunties sing, everybody sings. My gran had a lot of parties where everyone had to get up and do a turn.” Was Spiteri the star performer? “It’s a standing joke in our family... My big cousin, who was really cute, would get up and sing this dreadful bloody song called I Once Had a Dear Old Mother and all the aunties would be pressing their hands to their chests in delight. I would be standing in the doorway scowling in my knee-high tube socks, denim shorts, and Converse baseball boots. God, I thought I was the dog’s bollocks. Eventually I would get my turn and jump up and start singing ‘I have a band of men...’” She starts to sing Ten Guitars, a song covered by everyone from Engelbert Humperdinck to Tom Jones, in that unmistakeable smooth, rich voice. Then she starts cackling. “I would clear the f***ing room! All the aunties were suddenly off to get a wee cup of tea.”

It sounds like Spiteri was a bolshie child but she says the opposite is true. “I was very quiet and into drawing and art and making mix tapes. I really loved architecture and design.” But her academic life changed when she was 12 and the family moved from Glasgow to Balloch by Loch Lomond. “I didn’t fit in at school,” she recalls. “I did technical drawing and was the only girl in a class of boys. A group of girls started to give me a hard time and I was bullied for a year solid. I was buying bottles of Benylin with my pocket money to help me sleep at night.” Didn’t she tell her family? “No, I didn’t tell anyone,” she says. “I was that kind of kid. I used to carry a stool around so I could reach everything myself. I didn’t want anyone doing anything for me.”

Eventually things came to a head one day after assembly. “Ten girls jumped me,” Spiteri says. “I lost the plot and got a hold of the main girl and it took two teachers to pull me off her. We both got suspended. And that was it for me. I couldn’t wait to get out of school. Maybe that’s why my back goes up now whenever someone tries to have a go at me. It’s almost like a panic attack. I get this overwhelming feeling... I will not let you 
bully me.”

Spiteri left school at 15 and started working at hair stylist Irvine Rusk, where everyone wore Katharine Hamnett boiler suits and had “mad haircuts”. She thought she had died and gone to heaven. At 17 she cut off her hair and never looked back. “I thought my dad was going to kill me,” she notes. “He was very traditional and felt women shouldn’t show their necks. It was only when we did our Greatest Hits album and I cut my hair short for it that he admitted it suits me better. I was like ‘dad, shut up, I’ve been saying that for years’. He’s such an old fart.”

The rest is history. Spiteri, just 17 and sporting her new hairdo, was DJing in a club in Glasgow one night when a man approached and asked if she could sing. She said yes. She went to his house, belted out It Should’ve Been Me and a Culture Club song, and met Johnny McElhone. He asked if she could write. She said yes. “Pure brass neck,” Spiteri laughs. “I was the same with hairdressing. A customer would ask if I could do highlights and I’d say ‘yes, of course I can’.” Texas’s first gig, in March 1988, was at Dundee University’s student union. Their first single was I Don’t Want a Lover.

That was a quarter of a century ago. In that time, Texas have stayed firmly put in the mainstream yet Spiteri has always managed to do her own thing. She has dressed up like Elvis, refused to “get my tits and arse out,” as she puts it, and projected her own version of female sexuality. “I love being sexy and this is what sexy is to me,” she shrugs. “I don’t want it all on a plate. Sexy is what you don’t see.” Her role models are Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, and Patti Smith, women with bold images and bolder attitudes. “Look at Debbie Harry,” she says. “One of the sexiest women in the world. For her, it was all about a long T-shirt with rips in it and a pair of wee shorts. For me, sexiness comes with doing what you want. And it’s about feeling like you can get up there and sing the s*** out of this room in two minutes. I love the contradiction with someone like Chrissie Hynde. You wouldn’t want to f*** with her but then she opens her mouth and sings and it’s the sweetest, richest thing you’ve ever heard. I love that.” Spiteri sighs and, for a moment, even looks a little softer herself. “Jesus,” she laughs. “The fragility in that toughness gets me every single time.”

• The Conversation is released on Monday (PIAS), www.texas.uk.com