Paul Heaton hates nostalgia, but is aware why fans want to hear music from his days with the
Beautiful South and the Housemartins, writes Ed Power
PAUL Heaton is poet and curmudgeon in one fascinating package. With his bands The Housemartins and the Beautiful South he invented a new kind of chart music, more or less. Here were pop hits written by a man who loathed the idea of pop stardom.
“After the Beautiful South I released three solo albums but couldn’t get my voice on radio,” says Heaton, reflecting on his new project with that group’s sometime vocalist Jacqui Abbott. “As soon as we released the first single with Jacqui we were back on radio. She has a very radio-friendly voice and perhaps I haven’t. I was told the reason that my solo records weren’t being played was me really.”
It is fair to say Heaton (53) did not expect to be back on top of the charts and in demand as a live performer. He had made peace with his new life as a cult artist, embarking on the kind of whimsical projects former pop stars are drawn to when the applause has faded, such as a 2012 bicycle tour of venues across Ireland and Britain.
But reuniting with Abbott has transformed everything. Their second album, Wisdom, Laughter and Lies debuted at number four in the UK; the other week the pair played to a crowd of 12,000 at Leeds.
“That was probably the biggest audience we’ve performed for since the Beautiful South. Does it feel like deja vu? Not really, as I was drinking back then and I can’t remember too much of it.”
Abbott had departed the Beautiful South in 2000 to care for her son. “She had decided to stop music to look after her son who is severely autistic,” says Heaton in a rambling and good-humoured conversation, squeezed in the day after a triumphant date at the Royal Albert Hall and just before a man calls around to fix his tumble dryer. “When we asked her to come back I was surprised she said ‘yes’ in a way. We had to ease her back into it, tell her it’s not like it used to be. There used to be a lot of videos, photo sessions, interviews. You don’t have that any more — we’re not as popular.”
Heaton is an avowed loather of nostalgia. This could theoretically cause problems, as many of his fans go to his concerts expecting the Beautiful South and Housemartins songs. In this regard, he’s careful how he proceeds. He understands he has to give the public what it wants to a degree. And yet he is wary of turning into his own tribute act.
“I hate nostalgia, hate revivals,” he says. “I hate people who split bands up and form them again. It is just rank. I get on with playing my catalogue. We do five or six off the new album, five or six Beautiful South, five or six Housemartins. I realise a lot of people want to hear the hits. It’s a question of balancing it all out.”
Face to face he is wry rather than crotchety. Heaton is often described as a “political” songwriter. And it’s true that, across his carer, he has had pithy things to say about social issues, in particular Britain’s yawning class divide. On Wisdom Laughter and Lies, meanwhile, he weaves in references to scorched earth government cutbacks in the UK (‘The Austerity of Love’) and online misogyny (‘Man Is The Biggest Bitch Of All’). For all that, it would appall him to be thought of as preachy or pushing a specific viewpoint.
“I’m political but I’ve never joined a political party,” he says. “That gives you more room for manoeuvre. Nobody can accuse me of being inconsistent. I think people like that. You can argue with me but we can laugh about it. I don’t feel I’ve lost if someone else has won. I am very political. I shout at the telly and the news in the morning. I get very angry.
“But because I don’t belong to any party I don’t feel I have to say the same thing to every person. It does inform my songs. Politics helps you write in a way. I’ll see someone sat at a bus stop — why are they there? Maybe they’re homeless, maybe they’ve had an argument with their husband or wife. It drives me on to different things. But it’s not who I am.”
Heaton grew up in Sheffield and by his early 20s had ended up in Hull, where he formed The Housemartins (featuring future Fatboy Slim Norman Cook on bass). The band was together only five years but released two top 10 albums and achieved a British number one with their a cappella version of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Caravan Of Love’.
After The Housemartins split, he formed the Beautiful South with guitarist Dave Rotheray, a friend of Heaton’s on the Hull music scene. With Northern Irish vocalist Briana Corrigan, they achieved number ones with ‘Song for Whoever’ and ‘A Little Time’. Corrigan was replaced in 1994 by Abbott, a former supermarket shelf stacker whom Heaton discovered singing at a party. She would go on to grace several of the outfit’s most enduring hits, most memorably ‘Rotterdam’ and ‘Don’t Marry Her’.
He’s enjoying life back in the spotlight — to a degree. Not that he pined for acclaim during those “wilderness” years after the Beautiful South. “There’s nowt you can do about your voice. There are singers whose voices I can’t stand. You can’t change peoples’ opinions. When we got Jacqui back, our management said we’ll try and get you a record contact. We got a deal with Virgin -EMI. That made a big difference. Suddenly people were plugging your records and all of that.”
He is looking forward to touring Ireland and, in particular to playing outside of Dublin.
“Weirdly enough, right at the end of the Beautiful South we did a couple of trips we went down to Killarney. We went to Belfast before most bands went to Belfast. We always enjoyed it down at the festivals, down in Waterford and Cork. We missed out Galway this time. We are trying to do a bit of travelling and enjoy it. We’re going to Limerick. On my bicycle tour I travelled all the way through Ireland and really enjoyed myself. In Ireland it always feel like you are playing a home-town gig. “
The album Wisdom, Laughter and Lies is out now.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott play The Big Top, Limerick, on Friday; Cork Opera House on Saturday; and the Olympia in Dublin on Sunday.
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