On meeting Tanita Tikaram in a cafe in Primrose Hill, it is abundantly clear the singer is not about to rush in to anything – whether it’s finishing a coffee as the waitresses clear up around us, or whether it is releasing an album. Can’t Go Back is her first long player in seven years, but the refreshing aspect of this particular promotional interview is that the album may have arrived, but Tanita is not in a great hurry to talk about it.
Instead we enjoy a lively discussion with her brother, actor Ramon Tikaram, who is in town visiting. The two share looks that belie their age, with youthful countenance and infectious laughter, which we get to hear a lot of. In fact Tanita’s laugh is often uproarious, completely at odds with the sultry chanteuse of the album. But did she know it was going to be a full seven years between records?
“Time is inconsequential I think,” comes the considered answer, “although I don’t mean to sound philosophical about it! I don’t really think about it, and it just passes. So honestly, when people say ‘Hey, it’s been seven years!’, I don’t even realise.” Is that her manner of working? “Yes. I think it’s because I started young, and I think I worked very intensely, and after that early work I was taking things at a very leisurely pace, doing things when it felt like the right time. With this album a couple of times I couldn’t understand what was the best way to approach a song, so it made sense to call my producer Paul Bryan in.”
Tanita is aware, however, of the pressures that exist through much of the industry. “I think it’s very different now for a lot of young bands and artists, they have to feed this machine which is really hungry, and people have a very different relationship with music, it’s not necessarily something that people live with in the same way. I guess they’re obliged to keep producing all the time, which isn’t necessarily a creative choice, so I guess it’s just this monster. So I don’t envy new artists today at all.”
As well as the seven year album gap, she has not played live much either. “No, I haven’t. I haven’t played much live, but I’ve started a lot more now, and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been playing with a trio and a band, and both things are really interesting. I really like playing live now, it’s a very strong feeling you have connecting with the audience.”
Can’t Go Back was recorded in Los Angeles, in an old recording studio. “We didn’t record analogue though,” she explains. “It was digital, and we did it in the space of just over six days, so you need a really good band to be able to do that. Apart from Mark Cresswell, the guitarist, the rest of the musicians are American.”
At times in the album you can almost hear a pin drop, so intimate is the approach. “I hope so, I was really hoping for that effect,” she says. “I wanted to make something really dynamic, and it’s much harder to do that when you’re just in front of a console, or just layering a track, it’s almost like you have to layer the excitement. There is something quite laid back about these guys, but again that made it more dynamic. I really like that way of recording.”
She freely admits to falling under the influence of Americana in the album’s genesis. “I like people like Shelby Lynne, and I like a lot of American music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I love Lucinda Williams too. What I particularly love is that kind of playing – the people who worked with T-Bone Burnett and Jay Henry, they have a kind of playing that is very accomplished and not very sterile, it has that liveliness. It’s a record; you’re not just hearing a bunch of people.”
She reserves special praise for the drummer on Can’t Go Back, Jay Bellerose, who works principally with Ray LaMontagne. “He follows the song by following the lyrics when he’s playing, which is quite telling, because it’s important for him to punctuate the song as a pianist would. I think he’s a real singer-songwriter’s drummer, and it really works well like that. It’s that sensitivity to the song structure which is really important. I get very lost when it’s about layering and click tracks,” she adds, “It’s not really my universe. Personally I like hanging out with musicians too, I think it’s exciting. “
There are hints of funk on the album too. “That was something that I wanted to do. I was thinking about what I could improve on if I was giving myself a report card, and I was thinking there could be a lot more movement in my music, and to do that again I have to work with these kinds of musician. One of the first songs we recorded was All Things To You, and then we felt more like a band, and that was really exciting because there was this raucous energy that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with me, but I think it really works.”
“I think someone told me it was much more effective if I didn’t get too excited” – Tanita Tikaram on the perils of singing with a low voice
Because of her lower vocal centre of gravity, Tanita has to approach her songs differently to a conventional vocalist. “If you’re lower it’s harder to project, because it’s just a speaking range. If you’re higher it penetrates better. But again, the musicians are so good. The thing about having a low voice is you can’t try too hard, or else it doesn’t work!” She laughs, again at a much higher pitch. Does that mean some singers try too hard to project? “Yes. I think someone told me it was much more effective if I didn’t get too excited.” She laughs again. “I guess if you push it too much on a microphone it doesn’t have the same effect. The stillness is more emotional and interesting I think, although I don’t really know why that is.”
There is an ease to her singing here, particularly on the song Make The Day, that clearly gives her great satisfaction. “This is one of those things that you accidentally happen upon when you’re recording live. It’s a very lovely groove, a kind of Al Green groove, but it’s hard to do without overcooking it. It’s like you’re going forward and coming back, but you can be completely laid back and still be emotional, as it doesn’t lose anything. It’s elegant and it can really work.”
On the song Rock & Roll, meanwhile, she declares that “all that I know is rock n roll”, seemingly in preference to a personal closeness, but she concedes that “I just thought it sounded funny. You know – it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. I guess that person in the song is a bit cold.” Does she tend to write from personal experience? “Yeah, in a universal way, but then that’s not personal is it! I think you end up writing what fits, and everything you experience ends up there, but it’s musically what makes sense. Whenever I write a song there is always a key phrase that makes sense of the song for me, and if that isn’t there I flounder, and it doesn’t really work. I don’t think you think consciously about what a song is about when you’re writing it. I’m really trying to let the words come out, and they usually fall into place if it’s right.”
The intimacy of the recording is a natural complement to this. “It’s a very open sound and it’s warm, but you want clarity in it too so that it doesn’t become mellow and vague. It was something we talked about a lot, making you feel like the voice was in your ear. So if you’ve picked up on it then that means it worked, so that’s cool!”
There is a relaxed contentment about Tikaram, who professes her happiness with the city in which she lives. “I moved here when I was about 19, but I think at the moment I really love London. Since I’ve been in my late 30s and early 40s I really feel like it is my city, and before that I didn’t really feel connected in the same way. I think it’s a very exciting city now, it’s cosmopolitan, and there are so many things going on that I think you can never be bored – there is so much culture and food, there are so many people. I really love it now, and I think it’s a good city for all ages.”
Her brother Ramon, mostly silent during the musical part of the interview, screws up his face in mock agony. “I live in the country now, but I love London for all those reasons.” “He has kids,” says Tanita. “I don’t have any kids, so I don’t care!” Has he heard the album though? “Oh no, I haven’t played it to him, I’m a bit too scared to do that.” “You should be!” is the brotherly response – and the two continue with this brother-sister banter, providing an entertaining aside to the more serious business of discussing the music.
She will be playing live soon. “I’m really looking forward to performing songs like All Things To You, and people seem to like One Kiss – it’s like a song from a musical, so maybe that’s what makes it more popular. They all really work well though, and Make The Day when it’s right really works big time, so I’m enjoying that. We’re playing in November and December I think. It will be me and my musicians in a trio. We look quite cute altogether, a bit like in The Ladykillers, all lopsided!”
Not surprisingly, she goes for venues with intimacy. “I’ve played festivals, and they’re fine, but it’s quite hard to play in this much bigger sound, it doesn’t have a connection in the same way. There is something quite magical about being much closer to people, though I think if I was playing anthemic rock it might not work. That would be a dark day!”
Does she find that people hang on to the songs from the late 80s that made her musical mark, such as Good Tradition and Twist In My Sobriety? “To some extent, but I think this record has a sound that is universal, and I think even if you don’t like me you’ll like the album. Hang on, that sounds desperate, that’s wrong! But you know what I mean, it’s just a funky little record, quite a ‘songy’ album and quite groovy. I think it’s a well rounded record, that’s important.”
Tanita Tikaram’s new album Can’t Go Back is out now through earMUSIC. For further information visit her website.