Alison Moyet is limbering up for the release of the minutes, her first new studio album in six years, and the promotional and touring duties that go with it. For an artist whose household name status is a matter of record across decades, one who has sold in excess of 20 million albums, performed at Live Aid, been half of Yazoo with Vince Clarke and topped the album charts under her own steam, it’s a considerable absence.
In the intervening period this accidental pop star from Essex has been gigging. She appeared at The Divine Comedy’s Royal Festival Hall gig in celebration of Neil Hannon’s 42nd birthday, singing his The Certainty Of Chance and her (and Clarke’s) Don’t Go. She toured the country with Jools Holland. There was a Yazoo reunion, a spot of unfinished business for a duo who had never quite gotten round to touring their second and final album, You And Me Both. And there was the compilation album The Best Of: 25 Years Revisited, a bookender to a quarter-century of solo work. In its wake, perhaps there was a re-evaluation, a re-focus, on what it was she wanted to do next.
“The reason it’s taken its time is the same old rigmarole really, it’s finding a label that’s prepared to record new music,” plain-speaking Moyet counters. We’re sat in a London boozer’s comfortable upstairs function room, and it’s easy to imagine having a pint with her as she tells you how her day’s been. “I’ve had any number of deals on the table to do Etta James songs. Because I’ve been without a label and there’s been no interest in new material, I’ve been working with Guy (Sigsworth) on his downtime, which has been brilliant. We’ve believed in what we’ve been doing. We’ve been recording for about three years.”
Yorkshire-born Sigsworth, a veteran composer, producer and songwriter whose credits include work by Björk, Madonna, David Sylvian, Robyn and Alanis Morissette, was suggested to Moyet “by someone in my office” as a co-writer. “I’ve been introduced to lots of people and it’s come to nothing, but one thing that really interested me about working with Guy is that I wanted to work with electronica again,” she recalls. “I’ve been disappointed, through the ‘90s, where the voice is wedged in, hammered in, and often there’s a lot of technical skill but no musicality. But Guy started off as a harpsichordist at Cambridge; he’s a bona fide musician, and a really brilliant techie. In my experience you usually get either the musos or the programmers, and it’s very rare you get someone tied in. He’s a gentle soul, shy and yet completely confident in what he does. And that complements me, as I’m a bit like that. He wasn’t freaked out by the thing that normally happens to me in those situations where I don’t quite know who people are and I’m in that edgy, neurotic, non-communicative mode where I can’t speak, can’t find the words. He’s not put off by that. He understood me really quickly.”
Moyet’s method of working with Sigsworth echoed another of her professional relationships. “It was the closest I’ve come to working how I did with Vince. We had areas of demarcation – mine were melodic, lyrical, song structure, his was the paintboard, the whole colouring in, and for the most part we didn’t interfere with each other. It’s the closest I’ve come again to being in a band. In some ways even more so than with Yazoo, because mine and Guy’s ability to communicate was much better than mine and Vince’s were, at that age.”
From this understanding and communication came fruitful work. She describes the recording of the minutes as “easily my happiest studio experience”, and it has resulted in a varied, intriguing record, ranging from the in-control full-throttle When I Was Your Girl to the Björk-ish glitchy electronics and gothic darkness of the closing Rung By The Tide. There’s a hint of Saint Etienne-esque clubbiness with Right As Rain, Moyet’s contralto commanding the floor, and some slowed-to-a-crawl Yazoo-echo-down-the-years in Filigree. As a collection, it is spacious and thoughtful, perhaps as a result of the three-year gestation period and the recording sessions fitting around Sigsworth’s other work, bringing ideas into the mix along the way. There’s a sense of time being taken to get things right, and of Moyet’s voice giving power to the words.
“I was a miserable cunt in the ‘80s! Why would I want to live that time again?”
– Alison Moyet
So why the reluctance of labels to release her new material? “Middle aged woman who’s been part of the mainstream… there’s no…” she tails off. “I don’t say any of that with grief, I’m just being factual, that’s the way it is. I understand the situation, the record industry’s imploding and there’s very little money for new acts. It’s disappointing but it is where I find myself. It’s where the majority of acts around my age find themselves. When I was young, how much music television we had, the outlets there were. Now there just… isn’t. The outlets there are for new music are for a new generation who want to put their own identities on to the music scene. They wouldn’t imagine that somebody of my age, my generation, my musical history particularly would have something to say to them.”
She is, it’s fair to say, known as an interpreter of songs, which is perhaps where labels have seen her strengths. “I don’t think my fans want me to do covers,” she counters. “I think the record companies want me to do covers. They’ve got a known song, there’s a greater chance of getting on to adverts. It’s all typical secondary marketing stuff. I get where they’re coming from, but it’s not of interest to me. In terms of my presence on television, you’ll have seen me doing old songs; that is because an act like me doesn’t get the choice to do new material. We’re told we have to do hits. When you’ve only a few areas to let it be known that you’re touring, you have to do some of those things. It’s not like all I want to do is live in the ‘80s. I was a miserable cunt in the ‘80s! Why would I want to live that time again?”
She’s at pains to point out that the Yazoo reunion in 2008 (plus three songs played as part of a festival organised by Mute Records in 2011) was intended as a one off, “more to do with Vince than with me,” and not a revisitation. “On the first album we only did about 20 dates, and on the second none, so it’s not like it was rehashing something, it was doing things for the very first time. I came to music through live work. The fact that we’d recorded an album together that we’d never played live was topsy turvy to me. In terms of the joy that I got out of it, I’d be quite happy to relive that joy. What a blessing to do a gig where every single song is known word for word by every punter. That just never happens!” She’s pragmatic about the reunion and her relationship with Clarke, however. “He has a relationship with Andy (Bell). I was the interim relationship between his marriages with Depeche Mode and Erasure. There was definitely unfinished business with us, but I definitely had him ‘on loan’, as opposed to ‘leasehold’.” The release of Clarke and Martin Gore’s VCMG album wasn’t a shock to her either; Clarke, it seemed, had unfinished business with Gore, too.
We circle around other artists who’ve either enjoyed longevity or bloomed late, who are her near-contemporaries, and quickly realise most of the successful examples coming to mind are men. “It’s different for men than it is for women,” Moyet posits. “I’m in my 50s. There’s no point pretending. Even somebody as formidable as (classicist) Mary Beard finds that she has to justify the way she looks to people. I find that astonishing; here is a genius woman who has to discuss why she should have to dye her hair. I don’t want to deny who I am or deny my peer group. It’s more from a place of saying that middle aged women are not by default asinine soft cushions, just sponges to other people’s ideas.”
She’s found, most especially on social media, that people are only too ready discuss her appearance too. Yet it’s merely the medium that’s changed; maddeningly, the message has been the same for years; decades, even. “Since being a young kid I’ve had strangers call me names in the street,” she frowns. “When I went up to get my first Brit Award, someone came up to me and said, ‘Great singer, you’re nothing to look at, but great singer.’ When you deal with this all the time… it’s just always been about my body.” If anything, social media’s endless conversation has compounded things. “You look at social media and you see that some people don’t know I’ve lost weight and some do. I’m getting called too thin and too fat all at the same time!”
“When I was fat, nobody asked me how I put on weight, they just said I ate all the pies. So now, how did I lose it? There’s an absence of pies.”
– Alison Moyet
As someone “who calls a spade a spade” readily, she’s warming to her theme. “My character was never built on my body. In my head, regardless of my size, I’ve still got a fat girl mentality. That’s where my allegiance lies. I’m going to be 52 this year. What a ridiculous thing for me to buy into, how I’m looking, at this age. As a woman you cannot win. Thin women are berated for not eating. Fat women…” she tails off again. “I have lost masses of weight, four, five or six times in my life. As soon as the record comes up I start eating again because of the stress. When I was fat, nobody asked me how I put on weight, they just said I ate all the pies. So now, how did I lose it? I just say there’s an absence of pies. I am not a role model. I am not going to go on television and tell people how to lose weight. I am never going to do a video. I am never going to sell a cookbook. I don’t give a shit about anybody else’s bodies and I don’t want anybody to give a shit about mine.”
What she does give a shit about is the minutes, a record she clearly believes in. “There’s something special about playing with someone you’ve written material with. We decided we were going to make the record and then punt it, with no A&R men, that was one of the great joys, we had no limitations. We thought it would be a struggle. As it happened the first meeting we took was with Cooking Vinyl and they loved it. And that was it. You just think, if people are getting it, that’s all you can hope for. I have no expectations in any other way other than I’ve made a record that I wanted to make, and I hope people get to hear it. If it does well, then brilliant.”
Where does the minutes fit in the Alison Moyet hall of fame? “Last week I trashed the lot,” she announces, grandly. “All my gold discs, I took a hammer to all of them. Just smashed them. Fantastic! My ambition is to own pure things, to travel light. I don’t give a shit. My history is my history, and I’m not interested in it. I have a collander memory which suits me fine. The guy who does my website, if I need to know if I’ve done something, I ask him. You ask me and it’s pointless, I can’t even tell you what I’m doing this week. A bit of ADHD going on,” she grins.
As we part with a couple of photos, the distinct impression is given that Alison Moyet would not have it any other way.
Alison Moyet’s the minutes is out now through Cooking Vinyl. Tour news and further information can be found at alisonmoyet.com