Synthpop Icon Alison Moyet On Meeting Freddie Mercury And Her VIBE Exclusive Remix
Born with a bluesy, androgynous contralto that she controls with Jedi precision, Alison Moyet became an overnight sensation in the 1980s as half of pioneering British synthpop duo Yazoo, cofounded by electronic maestro Vince Clarke (who also jumpstarted Depeche Mode). Yazoo’s two albums, Upstairs at Eric’s (1982) and You and Me Both (1983), laid the foundation for electronic music and were DJ staples in early B-Boy culture. “Situation” and “Don’t Go” have been sampled by dozens of dance and hip-hop artists including Deee-Lite and Snoop Dog; “Only You” has been covered by pop stars as diverse as Judy Collins and Enrique Iglesias; while “Nobody’s Diary”, and “State Farm” remain essential to any electronic playlist worth a blip.
After only two years, Yazoo split up; Clarke went on to form Erasure with Andy Bell, and Moyet launched a solo career that has garnered her millions in record sales worldwide, numerous awards, and collaborations with some of the biggest talents in the business, including Lamont Dozier, Johnny Marr, Nile Rodgers, Freddie Mercury, and Sinead O’Connor. In May, Alison released a new album, the minutes, co-written and co-produced by Guy Sigsworth, who has worked with Bjork, Madonna, Goldie, and Seal. The adventurous mix of electronic pop has been enthusiastically received. For the ﬁrst time in a while, Moyet sounds at ease with the material, the production, and herself.
We rang up Alison in Brighton, England a few days ago to get her thoughts on her meteoric rise to stardom, her battles with the music industry, reuniting with Clarke for a sold-out Yazoo tour, and the new album. What we learned: she idolizes Elvis Costello, was not a fan of Dusty Springﬁeld growing up, will never perform “Invisible” again, and has been BFFs with comedienne Dawn French for, like, ever. Download the minutes directly from AlisonMoyet.com and an exclusive remix of “Changeling” after the jump.
VIBE: The album’s been out for a few weeks now. Have you been keeping up with the reviews? Are you happy with the reception?
Alison Moyet: It’s been fantastic. What makes it especially great is because I’m at that brilliant point in my life where I expect nothing. People say “Are you surprised that anyone likes it?” I’m not surprised, I love this record. I’m surprised they got to hear it.
You’ve famously tangled with the industry over your creative direction. There’s something radiant about you and this album.
With this record, I’ve been left to my own devices, really. The thing about this industry is you become successful from something you create yourself, whereupon everyone determines to tell you what you should be doing. It’s taken this long to get to a point where I have no deal, no label, consequently no A&R man who didn’t know anything about my history or fan base or what I should be doing. Guy Sigsworth got me as an artist. I wasn’t sellable, commercial, or any of those things. He wanted to work with me because he likes what I do, and I wanted to work with him because I like what he does. We just wanted to make something, take it to a label and say, “This is it, no compromises, do you want it? Yes or No?” I don’t need hot air blown up my ass. I need people to be respectful and do their jobs.
Do you think your distinctive voice and stellar debut make you diﬃcult to market?
I think with me it’s that I became famous before I knew who I was an artist. When I started working with Yazoo, I didn’t think about it as a long term project. I did this thing with Vince, and I really enjoyed it. And then when I was signed to CBS as a solo artist, I’d become so isolated, I didn’t have anyone to play with, so I decided to see what would happen with their team. We did the Alf album, and it was massive. When that happens as a female singer, what’s forgotten is that you’re an artist, someone that likes to create things. Sometimes I want to put my voice center stage, and sometimes my voice is no more signiﬁcant than the drum pad. That became really problematic because people only wanted me to showboat.
Showboat is a great word for it.
I wanted to be who I am, this odd, androgynous girl who never meant to be a pop star, and they wanted to me to ﬁt in this template.
It reminds me of when I talked to Laetitia Sadier after she left Stereolab. When your voice is so branded, it must be an uphill battle to redeﬁne yourself.
What becomes really diﬃcult is when you want to sing a song that’s really light, where the lyric is far more important than the vocal. But people get really confused by that. They think you can’t sing. They don’t get that it’s a choice that’s been made. This song doesn’t require any acrobatics. It’s a little voice, a nursery rhyme, and it requires a nursery rhyme voice. My strength as a singer is my versatility. I ﬁnd it really frustrating when I’m only expected to show oﬀ. The music industry is awash with female acrobats. What happens to the song, and treating it for its sake, and not as an ego example?
That’s one of my biggest peeves as well. There’s no restraint, attention to phrasing, silence.
Absolutely, you really just hit it. Sometimes you just don’t require “all that.”
I imagine you like to work alone. How did you go about working with Guy?
The way I work, I won’t listen to a track until I’m in record mode, and then I’ll ad lib. I’ll ad lib about four times. From that, I will “cut and paste” in my head, and create a melody, and from that I will concentrate on what phonetic sound I want at what point. For example, Guy sent me a simple lyric, and from that I wrote the three sections–the verse, the bridge and the chorus–and sent it back to him. Then he would paint up around me, so the vocal’s never compromised.
Pop is so hook-heavy, I don’t think people write bridges anymore.
Exactly. I’ve really enjoyed watching some of the reactions to “When I Was Your Girl” by these kids on Vevo when they listen to it. Two things struck me. One, they don’t understand the song structure. The other thing is that they’re completely freaked out by my voice. They’re like, “What the fuck, she sounds like a man!” It really makes me laugh. I’m not oﬀended by that at all. But it illustrates how they’ve become conditioned to acrobatics.
It’s great you have a good sense of humor.
It helps that I’ve always been a freak. I was a freak before I was ever a pop star. I got very used to being called a lot names. I don’t take umbrage with them whatsoever. What upsets me is when an educated adult says something purely to be spiteful. It’s not what they say, it’s the intent that upsets, just as a mankind thing, this gratuitous glee in trying to hurt another human being. I don’t care what fucking job you’re in, I think it’s bad form. The only time it really gets to me is when I think they’ve got a point, when I’ve been lazy and I’ve cut corners and someone spots it. Then I feel, “Fuck, they’re right,” and that hurts.
If I may be honest, a couple of your albums felt that way. You didn’t seem “present.”
There’ve been times when I was lazy, and I’ve been distracted, focusing on other things. I’ve made mistakes. When you start, you don’t imagine things are going to follow you around forever. I never imagined that in 30 years time, I’d be singing the same songs. For example, I will never sing “Invisible” again. I haven’t done it in 20 years and I’ll never do it again. For two reasons. One, it’s a very popular thing for English singers to adopt an American accent. For me, who is very colloquial and European in her language, as I’ve gotten older it sounds more and more ridiculous. It sounds silly, so obviously fake. Two, the lyrical content. As a young Janis Joplin fan, I used to relate to this “He done me wrong” lyric. As a middle aged feminist, it’s like “Fuck this bloke, kick him in his crotch.” I can’t sing that sentiment anymore, I just want to slap myself.
Your voice is often described as bluesy. The name Yazoo is a reference to an old blues label.
It’s a diﬀerent kind of blues. When you say blues, people imagine I was listening to this “woman’s music.” It’s really more of a dirty, masculine blues. When punk started dissembling, and I saw all my friends who I thought were as politicized me becoming New Romantics, I thought, “Shit, it’s only about fashion for you!” My style of singing has always been referred to “soul” singing when it fact it’s more inﬂuenced by English R&B Blues Shouting. I’m closer to Led Zeppelin as a vocalist than to Ella Fitzgerald. It was torture dealing with major labels. I went through a string of A&R men who all thought I should be doing something diﬀerent. One thought I should be a dance diva; another thought I should do Rock N Roll; and one thought I shouldn’t even be singing at all! My attitude is, “You know nothing about me. You’re asking me to sing songs that even you wouldn’t listen to,” and I can’t respect that.
Thanks for clarifying, because I’d always imagined you on this spectrum of Blue Eyed Soul singers from Dusty Springﬁeld through Adele.
I’ve read that I was a Dusty Springﬁeld fan. I was never a Dusty Springﬁeld fan, we never had any of her records. Growing up, I never heard her music. I got to hear her later and obviously I saw what all the fuss was about. But I started oﬀ listening to Jacques Brel and I’ve always been into punk, then dirty man blues, and on to The Who.
You got to sing with Dusty and Sinead O’Connor in the 90s on Top of the Pops, shortly before Dusty passed away.
Dusty was a fan of mine, interestingly enough. She asked me to come and sing with them, so I did and it was amazing, but I had never been a fan of hers, only because I’d never been exposed to her.
I love the story of you meeting Freddie Mercury at Live Aid in 1984. Did you stay friends after that?
I was socially awkward for many years. I stuttered, stammered, talked rubbish. I never take up invites to parties and I’ve been invited to very glamorous things, but I never go. With Freddie, I was oblivious. To go to a place a like that, where there’s these incredible stars, true bona ﬁde stars, and then there’s you. It was too mad. I hadn’t even thought about how to move my body. I’d never stood in front of a mirror, stood in front of a microphone. Now, everybody has media coaching, choreography, stylists.
You also performed with Nile Rodgers and Johnny Marr at the Montreaux Jazz festival in 2012. You did a cover of The Smiths’ “Stop Me...”
I don’t like to go too long without performing live, so I said yes to Montreaux. Nile was also on the bill and he and I became “bus buddies.” We’d sit together and have dinner together. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man. What’s stunning about him is, I’ve met all kind of characters and pop stars from the bottom to the top, and he’s so talented and well-thought of, and achieved so much–and yet he’s completely unaﬀected. He’s naturally inclusive of others, regardless of what job they do. That suits me, that’s what I go for, what I like in people. He asked me to join him, and Johnny Marr was up to it, so we got together. Again, Johnny, what a revelation he was. Brilliant, funny, smart, so not into himself, just a sheer delight, absolutely charming. It was just one of those things, you have a moment and it goes “Bang!”
I’ve read that you’re pretty much done with Yazoo.
No, it was more about allegiance. I would’ve have worked with Vince anytime. But he was very much in a musical relationship with Andy. I’m open to it, but I don’t think that Vince had the desire to. He’s someone that’s always looking for the next project. If he’s looking for a singer, he favors Andy.
When you did the Reconnected tour with Vince [in 2008], you said you felt like you’d ﬁnally come full circle with Yazoo.
For me, live performance always comes ﬁrst. To never play those songs live had always been a frustration to me. Vince and I ended kind of acrimoniously. We saw each other twice in 20-some years, and it was quite awkward. But ultimately, like I said, I don’t hang on to bad feelings. If it wasn’t for Vince, I’d never been in the position where I could record. We did have some joyful times together, we had some really special moments. For me, it was my ﬁrst time ever, and you never forget your ﬁrst time. We wanted to forgive each other. We were kids when we started, struggling together, so “Thank you, [Vince] for everything you did for me.”
Looking forward, what have you got cooking?
Touring, touring, touring. I’ve got a tour starting in autumn. I really want to come out to the States with this. I hope this time they’ll work it out with enough time to sell tickets. Last time, they put it on sale with two weeks notice, and nobody knew I was coming, so it was a disaster. I feel at the top of my game, and I love performing live. I want to do it before the voice goes. And, of course, it will go.
How do you take care of or prepare your voice? Any secrets?
Here’s my secret: 20 minutes before I go on stage, my bandmates come in and we sing a couple songs oﬀ the top of our heads. Sometimes we sing the Staple Singers’ “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” but it’s got nothing to do with the godly aspect of things, it’s just a beautiful song.
I still like the idea of trying of whatever I feel like trying. If I do really well, I’m happy. If I fail at it, I am happy that I gave it a go. The thing that scares me more than anything is wasting any more years being silent. There are so many more frightening things in life than failing, and not engaging is one of them.