Source: Melody Maker
Author: Jon Wilde
Date: January 27, 1990.
Tanita Tikaram's debut album, 'Ancient Heart', has now sold more than three million copies and made her one of the most successful female artists of the late-eighties. but she remains a reluctant star, notoriously reclusive, not much bothered with pop's commercial circus. with her new single, 'We almost got it together', already chart-bound, she talks to Jon Wilde about her public image, her private ambitions and her second album, 'The Sweet Keeper'.
Tanita trips through the interview ritual with a large amount of hesitation, a fair amount of teeth-grinding and the occasional self-conscious laugh. Legend has it that she'll walk out of the room if the conversation veers towards the personal.
"Oh, I've never actually done that," she insists. "It's probably because I don't do anything or say anything. Someone probably wrote it to make me seem more interesting. Some journalists have this idea that it should be like a game. I don't like that at all. I switch on television and see people talking about themselves telling the interviewer things they wouldn't tell their closest friends. Well there's nothing to know is there?"
The Tikaram wind-up is always a temptation. But too easy really. Like tying a firework to the tail of a labrador, pup, watching it writhe with pain. Besides she's so obviously harmless. Her refusal to participate, to become involved in the pop showplace, is some way laudable. Over the last 18 months, she's sold three and a half million records without giving anything away.
"People say to me, 'What kind of person are you Tanita?' What am I supposed to say? 'Oh, I'm creative and sensitive!' I don't think so. Trying to sum yourself up like that is a nonsense. What do people really want to know?"
We want to know everything, I tell her. We want to know about Leonard Cohen's toothbrush, Mary Margaret O'Hara's favourite sandwich, Captain Beefheart's love life, David Thomast recipe book. . .
"Do you really? See, I don't want to know about Leonard Cohen's toothbrush. Finding out what someone had far breakfast might be interesting. But people don't ask me what I had for breakfast . . .
Ah . . .
"Don't ask. Just don't."
If Catherine Cookson wrote a rags-to-riches rock romance, it might go something like this.
Eighteen-year-old Virginia Woolf devotee, with Fijian father and Malayan mother sits in her Basingstoke bedroom listening to Leonard Cohen records dreaming of making her own, while swotting for her A levels. She brags a gig at some South London tavern where she's spotted by a prestigious agent. She's immediately rushed into a recording-studio where she knocks her own songs into shape. With a place being held for her at university, she puts an academic career on hold and signs to the biggest record label in the world. Her debut single storms the hit parade. Her debut album sells millions and makes her an intentional success.
Yet she remains unchanged. Nothing goes to her head. In the dizzy, self-degrading world of pop, she is a curious anomaly. While everyone else is diving into the deep-end, selling their souls for a few column inches, she stands an the edge of the pond and skims pebbles over the surface. It's a story where nothing really happens. No sex, no controversy, no impetuous risks. Nothing except success itself.
"Whether I'm selling 10 million records or nothing," she says, "I would still have to write. I'd still be doing this. I'd still be the same person. I don't really think anything changes. If anything, I feel more confident because people tell me they like me. But it still comes down to one thing: the compulsion to write.
"The media has this thing about famous people. But your average person walking down the street probably wouldn't know who I am. If they do, they're hardly likely to come up and start talking to me. There's no reaction. I don't get that kind of attention. Unfortunately. Or fortunately."
So it hasn't altered her mind?
"Well, I haven't grown up any differently because of this. I'm the same person I was when I was 10 years old. I can say that quite honestly. I haven't changed that much. I sometimes feel naive but most of the time I feel very much in control of what I'm doing. That's a good feeling. I don't know how the music business corrupts people. Tell me, please."
Oh, it's too easy. People go soft. They go to pieces .
"But it's not like that for me. I don't live in a cottonwool world. You say that I'm retiring, that I distance myself from it, but I'm not aware of that. I never craved attention in the first place. I don't feel flattered. People I know don't flatter me. It depends what reasons you start out with. Why do people start groups?"
That's the easiest question ever asked. To get laid, to get drunk, to get drugged, to go places. That's it.
"Well, that's young men for you. Boys will be boys, won't they? They're just incorrigible, aren't they? I think it's very different for women. I've noticed this in a lot of things women do. I've noticed it with women photographers. I must have done over 100 photo sessions and three of them have been with women. But I've noticed that a woman's vision of the whole thing is so much different from a man's. Women seem to hove a real drive. They have to do it. It's not something they do lightly. I think this is true generally in the arts. Women know what they want and they know why they're doing it. The women I've worked with have a real passion for what they do. Perhaps men are working for different reasons, with different motives."
Has she ever looked at a situation from a man's perspective?
"No, I never have done that. If I'm in a difficult situation, I always say, 'I'm confused, I don't know what to do'. I find myself doing that more and more. I'd rather admit that I don't know what I'm doing. Or I'll make up a story to distract myself. I would never try to look at something from a man's perspective. Maybe I used to do that when I was a kid."
The popular conception of Tanita is one of a slightly precocious suburban bookworm who's spent more time immersed in Leonard Cohen records and Virqinia Woolf novels than is good for her the kind of girl who has never had a qood New Year's Eve, who never believed in Santa Claus...
"I never did believe in Santa Claus," she confirms. "My parents gave me the presents and made no pretence about it. They weren't funny about it at all. There was never any sense that Santa Claus existed. My father never pretended to climb down the chimney. He refused to be that much fun.
"Like anyone else, I've spent every New Year's Eve looking for a party and I've ended up standing in a room full of strangers, trying to avoid being kissed."
Harbinger of gloom, sixth-form poet, Deirdre Barlow to Jim Kerr's Ken; miserable insect ...
"I do seem to have this miserable reputation", she allows. "Papers have a habit of choosing photos that make me look gloomy. But I don't mind. The media profile of me doesn't trouble me. I've got things to do and places to go. I don't really think about it. I write and I sing. It's a very simple life."
But there's this widely held belief that grief is her chosen currency.
"Maybe these people aren't listening, which is fair enough. But, if they did listen, they would find something else. I see my music as very hopeful. The best songs are almost like an ad of faith. I'm really trying to come to terms with something. If I was just despairing, I can't think people would want to listen."
"Not at all. I have a real passion for life. I don't feel old. I'm not the kind of person who discusses tax-shelters. Most of the time, I get up in the morning and I want to get started immediately on something. I'm not weighted down to one bad side. People can't live like that. I'm generally an up person. I consider myself lucky."
Has her lack of image worked to her advantage?
"Well, if people think about me, maybe they think of my songs. Maybe I'm only known through the songs and that's why it's easy for me. When people talk to me about fame, it seems strange. This is not a famous life. I don't know what it's like to be famous. Ask KyIie Minogue. I'm sure it's not pleasant for her. She's like a package, isn't she? People think they can go up and touch her. If you're sensitive at all, it must be terrible to live with. Yet some people manage to live with it. Look at Paul McCartney. He must be one of the most famous men in the world but he deals with it incredibly well. He's just himself, or at least a self that is easy for other people to accept. He'll just wink at people if they recognise him.
"For myself, going to something like the Brit Awards is the work side of it. Writing songs is play. Happy days. It's what I do and how I live. It's very basic and it's hard to explain to somebody who doesn't know what it is. They might think I'm a bit weird or too passionate and intense."
Could she imagine doing something which would completely alter people's perceptions of her? Like ... Oh, I don't know. A version of Danny La Rue's 'On Mother Kelly's Doorstep', perhaps.
"I could do something like that. I'm very young. Things might change. But I can't predict anything. I am a risk-taker and l can see that might surprise people. I take risks all the time, but then I regret them."
I ask her if anything's been written about her that has particularly hurt and she just shrugs.
I quote her a line from a Melody Maker live review which began, "She's not exactly sexy is she?" Would that trouble her?
"Well, I always take a broad view of these things," she says. "When things are in print, it must seem like the voice of the people or something. But it isn't like that at all. Someone who likes my music isn't likely to read something like that and say, 'Oh, that's so true!' Someone who doesn't like my music isn't going to read it anyway. I really don't care."
But the music itself, isn't it strangely asexual?
"Oh, of course there's a sexuality in the music ... things have to have some soul about them and that in itself is sexy, I suppose.
"I guess the closest I've come to writing directly about sex is 'I Love You' on the first album. But that's more of a tease song I suppose. I don't really know who writes songs about sex, not directly."
"Well, rock is a sexy thing, I suppose. It's a very direct kind of music. Men have dominated rock music for a long time so rock music is full of male sexuality, all these aggressive, thrusting songs.
"One of my favourite songs is 'Why Don't We Do It In The Rood' by The Beatles. But I don't really expect people to actually, y'know, do that. I don't know ...
"See, I couldn't sit down and write about a particular subject. It will be there but it doesn't have to be overstated.
"But the music I'm passionate about now isn't really pop music, in the sense that it doesn't get into the chart. People like Leonard Cohen, John Hiatt, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Jennifer Warnes. But, then again, I like kd lang who is very showbiz in a way. Like Bette Midler or someone."
The complete antithesis of Tanita Tikaram?
"Maybe there's not such a vast ocean between me and Bette Midler! It depends how I feel."
Perhaps there's a little bit of Bette Midler in all of us?
"Well, I'm not sure about that. I just love all that stuff, though I don't know if I could do it myself. Not if I was being honest. I always get a feeling of sincerity when I watch someone like kd Lang. I like to believe the people I hear.
"When I write, it's a very definite mood. I have months where I don't write at all. It's a very inspired thing. I know that's a crappy way to put it. But it's really like there's something coming out of me. I associate song-writing with everything anti-intellectual. It was a great freedom for me when I started writing songs because I'd been studying at school and college for so long. Also, I was so stuck on the pop thing - The Beatles had been my heroes - and I knew it had to be a quick, spontaneous process."
"If people think that the second album is more of a feeling record than a thinking record, that would be good," she says. "As I get older, I'm more drawn to feeling. I'm always chasing some feeling I had when I was a child. Some feeling I can't get back I want to find it but I don't know how to do it. I almost got hold of it recently, watching this television programme about a version of 'Hamlet' being performed in India or Malaysia. There was some interlude where this village band were playing music. There was an instrument being played that sounded completely wrong but it gave me a feeling I remembered from childhood. It made me feel like crying. How can I capture it? I can't just go into the studio and tell my band to play out of tune in the hope of recapturing it."
'The Sweet Keeper', Tikaram's second album, is released at the end of January. Like its predecessor 'Ancient Heart', it's a strangely self-contained work. These songs, like the ones which launched Tikaram's career, are emotionally detached to the verge of frigidity. As before, they seem to straggle through one mood, never peaking, never letting go, never coming to the boil. Lyrically too, they never quite emote, always hanging back, preferring to keep themselves ambiguous an unresolved.
"I like ambiguities," she says. "l just find people more interesting when I know nothing about them. My songs are a little like that I suppose. I have this thing about people who hold things back
"The title for the album came from this book I have by the Indian writer, RK Narayan, called 'The Vendor Of Sweets'. I remember thinking that the title had a great childlike quality to it. To me 'The Sweet Keeper' is a keeper of good things. Someone who has something left to give. Also, to me, it was the idea of a person you could confide in and be intimate with. Sometimes you don't want to have that with someone and they do. I always find that, when I know people quite well, they tell me things I don't want to know. Then I end up telling them things I don't want to know. Things become too intimate. There's a risk of losing control. But I never lose control."
Perhaps she should. Her music might, in some way, be salvaged with the occasional scream to hoist it up.
"I just believe in holding something back and I don't really see any danger in doing that. It comes back to that Van Morrison thing, the inarticulate speech of the heart.
"Maybe I will scream one day. I might feel like I want to do that. You have to feel a real freedom and maybe that comes with age. I hope so. I'm looking forward to that. I've done two records now and that doesn't feel like anything at all. I want to have made 20 albums and then I'll have some tend of perspective. I'll know what I'm capable of. I can see, in my own mind, that I have so much more to do. There are so many areas to go into. My sense of ambition is still basically the same. I still want to do the same things. Write songs. Sing. Travel. These things have always been with me. There are a million songs within me ... what can I say?"
It's a nervous world.
"It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world."
Now that's more like it.