Source: Q magazine
Author: Robert Sandall
Date: February 1990
Bookish, studious, unsurprisingly naive, Tanita Tikaram sidestepped university at the age of 18 when her darkly sonorous vocals and "sixth-form poetry" suddenly found an international audience. She compose her second album in the noiseless seclusion of tour hotel rooms and has fans who write to tell her what they're reading at the moment. It is not your conventional rock'n'roll saga - "but very larky at times," as Robert Sandal discovers.
In a room lined with shiny framed platinum disc which bear her well-known name, sits a person who might, had history followed a likelier course, be sitting now in a library at Manchester University, preparing for her fifth term as a student of English and American Literature.
Instead, Tanita Tikaram is preparing for the release of her second LP, The Sweet Keeper. And bearing in mind that her first, Ancient Heart, sold 3.5 million copies worldwide and that an old friend from her sixth-form college "told me that Manchester University can be a bit boring at times, actually," Tikaram feels quite justified in her decision not to take up the place that two As and a B at "A" level earned her, "although the university authorities got pretty uppity when I didn't turn up for registration at the beginning of my first year (Autumn '88). I'd written to them in May telling them I wasn't coming but apparently they never got the letter."
This ill-starred missive must rank as about the only thing Tanita Tikaram has done recently which has gone astray. Indeed the oft-told story of how a swottish, raven-haired, 18-year-old schoolgirl from Basingstoke became transformed in the space of a year and a half into one of the international leaders of a new school of female singer-songwriters, is the very stuff of pop legend. There was no marketing hype, no image-mongering, no bandwagon jumping, and above all, no hanging about. Tanita Tikaram wrote some strong simple songs, sang them in a deep fascinating voice, recorded them with scrupulous care and musically arrangements, then became rapidly and uncontroversially famous. She appeared on Top Of The Pops, was nominated for a Brit award, was awarded a double platinum album for more than 600,000 sales in the UK alone and embarked upon an extensive world tour. It all followed in an orderly avalanche of acclaim and all before she turned 20 last August. It's no wonder she looks so demure and confident now.
"Yes I know it makes a nice story," she agrees in her intelligent, ironical way in an accent which moves nimbly between the salon and the street, "but what that story doesn't tell is how very larky it was at the time. I mean, I didn't really expect anything to happen. What people in Basingstoke think the music business is about is actually quite bizarre. I just wanted to find out what gigging was. It sounded so attractive and romantic and there weren't any gigs in Basingstoke. So I would hear these people talking about gigging and making demos. They said a club would book you if you sent in your demo. And these were very seductive words for me. It was like a secret society. I don't remember ever wanting to be a singer-songwriter. I think I thought I'd make a demo, play some gigs, then go to Manchester University and form a band."
That the future didn't fall into line with this modest plan was perhaps less of a surprise than she now makes out. For Tikaram's musical career began early, during the pre-Basingstoke years, near Munster in West Germany where her Fijian-born father was posted with the British army. "When I was little I was always writing my own songs, singing them and playing guitar. My elder brother and I used to do Elvis Presley songs together. I was The Jordanaires, he was Elvis. He was really into all that '50s stuff which we used to tune into on German forces radio. Punk, which was happening at the same time, just went completely over my head. What was that punk film called? The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. Yes, well I thought that was really for grown ups."
Though Tikaram lost interest in pop at the onset of adolescence, when the family moved to England in 1982, she gained a precocious group of other grown-up pursuits. Aged 13 she became an ardent fan of Virginia Woolf, the early 20th century poetical novelist. "While other people in Basingstoke were listening to The Velvet Underground, I was going on long walks hoping to get into a trance-like state so that I could write like Virginia Woolf. But it didn't work. "Writing straight poetry she very sensibly avoided. "I just thought, Oh that's how an adolescent is supposed to behave is it? I've always been terribly afraid of writing badly." Her chief musical enthusiasm at this time was the soundtrack of West Side Story. "I must have listened to that solidly for two years."
Curiously enough it was something of this same spirit of fastidious detachment from her Basingstoke buddies which led Tanita Tikaram back to the guitar again while she was studying English, Politics and Sociology for "A" level. "Suddenly it seemed that writing songs was the thing to do. Everybody in Basingstoke was doing it, and I thought they weren't doing it terribly well, so I just started to write songs again, after four years in the wilderness. And I would do it all the time. It was a very peculiar thing."
Gripped by this strange compulsion, she was also assisted by some old Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison records. "And my English teacher, who was a very nice man, said he thought I should stop trying to copy Virginia Woolf and be a songwriter instead. He told me to listen to Rickie Lee Jones and The Mekons. Oh, is that how you pronounce it? Meekons? Well I never did listen to them actually."
In fact, Tikaram's initial Iyrical inspiration was supplied closer to home. "The first song I wrote, Poor Cow, was about this club in Basingstoke called Martine's. It was under the car park. It was a pick-up joint basically. You went there if you were really desperate-except they never let any of us college girls in, which was another reason for writing about it."
Imagining her way into experiences and places she hasn't visited yet has been basic to Tanita Tikaram's songwriting method ever since her college days in Basingstoke. And she regrets having encouraged the suspicion that her compositions are little more than attractive collages of sound with no meaning attached.
"It was such an obvious thing for journalists to say that my Iyrics were just sixth-form poetry. I used to say that myself. After all, I was only a sixth-former when I wrote them. I know I'm guilty of having given the impression that they weren't about anything but what I meant was that sound is as important as meaning. Look at Van Morrison's Iyrics. Sometimes they aren't even there, but you understand what he's driving at.
"The whole of Ancient Heart was written about this imaginary person, this other self, who is bigger, stronger and more worldly than I am. I mean, I could talk to you more articulately now if I were that writer person, writing this. I always think I'm going to explain myself better than I usually do. I can deal with everything much more easily in my songs. And I can always tell when I'm not writing well because then I don't get that feeling."
Tricky stuff this for a songwriter who, come Autumn '87, had still to perform any of her songs in public and who had elected to stay on after "A" levels to apply for St. Anne's College, Oxford. As it was though, the Oxford interview was "a disaster. I found I'd lost my passion for literature. "She accepted a place at Manchester "because you didn't have to go for any interviews at all." Meanwhile a hopeful demo tape sent to the Mean Fiddler club found its way to the club's booking agency, Asgard, and scored a surprise bullseye.
"I have never been more thrilled in my life than when someone phoned up out of the blue in November and said I'd been given a gig at the Mean Fiddler's Acoustic Room. I wasn't nervous at all. I just thought, What have I got to lose?" Accompanied by a gaggle of friends from her place of temporary work-a local tale-selling operation-Tanita Tikaram caught a train to London. British Rail timetables being what they are there was no time after her brief spell on the Acoustic Room's tiny stage to meet up with Asgard's Paul Charles who was, in his own words, "Knocked out after one song. Off my seat." Tikaram remembers "all these people running around afterwards saying, Tom Waits's agent wants to talk to you! But I had no idea what an agent was and besides, I had to get the train home."
She and Charles met up a few days later however, and while no formal contractual relationship with her future manager was discussed at this point, some more of those seductive-sounding gigs were lined up. Tikaram's next task was to support Jonathan Richman on the Fiddler's main stage. Just after Christmas on only her fourth public outing she supported Warren Zevon at the Hammersmith Odeon. "I thought I was being very successful. There was fruit and Perrier water in my dressing room. I'd never even heard of this thing called a rider before."
Plausible and charming as this whimsical Alice In Wonderlandish approach to the rock biz sounds, it masks a cool hard-headedness which came to the fore when record companies began to wonder who the singer-songwriter with the exotic name might be. Early in 1988, Thames Television's listings programme 01 For London ran a live clip of Tikaram playing Poor Cow and the major labels moved in. But although Paul Charles was, as he still is, an important guiding influence, Tikaram "pretty well took the negotiations over. I wanted to know exactly where I stood."
Where exactly this was vis-a-vis advances, royalties and so on, she will not say. "I'm afraid I don't talk about money," she remarks with prim firmness. "I don't really think anybody is interested in what I earn. It's not central to my life so I don't see why other people should know about it. " And the only other ones who do are her record company Warners, chosen, she says, "because they seemed exceptional to me in their commitment to the music. Malcolm Dunbar (head of A&R) was not at all what I expected a record company person to be like. In Basingstoke we all thought people like him were sort of conniving monsters, but Malcom seemed to have a real passion for music. I went for that really."
One tour of Ireland (supporting Paul Brady) later and only four months after her public debut, Tanita Tikaram went into the recording studio. "Putting the studio band together was a bit like going to a candy store," she recalls cheerily. "I was amazed how accessible everyone was." Also helpful was the fact that Paul Charles-sometime agent for Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and John Hiatt and formerly Van Morrison's business manager- had an unusually wellstocked address book. Tikaram's MD and producer Peter Van Hooke was an old friend of Charles's and several of the sidepersons hired had worked at some point with Van Morrison.
The idea, though, was always to keep this tasteful gathering in the background. Tikaram, Van Hooke and his co-producer Rod Argent evolved a modus operandi which Tikaram describes as "recording back to front". Her darkly sonorous vocals and unambitious strumming are laid down and finished first before any embellishments are even considered. "The other musicians always know exactly what they're playing off," she explains. "People think making records is very mysterious but everybody I've worked with is very friendly and it wasn't at all intimidating. Although playing and singing with a click track (an electronic metronome used as a guide for tempos) was a bit funny at first. We'd never even heard of a click track in Basingstoke."
Basingstoke hadn't heard anything yet. A Top 10 debut single made by a commuter still living at the time with her mother in the sleepy Hampshire new town represented easily its biggest, and indeed first, claim to pop celebrity. The moody but melodious and well-sprung Good Tradition ascended the pop chart in July, just as its singer was preparing to play the Cambridge Folk Festival. "We were all amazed," she announces breathlessly. "I was the only person playing Cambridge who had a hit. And Peter (Van Hooke, a New Age specialist) has never been involved in anything which was a commercial success."
Ancient Heart was finished by the end of August. The LP, and an arresting second single Twist In My Sobriety ("about being too scared to get involved in things"), were pushed into the crowded Christmas market in the Autumn and both more than held their own. Then, for nine months straight, Tikaram and a touring band hit the road-a place which she unequivocally declares to be her spiritual home.
"At first I felt I had to tour, but now I just love it. There's nothing really like it you know. I don't think I'm working and I don't feel I'm worth anything unless I'm on the road. When I'm not doing it, the whole structure of my life goes straight out of the window. I did get some good advice," she agrees. "Paul thought it was important for me to develop a relationship with an audience, and playing live is the Asgard tradition. But as a singer you improve so much through live work. In fact, everything improves so much."
And are there no drawbacks? The monotony of hotel living for example?
"Oh I love hotels," she bubbles, in a voice considerably higher than the one heard on her records. "I love waking up every morning somewhere new and trying to work out what I'm going to have for breakfast. It's like being on a big trip. And being in hotel rooms is a very creative time for me. I wrote all of The Sweet Keeper in hotel rooms. I need that feeling they give you of being physically unsettled somewhere where there aren't any distractions. I like the discipline that comes from having to spend all day gearing up for two hours on stage in the evening."
The more dissipated touring practices associated with the rock 'n'roll lifestyle have absolutely no place on a Tanita Tikaram tour. Nor indeed do any of the less dissipated ones.
"I don't go out after gigs now. I used to but I think every time you do something like that you pay for it," Tanita says, with all due seriousness. "I used to smoke too but I don't do that now either because it affects your voice. And I don't drink, well maybe a glass sometimes, and my tour rider specifies fruit, tea, mineral water, soft drinks. But they always seem to give me a lot of those salted crisps and nuts," she adds with cryptic irritation. "I try to avoid those before going on stage. They can be quite difficult."
However, these depressing snacks are the only things Tikaram seems not to like. "I like all countries. I love Scandinavia. And America. Oh there's so much to do on the road. The attitude to take," she concludes, sounding more than slightly coached, "is that it's a great privilege to be on the road and that everything which happens is a big plus."
Last summer, as soon as Tikaram had finished promotional touring duties for Ancient Heart, she went to work on its successor. The same nucleus of performers and producers re-assembled in the Red House studio which occupies the basement of Rod Argent's house in Chiswick. Eight weeks later they had finished. Never in recent memory has there been a less difficult second album than The Sweet Keeper.
"No, it wasn't difficult at all. I knew the songs were there. I mean, I dump so much stuff when I'm in a writing phase. I think I've learned to say things more economically now, and this album has got much more variety musically as well. I've used more strings. I love strings, and they're particularly good if you don't use backing vocalists." A critical backlash, should one materialise, holds no terrors for her. "I'm just not that touched by anything people write about me actually. I mean, what can I do? I'm very proud of this album personally but I can't go around saying, Look, this is a better album, or this is as good as . . . I think somebody like Van Morrison has become so unsatisfied partly because he takes too much notice of what journalists say about him. I feel a real passion for my music but not about what gets said about it. That's my mother's attitude. I love that attitude in other people."
The album's mysterious title, The Sweet Keeper, looks guaranteed to stimulate more jibes of the "sixth-form poetry" type, but Tikaram is full of explanations as to its significance. "A Sweet Keeper is a keeper of good things, and it means I myself have good things to keep. But it's a double-edged thing. The Sweet Keeper is someone you can confide in but who also has control over you. A lot of the songs are about being controlled by someone else. Harm In Your Hands for instance. And I Owe It All To You is about my mother, who I'm very close to."
A few have mocked but many have taken Tanita Tikaram, singer-songwriter, very seriously indeed. The admirer of Cohen, Mitchell, Jennifer Warnes and Van Morrison is herself revered by fans as a fount of poetical wisdom. "I don't feel that way about myself," she giggles, as she is wont to do, "but funnily enough I do feel it about other songwriters. I mean, I'll see Paul McCartney and think, I bet he knows a thing or two. You think there's a big secret which everyone has apart from you. And yes, people do write to me. About intimate, confidential things, or about what they're reading. And I reply to them, I've got lots of Leonard Cohen poetry books at home, and none of them I've bought."
Such a glimpse into Tanita Tikaram's living room is rare: she tends to draw a discreet veil over her private life. We meet in the basement of her manager Paul Charles's Asgard office near Regent's Park and no supersensitivity is required to feel Charles's moustachioed, supervisory presence before, during, and after the interview. Tikaram herself becomes a trifle vague and uncommunicative on the subject of her leisure activities. She's moved to London now and has a flat "somewhere near here". She likes to hang out at the Mean Fiddler, a place she feels "isn't at all trendy". She reads books, currently the 19th century French classic Madame Bovary: "a lot of those old books have just got great stories." After completing the new album in September she spent a month in New York mostly listening to music, in clubs. She has "about 10 close friends who I see about twice a month but not at the same time." Whether as a result of these meetings or not, she has recently realised "how people have really complicated lives. I don't think I'm shockable any more." Though she seems perfectly disposed to sing songs which deal with the question of romance, "I don't talk about things like that, sorry."
She will talk quite freely about herself though in relation to her songwriting. In particular she refers to a "darker side" which she holds responsible for nurturing her creativity. "I don't lose my temper and I don't sulk, but I can get very one-wordy. The world seems like quite a hostile place and I suddenly feel rather old for my years. But if I didn't feel like that sometimes," she reasons gaily, "I wouldn't write any songs and I'd be a total idiot." Stirring somewhere in these murky but fertile depths, Tanita Tikaram can sense the imminent arrival of "a third stage of writing. I can't put a name to it yet, but it's definitely going to happen."
She's a friendly but elusive character. We've been talking for two hours, which Paul Charles indicates to be enough, but Tanita Tikaram's conversational blend of adult, ironic poise and rather naive waffle leaves no terribly distinct flavour. But then, she is very young. Does she feel that the highly disciplined, almost austerely industrious regime of the past two years might be cramping her, you know, personal development?
"Oh, it would be so very easy for me to put all the blame for anything like that on to my career, but there's nothing in what I do now which creates worse problems for me than, say, being a student at Manchester University would have done. I know exactly why I'm doing this now. It's because I don't have any other passion, and I feel that my audience is really with me and really wants me to do well. It's that energy which feeds me."
It will be feeding her for the next 13 months. Tanita Tikaram's second world tour begins in February.