Her Own Way: An Interview with Lisa Stansfield
Seven sees Lisa Stansfield return to music after ten years years. She talks to Nick Smith and Bryon Fear about the process of writing the album, the politics of appearing naked in videos and how social media has changed the industry for the performer.
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Any interview that begins with “Let’s put our rollerblades on!” is going to be fun. We were privileged to meet the wonderfully endearing, funny and hugely talented Lisa Stansfield at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. After a brief opening discussion concerning Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ video and his upcoming tour with Morrissey, we embarked on an entertaining conversation about her new album, Seven, as well as her acting career, touring, and getting naked for pop videos.
Seven is your seventh studio album and it’s been very well received by fans and critics alike.
I hope so. I try not to pay attention to things like that.
So you don’t look at reviews? ‘Cause ours is lovely!
Awww. Thank you! Thanks very much. Is that rude of me?
Not at all, a lot of people engaging in creative projects don’t look at reviews, especially actors…
Oh, if I do films or acting, I hate looking at myself. When you do a film and they release the dailies, I never look at them. I just think if I’m doing something right and everyone says I’m doing something right, I just carry on.
While we’re on the subject of acting, you have done quite a lot of acting over the past six years. Was it a conscious decision to leave the music for a while and act or is it just the way things turned out?
Yeah, it’s just the way things turned out. I’ve never actively pursued an acting role. If something really appeals to me, then I’ll do it, but because it’s the second string to my bow, so to speak, I won’t do something I don’t wanna do. It’s been really exciting though, but at the same time I’ve been doing a lot of writing.
The tone of the new album is soulful and feels very current. There are a lot of other female artists working in a similar vein right now, such as Jessie Ware and Rebecca Ferguson. Did you feel that the time was right for this material to come out?
I think it was about two years ago now when we started recording and we could see something happening and there came a point when I thought, right – I can start doing this material now. There have been others, I suppose mostly – and god bless her – Amy Winehouse. And then people like Adele and Emeli Sande. I just thought if I don’t do this now, I’m never ever gonna do it again, it’s like my last shot. I thought to myelf, right, brush yourself up! Have a wash!
Did you decide to start writing at that point or are you constantly writing songs anyway?
I write all the time, except when I’m recording, because I suppose when you’re recording you don’t think about writing at all. I don’t know, I think there’s a trigger in your mind, and I said it the other week to Ian, my husband, “I need to start writing again” – because it’s like a compulsion. I love having the iPhone because I’ll be in a restaurant and I’ll have an idea for a song in the middle of dinner and I have to say “Excuse me” and dash to the loo. Everyone must think I’ve got really bad toilet problems, but I just want to write a song!
Do you use other modern technology for writing music?
iPads are great, because you can just type and do it anywhere, but I used to be one of those people that wrote songs on the back of cigarette packets and then I’d be going, “oh fucking hell where’s that verse? I know the chorus is on that matchbox. But where’s the verse?” So it does make life more simple.
Other than technology, what do you think has changed since the late ’80s, early ’90s when you first broke onto the scene?
Well, apart from the problem of people pirating all music … you’re not making as much money really, but I think you have a lot more freedom. With the internet and social media, you can learn your own demographic really easily and also you have a lot more freedom to do what you want because nobody is telling you, “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do that!” There are two different sides to music now: there’s the big TV corporate thing and then there’s the side where artists have had the bollocks to actually do what they want themselves. I think it’s so admirable when people do that and twenty years later it’s given me the chance to do it that way too. I am with a record company in Europe, but it’s our own record company here, Monkeynatra. It’s very stressful, because you have to do everything yourself, but you have more power than you would normally. You feel like you’re fighting all the time when other people are paying for what you’re doing.
Like you’re working to someone else’s agenda –
Yes, if you want to be in this business and you want to represent people who have talent, you should have respect for that talent and not water it down or stifle it or there’s no point being involved in the first place.
It actually comes across on the album that it’s much freer. I love the way it jumps between styles – that’s not to say it sounds incoherent, because it doesn’t. There are a lot of different influences, the Northern soul, the pop and in the background there’s a score that feels filmic.
Aww, I’m glad you said that, because that’s what we really wanted to achieve.
Was there a main impetus for the album or did it just come together organically?
It’s weird actually because I’ve never been the sort of person that has a big agenda. It’s like putting a jigsaw together and when you can see the middle of it coming together, you go, “ah right, I know now what it is” and that is when you can decide the way to go and what way to do it.
I think one of the biggest things that emerging artists face, especially the younger ones, is that the record companies tend to sexualise them straight away. Miley Cyrus for example. Do you think it is her or is it the record company?
I think it’s definitely from her. And I think fair play to her. I mean, how do you stop being Hannah Montana? Everyone’s going ballistic about this ‘Wrecking Ball’ thing … but would you ever think I’d be naked in a video? I’ve been naked in three of my videos.
Were those your decisions?
Yeah, of course they were. And I think it’s been her decision as well … if it isn’t her decision then I’d be really sad about it but I’d like to think it was. I mean, I’m 47 years old and we’re already talking about the next video and I’ll be completely naked in it. I still think I’m pretty alright. [laughs] It’s the last chance I’ve got. If I can’t flash it now, when can I?
And why should there be an age limit on being able to express yourself in that way?
There shouldn’t really, because I think if you don’t wanna look at it … don’t look! [laughs]
You’ve done a lot of music for films, haven’t you?
Not really. You’d be surprised. I suppose The Bodyguard was the biggest thing I did.
Yeah, that was lovely because we met John Barry and we got to know him really well. It was a funny story, because I had been asked to present him with an award and I hate doing things like that! So, I’m introducing John Barry, who’s like a living legend, well he’s not living anymore, but I was just saying “I’d like to give this award to an absolutely brilliant man who is brilliant and all his music is brilliant and everything he does is brilliant. He’s just really brilliant!” You know when you can see yourself in a car crash? It was a bit like that. And then he comes up to get the award, and he hated things like that, and he gets the award off me and just says “Thank You!” and goes. The day after he phoned up our office and he said “Oh I’m so sorry, can I take you for lunch because I was so rude!” And then we went for lunch and I said “Well, I’m sorry for being so rude because I couldn’t even string a fucking sentence together!” After that we just became really, really good friends and writing that song with him was so lovely and a really nerve-wracking experience.
That was a huge film at the time.
Did you know that I did a screen test for that film? Adrian Lyne really wanted me for that part, the Demi Moore part, but Sherry Lansing who was the head of Paramount at the time didn’t agree. Well I can understand, I was a big singer and a big pop star at the time, but I was in no way a big actress. Who’s gonna go to the box office with that name? He was really upset, but I was glad I didn’t get it because it would have been weird to be in such a massive film at that stage. So, yeah, I just settled on doing the song.
Are there any more films on the horizon?
I don’t plan anything really. Apart from the tour. We go to Europe in May, then some festivals in the Summer, and then we’re doing the UK in September and I suppose after that we can think about America.
Do you like touring?
I do now. I use to hate it. I think it’s because I’ve stopped smoking. I used to panic all the time. I mean, I still do, about my voice, but I used to wake up every single morning after a gig and sit up in bed and go [singing] “Aaah”, and then I could say to myself, oh I’m alright. I can sing a lot better now and it isn’t as taxing, so I don’t have to worry all day about what my voice is gonna sound like.
Do you like the travelling involved?
I hate travelling. Unless I’m going on holiday, and then I love it! It’s just the fact that travel takes up maybe 60% of your life and I always think, I’m gonna be dead one day and 60% of my time has been taken up by that. I suppose I should really make more use of my time. Don’t you find that when you’re on an aeroplane, even when you haven’t had a drink, it heightens every emotion? You could be watching a really funny film and be crying with laughter and everyone around you would be asking the cabin crew, “Can you just stop that lady from laughing?”
You’ve no doubt inspired a lot of breakthrough artists in your genre. Who has inspired you in the past and who inspires you now?
Oh my god, so many people. I suppose the very first would be Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Prince, then people like Patsy Cline, Etta James. Now I would say that Adele and Emeli Sande are just amazing. I love it when women write as well sing. I think that John Newman is incredible and brilliant. I suppose it’s all very similar in a way.
You’ve got very distinctive influences there. Do you listen to music a lot?
I do when I’m not writing. But when I’m writing I never listen to music because it influences me so much. Otherwise you sit down and write a song and you think it’s the best song ever and then you realise it’s someone else’s song.
I know that you write with Ian, but do you prefer to write on your own?
I write a lot of lyrics on my own but it depends on the way that it all works out. You could come up with the title or you could get a melody idea or a lyrical idea, but we always work through the details together. There are not very many things that I’ve done on my own. But I like to work with other people and it’s lovely working with Ian because we completely understand each other. But sometimes it’s good to get someone else into the equation.