Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Heather Small
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: the solo star and former M People frontwoman takes the ultimate test
1In 1994, M People’s ‘Elegant Slumming’ controversially won the Mercury Music Prize. Name four acts/albums you beat.
“Paul Weller? And… er, that’s all I can remember! Only ‘cause people were so outraged!”
WRONG. Apart from Paul Weller’s ‘Wild Wood’, you could have had: Blur’s ‘Parklife’, The Prodigy’s ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’, Pulp’s ‘His ‘n’ Hers’, Primal Scream’s ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ among many others.
“That’s why people were outraged! [Laughs] I didn’t think we would win because it was a really impressive line-up. On the night, it was quite daunting. It felt like being part of this movement of bands that were all so diverse, British, doing their own thing and making space for themselves. I was pleased to win, but that feeling wears off after a week!”
Apparently, at the ceremony, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, then girlfriend of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, told M People founder Mike Pickering: ‘Ah well – there goes my new fridge freezer’, and ‘Parklife’ guest Phil Daniels complained bitterly about your win. Which musicians congratulated you and who were the sorest losers?
“The only backlash we got was from the so-called serious music press because it was only the third Mercury Prize, and they couldn’t believe that what they deemed to be a ‘dance-pop’, rather than an indie band, had won. But I don’t think anybody has the right to denigrate anybody’s hard work or achievements, and the fact that our songs have stood the test of time and I’m still singing them is vindication above winning any award.”
2In 2020, which politician was accused of ripping off M People when he gave a speech urging people to “search for the hero inside yourself”?
“Boris Johnson – I saw that.”
PROUD! (CORRECT). The prime minister referenced the lyrics to the 1994 hit ‘Search for the Hero’ while talking about his experience of COVID-19 and subsequent weight loss mission. Were M People tempted to invoice him?
“No. ‘Cause at this moment in time, I am of immigrant stock, I’m working class, I’m black, female and if a Conservative prime minister’s going to quote my words, I’ll take it! Everything I am doesn’t sit well with Conservatives all of the time. And if you look at the strict immigration rules they want to put in place, I think to myself: there you are quoting the daughter of an immigrant. We bring something positive, we bring something different, and we bring a lot of hard work that should be acknowledged.”
3You allegedly sang uncredited vocals on Black Box’s 1989 chart-topper ‘Ride on Time’. But what is the name of the model who mimed the song on TV appearances?
“Ooh, I can see her now! But I’ll never say if I did or didn’t do the vocals. She had the longest legs and was cute as anything – but her name escapes me!”
WRONG. It’s Katrin Quinol. The story goes that after disco singer Loleatta Holloway denied the Italian producers a sample, you re-did the vocals incognito…
“I’ve never said, ‘Yes, it’s me’ or ‘No, it isn’t’, and nobody knew who I was when the song came out anyway. It’s going to be downhill from now if this is the level of the questions, I’m telling ya! [Laughs]”
4On a 2003 episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which musician did host Mark Lamarr try to cheer up by singing The Carpenters in a Heather Small voice?
“[Sighs] Oh God….[M People drummer] Shovell? I’ve got no idea!”
WRONG. It was Alison Goldfrapp.
“[Raucous laughter] Did he succeed?! Like I said, it’s downhill from here! I have a lot of people come up and sing to me who think they sound exactly like me and I think to myself: if I sounded like that, I don’t think I’d have sold a single record! [Laughs] The last time was a group of women and one of them said ‘I always do you’ and she started singing ‘Moving On Up’. It’s funny and flattering that you permeate the British psyche.”
You guest-starred on the BBC sitcom Miranda after the character Stevie used to brandish a cardboard Heather Small face on a stick while imitating you by singing: ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud?”…
“I didn’t watch Miranda ‘cause I was scared of seeing myself pop up on a stick! But my mother and sister loved it, and the show asked me to participate and I was so excited and impressed by them. It was fun – all the cast made me feel so welcome.”
How is your own sitcom that you were writing during lockdown going?
“It’s set in a charity shop and I’ve got the final draft and episode synopses ready, and am looking to pitch it. The few people that I’ve let look at it love it and I’m happy with it. The debate right now is whether I should star in it!”
5You appeared as Chandelier on the current season of The Masked Singer. But which other pop star did comedian Mo Gilligan think was you?
“Is it Lionfish?”
PROUD! He mistook Lionfish – the alter-ego of Will Young – for you.
“Ahhhhh! [Laughs] If only I were that tall! It was difficult because I wanted to disguise my distinctive voice. The Masked Singer is not a singing competition – it’s a guessing game. To that end, nobody guessed me! Everyone was shocked – the crew as well as the panel. The hard work was trying to disguise your voice and finding a song that you can sing well within the voice you’ve created.
“There was a deconstruction of my singing style – I sing with an oval mouth, so I changed my voice by making my mouth shape more horizontal. And then I sing with quite a low register and from my diaphragm and chest, so I tried to stay in my head voice and make it more nasally. I went deep into it – only to be voted out in the first week! [Laughs] I’m sad that people didn’t get hear some of my other songs I had planned – like Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and [Sigala and Ella Eyre’s] ‘Came Here for Love’.”
6In 1994, M People performed at Glastonbury. How much did a weekend ticket cost that year?
“Was it £120?”
WRONG. It was £59. Bargain!
“You wouldn’t get an hour of Glastonbury for that now! You’d get a glass of wine and half a song! [Laughs] Playing Glastonbury was amazing. I felt like a complete princess on that stage. The audience was singing every word and in the palm of my hand. There was a sense of freedom and liberation. I felt like I could fly. And that if I did fall, everybody in the audience would catch me and I could end up bodysurfing. Though I couldn’t have bodysurfed in the dress I had on! [Laughs] I’ll have to try it next time! Knowing my luck, the audience would part and I’ll be eating grass!”
7According to media reports, for what unusual reason did M People cancel a concert on New Year’s Eve 1999?
“Ooh… err … we didn’t cancel that many. Did the power go off? I remember we tried to do a gig and there was a power cut.”
WRONG. Reportedly middle-aged fans complained they couldn’t afford the exorbitant price of a babysitter on New Year’s Eve.
“Er… Well, that’s false and that’s why I didn’t know it! Because it’s a work of fiction!”
Did you get a lot of false press stories over the years?
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t read anything about myself – the good, bad or the ugly, because one of the early things I did see was a review where I was called a ‘puppet’, and I was truly offended by that. That’s a stereotype – that because I’m female in a band with guys, they’re telling me what to do and how to do it, and anyone who knew me at all knew that wasn’t the case.
“So I didn’t read reviews because if you take the good on board, then you’d have to take the bad as well. And I never drank or took drugs, so that set me apart from a lot of people as well. And as a black female, I found sometimes people didn’t take the time to get to know me. They just had the idea that I was a ‘diva’. If you say ‘diva’, everyone thinks of black women – whether it’s Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. And Whitney Houston was so sweet – she reached out to all us younger, female artists. When I met her, she was so sweet and supportive of me.
“That’s why doing things like The Masked Singer is good – because it gives an insight into my personality and shows that I like to have fun and don’t take myself as seriously as people might have once thought.”
8You performed ‘Proud’ in 2008 as part of the London 2012 Olympic handover Ceremony. Which city were the Olympics being handed over from?
“Performing at the ceremony in The Mall, London, felt amazing and I was representing Great Britain. As a child, I grew up feeling like I didn’t belong and that people didn’t want me here and – although those feelings haven’t dissipated – for that moment in time, I felt part of the good and positive part of the British fabric.”
9Which two singles did you review when you appeared on The Big Breakfast in 1993?
“One of them was by the guy who used to have the hat? Jay Kay from Jamiroquai?”
WRONG. You cast your critical gaze over Depeche Mode’s ‘Condemnation’ and Shara Nelson’s ‘One Goodbye in Ten’.
“Now I’m remembering Shara Nelson – what a vocal!”
10Complete the next lines: ‘Not an obvious beauty on inspection, but there is dignity that seduces and brings admiration…’
“Oh, that was from a poem they asked me to write about Manchester. I’ve a real soft-spot for the city! Not a clue what the next lines are!
WRONG. It’s indeed from a poem you wrote about Manchester for a contest in 2007. The next lines are: ‘Some speak of the darkening skies an greying clouds / I think of the people straight-talking and proud.” Obviously Mike Pickering was a DJ at the The Haçienda and you played the infamous Manc club…
“I got onstage and thought: this club is full of happy people! [Laughs]. There was a sense of jubilation, because it was a hard time, and so it was the Yin to the Yang. You’d really enjoy yourself and leave your troubles at the door. It was fun and everybody was good and kind to each other in that club setting. You just felt like you were part of something – and it turned out we were! [Laughs].”
Do you have new music coming up?
“I’m recording a new song and I’m doing some songs I’ve already done but with orchestral strings and things. Hopefully other people will enjoying listening to it as much as I have doing it.”
The verdict: 3/10
“In any other realm, 30 per cent wouldn’t be good enough, but you’re talking about 1993 and 1994, so I’ll take it! [Laughs]”
– Heather Small, The Voice of M People, tours the UK from 17 March 2022