I was given my first diary when I was about six. It came pre-tagged with a series of slogans like “Hands Off!” and “Back of the Class!” emblazoned on its cover. It was also covered in the names of a baffling array of bands and singers, so that the Smashing Pumpkins sat awkwardly next to NWA who, in turn, were hanging out with Right Said Fred. Basically, my diary looked like the toilet walls of a recently opened Shoreditch bar, covered in commissioned graffiti for that “authentic” look.
One of the names on the diary was Lisa Stansfield, and for years that name stayed in my head, conjuring up vague images of clubs and a world of early 90s cool I was clearly way too young to know anything about. I didn’t know who Lisa Stansfield was – I barely knew who anyone apart from my parents and Winnie the Pooh were- but I somehow knew she had quite short hair, (I have a feeling I might have thought she was Sinead O’Connor.) I certainly never connected her with the massive hit “All Around the World”, a song the whole world knew.
“All Around the World” was the stand out hit from Stansfield’s debut solo album, 1989’s Affection. The album was a phenomenon, getting rave reviews, going triple platinum in the UK and winning multiple awards, including two Ivor Novellos for “All Around the World”. Talking to Stansfield – who, FYI, is properly funny – about it, almost 25 years later, she says that her new album, Seven, which has just been released and looks likely to chart in the top ten, is a return to the soul music that underpins Affection. Growing up in Manchester, Heywood and then Rochdale, she listened to a lot of Motown, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Prince, Aretha Franklin and Barry White. “I started listening to those people when I was really young. I just sang along, but I have no idea why I sound the way I sound”.Northern Soul was a huge influence but, as she tells me, “I wasn’t old enough to go to any of the nights; my mum would never have let me”. Nevertheless, in Heywood, where her family lived before moving to Rochdale, there was a local place that played soul music. “I’d put my makeup on, pad my bra and have a little drink of water”. As she got older, her love of soul music marked her out, albeit secretly. “I always really loved soul music but all my friends were into the new romantic scene. I’d go to new romantic clubs and then go home and listen to soul music”, she tells me. “I was sort of ashamed of listening to disco and soul music! It felt like a dirty little secret at the time because my friends thought it was corny”.
This “dirty little secret” came out when, as a 15-year old, she met Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, who would go on to co-write and produce Affection with her. In a romantic side note, she would go out with Andy before ending up getting together with Ian, via a short-lived first marriage to an Italian designer. “It’s a good thing you aren’t in a brass band”, her Dad quipped, essentially implying that his daughter liked to get around. Ian marked the end of her brass band years though; she’s been with him since the late 80s and they’ve continued to make music together, which is surely some kind of record.
When she began to make music with Ian and Andy, it was a “complete revelation”, because they were doing what they wanted to do and had the freedom to do it, away from all the new romantic shit. She met them at a community school in Rochdale, when they were in a show called Schizophrenia, written by their teacher / director, a prototype Mr G. She was 14 and played a nightclub singer in the play, something she was already doing in real life, singing in working men’s clubs around Rochdale. She was so tired; she’d sleep in her double Chemistry lesson on Friday. This naptime was pre-agreed with her Chemistry teacher, who was obviously an enlightened guy. “He furthered my career with a lack of education”, Lisa chuckles.
The clubs were “absolutely brutal”, she says. “Sometimes, the crowds would sort of feel a bit sorry for me because I was only little. I’d sing a ballad and they’d all go. ‘Ah, in’t she lovely’”. At the same time, she was doing regional TV shows and winning singing competitions like Search For A Star, which is what X Factor would be if it was made in the immediate aftermath of the Winter of Discontent. She ended up on Crackerjack, a “really crap show everyone thought was brilliant”. “Everyone” included her Mum, who threw her daughter out of the house when Lisa decided she was going to quit her lucrative career as a teen TV star in order to make music with Ian and Andy. “I was going out with Andy at the time and I went to live on his council estate. My Mum, who had come from a really poor family, was mortified that I was living on an estate so it wasn’t long before I was back home”.
Lisa was 21 when she started writing the songs for Affection with Andy and Ian. By day, they were using their label’s money to build their own studio in Rochdale. By night, they were recording the songs at the home they shared. “Because nobody ever wants to go up north when they live in London, we knew no-one would come to check up on us”, remembers Lisa. After they’d sold a million records, they told their label what they’d done. By that point, the fact that they’d been given money to build a studio they hadn’t used didn’t seem too important.
Lisa, Andy and Ian divided the song-writing duties between them. None of them had a set role. Melodies, chords and lyrics could come from any one of them, and the tunes were fit together from a mix of ideas. It’s how Ian and Lisa still work. On “All Around the World”, Ian wrote the beginning of the chorus - “Been around the World and I...” – but couldn’t get any further than that. He asked Lisa if she could think of anything and all she could sing was “I, I, I...” as she tried to think of something. “We all started laughing and kept doing it over and over again because it was silly, until we realised it was really good!” And so a hit was born.
Elsewhere on the album, classic soul mixes with the cut-up beats and breaks of the emerging British dance scene. It is probably best shown on “This is the Right Time”, made with the now-legendary duo Coldcut, who were bringing samples into mainstream British pop music. The video alsoserves as a useful reminder to white British pop singers that you can use black dancers in your videos without being implicitly racist. Coldcut and Lisa were both being managed by Big Life Records, so went into the studio together. “It was really interesting”, Lisa says of the emerging dance scene, “at the beginning, there was a little bit of fear about it, but we thought ‘Fuck it, let’s get on with it and see what happens’”.
Lisa got together- in a romance way- with Ian just before they started recording Affection. “Ian was with someone and I was with someone. We always really fancied each other but didn’t want to spoil the music. Once we were with other people, we let our guard down and started to be much friendlier with each other, so it was just inevitable that it would happen”. The thing about “All Around the World” is that she never really needed to go all around the world, she had her boy right there with her and they were making music together. Her songs, then, are places for fictions to exist. “If we just wrote about ourselves and our relationship, nobody would buy our records. Got up, brushed my teeth, had some breakfast. There’s no real turmoil there”!
Seven, like Affection, is, says Lisa, “an eclectic mix of emotions, but there’s a common thread running through it”. Her last album was released in 2004, and when I ask her why she’s been out the game for so long, she jokes that she’s just a “complete lazy bastard”, before saying that “when nobody can see your face, they sort of forget about you and think, ‘Oh God is she dead?’”. She’s definitely not, though, and given pop’s cyclical nature, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of singers out there who sound a hell of a lot like Lisa Stansfield. Good for them. There’s only one original though.
Lisa Stansfield’s new album ‘Seven’ was released on February 10th on Monkeynatra. For more information please visit www.lisa-stansfield.com.
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