Lisa Stansfield: 'I just sing. I just feel it'
The vocal powerhouse is back with her first album for a decade, Seven, which she thinks is perfect for the age of Adele
Lisa Stansfield groans as she recounts the advice of countless record company executives in recent years. "Why don't you do an album of covers?" they ask her. A nice collection of inoffensive classics is, however, unlikely to happen. "They can piss off," she says.
It's 10 years since Stansfield, now 47, released an album – a stretch of time in which she has not so much stood idle as lain fallow, biding her time until she felt relevant again. "Well, what's the point of putting anything out if it's going to be ill-received?"
Having experienced success in the 1990s – with platinum-selling albums, the hit singles All Around the World and All Woman, and Grammy, Brit and Ivor Novello nods – Stansfield was understandably nervous about the idea of a lukewarm reception. Her last album, 2004's Trevor Horn-produced The Moment, peaked in the UK at a disappointing No 57. "There's always a stagnant time," she says. "And it's almost always before it explodes again and something new comes out."
That new thing is Seven, an opulent-sounding collection of songs written by Stansfield and her long-time writing and romantic partner, Ian Devaney, which showcases that famous voice against plush, cinematic arrangements. "We sat there, me and Ian, and said, 'If we do that, will it be really showy-offy?' And then we went, 'Fuck it. Why not?' You've got to give people something worth waiting for. If they want to call us a couple of bastards, they can."
The idea that it might be time to make a comeback occurred a few years ago, with the rise of a new clutch of soul stars such as Adele, Amy Winehouse and Duffy. Thirty years ago, Stansfield ploughed a similar furrow: after winning a singing contest in her hometown of Rochdale, she signed a record contract with Polydor before starting a band with Devaney and Andy Morris.
Following her powerful guest vocal on Coldcut's People Hold On, the young woman who spoke with the broadest of northern accents – but somehow sang like Barry White – captured the public imagination. She had mettle and humour and she swore like a trooper, but her songs were seductive things, worldly wise and potently feminine. Her new material is in the same vein, recorded in New York, London and at Stansfield's own studio in Rochdale, called Gracieland (a nod to the town's other famous daughter, Gracie Fields). She speaks gleefully of inviting the band up north: "And they all stayed in this guesthouse, and they really looked after them and made them all a fry-up every morning and a roast dinner on a Sunday." She looks proud. "I don't know how to word it without sounding like a twat, but it's been lovely being back in the north."
She met Devaney at school in Rochdale. "I always remember walking into the theatre …" She pauses. "It sounds posh that our school had its own theatre, but it was a community school. It was the first time I'd ever seen him and he was very brooding, gangly and tall, sitting on a plastic school chair strumming his guitar. He looked up and I thought, 'Oh. My. God.'" She was 14 then, and the pair were nothing more than friends until she was 22, by which time they were in a band and enjoying their first taste of success. They feared initially that a romantic involvement could ruin their professional songwriting relationship. "We were really scared," she recalls. "Because we realised that we were in love with each other. And we thought, 'Do we forgo the love and just get on with the music?' And it was very naughty because we did get on with all of it, and it all worked out fine in the end. But we could've completely screwed it up."
There has always been something astonishing about Stansfield's voice. The last time I saw her, at a small show in London, it seemed to turn the whole crowd to putty. "I just sing it, I just feel it," she says. "Because it's very raw and very real." She particularly relishes performing live since she quit cigarettes three years ago. "I used to smoke three packs a day," she says shaking her head. It took a bout of hypnotherapy in New York to give up. "I did it once in London and the guy had one of those toffee-nosed authoritative voices. And I just couldn't take him seriously. As a smoker you're a rebel, and it was like sitting down with a teacher."
She was a rebel early on: "The first time I tried a cigarette, I was about 10. And it wasn't even a cigarette. Oh my God, this is disgusting – it was one of my Mum's dog-ends. She smoked St Moritz and her coral lipstick would be on the filter. I used to keep all of the dog-ends in a matchbox and blow them out of the window."
Stansfield's mother died in 2006, but she still feels close to her. It was, after all, her mother who introduced her to the music of Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Diana Ross. "And I sang those songs all day long," she remembers. "Over and over again. I suppose it was parrot-fashion at first, trying to emulate something. And that's how your voice becomes how it does, because those have been your teachers."
Like those singers, Stansfield mingles strength and vulnerability in her voice and her songwriting. The new album takes a look at the role of women, particularly those in unhappy or unhealthy relationships. "People get trapped sometimes and they don't feel they have a voice. And if you can in some way help someone by writing a song, it's really lovely."
She describes her songs as "a cast of women and I'm the narrator". She can visualise each as she sings them, and feels a tenderness towards them. "You have to." Her most famous creation is surely the character in All Woman, stuck at home feeling dowdy while her husband goes out to work. What does she think this woman would be doing now? She laughs. "She probably wouldn't take as much shit as she did then," she says. "But I think she'd probably be all right."
Stansfield recalls the time she told her school careers officer she wanted to be a famous singer. "She just laughed at me." But it is singing that excites her rather than fame – she has refused several invitations to be a judge on TV talent shows. And while she seems proud of her new songs, there's a touch of nerves. "I've always said that when people start saying, 'Oh my God, why doesn't this woman put down her bagpipes?' then I will. I just don't ever want to become like Cliff Richard."