Stop barking! It’s like, ‘Take notice of me!’ I’ve had to be away from her this morning. I’ve only had her two years and wouldn’t be without her. She’s absolute sunshine.”
That’s Heather Small talking about her toy poodle, Nina, named after Ms Simone, giving me my first point of reference, talking about another great vocal interpreter of songs.
“She’s a mistress at interpreting other people’s songs, such as her version of Suzanne,” says Heather.
Heather wasn’t long back from Barbados, dealing with London snow but in fine form, to a point that it’s hard to equate her with the performer said to be so shy at the start of her career. Somehow, it’s 27 years since debut M People LP, Northern Soul, let alone starting with fellow dance outfit Hot House in early 1987.
“For me it’s the fact I’ve got an hour and a half of hits these days. What’s even more amazing is that people are still willing to come and see me sing those hits.”
With M People alone we’re talking 20 top-40 hit singles in the ’90s, 10 of them top 10s Including How Can I Love You More?, One Night in Heaven, Moving On Up, and Search for the Hero. There were also four top-five LPs, including a Mercury Music Prize for Elegant Slumming in ’93, and Brit Awards for Best British Dance Act in ’94 and ’95.
Born in 1965 and brought up on a West London council estate, faith is important to Heather. Is that where she found her voice?
“I never sang gospel. I sang from my own endeavour. When I started to perform to an audience was when I did The Tube. I was terrified. I didn’t move, concentrating on making it through the song.”
But Heather overcame severe nerves, making two albums with Hot House before her label mates stepped in, joining Manchester-based DJ/musician Mike Pickering and Londoner Paul Heard in 1990.
“The guys in M People had the same management and said, ‘Let Heather know if she leaves that we have two songs we’ve written especially for her and we’d love for her to record.’
“I brought a gospel element to Have Can I Love You More? They let me do the songs the way I felt them. I had no training and still always go for feel. I can’t read music or play an instrument.”
Heather’s parents arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the ’60s, and while it’s easy to place her soul influences, she was also an Elkie Brooks fan, recently covering Pearl’s A Singer.
Heather says: “A great singer, great interpretation, very soulful, and you know straight away it’s Elkie, at a time when it’s difficult to differentiate between singers. And I grew up in a time in the ’70s when you’d have Bob Marley and ABBA on the same radio station.
“For me it was about being on top of your game. I was very shy but singing made me feel great. It was more intrinsic. I didn’t feel right if I didn’t sing. I had to make it, because of the joy it gives me. I didn’t learn to type or anything like that, so didn’t have anything to fall back on. I had to make it!
“And no two days are the same. It’s still like that after being in music for over 25 years. Right now, I’m writing songs with a young writer/producer. It still has that power to surprise me.”
Nineties legends to headline live music festival
Her personality and humour shone through on BBC One’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in 2008, leading to many high-profile TV appearances. But the live work never stopped, including touring with singing legend Lulu and US performer Anastacia on the Here Come the Girls tour.
Then there was 2000’s Proud, the title track of her first solo LP, an
inspirational world hit associated with the 2012 London Olympic bid and much more, co-written with Jethro Tull’s Peter-John Vettese.
“That’s taken me to so many different places. It’s flown around the world, so people can hear me sing that one song live.”
That includes adoption by Oprah Winfrey, who invited Heather to perform on her US chat show, midway through M People’s 2005 UK tour, saying, ‘If Oprah calls, you go!’
“It doesn’t make it any less flattering if it’s somebody watching their son or daughter in a school play and they use ‘Proud’. Going to Chicago, for Oprah – my goodness! But it’s about celebrating those small, joyous and private moments.”
That fits neatly with her charitable anti-racist and anti-bullying causes, Heather also an ambassador for children’s charity, Barnardo’s.
“That keeps me in touch with my own humanity. They’re doing something for me. I don’t deserve any praise for it. If you have an abundance of something … I can sing, so I sing. People who have lots of money can give money, people who have time can give time. No one thing trumps the other.”
Finally, she spent a lot of time in Standish through her past relationship with Wigan rugby legend Shaun Edwards. Does she miss this region?
“Well, the North West came to London, so that was alright! They were so lovely to me. My son’s still a regular visitor. His grandparents are there. He’s fluent in Wigan-ese!”
Has Heather’s son, 21, followed in Mum or Dad’s footsteps, career-wise?
“He doesn’t sing but he’s at
Edinburgh Uni, a sportsman like his father, in the rugby team. But I don’t like to talk about him too much, or I’ll get a little phone call!”
Heather Small – The Voice of M People tours the UK in April and May, including Preston’s Charter Theatre (01772 80 44 44, https://prestonguildhall.co.uk/shows/heather-small/) on Tuesday, April 24.
For the latest on Heather, head to http://heathersmall-mpeople.com/ or follow her via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/heathersmallmpeople/ or Twitter at https://twitter.com/MPeopleHeatherS . There’s also a YouTube UK tour trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAjkdaupphc