Interview - Heather Small, Voice of M People
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:15 05 April 2018
Heather Small, the voice of M People and the 2012 London Olympics, is touring the UK in 2018 with songs that stir the soul as powerfully as they did more than 25 years ago, write Kate Houghton
Heather Small, with her huge, unmistakeable voice, is on tour again and loving every minute.
‘The reception you get and the joy is so much fun!’ she says, with a huge laugh that immediately makes me want to grab a coffee and sit across a table from this woman for as long as she’ll have me. ‘The connection with the band and the audience and the feeling that I get is so good! I enjoy it so much, and I am definitely a better singer now - and that fact that people are still willing to come out...it’s so emotional. It was a dream I held dear for such a long time and it came to fruition and to have people want to hear and to sing those songs, I’m so happy to do that.’
Heather was asked to join M People to do just two songs, when founder Mike Pickering (the M in the title) had the idea that he would use different talent for each single he developed. Within two singles, including the iconic How Can I Love You More, her voice had become synonymous with the M People sound and she never left.
‘Every single they did on that first album [Northern Soul] was vocals by me. The original idea was that it would be a collective but we felt so at home and happy that we just kept going. It was a lot of fun, hard work, but it was my dream since I was a girl so it didn’t feel hard.’
M People wasn’t Heather’s first foray into pop music, she had been the lead singer in group Hot House, which although their music earned acclaim in the music press, never really caught the imagination of the record buying public.
‘I had been ‘almost famous’ and ‘almost made it’, she says, ‘and that ‘almost’ thing, it hurts. With M People we took that sound and brought it to the stage and that’s what makes if different, that’s what takes you to people’s hearts.
‘There’s nothing like it and I still feel like that 25 years on; I feel like it’s 365 days of Christmas!’
In 1998 the band took time to separate and pursue solo projects, giving Heather the opportunity to do her own thing too.
‘With M People, the guys wrote the songs and then I did what I do vocally with them and changed them to express myself within those songs, make them personal to me and I felt like I owned them too. When I wrote Proud [with Peter-John Vetese] it was the first one outside of M People and expressed everything I felt at that time. It was a time to explore my own voice and a slightly different sound, to please myself. We were successful [as M People] but to me my measurement of success was ingrained in the music that I was going to do and the way I was going to do it, so as a measure of success the way I felt about what I was doing, that the music I did was joyous to me, was as important as any commercial success. It wasn’t just about making hits and making money, it was the feeling that those songs gave to me and I wanted that to continue.
‘I had no idea [Proud] would be so massive. For me this has been a measure of my success as an artist and that for me stepping outside of M People was the right thing to do, because when all is said and done all you’ve got is your work, that is your legacy [as an artist]. I don’t want people to look at me and think “oh, she has all that money in the bank,” and I am never going to be the richest singer, but if they look and they think “yeah, her voice, her honesty and integrity in every endeavour” then that’s success for me.”
Many of Heather’s songs are the sort that bring back a whole plethora of memories for those that were there at the time and, Heather says, spring from her own feelings and experiences.
‘People hear a certain song and they mean certain things. Movin’ On Up – this could be about love, or a job, it’s about moving out of any situation when it don’t suit! We all go though similar experiences, we all have bad days and want to pull the covers over our heads and the blinds down, but I’m interested in is what makes us just get out of bed, well that’s what Proud’s about and Search for the Hero is about and most probably I sing those songs with conviction is because it’s me, because I understand that. I used to have an uncle who would say to me “Heather! You can’t cry at everything!” I would cry at stuff I saw on TV, when I was happy or sad, and it makes you vulnerable, but as you get older you try and mask that vulnerability, but I can’t walk around with a hardened heart and then try to sings songs where I am supposed to be emotionally connected to my audience. I can’t try and live in a bubble, I have to experience what life is like, if you don’t understand what people are going through how can I then try and reflect those emotions in a song? To be creative in any endeavour whether it’s on stage, whether it’s writing books you’ve got to know your subject you’ve got to know your audience, you’ve got to be true.
I wonder whether coming to Manchester on tour has any special resonance for Heather. I certainly wasn’t the only resident of the city to believe that the M stood for Manchester.
‘Of course! You know, the M can be whatever you want it to be and M gave us the keys to the city and everything and Mike’s People/Manchester People, it’s one and the same and of course Mike was a son of Manchester and then I became an adopted daughter, so the cap did fit! Our first show was at The Hacienda, the people of Manchester were the taste makers that told the rest of the world this was a band worth investing in!’
We still are.
Heather Small - The Voice Of M People
Sunday 22 April 2018
Manchester Academy 2 | manchesteracademy.net