Resurgent songsmith talks exploding Housemartins, being nationalised and only drinking when he writes.
As the leader of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, and now as half of a duo with Jacqui Abbott, Paul Heaton has been producing songs of heart, conscience and wit for more than three decades, with 16 Top 10 albums to show for it. For all that success, he embraces a lifestyle of sane family normality in terraced south Manchester. When MOJO arrives, we take a quick look at his esoteric collection of crisp packets before moving on to a nearby pub. If the solo years that began in 2007 were low-impact, his rekindled association with former Beautiful South co-vocalist Abbott has proven more successful: their latest album, Crooked Calypso, is Heaton’s first Number 1 since 1998. Comfortable with who he is, you can
still imagine Heaton being just as happy when he toured pubs by bike for 2010’s Acid Country LP. “I love my job,” he says, sipping his soft drink.
Is working with Jacqui better for you?
Much better. Lyrically, you can put different outfits on, so it’s given me more scope. And I’ve realised she has this voice that perhaps is more suited to radio than mine. Sometimes, when I sing, it can sound a bit like, oh that’s Paul Heaton making a statement. You can lose yourself in Jacqui’s voice and just listen to the song.
Your fealty to the well-assembled, accessible pop song is unshaken?
I suppose I’ve written songs and sung to an imaginary nana for most of my career. When I liked punk, I was a massive fan of the tuneful stuff like the Buzzcocks and The Vibrators. I’ve never wanted to make an arty record.
You always write your lyrics in the Netherlands. Why?
For this album I did them in Monnickendam and Volendam. Originally, I did it because it was the nearest place to go, by ferry, from Hull. I don’t really fancy flying. Nobody recognised me
and I wanted to be by myself. I’d go there in the winter, find a bar, get into the mood and write from 12 o’clock ’til 10 or something. It’s similar now, I’ll do a song and a half a day. I’ll go with my wife now. It’s the only time I drink, so she sort of looks after me.
Do you have to drink to write? There’s a cut-off point, when you start going down the same avenue all the time, like a repetitive drunk. But there’s a window of two or three hours when things come pouring out. Three or four years ago, when I packed in drinking, I went to Haarlem near Amsterdam and sat in this bar for five hours drinking Coca-Cola. Nothing. But after a couple of beers, it started coming out.
How do you view The Housemartins and The Beautiful South now?
They’re stages of my career. The Housemartins was this band that
exploded – watching the band grow, getting a phone call saying John Peel wants you to do a session, it was great. The Beautiful South was this steady stream, spreading a lot of goodwill. There were loads of good bits – just singing was one, people singing along, each time you had a new record.
You don’t see it as a chore do you?
Maybe that’s why I’m not taken as seriously as some others. I’m from the sort of background where you’re supposed to enjoy things that are good. I’m not in some middle-class strop because things haven’t gone right!
Should you be more famous?
I’m probably one of the few artists – or certainly was, and it’s probably still the case – where my songs are more famous than me. You could ask 30 people in the pub, admittedly of a certain age, but even back in the day, and say, Do you know that song? Yes. Do you know who this is? No. That’s how it goes for me, I like it like that. My idea was to be a sort of East German, efficient writing machine. Maybe I’m short of a few accolades, but I think you give accolades to people who want accolades. They’re a bit wasted on me.
Is it true you wanted the government to nationalise you?
I asked the Trade and Business Secretary, the MP who was re-elected in Tunbridge Wells. He hasn’t got back to me. I wanted to put the question to him on the unlikely basis that Corbyn got in. I’d put myself on a wage, so they’d take the money from my income and put it back into music. Happy Hour would be a national product! When you’d be on state radio – the BBC – everybody would get a bit of money.
Where does your sense of fair play come from?
From my dad, I think. He was one of those people who just spent his whole social life giving to other people. Not like, charity, but spending time trying to help other people, whether it was raising money for the school, for football teams. My sense of speaking out of turn is definitely from my mum. They got on really well. I never heard them argue.
Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
I was convinced, between the ages of about seven and 16, that me and this kid from school in Sheffield, Robert Hapgood, had written My Old Man’s A Dustman. I still am to be honest, even if it was written before I was born. Something else I’ve never told anybody in an interview before is that I think I’m a good songwriter. I think, consistence-wise [sic] I’m probably one of the best songwriters over the last 33 years there is, in Britain. But my reward is just being able to do the job. Ian Harrison
“I‘m from the background where you’re supposed to enjoy things that are good”: Paul Heaton, not in a middle-class strop.