Looking out across the London skyline in a quiet, half-empty London restaurant, I’m waiting for Lisa Stansfield to arrive. The singer is next door at the BBC, recording a session to promote the release of her latest album, Deeper.
Within minutes of her arrival, the room bursts into life. She is gregarious and warm, hugging and greeting me through her strong northern accent that hasn’t been weakened by time or distance from her roots. “You’re not from round here, are you?” she asks, recognising an accent that emerged less than 10 miles from where she was born in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. We start to share stories of our northern upbringings, beginning at school.
“Oh, I remember going to the careers officer,” Stansfield says, rolling her eyes. “They think you’re mad if you dream, don’t they?” After telling her careers advisor of her plans for a career in music, she was immediately discouraged and told to sign up to secretarial college instead.
“Typing!” Stansfield comically shouts, still baulking at the suggestion. “I said, ‘I’m going to be a singer, Miss, I want to be a singer and I think I’m going to be very, very successful at it.’
“She just replied, ‘Well, I see here you do typing…’ I said to her, ‘I’m not doing anything like that at all. I’m going to be a singer and I’m going to be on television and I’m going to be very successful at what I do.’”
The advisor dismissed her entirely. “Well good luck with that,” she sarcastically told Stansfield, before slamming her school folder shut.
“I always remember being fascinated by her face,” Stansfield says. ”She wasn’t the prettiest of women. She had too many teeth and lot of moles with hairs sticking out.”
“You should set your sights high,” she bellows, recalling how angry the memory still makes her. “It’s like in one of my favourite films, Now Voyager, at the end when Bette Davies says…” Stansfield momentarily clears her throat and starts a routine, mimicking Davies’ voice and mannerisms dramatically: “‘Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon when we have the stars!’ It’s a bit like that, isn’t it? If you wish for the moon then you will get the stars so why not?”
Her debut solo album, Affection, certainly won her both the moon and the stars. A critical and commercial success, it sold over 5 million copies, went triple platinum in the UK and earned her two Grammy nods; since then she’s sold around 20 million records in her career to date. (“I wonder what that careers officer is doing now?” she laughs, doffing her flat black cap in mock jest.
The next few years were a non-stop whirlwind. “It was unbelievable but relentless. When you’re actually in the throes of doing it, you really don’t stop to question it or think because it’s just ‘oh I’m doing this, now I’m doing that, now I’m doing this…’ it’s non-stop – you hadn’t time to think about anything.”
By the time her third album was released, she almost broke through exhaustion and illness. “We ended up moving to Ireland and we stayed there for fourteen years so it was quite a big break,” she says, describing the country life she and her husband and co-writer, Ian Devaney, had in Ireland.
“We were working all the time but we just cut the pace right down. I couldn’t go anywhere; I couldn’t even go shopping or anything. A lot of people say: ‘oh get you, I’d love to be in that position,’ but you really wouldn’t.” After developing an allergy, Stansfield became sick – “I kept getting thinner and thinner” – she says, sucking her cheeks in to demonstrate – “and I was just imploding.” After the incessant pace took a toll, music ceased for a time until she properly recovered.
As far as moments to cherish go during the early stages of her career, Stansfield says there were many, but she picks out her performance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley as one of her proudest. The concert was watched by a global audience of one billion, and all funds raised were donated to AIDS research.
“When we were at rehearsals, we did one or two days and I just noticed that everyone was just really sombre. I thought to myself, ‘oh my god, Freddie Mercury was not like that at all.’ I just thought, I’m going to ask him…” She starts to act out what happened next.
It turns out Stansfield was trying to pluck up the courage to ask Queen’s Roger Taylor if she could perform “I Want to Break Free” in curlers with a vacuum cleaner on stage in homage to Mercury’s famous video performance.
“I said to him, ‘is it in really bad taste if I do that?’ And then he said, ‘my god, I’m so f****** glad you’ve suggested that – that’s what this band is all about, bad taste. Get on with it – it’s lovely that you’re going to do that.” Stansfield beams at the memory and says she is still overwhelmed by the experience. “It’s just the thought that everybody was there because of Freddie Mercury. His influence was incredible.”
Whilst the likes of New Order, Joy Division and The Smiths were emerging from Manchester around the same time, there was little in the way of northern female acts to follow. “The Manchester music scene was very male dominated,” she begins, as she racks her memory for examples of female identifying acts emerging at the same time as her from the north. Did it make the journey for her harder? No, is the straight answer she gives.
“I did work incredibly hard but I think there’s a certain element of luck. I think that sheer determination is responsible really. I think the passage through for me was quite easy – maybe it wasn’t but I remember it like that. But you’re always overcoming something; there’s always a hurdle to get over and it drives me mad.”
For Stansfield, a bigger issue was the industry trying to control everything about her in the early days of her career, from her appearance to musical style. In her trademark candid way, she says she had to fight daily to retain her individualism.
“I don’t know why they do this, but by trying to control everything about you, they’re literally stripping away every bit of personality that you’ve got.” She grinds her teeth and hits her fists on the table at the memory. “You have a constant struggle – even now – a constant struggle to fight against people trying to strip you of the interesting things about you and what you do.”
Stansfield stood up to countless industry people, point-blank refusing to do work that would often make her feel deeply uncomfortable. “I am very fortunate in a sense that if somebody wants me to do something and I don’t want to do it, I will stand up – I have stood up – because a lot of the time, what they were asking me to do would make me feel physically sick…”
She rolls her eyes and says that the demands she experienced was simply the norm being a female artist in the industry at that time: “I was like, this is me, and I’m not going to do that because it’s not what I’m about and I’m not having you and the rest of the world think something of me when it’s not what I represent.”
As a writer, Stansfield has often been overlooked, not least with her work in the group Blue Zone, her first acclaimed music project. People assumed when her solo career took off she neither wrote nor produced; she tells me it’s still sometimes the case now, despite having wrote the vast majority of her own songs throughout her career.
“I think women were just accepted more as songwriters when they sat at a stool with a guitar and have scruffy hair…it was quite insulting really because it was like saying that if you’re pretty and slim and glamorous there’s no way anything could be going on between your ears, you just like doing your make up. You couldn’t be both glamorous and a good songwriter.”
Her new album is both honest and personal; written with her husband Devaney, Stansfield also produced parts of the record. “This album is like the grown-up child of the first two albums. It has the same gene pool but it has its own personality…there is a lot in this album about revisited emotions. We revisited from where we first fell in love to where we made that big [commitment] jump. You can’t really talk [imaginatively] about a 30-year-old marriage can you?” she laughs.
Did she do a lot of the production? “Oh no. I’d never do that because I just haven’t got the bloody patience. I cannot sit and listen to a bloody bass drum for three hours. Just the initial feeling that I got like maybe this instrument would work and maybe we should go into the chorus this way…I suppose I did bits though. Get me!”
Many of Stansfield’s songs often include lyrics about women in traditional relationships, often in the style of the 60’s soul and motown that influenced her self-taught early work. Stansfield says she’s not the type of person to pander to what she should or shouldn’t sing in the new woke climate when criticism is levelled at some of the female characters in her songs.
“So, we’re not allowed to love anybody in songs now? Right. We’ve just got to be a complete b****** to everyone now, with a shaved head and an arm up in the air? …I think [society] is blowing it out of all proportion. People are still writing about love, they’ll always write about love and it’s not about women being better than men or [vice versa]. We’re all bloody equal and let’s have it like that. We love each other, or we should love each other because otherwise that’s the way wars are started.”
“I mean I have made political comments in songs before, but I think for me, it’s better if people listen to my music as that is a platform where I can talk to people…I’m not the sort of artist that people would accept if I did that anyway, but they will listen to me when I talk…I will talk to a lot of people because I enjoy it, but there’s no telling what I’m gonna say. And I think people quite like that about me as well. I’m a bit of a loose cannon, but it keeps everyone on their toes!”
The conversation quickly moves from gender politics to politics per se, and it’s not long before that loose cannon emerges. The Tories “have always been the same, taking money from the arts,” she sighs, dismayed at the impact their cuts are having on young artists; she also has little time for Jeremy Corbyn.
“Corbyn just makes me feel really uncomfortable. It’s almost like when he’s interviewed, he comes across as a real smart arse.” She mimics a posh voice: “You know, ‘oh don’t you know that you silly man?’
“You wanna give him a little thump, don’t you? The way he is with young people, it’s like…he’s an older man having a younger girlfriend because he can impress her. He’s talking the talk that she doesn’t know yet. I think he thinks he can get away with quite a lot.”
“I don’t know what trouble this is going to get me into but that’s the way I see him. I see him on a Sunday with his Jesus sandals on, playing a guitar with his little [student] minions around him.” She is also appalled, she says, by the party’s lack of action on the recent anti-semitism row; she is at a loss where to vote.
“Honest to god, politically, I really don’t know what to believe in anymore. I was the sort of person who would always say, ‘use your vote’ but what the f*** do you use it for? It’s really awful because if Labour did get in, then fair enough but I don’t know what Corbyn would end up doing. No politician ever does what they say they’re going to do anyway, or they’ll do half of it and the whole Brexit thing is just total b*****ks.”
The impact on new bands she compares to her own roots in Blue Zone, saying young people will be put off touring because it will cost too much for visas. “If you’re a new band, a small band, you’re not going to make any money whatsoever. It will cost a fortune to do tours. It’s a massive white elephant.”
Taking a small break in our chat – her voice is hoarse after rehearsals and promotion – Stansfield spots my necklace and asks me what it says. “I’ve been looking at it and I can’t work it out…” I tell her it says ‘F*** the Tories.’ She cheers and claps and says she wants one. “Do you know about my little necklace that I wore on TV?” she asks, referring to the time she was in trouble on Good Morning Britain after a close up of her necklace sparked a mass of complaints.
“Well, it said ‘C***y’,” she laughs. “It’s a term of endearment – I only realised I had it on when I was actually sitting there. And I thought, they can’t see it because it’s so tiny. See I would wear that every time on telly,” she says, pointing to my necklace. “It’s like the Brits thing as well…it was such an inoffensive comment.”
When winning the award for Best Female at the Brits in 1991, Stansfield criticised the Gulf War. “I said ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if there wasn’t a war’ and then after that everyone said I was a political person because I said I wished there wasn’t a war.” She was advised not to say anything controversial by Jonathan King. “I suppose it was just because I thought ‘f*** you, I’m just gonna say it anyway. [He] was the one who told me not to say it. And he’s eating his words now; don’t mention the war – don’t mention his war.”
Rallying against obstacles is something she’s used to in the industry – “there’s always a hurdle”, she repeats. I ask if now, on her eighth studio album, things are any easier. “Everybody thinks everything gets easier the more you do it and I suppose it does to a certain extent but…you’re constantly fighting something.” She says it still makes her feel insecure; “I still do and I think I still will do until the end of my career.”
Despite her success, she says she can’t imagine people looking up to her. “As an artist, or a human being actually, I just think ‘oh my god, what would they get out of me?’ …I can’t see Adele looking at me the way I looked at another artist when I was younger.” She loves Mabel, she says – “I’m such a massive fan” – and Adele too. “I’ve said before I’d really love to meet Adele…Give us two a bottle of wine and set us loose and we’d be f***** trouble!” She whispers that she’s said she loves Adele so much now, she’s worried the star will think her behaviour worrying. “I’ve honestly said it so many times, but I do really want to meet her!”
Stansfield says she was drawn to the soul and motown genre initially when her mother would incessantly play records of The Supremes. “I thought Diana Ross was the bee’s knees…she was a big influence on me.” Yet it was the themes of poverty often conveyed in the songs of the motown genre she believes resonated with her most from working-class upbringing in Rochdale.
“I think there was an affinity there because a lot of the black music that came out of America came from very impoverished places and so even though you are listening on the other side of the world, you are identifying with everything. I think you can feel that and you can feel that the places are similar – you just want to get out of them. You might go back to them but the first thing I wanted to do when I was old enough was to get out of Rochdale. I ended up marrying a bloody Italian man. It did the trick and then I came back with an…” she breaks off and pauses. “…An education,” she continues, before pulling her cap down over her face and laughing.
The marriage didn’t last long, but it gave her the escape she needed. After winning a talent contest, Search for a Star in between playing Working Men’s Clubs across Greater Manchester – something she’d done since the age of just 14 – Stansfield signed a record deal after appearing on Granada’s Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment; she left home soon after. “You need to explore yourself because when you’re from a town like that, it’s all very protected and you want to see a little bit of danger and you want to be frightened. And that’s all part of being a human being.”
She’s been asked to judge TV talent shows but has refused; the talent shows then didn’t strip you of your identity, she says, unlike the ones now. “I’ll tell them how to survive when you go on a promo trip without losing your marbles but I won’t tell them to sing and I won’t tell them how to dress.”
“I wasn’t being controlled,” she says about her talent show win. “Being moulded into something…” she grimaces at the thought. “I think if somebody is very passionate about wanting to do this [for a living] then you shouldn’t take everything away – you shouldn’t take the things away from somebody that makes that person special. That’s what you’re always fighting against.”
“All those judges will say well maybe if you do your hair different, maybe if you did this, maybe if you did that – I never let anybody tell me to do those things so I’m not going to do it to someone else. I don’t think it’s my right.”
One of the things Stansfield delighted in, she says, was the fact people struggled to define her in the music press. Part of why she dislikes the judges on talent shows now is because they all want to “put stars in little boxes.”
“They got very angry with me because they wanted to put me in a box and they couldn’t and they had to make a new box, god forbid. I think that’s the biggest part of being an artist is never let anyone touch your integrity. I saw an interview with Orsen Wells – and I mean he had an incredible mind – and he just summed it all up brilliantly.”
Like Bette Davies earlier, Stansfield now goes into full character. “He said, ‘I do love Hollywood, but it will kill you if you let it.’” The Orsen voice is dropped and now a new voice appears. “This guy said to him ‘well, Mr Wells, you do appear in quite a lot of movies now.’ Orsen was so honest back,” she says, before Lisa as Orsen appears again. “Well, actually, I do cameos in very bad movies and I give them a little bit of gravitas but I know that every time I do that I am chipping away at my own gravitas.’ And it’s true!” she says, when we’re back to Lisa. “You’re selling yourself down the river otherwise.”
Any excuse to get into character it seems, Stansfield takes it. One of the few artists who have navigated theatre, film, television and music, Stansfield has starred in The Vagina Monologues, the film Northern Soul as well as numerous television dramas. Does she have plans to return?
“Yeah, I love acting…I don’t go out and actively pursue acting jobs but I’ve been lucky because people have offered me things at really good times when I’ve not had anything to do. I really enjoy it. I would like to do more as I get older because when my face is where my tits are and when my tits are where my arse is, then maybe it would be lovely. It would be an investment, a good pension fund,” she laughs.
“I’ve always wanted to be in Corrie for like maybe a week or two weeks and be a friend of someone or like a relative of someone who has come to stay; I’d love to play Tracey’s really bitchy friend or just go in the Rovers and have a few drinks and a chat. I was offered the landlady’s part for like three years but apparently, you can’t do anything else, the only thing you can do is open supermarkets as your extra-curricular activity which wouldn’t suit me. I’d have to do my music as well.”
Her first ever brush with fame was meeting Pat Phoenix, the actress who played Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street on her way to Granada Studios with her mum when she was a teenager. “I just shouted ‘hi-ya!’ really loudly,” she says, in a thick Mancunian accent. “I just though, f*** it’s Elsie Tanner – I’ve just said hello to Elise Tanner! My mum said I was showing her up and to be quiet.”
Now her tour has ended and the album is released, she is already looking to her next project. “You’ve always got to have your next thing…I want to constantly make new things and explore and just learn really. And there’s just no telling what I’ll do or say next.”
‘Deeper’, the latest album from Lisa Stansfield, is out now via earMUSIC