You could be deaf and still recognize the vibrations from Alison Moyet’s remarkable voice. Surely you remember her. Moyet first came to the public’s attention as the powerhouse vocalist behind Yaz (Yazoo in their native U.K.), her duo with Erasure’s Vince Clarke. Thirty years later, the songs “Only You” and “Don’t Go” are on still regular rotation on radio stations across a number of genres. But what you might not know is as a solo artist, Moyet has released eight albums in the last three decades—all with considerable success.
Moyet’s most recent long-player, The Minutes, sees her rich tones melded with freshly carved electronics courtesy of producer Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Britney Spears). Never just a voice—even if it is her most identifiable characteristic—Moyet brims with an abundance of not just music, but life understanding.
A mother of three in her very early 50s and looking at least 20 years younger, the chatty Moyet apologizes regularly during the conversation, in case she sounds like she’s blowing her own trumpet. She uses catchphrases from her French heritage that link back to the Essex council estate (think suburban housing projects) where she grew up. Newly divested of her gold records, press clippings and memorabilia, all of which she burned in a huge bonfire before moving out of the house she was living in since she was 21, Moyet is light of possessions but rich in experience and all the happier for it as Boxx Magazine contributor Lily Moayeri discovers.
Lily Moayeri: How come you are so happy at the moment?
Alison Moyet: I am at a place in my life where you can’t automatically expect to be: Middle-aged woman making a creative album and getting a good response to it. Getting the album out itself seems like a triumph. I’ve been offered loads of deals over the last few years but there was absolutely no interest in anything unique to me. If I wanted to sing Etta James, they would have been thrilled to bits. But in terms of being seen as or being listened to as a creative artist, it’s very difficult to get any record label interested.
I was determined I would accept no compromise, make the record I wanted to make with Guy Sigsworth as my collaborator, and then present it as a fait accompli. This way I could completely avoid any A&R with their talks of demographics, target audiences and “this is what is expected from a woman like you.”
LM: Do you feel there are pre-conceived notions about you where the music business in concerned?
AM: Forgive me for saying this—I’m not trying to be lairy [read: cheeky], but I became someone who has a good voice. Everything I’m expected to do, my voice is constantly put in prominence. There are times where it’s not supposed to be about the voice, where the lyric and the sentiment are far more important. Passion and emotion are not what we’re sold now. It’s very hard to get people to understand that, especially in this period we are at musically. Mainstream female singing today is about showing off and acrobatics.
LM: What is your take on that?
AM: In some ways it’s like R&B has become all pervasive. When I was listening to it when I was younger, it was special. The trouble is, there’s so much mimicry and facsimiles going on now that you get the sense that people are just learning the rungs like a technical exercise, like an acrobat, as opposed to truly engaging with what they are singing or approaching it from a more artistic point of view. Maybe it’s because it’s been so many years of turning on the radio and hearing records that have the same producers and you can’t distinguish one from the other.
It’s kind of funny for me because The Minutes went to number five when it came out [in the U.K.]. Consequently, it has a lot of people coming to look at it. Some of the kids are completely freaked out by my singing. To hear a woman with any testosterone in her, they find shocking. That’s kind of understandable because so many of the male voices we are listening to now are testosterone-lite as well. They’re not used to hearing this aggression in a woman’s voice.
LM: Pop music it seems has become a bit gender-neutral—or rather, feminized.
AM: The girls are sounding super-girly and the boys are sounding super-girly, and they’re all really pretty. That’s something that I miss: The space for freaks. I was never a great fan of the ‘80s, but funnily enough, retrospectively, it almost seems like the real last time that freaks could rule the musical world.
LM: Did you feel like a freak at the time?
AM: I never aspired to be a pop singer. I never thought I was going to be a pop star. I started off in punk bands. My muse was Poly Styrene. I couldn’t see myself anywhere in the media. I couldn’t see myself anywhere in school. I felt like an alien being, this strange, androgynous creature that I was. There is a time in your early teens when you try to fit in and you have this eureka moment where you realize, “I don’t want to fit in. I don’t want to constantly try and reshape myself. I’m going to go completely the other way.” When you saw someone like Poly Styrene being all kinds of odd, it was brilliant—and with this rebel yell voice, which was something I could create. I could scream and shout. If there was one thing I learned in my family, it was aggression.
LM: Do you feel like you would be as successful if you were in your 20s now, embarking on a musical career?
AM: I think it is possible because what I never understood about my success was what I thought was gauche is what I now recognize was interesting about me. But sometimes you need to be an older woman to recognize the brilliance of a younger woman. You have no idea how your genius is in your differences. So yes, I think that I would probably do the same thing, but I don’t think I would end up in the mainstream. But like I’ve said, I never wanted to be in the mainstream pop world anyway.
LM: It seems these days you have to be so much more successful than you used to just to get by as a musician.
AM: I always expected to have a day job. That day job was to fund our petrol money to get us to a gig. I never saw music as a thing I could earn money from. I was really surprised I did end up earning money from it.
I grew up in a very working class town on a big council estate. None of us had much. For me, playing in bands was never about earning money, it was always about expressing myself—to the point where even when I had my first record deal, it never occurred to me to ask for money. When I did my first Top Of The Pops [British music chart television program], I remember someone asking me, “Have you bought your mum and dad a big house?” I remember looking at them thinking, “They still give me pocket money. I have no money at all.” The dress I wore on the biggest pop show in the country, my mum had lent me 20 pounds and we’d gone down to Basildon Market, which was real basic, and bought some of the cheapest material we could find and my mate knocked me out a dress on her sewing machine.
It’s interesting how these young artists have had media training, a stylist, someone to teach them how to dance. I look back at my first television experience, we were lip-syncing. When the track started, it struck me then that I wouldn’t be singing, and it hadn’t occurred to me how I was going to present myself because we had this hit before we’d even played live as a band. I’m thinking, “Just shuffle about for a bit.” I was making decisions as it was happening, no pre-thought.
LM: That is a very different world than where we are today.
AM: It’s not to say that our choices were always good choices, but at least you got a sense of who you were dealing with. Now, everyone seems so achingly well put together by the same stylist. You’ve no idea whether you’re dealing with someone who is intrinsically cool or not. You either like something or you don’t. What an unusual world it must be when you’re waiting for someone to tell you what you like.
LM: Are there current musicians that you’re finding interesting?
AM: When I was growing up, we had one record player to share between five people. You took your turn, and as the youngest in the family, my voice was always heard last. Because I had no money, and as a result of my upbringing, music was always far more about participation for me than consuming. When I was interested in music it was about making it rather than listening to it.
Over the last few years I removed myself from searching it out because I had been getting more into the doing rather than the receiving. I know there are brilliant people of all sexes out there that I’m going to be completely unaware of. PJ Harvey will always be a fascination to me. I find her very interesting.
LM: You’ve done musical theater, like Chicago, how did that come about?
AM: I had been flitting in and out of agoraphobia. Left to my own devices I could remove myself from society and not go back in again. But I need it. I love people. I love interacting with people. And I saw myself going back into that place where I wouldn’t see people again, and it scared me.
I have no work experience. I left school at 16 and I’ve been in bands since I was 16. I’ve never had a proper job. I’m not qualified to even work at a shop counter. The only thing I knew how to do was be on stage. I had no love of musicals. They are not my genre and I’d never been taken to one as a kid. I’d never actually gone to one at the theatre. A friend took me along to see Chicago and I was looking at these ladies taking their clothes off saying to him, “Are you having a laugh?” The more I watched it the more I could get my head around it and see where he was coming from.
I was slightly appalled by the concept of doing it, but that was what made me want to do it. I’m someone who will occasionally pull out a toenail just to see if I can. It became a real challenge for me—for different reasons than you would imagine. I was not going to be the star, I was going to be part of a collective and that really excited me. I wanted to find out if I could be reliable and go places without people protecting me. I was going into town on the train and just being a part of the chorus. I absolutely loved it.
The reward of doing that was it absolutely eradicated all the last vestiges of my stage fright. Sometimes you’re going on stage and you’ve got your fans and sometimes people don’t know you from Adam. It’s brilliant because you can’t rely on getting a clap just for turning up. I had to work my ass off there. It was a brilliant, liberating experience.
LM: What brought you to Guy Sigsworth for your latest album, The Minutes?
AM: I’ve been wanting to work with an electronic palette for a long time. I was restricted by two things: One, I’m not one to network. I find going out and meeting people very difficult. In any new situation, I tend to stutter. So I’m always resistant to meeting new people. Two, when you deal with solo female singers, the assumption seems to be that you’re not the creative force. It’s always the man that determines that. These days female solo artists are put together with ten or twelve different writing teams to spread the risk amongst loads of people. Everyone wants to write the lead track, no one wants to write an album.
When Guy Sigsworth was introduced to me and I’d seen some of the people he’d worked with, and I assumed it was going to be another one of these things where they will graciously hand me a track. But I thought, I don’t want to look like I’m being difficult so I went along for the meeting. It transpired that we were completely on the same page. We’re similar in the sense that we’re both socially awkward yet at the core of us, we’re very sure about who we are and what we like. We’re both motivated about one thing—forgive me for sounding like a cock, but we wanted to have art for art’s sake, music for its own sake. Not thinking about demographics and not worrying about hits and whether we’re being played on the radio.
LM: The musical direction is certainly a new one for you, the closest thing to electronica you’ve ever done, but without falling into the dancefloor clichés.
AM: A lot of electronica material—certainly in the ‘90s—put me off in the way that the voices were sped up and jammed in because it always had to be the beat that was king. You could live with the track but wanted the hideous voice taken off. What’s been great about working with Guy is that the integrity of the song is completely maintained so that when I had written a melodic passage, he would literally paint around that. He is supremely intelligent. He’s the perfect force for me because not only is he inventive, but his musicality, his sense of harmony and his understanding of scales is unsurpassed in my experience.
LM: You’ve also worked with a female producer, Anne Dudley, on your previous album, Voice.
AM: It was brilliant, and she is a formidable woman. The reason why I distinguish Guy’s work from Anne’s is the album I did with her was of classic songs. We didn’t write together, which is why I don’t have that as an example. She is an incredible, strong character. There’s no fluff, no messing with her. I feel quite intimidated by her actually.
LM: You don’t hear about female music producers too often.
AM: I would like to work with a female producer on a creative album. It’s just a case of, like I say, I don’t put myself out there, and none of them have ever approached me.
LM: Do female musicians approach you?
AM: Sometimes I’ll get young women saying to me, “I want to sing, what should I do?” Well, sing. That’s the great thing about music, it really is universal. You’re not asking me how to sing in front of 50,000 people; that, I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell that to myself. What I can tell you is, music is a language and it’s used as a language. We should all be able to access it.
That’s the whole premise of punk that I came up through. Theoretically, I was allowed to start a band with absolutely no musical knowledge, just figuring out a couple of chords and making it up as you go along. No one should be restricted from that. You might not be able to earn a living from it, but that should not preclude you from really trying to stretch yourself and make brilliant art. If you want to make music, you should just make music. You don’t need an audience to do it.
Photos by Tom Martin