This time next week I shall be in the midst of enjoying – and interviewing and photographing – the acts at this year’s Rewind Festival South which takes place once again in Henley-on-Thames from Friday 19th until Sunday 21st August. In advance of the festival I have interviewed Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, Hazell Dean, and this last week was the turn of Heather Small from M People.
Heather Small is one of the most successful female recording artists of recent years. I can distinctly remember her voice as part of M People and their thematic songs from my youth. ‘Moving On Up’ saw me through my divorce! They quickly became a firm favourite of mine. Heather has sold several million records, won two Brit Awards as well as the Mercury Music Prize, and still performs across the globe. Probably her most notable solo success was when the song ‘Proud’ went on to become part of the successful bid for the London Olympics which took place in 2012. Heather will be releasing a new studio album in April 2017.
How do you feel about performing at next weekend’s Rewind South Festival?
I always look forward to performing at Rewind. I do get a bit nervous though beforehand because it is about meeting your own standards. The live band there is always excellent. They learn the set for the entire day and some of them are doing backing vocals as they are playing as well. The level and standard of musicianship is so high. It is a great day – you get to hang out with other people and you get to do your thing. It is a privilege.
What are you looking forward to the most about the weekend?
It is always about the music and it is always about getting on stage with like-minded people. There is always such a party atmosphere all day long and it is just as good back stage as it is out front. There is such a feeling of friendship.
Is there a specific act that you are really looking forward to seeing?
I have to say that I think all the acts are great. I don’t really think about it as I am busy getting myself into a bit of a tizzy beforehand! Everyone is just happy to be there, doing what they do so I enjoy seeing everyone – you can drawn inspiration from all the performances.
How did you discover your iconic voice?
I can remember singing with my friends at school and one of them said to me ‘Heather, you are going to have to go to the back because you are too loud’. The thing is, I was also the smallest! Another time, I was singing in my bedroom and my favourite uncle was over. He walked past my room, doubled back and said ‘Heather, is that you singing?’ I responded ‘yes’, he said ‘You’ve got to keep that up, you know, you’ve got a talent’. Also many of my hits were in the ’90s, I think my voice is still very current and I love performing live with energy and passion.
You’ve already mentioned your nerves. How do you feel about this?
For me, it’s a good thing because I get nervous because I know I want to meet my own standards which are very, very high. I know how to handle it now. I am not as nerve-wracked as I used to be. You have to harness those nerves and make them work for you in a positive way.
How did you get together with the original line-up of M People?
I was in a band called Hot House and we had the same management. Hot House got signed, had an album out – which was critically acclaimed – but no hits. So at 21 years old I was signed but then at 23 I was dropped. I just kept saying to myself at the time it was just because the world didn’t know my name. It was then I realised that it wasn’t about the money or fame, it was the singing that was intrinsic to me. It was in my DNA. When Mike and Paul heard that I wasn’t continuing with my band, they sent a message to the management to say that they had two songs that they had written specifically for me. I got sent them, liked them and went into the studio to record them. They let them sit with me for a while and then I went back to the studio and re-recorded them in the way that I felt them.
What did you enjoy most about your early successes?
I think just that. That I was successful. I dedicated myself to my music at 18 and there I was at 23 with still nothing but I learned more about my craft and knew that it was something that I loved and wanted to do. Being validated by the general public, and by them recognising me, meant that they were willing to listen to my music, buy my music and watch me perform my music. If people still rate you as a performer and want to hear you sing after so many years than that is a fantastic thing.
Is there anything you would have done differently back then?
Not really, no. I had the foresight to look after myself. I changed my diet and lived relatively healthy and I think that paid off. So, no. No regrets! Everything that happens is a lesson, sometimes people just have to go through the learning process.
When the songs ‘Search for the Hero’ and ‘Proud’ were written, did you purposefully write them to become anthems?
(Lots of laughter!). That is so funny! Who sits down and says ‘ Today I am going to write an anthem song!’ I think you need to write something that is meaningful to you and, if you have had personal experience you need to be able to empathise with those feelings. You have to be able to feel it in your skin. I, of course, need to be able to vocalise it too and make sure it is worth my time. If it is, then I am going to do everything I can to make it the best use of my time possible. When you believe what you are singing and make sure you transition it properly, then it is no longer ‘your’ song, it belongs to everyone. You create the song. The audience, the listeners, they are the ones who decide whether it is iconic and whether it will stand the test of time. It is out of your hands.
What is your favourite lyric from all the songs you have performed?
That is difficult! I love ‘A Step Out of the Ordinary’ because you are making yourself extraordinary. You have to be the best you can be. Not necessarily someone like Michael Phelps by collecting gold medals. You have to fashion your old gold medals. Cheer your own goals. Obviously I like ‘Search for the Hero’ which is the same kind of theme because the work has to begin with yourself.
How have you stayed looking so young?
It is easy to tell other people what their faults are but, of course, it is harder to look at yourself! With experience and age, you do care much less though. I am free from those shackles a long time! I am proud that I have reached 51 with my ability to enjoy life just as much as I did when I was younger. I make my presence felt. I look after myself. I think good health is sometimes pure luck because you don’t know what’s around the corner. While you have it, you should enjoy it. If you watch something like the Paralympics, you do think to yourself ‘what is good health?’ because some people are walking around able bodied but their mental health is not right. It is about giving thanks everyday that you are able to function in a way that makes you happy.
What is your ‘Hidden Gem’?
It has to be ‘Suzanne’ by Nina Simone. As for one of my own, it would have to be from my very first album with Hot House and a song called ‘Don’t Come to Stay’.
Heather Small plays “Rewind South” at Temple Island Meadows in Henley-on-Thames on Sunday August 21st.
Ticket info: www.rewindfestival.com