‘I’ve always been remarkable,’ says Alison Moyet. ‘And I don’t mean that as any sort of compliment. Being remarkable is horrible. It means someone’s always got something to say about you. They’re always pressing their impression of you upon you before you have an impression of yourself. But the great thing about middle age is you do have an impression of yourself. You do know what your strengths and weaknesses are. I know my strengths, and I have no fear of naming my failings.’
Of this, there can be little doubt. Over the course of a long and sometimes wilfully eccentric musical career, Alison Moyet has elevated the concept of knowing your own mind to a high art. Take this assessment of her current place in the landscape of 21st century pop:
‘People who judge careers by hit records and blanket radio play will see my career as dead. And I’m really comfortable with that. Because I’m an artist. I’m where I want to be: making records that really articulate who I am. I’m a middle-aged matriarch, I’m a grandmother. I’m not going to be sitting there whining about a bloke.’
Moyet is here to talk about her new record, The Other Live Collection. A document of her 58-date 2017 concert tour, it mixes classic hits (Only You, All Cried Out) with bold, dramatic songs from last year’s acclaimed Other album that are, indeed, noticeably short on whining about blokes.
‘Live work has always been my preferred place,’ she explains. ‘You get something in a live vocal that you don’t get in the studio – one of the things being that I sing at such a volume that sometimes I have to temper that in the studio, otherwise I’ll blow my own ears off. But on stage it’s an opportunity to really expand the chest and throw it out there. So you get a different quality. In a sense, you get a cleaner take.’
Other was Moyet’s second collaboration with musician/producer Guy Sigsworth, who has previously worked with the likes of Madonna, Britney Spears and Björk. Against a bed of pulsing electronica, it found the singer wrapping her trademark contralto around vivid, poetic imagery like ‘A tree must, untucked into earth unblinking, set your compass to be my twin’. Not exactly ‘Hanava ooh na-na’, is it?
‘Certainly from my perspective, there’s no attempt at trying to fit into the stream of current music,’ says Moyet. ‘I don’t listen to music. I don’t know what other people are doing, I don’t want to know what other people are doing. It’s of no interest to me at all. Music, for me, has always been about participating. It’s always been about a physical act.’
Isn’t that quite unusual – a musician who doesn’t listen to music?
‘Yes, I think it is. But I also study art and do sculpture, but I don’t go to art galleries. I write poetry and I don’t read books. This is the nature of me. I pick things up vicariously through some semi-permeable membrane. It has always just been about doing, which I think might be to do with coming from quite a peasant background: we couldn’t buy things – I didn’t have the money to buy my own record player or anything like that – so when I wanted it in my life, I made it. And that still stands.’
Born in Billericay, Essex, to a French father and English mother in 1961, Geneviève Alison Jane Moyet (she didn’t discover her real first name until she read it in her parents’ passport) grew up in the nearby new town of Basildon.
‘Coming from this peasant family, I was far too hardy,’ she says. ‘It was a very combustible, argumentative, quite a violent family. Not really physical… well I suppose some of it was physical, in the sense that we were manhandled, but in a practical way. My dad grew up in occupied France, shooting his own dog because they were starving. It’s a different kind of existence that didn’t really happen in polite England.
‘So I was more in-your-face, I was probably more unpleasant. And when punk happened, I suddenly found a place that I could fit quite naturally into. Everyone in Basildon was in a band – we played in car parks, in fields, in back rooms.’
In 1982, Moyet was invited to sing on a demo by Vince Clarke, who had recently parted company with local synthpop heroes Depeche Mode. Clarke’s record company liked the song, Only You, so much they decided to release it as a single, and asked the pair – now trading under the name Yazoo – to make an album.
‘It all happened really quickly,’ she recalls. ‘Within three months I’d gone from this Basildon black sheep to being famous. It was bonkers.’
The shock of sudden celebrity left her reeling. ‘I had been this oddball in town that people avoided. And when you become famous, you become a magnet for all kinds of approaches. Either a flattery that I’m not comfortable with, and find a bit asinine or dishonest, or a resentful aggression, which triggers something else…
‘Celebrity’s a weird thing. I thought I would become more accepted, but I became less accepted. Just a different kind of freak.’
Clarke bailed on Yazoo after two albums, and Moyet went on to a hugely successful solo career with hits like Invisible, Is This Love? and Weak in the Presence of Beauty. She even performed at Live Aid, though she turned down the chance to do a full set because she hadn’t bothered to find out what it actually was. ‘I had no idea,’ she laughs. ‘I thought it was at Wembley Arena. I was like, “Why are we getting in a helicopter with Bono and David Bowie?”’
But she struggled with the lifestyle and became increasingly agoraphobic, barely leaving the house for a decade, and hiding in cupboards to avoid visitors.
‘I was the only person among my friends who was never desperate to leave Basildon,’ she reveals. ‘And the only reason I did leave is because milkmen and postmen started bringing people round to my house. So I ended up going where I wasn’t known.’
Moyet spent much of the 90s in a protracted fight with her record company, CBS, over creative control of her career. (’They had the rights to me for 16 albums, and they were allowed to drop me for 50 quid at any time. I had no rights. I couldn’t leave.’) Ironically, she’d only signed to the label in the first place – turning down a more lucrative deal from Virgin – because she has ADHD, and CBS had tidier offices.
‘I signed for a lot less money, a less good deal, because I was disturbed by the fact there were things on the floor [at Virgin],’ she recalls. ‘And the reason I was disturbed by that is because I’m chaotic, and I thought, “I need to be around something that’s not chaotic, otherwise I’ll drown in my own disorganisation”. Which is obviously stupid, but I was 23, and 23-year-olds are stupid!’
Not that she needed any more money. ‘I don’t care for things,’ she says. ‘I didn’t really get the enjoyment out of having money, other than it got to the point where I could say “no” for 10 years. That was the benefit of it. I didn’t have to do stuff to keep a roof over my head.’
Eventually, she stopped saying no to everything: in 2001, she made her West End debut in Chicago, while the following year’s Hometime album was a sizeable hit that earned her Brit and Mercury Music Prize nominations. She even reunited with Vince Clarke for well-received series of Yazoo live shows.
‘It felt like closure,’ she says. ‘I’d had that rejection from when he split the band up. But the fact is, he and I were never supposed to be this long project. He was still sore after the Depeche split, and I was like his transitional relationship. We never even had a drink together. We were very different – he’s a very closed, English person, I came from a very combustible, French, aggressive, fighting family.
‘But later on, as you settle down, you go, “Actually, what a blessed time, what a brilliant thing, it was”. And I would never have been doing this if it wasn’t for him, and I really want to tell him that. That I’m really grateful.’
Five years ago, Moyet downsized from her seven-bedroom home in the Hertfordshire countryside to a townhouse in Brighton. Before she left, she destroyed nearly everything she owned – including burning her diaries and smashing up her gold discs with a hammer.
‘I thought, “What do I need here?”’ she recalls. ‘Do I need proof I’ve had a career? I know I’ve had a career. Do I want to subject my children to this? [Moyet has three children: Joe, from her first marriage to hairdresser Malcolm Lee; Alex, from her relationship former tour manager Kim McCarthy, and Caitlyn, her teenage daughter with current husband, teacher David Ballard.]
‘I lost my parents recently, and all these things they’ve cared for so carefully – these things that meant something to them, they become rubbish, and you have to throw them away. It’s a really painful procedure, and I didn’t want that for my kids. My success is not the story of their lives – it’s their lives they should be concentrating on. Not that their mother was once a pop singer.’
Living in a big house in the country was “quite a soulless existence”, she reflects, and she’s enjoying her new life by the sea.
‘The one thing my adult life always missed was community, and it’s something I’ve found now. I’ve spent too many years shut away from people. I like being around people – but people who aren’t competing with each other.’
That said, she’s also glorying in what she calls ‘the invisibility of a middle-aged woman’, insisting: ‘I love being faceless. Well, I like to pretend I’m faceless. People see me, but I don’t see them seeing me.’
The only downside of being a middle-aged musician, she says, is pop music’s continued obsessed with the callow cult of youth. ‘In any other art form – were I a painter, were I to write books – we’d recognise that life brings with it a wisdom or a vision that you don’t have when you’re young. You have to live in order to be able to see. I know my best work is made in my latter years. I know that for a fact.’
It’s fair to say, then, that, in both her creative and personal lives, these are Alison Moyet’s glory days?
She nods. ‘People often talk about me and depression and agoraphobia, but that was in my 20s, and I’m 57 now. It was a long time ago.
‘I’m really happy now. Even the things I regret – I regretted a lot of my big pop years – they allowed me to have 10 years where I said no. It was really important for me to get to this place where I am now. That’s one of the joys of being an older act – I cease to need approval. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t like it, but I trust my own instincts.’
It’s all a far cry from the combative 21-year-old punk who accidentally stumbled into mega-selling pop career (23 million records and counting) in 1982.
‘The first time I went on Top of the Pops, my mum and dad lent me 30 quid so I could go down to Basildon market for some fabric for my mate, who was on the dole, to knock me up a dress on the sewing machine,’ she remembers. ‘I’d cut my hair the night before, and given myself a number one, so I had to wear a hat. You think about all the acts now who get choreographers and stylists, and they’re told how to speak…’
More often than not, Weekend points out, they’re told to avoid saying anything interesting at all.
‘Oh god yeah,’ says Moyet, with a throaty laugh. ‘I’m terrible. I just spill. And then live my life regretting it.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 3, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend