'I was a fighter' Alison Moyet talks taking on harassment, depression and ageism in radio
Alison Moyet had a #metoo moment when she first broke into music
Speaking with the baffled amusement of successful middle age, the million-selling songstress tells how, as a 16-year-old punk singer from Basildon in Essex, she was invited to meet a music manager.
“I was about 17,” she says, “and really excited about it. I borrowed a load of money to get across London to his office but when I got there this guy said, ‘Oh, we’ll take the meeting in my flat next door’. I had no idea about that, of course, so I went in and he said, ‘would you like a sunbed?’
“I said, ‘Sunbed? No, not really.’ I mean, I didn’t read the signs because I wasn’t really a typical girl and by that I mean there was nothing vulnerable or beautiful about me – not that beauty is what it’s about…
“Anyway, when I didn’t get undressed for the sunbed the meeting just sort of fell apart. There was no discussion about music at all. Which was really odd.”
You say one thing casually or lightly and it sticks. Depression was a part of my life many years ago and, yes, I was in a pit but that was back in my 20s!
Did she feel in any way threatened? “No, not at all, because I was a fighter,” she says. “I’m certainly not dismissing women who are not fighters but I was from a peasant family and we were physical kids. One of the biggest problems people always had with me was that I was too physical and too aggressive…”
Now 56, Moyet recounts all this with the refreshing frankness that has long been her hallmark.
A mother of three who now lives with her psychotherapist partner in Brighton, the singer who sold millions of albums and singles in the 1980s has weathered depression, agoraphobia and an eight-year period in which a legal wrangle with her record company left her unable to make music.
Not to mention the death, four years ago, of her mother, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, and father, who had leukaemia, just eight months apart.
But the fact that she has survived all that – plus the brush with that record executive – is of little interest to her… as are the perennial questions about her weight.
Moyet is a refreshingly frank interviewee
“I remember doing an interview with this German journalist,” she says, “and she was asking me all these trigger questions about the various difficulties in my life and, in the end, she just gave up and said, ‘OK, just tell me about the time you crashed and burned’. I said, ‘Oh dear, you’ve just come to do a fat Alison Moyet story, haven’t you?’
“It’s tricky because people have had so much about me hammered into them. I mean, I’m very open and I’ll happily tell anyone exactly how it is but you get remembered for articles you did a long, long time ago.
“You say one thing casually or lightly and it sticks. Depression was a part of my life many years ago and, yes, I was in a pit but that was back in my 20s!”
She is also, arguably, making some of her very best music. In partnership with Cambridge-educated harpsichordist and record producer Guy Sigsworth, she has crafted two albums in recent years, The Minutes and Other, which have returned to the smart electronica she made in Yazoo alongside former Depeche Mode keyboard player Vince Clarke.
This week she releases a live album which contains powerful versions of songs from both records. “I love synthesisers,” she laughs.
“I’ve got a very ‘woody’ sort of voice with lots of nuance, so if you put me in an organic band, with lots of guitars, the details just get lost. With electronic music what I like about it is that it creates a kind of Formica table-top so that when I drop my voice on it, like a puzzle, I’m not absorbed into it.”
Alison Moyet has no interest in dwelling on past problems
If Formica is not something that is usually mentioned by musicians it is testament, in Moyet’s case, to a very practical nature. With an English mother, Doris, who taught French, and a French father, Michel, the singer who was christened Genevieve was part of a very hands-on brood.
“My father was a very clever man but he was a French peasant who left school at 13 and had to do his military service. He got IQ tested, was in the top one per cent and could have been a meteorologist but he wanted to be a manual worker.
“So we were a very handy family. We were all expected to do physical work and we weren’t indulged. I had practical haircuts where my mother half-shaved my head. I never had a dress.
“I remember the first time my dad was really proud of me was when I was in my mid-30s and I rewired the Hoover. He loved that. I remember him saying (she adopts a thick French accent), ‘You could have bought a new one but you didn’t: you fix it!’”
Of course, there was much more that Monsieur Moyet could have admired in his daughter. Having launched a solo career after leaving Yazoo, her debut album Alf (after her nickname) sold 250,000 copies in one week and Moyet racked up a series of big hits, including All Cried Out, Love Resurrection and Invisible. But she was never very comfortable being a pop star.
“When I first started making records it was interesting because I’d never followed anyone’s career. I didn’t realise that the music you were making you’d still be singing in 35 years’ time and that becomes tricky because we are so many different people in our lives.
“That’s why I won’t sing Invisible any more. It makes people furious but I’m so set in my Englishness, my European-ness, that the idea of singing in an American accent and talking about nickels and dimes is as ridiculous as being a whiny girl. I’m a matriarch, a mother, a grandmother.
“If a bloke is being an ass, my advice now is to just kick him into touch.”
After her 1994 album was remixed to make it more commercial, and following a greatest hits collection, Moyet became frustrated with the direction her music was taking and entered into litigation with Sony, her record label, to try to get released from her contract. It was that quarrel which kept her out of music for eight years.
“I had some sympathy with them,” she recalls. “I wanted to make a record that wasn’t going to be as commercial and they needed something they could sell. But it was a really tricky time because playing in a band was something I’d done since I was 15. It was my physical release and, to a degree, my intellectual release too.”
When she finally pulled free from Sony she went on to make 2002’s Hometime, an album that attracted the best reviews she has had to date. Since then, Moyet has barely looked back, recording a string of highly personal solo albums which have garnered her a whole new following.
After the break-up of her first marriage to Malcolm Lee, with whom she had a son Joe in 1985, and having a daughter with ex-partner Kim McCarthy in 1987, Moyet has long been settled with David Ballard, a psychotherapist and father of their daughter Caitlin, 22.
In between touring and recording she studies art and has just completed her first bronze sculpture. It is, she says the happiest period of her life. “I suppose it’s quite an intellectual family, apart from me,” she jokes. “My eldest are both academics who went to Cambridge and Caitlin knows more about music than I ever will. But we’re all quite happy with crap TV, playing card games and stuff like that.”
Do they find it slightly embarrassing having a 57-year-old pop star as a mum? “No, not at all, they like that I’m creative,” she says. “They like it that I’m a bit odd, a bit feisty.”
She’s very happy being older, too, but loathes the music business’s attitude to such artists. BBC station Radio 6, for instance, won’t play her music, she says, simply because she is Alison Moyet.
“They say they have no music policy but they do: their policy is that they make assumptions about you and your music and won’t allow you to grow. My argument is that I am not trying to be young, I am absolutely growing old. But if you listen to the lyricism of my music it has an articulacy, a poetry, that you don’t find in a young person’s music.
“The assumption is that when you grow up you become asinine and without edges but what you are is more in tune with yourself and your own opinions.
You’re less affected by what people want of you. “If I was a painter, no one would be relating my age to my art in any other way, apart from the fact that I have experience…”
The Other Live Collection, by Alison Moyet, is released on Friday by Cooking Vinyl.
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