No more day-tripping

Morcheeba first tasted success in the mid-1990s heyday of trip hop, but since then the band have moved far from the genre. Fiona Sturges asks the band's dreamy-voiced singer, Skye Edwards, about their singular path to success
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The Independent Culture

It's a breezy morning on Brighton beach, and Skye Edwards, the baby-faced, syrupy-voiced vocalist in Morcheeba, has been having a few days at home with her two children, Jaeger, seven, and Kiki, five. A diminutive figure elegantly dressed in a long mohair cardigan and jeans, she looks distracted as she picks her way across the pebbles.

"We're going to Prague to play at a festival this afternoon," she sighs breathlessly. "I've just arranged to take my kids out of school so they can come with us, and the teachers didn't look too happy. We spent most of last night trying to get packed."

If our interview has added to the day's stress, Edwards is far too polite to say so. She usually leaves the talking to Paul and Ross Godfrey who make up the rest of the band, but the brothers are currently in Europe making the most of some time off, so it's up to her to act as the band's mouthpiece. You might think this would come easy to a singer accustomed to performing in front of large crowds but Edwards is painfully shy and her discomfort is palpable. When she can't find the answer to a question she grins self-consciously and then stares despondently at her feet. I feel like an interrogator employing mental torture.

Morcheeba's dreamy blend of hip hop and funk first floated into public consciousness in December 1995 with the single "Trigger Hippie". Their debut album Who Can You Trust arrived the following year, sealing their position as practitioners of drowsy, downbeat trip hop. Theirs was the sound of the chemical generation starting to come down; music for the post-party crowd.

Eight years and four albums later, however, and the perception of Morcheeba as lightweight purveyors of trip hop continues to dog them. The term was originally used to describe the spooky sound pioneered by the Bristol-based Portishead and Tricky, but was appropriated by the swathe of bands who subsequently emerged brandishing samplers and predilection for off-kilter beats.

This misconception continues despite the fact that with each new LP Morcheeba have done a stylistic about-turn. Their 1998 album Big Calm brought together strains of folk, country and hip hop while 2000's Fragments of Freedom saw Edwards transformed into a booty-shakin' disco diva. Charango, released to critical acclaim last year, included a collaboration with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and the rapper Slick Rick, and came with a distinctive Latin American flavour. Edwards insists these changes were less about reinvention than a simple cure for boredom.

"It would certainly seem dull to repeat ourselves" she says, relaxing slowly in a café over a peppermint tea . "I think we realised after our first album that something had to change. We have to play these songs night after night when we're on tour. If they all sounded the same, we'd go a bit mad."

Edwards also points out that, contrary to popular belief, Morcheeba are not a mainstream act. Despite having shifted well over a million albums in the UK and another two million across the world, they remain in the peculiar position of never having had a hit. "We still don't get played on Radio One," she says with an an air of resignation. "We managed to sell out Brixton Academy on two consecutive nights, but the big radio stations still won't play our records."

Even now, Edwards says, fans who haven't seen them play live would be pushed to pick them out of a crowd. "I never get noticed on the street, and I'm actually quite grateful for that. I would hate to be stopped by strangers in the supermarket."

It may seem ironic, then, that a band which has never had a decent chart position and which remains anonymous even to their fans should choose to release a collection of their greatest hits. "I know," she giggles. "But the fact is a lot of people love our records. After eight years in the band, I think we've got a lot of songs we can be proud of."

Edwards puts Morcheeba's sales down to old-fashioned hard graft. Who Can You Trust and Big Calm were each followed by 18 months of touring. Since then they have performed extensively in America, China, Japan and Australia and played every major pop festival in the world. Luckily, the band adapted well to the existence of living out of a suitcase and setting up home in a bus.

"Before I got into this I'd only ever been on a day trip to Calais with my school," Edwards smiles. "I was just a girl from the East End who'd never been anywhere. I was really excited to be going to all these places. When I heard we were going to America, it was the most exciting thing in the world."

Before joining Morcheeba, Edwards had ambitions in an entirely different direction. "I was going to be a fashion designer. I had been doing these evening classes at the London College of Fashion. After that I got a job in Tooting making gowns for Chinese ballroom dancers. They were totally over the top Come Dancing-style dresses with feathers and sequins."

For six months she moonlighted as a backing vocalist in a funk band named Flytrap but after a year she ditched the dressmaking and bought her first guitar. "My friends thought it was just another fad so of course I had to prove them wrong," she laughs. "I had this book of hit songs from the Eighties. I eventually got a few chords together and would put melodies to poems I'd written."

She met the composer, DJ and engineer Paul Godfrey and his guitar-playing brother Ross at a party in London. On a recommendation from a mutual friend, they asked Edwards to audition for their band. The brothers have since said they both "melted" when they first heard her sing.

"They already had a few songs written with a backing track," she says. "One of those was 'Trigger Hippie'. I think they were shocked by how quiet my voice was. They had to slow the songs down and take away a lot of the instrumentation so you could hear me properly."

By the time Morcheeba signed a record deal Edwards was pregnant with Jaeger. The band were so fearful that they might lose their contract that they decided to keep quiet about it. "I remember we went to Portobello Road on this sunny day to take some promotional photos. I was wearing a big floral dress and carried a huge guitar which I wouldn't put down. I guess I was hoping that no one would notice."

If bringing a child into the world while trying to build a career as a pop singer wasn't difficult enough, the experience of touring after Jaeger was born was rife with difficulties. "There was one morning when we were on the way to San Francisco on the bus," Edwards remembers. "Jaeger had a lie in, which was very unusual. Eventually he stumbled out of bed and into the lounge area, and was falling all over the place. I checked his breath and it smelled of vodka. It turned out that my friend who made up his bottle had accidentally mixed his milk with vodka rather than water. We were all horrified. Happily, he has never touched alcohol since."

Given Edwards's severe shyness, wasn't fronting a pop band an unlikely career move? "I guess it's like having a fear of spiders and putting your hand in a jar of them to get over it," she replies. "I remember our first gig at the Jazz Café in 1996. Just before I went on stage I was in the loos with a breast pump, trying to make my boobs smaller. I was just really embarrassed by everything. I used to take this herbal remedy to try and calm my nerves. I still get nervous before going on stage but I've come to realise that it's not a matter of life and death. It's just pop music really, isn't it?"

'Parts of the Process' is out on Monday on EastWest. The DVD 'From Brixton to Beijing' is also out on Monday