“I was thinking,” Paul Heaton muses, “about my solo career, which up until today, when something good happened, has been a struggle – kick in the teeth after kick in the teeth. I was thinking about splitting up with myself…”
Heaton is between songs, amongst friends and fans in the upper room of the Salford pub he owns, The King’s Arms. One of those friends, Jacqui Abbott, is back singing with him as she did in the most commercially triumphant period of his old band The Beautiful South. He finishes the gig with the 1986 no 1 single “Caravan of Love”, by his other ex-band, The Housemartins. The Isley Brothers’ original becomes Northern socialist gospel, fixing on a “dream” of freedom. Freed by Abbott’s vocal presence, Heaton shakes and emotes at the mic-stand like a preacher in rapture.
The most obvious sign of the pub’s landlord is a gold disc for Blue Is the Colour, a million-selling Beautiful South album that Abbott sang on. She quit in 2000 to look after her young son, who had been diagnosed with autism. The band expired in 2007, Heaton wryly citing “musical similarities”. Now, after two excellent, low-selling Heaton solo LPs, Abbott’s return for the jointly credited What Have We Become has helped nudge its first single, “D.I.Y.”, onto Radio 2’s playlist. That was Heaton’s good news. Currently off the booze, he celebrated with his other addictive vice: a pinch of salt.
The next morning I meet Heaton, 51, and Abbott, 40, at his girlfriend’s home in Withington, Greater Manchester, where his three young daughters have been enjoying a sleepover. When we move to the pub round the corner from his own nearby home, he and Abbott giggle nostalgically at Beautiful South memories. She first returned to singing with him in 2011, for his concept show about the Deadly Sins, The 8th. “The first time I saw him again was outside the King’s Arms,” she remembers, “and it had been 10 and a half years. We were both really nervous. The minute we did The 8th, I really lamented how much I’d missed singing and performing and being around everybody. I didn’t realise until I did it again. I felt sad, really, because I thought, ‘Why did I leave it so long?’ But it was the best thing for my son at the time. Then Paul said, ‘What do you think about doing another album together?’ I was doing other things – volunteering, and I’d just started as a teaching assistant. But I thought it’d be great.”
It took Heaton’s canny manager, Simon Moran, to suggest the merits of the bleeding obvious. “It hadn’t occurred to me immediately,” Heaton says, “because I’d spent a fair amount of time unsuccessfully rebranding myself into Paul Heaton, not Paul Heaton from The Beautiful South. But as soon as I started writing for her, it was very easy. When I sing a song, I sound like Paul Heaton on his high horse. But when Jacqui sings it, it sounds like a song, and it’s less opinionated as a sound.”
Possible subjects for future songs – from a fondly remembered cross-dressing football hooligan to a warehouse filled with junked pub signs which come alive – emerge naturally from Heaton as he talks. Walking, cycling and a recently begun diary for his “rants” keep his oddly angled mind ticking over. The source of one new song, “When It Was Ours”, is typical. “I was going past a garden that was in disrepair,” he remembers, “and then immediately imagining, ‘What if that used to be my garden, and Jacqui’s, and we’re both sad about it, like a bicycle that’s being left to rust?’”
If What Have We Become is a hit, it may lead listeners back to neglected work like Heaton’s last solo album, Acid Country. Both records’ title tracks are lacerating state-of-the-nation addresses, a Heaton specialty. He also employed their mercilessly funny tone in his welcome interruption to the platitudes after Margaret Thatcher’s death when, he fondly recalls, he informed startled Sky News viewers that “it was really good that she died, then steamed into her family”. “Because the Left in this country have evaporated,” he says, “it’s made me feel anti-democratic, because my voice in Parliament has disappeared; now all the MPs are for big business. It makes it more fun to be a guttersnipe, though. The opportunity to release slightly controversial songs comes from not selling records as well. It’s been brilliant for me and Jacqui to be able to sing [on “I Am Not a Muse”] ‘Phil Collins must die!’ and for the record company not to raise an eyebrow.”
The culture Heaton defends most instinctively is ingrained in the sort of pub in which we’re sitting. Beautiful South songs such as “Old Red Eyes Is Back” took a jaundiced view of alcohol. Heaton indicates his almost instantly emptied, non-alcoholic pint to explain his own attempted abstinence. Yet he bought The King’s Arms in 2011. What is his relationship to pubs?
“They should have that on Facebook,” he laughs. “My relationship status to alcohol is complicated. I’ve tried several times to stop, and I get my character back when I do.” Still, the communities Heaton chronicles and loves congregate in one place. “Pubs are churches for the mentally abnormal,” he declares. “Turn a pub into a McDonald’s, a Tesco, a block of flats – but leave the sign up. And,” he adds, warming to his theme, “if it’s flats, you should be entitled to knock on the door between 11 and 11 and say, ‘I want a pint.’ Because it’s a culture, and our history. You can’t just wipe it out.”
Heaton walks me from the pub to the tram. He appears as unchanged as it’s possible to be by his past as a 15 million-album-selling pop star: living an essentially working-class life, with irascible, independent principles. It’s good to have him and Abbott back.
‘What Have We Become’ is out on Virgin Records on 12 May