Sharleen Spiteri: Don't mess with Texas

Sharleen Spiteri is the gobby Glaswegian who turned herself into one of our most sophisticated and successful singers. She tells Simon Gage how lovely lesbians and keeping her clothes on made her a star
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You can take Sharleen Spiteri out of Glasgow (not for very long, mind) but you can't take the gobby pre-pubescent card-sharking tree-climbing cussing-and-blinding tomboy scallywag out of Glaswegian Sharleen. She may be one of the richest, most successful, most stylish women in British music since Dusty Springfield - except of course, she's much richer than Dusty ever was (well, she writes the songs and happened to set up a radio station with Carole Smillie and Ally McCoist, which sold eight months later for a cool £32 million) but she still seems every inch the Glasgow hairdresser she started out as, albeit one who has a mansion on one of London's nicer parks and Tom Ford on her speed dial.

Her best mate is still the girl she met over a conversation about knickers at the age of 15 in a Glasgow nightclub toilet, she still likes a cheese and tomato sandwich "on proper bread" at old ma Spiteri's in Glasgow and she still carries views like, if you want something nice you have to save up for it (even though - short of a Learjet - you can't quite imagine what it is that Shar can't afford these days).

As she chomps her way through some salt and vinegar crisps in the first-class lounge on her way back to Scotland, pontificating on how she thinks the whole relationship between women and chocolate is a conspiracy put about by men and that women (well, she) would always prefer a deep-fried pizza to a deep-fried Mars Bar, it occurs to me that it doesn't matter what context you see Sharleen in, she's always Sharleen. I've been in the back of her Land Rover, watched Austin Powers at the Camden Odeon with her, talked sex while sitting on someone's front-room carpet, lined up for her special veggie chilli (it wasn't even her party, but she did the catering) and shared her Cheesy Wotsits in Regent's Park.

I've also seen her perform on stage in front of tens of thousands of people at Wembley and watched her hob-nobbing with her celebrity mates (she's tight with Stella McCartney, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Bono) and yet she's always the same mouthy Scot with way too many opinions and a predisposition to tell you to get lost (but in slightly stronger language) that she probably always was.

"I don't need to fit in anywhere," says Sharleen when you mention that her accent is still as broad as it's ever been (some sentences frankly verge on the Rab C Nesbitt). "People change their accents to fit in. Why should I? I have no interest in fitting in." But she does fit in whether it's with the fans who treat her like an old mucker (I was there when one stopped her to invite her to a barbecue) or the likes of Madonna, who got in touch with her and her former partner Ashley Heath, a magazine executive, to ask them round to dinner with her and Guy and Stella and Guy's parents. "It's pretty funny walking in the door," says Sharleen, describing the night she met the Richie-Ciccones. "It's like, 'Hi, I'm Madonna' and you're a bit like, 'Yeah, I know that!' I think you're either a person who's really affected by what people have got or you're not. It doesn't affect me. Never has done. It was the same when I was hairdressing. Maybe I've got some outrageous arrogance. Maybe I'm just not scared."

The journey to Madonna's front door started in 1986 when, still working as a hairdresser, Sharleen teamed up with a bunch of guys including Johnny McElhone, who had some mileage with bands such as Hipsway and Altered Images. They came up with a band name inspired by Ry Cooder's soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas and, after playing the college circuit, hit the top 10 with the debut single, "I Don't Want a Lover". The daughter of a window-dresser and a merchant seaman (it was with her dad's sailor friends that Sharleen learnt to play cards), she had wanted to go into design, and braved an all-boy technical drawing class at school, but with a sense of style that had her buying Azzedine Alaïa with her Saturday job hair-washing tips and a natural belting ability, a career in music seemed almost to come looking for her. (omega)

After that first hit, it went a bit quiet for Texas in the UK, though in Europe they thrived, building up a fan-base that follows them round the world to this day (outside rehearsals recently in London's grim Kentish Town, there was a pan-European group of Texas pilgrims old enough to know better, huddled on the corner like Westlife fans). And then, in 1997 came White On Blonde. The album, and its first single "Say What You Want" established Texas near the front of the queue of people whose records sell millions and linger around the charts for years on end, whether the NME takes their side or not. The market was disparate: lesbians, mums in leather trousers, a swathe of cool-looking kids, Scottish rock fans and those touring Euros with their signs.

The lesbian, gay and female fanbases are particularly important to Sharleen, who refuses point blank to go down to bra and pants like most female chart stars: "I don't have to get my tits out," she says, "so why would I? I'm not selling my tits. I'm selling records." And the lesbian audience has stuck with Sharleen despite a male partner and child making it clear that they're barking up the wrong icon.

"To me, a woman liking you is the biggest compliment you can get," says Sharleen. "A bloke lusting after me, I think, 'Yeah, whatever,' but a woman going, 'She's cool...' When I did the video dressed as Elvis so many women came up to me and went, 'Well done,' shook my hand. People were saying, 'You're so brave.' I didn't get that. Why brave?"

Because, I suggest, you're working in an industry where it's all about turning out in some sexy little dress with your bottom showing, maybe?

"Och, I'm so bored with tits and arse."

Following up White On Blonde with The Hush and then the multi-platinum Greatest Hits, Sharleen and Texas (though you'd be hard-pressed to pick the rest of the band out of a police line-up - and they like it that way) had become massive stadium fillers working with everyone from R'n'B godfather Dallas Austin, through hip-hop act Wu-Tang Clan, to the inventor of disco, Bernard Edwards.

"I remember going to work with Bernard Edwards of Chic and we were blown away and we get there and it was all going great and then reality sets in and he'd vanished," says Sharleen of her most disappointing collaboration. "On the plane coming back from LA I got really angry. It cost so much money because he had just upped and left us." That's another thing about Sharleen that probably won't come as a surprise: she doesn't stand by the "don't say anything nasty about other celebrities" rule.

After her daughter Misty Kyd was born, Sharleen took Texas in a new direction. The picture of her on the cover of the Careful What You Wish For album was hard and fashiony and though some of her fans may have liked the haircut and the boiler suit and the boots, the mums in leather trousers picking up the album at the supermarket were alienated. They wanted the glossy Sharleen; the Sharleen who had come from nothing and yet always looked beautiful in her videos. "I just didn't want to be mumsy," she says, explaining the new tangent. "That album was more aggressive and colder because I was being very guarded. I think it's great. I like it a lot but I'm in a different place now. There was no dark night of the soul about it. I was just like, 'It didnae work. Let's reel it in and move on.'" In fact, these little failures among the massive successes seem to have become part of the Texas crop rotation and Sharleen looks very much on the positive side. "When you come out the other side," she says, now that her new album Red Book has returned the band to top form, "I guess it makes it taste even sweeter. It kind of kicks that horrible arrogant stuff out of you."

It can't have helped that around the time Careful What You Wish For was sliding into obscurity her relationship with Ashley Heath was presumably hitting the rocks. I say presumably because if there's one thing that's always been off-limits with Sharleen it's her relationship with the publisher she first met at a fashion show in Paris. She'll talk about anything till the cows come home, but she won't talk about "Ash", who she split with last year. By the time the press had a picture of Ashley with another woman, the split was a year old. All Sharleen had to do was put out a statement saying that everyone was being very grown up about it and carry on refusing to discuss the matter. It's a knack she has of somehow getting in under the radar of the celebrity press.

"It's like one day I was in the house and thought, 'I haven't got anything for dessert,'" she says, explaining her relationship with the whole celebrity thing. "So I ran down to Marks & Spencer and I can see something sticking out from behind the lamppost. And this guy goes, 'Sharleen! Look at me!' so I went up to him and said, 'What are you're doing?' and he was, 'You're the pop star, I'm the paparazzi,' like he had to explain it to me. I was shocked, not in a 'how dare you' way but because I knew it would never get anywhere: the headline would be 'Sharleen looking rough' and it wouldn't be the first time anyone's seen that."

The band's new album, Red Book, has been good for Sharleen. She launched it with a gig at Ronnie Scott's (featuring lots of nice close-up swearing and proof, if any was needed, that she can more than cut it live) and is now on the third single complete with a video pairing her with Peter Kaye in a number of spoof 1980s films including An Officer and a Gentleman (with Shar as the officer - the lesbians will like that) and Ghost.

"I think many people might not know that about me," she says of the sudden appearance of comedy in her work. "But that's very me. They couldn't get me off that potter's wheel in the Ghost bit."

As far as home life goes she's got a "mad, off her trolley" little Gorillaz fan on her hands (she shows me some video on her mobile of three-year-old Misty Kyd rocking out with a toy guitar). They have lots of time together, putting on make-up, watching HR Pufnstuf, playing Spiderman. And then Shar will glam herself up - "Ask any mum, when you've had a kid, you're even more into getting glammed up" - and turn up at events like Madonna's post-gig party dancing round her handbag with Madge, Stella and Gwynnie.

I ask her if people are ever surprised at what she's like away from the slick rock of Texas. You know, the gobbiness, the funniness, the lack of superstar pretension. "I don't really know..." she pauses, for once lost for something to say. "If someone asked me, 'How would you describe yourself?' I'd have to say, 'I've got black hair, two eyes, a nose and a gigantic pair of lips.'"

The album, 'Red Book', is out now. The new single 'Sleep' is released tomorrow

Comments