New improved Yazz

The club queen who sang 'The Only Way Is Up', then completely disappeared, is back. Gone are the disco whites and peroxide crop. In is a new sound and a radically new hair-do.
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I wasn't looking forward to meeting her. The club queen who sang the mega dance hit, "The Only Way Is Up". The tall rangy black girl with the half-inch peroxide crop who looked like she specialised in Attitude. If Mel C is supposed to be "Scary Spice", then Yazz, a full nine years earlier, and a better dancer, must have induced utter terror. An interviewer at the time told her that she "scared the pants off most men", not to mention most women. As I said, I wasn't looking forward to meeting her.

After a six-year abscence, Yazz is back in the public eye to promote her new single, "Never Can Say Goodbye", previously a big hit for Gloria Gaynor. A new album, Natural Life, follows in April. The album was produced by Ali Campbell of UB40, and the style is very different from the old Yazz. It's a collection of classic reggae tracks from the early Seventies, reshaped and reinterpreted. The influence of UB40 is discernible throughout the album, which has wonderful melodic depth and versatility, and the trademark springing rhythm. But it is Yazz's voice and power of interpretation which ensure that Natural Life is not just another easy option, another cover of some great old songs that everyone has forgotten about. She sounds wonderful, the voice able to carry a weight of emotion that gives the tired old words the poignancy and strength of their original meaning. You want to dance and you want to listen. It's going to be a huge success. Not bad for a comeback kid. Yazz's new artistic direction is also reflected in more personal upheavals and changes. "Oh yes," explains her spokeswoman. "She's totally different now. She's got long red hair."

Even in rock 'n' roll, an industry not noted for its profundity, a hairstyle does not equal a lifestyle. But although the long red hair is truly there, and totally changes her appearance, she has also noticeably altered in other, more serious, ways.

She is not spiky, nor is she pretentious or grand. Gone are the Duran Duran disco whites, in their place is the chic uniform of the Nineties thirtysomething: plain roll-neck sweater, and a Seventies-cut dark-wool jacket.There is considerably less make-up and the long red hair seems perfectly natural, in a way that the peroxide crop never did. In fact, on reflection, much of her previous incarnation now looks completely constructed. A browse through her old publicity shots is like a tour through all our wardrobes of a decade ago. A sartorial and spiritual nightmare, from which, thankfully, she and we have recovered.

Yazz is philosophical about her early career, suggesting that her old record company, Cold Cuts, failed to properly guide and protect her through those vulnerable years. After the initial success of her first album, a second album came out in 1993 and virtually disappeared without trace. "It was classic second album syndrome," Yazz says. "I was unhappy with it, and didn't really believe in it, and I felt the record company were very lukewarm about the promotional side of things." They subsequently parted company, she signed to East West records and then went through what she describes as "a reflective period". She says that there was a long period where she was very unsure if she wanted to remain in the music business, she even looked up the details of teacher training courses, a possible career choice that was wisely abandoned. Eventually her creative confidence returned, and she began working on the project that would become Natural Life.

During her six-year absence, three monumental things happened which ensured that Natural Life would be profoundly different from anything she had done before. In 1990, she gave birth to her daughter, Rio. Three years later her father, "my rock", died of cancer, and then somewhere around 1994 she bumped into an old friend. "She was the very last person you would have thought of, but she told me she had started going to a church, and that they had a really good pastor there, and that I should come."

Yazz went down to her friend's Baptist church and felt she had finally arrived at her destination after a journey that began 10 years ago. "I'd looked at Buddhism, bought copies of the Koran, books on New Age self- development, but none of it had really connected. Of course, the one thing I didn't look at was Christianity, which I'd always thought of as this old-fashioned, middle-class thing. Now I believe totally in God."

This belief has made it easier to cope with the loss of her father. There is an older sister, Jacky, and Peter the middle brother. As the baby of the family, she was especially close to her father, and he in turn was enormously supportive and proud of her. Girls should be close to their fathers she says. "He gave me a great male role model, which is so important. He taught me to expect that the man in my life should love and cherish me, and that's no bad thing."

Formerly an influential man in the Jamaican Labour Party, Yazz's father also passed on his political viewpoints. She just admired everything he did - "He was such a wonderful man" - and his loss was a blow that sent her reeling. "Three years on, it's better," she says. "I can think of him now without pain."

She still cries for him, but not everyday, and she remains very close to her mother and the rest of the family. She also has other reasons for getting out of bed and going on with life. Her daughter, Rio, now six years old, is the centre of her life, and Yazz quite clearly adores her.

She asks me if I would like to see a photograph, and passes me a family snap taken this Christmas. Rio is standing in front of her mother, smiling at the camera. She is wearing her new white and floaty Disney Princess dress, and a pair of gold slippers. "When I had a daughter," says Yazz, "I thought she would be like me, into wearing Dr Martens and a real tomboy." Instead, all Rio wants to do is dress up in pretty frocks and play at being a fairy princess. "I think it has brought out the woman in me keeping up with her."

"Woman" and "womanly" are words she uses a lot. Those who recall the crop-haired, linear and androgynous figure, who bounced and jumped across the stage, will barely recognise the new Yazz. In the video for "Never Can Say Goodbye", she plays a broken-hearted Seventies' soul diva. All satin dress, heels and curves, with clouds of hair and heavy lipgloss. "I wanted to do 'Never Can Say Goodbye'," she says, "because it's a real woman's song. Goodbye is a word that most men don't seem to have too much trouble with. They seem to find walking out particularly easy, in fact."

She recorded the album with the UB40 gang in Bob Marley's old studio, Firefly, in Jamaica. Sugar Minott wandered in halfway through the recording and asked if she'd like him to do some backing on his old hit "Good Thing Going". Yazz's eyes widen at the memory. "It was a fantastic place. I would just stand there sometimes and think, 'Did Bob Marley walk through here? Is this where he played?' Also it's really beautiful. One side of the studio is just a big glass wall, and I'd be standing there with the headphones on putting down a track, and through the glass I could see these incredible tropical storms sweeping across the Caribbean."

Yazz took her daughter with her, and the demands of motherhood, not to mention her new faith, were sometimes too much for the boys from UB40. "I wouldn't let them use bad language," which they found pretty difficult, it seems, "and because I had a child, I wanted to work normal, regular hours. They were used to working when and as they felt like it. If they wanted to go to the studio at 3am, well, fine, but I just couldn't work like that." She says that the relationship survived intact. "Although there were a few fights."

As the interview ends, a call comes through from her agent, she's been asked to appear on Noel's House Party. Strangely, Yazz is thrilled. How the serious heartbreak of her new songs will go down at Crinkly Bottom is anyone's guess, but it's pretty likely that a star is reborn n