Pop: How to survive the mainstream

`Cilla Black Syndrome' is not thought to be a life-threatening condition. But it still nearly finished off Tasmin Archer. By Glyn Brown
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The Independent Culture
"When it all first took off it was like, `Oh my God, they wanna speak to me. What do I really wanna say, how do I say it, how do I communicate, and will people understand me, will they think I'm silly?'" Tasmin Archer drags on a cigarette, pulls at her hair. "I was like [dithering blitherer voice], `Where, ooh dear, where do I fit in?' "

There may be something problematic in being Tasmin Archer. You open your mouth to sing, and you are resonant, assured, soignee. You open it to speak, and what issues is a tangled web of breathless, half-finished sentences that whirl and falter, address the point and then obscure it, circumnavigating a world of relevant and irrelevant points. But Archer is going to have to talk a fair amount in the next few months because, three years after "Sleeping Satellite" plotted its insidious course, Archer has delivered Bloom, a crafted album of lush melodies and melancholic lyrics that will more than stand the test of time. Bloom is more, and at the same time less, than just another offering from a female singer/songwriter; first, because it's not jagged, or eccentric, or demanding - it is, above all, an easy listen - and second, because Archer's boyfriend and co-musician John Murphy wrote most of the lyrics. Produced by Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Suzanne Vega, Richard Thompson), Bloom's arrangements are already being compared to The Beatles, Bacharach and Simon & Garfunkel - influences perhaps more vogue-ish now than ever. But without Archer's rich voice, they'd be nothing. Her phrasing, intimacy and depth give her the polish others of her ilk strive for.

But who exactly are the others? Archer's arena is the amorphous mass of the mainstream, which by definition can't be categorised - the grail of all A&R men, her sound fits rock, pop and soul in equal measure. If she's a vessel, Archer isn't a smooth, vacuous, easy-on-the-eye suburban goddess like Mariah Carey or, maybe, Celine Dion. (When she was signed, Archer, a prize worrier, panicked: "Oh God, I'm black, I'm small, I'm a woman. If they want somebody with long legs, big boobs and a gorgeous figure, that's not me.") But mainstream singers don't really need anything but a good larynx. They don't need to be hip - it could be argued that Madonna became mainstream at the moment she lost her feral cool, though kd lang has made the transition while retaining some vestige of outree style; indeed mainstreamers hardly require a personality at all.

Archer is still in the process of being shaped by the business, and this may be what she needs to watch. Brought up on a Bradford council estate, her first job was as a machinist in a factory, but she aimed higher - she wanted to be a clerk typist. It's ironic that her first LP was called Great Expectations (the book inspired her, as did Educating Rita) when those expectations were pretty limited. When the music took off, a stylist had the idea of kitting her out as a Dickensian urchin - fortunately, she hadn't said much about her preoccupation with The Wizard of Oz. The way she left her humdrum surroundings and discovered a bizarre new land, she explains now in her gruff Yorkshire burr, was like Dorothy's adventure.

That may have been a more appropriate analogy. When Jean-Francois Cecillon - head of EMI UK and a man under pressure to find new talent with the lasting appeal of roster artists like Cliff Richard or Kate Bush - stumbled on Archer in 1992, she must have looked like bullion. He backed her to the tune of pounds 100,000, orchestrating a vast campaign and sending his discovery on a killing promotional tour. Did it feel as if she were being used? "I felt like a puppet in every situation. I had a completely naive attitude about it all, I didn't understand."

Interviews from the time portray a girl on the verge of a nervous breakdown - accurate, in the event. She was sent to a psychiatrist. He said she had "Cilla Black Syndrome". (Working-class girl makes good and can't readjust - cracking insight.) "He gave me loads of books like How To Promote Yourself. Which I read." A beat. "And then I moved on."

But not far. Two years later, she released the Shipbuilding EP, a clutch of Elvis Costello covers that EMI required to fill a lull in product. "We'd been promoting and promoting and promoting. I couldn't write anything new, and it wasn't as if I was at my best at the time, so I said (lacklustre), `Oh, OK then...' " At about this point, Archer, who had watched her steel- foundry-worker dad develop industrial ailments, developed her own collection of allergies, stomach and bowel problems. And out of all this has surfaced a voice several times better than the one we heard on Great Expectations, a voice that ranks with Karen Carpenter at her most sublime. It seems ageless, timeless, classless, and very nearly tireless. If you want it summed up, Clive Black, now head of EMI UK, is the man for the corporate eulogy. "When I first heard Tasmin, she had a voice angels would die for. It's so unique, she'll endure and make records for as long as she has the desire to stand up and sing."

You couldn't pigeonhole that kind of talent? Absolutely not. Why would you? "When you sell one million albums," explains Clive, "you are definitely mainstream."

n Tasmin Archer's five-date national tour begins tonight at Windsor Baths, Bradford (01274-390405) and continues in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and London