Heather Small talks to Jez Sands about singing, dancing and what makes her proud.
Wednesday 13th May 2009
By Jez Sands
Heather Small found international success as the lead singer of pop band M People in the 1990s. She was in the public eye again when she appeared on Strictly Come Dancing last year and she performed her hit single Proud at the Visa London 2012 party to celebrate the handover of the Olympic Games from China to Britain last August - now she’s touring with renowned jazz musician Snake Davis. She talks to Jez Sands about her music, her dancing and her new shows.
You’re working with Snake Davis who’s best known as a jazz musician. Isn’t that a departure from what people would usually expect you to sing?
No, I’ve been doing shows with him on and off for the past few years and the show’s changed a lot. I’ve worked with Snake since M People. He played sax with M People. Snake is varied. The show I’m doing incorporates some jazz, blues, pop and the set at Ronnie Scott’s was just a pure jazz and blues set. If you’re a musician, you just love music so I wanted to do things which first and foremost touched me and suited my voice. I previewed the show at IndigO2 a few weeks back and it was fantastic reception - I had an absolute ball and such a fun time on stage. And as I said, I did stuff which really meant something to me. There’s Bessie Smith in there, there’s also an Elkie Brooks song in there.
Which Elkie Brooks song is it?
Pearl’s a Singer. I love that song. It’s the sort of song that makes you think, “oh, I want to be a singer”
Have you always been interested in jazz and blues?
My voice is not the straight soul voice and I realised it does quite suit a bluesy jazzy style. Not straight up jazz, I’m not the scatting kind! (Laughs) That sort of warmth, that sort of freestyle, that ability to interpret the music as you like where there’s not rigid beats and you pull the tempo forwards, you pull it back, you play with it, you don’t always go to what would be seen as the next note in the grade – I like that. There’s a certain freedom to it. You still have to keep control, you still have to know where the melody is and everything, but you can play with it.
And that can happen with the M People songs as well because I feel now I’m a much more accomplished singer. Those songs are big songs and they’re quite strenuous but I have the technique now to just deliver them sometimes with a little twist. At the Ronnie Scott’s shows I did a couple of M People songs but I did them totally different. I won’t be doing that on this show because they are songs people know and I haven’t been out there in a long time. And I am also a fan so if I go to see someone like Tina Turner, I want to hear some of those songs. I want to hear it how it is on record.
I am mindful some of the songs have a special place in people’s hearts. That’s the thing about being in music, singing and being a musician. Sometimes the same music comes out just because you feel differently and sometimes the audience’s reaction is different. At Ronnie Scott’s I did do Proud – they wouldn’t let me go on stage without doing it. (Laughs). But towards the end, the crowd were going crazy and I extended it and did something else with it and that would never have happened without the live audience and their appreciation and that excitement does touch you.
I did want to talk to you a little about Strictly Come Dancing...
But you must be sick to death of questions about it...
(More laughter) No, no, actually it’s fine, because I had such fun doing it. My mother is a mad keen fan and I had turned them down a few times. We had gone through a family illness and I thought, you know what, my mum’s a huge fan and I do love to dance. Whether or not people want to see me dancing or not, I don’t know. (Laughs> And I thought, why not, it’ll be fun. And it was, it was frivolous and fun and there are not many things in life you can do which don’t have horrible repercussions. (Laughs)
Would you do it again?
Yeah I would. It’s quite different because you are learning a skill and you know I sing and I interpret music with my voice, so for me it’s a natural thing for me to interpret music with my body. I enjoy learning the dance moves with my partner more than the Saturday night because the Saturday night I was always full of nerves. But learning to dance and learning the steps, I had a ball. We giggled non-stop, Ryan and me. And I met Brian (Fontana) and I always keep in contact with him. Mark Foster’s an absolute gem, such a lovely man, so there’s another friend for life. It was a very good experience for me.
How does it compare to singing on stage?
It’s different but I have to say I was nervous. I’m always nervous. The difference is with singing, I know that when I get that mic in my hand on stage and I’m ready, I’m ready. But I never had that feeling of being ready on a Saturday night. (Laughs) My guts were nearly on my feet. I was very nervous. When I get on stage, the nerves abate when I sing, but I was just nervous the entire time (Laughs). The whole of Saturday night in fear. (Laughs)
Are you still dancing now the show’s finished?
I’ve tried to keep it up. Last few weeks I’ve been slacking because I’ve been out of the country but Karen Hardy has a dance studio, so I’ve joined her and I have a lovely dance instructor called Emma. They said I could wait and have a male instructor but I said no, I’ll take who you have. Well, when I was on the show, I had nothing to sell; I just decided to do it. The funny thing is, when the time comes and you crack it and you have your back straight and you dance with your partner, there is a feeling of serenity.
Scares the life out of me...
(Laughs) That’s why half the people watch. There’s half that would love to do and the other half that think, ‘oh my gosh you’re crazy to do it.’
With a lot of bands getting back together, would reforming M People be something you’d consider doing?
I know you toured a little bit last year… I’ll always perform live, because when I go on stage it’s an absolute joy, it’s real fun, people are smiling, we love it and it’s what I yearn for but from there I had opportunity to do so many different things with singing. So it’s always a joy to get on stage and play with the guys.
You’ve worked with Snake, is there anybody else you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Nobody else in particular, but I’ve always liked Missy Elliot. That would be interesting. I like her, she’s succeeded in a very male-orientated sphere and she’s very very good, not just with performing but with producing as well.
Is producing something you would consider doing?
Oh good lord, I’m such a technophobe. (Laughs) I couldn’t guarantee it would come out well, it would be more experimental. (Laughs). I know what I like and I know what I like to hear, that’s for sure and I trust my ears always but to put all the elements together, I would find that challenging.
Tell us a bit about your involvement in the Olympic hand-over ceremony.
Like I said before, I was nervous, but the moment I stepped out on stage with all those people cheering and waving British flags, it really floored me. It was very humbling and it was so unifying. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. To sing outside as well was incredible, it’s just like dancing outside, to do what you do outside and see all those people have actually turned up. (Laughs)
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know. I will always sing. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be making any more records, but I’ll always sing because it’s in my blood. Seeing my son through his school years and making sure he does well. And also, I’m involved with a lot of charities. Barnardo’s is my main priority and I would like to do as much as I possibly can for them.
And lastly, and you’re going to hate me for this, but I promised I’d ask...
What have I done to make myself proud? (Laughs uproariously)
Well, it’s about the little things you do. I came home late last night from Budapest and I made sure I got up this morning at 6am, so I could get my son ready and take him to the bus stop.
I was worried the answer might be, “putting up with your questions”
(Laughs) No. That’s easy.
Heather Small will be performing with the Snake Davis Band at Fairfield Halls May 19. 020 8688 9291 fairfield.co.uk. £24 & £25.