- 05 Mar 20
With Manchester Calling, his fourth album with Jacqui Abbott just out, and an Irish tour in his diary, Paul Heaton is in upbeat mood. He chats about what’s being lost in big cities like Dublin and Manchester, country music, Brexit, and his plan to gig in every county in Ireland.
Paul Heaton is an affable man who loves to chat. Not frivolously, but to the point – and with the wit, good sense, and sense of mischief he injects into his lyrics. His parade of hits goes back to ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Caravan of Love’ with The Housemartins, ‘and ‘A Little Time’ with The Beautiful South. But now his collaborative recordings and live gigs with former BS vocalist, Jacqui Abbott, are the central focus of his musical adventures.
Heaton admits he now generally writes with Jacqui in mind, but as he explains, “Sometimes I write a lyric from a man’s point of view, and then I change the gender when Jacqui comes to sing it. I might feel that a song would be sadder if a woman sang it, or it can happen that I write for her, and then I feel I should sing it. It all depends on what fits the song really.”
Abbott had a six-year stint with The Beautiful South, during which time the band scored several trademark hits, including ‘Rotterdam’, ‘Perfect 10’ and ‘Don’t Marry Her’. She usually doesn’t enter the recording process until near the end.
“She’ll be there for a good month while we’re rehearsing,” notes Heaton. “We’ll get the keys right for both of us, then she adds her voice, and me and the producer mix it. She’s important because she’s a bit of a cheerleader for us.”
When I say she seems to fit snugly into his songs he agrees, but adds, “I’m tempted to say that it’s to do with my songs, but our voices fit quite well together. We have similar diction and a similar approach to singing. We very rarely sing out of tune when we’re together. The voices lock in.”
That the Cheshire-born Heaton is a prolific songwriter is borne out by the fact that he started with 45 songs for the new album.
“Jacqui sang about 30,” he says. “But then you notice that maybe four or five aren’t working out like you thought they would. We got it down to about 22 and there’s 16 on the actual album.”
Heaton seems able to come up with catchy tunes at will, so does he write all the time?
“I go through periods when I write a lot,” he says. “I bring a notebook with me to jot down ideas, say if I’m in a shop. That can go on for a few months, and then I go over to Holland and flesh those ideas into songs. So I’m writing part time all of the time, if you see what I mean. There’s nearly always something on the go.”
Titling the album Manchester Calling, and including the spoken word track ‘MCR Calling’, might suggest he’d score the city a perfect 10, but it ain’t necessarily so.
“Actually,” says Heaton, “‘MCR Calling’ is quite critical of Manchester, not of the people, but the direction the city is being driven by those who run it. A lot of people these days feel the same about larger cities. I’ve heard people in Ireland talking about Dublin in the same way. It can be that a city is growing too quickly, or has too many people visiting it or whatever. The people in charge of Manchester seem to just believe in growth. I’ve been here 18 years, almost as long as I was in Hull, and there’s a lot to like. It’s a very mixed, open place, with lots of people from different cultures and backgrounds. We don’t have too many closed minds here.”
A keen football fan, in the ’90s Heaton was regularly billed on Football Italia on Channel 4 as an ‘Italian football expert’. Now living in Manchester, he has two of the most prominent teams on Planet Football on his doorstep, but Heaton pledges allegiance to neither.
“Actually, I’m a Sheffied United fan,” he says. “I lived in the town since I was four and we have a strong Irish connection now. So it’s Stevens, Egan and McGoldrick for me! We had four Irish players, but we just sold Callum Robinson. Regarding the Manchester teams, I might have a slight bias towards United, but only slight.”
So what does Mr Heaton think gets lost in a growing city like Manchester?
“When I used to come into Manchester, I’d notice there was red brick everywhere,” he reflects. “It was really, really striking. Now, with so many skyscrapers flying up, and so many cranes on the horizon, those high buildings are covering up those Coronation Street-type houses – all those beautiful buildings with arches, they’re disappearing. It’s sad and it’s happening everywhere.”
Back on the musical front, the new album has the track ‘Someone’s Superhero’, which paints a picture of a man living a forlorn, lonely life. I wonder is it perchance autobiographical? Heaton actually has a good laugh at the very notion.
“I think when I’m writing I can shift myself in another person’s shoes,” he muses. “I’m actually a happily married man with three children. But I remember thinking about writing that song when I was coming into my house after being to the shops. I was thinking about a slightly-overweight middle-aged man, dressed in a Superman suit in his house, ready to answer the call to save the world, but never getting the call!
“My brain runs away with those little ideas, and I flesh it out in that song. The same thing happened with ‘Old Red Eyes’ for The Beautiful South. A lot of people presumed it was about me. There was a bit of me in it, but it was about a collection of different people.”
The new song ‘You And Me Were Meant To Be Together’ has a kind of country feel. Could it be the song to get combine harvesters and mushy peas into the charts?
“Well, Jackie, remember The Wurzels had a number one hit with ‘Combine Harvester’ in the ’70,” says Heaton. “But it could be a first for mushy peas alright! Country music is about storytelling, which I reckon is one of the reasons that music is so popular in Ireland. Irish people love a story in a song, and I think I’m seen as a storyteller in Ireland. Fans can see the country influence in my work without me having to spell it out.”
Two of the songs, ‘House Party 2’ and ‘New York Ivy’, are labelled “explicit”. I put it to Paul that this is a long tradition for him, going back to the “don’t marry her, fuck me” era’.
“I don’t like using that language,” he acknowledges. “But sometimes it pricks people’s ears up a bit and works in the context of the song. Jacqui seems to delight in using those words, both in real life and on record! We got into trouble with ‘Don’t Marry Her’ because there was no advisory warning. People who heard the single version on the radio thought it was the same on the album, and were a little shocked when they found out. I’ve tried to cut down on it.”
The track ‘Fat Of The Land’ could be a reflection on Brexit. So is Heaton happy with Brexit?
He laughs again.
“No I’m not happy with Brexit, but I accept the vote,” he responds. “I think having another referendum would have caused even more anger. But it could turn out like VAR in football, where the people who were howling for it last year now see the downside. Brexit could be like that after about four years. But we’ll see. Although I understand the arguments, Brexit sends out the opposite message from the one I like to send out. I’m a socialist and I believe in all people together. But it’s taken the power from the EU and given it to Eton graduates and private-schooled people like Boris Johnston and Dominic Cummings. When I hear a foreign accent, I want to engage with that person. It’s one of the pleasures of touring, meeting different people and getting to know them.”
Heaton also loves cycling.
“I’m trying to play a gig in every county in Ireland,” he says. “So on this coming tour, I’m doing a gig in Donegal. I’ve got about halfway through the 32 counties, so I’ve a bit to go!”
He then calls out his list of currently unconquered counties, and makes a respectful stab at pronouncing Laois, Meath and Fermanagh, among others.
Elsewhere, the death of Caroline Flack has brought the tabloid media into the spotlight again. Has Heaton ever suffered at their hands?
He says he has, but not to the extent Flack did.
“During the early days of The Housemartins’ success, they ran a campaign against me,” he recalls. “They made up stories, hurtful stories. They tried to dig up dirt, of which there wasn’t much, so they made it up! They said I was gay, which was totally untrue, and another story about me being beaten up by Nazi skinheads. All made up. They wrote about me living in the kind of houses I never lived in.
“I was only 24 when they did this and it was hard to take. It seemed The Sun wrote stuff about me every single day. It’s pathetic really. It was a different era then. I played football every Saturday and it wasn’t the most comfortable feeling, me hiding the fact that I was gay when I wasn’t. But even back then, people in Hull where I was living were quite cynical about those papers. These days, it doesn’t just stop with them printing drivel in the tabloids – it spills out onto social media.
“So people saying ban that newspaper or that one won’t make any difference. The News Of The World got closed down and that made absolutely no difference. It’s like that game Whac-A-Mole, where you whack a mole with a mallet and then another pops up. I think the entire tabloid media needs to be looked at, as well as programmes presented by the likes of Piers Morgan and Jeremy Kyle. I didn’t know Caroline Flack, but my daughters texted me about her death. I only hope that they learn a lesson from this about the impact of the tabloid press and stay away from them.”
We end our chat on a slightly less contentious issue – the possibility of The Beautiful South or The Housemartins ever reforming. Heaton rules it out, and then some.
“The prospects are somewhere around zero to minus. None of us has any interest in going back or getting back together, unless it’s for a few pints and a laugh. For me, music is about going forward and doing fresh things.”
So what fresh things might Heaton have in his little notebook these days?
“I’m working on some spoken word things with Jonny Lexus, the guitar player in my band,” he answers. “Johnny helped produce the ‘MCR Calling’ track, which is kind of mixes spoken word and rap. There’s also about five or six tracks left over from Manchester Calling that I’d like to work on, maybe for a release this summer. I’ve always got to have something on the go. That’s me.”