Lisa Stansfield likes to do an impression of Lisa Stansfield. Head down and shoulders hunched, she draws her arms in front of her and swings them in a simian manner, her entire body and baker boy cap vibrating as if she is caught in a chill wind. This is what she looked like, apparently, on the Pete Waterman ITV show Motown Mania in 2000, which she didn’t want to take part in because it was so “fucking naff”. And this is what she looked like at 14, singing in the working men’s clubs of Rochdale. Only, she had a huge perm then, which stuck out like this – her arms arc round her head – and made her look “like Kevin Keegan. No. Like a microphone”.
Lisa does the vibrating simian to express situations in which she wasn’t entirely comfortable. Earlier in the day, at a photo shoot in Kentish Town, she grabbed her glasses to examine the first run of portraits as they were delivered on to a laptop. She decided she looked “like John Hurt on acid”, so she threw some shapes for a different vibe, brandishing an invisible gun like one of Charlie’s Angels. She was tiny and wiry in her black leather assemblage – and she looked just like Lisa Stansfield. Fame is a science, she says. A cycle.
“There are elevators in East Germany that go round a loop rather than up and down, and they have no doors,” – she pushes her index fingers round to illustrate. “You jump in, and then you jump out again. That’s what I felt like.”
She was the biggest British female solo popstar of the Nineties: her debut album sold five million copies, she sang with George Michael at Wembley Stadium and cracked America too. Then she was gone for years, living in Ireland and walking around in a headscarf and wellies “trying to be a fucking farmer”. Now, looking back, she was an unwitting pop prototype: a self-taught soul star who swore like a docker and put her own twist on Motown decades before Adele or Amy Winehouse did; who won a local talent contest when such a route might still get you a lasting career in music; who wrote her own hits, when many would have assumed she came off the production-line of Stock Aitken Waterman. She is 51: the elevator is back and she’s about to step in. But at 23, promoting her debut album, she asked an NME reporter, “Why do people want to be famous?”
Stansfield tried to give up swearing as a new year’s resolution, shortly after Rochdale Council attempted a swearing ban in the town where she still lives. When I meet her in the bar of a London hotel, as night begins to fall, she has just spoken to a pop magazine. She would like to move to a different table for our interview, “Because if I’m asked the same question, and I’m sitting in the same seat, I think I’m going mad.”
She is known for speaking her mind. When Prince died in 2016, she was hastily brought on to breakfast TV for a celebrity tribute. She hadn’t known him well, and had heard about his death in the pub as anyone might. She recalled her mother meeting the funk overlord backstage in Rio and telling him what small hands he had – “like a little boy’s”. When the presenter, Naga Munchetty, admitted that Prince had once taken a shine to her, Stansfield winked and said, “The question is, did ya or didn’t ya?” – to national outrage, and suggestions that she had actually come straight from the pub. Collecting the award for Best British Female at the 1991 Brits, she was advised by the host, Jonathan King, not to say anything incendiary: she gave a little anti-Gulf war speech, which was cut out of the TV broadcast. These days, she can get away with more. She went on Good Morning Britain four years ago, wearing a necklace fashioned subtly from the word “Cunt”.
Her parents met working in the Era ring mill in Woodbine Street, Rochdale, in the 1950s. She – Marion – worked the cotton bobbins, and had come from Wigan: Rochdale was a step up. He – Keith – was something of a catch, being the mill electrician or “fixer”. Rochdale was, at the time, under the conservative tenure of Wentworth Schofield MP, who was high up in cotton and formed the Manchester Yarn Spinners’ Association. Stansfield’s parents, she tells me, were the kind who bought the Mirror and voted Tory and saw no discrepency between the two. “Working class people vote Tory because they think it makes them look a bit posh,” she says. “They don’t know that the Tories are going to shit all over them because they’re poor.”
Her father became a draughtsman, and started working on the North Sea oil rigs: he was rarely at home during the week. Her musical interest came from her mother – like some real-life Little Voice, Stansfield would ape the songs of Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline and Diana Ross from the age of four. The competitions began in her teens, her mother driving her through sleet and snow as far as Newcastle, where she’d sing Motown classics in clubs, often accompanied by no more than an organ and its inbuilt drum machine. Wives would elbow their husbands and say, “shut up, Stan, she’s trying to sing”. She graduated to variety shows on Granada TV, and sang Randy Crawford’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away” in a pink metallic space suit.
“I was quietly determined,” she says. “I’ve never been like Madonna, I’d never push people out of the way.”
Pop songs once held such power that any idiosyncracies in the lyrics or vocal style would swell to cartoon proportions in the national consciousness. Caroline Aherne did a Fast Show sketch about Stansfield combing the airports of the world for a mislaid infant (“Been around the world and I-I-I, I can’t find my baby”). She dissected the complex paradox, “I may not be a lady, but I’m all woman.”
Stansfield performed “All Woman” at a secret gig at the Village Undergound in London, before Christmas. That sad psychodrama between a wife and her husband rang out differently in a “woke” modern world: “He said, babe, you look a mess/You look dowdy in that dress.” In her songs, women long for kisses, search for men they drove away and feed off a particular kind of immersive love. On her new album, Deeper, she sings: “And if you so desire, I’ll treat you like a king” – in any album you make at this stage of your career, she tells me, “you’re sort of pastiching yourself”. There is something gloriously unreconstructed about the feminity her songs express – and classic, in a Sixties way: a side of love, and love affairs, that is unfashionable in an age of pop alter-ego and fierce individualism. The emotional honesty might be an explanation for her huge gay following: “Perhaps it’s because I say eggs is eggs,” she suggests.
“Falling in love is an absolutely beautiful thing to go through, and why people shouldn’t talk about it is beyond me.”
Stansfield wasn’t aware that songs like hers are quite rare nowadays and says she’s glad she didn’t know, because she might have thought twice about writing them. Her music comes from a little creative Brill Building of two: it is co-written with her husband Ian Devaney, whom she met in a school play at the age of 14. They were in a band together, Blue Zone, when she was billed as featured vocalist on the 1989 club hit “People Hold On”, by Coldcut, and her name was launched. When she and Ian started going out, she tells me, the love was “urgent”: the new album is named after the deeper feeling that comes after many years with the same person.
It is with Devaney that Stansfield creates these songs of romantic co-dependency. They influence each other, and they “catalyse” each other, too. They can be good or bad catalysts, she explains. “We’ll have a period of time where we’ll drink, and then one of us will say, ‘Oh well, we won’t drink today’. And then one of us will smile [she gives a wink]… At the moment, we are being good catalysts. Trying to be as naughty as we can without being naughty.”
There was a clutch of them in the 1990s, these neo-soul women: their songs ruled the charts long before soul was said to be the dominant pop style. Everyone just “got on with it”, Stansfield says. She talked to Neneh (Cherry) a bit, and Mica (Paris). People compared her to Dina Carroll – “I didn’t like that!” She didn’t see much of Gabrielle or Des’ree, though she met them “afterwards”. Fame is talked of as a happening, a thing that took place, with a before and an after.
Stansfield has turned down invitations to judge The Voice and The X-Factor in recent years. Her reasons? They select winners they consider the easiest to manipulate, she says; “they wreck lives and the whole process is psychologically damaging.” But she concedes that the music industry has always been this way.
“You’ve got people with no integrity whatsoever who will look at a person like me, fresh off the boat and go: ‘Yeah, I can have a bit of that, I can fuck that right up. I’ll make as much money out of it as I can, and than I’ll shove it to one side.’”
Stansfield has sold 20 million records. Her tough streak developed when, as a teenager, her parents no longer chaperoned her. At 15, she went to modelling school on her mother’s suggestion. She was invited to the office of the director, who pulled her on to his lap, put his hand on her leg, and told her that if she played her cards right she would get on the cover of the teen title Blue Jeans. Stansfield slapped him, but continued going to the school – the compromise, perhaps, of a certain generation.
“It happens in the record industry,” she says. “There are women who will shag anything to get anywhere. But there are men who will shag anything too.”
When I ask her about Hollywood and the #MeToo campaign, she says, “I’m going to have a wee before that, then I can let go”, and she runs off. Her manager, sitting a few feet away, starts to button up her coat and moves a bit closer. Then Lisa returns.
“I’m sorry. But if I was an 18-year-old girl in Hollywood, and nothing was really working out for me, and Mr Harvey Weinstein asked me to come and watch him have a shower, I’d fucking watch him have a shower!” she says. “I’d watch him do anything as long as he didn’t touch me! There’s a lot of women who would do that. When they complain about things like that, they’re trivialising everything that those women who seriously have been abused have been through.”
She is on the side of Catherine Deneuve. “When you can’t go into a bar and be chatted up by a man, but you can go on Tinder and get raped, there’s something wrong.”
In 1992, having just turned 26, Lisa Stansfield was one of only three women to perform at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (and the only one in her twenties), in a line-up of hoary rock legends – Roger Daltrey, Elton John – and American rock bands such as Metallica: “Ultra-famous people with big, big egos.”
“At rehearsals I’d be thinking, this is very morose, and everyone felt they had to be very serious because of the gravity of it all, and because of the Aids thing, and because of the enormity of Freddie Mercury.”
She decided, for her rendition of Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”, to take to the stage with a Hoover and rollers to recreate the song’s famously camp video. The audience was an estimated one billion that night. She has remained friends with the band.
Fame grew throughout the Nineties: she wrote a song for the Bodyguard soundtrack and the theme song for Indecent Proposal. Along with George Michael, she was one of the few white English exports to break the US soul market when her debut album went to number one in the American R&B chart. In the words of Rolling Stone, “Not since Teena Marie has a white girl pulled off the pure joy and emotionality that Stansfield does, and without the downside of trying to sound authentically ‘black’.”
She does a routine about being mistaken for her own PA on press trips, being a small white woman. She was cool and aloof, the American critics said, but never cold.
Alongside Peter Gabriel and Neil Tennant, she gave substantial sums to Tony Blair for his 1997 election campaign, and went to meet him at the Labour headquarters in London.
She throws her legs wide, like a man, to recreate the scene.
“He’s like you would imagine him to be. That good, he’d eat himself. He asked me, ‘How’s it going?’ I said, ‘The tour’s going really well thanks.’ He said, ‘I’m talking about me!’ I gave him a lot of money but I’m not going to fucking do it again! Mind you…”
She takes a sip of her diet coke through a straw and reconsiders.
“Looking back, I would love Blair to take on the mantle again. I’ve lost hope with politics. I do hope Labour get in, but I see Corbyn as someone who plays guitar in a church and is down with the kids. One of those people who’s always talking to young people because he’s afraid that if he talked to a peer he might, you know, get it a bit wrong…?”
For four years at the height of her fame, Stansfield flew over the Atlantic once a week, promoting one album in the US while touring its follow-up in the UK: “I did not have time to think.” By the time of her third album she was unwell, but afraid to stop because sales were flying: “I know it’s bad to think like that.” She and Devaney moved to the Dublin suburb of Dalkey to slow down, possibly encouraged by the country’s rockstar tax exemption laws. They found themselves living in a Stella Street of exiled musicians: she regularly saw Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in the local SuperValu, buying bananas, though she never spoke to him. She bought a riding crop, new boots and jodhpurs, but only went on a horse twice.
The tabloids, which had always found rich pickings in Lisa Stansfield, started to report that something was up in Ireland, noting her rapid weight loss. She said she had developed an allergy to her own saliva: an autoimmune condition called herpetiformis.
“It imitates the herpes virus,” she says now. “Everything you ate, no matter how neutral tasting, burned like hell.”
For twelve months, she says, she would eat soup through a straw as the weight fell away. She’d been on 30 cigarettes a day for years by that point – she’d already “killed” her own tonsils by singing from her throat rather than from her diaphragm. A doctor looked for them once, she told a newspaper, but couldn’t find them – then he saw two little nubs the size of lentils.
At the Village Underground last year, singing old tracks and new with the accompaniment of her slick neo-soul band, Stansfield sounded strong – but she still wakes in the morning next to Ian, she says, coughs, and tests out her vocal range in a string of puny little exhalations.
“The fact is, there’s always certain notes that are going to fuck you right up.”
Perhaps that is a driving thought for any singer – all part of the rush. In her fallow years, when her music did not fit in with the times, Stansfield had a few successful turns as an actor – alongside Anita Dobson in The Vagina Monologues, in a Miss Marple episode, and as the lead character’s mother in Northern Soul, the film about that Seventies Lancashire music scene. She was asked to be in Coronation Street too but the crossover of life and fiction felt a bit too much: when she started out, many British reviewers would compare her to Elsie Tanner, as she liked to do her interviews in curlers, fag in hand.
She enjoys the imitation of emotion and the suspension of belief that acting requires – she considers both things to be a feature of singing. But her favourite thing about acting is the nerdishness of the process: the science of blocking on stage, hitting your marks, getting to the right spot at the right time. It’s just like singing with an orchestra, she reasons. It’s all about being the one who could effectively screw it up.
Lisa Stansfield vividly recalls the moment she knew she would be famous, going to get a sandwich on Tottenham Court Road on one of her first trips to London to meet her record company. Passing the cinema, she saw a billboard for her first single “This Is The Right Time” – a giant red poster that just showed her eyes. She recalls a feeling of fear: “Everyone knows.” As her career began it took her a while, being stared at in pubs, to realise that people were not trying to “start” on her.
She may not have thrived on being told she was fabulous; fame may have made her unwell, but like many famous people, the alternative proved to be just as difficult and she waited for public interest to come round again. Which brings her back to the old-fashioned lifts in East Germany. Paternosters, they were called. They were outlawed in the Seventies because people kept misjudging their footing and falling down the shafts.
“People compliment me,” she says, “and if I ignore them, it doesn’t mean I’m rude. It just means I’m embarrassed. And I’ll aways be embarrassed, I think.”
“Deeper” is out in April on earMusic. Lisa Stansfield tours the UK in April and May
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist