Issue 2: Lisa Stansfield – You Can Take The Girl Out Of Rochdale
29.2.12

Issue 2: Lisa Stansfield – You Can Take The Girl Out Of Rochdale

Written by Paul Flynn
Photography by Miguel Reveriego
Styling by Sam Willoughby

Lisa Stansfield - for those of you that can’t remember - is the forthright soul sensation from Rochdale that ruled the radio waves of the late Eighties and early Nineties, notching up global chart hits others could only dream of. A regular in the Billboard Top 5, Lisa Stansfield broke America in a way no British female had done since Dusty Springfield.  And then she all but disappeared - her choice of course.  From her humble beginnings on Razzamatazz to headlining Wembley, Lisa has always done things her way. And that’s how she intends it to stay...

Dress by Stella McCartney

I can’t quite remember the moment the name of the immaculately rendered Rochdale soul chanteuse Lisa Stansfield started being bandied about the East End in connection with radical living performance piece Scottee. But I can remember it making a peculiar kind of sense. It was operating at a superior level, somewhere beyond irony. Like most things circumnavigating the mythic legend of Lisa Stansfield since her intermittent disappearance from public life at the start of the last decade, the connection felt touched with sincerity.

A solid gold Northerner, Lisa was the in-house vocalist for Britain’s musical brokerage between the throwaway carnage of acid house in the late 80s, when she rode the first youthful ecstasy explosion right to centre stage on Top Of The Pops with People Hold On and a golden move into transatlantic 90s soulful mega-pop. When I hear one of her early hits now I can see my teenage self’s bedroom wallpaper peeling and a decaying turntable inherited from an elder relative spinning. This Is The Right Time still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. ‘Oh, don’t say that one, love,’ she says now, slightly grimacing, ‘I could never stand that, dropped it from the set years ago.’

What George Michael had done for the boys with Faith three years earlier, Lisa did for the girls with Affection, her smouldering 1990 solo debut, released after several misshapen kick-starts at fame, including a weirdly permed interlude as a 15-year-old TV presenter in a ra-ra skirt (ask your mum) on the gloriously named midweek pop show, Razzamatazz. She sold records in territories her pop/soul contemporaries could only dream of. She became a major and majorly unlikely star in the US in the bargain. ‘That were weird, yeah.’

When she would turn up for her propulsive round of TV guest slots in the US, because communication was not quite what it was back in the olden days and on account of her wilful, powerhouse vocal expertise and superlative song-writing craft, the house staff would expect a big, black woman to walk through the door. Instead, they found a scrawny lass from the North West of England with signature kiss-curls, a baker’s cap, ankle-skirmishing distressed Levis, steel toe-capped Doc Marten shoes and a borrowed black trench.

‘Scottee,’ muses Ms Stansfield, sat pert, looking fabulous in her middle age (45) and mostly guffawing in the corridor outside her first photo shoot in six years. ‘Yeah. He told me he used to sing along with a hairbrush in the mirror to all me records ’cos his mam was obsessed.’ She lets out a big, infectious chuckle at this one. Lisa gets a lot of this stuff these days. ‘Yes, I do.’ It is how pop’s time passes.

Body by Maison Martin Margiela at Start, tights by Wolford, bracelet by DSquared

If an alien landed from Mars tomorrow and you wanted me to describe Lisa Stansfield to him, what would you want me to say?
Hmmm, that depends on whether you knew me or you didn’t know me. If you didn’t then it’s very simple. I’d ask you to say I was a great singer with a unique image. Maybe a bit of an ice maiden.

And if I did?
A fucking really good laugh and a dirty old cow! Most people that know me describe me like that. I have no idea why. Oh, and they’d say I was honest. Very honest.

What’s the song of yours you’d ask me to play to him?
Oh my god, maybe Live Together. I thought that was the way everything should be when I wrote that song and I still think it’s the way everything should be now.

Who’s the most famous person in your mobile phone address book?
I don’t know, actually. It’s really funny, fame. I’ll tell you who I got an email off the other day, though, and that was Brenda Blethyn. Just out of the blue, out of nowhere. I’ve never met her before but we have a mutual friend, a fashion designer in Ireland called Kieran. She said he’d been talking about me so she just wanted to drop me a line and say hello. I never get to meet people like that. She’s just incredible. I wrote her a really gushing email back, told her I’d been to see her in Mrs Warren’s Profession. Is that George Bernard Shaw? That one, anyway. She made me cry in it, so I told her I just wanted to run up on the stage and give her a big cuddle. Of course I didn’t mention Secrets and Lies. I think Mike Leigh’s a bit taboo for people. I worked with Alison Steadman on an episode of Miss Marple and I definitely didn’t mention him to her. That was great though. I got to play someone posh [adopts her ‘posh’ voice] ‘How are you doing, today?’ I was actually quite good at it.

How much would it cost a promoter to tempt you onto a Here and Now tour?
Those tours where you play with everyone from ‘your era’? No money in the world could get me on one. I’d never do it. When I die I want to die with my integrity intact. The idea of doing something like that makes my stomach turn. I don’t mean to demean anyone who does it, but it would be like doing reality TV for me. I have a respect for people who do those things because they’re subjecting themselves to a whole lot of shit. I’m not Kerry Katona, you know. Thank fuck! I’d rather watch an immediate train crash than watch one play out in slow motion. Do you know what I mean? Am I being a cunt now?

When he got in touch, Lisa Stansfield said she took a special interest in Scottee’s tributary overtures. He had tracked her down and approached her about a show he was thinking of piecing together, a mixed-media venture devoted to one of the forgotten voices of the UK’s illustrious, indigenous soul tradition. Two decades after Dusty and two before Amy and Adele took that tradition and moved it at great pace forward into the 21st Century, Lisa Stansfield was our peerless soul girl.

Lisa Stansfield is a fucking really good laugh and a dirty old cow!

Lisa is currently without a record contract and feeling her way tentatively into film-making. She’s got some brilliantly bonkers documentary ideas of her own and is pencilled to star in the exemplary Mancunian photographer Elaine Constantine’s debut docu-drama about Northern Soul, ‘as the mam.’ She made a lot of money back in the day, when the record industry knew how to count its conkers. So she’s in a good position to bide her time and take all offers with a pinch of salt if she so wishes. As she says, reality TV’s an absolute no-no: a specific instruction to her management. She won’t even watch The X Factor. ‘It gets on me nerves,’ she says bluffly, ‘I always like the ones they hate’.

She took a three month sabbatical this year to attend a film course in New York, fudged her graduation piece with a new idea thought up on the spot after her leading actor and actress flunked out on her and studied alongside students mostly less than half her age, some of whom found out about her pre-eminent stretch over the vocal landscape. ‘They’ve all got YouTube now, haven’t they?’ she says, like soul’s own maitre d’, casting her eye over a strange new landscape for the first time. I ask her which hotel she stayed in whilst she was in NYC. ‘Oh, we’ve got a gaff there,’ she says, in her gloriously unchanged and imperiously common Northern brogue. You wouldn’t begrudge her an ounce of the luxury she has earned hard, on the back of her incredible gift, one that connected globally.

Occasionally modern record company folk drop a line to her management, asking if she’d be interested in recording an album that might re-instate her as one of the British soul greats. She still looks fantastic, and on account of having given up smoking three years ago – a hard won battle: she was the type to don a Nicorette patch for long-haul flights then forget she’d left it on when she lit up her first chufter on disembarking, ‘just to double up’ – is in as fine a voice as ever.

These requests always come with a caveat, though. ‘It’s always the same,’ she says, without so much as a trace of bitterness. ‘They always want me to do a covers album.’ The Rod Stewart route is not for her, however. So she always puts in a gentle reminder. ‘I wrote those fucking songs, you know.’ Negotiations tend to end at that point.

So a question still lingers. Will we ever hear a new Lisa Stansfield record again?

‘That’s the question, isn’t it?’ she asks the air, ‘That’s the fucking question.’

She swears like an absolute trooper, our Lisa.

To the best of your knowledge, was your phone tapped at any point this decade?
No, ’cos I wasn’t very famous. I think it’s absolutely disgusting. That was the joke going round just after Amy died. The News of the World and Rupert Murdoch got such a lot of condolences for her, from her text messages. What a mercenary bastard. It’s a shit, horrible thing to do. I find it disgusting. I don’t know Rebekah what’s-her-name? [Brooks] But the fact that she gave Sarah Palin’s mum that phone? ‘Here, I’m your best friend, now take this?’ It’s like fucking someone up the arse at their weakest. Disgusting, isn’t it. I wrote a poem about Murdoch, actually. I won’t tell you it all but it did contain the line ‘is that what makes you different from scum? A Savile Row suit?’

Do you believe in god?
I’m agnostic. I believe in the soul. I don’t think it’s a little ball of energy. I don’t think that anything floats up or down. But I do believe that everyone’s floating about. There’s these things in science called neutrinos. They can go straight through you. I know I sound fucking weird here, but that’s what I think happens to people. It’s a lovely feeling when you get someone who’s died going straight through you. The more of a statement you make in life, the more effect you have in death.

Who was your teenage pin-up?
I didn’t really have one. I loved Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson when I was really little. But I wasn’t the type to put posters up on my wall. I was doing the fucking social clubs when I was a teenager, wasn’t I?

Whom do you secretly fancy now?
That Ben Whishaw, but I’m old enough to be his fucking mum!

I wouldn’t have thought you’d go for the skinny, fey type. I’d have thought you’d like a big fellow.
I’ve got a big fellow. What’s really funny is that women’s tastes change when we’re going through a cycle. On a normal cycle you’re drawn to your Ben Whishaw. But when you’re ovulating then you look for the type with broad shoulders and a strong jaw. You’re looking for good breeding stock. It’s what nature’s telling you. So I mustn’t be producing at the moment because Ben Whishaw’s the one I thought of. I fucking love him.

Whom would you chose if you were ovulating?
Probably a rugby player. Actually, no. I fucking hate rugby players. Probably the Inredible Hulk. Ha!

Lisa Stansfield was a Northern child prodigy. She became determined on fame from her childhood bedroom. She learnt to sing by carousing along to her elder sister’s Chaka Khan records. She understood the strange musical heritage of Rochdale and liked the look of the landscape which had plucked Gracie Fields from obscurity and procured her into a position of wartime heroine as its chosen siren. She thinks it is ‘really fucking weird’ that now when the word Rochdale drops into conversation the first name that might come up is Lisa Stansfield.

There is a suspicion that, though she craved fame from an early age, when it arrived it clobbered her like a lightning strike, something that often happens with down-to-earth, no-nonsense girls with a specific, special talent to share. Because we meet three days after the death of Amy Winehouse, her story is icily fronted in everyone’s mind. ‘Poor, poor lass,’ she says, looking genuinely bereft at the loss of such a heavyweight talent and such a lightweight frame, ‘and the thing is, that could have happened to any of us. If it hadn’t been for having Ian by my side, I dare say it would’ve happened to me.’

Body by Maison Martin Margiela at Start, bracelet by DSquared

Ian is Ian Devaney, Lisa’s long-standing partner, her big fellow. The day we meet is their 12th wedding anniversary and she has to shoot off mid-flow to get ready for a slap-up dinner he’s got booked for her. They have been together right through Lisa’s swift ascendancy in the closing years of the 80s and before, through her first band, Blue Zone (hits: zero). She still writes with him and says that a more likely path than entering the giddy world of musical celebrity again would be for them to provide a professional song-writing service to new artists. She says it doesn’t interfere with the marriage that they work so closely and Ian came with her to New York and studied with her. ‘It’s actually the exact fucking opposite. It really helps having someone else there. Honestly, I seriously think I would’ve cracked up when it all went mental if it wasn’t for Ian.’

The world of celebrity, it hardly needs pointing out, was a less scabrous, unforgiving place when Lisa entered it. The contemporary equivalent of Heat pointing out stars’ expanding and contracting waistbands to bolster sales was Smash Hits asking them ‘does your mother play golf?’

‘It was a bit nicer then, yeah,’ she agrees. I’d always assumed that Lisa had found her first signature haircut at Vidal Sassoon’s in Manchester, the closest the North got to firm and statuesque hair glamour back in the day, but she chides me at the very thought. ‘No, it were just some crappy salon in Rochdale,’ she says, before pointing out a cow-lick at the front of her hairline that always caused her teenage concern. ‘I never knew what to do with it when my hair was short and this girl just came up with the idea of the curls.’ She wears her hair at shoulder length now.

When I die I want to die with my integrity intact. The idea of doing reality TV makes my stomach turn. I’m not Kerry Katona, you know. Thank fuck!

She decamped back to Hampstead not long ago after many years living in Ireland. She’d been living in a semi-hermetically sealed countryside universe for years after her last album proper, sculpted with master sound-smith Trevor Horn, failed to catch the public mood at the start of the noughties. ‘It’s really posh,’ she says of Hampstead, though no doubt softened by neighbouring pop people, Georges Boy and Michael.

Lisa has always been a favourite with gay men. A right-on Northerner, with not an air or a grace, who could sing like an angel? The pieces of that particular jigsaw were never hard to assemble. But it was her relationship with the Red Hot AIDS charitable foundation that solidified the link during her supremacy. Oh, and a performance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley after the star died, in which she donned rollers to camp her way meaningfully though I Want To Break Free, the song he had first premiered in full moustache and cerise tank-top drag.

‘The only thing I can really remember about that gig,’ she says now, ‘was that everyone was being nice to each other for a change back-stage. It was like everyone had left their egos at the door when they got there.’ She’d already forged a bond with the show’s other star turn, George Michael. ‘I called him up a couple of weeks after the show and asked him to go for dinner to talk about it. It was quite a night. Anyway, I remember that dinner well, ’cos I’d taken forty fags out with me that night and George smoked at least twenty of them. There’s a lesson in there for you. If you’re going out for dinner with George Michael, never take too many cigarettes with you.’

At moments like this, you cannot help but wish that they crafted all pop stars a little like Lisa Stansfield. She explodes laughing at the suggestion. ‘What a fucking thought!’

Lisa keeps herself well-schooled in the female soul tradition that followed her.

‘The last great soul album before Back to Black was the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My god I loved that record. Every beat of it and every vocal was just nailed, perfectly. Then Amy came along with her big fucking sweeping brush and swept up everything that had come before her. It was massive.’

More recently, Ms Stansfield has turned to the contemporary singer who has been turning heads for the last 12 months. ‘Adele? I’ll tell you the truth. That girl just caught me from behind. I think when I first played that album [21] it was the first time I’d sat up in my bedroom and sang along, just wanting to see if I could still hit the notes since Chaka Khan back in the 70s.’

It is impossible not to draw a direct line between Lisa and Adele – the likely lass with the mega voice and the simple ambition to sing like her heroines and to have the world hear it.

And could she hit them? ‘Too fucking right I could,’ she says, before sweeping into a chorus of Rolling in The Deep in a North London photographer’s studio corridor. It is absolutely immense.

The changing face of Lisa Stansfield

What’s the TV programme that you never miss?
Corrie, obviously, though I have missed a few of them lately.

Did the Coronation Street producers ever call you in for a casting?
Yeah, I went in to see them. I would’ve done it but they wanted me to sign up for six months and I just couldn’t give over that amount of time to it. I’d do it if I could just go in and do a few episodes but signing up for a contract like that? Too much. I’ll tell you what I really need to catch up on, actually. That’s Nurse Jackie. I fucking love her. And I love the boss there, Mrs Akalitus. When Jackie gets off her tits and Akalitus is going mental? That’s brilliant TV.

What would your Come Dine With Me menu be?
Ooh, that’s a good one. I don’t have to go on it? Three courses? Fucking hell. OK, my starter would be some kind of simple salad. A nice leaf salad with a bit of chicory. Maybe some pan-fried chicken livers. And shallots, because I am the Lady of Shallots.  My main would be a pasta dish. Mushrooms, peas, bacon and onion. The pasta would be some sort of thin thing. Not angel hair but somewhere between angel hair and spaghetti.

Spaghettini?
Spaghettini! Yes! I think I’d do a nice spaghettini. Put that. For pudding, I’d have to do Nigella Lawson’s chocolate loaf because you can cheat with that one. You make it beforehand, then when you’re ready to dish it up you stick it in the microwave and it goes like chocolate sponge pudding. Delicious, with a big lump of ice cream and a sprig of mint.

I give your Come Dine With Me menu 8 out of 10.
Ooh ta, love. You can come again. Come round any time.

Are sunbeds common?
What kind of a question is that?

Common, like are there a lot of them?
Yes! I don’t really have an opinion on sunbeds because I don’t use them. When people say to me, god, you’re 45 and you don’t look it at all, I say ‘That’s my secret. Never go in the sun’. Isn’t there some sort of injection you can get now that makes you tan? That releases the melanin? I think you should look into that instead of your sunbeds. I’m into that but sitting by a swimming pool just bores me. I have to go for a wander.

What’s the last dream you had that you can remember?
I always dream of living in the same house. I have a house that I live in in my dreams and it was being decorated. My mum was there. She was bossing me around but in a nice way. It was lovely being bossed around by her actually, because she died five years ago. Apparently if you dream about a house then it translates as your soul. The house is your interior life. So maybe I’m getting ready for a bit of a spring clean inside. With my mum watching over it. Carl Jung went very deeply into dreams, you know. I know what horses and unicorns mean. But I always get elephants. Apparently they’re about great fortune and wisdom. I’m forever finding four-leaf clovers. I’m lucky like that. But I think people think of fortune and wisdom in a different way to me. They think about it as fame and money. I just think about it as happiness. That’s the best way, isn’t it?

Hair Karin Bigler using Redken

Make up Kirsten Piggott using Rimmel

Photographic Assistance

Lorenz Schmidt and Michael Rudd

Fashion Assistance Samantha Williams

Hair Assistance Declan Shells

Digital Operator Nicola Scorey

Retouching by Mask Media

Special thanks to Spring Studios