Paul Heaton: "Lovable grouch? Yeah, that’ll do. A lovable grouch"

He may have reunited with former Beautiful South bandmate Jacqui Abbot for a new album and tour, but Paul Heaton will never, ever, get the band back together. "My only pang of regret was that I didn’t disband it early enough"

Waffler. Nerd. Lovable grouch. These are all categorisations that Paul Heaton willingly identifies with, but he has put those arguably dubious qualities to good use over the course of his 30-year career. Waffling? In Heaton's case, it's an art form.

Best known as the frontman, songwriter and lyricist par excellence of 1980s jangleindiepoppers The Housemartins and later The Beautiful South, Heaton was admired by many for his lyrics, which tipped a fine balance between humour and politics, his socialist outlook reflected in songs like Poppy and Have You Ever Been Away. He has continued that approach to this day, 28 years after releasing his first album with The Housemartins.

His new album, What Have We Become –a collaboration with his former Beautiful South colleague Jacqui Abbot – contains lines such as "The real terrorist ain't reading the Koran/ He's sitting in 10 Downing Street and works for Uncle Sam." Other songs get their "state of the nation" address across in a slightly more light-hearted manner: the title track opines "'What have we become?' said a mother to her half-ton son/Chicken wings replace the thumb."

Heaton’s lyrical wit has not dulled with age, but he finds it difficult to maintain a connection with those early days.


"I look back on some of the stuff with The Beautiful South, and I'm really boozy and smoky and stuff like that," he says, at home on a gloriously sunny day in Manchester. "And because I don't do either of those anymore, that's quite different. I've probably got more of a connection with The Housemartins, really, where I was clean-living and more innocent. I enjoy my age; it's nice being 52. You can get away with more. I quite like meeting people in their 60s and 70s in the pub, who just come out with these really outrageous comments. I'm heading towards that period of my life where I can just sit in a pub and piss myself and just say 'Sorryyyyyy!'"

Change has become a motif in Heaton’s life over the past few years alone. Since giving up drinking and smoking – and playing football, he mournfully notes – he now owns a pub in Manchester and has taken up cycling “for exercise on the weekends”. His sensible streak has also kicked in in recent years; he has taken singing lessons for the first time ever, after becoming concerned about the potential deterioration of his voice. He admits that getting older has meant his initial inspirations for making music have changed over time.

“They definitely alter,” he says. “One of the main things I wanted to do when I was a kid and wanted to join a band was travel; now, if somebody says if I’ve got to go further than the end of my road, I feel like saying ‘Oh, please, can’t we just do it in my house?!’ But I still love making music; I still love just singing in front of people and showing off. I like the sound of applause.

“What I do these days is what I’ve always done: I’ll go walking to the shops, buy something, go home, then walk back again and buy another thing. I’ll sing little songs on the way, and I’ll write things down – but the brilliant thing now is that I get paid for doing it, which is pretty much like being paid for being on the dole. Except it’s being paid really, really well,” he laughs. “So all I have to do is organise myself: every three months or so, I get all those pieces of paper that I’ve messed around on, and I go away and turn them into songs.”

Seven years after The Beautiful South disbanded (due to “musical similarities’, the press release noted in typically wry form) Heaton says that he feels no remorse about ending the million-selling band’s 19-year-long tenure.

“My only pang of regret was that I didn’t do it early enough,” he says, shrugging. “That’s not meant to be nasty, but I should have really done it in 2000 and started setting up my solo thing beforehand. But that’s a tactical error; we carried on enjoying each others’ company and we made a couple of decent records after that, but I think it would have been better if we’d split in 2000, when Jacqui left. It was laziness, I think. I was in a group with people I quite liked; we were quite close and we’d been about a long time, and it just seemed the obvious thing to do, to carry on making records with the people you got on with.”

He released two solo albums following the split – 2008's The Cross-Eyed Rambler and 2010's Acid Country. He agrees that putting out albums under his own name has given him a newfound freedom of expression.

“With the success of The Beautiful South, you become conservative with a small ‘c’, and you put out the records that you know people just wanna hear,” he nods. “And it becomes a sort of process, it becomes a formula. When I started solo, my records weren’t getting on radio and they just weren’t getting out there, so I felt, ‘Well, if nobody’s listening to me, anyway, I may as well just shout louder and say what I want.’

“And there was an enormous amount of freedom with that; I started saying what I felt in interviews, and I started saying what I felt on record, and it was quite liberating, really. The fact that I didn’t have to care what anybody thought, I became more myself, really. I think you can show more eccentricities when you’re out of the public eye.”

In recent months, he has been back in the public eye, thanks to his newly rekindled working relationship with Abbot. They hadn’t talked since she departed the band in 2000, but there was no animosity between them.

“I just assumed, like I do of anybody, that they’ve had enough of me – so I don’t contact them again,” he says, only half-joking. “It’s the same with The Beautiful South: if they contact me, I’ll talk to them and I’ll be very friendly with them, but like anybody who’s been in that band . . . well, I just assume the worst, I suppose.

"But when I heard that she was on Facebook, I just said hello – not 'Hello, where've you been?' or 'Hello, would you like to work with me?' It was only after she'd shown such enthusiasm that I said, 'Well if you do fancy singing, I'm your man; all I've done is write tunes for you since you've been gone.' And she said 'yes', and that was it."

After first working together on Heaton's multi-vocalist concept project The 8th a couple of years ago, their first album together since 2000 has done extremely well, entering the charts at number three upon its release last month. It's clear that the music-buying public are happy to hear the pair singing together again, but Heaton admits that it has set his solo career back, in a sense.

“Yeah, I think it has done, really,” he nods. “It’s a little bit frustrating that people are now thinking, ‘Oh yeah, Paul and Jacqui got back together – it’s just like The Beautiful South days.’ I hate nostalgia, and I certainly would never reform The Housemartins or The Beautiful South – but I do really like working with Jacqui and I think our voices are really suited. And I think I write well for her, actually; when I’m thinking of her voice, I tend to come up with good melodies and lyrics that suit her voice.

"On the other hand, it's let people know that I'm still writing songs, which is good because I think people think you've just been lounging around, smoking fuckin' pot, or whatever. I hate people thinking that I've been lazy, or thinking, 'Oh yeah, he's got his money, he's probably just lying around on a sunlounger in Spain, ' or something. I've done an album every two years since The Housemartins, and I would do more, if I could."

He will “wring out” two more collaborative albums with Abbot, he says; another one for both of them, and possibly one for just Abbot on her own, which he may also produce. Considering the various labels that he’s been landed with over his 52 years – humourist, socialist, musical anti-hero – which has been the most accurate?

“I don’t really know what people see me as,” he says in his characteristically unruffled manner. “I’m alright with most of them, really . . . I’m not bothered. I don’t go on Facebook anymore, so I’ve no idea what people think of the current stuff that I’m releasing, apart from the affection people give you at live shows.

“I suppose a bit of a . . . I dunno, what did you say? Anti-hero, I like that. Sort of a lovable grouch, really. Yeah, that’ll do. A lovable grouch.”