Making a sexy sound of hush
Sharleen Spiteri comes out of recline position on the couch, moves her head forward, looks me straight in the eye and says, "…
Sharleen Spiteri comes out of recline position on the couch, moves her head forward, looks me straight in the eye and says, "Could you pass me the sun-tan lotion and rub it all over me very very gently." Gulp. It's not what it seems, officer, the woman who speaks with a tough Glasgow accent but sings like a honeyed chanteuse is merely illustrating, in her own sensuous way, why her band's new album is called as it is.
"We called it The Hush", she says, squeezing ever ounce of sibilance out of the album's title, "because hush is just such a sexy and sensuous word, as are all these songs. That's what I mean by rubbing the sun-tan lotion over me, that's the feeling I'm after with these songs." From the outside chance of getting low-down and dirty with the Ambre Solaire in the company of rock's latest pin-up to a mini-thesis on the role of onomatopoeia in marketing a new bunch of songs - a minute is a long time in a rock interview.
Sharleen is back home in Glasgow, entertaining the European media - "I hope you like our city . . . you better like our city" - to get the ball rolling on the album that, if all goes to plan, will do for Texas what The Joshua Tree did for U2, - elevate the band from being merely huge to mega, global-hugging huge. "I don't want to sound arrogant," Sharleen says, sounding anything but, "but I hope this is an album that people are going to look back upon and think `that's a classic record'. This is the sort of album that you'd play in your car, like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, an album that creeps up on you and smacks you all around the head."
It's not just the five-piece Texas, (even ardent fans have difficulty naming any member except Sharleen) who have placed all their chips on The Hush doing a Rumours for them in the charts; there's also a mini-army of producers/re-mixers and photographers/ stylists in on the deal as well. The first category above has helped take Texas away from their rock ordinaire sound and imbued them with all manner of contemporary hip-hop sounds - making them palatable to a whole new, younger generation, and the latter have carried out a similar refurbishment job on Sharleen herself. "Makeover" is only the half of it.
Now 30, Sharleen grew up in suburban Glasgow, inheriting her gorgeous olive skin and dark eyes (and atypical Scottish name) from a mix of French/Italian and Maltese forebears. Part of a musical family, the young Sharleen whiled away her childhood sitting on the window ledge of her bedroom, thinking she was Audrey Hepburn by singing Moon River into a hairbrush. "When you're born into a musical family you just take it for granted and think everyone else's family is just the same," she says. "It'd be like `my dad plays the violin, what does your dad play?' and stuff like that around the neighbourhood."
More taken by fashion, though, she was supposed to enrol in the Glasgow School of Art, but while still at school she had a Saturday job cutting hair with the international hairdressing chain, Irvine Rusk. It wasn't that she was a good hairdresser, she was a brilliant one - college plans were soon forgotten as she found herself being flown out to New York, Milan and Paris to tend to the tresses of models and actors. Sixteen years of age and travelling the world; life was sweet. Then The Clash entered her life.
Sharleen was at home watching television when the Clash's mainman Joe Strummer cut his hand open and bled all over his guitar on screen in front of her. Impressed by the passion, commitment and sheer punk rockedness of it all, the next day she went out and bought a black-and-white Telecaster guitar. The clippers were out. Luckily, a friend of a friend, Johnny McElhone, was looking for a female singer/guitarist to join his new band (McElhone had a good track record - he had previously led another Glasgow band, Altered Images, to some degree of success in the 1980s.)
Calling the band Texas, not after the US state but after the Wim Wenders movie, Paris, Texas, Spiteri and McElhone, alongside drummer Richard Hynd, guitarist Ally McErlane and keyboard player Eddie Campbell, hit pay dirt with their first single, I Don't Want A Lover, in 1988. Subsequent albums, Southside, Mothers Heaven and Ricks Road all sold healthily (maximum 1.5 million copies, minimum 500,000 copies). By the mid-1990s, though, the band had run out of steam, sales were on a downward slope and Sharleen was perturbed by everybody asking her, "When are the band going to break up?"
Back then, Sharleen prided herself on her androgynous image - it helped her fit in with "the boys" in the band. She never did interviews on her own and never released solo photos of herself - on stage she used to hide behind her fringe and gaze at her shoes for the duration of the gig. But just before the band released the huge-selling White On Blonde two years ago, they sat down and decided that something must change and that something must be Sharleen: "I knew how I looked and I knew how I thought I could look because I'd worked in a hairdresser's and done lots of photo shoots," says Sharleen. "It was just I never had the confidence to do anything about it until then."
Before you could say "born-again sex symbol" Sharleen threw out her jumpers and denims, invested in some cutting-edge designer gear, got her hair cut and learnt the value of swagger in an industry that values it over talent. Enlisting the services of some top-notch style magazine photographers, the suddenly sexy Sharleen soon found herself not on the cover of Q or NME but of Vogue and The Face. So dramatic was the transformation that Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein soon came running with contracts for product endorsement.
"When my face started appearing in these fashion magazines, I remember someone describing me as `sexy' and I just thought `oh my gawd, that's so stupid', but then I just got to feel, `well that's fine, that's ok, if that's how I come over in the photo, just as long as I don't take it seriously. I mean you look at some of the photos done for the new album and I'm on this beach looking all pouty - people just don't realise how much of that is down to lighting, make-up and having a style photographer who can make you look like that. We weren't successful with the old me so there had to be a change and I went about that change in my own way," she says.
Cynics point to the fact that both Texas's new contemporary sound and Sharleen's image change coincided with the beginning of her relationship with Ashley Heath, who is the editor of the fashion magazine Arena Homme Plus - he was supposed to be the string-puller who, being hip to rap music, pulled off their credibility boosting duet with New York gangsta rap crew, Wu Tang Clan, and brought in the style photographers. "To think Ashley masterminded all this is ridiculous," she says, "he simply hasn't the time. It's pathetic that people think like that."
The one thing she's not changing, though, is her nose, which was broken three times over the years in a series of childhood pranks. Somewhat undermining the style-is-everything image, she says she couldn't care less if her nose looks the way it does, and even though doctors have warned her about the build-up of gristle around the bone, she has no plans "whatsoever" to get it surgically corrected.
"People go on about the fashion thing a lot, but they don't realise that fashion has always been a part of my life. I was originally meant to go to fashion college but didn't because I was a hairdresser. The only difference now is that when I'm flicking through a fashion magazine and I see something like a new Gucci campaign, I want to know who did the photographs. It's `get me their agent's number' so maybe they can come and work with us," she says. "It wasn't really a problem to see myself on all these front covers all of a sudden - I mean working with some of the greatest photographers in the world and seeing yourself look the way they make you look; anybody who says they don't like that is obviously lying."
Whatever about the bitching in regards to her transformation (and remember she is a successful woman in a male-dominated industry) the first Texas Mark 11 album, White On Blonde (which came complete with a Jurgen Teller cover), became a massive four-million seller, spawning four hit singles. Its mix of traditional rock melodies and hip-hop beats saw the band crossing over to a younger audience for the first time.
"The best thing about White On Blonde was that it went to number one in the charts and then a few months later, after we'd released a few more singles, it went back to number one again, which is pretty unheard of. Even at the end of that album, though, we were moving to a new place musically. There is just so much new music coming out all the time and that changes what you want to do with your own music," she says.
Later the same day, in an old church in Glasgow, Texas take to the stage to play their new album for the assembled press. They open with the first single off the album, In Our Lifetime - "it's our tribute to Hong Kong Garden," says Sharleen, name-checking a Siouxsie and Banshees song from her youth. The new songs are mightily impressive, particularly the predicted new single, Summer Son, and the Prince sound-alike Tell Me The Answer - "I always wanted to do a Prince song like that. The best thing about it is how I get to stretch my vocals." In acknowledgement of their new fondness for breakbeats, there's now a DJ alongside them on stage, who scratches away merrily and generally adds a more contemporary feel to their sound. Sharleen's at the front, with an expression on her face that you just can't pin down. "Oh that?" she says later, "that's my comfortable, confident, happy and positive expression."
The Hush by Texas is released on the Mercury label in two weeks.