Her surname may be Small, but her voice is anything but. This lass can sing, as part of M People, she’s had hits such as ‘Moving On Up’, ‘One Night In Heaven’ and ‘Search For The Hero’ and a string of albums achieving massive worldwide success. The title track of her Proud album has gone on to become the soundtrack to a whole host of very special events including London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid, the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Trafalgar Square and the official ceremony marking the handover of the Olympic Games from Beijing to London.
Totally unbeknown to me, back in 1989 while studying in London, Heather was my regular travelling companion on the 36B bus from Catford to New Cross. Every morning, there I’d be, sitting at the back of the bus listening to her belt out ‘Ride on Time’ on my Walkman.
It was a tune that would motivate me for the day. Although uncredited, it’s Heather’s voice on the re-released version of Ride On Time Remix, at the time she was a jobbing musician who recorded it for a flat fee.
“No one has any definite proof of that!” She giggles.
They may not, but believe you and me, it’s true.
I’m talking to Heather from her home in London, she’s just returned from a private performance at Gleneagles in Scotland, so when I ask her what has she done today to make her feel proud, she replies… “I’ve got up really early this morning to speak to you. But I can’t complain – after all these years people still want to talk to me so what can you say?” she laughs.
Heather became one of the seminal British voices of the 1990s, with M People, and went on to win Best British Dance Act at the Brits in 1994 and 1995, as well as the Mercury Music Prize for Elegant Slumming. After massive chart success, this lass has continued to work, from performing with singing sensations Anastacia and Lulu for the critically acclaimed Here Come The Girls through to charity fundraising as an ambassador for the children’s charity Barnardo’s.
Despite being a Londoner born and bred, Heather has spent a lot of her life in the north, for a while she lived in Wigan and had her son James, to rugby league player Shaun Edwards, “I love the north,” she enthuses, “I consider myself to be an honorary northerner, I always feel M People’s success first came from the north and started off in Manchester.”
Manchester is one of the northern cities she’ll be performing in when she hits the road with her upcoming tour. She’s excited, and her energy is infectious so it’s difficult to believe that for the majority of her life Heather has suffered form shyness and severe nerves…
“It’s daunting, it’s always very scary to go out on tour but it’s so much fun,” she says. “I’m happy to get back on stage. That’s the challenge. I love performing live, it’s my forte. I always want it to be a joyous experience. Entertainment isn’t always frivolous. I understand that people have spent their hard earned money to come and see me, and I want them to know that it is appreciated.
“I always say there’s no shortcut to experience. I used to be frightened before I went on stage, frightened when performing, and frightened when I got off! I’ve claimed myself and my power and earned it.”
“My edge comes from something else, it’s about feeling powerful within your skin and having power as a female up there. I’m from immigrant parents, I’m a dark-skinned, working class woman, all those things come to bear when I’m on stage and I wear it with pride.”
The word pride fits perfectly when it comes to Heather, and when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she’d been striving to achieve over her twenty year career, Heather somehow managed to squeeze in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show
right in the middle of her last UK tour with M People. “If Oprah calls, you go!” she laughs, adding, “the first lady of chat was very sweet to me.
“She’s someone I really do admire. Oprah’s a self-made woman, wise, open and honest about her experience and who she is. She claimed herself, she’s made a positive out of all the negative things that have happened in her life. You don’t forget the negative because it’s an experience that you’ve had but you musn’t let it take over your entire psyche or life.”
“Proud, is a song that I wrote for myself to say not all triumphs are outward and experienced by the masses, some triumphs are inward and experienced sometimes by only oneself but it
doesn’t mean they are less triumphant. Many people would say I was successful making money being in a band for years, but success is not just about money. It was a success for
me to do something solo because I was at that stage where I could have just stayed comfortable but I decided I wasn’t in music to be comfortable, it’s about you knowing who you are.”
Another lady who Heather admires is the American writer and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, “I had the opportunity to sing for her, she is someone I admired greatly, she said what ‘an experienced voice I had for one so young’, because I was young at the time. That’s the thing, as a female never feel ashamed to be experienced and use that experience. A man can go on anywhere with grey hair and rivets in his face and be considered distinguished, experienced and worldly and I want to take those words for older women, we too can be distinguished and real.”
So, what gives Heather the impetus to keep moving forward, to keep challenging herself, to keep trying new things and not resting on her laurels? “If you got the feeling I do when I sing,” she smiles, “you’d understand”.
I’VE LEARNT TO ‘OWN MYSELF’, TO CLAIM MYSELF AND MY POWER
“My voice gives me joy and pleasure and I find it so liberating and freeing being able to sing full time. It was more the feeling singing gave to me. My voice has grown with me and is now stronger.”
Heather talks about experience, about ‘claiming herself ’, but I’m curious to discover how, despite being 53 years old, she looks younger than she did 25 years ago. I know she’s a vegan who enjoys exercise, I know she’s particular – she likes to have white flowers and dark chocolate in her dressing room, she doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t drink, she doesn’t curse, as she says: “I don’t swear or raise my voice. I’ve navigated the world enough to learn how to give a good put down.”
She’s verging on being angelic. Is she real? Is she ever naughty? Does she have any vices? Is she ever tempted to throw a bacon buttie down her neck and wash it down with a litre of red wine?
“There are lots of ways to be naughty, it doesn’t have to include food!” She giggles. “You are limiting yourself if all your naughtiness is in food and drink!”
Maybe, she’s not that angelic… the little devil!