TANITA TIKARAM INTERVIEW
“I’m not a prolific songwriter,” admits Tanita Tikaram. “I dump a lot of stuff, but I’m much harder on myself now than when I did this album. I had 40 songs for this album but I was writing for pleasure then. And now, the pleasure for me is to have a good song and not to have all the things that don’t quite work.”
Tanita Tikaram is the 19 year old singer/songstress from Basingstoke, whose trio of hit singles – ‘Good Tradition’, ‘Twist In My Sobriety’ and ‘Cathedral Song’ – have vaulted this most unlikely pop star into the charts. No mean feat from someone who was virtually discovered at her first gig.
“I made a demo tape in this little studio in the middle of Walthamstow,” she recalls. “I just did an acoustic tape. I suppose you have to think who’s going to want that kind of thing in the first place, and I didn’t know anything about music venues or anything like that, so I just sent a tape off to the Acoustic Room of the Mean Fiddler because I thought, ‘Oh, acoustic, they won’t mind if I don’t have a band’.”
As fate would have it, her tape was picked up on by the venue, and on the night of the performance, the agent of Irish folk singer Paul Brady – who was playing in the crowded Mean Fiddler auditorium next door – escaped to the relative quiet of the acoustic room. “There were about five people where I was playing, and he liked what he saw. By the second gig there were lots of record labels hanging around.”
So, it really was like an old Hollywood film?
“I don’t know,” she laughs. “I suppose it does happen.”
In a short space of time Tanita seems to have achieved a degree of credibility and success that disguise both her youth and her comparatively short apprenticeship in the business. Even with considerable talent giving substance to her one-woman crusade, she must realize that the incredible critical success of her debut album has all come rather suddenly?
“When I was making the album, we didn’t think about it really,” she says. “I was enjoying making an album, I didn’t think, ‘God, what am I going to do with it’. I’ve got an alarmingly short vision – I accept everything as it comes along but I don’t really think about what happens next. So when it happened, and I became quite successful, I didn’t notice it.”
Tanita was ten years of age when she began to play the guitar, 14 when she gave it up, and 17 when she resumed her interest. Early memories of the instrument have her playing ‘Streets Of London’ with friends at her school’s folk clubs. But for a girl who openly, if not a little embarrassedly, admits to neither being a record buyer or a concert-goer in her teens, it may seem a little surprising that her career has taken off with such a definite direction. What was the spark of inspiration that caused her to rediscover the guitar and start writing songs?
“Most people I knew were learning guitar at the same time and my brother had one… I don’t know why I picked up the guitar actually. I think I used to go to parties and I’d always think it was quite good when they would pick up a guitar and play. I’d always had an interest in all the arts – I’d always dabbled, and it was the one thing that I could do, it was natural to me. I think most of the acting I did I was hamming it up. I was not a natural actor, but this was something I thought I could do and it was something that I enjoyed.
“I think I started writing, not last May but the May before, when I was doing ‘A’ Levels and… I wanted to sing, I wanted something to do that was nothing to do with academia and I started writing songs. And again, I was only doing it because I could do it.”
Tanita’s songs have an eerie, almost cynical quality that makes them unmistakable, but where do they come from? What makes Tanita Tikaram want to write?
“I don’t know,” she says. “You don’t understand a song you’ve written until you’ve had some space from writing. It’s probably something that affects you and then you write the song, not that you know it’s going to affect you.”
As a young singer/songwriter and guitarist, has Tanita yet developed a preference between the three talents, or is it a case of three equal parts?
“My guitar playing is the only weak part,” she says on impulse, but then laughingly she changes her mind. “No, guitar is important because it’s a very self-accompanying style so it’s the first thing we lay down when we do a track, and then we do the voice. I think singing and songwriting are probably equal.”
Tanita Tikaram has one main guiding career principle – never do anything that will prove an embarrassment. In terms of musical development, well, she just wants to carry on further down the same eccentric path that helped inspire her ‘Ancient Heart’ album. It’s a case of variation making the whole more interesting – although in this, Tanita was surely helped by the playing, producing and arranging skills of a couple of old fogies, Rod Argent and Pete Van Hooke. Between them they succeeded in giving Tanita the kind of varied instrumental backing that other notable songstresses (such as Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman) have lacked, at least on vinyl.
“We didn’t have a stock arrangement really, it goes all over the place,” she says of her long player. “It enables me to take up lots of different styles, do lots of different things on one album, and not kind of have the ‘album where she goes off on a blues record’.”
If she continues in the same vein, Tanita Tikaram has a long and illustrious career ahead. And even of she never pens another hit, her success will still be a sign of hope for any young singer/songwriters struggling with the early stages of their career. Maybe there are lessons that she can impart. From someone who’s made it, how does someone who hasn’t set about succeeding in the music business?
“Because it’s such a fickle business, there are no rules about how you can have success in it. There are certain obviously stupid things that you shouldn’t do: like you should always get paid when you do a gig – I didn’t, and things like going with a manager of some kind. And equally, you have to believe in what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it for any other reason than you believe in the music you’re making.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007