Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift back in singing spotlight in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 16:50 29 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:15 30 November 2017
Roland Gift the charismatic front man of the Fine Young Cannibals with a soul voice to die for shocked fans when he quit music for acting. Now one of his periodic returns to singing is bringing him to Norwich.
Why would someone selling millions of records, hailed as one of the most striking soul voices since Otis Redding, and who is adored by the critics and public alike, choose to walk away from music at the height of his fame?
That is the decision Roland Gift took when abandoned his pop career with Fine Young Cannibals in favour of a stab at acting. It was a choice that shocked and baffled fans at the time, but to the singer, actor and walking paradox, it made perfect sense.
“I had to re-evaluate my life,” he recalled. “You become institutionalised in a group. We were victims of our success. We got to the stage that everybody was so hyped up that if we’d produced a record that sold half as many it would have been deemed a failure.”
It was a gamble that to a large extent paid off. His post-FYC years have included critically-lauded film acting and musical score work.
His film resumé includes Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Tin Men, for which FYC also supplied the music, at the special request of director Barry Levinson, and Scandal. But music has always never been far away and the latest of his semi-regular returns to the singing spotlight will bring him to Norwich next week.
“I was asked to join Jools Holland and his big band as a guest singer touring with them for a year, it was a lot of fun and made me want to take my own group out to play,” he says of his tour where he will perform some classic fan favourites.
“There are a lot of people who liked the Cannibals who never saw songs like She Drives Me Crazy in concert, and since I wrote them as well, I’ll definitely do some Fine Young Cannibals songs.”
“It’s a great feeling when you’ve got a big record and you go out onstage and thousands of people have come to hear you play for them. It’s like having a party and loads of people come because they want to have a party with you.”
He knows this because the FYC weren’t just successful, they were huge. Their album The Raw & the Cooked spent a whopping three months at the top of the US charts in 1989.
In the UK they scored consecutive number ones with She Drives Me Crazy and Good Thing and won both Best British Group and Best Album at the Brits Awards.
“The Cannibals sort of officially dissolved in 1996,” he says. “Up until then we were trying to do our third record. Then we came out with The Finest, which was a greatest hits set plus three new tracks [among those was the hit The Flame].
“The group didn’t stop with a bang, it was like a freeze-frame that stopped and stayed and stayed, then eventually faded. But nobody said ‘OK we’re going to end this’. It’s better to burn brightly for half as long than to be a dim lingering light, and I get a lot of good will from people. They say they still play the albums and they’re looking forward to hear what I’m doing next.”
Born in Sparkhill in Birmingham to a white mother and a black father, Roland lived in the city until the age of 11 when he moved to Hull, where his mother, Pauline, ran several second-hand clothes shops. His first recording, on which he played the saxophone, was with Hull ska band Akrylykz.
It brought him to the attention of bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox (both formerly of The Beat) and together they formed Fine Young Cannibals.
Following his shock departure to acting the singer did periodically return to music, penning the song Say It Ain’t So for the soundtrack of the film Stealing Beauty and releasing his self-titled solo album in 2002.
He wrote Say It Ain’t So on acoustic guitar. “In the Cannibals, I didn’t write with the guitar, but since then I’ve started writing with it,” he says. “Everything sounded better with an acoustic.”
Tell Me You Want Me Back, the opening track on his solo album, has a pop-soul groove that Gift says still sums up his style.
“Soul is a funny word. All kinds of music can have soul. If it touches you and inspires you, any kind of music is entitled to be called soul music,” he says. “And it is definitely poppy as well, maybe because it’s melodic, it’s poppy in the way Bacharach-David songs are poppy. They’re very soulful as well.”
The late, great Otis Redding remains his vocal mentor. “We all shared a love of the Stax sound in the Cannibals. That was the thing that brought us together and Otis was probably my favourite singer, and he still is, so those influences will definitely be there.
“It’s funny, I used to have a neighbour, this woman who lived next door, and she and I didn’t really get on, she’d always be getting at me. But one day she gave me three records, Otis Blue, Otis Sings Soul Ballads and a Greatest Hits of Otis Redding. I’d heard him, when I was a kid - my sister was a fan, to say it changed my life would be a bit dramatic, but it did have an effect on my musical development.”
Though he is currently back singing he still juggles it with acting. His roles include The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife, directed by Michie Gleason, for which he put recording on hold for two months, while on location in Amsterdam with the production. He also appears in the recently released UK dark comedy Brakes alongside Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding and Julia Davis.
He readily admits to a happy balancing act between the two disciplines. “When I first started, I wanted to be an actor. That’s one of the reasons I came down to London from Hull. But most people I know have been in a group sometime in their life. The first punk band I was in [the Acrylic Victims] got a bit of notoriety, released a couple of singles, my music focus grew from there.”
He adds: “Right now as well as the live shows I’m working on a stage musical called Return to Vegas with Bob Carlton who created the show Return to the Forbidden Planet. I’m well pleased by the way the songs have been received in the live set sitting nicely alongside the Fine Young Cannibals classics”.
• Roland Gift is at the Waterfront, King Street, Norwich, on December 6, 7.30pm, £22.50, 01603 508050, ueaticketbookings.co.uk