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Interview: Heather Small

PUBLISHED: 16:56 22 May 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010

Abigail Saltmarsh

She has performed with Eric Clapton and Tom Jones, starred on Strictly Come Dancing and sold several million records. Now Heather Small is heading for Norwich. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH spoke to her.

She has performed with Eric Clapton and Tom Jones, starred on Strictly Come Dancing and sold several million records. Now Heather Small who was summoned to perform before Oprah Winfrey is heading for Norwich. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH reports.

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Heather Small didn't know how she was going to do it - but she did know she wanted to sing.

Now one of the UK's biggest and most recognisable voices, she has sold several million records, won two Brit Awards and the Mercury Music Prize and has recorded a track that has become an unofficial national anthem.

“I never really had a big plan,” she says, “I just knew I wanted to sing.”

Born to a bus conductor dad and a waitress mum in Ladbroke Grove in 1965, Heather grew up on a musical diet of everything from calypso to The Clash.

Always a natural dancer, she toyed with the idea of pursuing it and even narrowly missed an audition in front of West End diva Arlene Philips.

“My dance teacher said 'You've got a natural ability to dance, I want you to go along,' but I was too shy!” said Heather.

But eventually set her sights firmly on singing.

So, while most teenagers were spending their free time as far away from school as possible, Heather was busy in the school library digging out copies of Melody Maker and pouring over the Singers Wanted pages.

“My friends used to laugh,” she remembers. “They'd say: 'You're not going to reply to any of those ads,' but I'd just say: 'When I see the right ad, I'll know.'”

Heather finally “knew” when she saw an advert for a group name-checking her childhood heroes Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.

She was invited for her first ever audition, won the rest of the band over as soon as she opened her mouth, and became the lead singer in Hot House.

And although Hot House only had a short lifespan, her powerful vocals brought her to the attention of Mike Pickering, a DJ at Manchester's legendary Haçienda nightclub.

The pair bonded so well that an initial lunch meeting turned into a lunch, dinner, then on-to-a-nightclub meeting, with Heather then heading over to Mike's studio to listen to the songs he'd written with her in mind.

It was there that she met Paul Heard and M People was born. “I don't know the figures of how many records we sold; I'm not interested,” she says. “What's important to me, when I look back, is did I enjoy it? Did I do the best I could? And I did.”

With hits such as Moving On Up, One Night In Heaven and Search For The Hero and albums like Elegant Slumming, Bizarre Fruit and Fresco achieving massive worldwide success, Heather became one of the seminal British voices of the 1990s.

The band won the Best British Dance Act Award at the Brits in 1994 and 1995, as well as the Mercury Music Prize for Elegant Slumming.

But after taking a break, Heather decided to take a chance and try going down the solo route. “The decision to make a solo album was a creative one, a challenge that gave me the chance to be more involved in the writing process,” she explains. “I wanted to show that I was not just a voice, that there was another side to me.”

One of the first songs to emerge from Heather's new found creative freedom was Proud, co-written with Peter Vetesse. It was to become the lead track from her debut solo album of the same name - and the song that was to catapult her career into a whole new realm.

When Britain won the Olympic bid, Heather was there singing Proud, as she was at the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Trafalgar Square, the launch of Queen Mary II and the celebrations following England's victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

And when Oprah Winfrey was looking for a song to sum up the work she'd been striving to achieve over her 25-year career, she got in touch with Heather, who somehow managed to squeeze in a trip across the Atlantic to perform on the show slap bang in the middle of her last UK tour with M People.

“If Oprah calls, you go!” she laughs.

But never one to get complacent, Heather's been busy pushing herself in all sorts of creative directions.

With the Proud album well and truly proving that she could cut the mustard on her own, she embarked on solo tours around the UK, showcasing her own material and a selection of her favourite jazz and soul standards.

One of the highlights of Heather's time as a solo artist has been 2005's Tsunami Relief Concert at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium, where she performed alongside Eric Clapton, the Manic Street Preachers and Charlotte Church, helping to raise £1.25 million.

Throw in a single with the legendary Tom Jones (the duet You Need Love Like I Do, which features on his Reload album), a performance of Set Them Free with Sting at the Brits, an acclaimed gig at Ronnie Scott's, a star turn in the Vagina Monologues on the West End stage, and performances in TV's Strictly Come Dancing - and it all adds up to a busy few years.

So what gives her the impetus to keep challenging herself? “If you got the feeling I do when I sing,” she smiled, “You'd understand.”

t Heather Small plays Norwich Theatre Royal on May 27.

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