ROWETTA – ICONIC SINGER – THE QUEEN OF MANCHESTEROctober 9, 2018
Best known for her singing and stage performances with legendary Manchester outfit, the Happy Mondays, Rowetta has actually been making music since the late1980’s. She was at the heart of Factory Records and the Madchester scene when it exploded and even played herself in 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s classic film about that era.
Having collaborated with acts the calibre of Inner City and Peter Hook’s The Light, she has also recently lent her incredible voice to dance tracks from artists as diverse as, The Amorphous Androgynous, Greco NYC and Will Atkinson.
We caught up with her in Dublin at the Mondays gig….
Mike Mannix & Tony Considine: Nice one Ro’ we’ve all been really looking forward to this indepth convo. So straight at it then, what was the start for you, when did you realise that you had the capacity to sing?
Rowetta: Well, no one in my family sung, my Mum used to tell me to shut up all the time! <Laughs> I wasn’t allowed be in any choirs as my voice stood out too much. I didn’t want to be a singer or care that no one appreciated my voice, I was more into boys and my friends in school. But I was in Butlins one year when I was about thirteen and entered a talent competition and I won that. From there on I just keep entering competitions where you could win a holiday or win fifty quid and I just thought “Wow, this is amazing!” I was almost always winning so it was very flattering! I might get beaten the odd time by a comedian or something else but rarely by a singer so it was a big ego boost after being told you’re nothing special. It was great and it became the thing I loved to do. I was doing Working Men’s clubs and that which I think was the right way to do it, if you can do that, you can do anything.
MT: What was your grounding in music or your inspirations at that stage?
R: Well, my Mum has a rubbish record collection so it wasn’t that! I was really into hardcore punk, I loved The Sex Pistols but Crass were my favourite group. When I liked something I used to play it on loop. My Mum did have some Motown in her collection which was the best of it in amongst the crooners like Perry Como and Andy Williams. I appreciate they were good but it wasn’t inspirational to me. Tina Turner because of her life, later on, was inspirational, I didn’t like her later stuff, I liked the stuff she did with Ike.
People used to say I sounded a bit like Shirley Bassey but as a punk, I didn’t want to be Shirley Bassey!
I looked at girls like Poly Styrene but that wasn’t really me either. I loved Debbie Harry and would have loved to have had a band like Blondie. I didn’t want to compromise but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do other than have a punk band and the nearest that came to that was when I joined the Happy Mondays.
MT: You really came into the public eye when you did join the Mondays in 1990, how did that come about?
R: I saw them on the Tony Wilson show, The Other Side of Midnight and I remember Wilson introducing them as the greatest band in the world. I think the last band he’d said that about were The Sex Pistols so that got me interested. After seeing them on the show I was like
“Oh my God, I have to see these live” and when I did I thought “I have to be in this band!”
I’d never wanted to be in a band so much, I thought it’d be good for me and good for them. I could envisage it and just totally focused on it. The only problem was Bez had a bit of crush on me and I couldn’t stand him! <laughs> Then I discovered he was actually in the band and it was “Oh no, it’s that guy who keeps annoying me!” Then I just twigged he was obviously off his head! <Laughs> We’ve become best friends now, we’re like brother and sister!
I had a band called Vanilla Sound Corps. who had a couple of singles out, House tunes really. Roger Lyons who works with Kaiser Chiefs and did New Order for ages and Simon Compton were involved. The first song was called Back Where We Belong, it was on Dave Rofe’s label, who ended up being Doves manager. We were doing this one gig and Bruce Mitchell (drummer with The Durutti Column) was doing the lights.
He rang Elliot Rashman, who was Simply Red’s manager and said you have to sign this girl.
I was getting all these reviews from this one gig, Mike Pickering was saying it was an amazing tune, I couldn’t believe it. We did another single with Elliot called Passion and Elliot’s office was next door to Nathan McGeogh’s, who was managing the Mondays, so I used to nip in there all the time when I was going to see Elliot.
I’d sit there all day thinking if I tell them enough that I should be in the band then it’ll work eventually!
And Nathan would be “No, we don’t want a girl in the band.” I was dressing in tiny little shorts and bikini tops with a fake fur coat and a long red wig and go in drinking whiskey thinking they have to notice me! <Laughs> and then after I’d have to go home and get the kids tea! <Laughs> Nathan would still be saying they didn’t want a girl in the band and I’d be saying
“But I’m not like other girls, I’d be brilliant in this band!”
I ended up giving him a ticket to come and see me with this group of musicians called Party Unknown at Legends. So he turned up and send up saying “You’re actually madder than the Mondays! But you’re still not joining the band.” <Laughs> Then two weeks later I got a phone call from Elliot saying
“Sit down, Nathan told Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne (Mondays Producers) about you and they want you to come down and sing on this song,
I couldn’t believe it! And that was it for ever more. That six months sitting in the office eventually worked! If I was doing nothing then I’d go and see the guys in Central Station who used to do all the artwork and T-Shirts for the band as I’d have seen them in the Hacienda so, by the time I joined I knew most of the crew, they were already like family. I was acting like I was in the band before I actually was! <Laughs>
MT: How did you find working with Paul Oakenfold on the Pills ‘n’ Thrill album?
R: Well, really Steve Osbourne, who never gets mentioned enough, did a lot of the work. I spent a lot of time with him. Paul knows what he likes and how he thinks it should be and what works but Steve did a lot of the playing.
Together they were a great, great team. I think that was the first album they’d done together, it was a fantastic experience.
We just had a great time, I was originally only supposed to sing on Step On and was then asked to do the album and ended up singing on half of it.
I didn’t want to be on every tune because some of the music was moving away from what they’d done on (previous albums) Bummed and Squirrel & G-Man which I’d loved. I kind of wanted to so what Gloria (Jones), Mark Bolan’s missus, had done with T-Rex as I thought that type of vocal would be a great addition to the Mondays. I took my inspiration from songs like Getting It On, that sort of black female vocal. I didn’t think it’d work on tunes like Grandbag’s Funeral. On Yes Please I was on everything and if we were recording now I probably would be but back then, as a fan, I didn’t want my voice to be too powerful on it as I wanted it to sound like a Mondays album as well.
MT: The Mondays were riding the crest of a wave when you joined, having debuted on TOTP with the Roses the year before but did you have any idea just how big Pills and Thrills was going be?
R: When I was going to see them, they were more of a cult band back then, big in the Indie charts rather than the mainstream. So when I came in and sang on Step On, Tony Wilson from Factory and everyone was saying that this is gonna be the breakthrough track which was good for me as it was my first one. I did use to say to them “I told you if I sang on your record it’d be a massive hit!” <Laughs>
it went straight in at number five and we were doing Wembley and G-Mex all within weeks of me singing on this record so I was just “Wow!” I thought I‘d make a good difference but nobody knew just how massive that song was going to be.
I remember a lot of girls all of a sudden liking Happy Mondays because of my little bit. The look of the band before then didn’t really appeal to a lot of girls even though I loved it and loved Shaun’s vocals. So that song helped it cross over. That’s sort of what happened with Marc Bolan and T-Rex with Gloria, it made it a bit more commercial really and made it appeal to a broader audience. That and the Oakenfold and Osbourne production which made the sound more catchy and easy to dance to. I mean, you can’t not dance to Kinky Afro!
MT: I actually saw you play live on that tour in summer 1991 at the Feile Festival in Ireland. Have you any memories of that particular gig?! My own memories of it are a bit sketchy!
R: Yeah, I do, that was in Tipperary. I remember we were all arguing with The Farm at it but I don’t remember why! <Laughs> We all get along now though, I think we’re doing a gig with them soon. Back then, you didn’t know what you were thinking about, let alone arguing about! <Laughs>
MT: Any memories or stories from that tour, in general, you’d like to share?
R: Not really, I’m not one of those people who wont to tell tales! <Laughs> There’s plenty of stories that have come out but I’m not one to start any rumors or stories, that’s why I’m still friends with everyone! We did the 24 Hour Party People film and everyone was asking is this bit true or that bit true but
Tony Wilson had always said “Just print the legend”
so that was how we approached it. It’s a comedy so it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.
MT: How much fun was it having to play yourself to a script in the film?
R: I had a great relationship with (director) Michael Winterbottom and all the crew and they were really respectful of me because I was one of the real ones. Paul Ryder was in the film as well and was quite involved in it. We ended up being a new band, hanging around together for months, it was brilliant. I think it was about eight weeks in Manchester but then we got nominated for a Palme d’Or so Michael Winterbottom got us a villa so we could stay there for a week in Cannes. So myself, Paul and the rest that were playing the band ended up playing live at Cannes Film Festival and did the red carpet and all that, it was amazing. I was so glad that Tony was there for that.
I was very close to him and he was a great mentor and is still very much missed. So I was so happy to be in that film and to have that to share with him.
MT: How different would the music scene in Manchester have been if Tony Wilson hadn’t existed?
R: It would have been totally different without him and myself and plenty of other would be totally different as well. We just had the unveiling of a plaque at Factory Records the other day which was a very proud moment. His kids will be coming to the Hacienda Classical at Glastonbury tomorrow and his daughter will come on holding hands with me at the start. Myself and Peter Hook will be leading a minutes silence as well and that will be a proud moment as well. It’s amazing that all this has stemmed from Factory Records and the Hacienda, I was even doing the Andrew Marr show the other day singing You Got The Love on that and this is still all because of Tony.
All the things that I do, I mean, my life is so much better for meeting and listening to Tony Wilson.
It was him who got me into The Sex Pistols and Punk, my life went such a different way than it would have done. When things were really bad for me with my ex-husband and I came back and fell into the Hacienda, it was like it was meant to be. My life is still Hacienda related. If I’m not doing a Happy Mondays gig, I’m doing a Hacienda Classical one, it’s all still really connected to Manchester and the Hacienda and it’s brilliant.
We all remember Factory and the musical inspiration but his love of everything to do with Manchester, its people, the football, every aspect of it was huge. I remember at his funeral, me and hooky were in the second row and I looked across and Richard and Judy were in front of me, there were all these business people and religious people in the front two rows,
people from every different walk of life respected him and loved him and got something from him. He was such a special person.
I still have a big picture of him above my bed and when I wake up and look in the mirror I can see Tony’s face behind me so it’s one of the first things I see in the morning and I love that. I think of him all the time, it reminds me of where I was and where I came from.
Certain people give you confidence in life and I never forget that.
Before he died he said that at his funeral he wanted the coffin brought out to, ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’ which was really weird as it has me moaning all over it and Shaun singing about four in a bed and three giving head!
And we were like “Are you taking the piss? You’ve got Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere and Blue Monday and you want Bob’s Your Uncle?!” I mean we knew he loved the song but when the coffin’s going out! It’s so inappropriate but I loved it. It just made me cry and laugh, it was so Tony all over!
MT: The sessions for Yes Please in Barbados have become legendary for the out and out madness that accompanied them. Were you on the island for any of that?
R: I didn’t actually go over in the end. I was due to go over when Shaun had done his vocals but he hardly wrote anything that was used vocally over there. The lads had gone over with their girlfriends for a bit of a break and then to lay down the music They got the music down and sent back a cassette but there was just a load of ranting on it. I was asked could you do anything with that but there was no way. All the vocals ended up being done after Shaun came back and went into rehab, once he got out we went down to Surrey and put the vocals on there.
MT: How was working with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth in comparison with working with Oakenfold and Osbourne
R: It was actually beautiful because we were in this Elizabethan mansion in Surrey. I remember me and Tina were addicted to Gameboy Tetris at the time so we had that in common! <Laughs> we got on so so well. They loved my voice so they had me doing guide vocal to help. They were just relieved to be able to get Shaun to do anything after all that went on in Barbados. Because I’d worked and toured with him a few years by then, he was relaxed with me. I could tell him he was actually a good singer and give him his confidence back. Again I was telling them that I didn’t want to be all over every track but they were great with me and also gave me a lot of confidence. They’re beautiful people. I loved Tom Tom Club as well so it was great to work with them.
It was a very happy time for me because Tony and then-girlfriend, Yvette, had come down and everyone was smiling because they didn’t think there’d be an album after Barbados being such a mess.
MT: The Mondays broke up in fairly messy circumstances after Yes Please, how was that break up and aftermath for you?
R: To be honest, I had two young children at the time so it suited me to take time with them. To get them ready for starting Grammar School and pass the Eleven Plus. And just to focus on being a Mum for a bit. So it actually came at a good time for me. It gave me the chance to do a bit of writing as well as I hadn’t been able to do my solo stuff with being so busy with the Mondays. So I did a lot of work with a guy called Mick Jones and we did a load of tunes. I was just about to go and get a deal for them and then around ’99 the Mondays, apart from Mark day and Paul Davis got back together again for a tour! And then I fell out with Shaun and we broke up again. <laughs?
MT: I was very interested to see that you had done some vocal work with Keven Saunderson’s Inner City in the mid 90’s, can you tell us about that?
R: I remember Big Fun and Good Life, which I do now with Hacienda Classical, being big tunes when I was at the Hacienda in the early days. I’d done a house tune, Reach Out and I wanted to work with them at that stage but they already had a brilliant singer, Paris Grey and I was so involved with the Mondays that it didn’t happen. Then when the Mondays broke up in early ’93 and in ’95 I was just asked would I sing a tune called Your Love. I think Paris Grey was pregnant at the time. I remember a year or so later, I was just walking in the park and bumped into Johnny Marr and he was like, “Are you on that Inner City track, Your Love, I recognised your voice on that Serial Diva mix straight away!” I thought that was brilliant. It was no Big Fun or Good Life but I was still proud to have done it as they’re a top band and Kevin Saunderson is a superstar.
MT: Having been label mates with Peter Hook in the Factory days, you then ended up gigging with The Light when he toured Unknown Pleasures, how did it feel taking on such iconic Joy Division songs?
R: I worked with him first when he was with Monaco and then I was doing a charity gig at Hard Rock with him and he asked me to sing the Joy Division tune, Insight, which I didn’t know so I had to say no. I was a bit scared because you know what Joy Division songs can be like. I eventually did it and he loved my interpretation of that it so asked me to do more songs. I do four in total, I love doing Colony off Closer which is a later song. There are other singers have worked with him on it, Moby and Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins have done it. The response has been amazing,
I was worried when he wanted to release Atmosphere because it’s so iconic but the reviews were really good. It’s a hard audience to satisfy and rightly so as Ian Curtis was a proper genius, his voice is stunning. You don’t realise when you’re a kid, it’s so intelligent, and his lyrics are amazing, it’s just a joy to sing. I love doing Atmosphere and I do New Dawn Fades and Insight as well. But Colony, oh my God, because I was a Punk as a girl, you can’t get better than that. It feels like the words were written for me when I sing that, I’m still a Punk at heart.
MT: You’ve worked with some really iconic names on the Dance and Indie scenes.
R: There’s actually loads of things I didn’t do because I was so tied up with the Mondays. I said no to What Time is Love by The KLF, stupidly! <Laughs> I said no to loads and didn’t do a lot as a solo artist which I could have done. The fame aspect of the business never really interested me, I just wanted to sing and write. I never really cared if it was a massive hit worldwide or getting into OK magazine, I just love working. People just see the party image but I’ve worked really really hard for everything,
If I’ve been blessed it’s because I’ve been given this voice that’s a bit different.
I always sing thinking about the lyrics rather than the notes and I think that’s served me well in the passion and emotion I bring across with the words rather than trying too hard to hit the notes and sound like Mariah Carey or Leona Lewis. There’s plenty of female singers out that that are great technically but have no originality.
MT: Finally, have you any new music going on at the moment?
R: I’ve just done one of the best things I’ve ever done with Gaz Cobain from Future Sound of London for a project he’s doing called The Amorphous Androgynous which is just amazing. There’s a track we’ve done with Paul Weller called Mantra (Crossing Over) which is phenomenal. I’m hoping that will get released later this year or early next. I’ve also done a lead vocal on a tune with one of The Kooks and I’ve done a tune with Greco NYC called ‘Be where‘ & I re-did the vocal from Reach Out, Kenny Dope Gonzalez has picked up on that so that’s doing very well. And I’m doing loads of writing and collaborating. I’ll be doing some more stuff with Will Atkinson who I did my first trance tune, Mesmerise, with. He’s got his own Radio 1 show now. I just love it when you get to work with some of these young kids coming up, it’s a joy.
MT: NIce one Ro
R: Anytime lads
Live Interview – Mike Mannix
Design – Editing – Mike Mannix
Transcription – Editing – Tony Considine