Tanita Tikaram on Learning about Life through Theater (and Music)
Tanita Tikaram will never forget a concert she performed many years ago in Wales.
“I once played a gig in Cardiff and, afterward, was in my hotel bedroom trying to sleep,” Tikaram says. “I could hear people in the street singing ‘Cathedral Song.’ It doesn’t get better than that.”
“Cathedral Song” was one of many masterful songs on Tikaram’s 1988 debut album Ancient Heart. The album, released when Tikaram was 19 and co-produced by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke, was one of the best by any singer-songwriter in the late 1980s. Tikaram’s gorgeously smoky voice fit perfectly with engaging melodies, engrossing lyrics, and superb musicianship.
I mention to Tikaram, who lives in London, that I consider Ancient Heart a first-album masterpiece and ask her how she views it today.
“It means a lot to many people,” she replies. “Some of the songs on it are very special, and I still enjoy performing them today. Even though I think it has a sound very much of its time, it still sounds nice, because everyone involved was very passionate about it, and that comes through.”
Tikaram’s most recent album, Closer to the People, is another winner with beautiful melodies, soulful vocals and touches of jazz, blues and pop.
I ask her how Closer to the People differs from other albums in her catalog and whether it achieved the musical and lyrical aims she sought to achieve.
“I’m working more closely with the musicians I tour with,” Tikaram says. “We are very good friends now. I wrote a song with each of them for the album, culminating in ‘Night is A Bird,’ which we all wrote together. It’s so satisfying to be writing with a clarinet, sax or double bass player, because they bring something very different to a song.
“For example, in ‘Gris Gris Tails,’ the clarinet is really telling the story, and ‘The Dream of Her’ is written around the double bass and piano groove. I can also sing out melody lines that are not vocal lines.
“When I began, I had little experience playing with other musicians. I was the classic teenage bedroom songwriter. When I worked on my (2005) album Sentimental, I met Bobby Irwin, a drummer and producer who worked a lot with Nick Lowe and Van Morrison. Unfortunately, Bobby passed away during the making of the new album, and the album is dedicated to him. He was a wonderfully charismatic man, an old sea dog and a generous musician. We had a great friendship. He taught me so much about being part of a group and how music is about cooperation. He introduced me to some of the key musicians I work with now and has shaped the way I try to create a unified sound over the duration of an album—even if there are many different personalities. I hope that influence is apparent when you hear Closer to the People.
I ask Tikaram to explain the styles of music her muse has ventured into.
“I think most songs are related to songs that have been written before, but, hopefully, the new song still has a unique voice. For example, ‘Glass Love Train’ (on the 2012 album Can’t Go Back) arrived because I had a riff that in a very simple way reminded me of Philip Glass. So the idea of the song was to imagine Philip Glass writing a pop song.
“I wrote ‘Little Sister Leaving Town,’ because I wanted to write a song like the rock ’n’ roll classic (‘Little Sister,’ written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and released as a single by Elvis Presley) and ended up writing a ballad. ‘Everyday Is New’ was partly inspired by ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ the Carpenters’ song. It’s endless really. I listen to lots of different styles of music. I think the variety influences everything I write, but, at the end of all that, I hope it sounds like me!”
Tikaram says there are so many musicians she most admires. She loves “all the greats,” including Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jobim, Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield. “Then sometimes,” she says, “you find yourself in a little club in the middle of nowhere and you hear someone you’ve never heard, and you think it’s the best thing ever.”
Tikaram mentions several concerts as the top ones she has attended.
“I have seen Renee Marie, Cecile Mclorin Salvant, Benjamin Clementine, and Blick Bassy live at different venues in London,” she says. “I couldn’t say one was better than the other, but they were all exceptional performances by artists with very special voices, viewpoints, and musicianship. To choose a best is impossible. ‘It’s not a competition,’ the great British jazz singer Liane Carroll once said to me as I gushed, ‘You are the best British singer,’ after she performed a heart-stopping, beautiful version of Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now.’ ”
Which performances Tikaram attended influenced her most as a musician?
“When I moved to England after a military childhood in Germany and moving around a lot, I saw a lot more theater than live music,” she says. “I was totally enthralled with theater and spent all my pocket money going to shows in London and our local college theater which had some very cool touring companies. I think this intense period of devouring culture — watching everything from Chekhov to the most experimental plays — influenced me deeply. I think I’ve learned more about life through theater than actual life!”