Whether she’s writing a song or talking about what music means to her, Sharleen Spiteri is a natural storyteller.
With Texas, the band she formed with Johnny McElhone and Ally McErlaine, Spiteri has been singing universal stories for over three decades. They’re about to release their 10th album Hi, which was delayed in part due to the vagaries of lockdown but also because Spiteri wanted to add some of her stories from the last year. “We always say ‘We’ll make a record when we feel it’s right’ and we’ve fucked up sometimes when we’ve rushed to get it out, there’s no recipe for this. We were ready to go and then the pandemic happened.”
As well as the impact of COVID, Spiteri also had to deal with the passing of her beloved mother. “It was very, very sudden. I got told she had cancer and I literally ended up sleeping in the hospital for two weeks. I had the most wonderful two weeks with her, she was absolutely magnificent. It was a masterclass in dying gracefully, she was giving us all our orders, telling us what to do and made sure we were all OK.”
Her mother’s funeral was on the Tuesday before lockdown and Spiteri’s daughter was hit by a car two days later, “luckily enough she was OK, but with everything that was going on I was ‘I don’t want to fucking know about the record.” Spiteri spent lockdown in Wales with her husband, the chef Bryn Williams, and decided to put Hi on hold. Another three songs were added to the mix in the months that followed, “because I had things in my head and things started to come. We sat on it and then we thought ‘It’s time for a bit of positivity and a bit of coming out of this, so let’s release the record.’”
She modestly adds that “People won’t feel better because they’ve heard a new Texas record, they’ll feel better because everyone’s feeling more positive and a bit happier,” but it’s perhaps taken for granted how well-loved and ubiquitous Texas’s songs are.
The day after we speak, whilst in the glamour of the painting and decorating aisle in B&Q, “Summer Son” suddenly blared over the speakers. As the bells on the chorus chimed through the store, I remembered Spiteri explaining Giorgio Moroder’s influence on the song, and that as a music fan first and foremost, the artists that inspire her are woven into her own musical narrative. References to their heroes have been dropped as cryptic clues in Texas’s music, from Ry Cooder on their debut single “I Don’t Want A Lover” to “Say What You Want”, which Spiteri explains is a tribute to Prince’s bravura falsetto.
The music geek in Spiteri also extends to her record collection. She splits her vinyl by genre, with the exception of a section that she dubs “The Gods”, which includes “Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, The Byrds, Gene Clark, Bowie and Bruce Springsteen.” But splitting her records into sections isn’t without its headache’s, and she laughs as she explains “Having said that, Marvin Gaye goes into ‘Soul’ with Aretha and Al Green. It only fucks up if someone in the house is looking for a record. That’s when the arguments about genres come but if it’s your record collection you can put it by genre any way you want, and at least I know where they are!”
A conversation about the keystone songs in her life takes in a series of excited ‘Woahs!”, singing snippets of her favourite vocalists – Spiteri does a mean Prince impersonation – and an ongoing debate about who should be in “The Gods.” Yet such is her love of these songs and artists, she’s wholly unfussed about what anyone thinks about her selections. “When you’re younger, you’re still in that headspace where you think ‘Oh my God, people are going to judge me for what I’m picking.’ But I’m at that point where I’m ‘Fucking judge me, go ahead.’”
Whilst the thread that runs through her Nine Songs are rooted in Spiteri’s personal stories – how a song can soundtrack a moment in time, discovering boys, being different and the visceral and emotional connections she has with music – ultimately, they ladder up to tell a universal tale, one of what it means to be life-long music fanatic.
“This Love Starved Heart of Mine (It’s Killing Me)” by Marvin Gaye
“There was a guy called Tony who used to go clubbing with us and he got me into Northern Soul. He was about five years older than me and he was a real Northern Soul boy, he used to go down to the club nights in Wigan and did all the dancing and everything. I wasn’t even seventeen, I was working as a hairdresser and doing a bit of Djing in this club.
“Tony used to play a Northern Soul set and I was ‘I love this sound and the rush it gives me.’ I remember when I first heard “This Love Starved Heart…” and I was ‘Woah!’ When I heard Marvin singing it, even now, just talking about it I can feel the blood pumping through my veins so fast. When he starts with that ‘Heeooo’ you just go ‘Woah!’ And when he sings ‘I can’t stand it’, you’re ‘Woah!’
“It sounds dangerous, it sounds exciting and the next song “Geno” by Dexys has got that effect as well, where you go, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It’s like when a record literally takes you, grabs you and slaps you around the face. It’s like sticking your head out of a car window when it’s driving unbelievably fast, it takes your breath away but you’re going ‘This is great, this feels amazing’, and that’s what this record makes me feel like. It’s the voice and the ease; it never feels desperate. It appeals to the beat of my heart. It’s everything, it feels sexual, sensual, true and with all these meanings and that’s why I will always go back to Marvin.
“With music, I continually work my way around everybody that I love. You get moments where you get back into something and go ‘That’s my moment and I’m into that again.’ I go through different periods of Bob Dylan – with Nashville Skyline and Desire, I literally can’t help myself, I’ll always go back to them – but Marvin is my ultimate.
“Marvin Gaye is like my God. If someone said, ‘You can only can ever listen to one person’, I’d pick Marvin. Every time I hear him sing, I go ‘Oh my God,’ I hear something different and I continually learn – rhythmically, style, technique, and everything within songwriting. You can learn everything within it.”
“Young Americans” by David Bowie
“You’re going to be a bit shocked when I say this, but “Young Americans” was the point that I actually liked David Bowie for the first time. That’s why I picked this song and why I thought ‘I’m going to speak about this.’
“When I was growing up, all the guys I went to school with were ‘David Bowie this, David Bowie that’, but I thought he was quite blokey and I was a bit ‘whatever.’ I think it might have been too British for me. If you look at what I’ve picked, there’s a lot of British music in here, but early Bowie was too accented for me, and I literally mean his accent, it was ‘this is not rocking my boat’.
“I knew the records, but I didn’t have any passion for them and it wasn’t until later on that I went all the way back to the very beginning and I discovered Bowie. As a songwriter, I look at the early writing of Bowie now and I go ‘How did he write a song like that?’ and when I listen to them I go ‘Fuck me, that’s a great record.’”
“But there was the point when he goes to “Young Americans” and you’re getting all those rhythms, and rhythmically he started changing the way he was forming songs. It was more structured in the straight way that I like a song – as in it was a verse, a bridge and a chorus – whereas before, Bowie would write very sectionally.
“I don’t know if I was formed enough in my musical taste, but I would say the most obvious way that early Bowie didn’t appeal to me is because I couldn’t sing it. It was as if I was doing an impersonation of someone rather than me just singing the song, and I love to sing. It does take you some time – especially if you love music and you play music – to discover it’s not about being able to sing a song, it’s about the song and the performance. It’s about the whole thing, and just listening to it and enjoying it.”
“Geno” by Dexys Midnight Runners
“Kevin Rowland is one of the most underrated songwriters. I don’t know why people don’t just go ‘Kevin Rowland, you’re a god, musically and stylistically.’ And let’s be honest, who does something like “Geno” and follows it with “Come On Eileen”?
“There’s a few brass sections in music where you can go, ‘Now they’re a great brass section’ but Dexys brass section is one of the best of all time, my God did they play hard and they’re just on it. And as with the Marvin thing, when I hear “Geno” I can’t help but want to get up and smile and say to people ‘You’ve got to hear this record.’ Everyone should hear this record. If you’re a young person and you’ve never heard Dexys, go and listen to this record and your mind will be blown forever.
“It’s everything about it, and the moment when he goes “Brrrrrrrrr…” I remember hearing that for the first time as a teenager and going ‘What? Let’s go back, let’s play the record again.’ I had the 7” single and I was ‘Holy shit, this is amazing.’
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve gotten to know Kevin pretty well and he is the most lovely, humble person you will ever meet. It’s funny, I don’t think he’s got that reputation within the music industry and I understand it, because he believed in everything he wanted to create and I love him even more for that, because he doesn’t suffer fools. You’d be thinking ‘Please keep doing more, because you say it how it is.’ I love his passion, his knowledge and his references stylistically – how the band looks, how they present themselves on their single covers and album sleeves and the artwork – as much as the music.
“I’ve just realised that everyone I’ve picked had unbelievable record sleeves, unbelievable reference points and everything that surrounds them is very, very strong. Everybody thought that Madonna was the first person to suddenly go ‘And on this record I will be…’ but it’s, ‘No, Dexys did it way back then.’ Dexys were ‘And now on this album we are… We live this style, this sound and we’re living that when we’re doing this record. And when we do the next record, we’re this… and we’re living as this…’ They did it way early on.”
“I Feel Love” by Donna Summer
“I had the 12” and the 7” version and I loved both versions. I had them in the plastic sleeves, because whenever I bought a record I’d have my pocket money that I’d saved up and I’d buy a sleeve too. All my vinyl is still in plastic sleeves and are impeccable to this day.
“When I heard “I Feel Love” it was at that point where my mates and I were starting to wear unbelievably tight jeans – they were terrifyingly tight – and everything was all glossy lips. It was weird, because my mates looked like girls and I looked like a lost soul to be honest with you. I looked like I’d broken into my Mum’s makeup bag and had a moment. I was really geeky looking and I’m still geeky looking. I look weird unless I put makeup on and do all that kind of girly stuff.
“We’d go down to Alexandria where the little record shop was. It had an arcade off the side with loads of games like Defender, Centipede and Pac-Man, and there was always loads of boys hanging about. I was such a sad little git that I would go into the record shop looking at the records and buying my stupid plastic sleeves, but all my mates were down there because boys went to record shops, because that’s what boys did.
“My mates were dressing like that whole moment of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Everything was glossy and we all used to have lip-glosses that had little rollerballs in them, they tasted like strawberry and pineapple and they stank! But they would keep rolling them around their mouths, just waiting for some guy to be like ‘I really fancy you’ or whatever.
“I was a bit lost, but I remember thinking ‘Mmm, this record is giving me butterflies in my tummy and it makes me think of boys in a slightly different way.’ That’s what that song was all about for me at that point. It was a real change in what a record would mean to me, because it was more about that moment in time where I was discovering boys, rather than ‘I just love this record’, do you know what I mean? And it was great.
“I remember when we were writing “Summer Son”, we had bells on it and we were ‘It sounds pure Giorgio Moroder, let’s make it sound even more Moroder.’ Giorgio actually did a mix of it. Johnny McElhone and I met up with him in Los Angeles, we went for dinner and he was telling us all the Donna Summer stories. He was definitely an influence on our songwriting and the music we made, as was Donna Summer. And we’ve got Donna Summer on “Mr Haze”, a sample of “Love’s Unkind.” Music goes around in circles and it comes back and bites you.
“And Donna Summer is in ‘Disco’ in my record collection. Where else is she going to go?!”
“I Can’t Make It Alone” by Dusty Springfield
“Dusty is my female version of Marvin. Dusty has that timing, precision but effortlessness that Marvin has, your jaw hits the floor every time they open their mouth.
“Someone told me that Dusty used to do every little nuance when she was doing the outros. She would sing each tiny piece bit by bit and someone would have to go ‘record’, ‘stop’, record’, ‘stop.’ And I was ‘What the fuck?’ because it doesn’t feel like that at all. When Bob Fosse would do a dance routine, he would go ‘turn your hand again, turn your foot again, turn your hand again.’ He drove everyone fucking mental, but when you look at the movies and choreography that Bob Fosse did, you go ‘Wow… Look at that.’ The precision and the timing it took to get it exactly right basically developed a genre. And for me, Dusty is that.
“I don’t know if this is true, but apparently she was quite insecure about her vocals and you think ‘Why?!’ Why would someone that sings with such passion and pain and hope and desire and love feel that way? Was it because she felt so deeply and strongly about the songs that she didn’t feel she was delivering them exactly the way she wanted?
“With “I Can’t Make It Alone” she sings it from the back of her throat, with a feeling of ‘I don’t know if I can do this…’ and when I hear her sing it I think ‘I don’t know if she can make it on her own.’ Whenever I’ve really needed a kick up the backside, whenever I’ve thought I can’t make it alone, I listen to Dusty sing this and I think ‘Fuck. I can make it.’ It’s that thing of her actually being so broken that you think ‘She’s not going to do it, she’s not going to do it’, and then you go ‘…And she did.’
“That’s why her performance of this song is just beautiful, and lyrically it sits so well in my life and in my education of becoming a woman that it has in many, many, different forms given me the strength to get through.
“Dusty’s in ‘Soul’ as well, just so you know where she is in my record collection!”
“Help!” by The Beatles
“When I was a kid, my Mum and Dad gave me a Dansette record player and a pile of records. In those records were The Beatles, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” and everything, and “Help!” was the record that I played over and over.
“Do you know that thing when you listen to a record, take the needle off, start it again and it just goes on and on and on? It was that opening ‘Help!’ and those harmonies. I learned to harmonise by listening to “Help!” over and over and over and hearing how they blended the vocals together. I remember constantly singing over it, because that was the one where you could really clearly hear the harmonies, if you listen really carefully you can pick them all out.
“Rhythmically I loved the drums on “Help!” and I’ve got a real problem with drums. I love them, but I fucking hate them at the same time. Years ago, someone was playing percussion over something and I said ‘Would you play with your fucking dick like that? Well don’t, that’s how you need to think about it when you’re hearing the song. Have a little bit of delicacy.’ When someone drums badly over a great song it offends me so badly, but Ringo is such a great drummer, he changes rhythmically as the song goes along, which is just genius.
“I loved that it was three minutes long but it takes you to this massive moment, where lyrically it’s “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down and I do appreciate you being round.” It was the simplicity of the lyrics and the song, but when you listen to “Help!” it’s intricate as well, and that for me was everything. ‘Help’ is a massive word, it means a million things to a million people, and it was ‘How does that sit in my life?’
“It’s one of those songs that I still absolutely love to this day. I love the movie, the colour of the record sleeve, it was everything about it.”
“Bonnie and Clyde” by Serge Gainsbourg
“Serge Gainsbourg has always been massively influential on us as a band. His songs were written as pop records, but they were cinematic. He was the master of creating this little movie, and that big, open, sparse sound that would lead onto all the syntax that Ry Cooder did and why we’re called Texas.
“He actually gave us our first ever gold disc in France. He was smoking a cigarette and he was really stylish. He was a bit like Kevin Rowland, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and he spoke to who he wanted to speak to, but he was really cool with us. He was really lovely, he gave us our discs and chatted with us.
“But what was really funny about it is that Ally, our guitarist, used to do this trick where he would throw his cigarette into his mouth and he would always catch it on his lip. So he threw his cigarette and caught it and I remember Serge did a wee nod, like ‘OK, this boy is catching his ciggy in his mouth, I’m kind of feeling that vibe.’ But the best laugh was that Ally’s lighter was turned up full, and as he lit his cigarette he set his quiff on fire. Ally had that much spray on his quiff the whole thing went up in a giant blue flame and the smell? Oh, it was bad. He managed to save his hair, but honest to God it was one of the best laughs I’ve ever had.
“This song is almost like the beginning of sampling. He’s using a vocal clip to rhythmically make the song happen and then you’ve got the “L’histoire de Bonnie and Clyde” line, and it’s ‘Woah, I’ve not heard anything like this before.’ With the instruments that he uses and the echo chambers that are on it, it sounded like this amazing, wonderful moment.
“As I’m talking through these songs, what I’m discovering is that the way a song makes your body respond is unbelievably important to how you like song. All the songs that I’ve picked change my mood emotionally and physically, and to a certain extent they change your headspace and your persona. This record is like the first time you go to a different country and hearing “Bonnie and Clyde” was like ‘I’ve just discovered red wine, I’ve just discovered smoking cigarettes, I’ve just discovered being dark and mysterious, I’ve just discovered all those things,’ and that was what that record was for me.”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan
“If anyone’s going into music and they want to be a songwriter, they’d have to be nuts not to have looked at Bob Dylan very, very closely. Bob Dylan basically taught me how to write lyrics and how to play the guitar. I started playing acoustic guitar first, because my Dad played guitar and he had all the Bob Dylan records. Whenever I think of Bob Dylan I think of my Dad, because he would play Bob Dylan constantly and I’d always hear them in the house.
“There’s so many Dylan songs. I could have picked one his massive hits but this one is a bit more undiscovered, it’s not the first song that people would go to if they’re listening to Dylan. The thing that Dylan does – and it’s not in all of his songs – is simplicity in a song, and this is a perfect masterclass of how a song should be written. I love the argument that he has with himself in this song lyrically, even just saying “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” He can be quite mean with what he says in his songs sometimes but I love the fact that he’s being really hard but really gentle in the same breath.
“My daughter’s called Misty Kyd and she’s named after the soundtrack Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid by Bob Dylan, which is one of the most beautiful film soundtracks of all time. Cinema and film music are such an important combo for me, because when Johnny and I write we have a very cinematic view about it, and I see a very clear picture when I’m writing. Soundtracks are very important to me, but the structure of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is unbelievably important in the way that I’ve learned to structure a song.
“And of course, Bob is in ‘The Gods’ section of my record collection!”
“Kiss” by Prince
“Prince is absolutely, 100% in ‘The Gods’ section. In saying that, it’s really funny that I would put Marvin in ‘Soul’ but I’d put Prince in ‘The Gods.’ Thinking about it, Marvin can dance around depending on my mood, but Prince goes into ‘The Gods’ section because Prince fucks about within music in the best form I could ever say.
“The thing about Prince is that you’re ‘Woah, woah, where’s he going?’ If you listen to very early Prince, you’re ‘How did he get from there to there? Another great thing about Prince is if you listen to his songs, the verse and the chorus are always the same. Listen to the chords, they’re just the chords around the other way.
“The musical genres within his writing is vast and he’s been a massive influence on the fact that Johnny and I don’t see any rules in music when we’re writing. We’re ‘I don’t care that people would think that we shouldn’t be influenced by that. Who says we shouldn’t be?’ I got into a band in the first place because I never wanted any fucker to tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing. And that for me is exactly what Prince did.
“I remember when I first heard “Kiss” and I couldn’t get my head around the video, just the way him and Wendy are with all the little shoulder moves and that guitar. When I saw that I was like ‘I have to go and practice my guitar five million times more, because I want to be like Wendy. That’s it, I want to learn to play funk guitar.’ It’s off the chart sexy and he’s being ‘Yeah, whatever boys, come and play if you want to, but do you know what? We’re all sorted here.’ That’s what I loved about it, I loved that Prince was doing that ‘Yep, I’ve got the baddest-assed, motherfucking guitarist on the planet… and she’s a girl.’ Everything about that, I was like ‘Yes!’
“Everything about this song works perfectly, and you can go to a song like “Say What You Want” and look at how much that was influenced by him. It’s pure fucking Prince if you listen to it, people go ‘It’s this and it’s that’, but it’s ‘No, no, no. Listen, if you know Prince, its Prince.’ If you listen to “Say What You Want”, it keeps jumping between falsetto and full voice and that’s what Prince does, he goes back up and he goes back in.
“You must be thinking ‘She talks some shit!’ but I love music and when it comes to music I get excited. I get full on geek and it takes me back to the record shop when I was standing there, going ‘I like music as much as you guys like music. I don’t want to be one of the girls, I want to let you know how much I love the music as well.’”