“I could have brought out 20 albums by now,” she admits, “but they probably wouldn’t have been as good as they could be. I think if it’s worth waiting for something then it’s fine. When you’re away people forget about you anyway. They don’t know what you’re doing. You just do what you want when you’re out of the public eye and that’s fine with me.”
It’s a typical Stansfield statement – pragmatic and assured, with little regard for the vagaries of fame, which she is quick to say should never be anything more than, “a by-product of art.”
Critics and fans have certainly thought that Seven was worth the wait. The album is reminiscent of artists such as Adele, Emeli Sandé and Jesse Ware: it’s deeply soulful, almost cinematic and perfectly showcases Stansfield’s lush vocals and still impressive range. She gave up smoking five years ago (“the best thing I ever did”) and it’s with joy that she proclaims that she’s, “singing like I did in my twenties and now I’m 49!” Listening to the album, it’s impossible to disagree. Was it a conscious decision to make an album that sounded so very much of its time?
“I don’t think we really make conscious decisions,” muses Stansfield in the broad Lancashire accent she has proudly held on to. “I’ve never been pregnant, but I imagine it’s a bit like releasing music:: waiting for the baby to pop out and seeing what it’s like. When I get an idea or feel for something I just go with it. The cinematic thing was certainly something that jumped out straight away and was in no way a conscious decision.”
Despite the long periods out of the public eye, Stansfield remains one of the UK’s most respected artists. Her numerous awards include Brits and Ivor Novellos. She has sold over 20 million albums – with five million for Affection alone. She’s been a bonafide money-maker for a cut-throat industry. Given this, did she feel under pressure from music producers to create a certain type of record that tapped into the current zeitgeist? She doesn’t hesitate before answering.
“No. I think if you don’t do what you personally feel is your favourite thing then there’s no point in doing it. If you don’t like something that you create then nobody else is really going to like it, are they? People can sense things like that.”
Seven was written with Ian Devaney, her long-term partner. (She was previously married, for just four months, to Italian designer Augusto Grassi, whom she met while on a holiday in Tunisia.) Devaney, a former school mate, has produced many of her albums, but she has never found living and working together to be difficult.
“We’ve been together for 27 years now. You get used to it,” she says, letting out a warm, earthy laugh. “Like any couple we row like mad at times and then at other times we love each other to death, but when we’re working we’re very professional. You keep everything domestic in the home. It’s actually really nice because if we’ve fallen out at home and we go into the studio we expel that completely and get on with doing what we’re doing. It’s a good way of getting over a row: you just forget about it completely.”
Like much of Stansfield’s back catalogue, the lyrics of Seven focus on love and relationships; notions of thwarted desire and the impossibility of stopping ourselves falling in love, even when we know it can be destructive. Yet there’s a real sense of female empowerment about the work, beautifully expressed by Stansfield’s voice, which treads a fine balance between strength and vulnerability.
“Yes, love – that old chestnut,” she laughs again. “I’m a woman and I write songs, but I don’t just write for women. I write for everyone. I hope that a man can listen to my music and get as much out of it as a woman. We all get hurt emotionally and we all feel the same feelings.”
The writing process is, she says, surprisingly simple: “Hopefully the lyrics just pop out and then I modify them to whatever I think they should be. I also hope that people will be able to look at those lyrics and think, ‘Oh, my God, that’s helped me a bit.’ It’s sort of therapy in a way.”
The same singers continue to influence her work (“my mum’s music”): Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. She happily recalls sitting on the stairs as a kid, eating vol-au-vents, as her parents and their friends tore up the living room to the strains of Barry White. I ask why this music has stayed with her for so long, and realising it’s a rather vacuous question, cringe as I finish the sentence.
“Well, it’s soul music!” Stansfield exclaims. She’s amiable and refreshingly unpretentious throughout our interview, but this is one of the moments that I know I’m in the presence of a no-nonsense northerner: if she thinks something sounds faintly ridiculous she’ll call you out on it.
“I think soul music is one the most beautiful types of music you can identify with,” she continues, her voice noticeably softer. “If you can make a connection of the soul with someone that’s like a magical religion. I’m not religious but this is the closest I ever get to going to church. That type of music takes you out of yourself. I never tire of it.”
Does she get bored of singing her biggest hit, All Around the World?
“What’s that song?” she fires back flatly.
“All Around the World,” I reply tentatively.
She lets out a delightfully raucous laugh.
“I’m only joking. Oh, you were so serious then, weren’t you? You thought, ‘Oh, she’s fucking lost it!’”
We both laugh together. The awkward moment has passed.
“No, I don’t,” she says. “And you know why? Because it’s like a friend. It’s really weird. If you’ve ever written something you go back to it and sometimes think, ‘Oh God, that’s fucking awful,’ and then you revisit it another time and think it’s bloody amazing. It’s about your relationship with something that’s come out of you: sometimes you fall out with it. At others you think it’s some of the best material in the world.”
The material has certainly endured – played even now at unexpected moments on the dance floor as a bitter-sweet reminder of a generation’s fading youth. This, I remark, is perhaps more than can be hoped for with the fame hungry one-hit wonders created by today’s reality TV machine. Stansfield’s voice turns serious.
“The thing with the whole X Factor format is that people who don’t really know very much about the business have become very vulnerable commodities. If they don’t do what anyone else tells them to do they’re out. There’s always someone else who is going to take their place.
“I don’t agree with a lot of it. Some people will always try to make money out of vulnerable people. Talented people will be taken advantage of because they don’t see the pitfalls. But I love it when that vulnerable person makes a massive go of it and shows their inner strength.”
How has Stansfield maintained her own strength to survive the music industry? Have there been moments when she has felt overly exploited? How has she kept her sense of self?
“The worst for me – because I feel very strongly about what my creativity is and what I can do with it – is to compromise. But you have to and it’s fucking awful, absolutely awful. It’s like you’re getting a glass of really nice Ribena and then putting a fucking pint of water in it and then throwing it all over everyone who doesn’t appreciate it. It’s really weird. And yet if you don’t compromise to some extent you’d just sit at home listening to your own music and no one would hear it. But I really go out of my way not to compromise. I’d rather tell someone not to work with me than compromise.”
And this, it seems, is why Lisa Stansfield is still going strong, and with her artistic integrity intact, as she produces her music on her own terms. She continues to push the boundaries, but remains in touch with what her loyal fanbase wants. At next month’s Love Supreme she will play a mixture of old hits and new material because to do otherwise would be, “egotistical and disrespectful to my audience.” And in return, this audience are prepared to wait for as long as necessary for her next offering. They know she will deliver. She is now working on another album, but is reluctant to discuss what we may expect.
“I never want to say because you never know how something is going to turn out. It’s ridiculous to say this is the concept if it doesn’t turn out that way. Songs have a life of their own and you just have to go with it, so I have no idea what the next album is going to be like.”
She lets out that bold, throaty laugh one more time.
“But I think it’s going to be pretty fucking great!”