Whether you believe Tanita Tikaram has evolved from being an overly serious youth, to – how she puts it – a "goofy" and "frivolous" adult, there's no arguing about the quality of her songwriting. She pens highly personal, engagingly honest lyrics. Her low, sexy singing voice puts her into a unique vocal category, a seasoned sound she had even when she first started singing professionally.
Tikaram signed to Warner Brothers Records while still in her teens. Her debut album, Ancient Heart, released in 1988, was helmed by Rod Argent of The Zombies, who also played on the set. It's sobering to consider how her first big single, "Twist in My Sobriety," was a hit before this daughter of Malaysian and Fijian parents was even old enough to drink. However, to hear Tikaram tell it, her signature song isn't really about drinking at all, despite Liza Minnelli's interpretation.
Smitten by Virginia Woolf's political fiction at the tender age of 13, Tikaram later studied English and American literature at Manchester University and these literary inspirations oftentimes beautifully find their way into her songs.
Tikaram is a bright and entertaining conversationalist. She took her time before answering our questions, a measured approach that she employs in her songwriting. This is, after all, a woman who averages seven years between albums.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I'm looking at the new album, Can't Go Back, which came out seven years after Sentimental, which came out seven years after The Cappuccino Songs. Are albums like a seven year itch thing for you?
Tanita Tikaram: No. You know, I didn't even realize that gap between the albums. I actually didn't know Sentimental took seven years after Cappuccino Songs. It's not by design.
Songfacts: Are you a slow writer or do you just wait for the right time?
Tanita: Well, with this new album, it was a lot to do with finding the right producer. The songs were finished and there were a couple of false starts with the album. Then I met Paul Bryan, and I realized that he was the right person. But it was quite confusing. When I had the songs, I wasn't entirely sure what was the best direction to take them in terms of recording.
Songfacts: Well, let's start by talking about the first single, "Dust on My Shoes," which sounds almost like it has a folk-ish element to it. It seems to me like there's a blues influence as far as the lyrics. What can you tell me about writing that song?
Paul Bryan has produced a number of Aimee Mann tracks, as well as Tikaram's recent duet partner, Grant Lee Phillips. He also duets with Tikaram on the recent song, "One Kiss."Tanita: Yeah, you're right, actually. [Laughing] There is. It's a bit of a road song. And it was the last song to go on the album. Before we went to LA, Paul Bryan said, "Have you got any outstanding songs?" And I said, "No, not at all." And then Mark Creswell, who co-wrote the album with me, said, "We have got one. We've got that road song about freedom. We're going to Los Angeles, don't you think we should just give them that song and finish it properly?"
I was hesitant, because it's kind of a freedom song, and I wasn't sure whether I can write that kind of a song. But it was pretty much written. I didn't know if it was a convincing song. But going back to it, it absolutely made sense on this album. And it probably carried a lot of the spirits of going to record in Los Angeles.
But it was the last song. it's funny how that turns out.
Songfacts: I was looking on YouTube and you were talking about the song "My Love," and you said that you had imagined Shirley Bassey singing that, as well as "Play Me Again." Did you ever imagine Liza Minnelli singing "Twist in My Sobriety"?
Tanita: No. I didn't. It's funny. When I was a kid I don't think I really appreciated who she was. I was quite young. But now I'm older, I'm a huge fan. [Laughs] I'm deeply honored that Liza Minnelli sang that. But I think she understood the song in an American way. Because sobriety has a very specific meaning in America, about recovery, doesn't it, and alcohol. But it doesn't have that connotation here. So when I wrote the song I wasn't thinking of that at all.
Songfacts: What did it mean to you, then, sobriety?
Tanita: Just to be very serious and sober in your behavior.
Songfacts: So can you remember back when you wrote that and what was going through your mind that inspired it?
Tanita: I was very bookish as a teenager and a lot of the imagery is very bookish, I think. And funny enough, again, it's another kind of road song. It's a real song with a landscape, and you feel that someone is describing a landscape.
Songfacts: Did you think that maybe you were a little overly serious growing up?
Tanita: Not in my childhood. I think if you're a teenager and you're going to be creative or artistic, you are a bit intense at that time. It's natural. And you're kind of a sponge. So you probably need to be a bit intense. Now I'm completely goofy. But at the time I probably was a very different, rather serious teenager.
Songfacts: I have two children, and I think my daughter is too serious sometimes. It's like we'll be sitting at the table and we'll make a joke, and everybody will laugh but her. And I think, boy, I wish there was something that could just loosen her up a little bit.
Tanita: It might happen. It can happen later. [Laughing] But I think that it's a phase. It's funny, because people often say that. They said, "You look so serious when you were a kid."
Songfacts: You don't sound overly serious to me, though.
Tanita: No. Not now. I'm completely frivolous now. But, you know...
Songfacts: I guess being in the music business as long as you've been, you almost have to laugh at it, because it just doesn't make sense.
Tanita: Absolutely. That's the wisest thing about the music industry I've heard. It absolutely is incomprehensible and absolutely it's goofy, as well. So yeah, I don't think you can take it too seriously.
Songfacts: I want to ask you about you about your collaboration with Nick Lowe, because I just think he's an underrated genius and he's underappreciated. You worked together on a song called "Every Day is New," and then there was another song, was there not, on that album that you collaborated with him on?
Tanita: He sang on two songs on Sentimental. He sang on a song called "Don't Let The Cold," and "Don't shake Me Up." But it's actually his drummer who's singing on "Every Day is New." And I used a lot of his band on that album. And recently, when I did some festival gigs, I sort of used Nick's band again. He has very good taste in musicians.
Songfacts: Did you write with him?
Songfacts: So how else was he involved in that project?
Tanita: He's co-producer and also he sang on it. He just sang on those two songs. He's a really nice man. But I haven't written with him.
Songfacts: Okay. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Tanita: Yeah. I went to see him recently, and his songs are amazing. They're deceptively clever. I don't know if he's underrated. I don't really know how he's perceived.
Songfacts: In this country, he's not well known.
Tanita: Everyone I know just thinks he's great.
Songfacts: I think that's an American perception, because we don't really know him. I guess there are those of us that know him from his work producing Elvis Costello. But except for maybe "Cruel to Be Kind" he really hasn't had any hit songs in the United States. So we don't really know him like we should.
Well, let me ask you about another collaboration. You worked with Jennifer Warnes in the early '90s. Did you have a connection with Leonard Cohen, because she's really known for her work with him, right?
Tanita: Yeah. She did the amazing album Famous Blue Raincoat and she's duet-ing with him on that song, "Say a prayer for the cowboy..." ["Ballad of Absent Mare"]
Songfacts: Oh, there's a lot of them.
Tanita: Yeah, and she sings on "Take This Waltz." I do think she has a great voice, really. And it works very well with a darker, deeper voice. Her voice is very expressive, but it's also quite angelic, but not in the way that's annoying. It's a really expressive voice. But it complements very well this kind of dark voice. That's what attracted me to her. And also, I loved that album Famous Blue Raincoat. I just thought it was a brilliant way to interpret his songs.
Songfacts: It's interesting that you mentioned her voice. There are a couple of times when you duet with Grant Lee Phillips that I'm thinking, I can't tell where your voice ends and his starts.
Tanita: Yeah. I have a deep voice.
Songfacts: But I think that's what makes you special.
Tanita: Well, I don't know. I guess it's the dark, deep voice that people are attracted to. And it is unusual today to hear voices low for women, I suppose. It's not so often.
Songfacts: Is it difficult for you to find duet partners because of that?
Tanita: No, actually. It was Paul Bryan who suggested Grant. I think he's produced two albums with him. And when he came in it was so immediate, the chemistry in our voices, because they are unusual voices. And I love his voice on this, because to me he just sounds like a cowboy who walks into the room, and it kind of twists the meaning of the song. You don't entirely trust him in the song. I really like this ambiguity that he brings.
Songfacts: That's interesting. You describe it almost in a cinematic way.
Tanita: Yeah, I think with voices it's like that. You can have the best singer, technically, and there's no chemistry. Like you could have two people in a film and they tick all the boxes, but actually there are no sparks before them. It's the same with voices. And I think about that. I'm thinking more in terms of a director now. It's kind of a cool thing to do.
I would love to do another duet with someone on the next album. I think it's actually quite refreshing on an album just to hear another voice, because it's quite unexpected. Especially when it makes sense. As long as it's not just, "Oh, we've got guest stars." No, as long as there's some kind of point to it, it can create a real feast of excitement, so I like that. And Paul Bryan is singing, as well. He sings on one piece.
Songfacts: Do you have a wish list of duet partners?
Tanita: Well, male voice, I do think Grant's voice works really well, and that was completely a surprise. I like Shelby Lynne's voice, and I think that would be an interesting voice to do that with.
Songfacts: Sort of that Dusty Springfield kind of a thing.
Tanita: Exactly. I mean, I think she has such a lovely, laid back, sensual voice. And it's the kind of voice we don't hear very often nowadays. It almost seems like it's on a different time. There's a kind of purity in her voice, which is what I find interesting.
Songfacts: On the new album, what are some of the songs that you're most proud of and why?
Tanita: Well, I'm very proud of the whole album, really. I'm proud that it has a beginning, a middle, an end. It feels like a satisfying meal. And I just love the band, I love their playing, and I think we sound like a band. That's very important.
There are some songs that I'm very happy with, because when you make an album, you want to achieve certain things on a song that you think are not necessarily going to turn out the way that you want them to. But "Make the Day," for example, I'm really happy with, because I think it has a sort of intensity, but it's very laid back. And that's almost a contradiction. But it's something I really like in music. And I'm really happy with songs like "Science," because I think they're sort of unexpected. And it's funny to write a song, we can suppose it's a song about science, for me to write a song like that is quite funny.
When I listen to the album, I'm very proud of it. I think it just has a real robust sound and it's interesting and it's dynamic and it's vibrant, and I think that's everything I wanted to achieve. And there's a lot of movement. I don't think your ear is bored. I think it's a very punchy album.
Songfacts: Now, you said that you collaborated with another songwriter?
Tanita: With my guitarist on this album, yeah.
Songfacts: On all songs?
Tanita: I co-wrote all the songs, yeah.
Songfacts: And is that new for you to collaborate with other songwriters?
Tanita: I did it a bit on Cappuccino Songs, but usually I write alone. As I get older I think I'm going to write much less alone. I just think it's more funny and more fun to be writing with other people.
Songfacts: And does trust have anything to do with that, that you're able to trust other people with your babies, so to speak?
Tanita: Yeah. And also, if I'm playing with a musician, I'm just more like, Oh, should we write a song then? That'd be kind of fun. And it's a way to get to know them in a different way, I suppose, than just having a conversation. It's a different kind of conversation. So I don't know why, but it attracts me at the moment. It might not attract me next week. I know I sound lazy, so that's a good story. I'm very lazy, so actually I start these things and I don't finish them. I have lots of ideas. I'm a crammer. It's like I was at school like that, so I just cram things in at the end.
Songfacts: It almost sounds like a dating technique. How do I get to know somebody better?
Tanita: [Laughing] Very.
Songfacts: Let's write a song, and if we can come up with a good song, then maybe we'd make a good couple.
Tanita: I don't think so. [Laughing] That's probably one of the rules of rock and roll, that's why we have scared a lot of people being musicians.
December 14, 2012. Tanita's website is tanita-tikaram.com. Photos by Natacha Horn.