She’s been adored since the 80s when she fronted the hugely successful Yazoo alongside former Depeche Mode man Vince Clarke.
Alison successfully rode those first synth pop pulses to take over the nation’s musical conscience. Since her and Vince parted ways, she’s managed to sustain a 30 year-plus career in the music biz to become one of Britain’s most loved artists, selling millions of records in the process.
This year Alison returned to the pop music fray, unveiling The minutes, her first album in six years and her most critically acclaimed for some time.
It’s quite an achievement for an artist to still sound so vital at this stage in her career. And as if to prove she’s certainly not past her sell by date, Alison recently announced a huge, sprawling tour for the autumn.
We had the pleasure of chatting to the songwriter about her career, pop stardom and why she decided to bin all of her gold discs…
Can you remember your initiation into the world of pop?
My brother got me into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd but punk was a complete revolution for me. It really was a time of change. So my muses in terms of wanting to be a singer were X-Ray Spex and the Buzzcocks.
Did you always want to make music?
Not really. In the early seventies, you didn’t have the sense that it was something which you could do. But punk completely changed that. It made the non-competent feel like they could participate and get involved.
How did you meet Vince Clarke and get Yazoo together?
It was when my band, the Screamin’ Abdabs split up. I put an advert in Melody Maker to get a new band together. His best mate was the punk guitar player in my band when I was 15 and Vince had known me locally and my scene. There was only one girl in Basildon called ‘Alf’ [Alison’s nickname at the time]. So after Depeche split, he found me.
Did you hit it off musically straight away?
I wouldn’t say we did. We worked as separate entities and that worked out well. It happened without any dialogue, conversation or talking about what kind of music we were going to make. Or what records we listened to. He’d written Only You and called me up and asked me to record it. And it took off from there.
Did you find going solo easy?
No it was horrible. I’d never had a mission to be a pop star or work in pop music. I’d previously been into bands like Dr Feelgood. That Canvey Island pub rock scene. I had no aspirations to make pop music.
I was also a bit of a black sheep, a bit socially inept. I never did any networking. So when Vince said he wanted to split the band, which is contrary to what everyone was saying about me wanting to go solo, I didn’t want to do it.
When he did it, I became the subject of a big bidding war at record labels. And I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’d only been in the business for a year effectively.
I signed up to a solo deal. I felt for me it was the wrong thing to do at the time because I hadn’t determined who I was as an artist.
How have you developed as an artist and songwriter?
I’m clearer – I’ve become more entrenched in my Europeness. In terms of the accent I sing in, the vocab I use, I veer away from the Americana that so many of us were influenced by when growing up.
I’ve always wanted to write with a poetic lilt but when you first start out you have naïve grasp of English. As you get older you become more observational, cleverer, more lived in.
Are you pleased with the reception for the new material?
Of course I am. People have asked me if I’m surprised at how well it’s gone down. That would be disingenuous of me. I love this album. It’s the album I wanted to make. What does surprise me is that people get to hear it. The industry is now such a big playing field, there’s so much competition and diversions. You can’t expect people to be exposed to it.
The industry changes as well as your position within it. I’m a middle aged singer of 30 years and by the very nature of that, people are always looking for something fresh. No one is interested in other people’s baggage. I get that. But it’s a different working environment.
You’ve announced a huge autumn tour. What should people expect?
I’ll be delving into the past somewhat. As much as you want to do all your new material, you need to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and think what they want to hear. But this is a bit different. The last 20 years I’ve worked with traditional rock bands so all my electro material has just been nodded towards. We’re now going back to a synthesized and electronically programmed musical backdrop so that earlier material has the integrity with which it was recorded with in the first place.
I do feel excited about it – it’s going to have a pulse.
What has been the highlight of your musical career?
It sounds like you’re doing the sell but for me the brilliant times are all about those when you have to fight the hardest and had no one on side. When I came out of Yazoo, I sold millions of records, which was a lovely thing but you know you’re on a roll. You don’t need anything. You just catch light and everyone has to work out what they’re dealing with.
Those times when the stars aren’t aligned are the best. When you’ve had a career for this long, there are going to be times when you drop between the floorboards and times when you’re noticed. And your greatest pieces of work aren’t necessarily those which hit the arc of your fame. My pride is not tied up in my commercial success.
Is it true you got rid of all your gold discs?
Yes I was moving home and decided I just wanted a lifestyle change. You probably know I’ve been insular and agoraphobic in my life time. I wanted a change.
I had lived in this big country house for 25 years without even recognising the neighbours so I decided to move into a terrace and get rid of my possessions. Gold discs would never go on my wall anyway. When you do put them up, it’s like ‘look at the wall of me’. It’s embarrassing and those moments don’t reflect my happy times. I’m grateful for everything they brought me but I don’t need reminders of where I’ve been. Where I’ve been is not of great interest to me. I got rid of my diaries, stage clothes, gold discs – there’s no evidence of a career in my house. And I really like that.