Tanita Tikaram Comes Back Strong
by Jay S. Jacobs
Back in 1988, Tanita Tikaram released Ancient Heart, arguably one of the defining albums of the decade. The most amazing part was that the album was the debut of a 19-year old British singer. Tanita Tikaram became a star in her native land, spawning four hit singles from the album, including “Twist In My Sobriety,” which has become something of an alternative standard.
In the years that immediately followed, Tikaram released four more albums in a matter of seven years, and while they got very good reviews and some airplay, none quite captured the world’s imagination like her first shot. Therefore at the grand old age of 26, Tikaram took a break after the somewhat disappointing sales of her 1995 album Lovers in the City.
In the next seventeen years, Tikaram has gone about her life, traveling, writing, acting and occasionally releasing albums in the UK. With her latest album, Can’t Go Back, Tikaram decided to return to the States.
The album shows a funkier, more content, less introverted Tikaram – but her songwriting skills are undiminished. Recorded live in studio in a six-day burst, Tikaram wraps her still arresting husky vocals around a set of new tunes. She also includes a bonus second disk of acoustic recordings of earlier songs.
Right after Can’t Go Back was released, Tikaram called us from her British home to discuss the new album and her career.
You were only 19 when Ancient Heart became so respected and such a big hit. How surreal was the experience of hearing yourself all over the radio and TV?
I guess when you’re that young, you have no expectations. I suppose I just thought: Oh, that’s what happens when you make records. They just end up being played everywhere. I didn’t take it in at the time. But I can remember walking down the road and hearing my record everywhere, which is quite an amazing feeling, actually. (laughs)
Looking back, were you ready for the attention?
I don’t think you can be ready for that kind of attention. It’s just something you can’t really prepare for. It happened like a safe falling on your head, you know? (laughs) It just happened. You can’t really prepare for that.
Over the years since then, “Twist in My Sobriety” has become a bit of a standard and has been covered by several people. When you wrote it, did you have any idea it would last as long as it has?
No, absolutely not. It was just this song on the floor in my bedroom. I didn’t even think about it, I just thought it was a cool song. I didn’t think it was an exceptional song. But, it’s become a song that people always are asking about.
I was always disappointed after the first album, your singles didn’t quite catch on as much, even though you had some really good ones like “We Almost Got It Together,” “Only the Ones You Love” and “I Could Be Crying.” Early on you were almost constantly working, you released five albums in like seven years. Did you hit a point where you just felt you needed to take some time off and slow down?
Yeah, I did. I guess I wondered why I was a musician. Also, I think you need time to just hang out with your peer group and do different things. So that time did arrive. (laughs) Now, I guess I’ve probably gone to the other side. I’m super-leisurely. I’m excessively leisurely. I make very few albums.
It has been over 15 years since you released an album in the US and seven in the UK. How does it feel to get Can’t Go Back out now?
It’s brilliant, because I’m particularly proud of this record. It’s great. It’s very exciting.
I was reading that the album itself was recorded extremely quickly — like six days — and recorded mostly live in studio. How did that add to the sound and the vibe of making the album?
For me it’s absolutely been very liberating. I think it’s not my strength to be in a recording studio for ages and listening to the same track a hundred times. I find that very counterproductive. I just really enjoy playing with other musicians and the performance ends up being the record. So to record with these great musicians in six days was just to have the opportunity to have a very dynamic sound, which is really what I love about music. The further you go away from musicians playing together in a room, I think it’s much harder to have a dynamic record. It ends up being very static. That’s not my strength. It’s much easier for me to even understand musically what’s going on if I’m playing with other people.
It had sort of an Americana feel to it, almost like something T-Bone Burnett would do. Were you trying for that kind of down-to-Earth sound?
I was just looking for a lot of movement on the album. It was suggested to me to work with these musicians from Paul Bryan, the producer [who has also worked with Aimee Mann, Susan Tedeschi, Norah Jones and Bob Dylan]. I went to see [drummer] Jay Bellerose in London playing with JoeHenry. I just thought he was phenomenal as a drummer. I thought that raggedness would probably work really well with my songs. It was just to create an album which is very quick and dynamic. I don’t want it to outstay its welcome.
“All Things To You” and “Make the Day” were interesting songs for you, musically, sort of funkier than you often get.
Were you trying to give the album an R&B vibe?
No, I just thought it was odd, because that’s the music I’ve been brought up with that it wasn’t particularly coming out in what I was recording. I thought it was absolutely important to underline that that’s a strong influence. Even if you don’t hear it [in]… I don’t have an R&B or a soul voice, but structurally a lot of the songs, you can hear that’s an influence. I thought it was important on this record to try and suggest that.
The album was recorded in LA. Was that the first time you recorded in the States? Did working in the States change the vibe of recording?
No, I recorded with Thomas Newman before in America. And I did Everybody’s Angel in Woodstock [NY]. So I have been there. And also, I’m older, so I’m much more aware of things. I was much more aware that I was playing with very, very good musicians. I think it was at the beginning quite intimidating. I just thought I can’t go in there and be not on it and they’ll just think I’m awful. So, it just made me be much more professional (laughs) because they are very professional. They play so much that they just have an incredible sound from the beginning. From the moment you step into the studio, there is this sound and it sounds like a record. That’s very different, that level of professionalism is something which I would still say is very American. There’s just a sound. It just sounds like a record.
You did a song with Grant-Lee Phillips. Did you know him from the old Warner days? What was he like to work with?
Obviously I knew [of] Grant Lee Buffalo. I was looking for a second voice on this song. It was my producer Paul, who worked with quite a lot with Grant, who suggested Grant. I was very open to the idea, but I was very surprised how well our voices worked together. I think it really was a cool marriage. He’s just very nice. He came in and recorded his part very quickly. He was brilliant. He’s got a very special voice.
“Dust On My Shoes” is the first single released from the album, and while I think it’s a terrific song, radio airplay is so hard to gauge anymore. Do you still think in terms of singles?
I think any artist would want their music to be heard by as many people as possible. But, it’s also not very easy to get on the radio. (laughs) You just have to be quite philosophical about that. But, yeah, why not? I wish it were easy.
It seemed to me lyrically that this album was a bit less introspective and a bit more content than some of the stuff you released when you were younger. Do you feel that is so and do you think that sort of comes with growing up and being comfortable with who you are?
No, I think it’s just about that thing… again the same thing about not wanting to over share. (laughs) I always think now of balance. Everything has to have a balance. That has more to do with that. Also, yeah, when you’re older, hopefully, you find your inner peace or you find a much more philosophical way of dealing with any of your anxieties or turmoil. It becomes something that’s still there, but you’re much more tranquil about it. So, I hope that’s reflected here on the record.
How did you decide on which older songs you were going to revisit on the bonus CD? It was interesting to me that for the most part you didn’t go with the big singles except for of course “Twist in My Sobriety.” How did you decide which songs to include?
There was no design. (laughs hard) They were taken from podcasts that I did on my website a year or couple of years ago. Over a year. My managers said, “Oh, can you do the playlist for the bonus CD?” So I just put down the songs I could remember. (laughs harder). There are other songs that didn’t go on the record. There was no design. It was just my randomness. But, I think it sounds quite cool.
You have tour dates in Europe. Eventually will you be doing any US dates?
I’d love to do US dates. I’m going to start [touring Europe] at the end of November and I’m touring up until Christmas. It’s brilliant, because I’m going out with my double bass player and my saxophone player and clarinet player. It’s just the trio. I just love hanging out with them. We fill out the gang. It’s just a pleasure to be with them. It’s a pleasure to have the intimacy and to share that with an audience. So hopefully, we’ve only played one gig together, which was as a trio, so I don’t know. I think it should be just fine.
While radio is tougher to break these days, the internet gives musicians access to their fans that they had never had before. Do you like being able to interact like that?
Yeah, it’s very important. It’s just quite hard, because I choose a [favorite] song [by other artists] every day that I like and I keep running out of songs. (laughs) There are millions I have to find. I love it. It’s cool. It’s a whole thing, isn’t it? There’s a whole new world to having a relationship with your audience that wasn’t available when I started. And it really is quite personal, because you are actually talking to your favorite artists really. It’s just a different thing.
How would you like people to see your career?
I don’t know. I’m so sort of hippie-dippy that I find I don’t know things like that in terms of being important. I’d just like my friends to think I was a very nice person. (laughs) That’s probably more important to me.
Are there any misconceptions you would like to clear up?
I think there are many misconceptions about my music, but I don’t think you do anything about that. I guess people just have to discover you in their own time. Then they go, “Oh, I thought it was like this and it’s really not.” That’s just something that has to happen spontaneously.