SIMPLY RED BIOGRAPHY
“If anyone can imagine being given a complete review of what’s happened to them throughout their entire life in one sitting… it’s really challenging and I was deeply affected by it.”
Proof-reading his forthcoming biography ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ was an overwhelming experience for Simply Red’s front man Mick Hucknall and proved the catalyst for the band’s 10th studio album, ‘Stay’. “The story is in some ways painfully real and in other ways pleasurably real,” says Mick. “It was just very revealing and quite shocking - I was an absolute nervous wreck by the end of it - but it focused me on what I should be doing and we got what the mood and the tone for the album should be.”
Started around the same time as ‘Simplified’ the band’s 2005 re-working of many of their best-loved songs ‘Stay’ features 10 new songs and a cover of ‘Debris’ - a melancholic gem by the late Ronnie Lane which as a teenager Mick used to play over and over in his bedroom before he went to sleep at night.
The first half of the album is unashamedly romantic: “They’re love songs,” Mick admits with a smile, “and they reflect where and who I am right now.” On the album’s title track and the opener ‘The World And You Tonight’ he is exuberant and content and following on from last year’s testosterone-fuelled ‘Oh! What A Girl’ the second single ‘So Not Over You’ moves from heartache to happiness with a suitably passionate video shot in Cape Town.
At the other end of the album ‘Money TV’, ‘Death Of The Cool’ and ‘Little Englander’ stand in stark contrast they’re “more acerbic” agrees Hucknall, but “under the veil of sweetness”.
“I’m very much concerned with trying to write what I perceive as the truth. I’d like to think I’ve got a reality check. Life is not a bed of roses: it’s mostly a bed of roses for me in many ways but I worry for music culture and there’s been a huge amount of exploitation in my profession that makes me unhappy especially when I see a generation coming forward who seem to be suffering even worse exploitation than the previous generation. We’re very much in an era of style over substance. You don’t have to be great at what you do, you have to look good and I’m going against that with intent because I don’t really believe it. I prefer to go my own road rather than follow the tribe because I was a punk and it’s in my nature to question and challenge.”
Even as a punk in the Frantic Elevators at the end of the 70s Mick was into the Beatles as well as the Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Wire and The Fall. To those he added the Velvet Underground, Iggy & The Stooges, the MC5, some reggae and the Stax and Motown record collections he amassed in his earlier teens. In the 80s Simply Red evolved with Mick as its singer, songwriter and spokesperson taking on the role of band leader and overseer, inspired by the example of his idols James Brown, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. “That’s a huge area of music,” he sums up, “I was never really fixed on one style.” He reckons what keeps Simply Red’s music fresh is “not being a slave to what is considered contemporary but also not being a slave to what’s in the past. It’s about getting a mix together and more importantly getting your message across.”
With album sales approaching 50 million worldwide, Mick could afford to give it all up to be with family and friends, take up painting again or spend more time at his vineyard on the slopes of Mount Etna. In fact he describes his career since ’96 as “semi-retirement” but he chooses to sideline the trappings of fame and the glare of publicity not the music. “I have a fundamental need to make music” he insists, “I’ve had that love of music since I was about three years old. I love this idea of just being able to make anything you want and if the pleasure comes across in the grooves I hope that would relate to people.”
After the turn of the millennium and with seven hugely successful albums behind them - ‘Picture Book’ (1985) ‘Men And Women’ (1987), ‘A New Flame’ (1989), ‘Stars’ (1991), ‘Life’ (1995), ‘Blue’ (1998) and ‘Love And The Russian Winter’ (1999) - Simply Red took their future into their own hands trusting the fans would follow. “I was still being creative but I was really yearning to go small,” recalls Mick. “I wanted to set up a cottage industry where I could make the music I wanted to make almost quietly and not feel that I was out in that big world of glamour and glitz.” That dream of a cottage industry turned into simplyred.com, a model for self- determination in today’s music business that allows Simply Red to release exactly what they want and keep in close contact with their fans. “And it’s more than coincidence that we named our first individual album ‘Home’, continues Mick, “it was all done on our terms.”
“Real life depicted in song” was the key line in the title track of ‘Home’ and four years on from that album’s multi-platinum success, real life is still the inspiration behind Simply Red’s songwriting. Working more closely than ever with co-producer Andy Wright, Mick loves the process of negotiation that leads to the perfect lyric somewhere between the outrageous and the ordinary. “I want the songs to have an intimacy and to be personal so you have to use interesting words to prick up somebody’s ears,” he explains. “I like the idea of people sharing the romance of the songs.” In that respect little has changed since ‘Holding Back The Years’ topped the US chart 21 years ago. “Making a song that lives forever is actually extremely difficult,” he muses. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it! And getting it right is even more difficult so it’s a huge challenge but that’s the part I love that’s the reason I make music.”
THE WORLD & YOU TONIGHT: “It’s an unusual style of a song for me. Some of my friends have said it sounds a bit like Roy Orbison or something like the sixties. With a track like that it’s sort of hard to put something before it and it just seemed natural to put it at the head of the album.”
SO NOT OVER YOU: “It’s about a couple who broke up and then regret breaking up and yearn to get back together again. As in all happy endings they do get back together again… ‘now I’ve found a way to keep you there beside me to where my love won’t be denied…’ the sun’s coming through at the end!”
STAY: “There are moments, aren’t there, between lovers where a momentary gesture just suddenly makes you think how important that person is to you or you want somebody to stay just the way they are at that moment, almost like the way you capture somebody on a photograph. Of course it’s a dream but most romance is based upon fantasy and wishing and yearning.”
GOOD TIMES HAVE DONE ME WRONG: “The band started jamming on a blues progression I wasn’t here when they did it Andy [Wright] thought it was a great groove and I did too when I heard it. So I wrote down a set of rough lyrics and walked in there and just started singing it and ‘Good Times Have Done Me Wrong’ just came out. I was probably reflecting on the story and thinking that there’s some things I shouldn’t have done, and maybe I did too much of this and too little of that handled that good, handled that bad… No one gets it right all the time!”
DEBRIS: “I used to play that song in my bedroom on a little 45 record player with the arm up before I went to bed at night over and over again. I’ve always reached out for melancholic songs and I find that song wonderfully romantic. I’m very sad that Ronnie Lane died so prematurely and I always wanted to do that song in some capacity - I felt I had the band to do it this time around.”
LADY: “Jools [Holland] said ‘I’ve got some really nice chords and I should come over and play them to you.’ So I said ‘Well come on then,’ and he sat down at the piano over there and we wrote this song together. It was as easy as that!”
LITTLE ENGLANDER: “It’s about bigotry and I think of Little Englander as almost like a colloquial phrase that could represent anybody from anywhere in the world who is small-minded and provincial. It’s great that the kids we had on it are from all walks of life and all ethnicities.”
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