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Paul Heaton: ‘If you told me I was going to become famous I’d have said: pull the other leg’

The hits Paul Heaton has had with The Housemartins and The Beautiful South might never have happened if he hadn’t got lost in France and discovered his ‘professional’ singing voice in a field

Paul Heaton is a singer and songwriter best known for forming The Housemartins and The Beautiful South.

He was born in Bromborough in 1962, relocating to Sheffield with his family when he was four. After spending his adolescent years in Surrey, he hitchhiked around Europe before moving to Hull in 1983, where he began The Housemartins.

The band, which also featured the future Fatboy Slim Norman Cook on bass, scored a breakthrough hit with Happy Hour in 1986, and had a number one single later that year with an a capella cover of Isley-Jasper-Isley’s Caravan of Love.

After splitting amicably in 1988, Heaton formed The Beautiful South, and between 1989 and 2007 the band embarked on a huge run of success, with three UK number one albums and a number one single among their achievements.

Since then, Heaton has released solo albums and latterly a series of records with former Beautiful South bandmate Jacqui Abbott, with 2020’s Manchester Calling returning him back to the top spot in the UK album chart. This year, as well as celebrating his 60th birthday, Heaton won an Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Song Collection.

In a Letter To My Younger Self, Heaton explains his career in music came about, why he backs the underdog and how his happy, positive outlook has led a fruitful life.

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I was living at home sharing a room with one of my brothers when I was 16. I was already really into music, lapping up absolutely everything – blues, soul, punk, new wave. My mum took me to quite a few different gigs, so by 16 I had already seen The Stylistics and Brook Benton, and by 18 I had seen Stevie Wonder, The Clash, The Jam. So I was very lucky in that respect.

Going to those gigs together was something my mum and I did at a certain time in our lives; we never did it again after I left home when I was about 21. My mum and dad carried on going to concerts of course, but without me. But it was obviously quite a big influence on me without me realising, her taking me to see these different kinds of bands.

I was mainly listening to punk but I remember she took me to see Frankie Valli and I was just like, oh my god, this is absolutely amazing. If I could live one night of my life again I reckon it would be that Frankie Valli concert – I was blown away.  

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I was pretty shy really, a weird mixture of a show-off and shy – a show-off in front of my mates but if there were any girls around I was always too shy to speak to them. I was not a cool character. Just a bit desperate, really – I couldn’t afford to go to a proper shop and buy punk or mod clothes, so I started buying my own clothes in charity shops. Little tweed jackets, things like that. I looked like I’d been pasted from head to foot and rolled around in Oxfam.   

Housemartins
1986: Where it all began, in Hull, with The Housemartins. Photo: Stephen Parker / Alamy

I didn’t have any real heartaches over girls, just confusion. I asked a girl out at the age of 14 – it took me ages to ask her out, and then I never said one other word to her. I’d meet her and wouldn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say. And she was probably shy as well. And so eventually she packed me in, which I can’t blame her for. At that time I just lived for playing football on Saturdays and Sundays, so I can’t honestly say that experience broke my heart. I put it away quickly and moved on.

There’s never really been any time when I was young when I felt really, really down. I really enjoyed my teenage years, and throughout my 20s and 30s, and now really. I’m quite a happy, positive person. 

I’ve always been the kind of person who, if somebody says you’ve got to do [something], has to do the opposite. My brothers all supported Sheffield Wednesday, they were the big team in the first division. So I decided to support Sheffield United, who were in the second division.

I liked backing the underdog and I suppose that’s what I’ve done through my career. Always looking for the other side, the smaller side. I liked finding new things, new music, new voices, a different kind of politics – I suppose I’ve always been really interested in people who have a different take on things.  

The Beautiful South
1995: With his bandmates in The Beautiful South. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

I kept notes on everything I discovered. When I started working as an office tea boy I liked listening to people and writing down what they said, hiding pages and pages in a secret drawer. I wrote down all my thoughts as well as stupid little poems and stories. Tiny stories, but they felt big to me. I really started developing my songwriting in those little books. They’re very influenced by Spike Milligan who I liked when I was young. He gave me a feeling of warmth. I don’t know why. He made a lot of sense to me. 

For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. To be in a band was a little bit out of reach. I can see why someone like Jarvis Cocker would plan for that when he was a teenager because he looks as though he’s in a band and he’s always looked like that. He was quite famous in Sheffield before he was famous. But that wasn’t me.

I wanted to be in the fire brigade for a bit. Then my dad said, “If you like writing everything down and keeping logs of everything, why don’t you work in an office?” But I was very, very quickly bored. My brothers both got married quite young and got steady jobs, but I didn’t feel that commitment to anything. Instead, I started writing songs. I wrote what became Happy Hour when I was still working in that office.   

I remember little things happened that made me think differently about being in a real band. I’d been hitch-hiking around France and at one point I was, quite rightly, chucked off the motorway by the police. They made me walk across a field and I had no idea where I was going. But while I was walking I burst into song. And I thought, crikey, your voice sounds really… not powerful, but quite professional.

I was singing things like Sam Cooke and I’d never tried to sing in that style. Not that I can sing that style. But it sounded quite soulful. And I thought, when you get back you should really do something. So I did. I moved to Hull and formed a band.   

Believe it or not I wrote down every single song John Peel played. I lost those notes, which is a disaster. If that 16-year-old had known then that eight years later his band [The Housemartins] would be played by John Peel… I remember we were rehearsing in the Adelphi club in Hull and we got a phone call telling us he was going to play our track. I was just overjoyed. In 1985 anything that got played on John Peel got a following of some sort, even if it was quite out there, quite radical sounding. So as soon as he started playing that track, things started picking up for us. 

Paul Heaton
2022: Winning an Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Song Collection (from The Housemartins to the present day) Photo: PA Images / Alamy

You start a band thinking, maybe we’ll get a gig at The Three Feathers. And maybe we can make a cassette and send one to John Peel. You never dream of making a video or being on telly or anything like that. If you told teenage me that I would get a recording contract through a track on a compilation album being noticed by John Peel, I might have vaguely understood that. But if you told me that I was going to become famous, and for more than one or two songs, I would have definitely said: pull the other leg. That’s never going to happen. 

This year I got an Ivor Novello award. I’m not a bragging person, but I was proud of that because it’s just a simple award for songwriting. It’s not like, here’s a picture of you with Madonna or this is you hanging out with so-and-so. It’s purely for writing songs, and I was very touched to get it. At 16, you think you’re going to die at 28. But to live to 60 and still be making records and have people still coming to watch you is a really nice, exciting thing. I’d like to tell my 16-year-old self about that. 

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If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my dad. He passed away in ’97, and my mum only recently passed. So I know exactly what she was like and she was like that right to her death. She was very like me, a bit giddy, a bit silly. Whereas my dad – it would be nice to sit down and just talk to him because he was just such a nice person.

I’d just like to remind myself how warm and how friendly he was. Maybe we’ll go out in the car and then, if we see people playing amateur or junior football in a field, we’ll pull over and start watching it. And say, “Look at that player. See how that player is moving. That’s a nice little setup.” Then we’ll walk back to the car. That would be nice. 

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott will be touring the UK from November 26, with a capped ticket price of £30. For details go to ticketmaster.co.uk.  Their new album, N.K-Pop, is out now

Interview: Jane Graham

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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