‘I get to go away and pretend to be a pop star, then I come home and I’m doing the school run in my pyjamas!’: The South’s Alison Wheeler on musical influences, ‘up north’ and life on the road.
The Beautiful South were one of Britain’s most popular acts of the nineties. Although no longer together, The South feature many ex-members of The Beautiful South, and are currently on tour playing music both old and new.
I caught up with Alison Wheeler, one of nine members of The South, to talk about her journey into music, the transformation of The Beautiful South to The South and the perils of tour-bus life!
Did you always know that you wanted to be in a band, did you always want a career in music?
I’ve had a bit of a strange route! My dad was an agent – think of Phoenix Nights, the kind of working men’s clubs! That was his bread and butter for about forty years. He used to book acts at venues like that, and I grew up going to venues like that. During that time I did al the stuff that you’d do if you were interested in the arts: I did dancing, singing and acting. I kind of lost my way when I hit sixteen; I did straight a-levels and I forgot about music and stopped dancing. But then when I was back at university I joined a covers band for fun. It really did ignite that interest again and made me realise, ‘You know what, I’m doing something academic but I don’t really want to do it…’ I finished my degree and told my parents I wasn’t going to use it, which caused a lot of anger! My dad had the misconception that I had the perception it was going to be all roses and easy. I knew it would be a struggle so I left university and came down to London and gave myself about five years of trying to make some inroads in the music industry. Seven years on, I still couldn’t give up – it’s one of those things, you always feel like it’s just round the corner. I had really crazy hair back then so I couldn’t get a job, but I was temping at a record company, which was great fun because you get to see the other side of the industry as well. And while I was there I was in the kitchen and some woman said, ‘Would you like to join my choir?’ I’m not really religious particularly and I wasn’t sure. She said, ‘It’s a gospel choir but it’s nothing to do with religion, it’s about taking it out of the Church’. I joined that choir, and it was through that connection I went on to do a session for Dave Hemmingway. He was doing a solo project at the time, and the rest is history! If I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time then I wouldn’t have joined the choir, and I wouldn’t have then gone on to meet Dave Hemingway, and then go on to join The Beautiful South.
Who/what were your influences musically when you were growing up?
I’ve always been into big vocalists, so really, really big singers like Barbara Streisand and Beyoncé and Witney Houston. My influences have always been vocally driven but I do like jazz standards like Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Lendon and just anyone with a really big voice. But I’m a pop tart as well! I grew up listening to Madonna, and I love acts like Lady Gaga. I like the whole concept of this kind of evolving musician, so yeah, anything with a big vocal.
Were you aware of The Beautiful South before you became a member? Were you a fan of them?
They were a bit of a household name. For me, when I was born in the seventies, it’s just one of those bands you were always aware of. When I actually got the call, asking if I’d like to be considered, I went home and had a look in my CD collection and I had three of their albums. I don’t know at what point I accumulated the albums! I think it worked well that I wasn’t an overly zealous fan, I was a fan of their music but I wasn’t star-struck because I think that can work to your detriment if you meet one of your idols – God knows if I met one of my idols, I’d probably not be able to talk! They’re just one of those English staple bands that you don’t realise how many songs you know, until you hear one and think, ‘Oh I’d forgotten that one’, or, ‘Oh I didn’t know they wrote that song.’ It’s a great band to be in because everybody comes away from the gigs, saying how they didn’t realise they knew so many songs.
The Beautiful South then split, due to ‘musical similarities’…
That’s testimony to Paul’s penmanship. There wasn’t a bad feeling, he wanted to go on and do new projects and thought it fair not to leave everybody waiting. It was sad for me particularly; I’d only been with the band five years and I’d done three albums with them, and they’d been together for over twenty so for them it had kind of run its course a bit, but it was all shiny and new for me. They couldn’t throw enough at me, I wanted to do all the press, and the radio, and the touring. It was a really sad time when it finished and I floundered for a couple of years. Then I got the call from Dave, the drummer of The Beautiful South, saying: ‘I’m a bit lost: this is all I do, this is all I am, this is all I’ve ever known and I want to keep going. Would you like to continue?’ And that’s how we started; I had a second child and we got back on the road after that in 2009.
Why did you choose to call the band The South rather than The Beautiful South? It’s interesting that you kept a similar band name and some of the same members who had been in The Beautiful South…
We’d lost Paul and Dave Rotheray, the two key writers of the band, so it would be wrong to call ourselves ‘The Beautiful South’. We had collected a few extra new musicians along the way and it would be incorrect. Yes we were carrying on the back catalogue and the history of the band, and yes we wanted to keep a connection, but we couldn’t call ourselves ‘The Beautiful South’. We knew that the fan base had always called us The South – a quick shortcut of the band’s name – and it was just a natural progression. We did try a few other names but they didn’t quite work and we’re very happy with the band name now. I don’t even think about it now, it’s just an evolution that came about quite naturally.
So did you want to keep a lot of aspects of The Beautiful South or did you want to take it in a new direction with The South?
I think we wanted to stay in the same vein. It was a new gain in that we now had the chance to contribute music ourselves after it being Paul and Dave Rotheray, it was now a chance for everybody to bring something to the table. That can actually slow the process down, which is why were only on one album. I’m really desperate to get back into the studio but we’ve got to come to some kind of unanimous agreement about which tracks make the album. There are nine of us in the band and we all want to get involved. It is nice in that respect, it’s quite liberating. We wanted to stay in that kind of intelligent, adult pop, but obviously the penmanship with Paul was so amazing you’ve got to try and live up to that. We’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by the feedback from the last album; people said it sat really naturally with the old back catalogue so that is testimony to the guys who wrote on that album, they did a really good job!
What is the creative process like, because there are a lot of you, does everybody contribute their own bit, or as singer do you find yourself penning the lyrics?
It’s just bringing it all to the table, and whatever the majority agrees – the tracks that fit together. We’re all over the country now, getting everyone together is also quite a challenge. We’ve got the keyboardist, Damon, who’s been with the Beautiful South since the very beginning, he now lives in Ireland so that in itself is a technical challenge, and a few of us in London, a few of us in the Midlands, and Dave Hemingway up north. It’s a condensed, intense process trying to get everyone together because we’re trying to achieve so much; either rehearsing for a gig or trying to work on material for an album. Unfortunately they don’t sit well together in one session, you’ve got to dedicate time to one or the other. But hopefully we’ll get back in the studio soon. When we were practising for this tour we played around with a couple of tracks we’d like to go in the album and we tried to rehearse those with the idea we’d road test them on the road. Unfortunately we didn’t get them to a standard where we felt comfortable doing it live but hopefully next time round, come May when the festivals start coming in, and maybe we’ll do some gigs round then and get some new material out of it.
Do you enjoy being on tour? Do you find it hard leaving your family behind?
I love it! Again, it’s still shiny and new for me and I think with the benefit of maturity I really appreciate what I’ve got. I’ve got two lovely kids and I get to go away and pretend to be a pop star, then I come home and I’m doing the school run in my pyjamas! It’s kind of like chalk and cheese, but it keeps it real and it gives me the chance to appreciate what it is, because I get to do a job I love and not many people get to do that. I’m really, really fortunate.
How is it being the only woman in the band? Does it get quite tough on tour?
We did three weeks on a tour bus this time round so that was a challenge, all thirteen of us on a bus, and we’d sleep on it. I’ve got loads of girlfriends who come and watch a gig and they’ll come and get on the bus and they say, ‘I don’t know how you do it!’ You’ve got nowhere to store anything and, as a girl, you’ve got loads of extra paraphernalia that boys don’t even think about. The drinking culture’s quite prolific in the band as well so there are a lot of late nights. I can’t do that because you can’t sing with a hangover, you can play a guitar, but you definitely can’t do a gig with a hangover if you’re singing. I’m quite well behaved four out of five nights and then I’ll let my hair down. Although you’re travelling in the middle of the night, being on the road means you’ll get to a new place for seven o’clock in the morning and the whole day’s your own. You can continue to sleep on the bus or you can go out and explore the town that you’re in.
It must be a great way to see parts of the country. Do you have a favourite place to play? A favourite country, town, or venue?
Anywhere north of Birmingham, I think the atmosphere is always amazing. I don’t know why, it’s a terrible stereotype, but the energy from the audience is always amazing up north, no matter what day of the week it is. But visually, I love the coast I love going down to Devon and Dorset and even when we’re on tour I’ll go on a two hour walk down the coast line. But you’ve got to go up north to really appreciate how much fun you can have.
How do you feel playing old songs? Do you try and keep a balance between old and new, or do you play the big hits, the crowd pleasers?
People are on a bit of a nostalgia trip so they do want to hear all the hits! We do probably three or four from our latest album because a lot of people don’t realise there is an album out there and we like to slip those in. We don’t necessarily reference it’s from our last album so people often won’t know which album it’s from, so that again is a compliment, the fact that it fits well with the back catalogue. The rest of the time the choice is a difficult thing: there are so many songs to choose from. It’s sad because you have to cut songs out when you know that they are big hits, but that’s because you’ve only got an hour and a half to play with – you’ve got to choose wisely.
What do you find your audiences are like? Do you find there are a lot of old fans, or new fans, or is it a mix?
We get a real mix! We’ve had three generations of one family in the audience before, that was peculiar: kids in their twenties, parents in their late forties and fifties, and grandparents! We’ve also picked up new ears along the way which I think is great, people who’ve come to one of the tours or stumbled across us and they’ve come up to us after the gig and said, ‘That’s amazing, where do I find some more information about you guys?’ But a lot of the generations have been introduced by their parents or grandparents so it’s a real mix. I’d say sixty percent of the audience is forty-plus and they’ve had kids who have left home or are just about to leave home. These are the people who know how to have a party because they’ve been there and done that and they’re really ready to let their hair down when they go out, which again makes for a great atmosphere.
How do you find it to have two singers? It’s a bit unusual and must be a different dynamic on stage?
I was the last singer to join the band, Dave Hemingway’s been there since the beginning, so it does kind of naturally lean toward him as the focal point of running the show, but he’s quite a shy guy so he doesn’t particularly enjoy talking on stage. Sometimes I have to take that over from him because he’s so shy when it comes to things like that. But I think that’s one of the beauties of the band, there aren’t many bands out there with two vocalists, especially when it’s male and female split as well. It’s nice to have somebody up there to sing at. When you’re singing ‘Perfect Ten’, and you have one of those moments where you’re like, ‘This can’t be a job, it’s too much fun!’ And when the audience are singing at you as well, it’s just great!
I saw that you had a nickname, all the rest of the band called you ‘Lady Wheeler’, why’s that?
When you’re on the road and there are that many men (and they’re all beer-swillers and you’re a woman) and you rock up and they say, ‘Oooh watch your Ps and Qs, be careful what you say in front of the lady…’ That gets forgotten quite quickly! But also I went to Cambridge to study and that’s always been a bit of a joke, like ‘Ooh la-de-da!’ I’m state educated though, I’ve just been fortunate enough to get good grades and go on to study at a good university. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have joined the covers band, which lead the whole domino effect to where I am today. It’s thanks to that opportunity that I started the road to singing again – right time, right place!
The South will be playing in Chester on the 24th November 2016, at The Live Rooms.