Any thoughts that Alison Moyet has been invited as the featured performer to the Holon Women’s Festival next week (March 3-6) because she somehow represents the struggle of the reserved “weaker sex” to overcome male-dominated society are quickly laid to rest.
“I was never a woman that could easily be exploited. On the contrary, I was always quite intimidating myself,” the 48-year-old singer with the incredibly powerful, bluesy voice told The Jerusalem Post from her home in England last week.
With her working-class accent and matter-of-fact manner of talking, there’s no doubt that Moyet is being sincere when she claims she has never been pushed around, and, on the contrary, has been the one holding the strings that have steered her varied career path.
“I’ve seen other women being treated badly, but I was never pulled in any direction by a man. Any mistake or decision that I’ve made in my career has been on my own, and due to my lackadaisical approach,” said the emotive songstress who emerged from the British post-punk scene in the early 1980s as one-half of the synth-pop duo Yaz and who then went on to a flourishing solo career before her single-mindedness clashed with her record company and ostensibly silenced her for eight years.
Moyet credited her natural feistiness to her French-born father, whom she has called “a real street fighter” and who would communicate by banging his fist on the kitchen table.
“I never had the inhibitions to express myself, everything was always out in the open in my fiery household,” she said, denying her reputation of being “difficult” to work with. “I’m certainly quite vocal, but that’s just my natural way of talking.”
Dropping out of high school at 16 in a predominantly blue-collar enclave in Essex, Moyet said that there wasn’t much to do except form a band. She ricocheted through a few groups in the late 1970s punk era, in the same breeding ground which eventually spawned bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure.
“I knew all the Depeche boys, but I knew [original member Vince Clark] least well. A friend of his was the guitar player in my punk band,” said Moyet, describing how she and Clark ended up forming the chart-topping Yazoo in 1981.
“I never intended to form a group with Vince – when he left Depeche he had a batch of songs and wanted to make a demo, but he needed a voice. I was a dirty punk singer, and wasn’t really impressed by the wussy new romantics. But I didn’t have the means to make a demo myself, so I agreed to do it,” she said.
“The record company he played it for loved it, and said we should make an album. So I sort of fell into it, I wasn’t searching for it.”
Yazoo, which became better known as Yaz, due to trademark issues in the US, enjoyed a string of hits over a two-year period, including “Only You” and “Don’t Go,” which fit right into the electropop rage-of-the-moment. But even above the cheesy riffs and synth blips, Moyet’s voice stood out as a formidable instrument, as throaty as Janis Joplin, and as soulful as one of her heroes, Dusty Springfield.
WHEN CLARKE decided to disband Yaz in 1983 to eventually form another duo with singer Andy Bell – Erasure, which has continued ever since – Moyet was devastated.
“Becoming famous really quickly was difficult, and it left me quite isolated,” she said. “All the contacts in the industry and the record company came from Vince. I never cultivated it because I never wanted to be a solo singer. We had a number-one album and we were recognized everywhere, but I had no friends.”
She rebounded quickly enough, however, and in 1984 released her debut solo album, Alf
, which became a huge hit in England, featuring the singles “Invisible,” “All Cried Out” and “Love Resurrection.” The next few years saw more peaks with a version in 1985 of Billie Holiday’s “That Ole Devil Called Love,” which became her biggest British hit, a performance at the British Live Aid concert that year, and a successful 1987 collaboration with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart on the hit “Is This Love?”
However, Moyet quickly tired of making pop-friendly records, and in her effort to diversify, released albums like 1991’s Hodoo
(1994), which sold poorly and angered her record company, Sony, that wanted more signature hits from the singer.
“I was an ex-punk who worked in a band that had pop hits, but one of the great joys of Yaz was that we were eclectic – we could do out-and-out dance tracks, but then put something avant garde next to pure pop. It was really mixed up. So I became used to that experimentation. That doesn’t always mean you’re in left field, but it means you’re searching for new voices,” explained Moyet.
“The trouble with Sony was that they were making a lot of money with my mainstream pop records and wanted me to continue in the same vein. Well, I’ve already done that, I want to try something else.”
Head-butting between Sony and the stubborn Moyet resulted in eight years of litigation to release her from her contract, which prevented her from recording her own albums. During the extended layoff, Moyet raised three children, and recorded vocals for artists like Tricky, Ocean Colour Scene, and The Lightning Seeds. But she admitted that, for her, the period was one of turmoil.
“It was difficult, the constant waiting. You can’t completely engage in anything else while you’re waiting. It wasn’t like I had been dropped by a label and was just looking for another record label. Sony wouldn’t let me work,” said Moyet.
“And at the time, I was a single mother. The fact that I had some hit records made it not so much a financial problem, but a psychological one – I needed to be working, for myself.”
MOYET FOUND another outlet for her creativity – on the stage as part of the West End production of Chicago
in 2001. She played the part of Matron “Mama” Morton, and although initially planned to be a short run, Moyet enjoyed the experience so much that the run was extended to six months.
“I always had a horrible aversion to musicals and can’t say it was something I ever liked. But it was that very fact that attracted me to it and led me to doing Chicago
– it was totally foreign and a challenge,” she said.
“It was a great experience. It was interesting for me to sing in such a controlled way, to stand where you’re told to stay, and being part of a team and not the star. I learned to pace myself, which has helped me in later live work, and I learned the importance of warming up. Singing through somebody else’s voice in an American accent was a little strange, but it was a new discipline, not unlike performing in a concert.”
When the dispute with Sony was finally settled, Moyet returned to making albums of the eclectic kind she had always wanted to – like 2003’s Hometime
(2005), and The Turn
in 2007. The artistic resurgence even prompted her to agree to something she had never even considered – a Yaz reunion in 2008 with Clark for a short concert tour.
“The reunion was fantastic,” Moyet exclaimed. “The first time around, we had no time to build a relationship. It was professional, we knew people who knew people, but we never went out together for a drink. Making the album and my becoming a singer was due to him – it was in intimate thing, but at the same time, we were strangers.
“I was always disappointed that we had broken up right after our second album and we never had a chance to play those songs live. Because live music is my thing we would bring it up over the years, but when I suggested it to him the last time, he was up for it. I was much calmer and he was more open. We both had experienced life more, had children and grown up a bit.”
The grown up Moyet, who will be performing at the Holon Women’s Festival on Friday, March 5 at 10 p.m., is one who’s content with her place in her work and her life. The show will encompass all phases of Moyet’s career, a daunting task which she solved by paring down the accompaniment and reinterpreting many tunes.
“It’s quite an organic band – just drums, piano and backing singer,”
said Moyet. “My material is so diverse that it’s impossible to recreate
it all in its original form. What I try to do is make it organic and
not have it sound like some kind of karaoke.”
While she doesn’t miss the glory days of being a hit-maker, she said
she was confident that she’d be able to handle the bright lights of
celebrity stature with more poise the second time around.
“Part of the craziness of the early years had to do with me being a
young person outside the circles. I don’t think the craziness would be
the same now if I had a big hit. It would be disingenuous for me to say
I prefer to be obscure and don’t buy my records, but I’m doing fine,”
“The strangest thing about my career is that my achievements have
outweighed my ambitions. Not in a bad way, because it meant that I’ve
always been surprised instead of desperate.”