Regarded by many as one of one of our country’s best pop singers and interpreters of songs, Mari Wilson (aka The Neasden Queen Of Soul) will be hitting the road for the second time this year to bring you ‘Mari Wilson & The New Wilsations’. Ahead of the dates and fresh off a plane from America, we spoke to Mari about her career, her influences and more.
1. Thanks for your time You’ve just announced four more shows, are you looking forward to getting back out on the road again ?
Mari: “Well, I’ve never really stopped performing live as that’s been my thing… apart from the last three months. I did my last load of gigs in June and then I went off and now I’m back to do these. I’m looking forward to it because it’s the ’80s band so, including me there is nine, and there is only a certain amount of gigs I can do with that line-up because it’s expensive so it’s got to be the right venue, the right budget and so on because it’s a bit of a luxury having the big band although I go out with just the three of us and it’s just as good just a bit more intimate. With the big band I can do a lot of my older hits because they were big production numbers and it’s harder to do those with a small trio.”
2. You’re performing tracks from your Pop Deluxe album. Who as an artist inspired you most and who had the biggest impact on you growing up?
Mari: “Well, the reason this album came about is that I played Dusty Springfield in a musical years ago so people kept asking, “when are you going to do a concert of just Dusty songs” so I suppose she was a big influence and so was Diana Ross and so was John Lennon. As a singer I really loved John Lennon and I was influenced by more male singers in a way and quite diverse as well from Marvin Gaye to Neil Young, Crosby, Stills Nash, Carole King. Of all the British girls, Dusty Springfield especially influenced me and that’s how the album came about. I did do some gigs with just Dusty songs but I found that she did an awful lot of ballads and, when you play live, because I hadn’t even thought about an album, you’ve got to think about light and shade and there were kind of too many ballads so I went away and had a think. I started thinking about all the other girls I like such as Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Sandy Shaw because it was them but it was more the songs. The album in fact has a lot of Bert Bacheract songs on it and it was during a time in the ’60s where all of the artists recorded the same songs. If Bert Bachertact recorded a great song then Dionne Warwick would cover it, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, they’d all cover it. As much as it was about the girls, it’s probably primarily about the songs.”
“Also, all of those girls had their own TV shows but Dusty was the best singer of all of them. Cilla, I loved her charisma and her personality and character but she wasn’t really the best singer in the world and neither was Sandy Shaw but it was all about how they looked and they got to sing those fantastic songs written by a total genius so that’s how it came about really.””
3. Are there any modern artists who’ve had a similar impact on you ?
Mari: “Well, Amy Winehouse definitely. She’s like Dusty in that people like her come along once every thirty years, she was so special almost other worldly. It was almost like the voice and the songs coming out of her were coming out inspite of herself like she had nothing to do with it. It was kind of very spiritual I think. I quite like Lady Gaga. There’s an American band called Lake Street Dive and the singer is something special. I’ve seen them live a few times and they’re pretty spectacular. There’s a lot but most people will never have heard of them because they’re not on the radio and I think that’s the difference now. I’m not hearing the kind of stuff I want to hear so much on the radio so you just have to seek them out. Much like when I was a teenager, you’d buy NME or Melody Maker and discover bands there that weren’t necessarily on Top of the Pops.”
4. Talking of which, you performed on Top Of The Pops quite regularly, what are your memories of the show ?
Mari: “My biggest memory is the first time I was on Top Of The Pops because I’d dreamt about it all my life. So, when I did it, the voice in my head was saying “there you are, you’ve done it” as it was all part of the big plan. I wasn’t so much smug about it but I did feel like I had made it. I was thrilled as it was one of my ambitions and young people now probably don’t know how important Top Of The Pops was. We all lived our lives by what was on it, what was in the charts on a Sunday on the radio. You’d save up to get your records whereas now you can get everything instantly and it wasn’t like that back then.”
“Now you don’t even have to sell that many records, I remember one artist selling just a few thousand albums and got to number three. T-Rex Ride A White Swan sold 350,000 copies and got to number three, it didn’t even get to number 1. It’s just different and I think I lived through the golden age of all of that so that’s rather lovely.”
5. You’ve had a hugely successful career over the last thirty-seven years. What would you put that down to ?
Mari: “Not being able to do anything else [laughs]. I don’t know and I find it funny when people say that. My husband will say to look at all the things I’ve done and I look and realise I have done quite a lot. I think I’ve always kept changing because I get bored doing the same thing. There are some artists who have a style and they make the same kind of record almost every time. That’s fine but it’s not for me and I think sometimes it can be a drawback if you’re a bit versatile as a singer. I’ve still got a massive list – I’d love to do a country album, I’d love to do a Latin album. The only thing I don’t want to do is make a heavy metal album.”
“I’ve done the pop thing then I left that world and did Jazz for about fifteen years. Everyone thought I had disappeared but I was playing at places like Ronnie Scotts. It was difficult at first because a lot of the Jazz fans thought you couldn’t be a pop singer and play Jazz so I had to really do apprentiship. That’s how I think I became a really good singer by singing all those standards. I’d be onstage with just a piano whereas before I’d have had a twelve peice band and now there was nowhere to hide. If you’re out of tune or out of time, everyone is going to know about it so I had to learn.”
“I think despite being frightened of some things at times, I still went ahead and did it. Even playing Dusty, I’m not an actor but I thought I’ll just give it a go. If an opportunity presents itself you’ve got to go for it really. I’ve done bits of acting, theatre, jazz but it’s make it all a bit rich you know?”
6. Do you think that kind of career in the industry is long gone these days ?
Mari: “Well, I don’t know. You’ve certainly got to be able to play live now. I know in the 80’s there was loads of bands who didn’t need to play live, they just survived on making records. I’ve always played live because I’ve loved it. I had a twelve piece band and a lot of bills to pay. There seems to be a thriving live music scene but I think we need more small venues. I’ve played arenas with Bryan Ferry and I did the O2 last year with Marc Almond and Soft Cell but it’s not my favourite. It’s not my favourite because it’s a different way of performing especially when people in the back seats feel like they’re in a different town. In a theatre it can feel like you’re in your living room where you can create an atmosphere. I think the live thing is still thriving and there are loads of bands playing that nobody has really heard of but they have a healthy career doing gigs and festivals but I do think there is a lack of small venues. When I was growing up there were loads of places where the likes of Queen started. I saw Mott The Hoople in a small venue before they had a hit. We need plenty of that because how are people going to learn their craft?”
“I know there are courses at University but no one taught me. You can either do it or you can’t. I do think sometimes with shows like X-Factor it’s all about volume or being able to hold a note for half an hour and that’s not singing. Listen to Dusty Springfield or Karen Carpenter they did neither of those things. It’s about telling a story or creating a mood and making someone feel something.”
7. The shows take you up to the end of 2019. What are your plans for 2020 and have you thought of a follow-up to Pop Deluxe ?
Mari: “Well, Pop Deluxe came out in 2016 and I’ve been touring it ever since then but now we’ve started to add more songs not from that album. I wrote a song for an American TV show last year called The Young And The Reckless. It was called Moon & Back and it got nominated for an Emmy and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t win but I did get nominated which was lovely. So, we’ve added that and there are other songs in there now so I’m now aware it’s time for another album or another something. I’m kind of working on that and I’ve got a few ideas going around my head but next year mainly I’m doing the Let’s Rock Festivals and there’s about fifteen from May to September. I’ve got a few other gigs as well. I’m also working on a Christmas thing for next year so hopefully that will come off. So, while I’m doing all these festivals I’ll be thinking about what my next album will be about. It’s nice to have these festivals as I’ve done a few with my band. I’ve always avoided these let’s look back at the ’80s thing but it sounds like fun.”
8. Throughout your career what’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned or most useful peice of advice you’ve been given ?
Mari: “The most useful peice of advice I’ve been given was by the fantastic trumpet player Guy Barker who was my trumpet player when I was doing Jazz and always used to say it’s all in the preparation because there is nothing worse than going on stage and not being fully rehearsed. If you’re rehearsed you’ll still be nervous and you might make a couple of mistakes but if you haven’t rehearsed or done your homework then you don’t enjoy it either. Also Judy Garland said you’re only as good as your last gig so don’t get above yourself. You’ve always got to put 100% in, you can’t just bluff it.”
9. Curveball question, if you had a free ad in a newspaper and had to sell yourself in six words, what would you say ?
Mari: “Oh, wow, that’s really hard. In six words? It would have my name and a picture then ‘she always has a great time’ – it’s not brilliant I know but it’s the only thing I could think of.”
10. Thanks for your time and good luck with the shows. Just to finish, how would you sum up 2019 for you…
Mari: “Busy, really, really busy but great. I’m glad I’m still working. Actually that would a better one for the ad – Mari Wilson – she’s still singing.”
Mari Wilson & The New Wilsations 2019 Dates
27th New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
31st The Concorde Club, Southampton
1st The Electric Theatre, Guildford
9th Bodelwyddan Castle, Rhyl