When Rowetta joined the Happy Mondays in 1990, not only did she bring the Mancunian masters of indie-dance crossover a more soulful presence, she provided additional visual stimulus to a band that was already pretty watchable in the first place: cos the Mondays had Bez!
With her dominatrix toughness and body hugging bondage attire, Rowetta arrived as an equal partner in this most laddish of lad bands. Here was a woman who was clearly having a ball. With every swish of her whip, Factory Records shifted towards the mainstream: no longer would indie automatically mean an embracing of the mediocre. Soon, Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches arrived, an LP that was basically a summer holiday on vinyl, reaching No.4 in 1990. Rowetta’s extraordinary vocal range and “Yippee-yippee-yay-yay-ay”-ing perfectly counterbalanced Shaun Ryder’s Nike Air-wearing, couldn’t-give-a-toss cool. We just wished that our girlfriend was hot like Rowetta.
A Manchester lass through and through, Rowetta is currently wooing crowds at Haçienda Classical concerts, bringing the house down with her storming rendition of “You Got The Love”. We catch up with Rowetta on a rare day of leisure.
British Ideas Corporation: A day off! What have you been up to?
Rowetta: Walking my dogs. That’s the first thing I do. And I’ve been getting backing tracks together because I’m doing a gig tomorrow for the launch of a foundation, so I’ve been sorting that out.
Is that dogs, plural: two, three, four…?
Two little ones. A King Charles spaniel and a papillon.
The Haçienda Classical that you’re part of has been hugely popular this year. Has that surprised you?
No, not at all. Back at the start, I thought, “If this works, it’s going to be amazing.” But we didn’t know if it would work or how it would work. We thought it might turn out pretty big but didn’t know if the venues would be up to it. I didn’t even know what kind of venues we’d be doing. As soon as I went to rehearsals, to be honest, I just thought, “Oh my God!” It blew me away. The orchestra, the choir; I just couldn’t wait to sing with them all. There’s Mike [Pickering] and Graeme [Park] doing their DJ bits, these classic tunes, Hooky [Peter Hook] playing bass… You just knew it was going to go down well. I feel so lucky to be involved with it.
We were in Brighton a few weeks ago covering the Great Escape Festival. Haçienda Classical was the talk of the town.
It’s been the same everywhere. People have been seeing clips on YouTube and Facebook – they know how good it is. But when you’re there, it’s even better because you can’t replicate that atmosphere on a video or iPhone. The first show, I didn’t know what to expect, mixing classical music with classic house tunes. It works brilliantly. It’s for all ages, too. When I come on to sing “You Got The Love”, you can see people crying. It’s a brilliant buzz. It’s like nothing else I’ve done before – it’s fantastic.
Have you ever met Candi Staton?
A few times. I love Candi Staton. I’m such a fan of hers and obviously “Young Hearts Run Free” – just brilliant. She’s a role model for me. She looks amazing and she dresses really cool.
Which have been the standout venues of the tour? The Royal Albert Hall must be an incredible place to play.
It is. There’s the size of the place and obviously there’s the people that have played there before. I went to the MOBOs a few years ago at the Royal Albert Hall. When I was watching Lauryn Hill, I thought, “I’d love to be on that stage.” I didn’t think it would ever happen to me with the Mondays or one of my house tunes. I thought that if I started to do old-fashioned tunes maybe I’d get there that way because I’ve got that sort of voice. But I remember going to the sound check and getting this amazing buzz standing on the stage. It’s an immense building. So that’s a real standout one. Manchester was also fantastic. I’m from Manchester but the Castlefield one a couple of weeks ago was perfect. It was a great outdoor event. They’ve all been brilliant, to be honest. I’ve loved them all, but Royal Albert Hall was special. London audiences with the Mondays can be on and off, you never know what to expect. Sometimes they don’t let themselves go but the Royal Albert Hall that night was like a rave.
Do you still live in Manchester?
I do, yes. I always will. I live near the airport because I go away a lot.
What’s Manchester like these days?
It’s lovely. It’s vibrant, it’s different, a lot of people have moved in, the BBC have moved here, so you get a lot of celebrity and entertainment people. I try not to get too involved with that. I love Manchester, I love the humour, the dryness. I love real Mancunians. I just like the daily life. I like people going, “Hiya!” when you’re in the shops. People say all the time, “Are you still singing?” That’s every day. They’re not nuisances. I still get binmen taking pictures of me picking up dog poo in the mornings. I get that. But on the whole, people are used to seeing you so they just leave you alone.
It’s 25 years since Cities In The Park.
You had an amazing outfit when you appeared with the Mondays.
I had this white dress and Shaun [Ryder]’s dad made me some whips out of drumsticks with gaffer tape. I wanted white ones. I remember I had a really fit boyfriend then who was on a programme called Families. He had a friend called Jude Law! He took Jude Law to his first gig. So there’s pictures of me and Jude Law onstage but he was with this guy I was seeing – he was much fitter than Jude Law. Jude Law loved the Mondays but he’d never been to a proper gig before.
Do you go to festivals much?
Only when I’m singing at them. The last thing I want to do on a weekend off is go to a festival unless there’s somebody amazing I want to see. I went to Lovebox to go and dance onstage with Nile Rodgers; Grace Jones was there with Chaka Khan. When you’ve got a line-up like that, that’s when I’m gonna go. And I’ve just been to The Stone Roses in Dublin, and I loved that. I sang at the afterparty.
How did you get involved with the Happy Mondays?
I was a fan of theirs and I loved Tony Wilson. Tony Wilson said on a programme that he used to host that the Mondays were the best band in the world. He’d said it about the Sex Pistols years before. So I watched them, loved them, went to see them and just pestered them and followed them around for about six months. I told the manager that they should get me to join the band and that I’d be really good for them. Obviously, they didn’t take any notice for a while. Then I got a call to go down and sing with Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne in London. I couldn’t believe it. The Mondays were away touring and they said, “Can you come down and sing on this track?” It was “Step On”. It was just unbelievable. I never thought I’d get to sing with them.
It was a good time for music, then.
It was brilliant. Before that, I’d worked with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park. I’d had a record out with them. I think that was ’89 on Deconstruction Records. It was a fantastic time for music because I’d go to the Haçienda and people would hear me singing along to records and they’d say, “Will you sing on my tune?” I sung on a lot of house tunes and was writing house tunes and to work with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park then, it got me my Haçienda pass. That meant I could see my favourite bands all the time and I got to see Tony Wilson, who I loved. I think I was just really lucky.
What was Tony Wilson like?
I loved him. He was like family. It’s hard to talk about him now because I miss him. I go and talk to him; I go and sit by his grave. Not all the time, but I have a few times. I just miss him. I used to listen to him on the telly and I really took what he said seriously.
And you had some success on The X Factor. What was Simon Cowell like to work with?
I thought he was funny. I got on with him and I liked him. I did The X Factor for my grandma. People got confused: “Why would you do something like that?” But my grandma didn’t appreciate the Mondays, house music or anything else I’d done. To her, going on TV and hearing Simon Cowell saying I was great and to hear people say, “Oh, your granddaughter’s amazing!” made my grandma happy. Before she passed away, in her eyes I was famous, I was the top woman on The X Factor, so she was happy. It was only a few weeks of my life and I did well in that competition. It’s a hard competition when you’re singing songs you wouldn’t normally do. I can’t even listen to some of the songs I was singing. They’re not my cup of tea. But it worked, I did as I was told and I enjoyed it.
You sang some Joy Division tracks with The Light a couple of years ago, didn’t you?
I still do. That was such an honour. When I was asked by Hooky, I was like, “Oh, I can’t!” When he asked people to sing, they turned him down because they were frightened of the internet criticism. So I was a last resort and that’s the truth! He likes to play bass more than sing but now he’s ended up having to sing. I do four songs. “Atmosphere” goes down well. It was the 35th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ passing recently so we did the full works of Joy Division in a church in Macclesfield. It was a long, long night hosted by Howard Marks, who’s now passed away too. It was amazing; it was one of the best nights to sing at. I’m really honoured and the Joy Division fans have been brilliant with me because the idea of me singing Joy Division songs was a bit strange for me at first, but it actually works really well. I get a great response. I’m really proud that Hooky asked me. But I love Hooky, anyway. He’s like a brother.
Do you go to the gym with Hooky?
No, I don’t go to the gym with him and I don’t do the 10K with him. He comes out clubbing with us sometimes and watches us get drunk. I usually spend Boxing Day with him and his family. It’s lovely. We have a great relationship. I go and see him in Majorca quite a lot. We spend a lot of time together and I love him.
How do you keep in shape?
I don’t worry about it too much. I just walk my dogs. I’m not a junk-food person. It’s just difficult when I’m on the road with the Mondays; after I’ve been on tour, I’m not always in the best shape but I just walk the dogs. And dancing on stage with Bez helps. I’m not 21, it’s not the end of the world if you’re not a size six. It doesn’t bother me.
Where does Bez keep his maracas?
He uses a different set for each gig. Each pair is painted, so they’re unique, and they get thrown into the crowd. I don’t keep whips and he doesn’t keep maracas.
What have you got coming up?
I’ve got a single coming out on Tazmania Records, which is an American label, on 1 August called “Never Enough” with Zero B. So I’m looking forward to that. I’m hoping to do another track with Will Atkinson. I did a trance tune with him on Future Sound of Egypt; I’m hoping to do a follow-up. There’ll be a few more dance tunes and then I’m going to New Orleans on 2 September for Southern Decadence. I’m singing there. And then just loads of solo gigs and the Haçienda Classical gigs. It keeps me busy.
See Rowetta singing “You Got The Love” at the Haçienda Classical, Royal Albert Hall in March: