Paul Heaton takes his soul opera The 8th on tour from July 5. The former Housemartin and The Beautiful South member talks about his creation (which came to him in a dream), its debut at the Manchester International Festival last year and his plans for a new album.
By Andy Welch.
Most people wouldn't equate a bad night's sleep with a life-changing flash of inspiration. But then Paul Heaton, one of the creative minds behind The Beautiful South, is not most people - and a nightmare for him resulted in new soul opera The 8th.
Heaton, who turned 50 in May, remembers being on holiday in Gran Canaria a few years ago and not sleeping very well. After one especially bad night, he had the idea for the soul opera in his head.
"It wasn't fully formed, but I do remember thinking it would be a really good idea to have songs about the seven deadly sins, then to create an eighth.
"In my dream, all the other seven - lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride - were talking about something, which I call the whispering of the eighth.
"I knew it was a whisper or a rumour, so that's when I decided the new eighth sin would be gossip. I think it's about time they were updated anyway, and some of them are so similar, like greed and gluttony."
The former Housemartin and Beautiful South frontman realises the opera, written in the style of a pulp fiction novel, is something of a departure for him, but isn't worried if people understand it or not. In fact, he finds the whole project liberating.
"Obviously I want people to get The 8th, but I've spent my career writing lyrics that I think are pretty simple, and there's always someone who doesn't understand them," he says.
"I think I've arrived at a stage in my life where I can think 'I don't care'. Not about people, I always care about people, but the idea that someone isn't going to understand what I'm on about. If they don't get it, they don't get it. You can't play to the lowest common denominator, you have to play to where you are in life. It's taken me a long time to get that confidence.
"Also, I'm not on the radio, I don't sell any records, so if it isn't the time to do what I want, I don't know when is."
The 8th was first performed at last year's Manchester International Festival. Organisers there were keen to stage the musical after meeting a particularly enthusiastic Heaton a few months earlier.
"We needed to get the ball rolling, so I went to the first meeting and just said all this stuff about the plans I had for staging it. It was all made up, absolute rubbish, but they liked it.
"It became very real by me making it up as I went along. Someone had to take the lead, and in the end," he adds, adopting the voice of a deluded X Factor hopeful, "they realised my dreams and more!"
Taking his lead from The Gospel At Colonus, a musical version of the story of Oedipus, Heaton had begun work on The 8th back in 2010 with former Beautiful South songwriting partner Dave Rotheray, although much of that was scrapped and reworked by friend and guitarist Johnny Lexus.
Heaton, inspired by his love of the writing of Donald Goines, explores a violent world in The 8th, with a central character reflecting on a life in the slums and examining society's evils via the seven sins. There's a distinctly film noir feel to the whole project.
"Donald Goines was America's biggest writer of black fiction," he says.
"He was actually killed in a heroin deal - he was an addict himself although some people think he was murdered. I was been reading about the history of the Black Panthers too, and Cointelpro, which was the CIA plan to destroy the Black Panthers by infiltrating them and planting drugs, information and gossip to turn them against each other."
With gritty influences and a rough idea floating around his head, he carved out a vague plan and started writing songs, bringing in playwright Che Walker to write much of the narrative and dialogue.
When it came to casting, Walker suggested his friend Reg E Cathey, who fans of cult TV series The Wire will know as Mayor Carcetti's right-hand man Norman Wilson.
"I obviously said yes," says Heaton.
"Being a big fan of The Wire, and Norman being a brilliant actor, I couldn't say anything else."
Cathey's gravel voice, and fire-and-brimstone, preacher-style delivery piece each of the vignettes together, making for one immersive, compelling piece of work.
Among the singers taking part are Simon Aldred, also known as Cherry Ghost, Kenny Anderson of King Creosote, and Jacqui Abbot, formerly of The Beautiful South. When she performed at the MIF, it was the first time she'd sung on stage since 2000.
"It was great singing with Jacqui again. She just needed a bit of a confidence boost before," says Heaton.
"I'm currently writing her some songs to sing on my next album."
She's not the only old friend Heaton has been catching up with of late.
He's just finished his second bicycle tour of the UK, covering 2,540 miles over 40 days and performing in 33 pubs, to celebrate his 50th birthday.
"I saw (former The Beautiful South singer) Briana Corrigan in Ireland when we were over, and Stan (Cullimore, Housemartins bandmate) came to two shows, and came up on stage to sing Me And The Farmer at one, and Norman (Cook - Housemartins bandmate, later Fatboy Slim) came to another."
Despite the despicable weather we've had throughout May and June, Heaton says this second tour went better than the first.
"I prepared for this one," he says.
"I set myself a target of 11st 7lbs, which I hit before we set off. I was 12st 10lbs on the first cycle tour. The extra training and weight loss made all the hills much easier, although the weather this time was horrendous. Their jaws dropped when we arrived in St Agnes in Cornwall. They never thought we'd get there in those storms.
"I've got such a busy year this year, with The 8th touring and another solo tour in the winter with Squeeze. The cycle tour was only meant to be a distraction for me. Some distraction - 2,500 miles, but it's been totally worth it."
Extra time - Paul Heaton :: Paul Heaton was born on May 9, 1962, in Bromborough, Cheshire.
:: The family moved to Sheffield when he was four, and later to Chipstead, Surrey. Paul spent some time in Germany before moving to Hull, where he formed The Housemartins.
:: The Housemartins disbanded in 1988, with Heaton going on to form The Beautiful South. The band split in 2007 citing "musical similarities" as the reason.
:: He supports Sheffield Wednesday football club, mainly because all of his friends were Sheffield Wednesday fans when he was growing up.