Emerging on the scene in 1989, The Beautiful South adopted Alison Wheeler into the band in 2003. After their 2007 split, they reformed under the new name of The South, and continue to make music and tour. As we approach the return of Fi.Fest – where the group are set to perform – we speak to Alison, one of nine members, about being “airlifted into a British institution”, and filling the shoes of Jacqui Abbott.
What was your route into The Beautiful South?
People do say I was really lucky because it was a right place, right time kind of thing, and I suppose the more doors you knock on, eventually one will open. I was working at a record company through the day and auditioning and singing at night. I was in the kitchen of the sound department one morning where a girl was making a cup of coffee, and she suggested I join her gospel choir. I was like, ‘Oh, well I’m not really religious’ and she said that it wasn’t all about religion, so I joined and was with them for three years. During that time, three of us (out of the huge choir) got asked to do a session for Dave Hemingway who was doing a solo album at the time. Dave took me to one side during the session and said, ‘I think your voice would really suit The Beautiful South, would you like me to recommend you?’ That’s as far as the audition process went, I suppose. Dave is quite a shy character and Paul Heaton said, ‘Look, it takes quite a lot for him to recommend somebody so if he’s recommending you, I know you can sing. What’s really important is that you get on with the band.’ I went up to meet the boys and we took it from there.
Were you a fan first?
It was their heyday when I was asked to join, I went home and looked in my CD collection, and I already had three albums. I can’t for the life of me tell you when I got them – they just appeared in my collection. They’re one of those British bands where you know so many of their songs without even realising. I knew the band and I’d seen them a few times at festivals so that certainly helped, but I’m quite glad I wasn’t an uberfan because who knows how clumsy I might have been when I first met them; it could have been a car crash if I was starstruck and tripping over my words. Working in the record industry, I was fortunate to have been exposed to an awful lot of artists by that stage, and you get to realise they are just human and you shouldn’t treat them any differently.
You get a sense – from the humour in their lyrics – that The Beautiful South didn’t take themselves too seriously.
When I first joined, I’d come from university and worked to pay the rent for eight or nine years. When I met them, I couldn’t quite wind down to their level. They’d been musicians pretty much all their lives, and their outlook was really to have a good time. There was lots of pranking around and what might be viewed as immature behaviour, but really they were just enjoying life. It took me ages to slow down and understand who they were as people – really up for a laugh all the time. Now that I’ve slowed down and realised life is for living, it’s a lot more fun when people are playing jokes on you.
As the new singer, was it hard winning over the fans?
To me, Jacqui Abbott is the female vocalist everyone connects with when you say The Beautiful South, so it was nerve-wracking to take over her role. But I was really fortunate; everybody has been really warming, supportive. That’s testament to the songs. A) they’ve stood the test of time, and B) everybody relates to them – so they’ve been willing to give me a chance to interpret them and perform them as myself. I’ve been singing ‘Don’t Marry Her’, ‘Perfect 10’ and ‘Rotterdam’ long enough now that while Jacqui had hits with them originally, I still like to think I give my own performance. I’ve not had any bad repercussions yet… touch wood.
In 2007 when the band split, did you think that was it?
Yeah. I’d been airlifted into a British institution, I’d had the most amazing few years, and everything was still shiny and new – I didn’t really want to stop. They’d obviously been doing it since ‘89 so some of the shine had worn off and they were ready to move on to new projects and call it a day. I was really gutted to get on that train back from Hull. A bit shell-shocked, I went home and tried to work out what on earth I was going to do. Six months later I got a call from the drummer. He was lost, he was like, ‘Drumming is all I am, it’s all I’ve ever been, it’s all I want to be. So, if you’d like to keep going, I’m going to ask around the band and see who wants to keep performing – we’ll take it from there.’ It was a lifeline, it really was, and I jumped at the chance. A small pregnancy got in the way of getting out on the road as soon as we could – I had my second child and we hit the road in 2009.
How did you then end up being called, simply, The South?
When the drummer approached me, he was like, ‘I want to perform the back catalogue and maybe do some new material’, and the next question was what we should go out as. We definitely couldn’t go out as The Beautiful South because we’d lost quite a few members and the key writers had gone. We were The New Beautiful South – I think we were thinking of The New Seekers – but that didn’t sit very well with us. Eventually someone suggested The South (because fans who’d followed The Beautiful South for years often referred to them as The South) and that stuck.
Are you a different performer to ten years ago?
Probably. We’re of that age now where you do feel a bit thicker-skinned, you’re not really affected by what other people think, you’re just there to enjoy yourself. I really enjoy getting out on stage. I was in a bit of a haze with my first two children and touring, it was a balance of exhaustion – touring and coming home, being a mum. Now I’ve got the benefit of older children and of touring with a lovely, stable band. I feel very blessed.