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Sharleen Spiteri Julian Broad1

Sharleen Spiteri's Personal Best

27 March 2024, 08:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Julian Broad

Additional Photography by Clyde Gates

Almost 40 years since forming Texas, Sharleen Spiteri is still fulfilling her dreams. She talks to Alan Pedder about recording at Muscle Shoals and the story of the band through five milestone songs.

To paraphrase a well-known (and weirdly litigious) slogan, don’t second guess with Texas.

Whenever it seems the Scottish band might have run its course, out they come again, taking big swings and unexpected avenues. Their new album The Muscle Shoals Sessions, recorded with legendary songwriter and session man Spooner Oldham, adds another feather to their comeback cap, sensitively reimagining many of their best-known songs as hazel-eyed soul.

Formed in 1986 by Sharleen Spiteri, Johnny McElhone and Ally McErlaine, the longevity of Texas has far outstripped anything they could have imagined at the time. At last count, they’ve sold well over 40 million records and notched up ten UK Top 10 albums. The most recent being a career-spanning collection, released to coincide with the band’s triumphant appearance at Glastonbury last summer, notably featuring a newly recorded cover of northern soul classic “Keep On Talking”, co-written by Oldham.


What seemed at the time to be a one-off loving nod to a genre that’s long been a part of the Texas musical bloodline, “Keep On Talking” turned out to be a bit of an Easter egg for a generous platter of transatlantic soul.

“Kenny Gates, who’s the co-owner of [PIAS] Records, first came to me and asked me to do a piano record project about 7 or 8 years ago,” reveals Spiteri, speaking to Best Fit from her home in Primrose Hill. “When we eventually agreed, it was on the condition that we could find a way of doing it that would expand on what we’ve already created. We didn’t want it to just be a case of, ‘Oh, and here’s the greatest hits again.’ It had to be something with some gravitas to it.”

For a long while, it seemed that the project was destined to just go around in circles for eternity. Ideas came and went, until finally Oldham’s name came up and a lightbulb flashed on in their minds. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, Spooner Oldham. Jesus Christ. Fantastic, yes’,” says Spiteri. Excited, the band travelled out to Alabama in the summer of 2022 and entered the renowned FAME Recording Studios, where Aretha Franklin had recorded her first big hit 55 years before.

Sharleen Spooner

“Recording in a place like Muscle Shoals, you do become very aware that you are going to become a part of the amazing history of the records that were made in that place, so in that sense it’s really special,” says Spiteri. “You’ve probably seen photographs from inside the studio, so maybe you know visually what it looks like, but the feeling of being there and everything being in 3D was something quite extraordinary. I was like, wow, Aretha Franklin stood right here!”

Being a self-professed music geek who gets excited about the finer details, Spiteri feels obligated to point out that a lot of albums people assume were recorded at Muscle Shoals were actually made elsewhere with some of the same musicians. For instance, Oldham recorded on four of Franklin’s albums but she never recorded at Muscle Shoals again after 1967.

“I do think that walls hold people, they hold sound, and you can feel that when you go into any studio,” says Spiteri, reflecting on the experience. “The whole place smelled like wood and cigarettes, but not that horrible stale cigarette smell of an old pub. It was more the smell of a cigarette hanging out the side of your mouth as you’re hunched over a piano trying to rewrite a lyric that’s not working. It was the smell of creativity. It felt very nostalgic and inspiring, for sure.”

The reaction to the first two songs to be released from The Muscle Shoals Sessions – a new version of the Texas classic “Say What You Want” and a cover of soul duo Charles & Eddie’s million-selling “Would I Lie To You” – has taken Spiteri a little by surprise. Wary of oversaturating the market by releasing so soon after last year’s retrospective, she says the band hadn’t planned to do much promo for the record. They even took steps to make it chart-ineligible.

“It was meant to be more like a thank you to the Texas fans,” she explains. “The thinking was that anyone who wasn’t a Texas fan would probably never hear it, but everybody seems to be saying how much they love it. We knew it was good, and hopefully we’d never actually make a shit record, but people do seem to be connecting with it in a very different way, which is amazing.”

When it came to picking her personal favourites from the entire Texas repertoire, Spiteri says she wanted to choose songs that would tell the band’s story, all the way from 1989’s debut album Southside, through their late-‘90s revival with the multi-million selling White on Blonde, and into the present day. “Through success or failure, I feel like these songs do tell the story of us,” she says. “They’re all milestones.”

"I Don't Want a Lover" by Texas (1989)

BEST FIT: I love that you wrote the lyrics and recorded the original demo with Johnny when you were only 17 and, almost 40 years later, you still stand by every word.

SHARLEEN SPITERI: Yeah, it’s funny because I don’t even know if I knew what I was really saying at that age. But I remember when Johnny put down the synth line, which goes dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, it had this sort of ‘Don’t you dare!’ feeling to it. It was almost like… not a barrier, but a warning sign. A warning before you could break through to the next level. And that’s what “I Don’t Want a Lover” is. It’s a song that says, I don’t just want that, I want everything. If you can supply everything then, okay, maybe I’m gonna let you in. But until you can actually prove that point, I’m just going to keep you at arm’s length.

I guess that’s stood me in good stead, in everything in my life, because that’s how I feel about most things. I’m either in or I’m out, and other people are either in or out and not really getting in [laughs].

What had been going on in your life up to that point to inspire that strength of feeling?

I don’t even know!

I was still working as a hairdresser when Johnny and I were writing songs and making demos. I remember when we wrote “Thrill Has Gone”, “Everyday Now” and basically all of the songs that were on Southside. There was this whole new world just beginning for me, and it was kind of strange because for a while it was this big secret. Because I still had my job, I could only write after work. I remember on Tuesdays I’d go to night classes and they’d end around 9pm and I’d say to the others, "Oh, aye, see you in the morning," and then I’d be up until 2:30 or something with Johnny recording on this four-track we had.

I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was so thrilling and exciting. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I thought, ‘God, if I can get a shot at this,’ but I couldn’t even imagine how life would be. Even after the success of Southside, I couldn’t imagine that it would go on for more than a year, never mind still be making records all these years later.

It must have been a huge thrill for you when Bernard Edwards from Chic came on board to produce the album. But then you went out to LA to record and things didn’t go exactly to plan, right?

It was the most exciting thing, and then the most disappointing thing. I’ve never been so bloody angry than when we had to fly back from Los Angeles and I hadn’t got to do any vocals at all. Everyone else had played. Every day I’d be like, ‘When am I singing? When am I singing?’ I was like a little dog, honestly, yap-yap-yap. Bernard was always like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna do it,” “Yeah, we’ll sing tomorrow”… it was always fucking tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, and inevitably tomorrow never came.

One day he just didn’t turn up. Unbeknown to us, he was going through a lot of personal problems with family and drugs and all kinds of things, and he just ran off. Thank god it was back in the days when record companies could just write off that amount of money. Now they’d be like, “Aaand you’re dropped, goodbye!”

Sometimes people romanticise and don’t tell the real truth of how things were, but the reality is thank Christ record companies had money back then because we got a good few chances at making Southside.

You eventually made the album with producer Tim Palmer. Do you have any particular memories of those sessions?

Yeah, we were recording in Utopia Village in Primrose Hill, which sadly isn’t there anymore. Well, Utopia Village is still there but the studio isn’t. Of course, back then Primrose Hill was not the Primrose Hill that people know today.

I remember me and Ally were walking into the little village with Tim to get some sandwiches, and suddenly Tim called out, "Robert, how are you?," and it was Robert Plant. Ally and I were like, "What the fuck? Holy shit!" It turns out that Tim knew Robert really well, and had even made an album with him, and he introduced us.

Years later, we ended up doing a tour opening up for Robert. Oh, and funnily enough – and this is very, very strange – the day we went to Muscle Shoals and were arriving at FAME Studios to meet Spooner for the first time, Robert Plant was in the studio. I mean, I really couldn’t have made that up. I forgot that until right now. I wasn’t even trying to tie those two stories together. I feel like a writer [laughs].

You’ve said before that the huge success of “I Don’t Want a Lover” felt like an albatross for the band for a wh…

[Looks horrified] I’ve never said that! That must have been someone else. Never in my life have I ever said that because I really haven’t ever felt that. That song was our foot in the door, it was our foot on the first rung of the ladder. I’ll never be able to pay the dues to that song that it really deserves, because it was the first big moment. It was the start.

I still really love this song. I love that moment when Ally’s haunting slide guitar comes in, then the dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum. I love it when we play live and that song comes up. When that cool, haunting slide guitar comes in, it’s literally like, “Right! Let’s go folks!”


"Say What You Want" by Texas (1997)

BEST FIT: This song changed everything for Texas, again. Did you know it was going to be a hit when you wrote it? Did you get that kind of feeling about it?

SHARLEEN SPITERI: I think we did, yeah. The honest truth is that when we were making “Say What You Want” we definitely were thinking that it had something. What that something turns out to be, you never really know, but it was one of those songs that became like an earworm. We just couldn’t get rid of it from our heads. We felt like it had enough hooks and enough differences from our previous stuff to be interesting. The piano was like something out of a soul tune, and I was singing differently too, singing falsetto.

Here's the full story. We had done a cover version of Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” a few years before we wrote “Say What You Want” and it was a hit record for us. When TFI Friday called me up last-minute to come on as a guest, I was with Chris Evans on the show and sang a bit of “Tired of Being Alone” sitting at the desk he had. I remember people being like, "Wow! I never she knew she could sing like that," and suddenly things took off from there.

The thing about being a musician is that it can take you some time to come to your most natural route. I feel like, as a band, we can jump on anything. I can sing you a rock song, no problem. I can sing you a country song, I can sing you a blues song, okay! There is one thing that I really cannot do, though, and that’s sing in that sort of very Anglicised, early David Bowie style. I just feel like I’m doing a parody, like [does a completely unintelligible impression].

When Bowie went soul and did Young Americans and Let’s Dance, that was the point where I could suddenly go, "And I’m in," because I could sing the songs. Everything before that just sounded like a really bad impersonation because that style is just not in me. So, yeah, the whole soul route was very, very natural to go down for us. It wasn’t as if we felt we needed to find a new sound. It just happened organically and that was where we ended up with White on Blonde.

What was going on in your life at the time, and how did it influence the song?

Well, basically we were the shit on the shoes of British music because the whole Manchester thing, that whole baggy sound, was happening at the time. We actually recorded “Say What You Want” and the White on Blonde album in my old house in Glasgow, using my little cloakroom cupboard as a vocal booth.

We were selling a lot of records still in Europe so, for that reason, we still had a record deal. If we hadn’t been selling records in other territories, to be honest, we would have been dropped. But we didn’t really mean anything in the UK, so much so that when we actually delivered “Say What You Want” and delivered the White on Blonde album to our record company, only a couple of people even knew who we were: our A&R man, Alan Pell, and Sian Thomas, who was head of international marketing at the time. I think we’d been through quite a few managing directors of Mercury Records by that point as well. So, yeah, it was an interesting time.

Let’s talk a bit about the version of “Say What You Want” that you recorded with Wu-Tang Clan, and more specifically people’s reactions to that. I think people were surprised by it in a way that maybe not that many would be if it came out today.

Yeah, there were a lot of people who were like, "Whoa, this is unbelievable." It’s funny because even now I still sometimes get people coming up to me in the street about our performance at the Brits and being like, "That was such a moment." And it was, you know, because no one had really done anything like that before.

Again, it felt good because it was something that happened through us and through the Wu-Tang Clan. We decided among ourselves to make a record, and it really showed a friendship and a respect between us. RZA and I spoke about this and it was funny because he said to me, "You know, you guys really took a big chance on making that record," and I was like, "No, we never took a chance." I mean, we weren’t the coolest thing in hip hop and one of the most important acts on the planet at that point – which, to be honest, they still are. We always felt that they were the ones who put their necks on the line to work with us.

We made another song together later, and last year when they played in Glasgow, I got up on stage and performed with them. You know, there will always be people who are hip hop purists that are a bit like "Fuckin’ Texas," and I’m sure that there were Texas fans out there who were like, "I can’t believe they’ve done this, this is a disgrace." But I’m always like, "I don’t really give a fuck what you’re saying. I don’t care if you hate me or love me. I care about doing something that’s new and exciting. I care about experimenting."

Isn’t that what music’s supposed to be about? The whole thing about making records and making music is that there are no rules. People ask me why I joined a band. Because I fucking didn’t fit in anywhere else. That’s the whole thing about it, it’s about not doing things in a ‘normal’ way. It’s not about having a 9-to-5 job and abiding by the rules. It’s the complete opposite of all of those things. So why should we suddenly be abiding by the rules that other people think should apply? No, never gonna happen.


"Inner Smile" by Texas (2000)

BEST FIT: Often new songs that people whack on a greatest hits collection are basically filler, but both “In Demand” and “Inner Smile” are phenomenal singles in their own right. I know that “Inner Smile” was based on an unused demo by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals called “Inner Child”. How did it become a Texas song?

SHARLEEN SPITERI: When we’re writing together with someone, it’s not a done deal. There’s no agenda. It’s not like, ‘Oh you must sing this.’ Like, I’m not a performing rabbit. I’m a songwriter myself, and Johnny is a songwriter himself. If we had a song we’d written and brought that to another artist or writer, what’s wrong with trying things like changing some bits around, changing a lyric, or singing stuff in a different way. You can find something that actually works better.

I’m very sure that if Gregg had thought that we had taken pieces that he wrote and annihilated them then he wouldn’t have been a part of it. That’s just how it works. And the same for us. If it didn’t work for us, we wouldn’t have been doing it.

What is it that you love about “Inner Smile” that earns its place among your Personal Best?

When I hear other people’s music, instantly I think about the people in my life and my situation, and I manipulate their words and their rhythms to make them apply to me. For a listener, that’s when the song becomes theirs, and I think that’s what some of the best music is all about. It’s about connecting, and I think that when you can really point to something in a song, that really helps. So you have lyrics like “I don’t want a lover”, “You can say what you want”, and in “Inner Smile” it’s “You make me feel…”

Maybe it sounds really stupid to try and explain, but I always try to think that when you release a song it’s not about you. It’s not about your story. It can be about a lot of other people’s stories. “Inner Smile” was used in the film Bend It Like Beckham, and then for years it was on the air because Sky Sports were using it for their football coverage, so it became a football song. It became anthemic, and that’s not something we could have anticipated.

That’s what’s great about music. It’s an art form that just absolutely obliterates the idea of class, and even of language. Someone might not know every word exactly that’s coming from my mouth, they might not be able to translate it, but they’re getting the gist of the idea and how that relates to what they are feeling right there and then. That’s what’s amazing about music and, as a songwriter, that’s the thing that excites me the most.

Another reason I picked “Inner Smile” is because last year, not long after we’d played Glastonbury, my daughter Misty showed me a video of Fred Again playing out at Ally Pally with “Inner Smile” and there were all these young people just loving it. She was like, “Mum, that’s cool. That’s really cool.”

For me, it felt almost like coming full circle in a way. Even though we’re still releasing new songs and still having hit records, to suddenly see probably one of the biggest DJs in the world right now playing a Texas track from more than 20 years ago… yeah, I was pretty thrilled by that.

Obviously, we can’t talk about “Inner Smile” without discussing that video.

[laughs] Oh god, yeah, my Elvis impersonation. I loved doing that so much. I remember when Vaughan Arnell, the video director, said to me, “How do you feel about being Elvis?,” I was like, “I was born to be Elvis! I’ve wanted to be Elvis since the first time I saw him.”

I was born in 1967, so when I was a kid Elvis was on the TV all the time, but I would only get to see little bits of him performing and it was mostly in his movies. I remember being obsessed with Blue Hawaii from the first time I saw at my grandparents’ house. I was transfixed. I remember as well seeing Jailhouse Rock for the first time and, again, I was obsessed. So much so that in the video and on the sleeve for our single “So Called Friend”, I’m wearing the same style of Levi’s denim jacket that Elvis wears in Jailhouse Rock.


"Mr. Haze" by Texas (2021)

SHARLEEN SPITERI: “Mr. Haze” was the second single from our last album, and the first one, “Hi”, was the one we did with the Wu-Tang Clan. It was a hit record for us, and then “Mr. Haze” came along and took that to another level. It was up in people’s faces, and there was a really great dance remix of it too. It was like we suddenly got back on the radar. Not just having one hit record from an album but being able to follow it up too. It felt almost like the beginning of the next chapter for Texas.

BEST FIT: The song is based on an old outtake from White on Blonde that you rediscovered in the Universal vaults, but then you added the perfect Donna Summer sample to it, showing a whole new side to the band.

Yeah, it felt really good to show another side to Texas once again. It felt good to show people this disco soul sound that we also love.

With the song having been put away for such a long time, it was amazing to come back to it. When we tried putting the “Love’s Unkind” sample into it, it just clicked. We were like, "Jesus, that’s so good." After that, we knew we didn’t want to just recreate something that sounded a bit like it. We wanted to use the actual sample, because it was sort of creating an offset against the original song. As a sample, it was doing something really, really important within the record.

The great thing about that was that we had been out for dinner with Giorgio Moroder after he’d done a remix of our song “Summer Son” – which is a killer mix by the way – so we were able to just pick up the phone and say, “Listen, is there any way that you guys can clear this sample because we really, really want to use it?”

Whenever we play “Mr. Haze” live, I’m always a bit like, "I defy anybody not to dance to this song." People start moving a bit at the beginning and then before you know it they’re bloody dancing like lunatics.


"Halo" by Texas & Spooner Oldham (2024)

SHARLEEN SPITERI: The original “Halo” was written as a reply to a song that was written to me, and it was very upfront, very in your face, very ‘fuck you’. There’s so much sarcasm in the lyrics.

For me, personally, it was a song about disappointment and hurt, so it’s a bit weird how we’ve redone “Halo” on this new record. It sounds pretty damn different from the original version. It’s got a real kind of gospel feel to it.

When I hear “Halo” now, it’s like a release. All the feelings I’d had at the time are gone. I’ve let them go now, goodbye. Phew! For a woman who’s just about to turn 57, it’s funny to have redone the song in such a way that it has a very, very different poignancy to it, for me personally.

I think if somebody is wanting to get a soundbite of the Muscle Shoal sessions with Spooner, this is the song that I’d say to them to listen to. It’s gonna give them a little nugget of what this record is all about.

BEST FIT: It works so well in this new arrangement. How much planning did you put into these reinterpretations? What was your approach?

It’s funny because I’ve been asked that a lot and the truth, honest to god, is that we sent Spooner all the originals, he listened and got his head around them, and then we just arrived at Muscle Shoals, walked in and just pressed record. He wasn’t aware of our music before that, so he was hearing the songs for the first time. What you’re hearing on the album is literally just us following our gut instincts for what felt right.

As a band, we’ve played these songs so many times. It was great to have someone like Spooner suddenly playing them differently, even when it was just a slightly different phrasing and feel. We were basically jamming, sort of weaving in and out of what each of us was doing, trying to feel our way into the places where we fit. One of us might try something new and the others would think, ooh, so there was a little bit of peacocking and stuff like that, which was really good. To me, it was just a very honest way of making music.

Were there any songs that you tried that just didn’t work in this style? Any you just gave up on?

Funnily enough, it’s a song we’ve already talked about, “Inner Smile”.

The reason “Inner Smile” is not on The Muscle Shoals Sessions is because when we got to the point in the studio where we said, “So next we’ll do “Inner Smile’,” Spooner was like, “Nah, I’m not doing that. I’m not feeling it. I don’t like that song. I don’t do that ‘Louie, Louie’ shit” [laughs].

We thought that was amazing. The really fantastic thing about it was that he was so adamant and absolute about it that we could take it as a massive compliment that all the other songs he was playing were ones that he was really into. You know, he wasn’t just there because of some record company. It made everything feel right, which was great because it took us a good couple of years after we agreed to make this album to find who we wanted to do it with.

The first time we spoke to Spooner, it felt right to us to work together with him, but you never really know what someone else is thinking in a situation like that. Especially because we weren’t making a new record, we were making a record with our old songs. So when he said he wasn’t doing “Inner Smile” we were like, "Oh shit, this is good. This is really good."

Texas Muscle Shoals Sessions

Texas and Spooner Oldham's The Muscle Shoals Sessions is out 29 March via [PIAS].

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