INTERVIEW: Jacqui Abbott

When their first album together in fourteen years was only kept from entering at number one by new releases from Coldplay and Michael Jackson, it’s fair to say that it was a surprise all round. “Never in a million years did I think that,” Jacqui tell us, clearly still struggling to accept the fact, “I just wanted to sing again. I’d worked with Paul on The 8th [Heaton’s Manchester International Festival live performance, based on the seven deadly sins] and had such a good time I thought this would be a laugh, y’know?”

Sure, the blend of Paul Heaton’s Mozza-esque honk and Jacqui Abbott’s classic, smoky notes is timeless, but was there still space in an almost unrecognisable music scene for their Northern romps of adultery, obesity and love in its many guises?

The answer is clearly an resounding yes, and Jacqui is not only surprised and humbled by the reaction to the project, she’s perhaps one of the most grateful artists you’ll ever hear: “We didn’t have any preconceived idea of where we wanted it to go really, so everything that’s come from it has been wonderful. It’s really lovely – for me especially going away for a length of time and coming back – so I appreciate everything that’s come from it.”

Having left the band to spend time with her family, Jacqui disappeared from the limelight that shone on The Beautiful South, replaced by Alison Wheeler in 2000 until the band broke up seven years later. Although key members of The Beautiful South are missing, however, many of the core fan base have accepted Paul & Jacqui’s project, where live set lists are filled with tracks from Paul’s back catalogue (including Beautiful South and Housemartins numbers) and material from last year’s What Have We Become? and their latest release, Wisdom, Laughter And Lines.

Standing in the crowd, awaiting these working class heroes to take to the stage, there is an almost community feel within the crowd, who have followed various points of the two artists careers to meet together at this peak, where Paul and Jacqui are equal to Tom, Dick or Harry watching. “It really is like that,” Jacqui agrees, “Every time we arrive at gigs – or afterwards – if I see people I’ll stop and talk to them and thank them for coming. It’s hard, especially now, economically for people to enjoy going to gigs; they must amass an amount of money from what they earn to go and see somebody and I think it’s really nice that they go and do that.”

While her nerves were naturally apparent during early shows, two tours and numerous festival dates have helped ease Jacqui into her role; it’s important to remember that while Paul has enjoyed two successful solo albums, the demand and appreciation for his reunion with Jacqui (a moment he described as going into your garage and discovering a beautiful, covered up Rolls Royce that hadn’t been started in years) has been huge. And while Paul appears as the spokesman of the act, Jacqui has become the unofficial photographer (with snaps of every gig appearing on her Facebook page): “I thought it’d be nice to take a photo of everyone else, and let them know they were just a big a part of it.”

A tour to promote the album hasn’t started yet, and already new dates for next year has been announced, with three sold out. So does Jacqui have similar expectations for the new album to reach the top three, perhaps even topping that Coldplay, MJ-less chart? “I honestly, really don’t. It sounds a bit like I’m fibbing about that and I don’t think I am. We’re getting a positive response from what people are saying on social media and that with the new single, ‘Austerity Of Love’. But I don’t think like that, I think back when I was with The Beautiful South I didn’t think like that because more importantly to me – and I really mean this – is how much I’ve enjoyed it and what it meant to me making it, really. It’s more for my family. I’m kind of just the bystander who comes in and sings which is fine!”

There’s a clearly a wicked sense of humour lurking behind Jacqui’s reclusive role and old-fashioned tones, a necessity when working with a lyricist as cut-throat and dry as Paul Heaton. Unafraid of expressing his views, particularly political ones, there are some who may be reluctant to be the voice delivering those lines, but not Jacqui. “I’ve got an appreciation for how he writes, how there’s interplay between characters and the intelligence of his writing. So I’ve never had that feeling from him, never been asked to sing something and thought ‘I’m not singing that’ because at the end of the day it’s observational more than anything.”

If ever there was going to be any doubt, surely it would be for new track ‘Heatongrad’, which fans were given a taste of during live shows across the Summer. “The response was… strange. I’d just absolutely gawp at the crowd, just scan right the way across to see their reaction and end up giggling, really giggling thinking ‘how are they going to react this time?’ It’s a new song and people are trying to take it in musically, you can’t fully hear lyrics all the time but I was stood beside Paul, listening to ‘fuck the King and fuck the Queen’ like… Right, OK.”

The track serves as an album highlight and Paul at his wittiest and most honest, meaning that – while the “fuck me” of ‘Don’t Marry Her’ could be switched for “have me” – it’s unlikely this one will be played by Ken Bruce: “Paul will look and go, ‘Do you think we can get away with that?’ and we go, ‘Well give it a go, mate!’ But that definitely won’t make the radio. I just started singing and did think ‘Jesus, Paul!’, but just because it’s funny, and it’s a celebration of [his style] really.”

Wisdom, Laughter And Lines lands less than eighteen months after What Have We Become?, a quick turnaround for any act, but particularly one who have toured so excessively and with young families at home. Just like one of the strong-willed characters in Heaton’s stories though, Jacqui manages both, seemingly with ease. Within minutes of chatting it’s smack-you-in-the-face obvious how important home-life is(she describes the initial success as “lovely for my Mum”), but the return to stage and everything that’s come with it now plays an important role too: “Before you know it – when you’re of a certain age – you blink and the time’s just flown past; the year had gone past really quickly but I think Paul already had wanted to start writing again.”

“I envy my sons – I’ve got two teenage sons, they’re 19 and 17, and you’ve got all the time in the world when you’re a kid, haven’t you? Time’s on your side and there’s not a care in the world but I wish I could go back to that phase in my life cause it’s so lovely.”

For anyone whose ‘90s were soundtracked by Jacqui, Paul and their whimsical worries set to country tinged pop/rock, this new material has been a long overdue, welcomed return. Wisdom, Laughter And Lines is the second of two planned albums together, according to Heaton’s initial blueprint, before writing Jacqui’s first solo album. “He said the other day, ‘I don’t know how much I’d be able to sit out of it though, I’d be sticking my big nose in everywhere!’”

“But either way, I’ve not put a target on anything and I don’t look too far down the line as to what’s going to happen, I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing now and to achieve what we’ve achieved so far. So whatever comes over the next two years or whatever it is, I’ll be over the moon. It’s been wonderful.”

Wisdom, Laughter And Lines is out today. Tour dates and tickets information can be found here.

Dan Bull

Dan Bull

Dan Bull

Reviews Editor
London. Likes: Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, Prince Charles Cinema, Duran Duran Dislikes: Soreen, All-hits setlists, "I liked them before everyone else..."