Monday, 7 August 2006

total:spec: Alesha

There was a point towards the end of girlband Mis-Teeq’s short but memorable career that it became obvious that unofficial frontwoman Alesha Dixon had the potential to become a super-sized solo star in her own right. It was at the beginning of 2004, when Alesha found herself on the set of the video for N*E*R*D’s hit-to-be She Wants To Move.
The resulting video made Alesha the star of the show; a podium-straddling star attraction in a futuristic club on a spaceship. While Pharrell Williams and his bandmates performed around her, Alesha proved herself more than just another bit of music video totty, exuding both the old school sass of Tina Turner and the booty-shaking skills of Beyonce. A star was born right there. Not, Alesha insists, that you’d have known it if you spent any time with the singer off camera.
“I was so nervous because I wanted to make sure I did a good job,” says the 27-year-old. “I felt sick throughout most of the day. You know when you’ve got adrenalin, excitement, nerves all flying around? And the fact that I’m standing on this podium and it was spinning around didn’t help. I actually heaved at one point and I had to have a break. They gave me this oxygen mask thing. How funny is that? It sounds dramatic but it was just because I was giving it so much and exerting so much energy. People that know me, know I’m normally quite talkative and confident, but if you just met me on that shoot you’d think I was a really quiet girl.”
Anyone that remembers Alesha from Mis-Teeq will not think of her as quiet. Her unmistakable shouty rapping style gave Mis-Teeq its distinct sound and marked the girlband out as a more interesting pop act than their contemporaries. The band’s bridging of the worlds of pop and garage, at the time a hot and innovative musical genre, gave the three-piece - also made up of Sabrina Washington and Su-Elise Nash - a credible angle that contributed to their success.
As such Alesha (the Dixon has been dropped since she married former So Solid Crew member MC Harvey and launched her solo career), who was always the driving force behind the band, was always going to be an interesting prospect as a solo star. Thankfully she’s delivered on her unspoken promise with an eclectic and adventurous debut album called Fired Up. You’ll already have heard the sassy guitar funk of debut single Lipstick, which livened up the otherwise colourless summer charts. Alesha delivers more funk on the title track, this time horn-driven, then there’s the jazzy ska of second single Knock Down, the dancehall floor-filler Ting-A-Ling, and the sprightly, sumptuous ballad Free, to name just a few.
“My main thought before I went into the studio was that I didn’t want to work with any producers I’d worked with in the band,” says Alesha. “Not because we didn’t have good relationships, just because I needed to have a different sound. So that was a conscious decision. I knew, as well, that I wanted funk, reggae, and pop in there. I did try a load of R&B songs but it’s not me. I can appreciate R&B and I love it but it’s not right for my personality. I wouldn’t want to do it just because I did it in Mis-Teeq, or just because I’m a black girl and people might expect me to do that. It wouldn’t be true to who I am. I’m in touch with many different styles of music and I think it was important to make an album that says that. And I wanted to go slightly more leftfield as well.”
Fans of Alesha’s signature rapid-fire hollering will be relieved to hear that her rapping has survived the change of direction, however.
“That is always going to be part of it as long as I enjoy it,” says Alesha. “My husband would say to me when I was recording the album, ‘Don’t you think you should do some more rapping?’ But I’m not calculated with it. If it suits the record then I’ll put it on. I won’t just put it on because people expect it and might be disappointed if they don’t hear it. The songs on the record where there’s rapping it felt right, and that’s what I’m like with everything I do. Come the second record if I’m in a place where I’m not rapping any more and not feeling it, I won’t do it. So it’s there but toned down. I’m not so shouty any more,” she laughs.
Alesha discovered she could rap quite by accident. During the late 90s she was at a family house party where her uncle was MCing. She joined him and kept repeating his lines. The reaction she got got from those watching got her thinking she wasn’t too shabby at this rapping lark and she started writing her own lyrics. But she found it tough getting hold of a mic at parties and clubs.
“I’d go to clubs like Twice As Nice and the guys wouldn’t give me the mic,” she recalls. “They’d look at me in my sexy dress and think, what the hell can she do? They were so dismissive. But there were no other female MCs round then.”

Ultimately Alesha’s rapping would prove the key to her and her band’s success, but becoming a pop star wasn’t initially on the agenda for Alesha when she was growing up. Although she was inspired by watching the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson on TV to go to dance classes, she never thought it within the realms of possibility that she might one day perform for a living herself.
“I didn’t think I could be a pop star,” she says. “I thought they were from Mars or something. It was out of my reach. So I thought I’d become a teacher instead.”
Born and raised in Welwyn Garden City, the greenbelt town situated in Hertfordshire, just north of London, Alesha was the only child of her English mother and Jamaican father. That said, she grew up with a number of half-siblings and stepbrothers and sisters. As such she doesn’t put her aptitude for performing down to a craving for attention.
“I grew up in what I would call a very dysfunctional family,” laughs Alesha. “My irony was that I had lots of siblings, but sometimes I felt like an only child. So that was interesting. But I never craved attention. I never felt I lacked in it. I have a great relationship with my mum, she’s my best friend.
“The only problem was, when I was younger, I was embarrassed to tell people about my family, because at school most kids had the 2.4 children set-up and I always had to virtually write out this family tree to explain it to people, it was so complicated. Being mixed race and having an older brother that’s black and an older brother that’s white, it was confusing for me, let alone other people. But now I actually like the fact that I’ve come from that family. It shaped who I am.”
Alesha’s ambition to become a teacher was forgotten on one fateful trip into London. On the train on the way there and on the way back she was approached by two separate music industry types who asked if she was a singer or in a band. This was all the encouragement Alesha needed and the next few years were spent trying to put together a band. In 1999 she met Sabrina at Dance Attic, a popular dance class school in West London. Not long after the duo got together with Su-Elise, whom they’d met auditions. A fourth member was added, Zena McNally, and the band signed to Telstar, cleverly touting themselves as a garage girlband just as the genre was crossing over to the mainstream.

Their debut single Why? went Top 10, and, although Zena left just after the song was released, the band went on to score a further six Top 10 singles taken from two Top 10 albums. In 2003 Scandalous, easily their biggest, and most memorable, hit started to make waves for the band in the US. Everything was looking good for them when disaster struck. Their label Telstar folded under the weight of recording a Victoria Beckham album that would never be released, leaving the girls out in the cold.
“At the time the Telstar contract ended, our management contract had also expired,” says Alesha. “We were sitting there having a meeting and literally, for the first time in six years or so, we were free. It was a weird feeling. We had to think, do we sign another deal and take the risk of it maybe not working, or do we walk away now with no debts and no legal problems. It was a great position to be in and that’s the decision we came to. I don’t have any regrets.
“The only thing I sometimes look back on and think, what if...?, is that things were just starting to come good in America. But our deal with Warners was through Telstar so that ended when the label ended. We were just starting to make waves in America. But in a way it’s actually given me hope, shown me that it’s possible. Scandalous doing well there has given me a hunger for it now. It’s made me want to go back now and do it again, because I really loved it out there.”
With her appearance in the She Wants To Move video, Alesha proved that she could cut it in the wider world beyond the UK music scene. As taste-making trade mag Music Week has already pointed out, Alesha is a pop star with “truly global potential”.
“Am I thinking big? I’m thinking wherever the music wants to go I’ll go with it,” laughs Alesha. “That’s how I’m thinking. I don’t see why I should stop at any country or why I shouldn’t try it out. You can only try, and you get to experience life along the way.
“Just the fact that I did that She Wants To Move video was really good for me in tackling that whole perception that America is untouchable by British artists. I think it was good for me and for other British artists to see someone from Britain merging with an American artist. Just from that point alone I’m glad I did it.”

Sunday, 6 August 2006

total:spec - Russell Brand

When people look back on the summer of 2006, one name will be more prominent than any other - that of Russell Brand. Riding into the nation’s consciousness in the Trojan horse that is his E4 show Big Brother’s Big Mouth, the anarchic (both in hairstyle and lifestyle) TV presenter stroke comedian is now the most talked-about TV personality of the year and, against all odds, has become ridiculously famous.

It’s not just for his TV work, although BBBM and his MTV chat show 1 Leicester Square have both become cult viewing, creating yet another ‘love him or hate him’ TV personality that people adore and abhor in equal measure. Neither is it just for his comedy work, which made him one of the fastest-selling acts at the Edinburgh Festival this year. It’s also because of his seemingly eventful love life and drug problem past - two things that have made him both tabloid fodder and a bona fide gossip-generating celebrity.

Now, with the whole country talking about him for these various reasons, the 31-year-old has headed out around the UK on an epic stand-up tour called Shame. Filled with uncomfortably hilarious anecdotes about his troubled past, the gigs will be a triumphant end to an amazing year for the Essex-born star.

With so much success finally under his belt, you may expect the man who has been romantically linked to Kate Moss (amongst many other famous females), and who is known for his belligerent and surreal streams of consciousness, might be sporting a somewhat super-sized ego right now. Not so. Russell Brand in the flesh is a surprisingly humble character, one who has unequivocally gone through hell and back to get where he is and, as such, is hugely grateful for the second chance he’s getting.

“I burnt a lot of bridges before, with all my antics,” he says, sitting down to a green tea in a London hotel. “But I’m much better now and I’m just keeping my nose clean. Doing that Big Brother job I’ve not caused anyone any trouble. I actually have a special contract saying that if there’s any nonsense I can be fired at a moment’s notice.

“But I’ve gone in and done the job, had a laugh, kept me head down. I’ve been serving my time. Not that working on Big Brother’s Big Mouth is like being in Pentonville nick. It’s far more like Strangeways,” he quips. “No, actually I really enjoy it, I love doing that programme.”

Big Brother’s Big Mouth, the noisy Big Brother discussion show that Brand has presented on E4 since 2004, is the show that has brought him back from the edge after three years in a career wilderness, after Brand was fired in 2001 from his job at MTV. The presenter hosted a number of shows on the music channel, but one in particular, where he went around clubs in the UK talking nonsense to wasted clubbers, provided him with plenty of opportunity to cause trouble. At this time Brand was addicted to crack and heroin. He was at the peak of his drug-taking, and he seemed to have no sense of what was inappropriate behaviour. “I just thought nothing mattered, or nothing had any meaning or value,” he explains. “I just thought it was funny, really.”

Brand would clock up lots of extras on hotel bills that MTV had to pay for. He would leave bacon behind picture frames. He once left his two pet snails behind in a hotel room, where they were rescued by the RSPCA. He also once left an actual pig’s head in a hotel. “We were using it as a little puppet for the show,” he says, “and we just abandoned it.”

There was an incident where he jumped on his boss’s car, damaging it. Fellow drug addicts would be allowed into the MTV offices and just wander around. He even brought his drug dealer in to show him around. But it was on September 12, 2001 that MTV finally cracked and fired him. On the day after the terrorist attacks in America, Brand turned up at MTV for a scheduled interview with Kylie Minogue wearing an Osama Bin Laden outfit. “That was insensitive,” he reflects, deadpan.

Brand discovered just how addictive his personality was (he also admits to being a sex addict) when he was 16. Having left a troubled home life - an only child, his father left when he was a baby, he didn’t get with his stepfather - to attend the Italia Conti stage school. It was there he found drugs. He tried everything and admits that “drugs didn’t really agree with me”. But then he tried heroin. “When I took that I thought, ‘Oh my God, a drug that works at last.”

The reason behind his enthusiastic chemical ingestion was a need to fill a void he felt he had in his life. “I’ve got a lot of energy and a high capacity for consuming experience,” he explains. “I need stimulus and something happening or I get bored. I need things to happen so when stuff is not happening - and stuff can’t always be happening can it? - I get frustrated. Like even now I’m looking at that cuticle on my finger that’s been pushed down - some might say that examining that cuticle doesn’t give the thrill you need in life, like hang-gliding, or playing golf with lemmings. No, that’d be cruel.”

So what fills the void now? “Work,” replies Brand immediately. “I do a lot of stand-up comedy. I look at my cat. Do yoga. A bit of flirting.”

Brand got kicked out of Italia Conti for his drug-taking, and was then unable to pursue acting because of his reputation. “No agencies would try me out because they thought I was a drug addict madman, and they were right,” he says. “So I had to go and do stand-up comedy because you’ve got control of that yourself and you don’t need anyone to give you a job. You can just do it above a pub, or by a pub, or near a pub, or under a pub. As long as there is a pub somewhere in the proximity, stand-up comedy can work.

“I was good at it. It was easy to get a foothold. I’ve got an aptitude for talking to people and being funny when I’m trying to be really sexy and cool. That’s probably when I’m at my funniest, as I don’t seem to be able to master being sexy and cool at all. I’d get incredibly nervous before I performed, and when I was drinking and taking drugs, my nervousness manifested itself as arrogance and aggression. Now my nervousness comes out as humility. It’s a good transition.

“I’d have five or six good gigs and then about four awful, awful ones where there were fights on stage. I got arrested after gig at the Edinburgh Festival once. I got into a fight with security at the venue and got my leg gashed up. I had to go to hospital and have hundreds of stitches, and I was trying to buy heroin in casualty reception.”

Did you succeed? “No. Would you believe that when I gave a group of 12-year-old boys £40 to go and buy me some heroin they didn’t come back. I was disgusted. What does this say for Anglo-Scottish relations when you can’t trust some 12-year-old boys in casualty at midnight with blood spraying out of your leg to go and buy you some heroin? Not since Hadrian’s Wall came down has there been such a slight. I think we should put it back up on the strength of that alone.”

These days his stand-up routines are less dramatic and eventful, and instead of having good gigs and bad gigs he only seems to have good gigs. “I’m much better at it now I’m not on drugs,” says Brand. “I’m in much less trouble, I’m not so rude. I’m not a pain in the arse. I’m funnier and I’ve got more respect for myself. I just want to be funny. It’s not a big aggressive mental breakdown like it used to be.”

It was stand-up that got him his job at MTV first time round, and it would be stand-up that rescued him again. Once he was fired from MTV he managed to keep his presenting career going for a while, hosting the show Re:Brand on UK Play which saw him tackle social taboos. He had a boxing match with his father, tried to convert the leader of the young BNP to socialism, and tested his heterosexuality by having a sexual encounter with a man in a toilet.

But as his drug problem worsened, the TV work dried up, and Brand realised he needed to sort himself out. He went to a treatment centre run by a charity called Focus, of which he’s now a patron.

“It turns people who are drug addicts into slightly less unreliable members of society,” says Brand. “Marginally less dizzy and twittish contributors, like me.

“It was a really hard thing to do,” he adds. “You don’t half miss heroin after you’ve been taking it awhile. It’s like losing a family member, or losing access to an enthralling PlayStation game you were really enjoying - ever so difficult, painful, but ultimately really rewarding.”

Do you ever worry you might start again? “I think you can never be complacent about it. I’ll try not to. But all I can say, genuinely, is that I won’t take any drugs today. I follow what I learnt during treatment and it becomes much easier not to take drugs as you go on.”

Brand turned his tale into a hugely-successful stand-up routine, the critically-lauded Better Now, and in 2004 he landed the job on Big Brother’s Big Mouth, at the time called Efourum. He’d not watched Big Brother before.

“I just never got turned on to it,” he says. “I was aware it was going on because of the phenomenal impact that it had but, I don’t know, I was busy at nine o’clock. That’s when I like to look out the window.”

With or at your cat? “At the cat. Sometime he looks back. Sometimes we get a tin can each and we connect them with string. Then I’ll just cry tears and wait for the tears to be absorbed by the string. He’s at the other end and he drinks them. Some people have judged me for that. But there’s no more natural a thing.”

But now you watch Big Brother. “Yeah and he just sits out there on his own licking dry twine.”

Since Big Brother took Brand from his cat-related activities, he’s stayed out of enough trouble to be able to build on his success. He won Time Out Comedian Of The Year earlier this year, and he has a number of projects on the go, including a Radio 2 sitcom called Cloud Cuckoo Land, and a show for Channel 4 where he immerses himself in “unusual experiences”.

“It’s made my mum proud of me, which is nice,” says Brand. “She nearly cries when she speaks to me because she’s happy that I’m not all ill and that. There were times when it looked like I was going to die, or go to a mental hospital. And now I’ve got every chance of doing both, dying in a mental hospital,” he laughs. “And filming it. But, no, she’s really proud and that’s really important because I ain’t got no brothers or sisters or anything.”

Brand has also returned to acting, the career he first started to embark on before things went wrong. Bit parts in the drama White Teeth and the BBC sitcom Blessed have joined a small role in the forthcoming Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon-starring film Penelope on his CV.

“I sat next to Christina at the read-through,” says Brand. “She was not as extraordinary as I thought she’d be. I suppose everybody’s just normal people aren’t they? I expected a movie star to float in on a cloud or something. But obviously she didn’t because she is a human being, so those expectations were na├»ve.

“I didn’t meet Reese Witherspoon. She weren’t there so I can only assume she is a right bastard,” he laughs. “That’s gone into that little box,” he says, motioning to the tape recorder. “I mean it,” he laughs, turning into the Brand we know on screen. “She’s a right bastard. I’ll say it to my dying day. My epitaph will be: Russell Brand - above all else he believed Reese Witherspoon to be a right bastard.”

She’ll be a guest on 1 Leicester Square now. “Oh fuck, she will won’t she? She’ll hopefully realise that this was a joke, unless you craftily fashion it into a malicious outburst, you bastard. That would be very vindictive.”

Friday, 4 August 2006


The other night I had this really interesting conversation with a friend of mine. It was one of those drunken conversations where it gets all serious and one person starts spilling stuff that's been on their mind without really being aware that it was on their mind as much as know the drill.

Anyway, I didn't mind playing counsellor/confessor, mainly because I like the guy, and other than that what he was saying affirmed some things I myself had been thinking about recently. Basically the story goes like this.

Our friend here, lets call him Tom, has been with his boyfriend for some time. A matter of years, I forget how many exactly. They're happy together. They've reached that point in the relationship where they're ridiculously comfortable with each other; they know their roles in the relationship, they pick at each other's personality traits, sex is as functional as it is emotional or sensual, and they can predict each other's behaviour to a startling degree. They are, you might say, the consummate 'married couple'.

You might expect Tom to have been bending my ear about being bored in his relationship, about wondering whether it's what he really wants. That may be the case to some extent, but it's not what he was saying as it's not as simple as that. Because Tom is straight.

That's right, despite being in a long-term committed relationship with another man, he is as straight as a die. In the time I've known Tom I'd not really thought too much about his sexuality. He told us (his group of gay friends) he was bisexual. He got a bit of ribbing about it, but only in that we all took the mick out of each other about certain things. We certainly weren't appalled by the idea as some gay people are (that "yeah we all say that at first" attitude you often get towards bisexuals).

But talking to him that night I digged a little deeper. To us he says he's bisexual, because that's the easiest way to make us understand where he's coming from. To his straight friends he describes himself as gay, because that's the easiest way to make them understand why he's in a relationship with a man. But the truth of the matter is, of all the labels we give our sexuality, he's closest to being straight.

He told me that, before he met his boyfriend, he was totally into girls; fantasised about them, went out with them, slept with them. Then he met a bloke who he happened to fall in love with. Sex with a man didn't repulse him and so he was able to embark on a relationship with him. But still, despite having been practising gay sex for some time, what he fantasises about, what porn he watches, is all to do with women.

He's young, early 20s, got the rest of his life ahead of him, but still at that age you think about who you want to settle down with, who you might grow old with. I asked him whether he saw that person as a man or a woman. He answered vaguely, saying he wasn't really sure. As drunk as he was, he was aware that the answer to that had some consequences to the relationship he was in at the moment.

But I think mostly the problem was that in our supposedly enlightened society (and relatively it is, we can't complain too much - but discrimination and bigotry are still a problem) this poor guy wasn't allowed to be who he was. He had been forced to describe himself in these different ways to different people in order to be accepted in his behaviour.What I don't understand is why we do that - why its in our human nature to categorise everything. Is the fact that sexuality is actually a fluid changing thing, a grey area for everyone rather than something that is black, white, or black and white for each person, really that hard to understand?

Apparently so. I read a feature in Attitude magazine some months back written by a man who identifies as straight, has always be sure of his attraction towards women, but thought he'd try sex with a man. He had a gay mate who was willing to indulge him, he tried it, and thought it was alright. But that was it. Job done. End of. Curiosity satisfied. There's nothing new about this. I don't doubt that this goes on all the time. It's certainly happened to me. I had a brief sexual relationship with a straight male friend of mine which was interesting and exciting and then fizzled out. We then carried on being friends as we were before. No issue.

What was different about the straight guy in Attitude was that he was open about what he'd done. Whereas most straight guys would rather die than talk about sexual experiences they've had with men - or at least understand that other people would be bothered or confused by it, even if they themselves are not - this guy was really open about it and talked about it to his friends. The confusion and sometimes repulsion he encountered said it all - people can't cope with the idea that having sex with someone of the same sex doesn't necessarily make you gay, or vice versa.

I had sex with a girl once. It didn't make me straight. I was experimenting, testing my sexuality. Admittedly I wasn't really conscious of that. Consciously it was peer pressure - I was one of the last of my group of friends to lose their virginity and I wanted to get on with it asap. But although the experience was nice and enjoyable (and a relief to get done!), I knew for sure before, during and after that I preferred men.

A lot of people see this as a rite of passage for gay men, a confirmation of what their true sexuality is. Something that, because we're brought up 'straight', we end up going through on our way to coming out as gay. I used to see it like that, but now I look at that experience as a confirmation that, if I so desired, I could have sex with women as well. Why, just because I prefer to have sex with men, should I box myself in? While I think it unlikely that I might have sex with a woman again, I'm not going to think of that first time as the last. And you never know, like Tom I could even fall in love with a woman. Why not?

I related to my friend's dilemma. Not because I have fallen in love with a woman before, but because a straight man has been in love with me. Whereas Tom didn't allow his sexuality to get in the way of his relationship, the man who loved me (who I loved in return) did. Tom's case is an unusual one. Certain factors (his lack of repulsion of gay sex, his boyfriend being very much the dominant character in the relationship) helped the relationship go in the direction it has. In my case the man I loved was the dominant character and so he dictated the course of our relationship - as he was the 'straight' one we never got it together.

How did I know he loved me? He told me for a start, and there were certain other things that made it clear - things he said, the way he behaved physically with me when we were alone. But he had an over-riding disgust at the thought of having sex with a man. We came close to having sexual encounters a number of times but our mutual fear (albeit for different reasons - his of what he was doing, mine of scaring him away for good) kept us from going for it. And ultimately I knew that he really wanted to be with a woman. I could never have made him happy even if the factors keeping us from exploring our relationship further had been different.

So maybe this is why we categorise our sexuality, put it in boxes with nice clear labels - not because we're scared of having sex with different genders, but because we all dream about who we might one day settle down with and we want it made clear to everyone what sex that person will be.

That makes sense. But in the meantime I hope the fact that more and more people are discussing sexuality, less and less people allow the label they put on themselves to stop them experimenting with it. Which of course is my long-winded way of making straight boys feel better about coming home with me.