Why it took a little time for The Beautiful South's Jacqui Abbott to find her voice again
Ahead of their Belfast gig, singer Jacqui Abbott tells Edwin Gilson about ditching her day job after a decade to tour with Beautiful South bandmate Paul Heaton.
The endearingly nervy Jacqui Abbott, former vocalist of pop-rockers The Beautiful South, vividly remembers the moment in 2011 that her ex-bandmate Paul Heaton asked her to join him on stage once again. She was on the phone to her mother, with whom she is extremely close, when that other important person in her life got in touch.
"Paul got in touch via Facebook of all things," recalls Abbott. "I got a message through from him and I said to my mum, in shock: 'Paul's just asked me to sing with him again! My mum said: 'You should do it, you should absolutely do it. Just do it, leave your job and do it.' The message was quite clear! I was laughing at her enthusiasm - she seemed to be more sure than me! Seriously, though, when I knew that Paul wanted me in it was a no-brainer. Why do other things when I could be singing with him?"
Abbott (40) is not only intensely grateful towards Heaton (51) for the platform he afforded her, but seemingly towards life as a musician in general, and all the "brilliant moments" it throws up. Indeed she uses the word "lucky", in relation to herself and her story, on over 15 separate occasions throughout our chat.
Abbott, who plays the Ulster Hall with Heaton on Monday, proclaims to be no believer in fate, but her "mind is still blown" by her chance meeting with Heaton outside a nightclub in 1992 that led to her first being invited to share vocal duties with the ex-Housemartins man, and also a lasting, touching friendship.
"I sang a little bit in front of Paul that night, just a few lines from a song I liked, and he said my voice was fantastic," says Abbott with a smile.
"A year and a half went by and a friend of his visited the place I worked, saying Paul still remembered me and wanted me to come for an audition with The Beautiful South. How the hell did he remember me? People say I was very lucky and I agree with them. Back then though I just thought: 'I'm going to do a different job, my life will probably change a bit now!'"
A lot of her gratitude towards Hull-based The Beautiful South came after she'd left the group in 2000. As Abbott puts it: "I didn't know that I would miss the band so much until I moved away from it, particularly in the first year after I'd departed."
Her seven-year spell in the band as a foil to Heaton, whose lyrical themes could be said to fall under the category of 'kitchen-sink realism' yet were also wide-ranging - he touched on everything from feminism (Mini-Correct), globalisation (Big Coin) and, infamously, alcohol (Liars' Bar) - included scooping two UK chart number ones for the albums Blue is the Colour and Quench.
Her stint started in 1994 upon replacing Belfast-born singer Briana Corrigan, and ended when she decided she had to step away to look after her son Matthew, who had recently been diagnosed with autism.
Although she immediately "missed the band terribly", it was more important that she spent as much time with Matthew as possible.
"I knew caring for my son was going to be a lot of hard work, and that's absolutely no bad feeling towards him at all; I just didn't know what autism entailed and what I would have to do. The one thing I did know was that I had to be there for him. But I missed everyone in the band awfully because I thought the absolute world of them all. It was just like having a group of great friends that had a laugh for seven years."
Commendably, given that Abbott is, and will always be, a chart-topping musician, she remains humble about her career up to this point. She worked at a school during her 11-year absence from the music world, and one day was quizzed by a student on how one goes about 'making it' in the music industry.
"I didn't sugar-coat it," says Abbott. "I told them for most people it doesn't ever happen, and then you get unbelievably lucky people like me that fluke their way in. Because that's what my connection with the band was; a complete fluke. All the kids were looking at me in sheer disappointment!"
If Abbott has clearly spent time pondering her life in music and alongside Heaton of late, back in The Beautiful South's heyday the months passed in "kind of daydream" for the singer.
She is at pains to point out that "unlike Paul and the band, who had been plugging away for ages in search of success, I was completely new to it all and didn't have the mindset of somebody who had been trying for a long time. When we were going on TV and making albums I was in a haze. I didn't see it all as a big deal, though; I was just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time."
The natural chemistry between Heaton and Abbott was, and is, a great source of joy for the former, who considers Abbott to be the best vocalist he's ever shared the stage with. There were lots of nerves when the two met up for the first time in 2011 - although Abbott says nerves are just something she has to deal with in her everyday life - but they soon discovered their voices "were just as compatible and natural together as ever".
Abbott adds: 'I'd have known straight away if something was wrong, if it wasn't working, but really it was like nothing had changed. Paul's still the same as he always was; always a laugh. And that I knew he thinks so highly of me certainly helped."
The result of the studio sessions between the pair was What Have We Become?, the record released in May this year.
As the name hints, the album focuses on the relationship between Heaton and Abbott as well as the wider theme of "social relationships and how we all affect each other".
"Paul's very good at putting himself in someone else's shoes - mine for example - which means we can get both a female and male perspective in the songs," says Abbott.
As the primary songwriter of the duo, lyrically and musically, Heaton writes with Abbott and her voice in mind - something that she is evidently very touched by.
"It's a great compliment to my voice and it's very sweet of him," she beams. "The music can be quite bittersweet in how it portrays the ups and downs of relationships, but regardless of subject matter it's very nice that he constructs some of the songs for me specifically."
Despite the critical acclaim for What Have We Become? and sold-out shows over the UK, Abbott is still prone to worry when on stage, "thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong. Will I get the notes right, will I get the songs right? I'm 40 now and I ponder these things more than when I was young."
After a pause she adds: "You'd probably have something biologically wrong with you if you didn't feel anything before going on stage, though! And the buzz of doing a good job is phenomenal."
She may be inclined towards anxiety over certain aspects of her professional life, but generally Abbott is immensely happy to be back singing with Heaton.
She says that touring nowadays, with concerns like family, is a "lot less hectic than in The Beautiful South's day", allowing her renewed friendship with Heaton to fully flourish.
"We broke down in the van the other day on a nine-hour journey; you have to get on well with the person you're with when that happens!" laughs Abbott.
"Paul was panicking that we weren't going to make our gig, but we saw the funny side of it in the end and were soon laughing together. When you've known somebody for as long as we've known each other, things like that tend to happen naturally."
- Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott play the Ulster Hall in Belfast on Monday. For details, visit www.ticketmaster.ie
Frontwomen who also went to Hull and back ...
- Northern Irish star Briana Corrigan was the first female singer in The Beautiful South, joining the group in 1988 to help them record their debut album Welcome to The Beautiful South. She sang on the band's only UK chart number one single, A Little Time. She left the group in 1992
- Alison Wheeler, who was brought in by the band in 2003, first sang on the album Gaze, and jokingly referred to herself as the 'surrogate mum' of The Beautiful South. She had previously been in a girl-band called Virginia that scored success in the US