Interview: Lulu on Making Life Rhyme
11:45 13 July 2015
Despite fame and fortune, Lulu has spent much of her life trying to be Miss Perfect - but never feeling good enough, she tells Katie Jarvis. It’s no accident that, finally comfortable in her own skin, she’s producing her best work ever.
“Lulu, what a pleasure to speak to you!” I say, not in Cheltenham Library.
She laughs. “You, too!”
“And,” I apologise, “I’ll be asking all the usual old questions.”
“That’s OK – it’s my job.”
“But,” I add, “I’m far from the only person who loves your new album.”
“You said the magic word!” she giggles, again.
OK – so it’s not an earth-shattering opener. But do you get where this is going already? Lulu is mega-famous. Shout. The Man With The Golden Gun. Boom Bang-a-Bang. Hanging out with the Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Jimi Hendrix. Married to Maurice Gibb. An affair with David Bowie (incredible thighs; that’s pretty much all I can tell you) (and, yet, it seems enough). But, right from the off, she’s kind, gentle, easy. Every member of every call centre everywhere should be trained by Lulu.
And now – after all this. In her 50th year as a recording artist. At the age of 66. She’s got a new hit album out, Making Life Rhyme. More than that – much more than that - it’s an album she and her brother, Billy Lawrie, mostly wrote themselves.
It was intended to be a blues-covers album. “Then my manager said, ‘Decca Records like the blues things but the two new songs that you threw in, they preferred’.”
She laughs and squeaks:
“‘YOU ARE KIDDING ME!’ We were trying to sneak in a few original songs, thinking we loved them but no one else would care.”
[Slight interruption here for an accent-check. Midway between Glaswegian and States-side; can’t quite work it out. She says ‘roar’, at one stage, and I hear Billy Connolly. Other times, Billy Ocean pops up.]
“So that was shocking and thrilling. I thought, ‘Jesus! This is what, as a young artist, you dream of doing. Taking your own music to a record company, them liking it and letting you record. I feel like I’ve been reborn.”
And yet, talking of keeping your clothes on, this must feel like emotionally undressing in front of everyone. Because the songs – which are fab; go and listen – sound so personal.
“You’re stripping off. You’re opening up…” she agrees, fleetingly.
But only fleetingly. Because, mostly, she’s still remembering the thrill.
“We’d write a new song, send it: ‘Love it!’ We’d send another: ‘Love it!’ Is this happening? What on earth’s going on!”
She starts to sing one of them:
“It’s a messed up world
Been raining all day.
It’s a messed up world
But I won’t lose my way.
Because I’m alive; I’ve survived.
Honestly, I’ll be OK-iay.
I’ll be OK.”
(NB: I’m available for dinner parties, where I can expand on the fact that Lulu sang, just to me.)
“So that gave me more confidence,” she continues. “And now – you know - when I go on stage, people don’t applaud; I get a roar! Every night, you wait; you think: It’s going to shift at this gig; it’s going to stop.”
But it doesn’t.
“But then, I suppose, part of it is that I’ve always put in the work. From my background - my whole family - none of us are afraid to work. In fact, we’re all slightly workaholics.”
It’s funny. Funny-lovely, not -odd or -ha ha. To be 66 and have a whole new/old world opening up. She’s been famous for belting out numbers she hasn’t always gelled with but everyone loved her for it. Then, suddenly, she explains that’s not really who she is. It’s a risky strategy. And yet, it’s worked.
“I really operate from a place of gratitude,” she says. “When I was younger, I would be trying very hard to be Miss Perfect. If, like me, you come into the 60s, a little short thing; you’ve got a round, fat face; bright red hair. It seems to me all the other girls are tall and blond and lithe – models. Of course, that’s not the case, but that’s how I saw it.”
Not that it got any easier, as pop star inevitably turned into employer; businesswoman.
“And being a female in business is tough. A man’s voice is louder. The men all go to the football together after you’ve had a business meeting; or they all arrange to go to the pub. And to be heard, especially if you’re small, you have to shout louder; you have to make more noise; you have to work harder.”
Lulu is talking about Lulu here, of course. About managing a multi-million-pound business (or however much it was). About the hit records having to keep on coming. About having people on her payroll and not letting down her fans.
But she’s also talking about Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, born in razor-tough Glasgow in 1948, the eldest of four children; Marie-cum-Lulu, who ended up as breadwinner for her whole family from her mid-teens. Grey buildings and grey skies; home, the third floor of 55, Soho Street, with a shared lavatory on the landing and no hot water.
But there wasn’t any shame in that. Shame wasn’t about having a sitting room with a pull-down bed where your parents slept. Or living close to the dreaded Gallowgate. Shame was about Marie and Billy huddling together as darkness fell and fists flew; about their mother Betty’s black eyes, explained away to the neighbours as, “Silly me, Ah stepped on a brush.”
About cheeks burning red with humiliation, but still looking people straight in the eye. “That’s what you do in Glasgow: you don’t show any weakness.”
The demon drink was to blame, for sure. But maybe also her own mother’s lack of self-worth. Because her mum discovered, at the age of 14, that she was adopted. Worse still, her natural parents lived not far away, with her full brothers and sister. No one ever explained why. “Appalling. Appalling! But, you know, in those days there was a lot of shame around and the carried shame goes on through generations. Did my grandfather think that my grandmother was with another man? Why would my mother be the only one given away? We don’t really know. But when you look at my mother, and you look at her real brothers and sister, she looks exactly like them. There was no other person in the mix.”
Which is all the more tragic. “Which is so sad. So you can imagine the pain my mother carried. It would have been very difficult for her not to put that on to me. Or for me to take it on and try to help her… I was always feeling my mother’s pain. But I wasn’t aware of it then; I’m aware of it now and have much more understanding, which is – oh god, it’s a better place to be.”
For Lulu, her voice was the way out of this dead-end of suffocating back streets. With a voice like a coalman, as her dad dubbed it, she started singing at the local Punch & Judy show. At nine, she made her professional debut in a hall packed with 1,000 people.
Was she not terrified?
“Well, I see this music thing as a gift. If you think you’re doing it, you’re deluded. I follow an Eastern spiritual philosophy, so I believe in life after death. I believe that you come again and again and again; that the soul is reborn. So I do believe that we are just a channel.”
What she’s saying is that it’s not something of her own making; something to feel proud of. It’s something to show off, because it’s a gift to others.
“OK, I’ve taken care of my voice. I’ve worked on it. I’m disciplined. But I’ve been through a lot of painful experiences, which most people have. If you can express that, you’re giving. It’s like a service; a blessed experience. It’s like a love affair with the audience, where you relate to each other and you’re totally connected.”
Those difficult experiences include a divorce, in 1995, from her second husband, celebrity hairdresser John Frieda, the father of her son, Jordan. The experience was devastating, as she reveals in her autobiography, I don’t want to fight. “[Writing that book] was a cathartic thing for me,” she says, “because I’d been trying to let everyone think, I’m fine; all good. In fact, most people thought I’d walked away from the marriage, but it was the opposite. So I tried not to talk about it. I tried to smile, which is how I was brought up.”
Her new album, with its self-penned songs, has meant revisiting some of those deep, deep lows. Indeed, perhaps she’s writing now not just because people want to hear her songs but because she can. Because she knows herself and is beginning to accept herself. Finally.
“I struggle with myself and I always have done. I’ve always felt weird, even though I would put a smile on. I felt: You don’t burden everybody with your crap. But I never believed that I was – I don’t know – good enough.
“People say to me, ‘You’re the most normal person I’ve met in this business’. Yet never, never in my life did I feel I was normal. Always felt odd, different to everybody. Weird. Unacceptable.”
What is genuinely odd, I guess, is that she should feel this way. Maybe the unreality of fame from a very young age; maybe the difficulties of a childhood that rarely knew the freedom and innocence of a life fulfilled.
She laughs again. “My friend always says about me, ‘She’s still waiting to be discovered!’ and I say ‘True!’”
Lulu is certainly being discovered by a whole new youth – that’s for sure. When she plays at Cornbury this month, as part of a big summer tour, the audience will be multi-generational. And she’s excited. Excited to be sharing a stage with Tom Jones (“Which has to be the BEST!”) Excited to be singing songs from the album, alongside some old favourites. “But you know what? My intention for every gig is that people leave saying, ‘What a great night!’ You want people to feel different emotions, but it should always end with, WHAT A GREAT NIGHT!”
She’s happy. She’s thankful. She’s supported by family and friends. And, she says, she gets on her knees every morning and every night.
“I always thought I was alone. I always thought I was alone – no matter how many people were around. And it’s like a symptom. It’s not the reality; but it was my reality. “And so I’ve kind of come through all that, and that’s why I think, ‘Jesus! I’m one of the luckiest people ever’. I’ve always said I have angels on my shoulders.
“I’ve been round the block. I’ve been to hell and back. I’ve got the t-shirts. But I never felt totally comfortable in my skin… except with music. That’s the one thing – I’ve always been able to sing. And I’m lucky that I still can sing. I have the voice.”
“Thank you,” I say to Lulu.
“God bless,” she replies.
For more about Lulu and Making Life Rhyme, visit www.luluofficial.com