“Everyone knows I’m a little nervous, but when I have the microphone in my hand, I stride forward”
Heather Small is the owner of one of the most influential voices in British music. Since the late 1980s, the West London-raised singer has enjoyed success both as a member of the dance group M People and as a solo artist.
Now, after a forced period away from live performances due to the pandemic, she is finally back in front of the audience.
“This is what I do and this is where I am happiest,” she explains of a recent series of concerts across the UK. I missed it so much. It’s hard to explain because it’s intrinsic to who I am – singing, acting.
“I have been doing this for so long and for it to be taken away from you… When you see how a lot of people in the creative industries have been treated, it’s so sad and disappointing more than anything.”
Small, now 56, was still a teenager when she discovered her voice while listening to the music of Gladys Knight, known as Empress of Soul, and Aretha Franklin, aka Queen of Soul. These influences informed his debut group Hot House, a soulful trio that captured press attention in the late 1980s but failed to rock the charts.
Her first contact with fame came when she was recruited to sing the voice of Black Box’s hit hit, Ride On Time. The Italian group had run into legal trouble after sampling Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 single Love Sensation without permission and needed a new release.
Ride on Time topped the UK singles charts and soon Small worked with Manchester DJ Mike Pickering on a project they called M People, producing hits such as Testify, Moving On Up and One Night In. Heaven.
A decade and over 10 million records sold later, the band took a hiatus and Small released a solo album, Proud. There was another solo album and a stint on Strictly Come Dancing (she placed ninth) and time out of the limelight raising her son, James, from her relationship with the former rugby league player. Shaun Edwards.
Despite nearly three decades on stage, Small admits to still suffering from nerves. “It’s so exciting,” she suggests. I mean, terrifying too. Everyone knows I’m a little nervous, but when I have the microphone in my hand, I step forward. Everything belongs to me. I am the mistress of everything, I should say the teacher, of all life.
Small is emotional as she remembers the last few months since the so-called Freedom Day. “When I came back (to play live) there were people in the audience crying… because my performance was so bad,” she jokes.
“No! Just the relief and release and the joy of doing something that equates to habitual behavior. There is no such thing as music and live performances outside – singing, dancing, music, this festival aura It’s amazing, it’s liberating and it’s also intergenerational.
“Especially the last thing I did. There was literally a woman, she must have been 80, and there were young children like eight. And she had precisely come to see me play and her daughter was pointing the finger at the end of the show. I just felt this rush of warmth and joy.
“It’s the power of music and the power to come together. It’s like a common sense of well-being. Usually what I do is see people in their prime. I see people at their best. You miss it.
During the lockdown, Small kept herself busy by fulfilling a long-held dream and launching a clothing brand with her younger sister, Cheryl, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Through Proud Sista, the duo aim to celebrate biological and non-biological sisters and raise awareness of mental health issues.
Cheryl was diagnosed with bipolar at the age of 14 and thanks her older sister for helping her through – liaising with healthcare professionals and securing a long-term care plan that allowed her to pursue a career in business.
“Being in a situation where you are told if you leave your house it could kill you,” she begins. “That other people around you could be the source of your loss, or that you could be the source of someone else’s ill health.
“It can be very triggering for anyone with a mental illness of any kind. If you didn’t have a mental illness before, there are people out there that might get them started in this area. We wanted to do something that speaks to us and other people about these mental health issues and to stay strong. “
Created in response to the pandemic, Small wanted the clothing brand to be both motivating and inspiring. “It was like a metaphorical hug for people who might be in trouble,” she explains. “You may not have started with any, but now there are a lot of people who will have problems because they have been told to go against everything we would naturally do as beings. humans. And it can be very triggering.
Small may not have produced much new music over the past decade, but she made up for it with an almost constant touring schedule and regular charity work for Barnardo’s, Asthma UK and BeatBullying.
During the first months of the pandemic, she participated in a campaign with the World Health Organization to promote global solidarity, offering a cover of Sister Sledge’s We Are Family. There are times when her instincts as a mother and an activist intersect. “There will be a situation where a parent might think, ‘Oh, my kid is going through a rough patch.
“But even so, this could be the start of their first episode. “There is so much to watch out for, so it’s best to talk about it and also go to the doctor. Is this something you will have to live with for the long haul? Is it just something that you go through in a short time? Just to talk and not to be embarrassed and not to be ashamed. Heather Small is touring the UK in March 2022. Tickets are on sale now.