“You hope your songs can weave their way into people’s lives.” Marti Pellow talks to Northern Soul
Marti Pellow has come a long way from the cheery-faced lead singer with Scots pop stars Wet Wet Wet in the 1980s and 90s. A move into musical theatre has included roles in Chess, Evita, Blood Brothers and, most notably, Chicago in which he starred both here and on Broadway. In addition, solo albums and concerts have remained a constant throughout his career. In 2022, he’s on a greatest hits tour.
Like many performers kicking their heels during Covid, Pellow couldn’t wait to get back on the road again.
“After navigating the last two years as best I could, when I finally managed to get out the garden gate last October, it was fantastic to be back doing my day job,” he says. “Everybody was so up for being back in a live environment and being able to share it with the power of the collective was a great experience.
“I loved getting back into the whole process of all the things you do for a tour like picking the set. It just tasted sweeter after the two-year sabbatical. My industry was the first to close and the last to reopen so it was very easy to get into the mindset of just enjoying being able to perform again.”
The content of the 2022 tour has been heavily influenced by Pellow’s hugely popular online performances during the pandemic.
“Having spent two years communicating through social media with my wee lockdown sessions, I was aware of the songs that went down well so the set list for the greatest hits tour kind of picked itself.”
Wee lockdown sessions? Some 12 million people engaged with the project.
“It’s a bit surreal to think about that,” he admits. “To me, it was just popping into my spare bedroom to sing a song or two, though the whole thing came from an honest place. A family, whose mother was in a bad way with Covid, asked if there was any chance I could sing a song to her on the phone. I was delighted to do it – why would you not?
“This was something very pure and inspiring. I’m also delighted to say the lady in question is now well on the mend and she came to a show in November.”
He continues: “There’s a lot of digital noise out there and you usually only engage with it when you have something to plug or promote. After this positive experience though, I decided to sing another song for the nurses and everything just progressed from there. The songs suddenly had a destination.”
It’s clear that Pellow still can’t quite believe the reach of the project.
“It felt like I was just having a wee chat with some folks so when you say it was to 12 million people I realise that’s a big chat. You also never know who is on the other end of that digital platform. Sometimes I would sing something then get an email from the likes of Annie Lennox or James Taylor saying they loved the interpretation I did of their song. It isn’t rocket science what I do but I definitely got as much out of the lockdown sessions as the people on the other end did. ”
One of the happier aspects of finding success in the 1980s is that fans from that decade are unquestionably loyal, something Pellow is all too aware of.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” he says. “I’m blessed in that whatever I’m singing – pop, Brecht, a Broadway number – the fans always come on that journey with me and get as switched on to each different genre as I do. It would be easy for people to just want a certain thing from me but they all give it a go. Maybe they’re just giving me enough rope to hang myself with?”
He adds: “Even I never saw all of these career switches coming but it’s been so inspiring and enriching. I remember sitting on the couch as a wee boy with my Mammy watching the MGM classics then, the next minute, I was putting on a Clash record. When I started, it very rapidly became abundantly clear to me that my enthusiasm outweighs my talent and it can be easy to feel out of your depth, but if you do your homework you can connect with anything and make it happen.”
Regarding the loyalty of Pellow’s fans, I inform him that my sister is one of his most enthusiastic followers. Every birthday or festive season I give her something with Pellow’s face on it and she’s happy (it was a coaster last year in case you were wondering). The man himself and I even discuss the possibility of a new merchandise range called ‘Marti Pillows’. That ought to see me right for sibling gifts for a while.
“Classic,” he laughs. “I wish everyone was as easily pleased as your sister. It’s wonderful though. When you’re a small lad dreaming about making music, you hope your songs can weave their way into people’s real lives and become a backdrop that takes them back to a time and place. It feels like that’s been the case with a lot of my fans.”
BBC Four’s repeats of Top of the Pops episodes have been a big Friday night hit. As the broadcaster approaches the Love Is All Around era, Wet Wet Wet are on the show a lot. Does Pellow ever look at those old performances and think ‘who is that guy?’
“Oh yes, totally”, he says. “Most people have their old pictures in a kitchen drawer or an album but mine are all out there for people to see. I watch the footage and appreciate that it’s me at different times in my life. But it also reminds me of how people have embraced the music, just as I did as a kid watching the show cross-legged in front of the telly. It was always nice doing the Pops because you would meet other acts in the corridor who were on that same week and catch up.”
It’s 35 years, almost to the day, when Wet Wet Wet first entered the Top 40 with Wishing I Was Lucky. In that same week other acts climbing the charts included Living In A Box, Johnny Hates Jazz and Hoddle & Waddle. Does Pellow have an idea why he has lasted the course when so many have not?
“That’s an eclectic chart. I’d like to think my longevity is down to people enjoying what I do and appreciating the time and passion I put into projects I believe in. I still genuinely love what I do. It brings out that child-like quality, especially writing. Looking at a blank screen and wondering where my imagination is going to go has always excited me. I also love collaborating with other artists and connecting with their imaginations.”
Doing a greatest hits tour can be tricky because the artist must have performed some of the material 100 times or more. Are there any songs Pellow can’t stand?
“Not at all,” he says. “I don’t subscribe to that notion at all. It’s not like anybody tells me to do stuff. I’m 57 so I’m old enough and ugly enough to just say ‘no, I’m not playing that one’ if I didn’t like it. It’s no chore to sing the big hits.”
He continues: “Having good pop songs on your CV is a great foundation because with every decade you interact with a song in a different way and bring something new to it. You have to be careful though not to disrupt peoples memories. You don’t want an audience member thinking ‘that’s not how it sounded when I fell in love with my partner in Magaluf in 1987’. But there’s always a new way to approach a song and still feel the richer for it. I’ve always felt that’s the way you should look at your work, especially the back catalogue. No song should define you. You grow as an artist and continue to explore.”
With that last point in mind, is there anything still on Pellow’s ‘to do’ list?
“I’m creating a musical,” he discloses. “Though, even after 20 years of working in musical theatre, I don’t mind admitting that this project is no mean feat. It’s such a big mindset to get into in terms of structure, shape and forms, tonalities of voice and characters.
“I wanted the piece to focus on Scotland, my home country. In musical theatre terms all we’ve really got is Brigadoon and I’m not happy about that. So much of the music I love comes from America but running adjacent to that is Scotland’s beautiful heritage. A lot of those traditional aspects are in my DNA, from the music I heard in my parents’ record collection as a kid to my grandfather telling me loads of mystical, folklore stories. It all fascinated me and that’s what I wanted to weave into the story for the musical. I’ve really enjoying writing it with Jack Bradley and Sean McKenna. It’s a long intense process but a real labour of love.”
As he navigates his mid-50s, it’s clear that Pellow is keenly aware of the dangers of procrastination.
“Ideas come into your head and live there rent-free. You can either act on them or keep them in that ‘to do’ place forever. You have to realise, especially at this age, that if you want to do all the things you have in your mind, you have to get your shit together and get on with it. Life can always get in the way but you just have to focus on a project and give it your undivided attention.”
Photos by Simon Fowler
For more information about Marti Pellow’s Greatest Hits Tour, follow this link: www.martipellowofficial.co.uk/
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