Her debut album Ancient Heart, released in 1988, sold four million copies and spawned four hit singles, including Good Tradition and Twist In My Sobriety.
Here, she casts her mind back 30 years to the moment when lead single, Good Tradition, came to her…
When I was about 18, I listened to an album over and over by Nina Simone called Nina Sings the Blues. On it, there’s a great gospel track called Real Real. It really inspired me and I wanted to write a song just like it. But it didn’t turn out that way, and I ended up with Good Tradition instead. It’s very simple, like Real Real, so I guess somewhere along the line I was influenced by the song’s lyrics and chord structure.
Back then, I was writing very quickly on my guitar. It was the only instrument I could play – and not very well either! Often, I would sing the whole song straight through: they seemed to write themselves back then. I was still at sixth form college and in English class we were reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. We talked a lot about the symbolism of family, and I think that’s where I found the language for the song.
I recorded it in 1988 at the Red House, Rod Argent’s home studio near St Albans. It was really beautiful, a bit like a rambling old manor house. He co-produced the first record, Ancient Heart. The album contains some really original instrumentation for back then; oboes, violin solos – there’s a lot going on musically. The amazing violinist Helen O’Hara played on Good Tradition. She’s probably best known for her rousing work with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but she has a very soulful, melodic way of playing.
When we were working on the album, Rod and co-producer Pete Van Hooke would talk about all sorts of influences, Celtic, classical, blues. On Good Tradition we also had Paul Brady, the Irish singer-songwriter, playing mandolin and the pipes. We were creating a little sound world of our own, and I think it confused some people who presumed I must’ve had a connection to Celtic music!
It turned out to be a really joyful track, even though the lyrics aren’t. The drums are lovely, and I think the whole rhythm section brings a bit of a party atmosphere. When I listen to it, I hear me learning about all the things that happen when you make a record. It was a really eye-opening time for me.
Shortly after we recorded it, I made my first video, I started to appear on television and the song went on to do very well in the UK and Germany. I remember when it went into the Top 30; it was a big deal for me. I was performing at the Cambridge Folk Festival and everyone was so excited because it was a big surprise that a record like that would make the charts. Then when we broke the Top 10, things started to get a little crazy.
It’s 30 years since its release, which is sometimes hard to believe. But I think my bigger anniversary will be next year, when I turn 50! Looking back, it’s so lovely and amazing that people are so kind about that song, and the whole album. It made such an impression on people.
A 30th anniversary edition of Ancient Heart is out now.
Written by: Tanita Tikaram
Published by: Warner/Chappell
This article appears in the December print edition of M magazine.