How did you begin your career in music?
I've been doing music since school - in bands and that kind of thing. Manchester has a small community, musically. You get to know a lot of people. At that particular time when we started up in the early 1980s there were the musicians from Simply Red and loads of others. Sometimes you'd be playing in their band and sometimes they were in yours, that kind of thing.
How did you begin working with your co-writer, Pete May?
I think I met Pete through a guy called Greg Walker. I was doing some stuff for him and Pete was the keyboard player. We became friends and just continued to make music. There was an instant link because we both like the same kind of stuff - a lot of it is jazz: Chick Corea, Weather Report and so on. I love George Duke because his music isn't just jazz, it's everything else. When you grow up you listen to everything: T.Rex, Queen, Bob Marley - that's how life really is. You get drawn to certain things but I can listen to everything.
How do you and Pete work together?
I write the lyrics but the music comes together in various ways. Sometimes Pete will come up with a tune and I'll get the melody. Pete is a really good musician so most of the time I will say 'This is the kind of groove I'm looking for' and play him some music and we'll come up with something. For example when we did the Optimistic album we sat down and listened to everything that was going on at the time - Mary J Blige etc. When you listen to the album you might not think it but I can spot our influences in there. No man's an island but our interpretation is what changes music up.
Where do you draw lyrics from, are they observed from life?
Well I was going to say something quite blasé like 'It doesn't really work like that'. But when I listen back to songs on our current album From The Bottom Of My Heart, some of them I can really see my life in, It must be something subconscious as I'm not sitting down and writing my life on a piece of paper. I can see bits of me in the songs, especially things like Remembering The Good Times, which reminds me of past relationships. With Less Than A Minute I can remember writing that song and I was thinking about meeting my wife - I was in a club, she walked in and that was it. So that line 'I found love In less than a minute', well it really was that kind of thing.
I think meaning is important. When I'm writing a song I try and get some emotion into it with even the simplest songs. There's a song on the album called Steppin' Out and it's all about trying to forget about everything: 'Forget about your problems, forget about your fears - life is for living, that's why we're here'.
Was Steppin' Out written with one eye on radio play on the various Steppers scenes like the one in Chicago?
Not really, I just love the vibe of the stepping stuff. We're writing new songs at the moment and we've got one that has that happy Philadelphia sound with strings and so on. I try not to do just one thing. On the new album it starts with the lively title track From The Bottom Of My Heart, then drops into a nice ballad Give You My Love, then it steps up a bit to Less Than A Minute which has a dance feel. You get to the end of the album and you've got stuff which is more jazzy and thoughtful - Music Of Love, You Won't Make Me Cry, Can't Believe. How Am I is a deep song about a relationship falling apart and someone trying to pull it back and make it work, so there's all kinds of different stuff. Sometimes you put an album on and it's just the same all the way through. I like to hear different styles - something jazzy, then uptempo and then more mellow and so on, and that's what I try to do.
What do you think are the key ingredients of a good song?
It depends on what kind of thing it is. I always think good lyrics and a hook are essential. Today the hook is disappearing, people seem to be doing songs with lyrics that just float along, they're not catchy. If you look at songs from last year that got a lot of attention from soul fans - Cool Million's Back For More, So In Love by Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton - they are really good hooky songs. Obviously beats are good, people need to be able to move to your stuff. All of it together, really!
If it's a slow song, it should be something that touches people. Adele - you can't mess with that. She's written a few songs there that move people. I'll give you an example - I was out shopping and they were playing Adele's Someone Like You. I was walking around and everyone was singing it, it was weird - old, young. You can't beat that, and that's because it's not the most commercial thing in the world but because the lyric is so fantastically good it's a classic. Melody is also very important.
Do you draw influence from what you hear in clubs?
Yeah, all the time - your ears prick up when you hear something really good. Clubs are the ideal place because you can see people reacting instantly to the music. It's not that I don't like the new R&B stuff but if I'm honest I love old soul - rare groove. Things like Luther Vandross Never Too Much, Keni Burke's Rising To The Top. I love that feel and I don't think it should have ever gone away. Of course it should evolve but it should still be here because if you go to a party or someone's getting married they will put Rihanna or Beyonce on but the main part of the night is the older stuff because it's tried, tested and it's such good stuff.