Author: Lucy O'Brien
Date: February 1995.
Now just 25-yeas old, she had barely finished her A levels when she was spotted by Paul Charles (then an agent for folk artist Paul Brady) at her debut showcase gig at North London's Mean Fiddler. When word went round about this 18-year old Joni Mitchell-in-the-making, there was a record company bidding war, and Tanita was snapped up by WEA in 1988. Her first album, Ancient Heart, sold over three-and-a half million copies world-wide, followed by three more best-sellers in quick succession - The Sweet Keeper (1990), Everybody's Angel (1991) and of course, Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness in 1992.
"I don't think success came too fast. It just happened. When you're in the midst of it you don't think about it. Only afterward do you think, gee, that was quick. I just expected that when you went into the music industry you made records, sold a lot of copies and were on TV all the time. It wasn't until afterwards I realised it wasn't a normal thing. In LA they have theories about 'making it', classes about it. People would talk to you about how they're developing their image. And I'd think, gee just get on with it. They're pursuing fame, which is something slightly different to what I'm interested in."
When Tanita dropped out of the fame game in 1992, she didn't know whether she would ever return to the studio. She had thoughts of returning to college, of exploring the world, making new friends; anything, in fact, that wasn't related to the promotional grind. She took off with a backpack and he two friends Gillian and Gillian, went to China ended up in San Francisco, where she stayed for three months. "That was surreal. I didn't know anyone at first, then I met some people and it kinda fun."
It was amongst this new social circle that Tanita met the lesbian film maker Monika Treut, whose disturbing, witty and futuristic films from Seduction: The Cruel Woman to My Father Is Coming, have earned her star status on the cult film circuit. "She's a wonderful person and very strong, working in a horrible industry, making the films she does and never losing enthusiasm."
Tanita met Treut at a party and ended up with a cameo role in her latest film, Taboo Parlour, one of four 'intelligent erotic' shorts by women under the umbrella title Erotique. When asked about her part as a secretary who walks in on a lesbian sex scene, Tanita laughs uproariously, "I'm the worst actress in history so it was an education. I'd never done anything like that. It was fun." Two of Tanita's songs also feature on the soundtrack For All These Years and Trouble.
Although Erotique didn't lure Tanita into acting as a second string career, she is an avid movie fan, citing I Heard The Mermaids Singing as her favourite film. "It's not just a great lesbian film, but a great film about art. Everyone can identify with Polly, the girl Friday in the art gallery. Everything she said was very pure, not in a sophisticated way, but from the heart. It's a shame that a person who really did love paintings wasn't allowed access to them because she wasn't the right kind of person"
Tanita hasn't got much time for cliques of either the artistic or social variety. When I ask if the gay scene in San Francisco was incestuous she just laughs and replies, "The city is very diverse - there's not just a gay scene, there's a Chinese community, an Italian Community. Then there is the Haight hippy district. I always wondered if San Francisco had already done all the great things it was going to do, with Flower Power and the gay scene, and whether it was still a creative place to be."
Tanita refuses to be boxed into a single identity, place, or community. When I ask her about her attitudes towards the gay community in particular, she just looks at me shyly and laughs, asking "what is this?" Her sense of belonging is complex and multi-layered, one that draws heavily on her friends and family.
She did however admit in a recent Times interview that travelling allowed her to fall in love for the first time. "Until you fall in love, you're never really sure if you feel like other people do. You wonder if you even have the capacity. But now I'm very much in love and it's such a comfortable feeling" She wouldn't be drawn on who the object of her love is: "They'd kill me," she laughs.
The main thing she learned from her wandering was, she says, that "you must always tell people you love them. It puts a relationship one step up when you're able to talk about those things with your friends. Not like California where they say, actually I love you every five minutes - but real. Coming from an English person that's quite a big thing. "Being away made me realise the people I have affinities with."
Talking about her family background, she says how "When you're a child you want to assimilate, you want to be like everybody else. I can remember wanting people to say, 'You're not like the rest of the Black/Brown people, you're different.' As I grew older I began to resent this and felt I didn't belong, and didn't like this kind of racism. You have no sense of who you are."
Tanita inherited o sense of culture clash from he parents. Her Fijian father met her Malaysian mother when he was stationed with the British army in Borneo. From there they moved to Munster, Germany, where Tanita and her older brother were born, and when she was 12, the family relocated again to England and the draughty commuter town of Basingstoke.
"My mother never taught me Malaysian, and years later that saddened me. But my parents were affected by colonialism, they felt it was important for us to assimilate, speak 'good English' and have a good education. That's one of the things an immigrant family does, is educate its children. When she goes back to Borneo her family say, 'You're getting a bit Western' but I think my mother still has something very Asian about her. It's interesting for me to watch, sometimes the two sides clash. Alan Bennett wrote something about his parents, how they came from the North of England and he felt they didn't know how to behave in a hotel. My parents aren't as extreme as that, but I wonder how they did feel in those situations."
Distanced from her father, whom she describes in a slightly distracted way as 'cuddly', Tanita's main inspiration is her mother. "She has a quality of gentleness, she doesn't mind reaching out. She made me feel that everything is possible." It is this warmth that imbues Tanita's feminism and her respect for women.
While feminism is still perceived as threatening, dull or dated, (especially within pop music, which is usually sold on the breezily superficial) women have to downplay their strength as their true source of motivation. That was part of the reason for Tanita's disappearance from the music scene. "I didn't feel I had failed. It was more complicated than that. As a woman you always feel a lack, a distance from the things you do, which - from talking to other successful women - I've learned is a common feeling. Women can almost disassociate themselves from anything they've achieved, whereas it's easier for men to feel some kind elation. Funny --if you don't have that relationship with what you do, you also have something missing as a person."
She views the normative pop version of women's sexuality with disdain: "It's so banal. The standard is, the lips are big, the eyes are big. To me that looks grotesque. And it always looks so white." For a moment she looks thoughtful, then smiles, almost flirtatious. "Funny, I don't feel unattractive because I don't look like a Babe. People find you curious if you come from another country." She rejects the idea that mainstream acceptance of singers like kd lang and Björk has made it easier for women in the music industry. "Woman are still portrayed in a stupid way, and feminine beauty is still represented by a girl in a short skirt with long hair."
With her own short hair-cut, she asserts her distance from that model of beauty and she laughs these days about sometimes being mistaken for a teenage boy. Tanita is only too aware of the pressure in the music industry to be attractive in a way that is constantly de-politicised. "How do I talk about these things in a way that keeps a lightness about my own life?" she asks. The question is not easily answered. But at least Tanita Tikaram, once heavy with melancholy, now wants to live in the light. Let's hope "they" won't "kill her" for that.