When great British pop institution, The Beautiful South split in 2007, most members of the band didn't feel ready to hang up their microphones or instruments just yet...Evie chats to Alison Wheeler about the upcoming tour for reformed band, The South.

After a successful year of touring the country doing the theatre and festival circuit, the rejuvenated South are keeping alive all those timeless songs -  A Little Time (the number one single), Perfect 10, Rotterdam, Old Red Eyes Is Back, Good as Gold, Don't Marry Her plus many more singles and album tracks, as well as a few choice South originals.  All performed again live, these songs span an impressive 20 year career starting way back in 1989! 

The South are:

Alison Wheeler (Vocals), Gaz Birtles (Vocals), Phil Barton (Guitars), Steve Nutter (Bass), Dave Anderson (Drums), Karl Brown (Percussion), Gareth John (Trumpet), Su Robinson (Sax),  Andy Price (Keys).  

An interview with Alison Wheeler

You’ll be heading to the Hare and Hounds as part of your current tour very soon. Are you looking forward to the gigs?

We are excited to be going out on the road again. We are all looking forward to getting out and about across the UK. We’ve got a selection of dates coming up throughout October, November and December and we’re looking forward to having a great gig at the Hare and Hounds. 


Are you excited to be performing at home (the Midlands)?

This gig in Birmingham is going to be quite special for me. I’ve got most of my family and friends attending, which will be quite a nerve-wracking experience. The more people I know in the audience the more nervous I feel. With this tour, the venues are quite small, so you can literally see the whites of the audience’s eyes! It also gives the gigs an intimate feel and gives us a chance to hang out and chat with the people that come to the gig before or after. It’s a very nice atmosphere.


You’ll be performing songs made famous by The Beautiful South, with the addition of a nine-piece live band. How does it feel to be keeping these songs alive?

I was fortunate enough to join the band The Beautiful South in 2002. It was a whirlwind experience. It was the most amazing time. I was very sad when the band came to an end in 2007. It was a lifeline that Dave Stead (the drummer at the time) suggested that we might continue the band and its legacy. We reformed in 2009 and the response from the fan base has been very supportive. We are very fortunate to be able to continue to do this year after year. I think it’s testimony to the quality of Paul Heaton’s song writing and Dave’s musicianship that these songs have stood the test of time, and in my opinion haven’t aged at all, full stop. It’s great to get out on the road and celebrate what is a great back catalogue of music. People come to the gigs and don’t know what to expect, but they always leave with a big smile on their face, being pleasantly surprised by how many songs they already knew. This is a common theme that runs through every gig that we do. 


You were a member of a few other bands before joining The Beautiful South. Have you always wanted to be a musician? 

I went to university in 1991…I kind of lost my way. As a child I had been very much into amateur dramatics and had been in several productions. I was in a very professional amateur choir that toured the UK and did very interesting performances in church scenarios. I also was a very keen dancer, dancing three times a week. I kind of lost my way after my A Levels and concentrated on just pure academia; I was very fortunate to go to Cambridge University. During that time, I joined a covers band that reignited my interest in music and made me realise that if you have a passion you’re very fortunate, and you should pursue any true loves. I left university in 1995 with the idea to give myself four years to find my way into the music industry. After seven years I couldn’t give up – after a series of fortunate events I ended up working for record companies as a temp, doing lots pf auditions and taking part in a variety of different bands. I was in the canteen chatting to other employees one day at a record company, and one girl asked if I would like to join her gospel choir. I was a bit sceptical at first, as I wasn’t religious and didn’t want to go down that route, but she was quite adamant that the gospel choir aimed to take the music out of the church and bring it to the masses. I joined the choir and had an amazing two or three years. We played at the MOBOs and there was about 40 of us from a range of different backgrounds and variety of ethnicities…during that time three of us got asked to do a session for David Hemingway who was working on a solo album at that time. He took me to one side during that recording session and told me I might suit the sound of The Beautiful South, and asked would I like to be put forward as the female vocalist to replace Jackie Abbott. Of course, it was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. It was an amazing band – an institution in my opinion. So, it was a series of fortunate events and years of auditioning, years of different sessions. People always suggest and joke that I was very lucky to join the band – but the harder you try the luckier you are…as someone once said. 


Who would you say are your musical heroes? What artists have influenced you over the years?

I suppose if you’re a guitarist you’re influenced and hero-worship certain musicians. For me, as a vocalist, I gravitated towards very strong technical singers – from the divas like Barbara Streisand, Whitney Huston, Beyoncé – I was very much into R n B because from a  technical point of view its amazing when you can see a female vocalist run around a series of notes with such expertise. So, I kind of followed those types of musicians as a child. I loved pop music – I still do. I always kept up to date – and still do – with the Top 40 because I like to see how music progresses. However, when I met my husband back in 1992 he introduced me to jazz and the likes of Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London…the torch songs came to life for me. Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr…so my passion lies in very technical vocalists but also beautiful torch songs and big band jazz. They are all my influences and loves. 


Do you have a career highlight?

I supopose theres two or three things that spring to mind. As a child of the 70s and 80s – Top of the Pops was such a fantastic platform having watched it religiously for years. To be given the opportunity to perform on it was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. You set yourself bars of achievements and to get on Top of the Pops was an amazing experience for me. Headlining one of the stages at Glastonbury as The Beautiful South was also a ‘pinch me’ moment, and just seeing the euphoria in the crowd - it really does bring it home to how lucky we are to be doing something like this. Also later on in The Beautiful South’s career, we opened for Robbie Williams who is a national institution, we opened for him at Croke Park which is a 90,000 capacity venue. Unfortunately I had chronic larangitis and as wonderful as it was to open for him, we had to slash my solo songs because I just didn’t have the range. So that was a sad but also amazing opportunity!


Your last album, Sweet Refrains, included some beautiful tracks. Do you have any new music in the pipeline?

Obviously when we were in The Beautiful South the writing process was different. Dave Rotheray and Paul Heaton were the soul and the creators of any music for the band. When we reformed as The South it was a great opportunity to kind of level the playing field and create a democratic process where anyone could bring stuff to the table. It allowed for contributors to get involved, but at the same time that’s a lot of cooks and a lot of broth! So it’s very hard to bring together a selection of music that we are very happy with and all agree with. We do have several songs in the pipeline. Obviously the music industry has changed a lot over the last few years and the quality of recording has changed so much, so there’s less likelihood for a label to be involved. We might self-finance any projects that we do going forward – whether that’s an EP or whether it’s an album. But, we have been working on new tracks and we hope in the New Year, once we have the tour out of the way, that we will get back in the studio and record some new music. 

I also know you’re also the mum of two - do you find being on the road challenging, or is touring something you’re completely used to now? 

I know they say youth is wasted on the young, but I think we are all in a really good place now. I’m the youngest member of the band at 42, and these guys have all been professional musicians their whole lives so they have partied hard and been there and done that and got the t-shirt! But, now they are very mellow, it’s a beautiful experience going on tour with the band, they are lovely guys to hang out with and it really is a family atmosphere. So, when I go on the road, and due to the size of the venue, we tend to do Thursday – Sunday for gigs which is great for me because I get the best of both worlds! I get to party hard and work hard with the boys and then go home and resume my role as a mother to my two children. Quite often, when I chat to the other mums at school and they ask what I’ve done at the weekends they say, “Oh that’s lucky!” I feel very privileged and very fortunate. I went on tour with The Beautiful South six weeks after my first child was born, and that was really hard. It was in America and I left my daughter back at home. My two children have been to see me at festivals and have seen the reaction of the crowd singing back to me and the penny has dropped. My children came back stage at a festival and my daughter said – she’s 12 now – “I get it now I completely understand why you do it Mum”. I’m fortunate enough that they give me their blessing every time I go out of the door. I keep constantly telling them if they know what they love doing, pursue it. Hopefully they will carry that thought right through to their own careers. I feel very lucky to do both - be a mother at home and have a wonderful experience on the road with the boys. 


Catch The South at the Hare and Hounds on Friday 5 October. For more information and tickets visit hareandhoundskingsheath.co.uk



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