As the commanding co-founder, forceful frontwoman, and incredible lead singer of the Scottish pop-rock-soul-blues band Texas, Sharleen Spiteri seems totally in control. She’s toured the world, rubbed elbows with elite entertainers, and helped churn out platinum hits and record sales exceeding 40 million worldwide.
Yet, on the eve of Texas releasing their 10th studio album, the friendly, charming, and casually unfiltered Spiteri admits she’s nervous, unbelievably nervous.
The uneasy feeling had returned “because I care”, an otherwise relaxed and gracious Spiteri volunteers over the phone from her London home ten days before Hi was set to drop on 28 May. “It means a lot. We’ve put a lot of work into it. And, you know, the truth is — which most people will never ever admit — that you’re either gonna have a hit record or you’re not. And the first week is unbelievably important. Your chart position determines how much money a record company will put into it, it determines if you’re gonna get TV advertising, it determines how much they’re gonna back it. … I always feel nervous whenever we’ve got a record coming out because it is that moment of sink or swim.”
Still, for a spirited soul who has endured the loss of her beloved mother and an acclaimed record engineer in the past year while dealing with the business distress of a postponed record and Texas’ 30th anniversary tour, Spiteri sounds downright sprightly. Wrapping up a talk-filled Tuesday with a comforting preface — “I don’t need to rush off” — Spiteri begins this hourlong conversation with a detailed weather report from the city where she’s lived for 27 years.
“We have every season, with the sun, with the thunder and lightning, with hailstorms, we’ve had winds, then the sun comes back again and then, oh my God, you can’t even believe it! It’s just crazy here,” proclaims Spiteri, who also has a home in Glasgow and another in Wales, where her 43-year-old husband-celebrity chef-restaurateur Bryn Williams was born and raised.
The rapid-fire rocker wastes no time speaking her mind about the failure of leadership from her neck of the woods to aid fellow artists and their crew members when the global pandemic hit in March 2020.
“When our government said all musicians should go out and learn another skill, it was like, ‘You motherfuckers. You really just said that? Do you know how much money the British music industry makes for this country a year?’ Personally, I don’t need any money because I’m very lucky. …
“I was in a lucky place where I didn’t need to go to bed at night and think, ‘Shit, how do I feed my family?’ … But the people that didn’t have that were the guys that go and build our stages and do our lighting and do our sound. … And then the really young musicians just starting out, they were getting no financial support. … It was just absolute bullshit!”
Her outburst wasn’t necessarily a sign that’s it’s time to move, but Spiteri entertains the thought because “I’m not getting any younger.” Having enjoyed residing in Paris for a couple of years, she says with a laugh, “I could see myself living in America. … Maybe it would be Paris, Texas.” Alluding to the 1984 film that inspired her group’s name, those comments exhibit the wanderlust of a touring musician. Or maybe a popular TV character.
While a fan of the hit TV series Outlander, which transports an English combat nurse from 1945 to 18th century Scotland, then America, Spiteri doesn’t need magical stones (or possibly a DeLorean) to get back to the future.
So buckle your seatbelts, folks. It’s gonna be a wild ride. Between looking back and looking ahead, Spiteri will introduce a few of the colorful, real-life personalities she has met along her way down memory lane.
The Ayes of Texas
Born in the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, on 7 November 1967, to Eddie and Vilma Spiteri, Sharleen didn’t take long before discovering her lot in life. Scottish artists like Orange Juice, Roddy Frame, Altered Images and others creating “that whole Postcard [Records] sound” were among her influences. But since she also appreciated classic rock music, John, Paul, George and Ringo were the names that truly moved her — when the Fab Four were no longer the Beatles.
“They weren’t making records anymore,” Spiteri explains. “When I was listening to their early records, I would listen to those songs, and that band wasn’t even there, but I was like, ‘Oh my God, these songs are everything! They make me cope with life, they make me happy, they make me escape, they let me do all the things I want to do.’ …
“When I was 18 years old, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I would love to achieve that. That’s what I would love to do in life.’”
Spiteri was a hairdresser in Glasgow when she formed Texas with bassist Johnny McElhone (Altered Images, Hipsway) in 1986, and lead guitarist Ally McErlaine was an original member. They made their full-length debut with Southside, which was certified gold three weeks after its 1989 release, and went on to sell two million copies. If a band in the UK adopting a Lone Star State-inspired name seemed confusing to Americans, it made perfect sense for two eager-to-be Great Scot musicians and songwriters. Yet still today, the uninitiated wonder: “Why Texas?”
Spiteri exclaims, “Oh, Christ almighty, well, let’s just say 35 years ago, you’re sitting in Glasgow, it’s pouring rain, and the common ground between myself and Johnny is the movie Paris, Texas, and the soundtrack by Ry Cooder. And we decide to write a song that’s inspired by that, and that song is ‘I Don’t Want a Lover.’ We think, ‘Let’s call ourselves Texas. It conjures up wide open spaces.’ …
“We had no idea what Texas stood for, none of us had been to Texas and we just had this romantic idea of being American. We didn’t have any idea of the connotations that it would have. People thinking, ‘Is it a country band or is it a good ole boy band?’ … When we released ‘I Don’t Want a Lover’, and it was a hit record, our own record company thought we were fucking American. It was like the most bizarre, mad journey of all times.”
At least they least got the attention of esteemed music critics like Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, who incisively wrote after seeing Spiteri’s band perform in San Juan Capistrano, California, in October 1989:
“Texas’ Southside album, a hit in Britain, has enjoyed only moderate success in this country, but these live shows should create a demand for more. There’s a conviction and spirit in this young band that is as independent and limitless as its Texas namesake.”
Coming to America
That album conjures up my first memories of Texas, too. With a mix of genres ranging from Western twang with slide guitars to searing rock-pop, ‘60s soul, and R&B to the sweeping cinematic sounds paying homage to Ennio Morricone, they seemed destined to go places — even America. Here was a potential replacement for one of my favorite singers (Maria McKee) and her band (Lone Justice) from that era after their 1987 breakup.
As a music-crazed fanatic long before covering and interviewing artists, I headed to a Denver record store in the early ’90s to purchase Texas’ second album and meet Spiteri, who was there with a bandmate for a promotional appearance/autograph session. She signed my copy of 1991’s severely overlooked Mothers Heaven, then brought band members to the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.
Their abbreviated set was so impressive that, a couple of years later, she was among three interview subjects for my first music article written for The Denver Post. The main photo for the Lively Arts section on 19 June 1994, showed Spiteri performing earlier that month at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, where they got top billing on a US tour. Under the headline “Women Rock the World”, the article cited the global rise of female pop-rock artists running the show, represented by Aimee Mann (in the States), Sarah McLachlan (Canada), and Glasgow’s Spiteri, Scotland’s newest export.
Asked about the Boulder stop, Spiteri screams, “Oh my God, I remember that gig! I remember the hotel and everything. It looked like it was like a haunted house. That’s what I remember more than anything. It was really old-fashioned and … it was a bit like the house in Psycho.”
That probably wasn’t as scary as Texas’ introduction to the state of Texas.
“It was a bit of a culture shock when the first place we went to in Texas was Dallas,” Spiteri confesses. “We were a bit like, ‘Whoa-a-a-a-ah! This is so not what we’re all about.’ …. It was big, it was brash, it was bold. … And we were like, ‘We’re none of this shit.’ … When we got to Austin, suddenly we were like, ‘Y-a-a-a-y! We get it! This is us!’”
Scotland’s Texas also found a famous fan at their first gig in the capital city. Attending the show at Antone’s, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons “bought all our merchandise and just gave it out to everybody on the street,” Spiteri recollects. “And we were like, ‘This is just insane. This guy’s amazing.’ And we just loved it.”
Her experience as Texas’ opening act for John Mellencamp in 1994 was nearly as memorable. Married then to supermodel Elaine Irwin (they divorced in 2011), Mellencamp surprised Spiteri with his “soul-based” sound and playful nature. “I gave him the best haircut he ever had,” the ex-stylist brags with a laugh, appreciating the “phenomenal” couple who “really took me under their wing.”
“It was really funny because when we got that tour, our record company Universal said to us, ‘Listen, John Mellencamp hasn’t had an opening act for X amount of years, so you’re really lucky to be doing this tour. You’ll never meet him, you’ll never see him and just get on and play your gig.”
“So we did the first gig … come off stage, sit in the dressing room, the door knocks and … it was John standing in the doorway. He went, ‘Hey guys, I just wanted to come back and say that was a really good set. You were fantastic. I’m so happy to have you on the tour.’ And we’re all a bit like, ‘What the fuck!’ It’s the first night and we’ve been told we’ll never see him.”
The surprising saga continued as he invited Texas to the side of the stage to see him perform. During one of the instrumental solos, Mellencamp runs over to a startled Spiteri, then brings her onstage to sing “Pink Houses”. She scrambled to remember the words, but a tradition began on that tour.
“He gives me a whole verse,” Spiteri adds. “And he got me on stage every single night to sing ‘Pink Houses’ with him.” Spiteri also learned how to work an audience from Mellencamp. Among other things, he told her, “You’ve got to have big balls.”
It’s not likely Spiteri, Mellencamp nor myself, for that matter, figured 1994 for Texas — excluding a few stops to back their acclaimed White on Blonde release in 1997 — basically was the end of the road in the US.
“We just never ever get to come to America that often. And it really upsets me,” Spiteri observes now, later expressing her frustration about their label’s lack of support in the States for White on Blonde, Texas’ fourth studio album and the biggest worldwide seller (more than four million) to date while hitting No. 1 on the UK charts. “The people were coming to see us, but just couldn’t get ahold of the record then. … It was a real big struggle and a real fight with our record company then, like, ‘Well, how are we gonna break America if people can’t actually buy the record [there]?’”
That dilemma would continue to haunt them.