Interview: Mick Hucknall of Simply Red
By Will Harris
It's been more than half a decade since Mick Hucknall last took to the studio and released an album under the Simply Red banner, having spent the majority of the interim as a solo artist, recording a pair of R&B covers albums, 2008's Songs for Bobby and 2012's American Soul. Hucknall has decided to revive Simply Red for a new album - Big Love - and he spoke with Rhino about what led him to return to recording under the name that brought him his greatest fame, discussing the origins of the new album while also reflecting on some of the group's greatest hits and musing on Simply Red having secured far more success outside of the United States.
Rhino: So what was the impetus for returning to the Simply Red moniker? You haven't recorded under the group's name since 2007's Stay.
Mick Hucknall: Well, it was a bit of an accident, really. My manager came 'round to see me in the summer of last year and said, “I want to make you aware that next year will be the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Simply Red. What do you want to do about it?” I said, “What do you want me to do about it?” And he said, “I thought you should do a tour. “ So I kind of thought about it a little bit, and I agreed, because 30 years… You don't do that very often, and it seemed like a good number. [Laughs.] So I agreed. And then I started wondering, “What would Simply Red sound like in 2015?” And then that got me to thinking, “Well, probably the record company will want to release yet another greatest hits,” and then I thought, “Well, maybe I could do one or two new songs…” So I started writing, and when I got to the third song, I thought, “I can take on a challenge here: I can try and see if I can write 12 songs for an entirely new album instead of regurgitating another greatest hits.” And here we are!
Rhino: How did you find yourself approaching the process of writing Simply Red songs in 2015? Did you actively try to write a Simply Red song, or did you just write wherever your muse took you?
Hucknall: I just tried to focus my mind on this kind of blue-eyed soul notion of what defined the sound of Simply Red, what was sort of the message of it. Britons have got a great tradition of kind of using African-American music as a basis to be influenced from and then creating something kind of original out of it, and I think in a way that was what all those years ago - in 1985 - what people were defining us as: blue-eyed soul. We were kind of throwing it back at you Yanks, you know? [Laughs.] And making something different with it! So I just started thinking in that way, and I tried to write in a style that I thought was appropriate for the 30th anniversary.
Rhino: For your two solo albums, you were tackling R&B covers. Did you find that recording those songs helped reinvigorate you when it came to writing new blue-eyed soul material?
Hucknall: Well, no, but it's a good question. I'd not really thought about that! It's possible, but I think it's more just reflecting on the 30-year career and just seeing the various types of success that we've had over that period, just trying to kind of use my imagination to think, “What would hit the notes, as it were, in 2015?”
Rhino: There's obviously a first single from Big Love - “Shine On” - but is that the track you'd consider to be a gateway drug for listeners who really haven't followed Simply Red's career since the first few albums? I say that because, as you well know, that's unfortunately more or less the case in America.
Hucknall: Well, I think the opening track - which is indeed “Shine On” - is perfect, because it reminds me a little bit of “Something Got Me Started.” We always had this tradition of opening up with a kind of groovy track, so I think that represents it quite well as you go through the record.
Rhino: I've read a bit about how much of Big Love is about family relationships. You've kind of settled down over the course of the past couple of years. Certainly since the last Simply Red album, anyway.
Hucknall: Yeah, that was part of the reason why that was the last Simply Red album. You know, I wanted to be around my daughter. I had a very particular upbringing myself, being brought up by my father. I lived with my father for 18 years, and he never married again, so it was a very unusual kind of upbringing I had, with no typical family. But my father showed incredible devotion to dedicate his own life like that. It was very unusual in 1963, you know? It's kind of unusual now, but then it was just unheard of!
So I reflect on that in the song “Dad,” which is about losing my father a few years ago. So it's about that, and it's about birth. I have a seven-year-old girl. I'm married now. Even the dog's a girl! [Laughs.] So I'm kind of in a completely different world now, being surrounded by a family of girls, and…I'm really writing from both sides of that, trying to capture that feeling, because that's really all I can be inspired by at the minute. That's what I'm doing: relaxing and enjoying my life, focusing on just living, really. So it's natural that the lyrics and the theme would be about family and that world.
Rhino: It seems like it could be at least a spiritual sequel to Stars.
Hucknall: Well, I think also that, in terms of a song like “Dad,” it's kind of full circle on “Holding Back the Years.” People have said to me in interviews, “You know, these songs on this album are very personal,” and I've responded by saying, “It's all personal!” [Laughs.] All the stuff is kind of autobiographical and relating to how I'm fitting in the world. I've always thought that the key to someone's heart is actually being personal, because then it becomes their personal. If somebody listens to my song “Dad” or “Holding Back the Years,” they're thinking about their lives. Sometimes that's the magic of a personal song: it kind of becomes personal to the listener.
Rhino: I wanted to run through Simply Red's back catalog a bit. When it comes to the States, do you find that people remember the group more for “Holding Back the Years” or “If You Don't Know Me By Now”? Sometimes it seems like a flip of the coin.
Hucknall: [Laughs.] Well, the reality is, apart from those two singles, Simply Red don't have a career in America! You know, we don't. And that's kind of been part choice, part lack of a full commitment because of being a seven-piece band. Some of the singers (who've preceded it), someone like Rod Stewart or Tom Jones, they have an American band and they have a European band, and so they actually cut down their losses when they're traveling around. But I found early on - about 1987 - that I was making more of a living in Europe, and I was very much enjoying living and working in Europe.
You know, the great thing about Europe is, it's all so close. You can enter Barcelona, you can go to Munich, and then to Vienna, and you can be in three completely different cultures. I've just enjoyed the good life, you know? Making a good living and enjoying my life as well. Instead of spending every hour on the road, I kind of wanted to do as much as I needed to and then kick back. So it's been quite comfortable for me to not have to do that amount of work, really. [Laughs.]
Rhino:When you look back at an album like Picture Book now, is it a case of going, “Ah, was I ever that young?” Or does it still hold up for you?
Hucknall: I haven't listened to that album in probably 15 years. I've spent so many years performing these songs that they've become kind of hybrids from the original. When we take this out on the road in Europe in the autumn, it's really just going to be about playing songs all over the 30 years, so we're really going to be reflecting on the whole career.
Rhino: I actually didn't realize until relatively recently that “Money's Too Night to Mention” was a cover.
Hucknall: Oh, that's great that you did, though. The guys who wrote it (John and William Valentine) were two songwriters in Los Angeles, and they were so grateful.
Rhino: Do you remember how you first came across the Valentine Brothers' original single?
Hucknall: Well, I used to DJ. I was a DJ from about 1981 until 1984, and I used to run a night in Manchester called Black Rhythms, so we'd be playing a lot of recent releases as well as a lot of old funk from the '60s and '70s. All manner of stuff, really. Some African-American music, some Jamaican music, some African music. And that was one of the ones that I kind of found when I'd been going to record stores. You'd get guys in the stores going, “Oh, this has just come in, give it a listen.” So I kind of got to know it through DJ-ing, really.
Rhino: What led you to tackle Talking Heads' “Heaven”?
Hucknall: It was just an idea we had of doing a different take on the song. I always loved the song, and we just kind of wanted to do sort of more of a soulful interpretation of it.
Rhino: Were you surprised when “Holding Back the Years” took off in such a big way?
Hucknall: Well, it was an accident in America, you know? I don't think I'm afraid to say that the record company themselves can't take a whole lot of credit. In fact, I'd say that more credit should go to Huey Lewis and the News than anybody at Elektra at the time. The story goes that these guys had done a European tour, and they'd also worked with Stewart Levine, my producer. And I think Stewart played them the (Picture Book) album, and they liked it, so when they went back to San Francisco, a DJ said to them, “Did you hear any new music when you were over in Europe?” And they said, “Yeah, we heard these guys Simply Red.” And the DJ played “Holding Back the Years,” it got an amazing reaction from the audience, and it became one of those viral things. It just came out of the west coast and got bigger and bigger…and the record company didn't know what to do! It wasn't part of the plan, you know? So that immediately was an amazing thrill, to get a #1 in America, but it was a bit odd. It was kind of, like, they weren't really behind it in the first place, and it just seemed a bit discombobulated somehow. But it's incredible how well it did, considering that.
Rhino: How do you look back at the Men and Women album?
Hucknall: Well, Men and Women was probably the most difficult album I had to make, because I was having to deal with a lot of internal politics within the band and within the production. And that made that very difficult, because it was emerging that I seemed to be the only guy in the band who could write any songs. It created tension immediately once they realized that the guy who makes most of the dosh - the money - is the songwriter. And then, of course, they all want to start trying to write songs, which is great…if they're good. [Laughs.] If they can kind of make it happen, great. But nobody ever came up with them, according to my manager. And it just created a different kind of tension that made it very difficult to identify us as a band.
You know, from growing up in the northwest of England, my idols were the Beatles, so I was hoping in my music career that it was going to be modeled on something like the Beatles: a bunch of guys, buddies, and they all turn out to be really talented and amazing. But that only happens, like, once every billion years! [Laughs.] And it didn't work in that way for me, and I was quite disillusioned with dealing with this kind of enemy within, and it caused a lot of difficulty. I almost quit, actually. Because I'd written the songs, and I was writing all these other songs, but now I felt like I was almost now being punished for it! So it's a long story, but it was an unhappy album, that's for sure.
Rhino: Was it at least worth it for having gotten the opportunity to write with Lamont Dozier?
Hucknall: That was the first thing that just came into my mind! [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a great thrill. You know, the actual writing process of the album, I enjoyed, but when it came to going into the studio… Because I've always been very interested in sound and production and stuff, and I made it very clear to Stewart Levine at the beginning of my career that I had ambitions in that way, and I was here to learn. And I said the same thing to Alex Sadkin on the second album, but once I'd made that statement, he seemed to do everything he could to undermine me in the band. And that suited the band, too, because they were kind of being a bit odd because they'd realized that I was making more money than they were.
Rhino: I guess that explains why Stewart Levine was back for A New Flame.
Hucknall: Yeah! And also I really was going back to listening to lots of Philadelphia sounds. Again, I still was romantically dreaming of being in some kind of a band in the '60s definition of it, and I wanted to guide the band into the direction of using the Philadelphia sound and the Barry White and Marvin Gaye sounds as more of an influence. A slightly more polished sound. So that's what we were going for with A New Flame. Plus there were two more songs from Lamont Dozier, and one also from Joe Sample of The Crusaders. It's one of my favorite songs of my career, actually: “Enough.” It's really stuck with us throughout the shows we've been doing over the years. We still perform that song.
Rhino: With “If You Don't Know Me By Now,” was that a case where Elektra moved forward with it as a single, or was it another instance where radio stumbling onto it?
Hucknall: No, I think they thought that was a sure-fire hit. But what they were doing, they were selling the single, but they weren't pushing the album. They weren't spending money on the album, and consequently we weren't getting the proper support that was actually making it financially feasible for us to tour America, so we couldn't actually afford it. And that's when we realized we were making far more of a living in Europe. And then there also came this kind of catch-22 where, when you release an album, if you don't release it first in America and come promote it, then they're going to punish you for releasing it in Europe first. So in the end it became a no-brainer: we just started thinking, “You know what? Our career lies in Europe, and we're just going to kind of make a living here and expand our crowd.” We just effectively fell out with them because we didn't think they were properly supporting us.
Rhino: So which came first, that decision or the release of Stars?
Hucknall: Stars was the beginning of the end. I remember Elton John saying to me that he couldn't believe that Stars didn't go in America. He just couldn't believe it, and he actually had sympathy for it. And when you get an artist of his stature noticing something like that, that really makes it worse. [Laughs.] You just think, “Wow…” So, yeah, that was effectively the suicide note, when that didn't go. You know, with America, you're always talking about it like it's in terms of an autopsy! But we still managed to carve out about 60 million album sales in the rest of the world, so we've managed to have a fantastic career.
But, you know, as I try to explain this to you, I realize that there really wasn't a whole lot I could do about it. It was all very political, you know? But also, I have to say that there was a little bit of subliminal racism in me being a white guy sounding a bit too black. It was something that… You know, the '80s were very different from the '60s somehow. There was this, like, unspoken racism in the '80s. It was just, like, “Yeah, no, we don't do racism anymore. Well, we do, but we don't talk about it anymore.” So…. I don't know, it just didn't feel comfortable with the relationship.
Rhino: With the internet, do you feel that you've got a stronger fanbase in America as a result of everyone having the opportunity to hear these later Simply Red albums?
Hucknall: You know, I like the idea of these things being worldwide. I have no truck with America in that sense, and I'm really glad that, the way things have gone with social media, it opens up the whole world to this, and I fully embrace that. It's wonderful.
Rhino: So with the new album, is there any talk of doing a US tour?
Hucknall: We can't. There's no feasibility to do it. We don't have anything like the volume of audience to justify it. That's the reality we're dealing with. I'm very disappointed about it, but there's not a whole lot I can do about it, you know?
Rhino: That is indeed unfortunate.
Hucknall: I agree!
Rhino: I'm sure you do.
Hucknall: And it's all the more ironic because African-American music is my biggest influence. I'm a little bit speechless. I don't know what to say. It's all well and good playing Radio City and doing a big gig in L.A., but to make it economically feasible, you've got to play that big pond in the middle. And we don't have the support to do it. We just can't feasibly do it.
Rhino: Based on that choice of phrase, though, is there at least a chance of doing a New York and L.A. show?
Hucknall: And lose a lot of money, I guess, if we do. That's the hard truth. And yet in South America, we have a fantastic career. I'm playing large enough places to ensure that we're making a good living. I'm making a living just like you: I have to go where the work is. And we've managed to carve out a fantastic career in Brazil and Argentina, in Chile and Mexico, so that makes more sense, because of the geography, to play around there. But once we start going much further up, we need that kind of level of shows to justify it, because if we don't get it, then we lose money. And we can't really afford to do that.
Rhino: Lastly, in regards to Big Love, dare I ask if you have any particular hopes or expectations for how it'll do in America?
Hucknall: I don't have any! [Laughs.] Honestly, it's just… Please believe me, I'm way past the point of being bitter about it, because I've got a great career, and you can't have everything in life. But please enjoy the music, I beg you! I hope you listen, and I hope you enjoy every note!