Sharleen Spiteri Of Texas Reaches Wondrous New State With ‘Hi’

Photo by Julian Broad

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With their 10th studio record, Texas finds inspiration from Texas─23 years ago, that is. “How narcissistic is that?” ring leader and prolific singer/songwriter Sharleen Spiteri laughs. “Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, as they say.”

Their label, Universal, initially eyed a pair of anniversary releases around the group’s debut Southside (1989) and the commercial blockbuster White on Blonde (1997). When the band began sifting through the archives, they stumbled upon three unfinished songs, the glittering disco track “Mr. Haze” among them, and swerved to construct a new record instead. “We thought, ‘It might be interesting if we take these songs and actually complete them.’ Now, we feel we know exactly how to complete these songs,” says Spiteri.

Brand new songs began to emerge in the writing process, as well. Before too long, Hi found its way into the world, so to speak. “I have a very hard time explaining things. I talk in colors and roundabout ways. When I was a kid, all my report cards from school would say, ‘Sharleen has no understanding of language whatsoever.’ Sometimes, I feel I want to go back to school and smack the teacher on the head,” Spiteri tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call, “and go, ‘Guess what! See this! I sold more than 40 million records. If only you looked closer at me and paid more attention to what it was that I couldn’t see, you may have understood.’ I guess, when I make a record, I always think, ‘This is my understanding of language ‘cause I have to see it in music.”

With its flamboyant aura, “Mr. Haze,” which samples Donna Summer’s 1977 hit “Love’s Unkind,” Spiteri gravitated towards the original demo’s sax line. “It had a Motown sound to it. Every time we’d work on it, we’d go, ‘Sounds like Donna Summer!’,” she offers. They then draped the musical sample over their own track, and the result is an immediate blend of the old and new. Luckily, Texas had previously worked with acclaimed producer Gorgio Moroder, who’d also worked on the Summer track, many moons ago (for a 1999 remixed version of “Summer Sun”), so they rang him up to ask for clearance. To cover their bases, contact was also made with the Summer estate directly─and it was an emphatic “yes!”

Later, “Just Want to Be Liked” emits a hypnotizing smokiness, as Spiteri yearns for validation with a sardonic tongue as is often her way. “I’ve always played with sarcasm in my lyrics. If you go back to ‘I Don’t Want a Lover,’ I wrote that when I was 18 years old. When you’re young, and you’re starting out, you think you’re a rebel and you’re punk. You think all these things. The truth is, you do want people to like you. You have this ‘I don’t care’ attitude. You don’t realize until you’re older that you actually don’t give a flying fuck who likes you. There’s this freedom that comes with getting older.”

The advent of social media, particularly for Gen Z in an already complicated world, makes the search for acceptance far more complicated. “If I was a young person growing up with social media nowadays, I would have mental health issues. It makes you question everything. It’s difficult enough growing up, get through life, and find a direction you want to go in. Then, we pile on top of that social media saying, ‘You should be this.’ There is that question within the song, as well.”

“Falling” crushes the eardrums with a scattered rain stick and percussion laced with a chilling descension, mimicking Spiteri’s recurring dream of falling. “I’ve had [that] dream since I was a kid that I let myself go─or I come out of the dream really fast. The dream is me falling. Musically, that’s what we were trying to create, that kind of dreamy darkness,” she says. “You start from one place when you’re writing a song, and then the song takes on a life of its own. Words fit into place, and it’s not the initial point of the song. But it turns into something else and you can take it into a different direction using different language. It’s a song about questioning falling─whether it’s falling in love, falling into doubt, falling into a hole, mentally.”

Such entrancing, and somehow tranquil, moments are exactly why Texas has endured in the way it has. Since their 1989 debut record, the band─currently composed of Ally McErlaine (guitar), Johnny McElhone (bass), Eddie Campbell (keyboards), Tony McGovern (guitar), Michael Bannister (keyboards), and Cat Myers (drums)─have amassed 13 top ten hits in the U.K., sold more than 40 million records, and achieved a level of fame that many never witness.

But the music goes much deeper than that. There’s a quality ingrained within Hi, from the groovy glow of “Moonstar” to the string-wrapped “You Can Call Me” and the Wu-Tang Clan-starring title track, that speaks to a unique emotional experience. “When Johnny and I first formed Texas, I was turning 18 years old, and I just wanted to at least write one song that [made] people go ‘oh, yeah, I know that feeling and place.’ You never imagine you’d end up almost 35 years down the line suddenly going ‘oh, I’ve written quite a lot of those songs,’” Spiteral reflects. “Sometimes, I do have pinch-me moments. I have those moments when I have an album coming out. I have this album coming out, and I’ll be honest, I’m literally shitting myself. It’s such a mix of emotions.

“It’s that moment when it comes out that it’s sink or swim. You know within a week whether people are going ‘yay!’ or ‘eh.’ My daughter’s friend is a young songwriter. I constantly say to her, ‘It takes a lot of guts to put anything out there─whether it’s writing a piece or making a record or painting or doing a dance routine─and then go ‘judge me.’ That’s not why you’re doing it, but still, there is that. That’s why I don’t read good reviews or bad reviews. I just don’t read them. The most important thing for me is balance of being able to do what it is I do. I look at the sales. Sales are what says it to me.”

Closing track “Had to Leave” shimmers with both a necessary emotional release and the heaviness of another person’s toxicity. “Well, god, I can’t name names,” she says with a laugh, “but [the song] is about someone who is very close to me. It’s not my husband. And it’s not my daughter. Put those out of the way. But it’s someone I know. It’s a frustration from me and from seeing someone’s potential. There’s so much potential and they know it’s there, but it’s like watching paint dry. That’s how painful it is to watch. It’s about watching someone that can’t seem to move forward.”

In many ways, Texas comes full circle. While continuing to probe and dig in their music, Hi seems particularly special─ebbing and flowing with their trusty lyrical charms and a propulsive forward progression in tone and musicality. Even with such natural evolution, Spiteri doesn’t feel she’s changed all that much through the years and their countless successes. “I feel like the exact same person I’ve always been since I was a little kid. There’s still that curiosity and excitement in me. Stubborn independence, drive─all those things are there. I don’t really feel any different. There’s a part of me that’s the exact same every time a record comes out. I don’t ever take it for granted. A good friend of mine, Peter K, said to me many years ago, ‘You know, the thing is, in your mind, you’re still a hairdresser, and you’re just waiting for someone to find you out. That’s such an important part of your charm and success.’”

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