The year is 1983. It is a shimmering hot afternoon in a quarter of London that has more to do with the melting pot of a North African port than a suburb of an English city. Shouty-mouthed Greek tavernas, Polish sausage shops and halal butchers, lacklustre shabby Chinese Restaurants bearing faded window signs of their once-lauded cuisine, Caribbean jerk joints, street corner hemp hustlers and hostels for irish navvies, still sobering up, hunched over their brunch of soda bread, fried potatoes and a pint of milk, nursing the bruised jaw from last night with a mix of pride and their mammy’s shame.
A dusty black former police sedan from the fifties bumps up on the kerb outside a converted cinema on the high road, tiny presentation windows superimposed on otherwise sheer concrete walls the only sign of the building’s former life as a celluloid dream factory. The car’s occupant slides smoothly from the cracked old dubonnet seat, uses one large hand to heft a too-large vinyl bag over a wide bony shoulder and the other to tease a stray braid of tight black curls under a print headscarf. She crosses the pavement like a seasoned guest strolling into the Hermitage in Monte Carlo and enters the vivid multicoloured decorama of the Power Plant recording studios.
Her button fly pale jeans sit on her hips like an afterthought. The t-shirt still has traces of something eaten in the car jagged across the chest. The shoes are those of a Moroccan market stallholder, the earrings large and looped. It isn’t just the wide full mouth that smiles, it is the whole face. The dark and dazzling white eyes look around with confident, impudent curiosity and say “I like you and I think you’ll like me”. Her voice is as nut brown as her skin. Not a man’s or even a mannish voice but a voice that comes from a place and a time far, far away and long, long ago.
Everything about the picture makes sense. From the car to the clothes to the bag to the accessories to the walk to the voice to the laughter in the eyes – everything works as one easy, beautiful co-ordinated package, as effortlessly graceful and strong as a cheetah after a kill.
“Hi, I’m looking for Robin Millar. I’m Sade.”
Last Thursday was 35 years since Sade’s debut record ‘Diamond Life’ was released in the US. Many American friends texted and emailed me to remind me. American’s make note of this sort of thing. They do not have the arrogance of Europeans, for whom anything less than 400 years old has no historical significance. This is why they cherish their movie stars, their genius twentieth century observers and writers, their brave architecture and their pop artistry. Plus they adore Shar-day. That particular album marks a point in their lives when something new was said about being human, being in love, being vulnerable, from a new voice and a new groove and a new perspective.
The process wherein I become a record producer and arranger to a singer is a simple, profound one. It always involves intimacy, honesty, intense closeness including physical warmth and some sort of temporary falling in love from both sides. I’m certain that does not apply to all such partnerships but it certainly has with mine. The gender is irrelevant, as is the age or the external beauty. The bond is the bond of becoming one creative entity. The boundaries get blurred then forgotten. The psyches fuse and melt into one being. It is sexy but not sexual. It is crude but not dirty. It is physical but not erotic. It does not, in my case, derogate from the love for my partner. There is no running off with the leading lady scenario. It’s all-consuming for six weeks or eight weeks or ten weeks. I listen to no other music. I watch no TV. I read hardly any news. I don’t socialise outside of the artist and the band and sound crew. The music is the last thing I think about at night and what wakes me up in the morning. I would die for the singer. I’m completely responsible for their success or failure. In the studio I am rarely more than six feet from them. I’m often holding their hand or have my hands on their face or on their shoulder or I am standing behind them singing into their ear as they sing or I am in front of them, miming the words with my hands and with my mouth as they inhabit the character of the song.
And then it’s over. Occasionally we stay close friends but more often than not we retain a huge bond, as free and unfettered as with any ex lover but we go our separate ways.
I am still that person inside. Yesterday we had lunch on the terrace at the Es Saadi in Hivernage. This was where The Stones and Jimi Hendrix first discovered Marrakech. I still embody that spirit. I’m still on the Marrakesh Express.
But I am not that person outside. I do not spend any time alone with a singer. I do not touch my colleagues. I do not kiss them for any reason. I am a huge fan of the way men and women can now step out of the shadows and talk about the way they were treated by those in power over their lives. My work for the UN was often based around protecting the young and the vulnerable from violence, sexual oppression and the like. Sade and many other artists have shared in this work.
I feel blessed that I worked in innocent deep intimate closeness with wonderful vulnerable amazing singers and musicians and I felt no fear that I was abusing them or that they felt abused.