He’s the Scouse singer and songwriter who captained pop, led the Bank of England and was one of sixteen tambourines. Or something. He’s also the well-respected godfather of Liverpool’s late nineties and early noughties acoustic scene who moved to Glossop to continue recording and releasing great music. There was a Mercury Music Prize nomination in amongst all that, too. But, to us, he’s just another Liverpool legend. By Alan O’Hare.
“Oh the sun is on the harbour, love / And I wish that I could remain / For I know it will be a long, long time / Before I see you again… ” Words to strike hurt into the heart of any true Scouser. They can offer hope, too, though. Ask Steve Roberts: “I was helping to support my family by playing songs in a few different pubs every week and all I ever met were drunk people shouting for ‘Brown Eyed Girl’,” he tells me. “I needed a change – my wife’s from the Peak District, we were married there and so we took a chance and left. I’d had enough.”
Roberts is talking about his leaving of Liverpool a while back. It was tough, but it got the ex-16 Tambourines man back on track. “I still think about Liverpool all the time,” he reveals. “I’ve always loved the place – I used to sit in New Brighton staring at it.” Poetic, that.
But, then, so is Steve Roberts. A songwriter of unflinching meaning and melody, the Mercury Music Prize-nominated musician (for 2001’s memorable ‘It Just Is’) has always been respected by his peers. Roberts’ is a musical journey that starts in the bosom of a massive music industry and takes in all points thereafter, including band break-ups, indie label success, acoustic troubadour tales and a third act as a pioneer of the do-it-yourself model.
In truth, the phrase #LiverpoolLessOrdinary could have appeared on any public relations bumf relating to Roberts over the last thirty years. So, it’s about time we got cracking with this one…
What songs make you think about Liverpool?
Like I said, I still think about Liverpool all the time so I don’t need songs to make that happen. I often play my song ‘From Speke To Waterloo’ at gigs and, of course, there’s Pete Wylie’s ‘Heart As Big As Liverpool’. ‘In My Life’ does it best though…
Have you grown fonder of the city since you left?
I’m very protective of it – and there are a lot of people who don’t like the place or Scousers. There are highly irrational reactions about the city, too, but I see it differently now and you find people are kind, funny and talented everywhere. It’s like having a kid and saying ‘I can tell them off, but you can’t’!
It’s common, that. I’ve always loved your voice – who are your favourite singers from Liverpool?
The Beatles… even Ringo! There are so many – I love loads of them, including many I know. Let’s think… Marc Vormawah, Chris and Tony Griffiths and Gary Daly. Then, when I first saw Cook da Books, I couldn’t believe their singing! Gary Christian, Tom Lang, Ian McCulloch, Sense Of Sound… does Elvis Costello count?
Go ‘ead, why not?! What’s the secret of great Scouse singing?
It’s not just the individual voices in Liverpool, it’s also the way they combine… it’s proper singing, not that kind of bored and middle class ‘can’t be arsed’ stuff. I know I’ve missed many more I love.
Let’s look back for a moment. Talk to us about 16 Tambourines…
I set out to have a band that could do anything musically and not just be a certain thing. We went from angry, banging guitars to soul pop and I wish I’d kept using the name as I still do whatever I like. There were some great versions of the band (around me, Tony Mac and Tony Elliot), but I don’t think we ever had the perfect line-up.
The music remains timeless, though. As does the ‘story’ I believe
Yeah, the usual story: major record deal, record company interference, ripped off by managers, skint!
Moving into the nineties, you were at the forefront of Liverpool’s open mic culture with ‘Acoustic Engine’. What do you remember of it all?
I started it about 1998 as an open mic in Stamps, Crosby. We had special guests, too, but you had to play your own songs.
Well, yes, remember The Hokum Clones? They could do what they wanted…
It became a bit of a scene, didn’t it?
At the time, it seemed that there were only places for bands to play and I fancied just hearing the songs. For a while, we ran it in about half a dozen different venues and I remember great songwriters like Lizzie Nunnery, Mike Badger, Nick Saunders, Howie Payne and loads from down the road, out of town and abroad coming through. There were always interesting people crashing in our spare room!
Any particular memories stand out?
A great night in the theatre at The Masque (now Arts Club) with John Power… and the time Damien Rice’s record company got in touch for him to play! I’m not convinced he really wanted to do it – he mostly played songs with a lot of swear words – but he was casually brilliant and I remember Lisa Hannigan being fantastic, too. She was really happy to be in Liverpool…
… but not Damien?
I gave him all the money we were paid to do the afternoon, £30 or so, and he just looked at me like ‘wha’… ‘. I think he sold out the university a couple of months later!
Fun times, then?
When it was great, it was sublime. But listening to bad songs, badly performed, stretched the nerves. I was so busy, though, it’s hard to remember much.
Your solo work continued throughout and still does! Do you ever stop writing and recording?
No, not really. I have literally hundreds of songs and more ideas than I can remember… I’ve slowed down a bit, though. Well, at least in the recording of the songs.
You’re back in town this week for a special gig. What can we expect?
It’s a songwriter’s circle thing, with Heaven’s Gate at 81 Renshaw Street, so Quiet Loner, Jason MacNiff and I will each do a song in turn until we’ve all done however many in the time we have. I have no idea what I’ll do – just write twenty songs on a piece of paper and pick one when it’s my go!
What’s in the set these days?
Some old, some new, some on keyboard, some guitar… I’m looking forward to seeing the venue, though, it looks great.
What’s next, Steve?
I’m doing a show that’s based on The Cold War at Write Blend in Waterloo on April 28th. After that, I’m not sure… I suffer a little bit with anxiety and travelling in a car doesn’t agree with me, so I might have a break from playing live or at least the travel… if I could afford trains, then I’d play everywhere!
All the best with that. How about a new album, then?
I’m recording one now, a sort-of concept album about England – if that doesn’t sound too Rick Wakeman! Then I’d like to write a book…
Sounds good to us. What kind of book?
A humorous detective novel!
Heaven’s Gate with Jason Mcniff, Quiet Loner, Steve Roberts
Friday, April 14th 2017, 8pm
81 Renshaw Street, Liverpool
Pic courtesy The Cold War