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Scotland on Sunday
Sun 16 Oct 2005
On stage is where Mick Hucknall says he feels most confident.
Photograph: Joerg Koch/ EPA
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Songs in the key of life

Journalist of the year

MICK HUCKNALL has no memory of his mother, nor the moment of her going, only the tears her departure provoked. In his deepest memory, he is three. He is hugging his father's legs, clinging on, and when he looks up above him, up, up to the face, the child sees that his father is crying. "That's the earliest thing I remember in my life," says Hucknall. "They'd split up and my dad had me then. There was me and him and that was it."

He felt abandoned? "I heard that in John Lennon's music," Hucknall says, in indirect reply. (Lennon was raised by an aunt.) "I heard that as a child. I can hear it in his music and I totally get it, and I got it when I was six. It's just a kind of attitude, a certain sadness in his music. I remember him doing an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, and he'd gone through this psychological thing with his doctor, a primal-scream thing, about this whole issue. It was definitely in his work and he even said it was in his work. Maybe what that did for me was confirm that this was the way I should go."

"Hey Jude, take a sad song and make it better." But it was Paul McCartney's lyrics about Lennon's son that the young Hucknall took to heart. He did take a sad song. And it did make it better. "Sad music has always done that for me. Happy songs can make you miserable. Then you hear a sad song and think, 'Someone's more unhappy than me...' I've always found singing songs or writing songs in that way very healing."

It wasn't that his entire childhood was unhappy, although he looks at photographs sometimes and wonders. "I think, 'Good God, look at the frown! What were you going through?'" He was loved by his dad. But there was a gap. "I was rejected by my mother. You can't get anything more deep than that. Nothing more profound than that can happen to anybody. I am not wallowing in it, I'm not moping around, though. I am actually dealing with it, and I have found a medium that sort of helps waft it away somehow. You are probably endlessly trying to recover, and I think that's why music will be eternally healing for me... because I never will recover from that."

HUCKNALL has a quiet quality, a stillness. He creates an intimacy around him. It's in the way he holds eye contact for a long time when he is introduced, with both men and women. There is a kind of respect, a proper acknowledgement of the person he is meeting. Later, when he talks of liking intimacy, it makes sense; in a purely social context, he creates it quite naturally. He doesn't sit in the empty chair opposite to be interviewed, but sits right next to me on my sofa, and is very tactile when he talks.

He has been known to be testy in interviews, but Hucknall's image is a little confusing. Today, he seems intelligent, articulate, open. As a teenager, he dipped his toe into the fast-flowing waters of criminality, but withdrew quickly before the tides sucked him in. By his own admission, he has mixed with "dangerous people, hustlers, all sorts". It made him a good judge of character, but it has all added to the media myth: Hucknall, the rough-edged Manchester lad.

"I think a lot of it is to do with being northern. They are doing a similar thing to Wayne Rooney - although he's giving them a lot of help. I think partly the reason he does what he does is because he reads things about himself that are insulting, derogatory - 'the boy's got no class', 'the girlfriend's got no class'. Who's saying it? White, middle-class people from the Home Counties."

Hucknall was always aware of class divisions. He passed his 11-plus, but would have intentionally failed had he been able to predict the future. "All my friends went to secondary school close to my house. Just by passing this bloody exam I had to travel eight miles a day on a bus, getting up an hour earlier than everybody else to go to this school with people I had absolutely nothing in common with. They were all kind of middle class, lower middle class, and I felt like a fish out of water - very, very isolated. I did make some friends there, but I was very unhappy."

But was the isolation really to do with class? "Very much so. I mean, it was rugby. It was the old school tie. It was bollocks, forgive my French. It meant nothing to me. I didn't get it. I was working class and I had a very strong sense of my class identity early on. I knew what the deal was, and I've never changed with that. I was Labour, you know? I'll always be that."

He wasn't particularly ambitious academically and had problems with numbers. It made him feel stupid. Hucknall began truanting. And he began missing his mother. "For me, a mum would be someone to reassure you going through puberty. That's the time I missed her most. Between 11 and 15 was my most turbulent time. Things were very, very difficult at school. I got involved in a bit of criminality, went off the rails, alcohol abuse... just a lot of negativity."

He had been close to his dad, but now they began locking antlers, in the way fathers and teenage boys inevitably seem to do. "There were big fights because basically I was in his territory. You know the classic line: 'When you are in my house you do as I say.' That kind of business. Probably a member of the opposite sex would have softened that. It would probably also have given me a lot more self-confidence, which I lacked. People wouldn't think I was shy, but I was painfully shy as a kid. Walking out on a stage is somehow the only time you escape the shyness, when you show this incredibly confident front."

His father feels guilty about not nurturing Hucknall's talent; it affects their relationship still. "He has done many great things, but he could never lay claim to encouraging me. He disapproved of me doing music."

But Hucknall actually understands why. "I think in a lower-working-class background, people don't have that much hope. 'Get real, son... it's not one in a million, it's one in ten million. You haven't got a bloody chance.' They're trying to do you a favour in a way, to give you a reality check. But my dream was never going to be abashed; it was not going to be controlled."

His beautifully distinctive voice did single him out, and he also became an acclaimed songwriter, with hits such as 'Holding Back the Years' and 'Fairground'. His cover version of 'Money's Too Tight to Mention' was seen as an anti-Thatcher song, but he was to become a very wealthy man, selling 60 million albums with Simply Red. Did retaining his political ideals get increasingly difficult? "No, because it's not communism. You're not saying no one should make any money. Someone who is a plumber and gets his own company, then he's the boss, then he's making money. Does that mean he's somehow betraying his roots? To me it's the opposite. You're there to set an example to people of your class and background, to say, 'Look, I was where you are. If you stay diligent, you can achieve.' I was certainly never a communist, but social justice, social welfare, that's still something I believe in."

Friendly with Tony Blair, he has nonetheless disagreed with the Prime Minister at times. "I'm critical of certain issues, but I don't believe it is possible to be involved with a party where you agree with everything. By and large I am still a Labour supporter because I believe in the fundamental principles. I think Tony Blair has made some mistakes. I think Cherie has. I think Cherie should have spoken more to the public, done more interviews. When I first met her she was bubbly and vibrant and full of life. She has been so attacked by the media... I just regret that she didn't come out fighting a little bit and let them know who she really is."

Hucknall knows about being attacked. His unusual head of red corkscrew curls, his unconventional looks, have attracted some scathing press. The subtext is usually consternation at Hucknall managing to attract a long line of beautiful and successful women: Catherine Zeta Jones, Naomi Campbell, Melanie Sykes, Ulrika Jonsson, Martine McCutcheon... models, actresses, even sportswomen such as Steffi Graf. None of them even needed his money. And he were northern int' bargain. What was going on?

Jealousy, mainly. Granted, Hucknall is not George Clooney. But he's not ET either. And men who consistently date women better-looking than themselves have something else to offer: empathy, or charm, or the ability to make women feel good about themselves. They like women. Hucknall is an interesting example, though, because maybe he has reason to dislike women. "Well, there's the twist, you see. I had women all around me when I was a kid. I didn't have a mother, but I was brought up with a woman who had four daughters. When I was three, the youngest was 11 or 12 and I got passed around these girls as I grew up. They looked after me at various times, when my dad was at work or on a Saturday. They were neighbours, but practically relatives. I'm still in regular contact with them. I had four girls who could never be my mother, but four different characters of four different women, so that enabled me to feel very comfortable around women."

There has been a lot of interest in his relationships, I begin, and he stops me. "Sorry to interrupt," he says, "but I haven't." Haven't what? "Had lots of relationships. I have had lots of one-night-stands, lunatic bachelor lost weekends, but very few relationships. In my entire adult life I have had about three serious relationships. I completely separate the two things."

As an amateur psychologist, he grins, he thinks he understands. "The trouble with the womanising is that I am constantly seeking approval. 'You love me, don't you?' And I think that's part of the endless need to feel the reassurance that not only one girl loves me, but thousands love me."

In other words, if his mother didn't love him enough to stay, he would have to make do with quantity rather than quality. Ultimately, that gets destructive. "I think that's what happened to me in the last five years," he agrees. "I got kind of bored with it. I'd really get a kick out of the chase and then think, 'Yeah, I could... if I wanted to.' But I don't really need to. I don't have notches on my bedpost. I'm not like that."

His behaviour led to unhappiness. "You end up sitting around getting drunk, getting miserable and fat, and then you come to that important crossroads in your life where you think, 'Well, look, do I head into alcoholism here? Do I go down a route where I don't give a shit about anything and just allow my self-esteem to get lower and lower?' Or do you say to yourself, 'Wait a minute, hold it, boy. Take a look in the mirror. Stop. This is silly.' Maybe two or three years ago I thought I could either go the whole way, turn into a 16-stone monster, or I could start coming back. That's kind of what I'm doing now."

His depression was caused by a failed romance. In 1995 he had to go on tour to promote his Life album, so had ended the relationship. "But I'd miscalculated how much she meant to me, and so I got very down. By the time I realised what I'd lost, she had gone off into another relationship. I felt I'd screwed it up and went on to try to find someone else to sort of replace that, but I didn't. And couldn't."

Three years later, he wrote about the experience in his album Blue. But recently, he has got the woman - who is not famous and doesn't want to be - back. "I'm very happy," he says. "I feel sort of whole." He would even like children. "I'm working on it," he grins.

Of course, there is the crunch question. Is he capable of fidelity? Hucknall takes a deep breath. There is a long pause, so long that I begin to laugh. Hucknall's mouth flaps like a fish out of water. "God!" he says. "I think that's a very... I... I..." He stops. "I'll try," he says, "I'll try." He sounds sincere, but uncertain. "I'm definitely trying. And I'm succeeding so far."

Was it women he liked, or just sex? "Probably sex," he says honestly. "Probably sex, and just that certain intimacy. Yeah, I think probably just sex. That would be the issue with fidelity. It would just be nothing to do with an emotional connection, it would just be sex. They say men can differentiate easier, but a woman would respond, 'Well, how would you feel if I did it?' And I... Oh, shit, I wouldn't like it at all... Oh, shit, I'll have to think about that one. I've been through that one."

He believes his commitment difficulties are connected to his mother's abandonment. But there can be no more excuses. "I don't want to screw this up. I care about this person very deeply, and I am just doing the best I can. I can't do any more than the best I can."

A FEW years ago, Hucknall met his mother in America. It didn't go well. Has he finally reconciled himself to being motherless - or is he driven to see her still? "If she insisted on seeing me, I probably would." She didn't play a part in his life, he says. Why should he play a part in hers?

But, actually, she did play a part - a negative part. Just like the woman who falsely accused Hucknall of rape in 2000, an accusation thrown out within 24 hours. "The worst part for me was the thought that people out there might have thought that I had done that," he says quietly. "'There's no smoke without fire...' You suddenly think, 'They've put my name out there and it's there forever, and it's not true.' The fact is that it didn't happen, and I feel it should be in the law that no person should be named until they have either been charged or prosecuted."

In fact, if he has any criticism of Tony Blair, it's in his lack of leadership over such moral issues. He hated Thatcher and everything she stood for, but at least you knew what she stood for. "I feel we have become quite wayward in moral views," he says.

Yet when police raided his house over the rape allegations, he was charged with possession of cocaine and cannabis. "It's a difficult issue. You have the whole thing with Kate Moss at the moment. This idea that it's just in the fashion industry... it's in yours," he says. "The idea that you single out this poor girl... Yes, she's a public figure, but so are some newspaper editors. But shall we find out what they do on a Saturday night? There's a lot of hypocrisy and double standards."

Drug-taking has never been his problem. "I've never had an addictive personality. I've never done vast amounts of drugs. I'm in a world where I could have them shoved in front of my face every day of the week."

Nowadays, he is drawn to other interests. He owns a salmon river in Donegal and a vineyard in Italy. "Somehow these are connected. They're natural. Making music is a very natural, organic process for me, and getting grapes out of the land is phenomenally exciting for a young northern lad. Imagine 20 years ago if someone had said, 'You are going to become a registered Sicilian farmer.' I'm as proud of that as any accolade I could get."

Hucknall's latest album is called Simplified. It's a re-recording of many of his old hits, stripped down to basics, and with piano and string arrangements. Some tracks were recorded in Cuba, and his new single, 'Perfect Love', is a catchy, vibrant Latin number. Not that there's any such thing as perfect love, he admits. "Nobody has perfection. The whole thing about that track is that it's a fight. It's about the making up. The decision is 'Look, we'll fall out again, but this is about as perfect as it gets'."

His own life is stripped back too. Why is a single relationship more fulfilling? "It's when you suddenly realise that you almost care more about somebody than you care about yourself. And how important shared experiences are, how pleasurable it is to go through life sharing experiences with someone, rather than just doing it yourself."

Hucknall's life, it seems, is at last dominated by a woman's presence, rather than a woman's absence.

Simplified, by Simply Red, is released tomorrow

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