The Skunk Anansie vocalist tells Gary Walker about singing Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela with Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder – and why she loves Songs In The Key Of Life.

Skin Skunk Anansie

There’s a reason Songs In The Key Of Life is one of the most popular records in the world – it’s because it’s an incredibly stunning record. You start off listening to your parents’ records and they’re the ones who set you off on your musical journey, and my granddad had this nightclub in the basement of his house in Brixton.

My earliest musical memories are being three years old in that nightclub at seven in the evening. In those days, it was really important for black people, as there was nowhere else to go and hang out. My earliest memories are of Prince Buster, Augustus Pablo, Gus White… but the first record I got into myself was Songs In The Key Of Life.
I still have my parents’ copy of it.

I remember being really young and my dad putting the record on. Up until then, it was all reggae. Bob Marley was my Elvis, and all of a sudden this new record was floating around the house. 

The record player was in the front room and we weren’t allowed in the front room, maybe my mum was saving it for a visit from the Queen! But one day when I was a bit older she went out to work and forgot to lock it, and I got in there and put on Songs In The Key Of Life and My Baby Just Cares For Me by Nina Simone, and they both blew me away. Songs In The Key Of Life was the first double album I’d heard and I loved every track. 

It was also the record where my singing started. I learnt all the words of every single song. I would sing along, but I couldn’t sing in his key, so I learnt to harmonise on that record.

It also had this political thing to it. Up until then, I just liked music, I didn’t really study lyrics. It was really life-changing. He meant every single word – some of the songs are love songs, some are deeply political, some are about dancing and having a good time, and some are about fucking. 

Pastime Paradise is one of the most beautiful songs of all time; I like I Wish because it’s as funky as hell; Knocks Me Off My Feet is a stunningly beautiful song, and not only did he sing, he played all the instruments – and he’s blind!  

I’ve met Stevie Wonder twice. The second time, myself and Cass had been invited to a 1,000-man dinner for Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday. At a certain point, he started inviting people up to shake his hand, Desmond Tutu, Danny Glover, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson… then Skunk Anansie!

It was ridiculous, out of this world! And then Stevie Wonder came and sat at the keyboard next to me and someone handed me a mic. I sang Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela with Stevie Wonder – and Michael Jackson and Nina Simone on backup. It was the most surreal moment of my whole life!

25LIVE@25, a career-spanning live album by Skunk Anansie, is out on 25 January through Republic Of Music

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