Interview with Carol Decker of T'Pau

(This interview was originally published March 1, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Carol Decker. She is a singer and songwriter best known as the front woman for the band T’Pau. The British band found international success in the late '80s from their 1987 debut album and especially the hit single "Heart and Soul". You’ll find out more about how they got started, created their signature hit and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Carol Decker…

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician and performer? How did you get your start in the music industry? Please discuss your personal musical influences and who molded and inspired your voice and career when you were starting out.

Carol: My start in the music biz came late. I was mature student (22) at Shrewsbury School of Art & I started mixing with creative types and got encouraged by a fellow student who heard me singing along to the radio (I had always been able to sing well but had not considered it a possible career) to meet a guitarist mate of hers at a party. This was Julian Ward who had a band but no singer, so I auditioned and we formed the Lazers, my first band. When I met Ronnie Rogers who had joined the Lazers on rhythm guitar, we started living together and writing constantly. Finally after six years, we got a deal. My early influences were very much from my father’s record collection, Dusty Springfield, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, plus opera, which gave me a sense of the melodramatic. Then I loved Blondie, early Michael Jackson, the Pretenders and quite a lot of disco. Very eclectic.

Q: What is the story of how T’Pau formed in 1986? What were your goals/intentions at that time?

Carol: As I mentioned above, meeting Ronnie Rogers in 1981, we got management, a deal with Siren/Virgin and put the band together from two local guys Mick Chetwood on keys and Paul Jackson on bass. Then we added Tim Burgess on drums and Taj Wyzgowski on guitar in London. My goal was world domination!

Q: Was the band name “T’Pau” really taken from the character in the Star Trek films? If so, why did you all decide to name your band after a Star Trek character?

Carol: We couldn’t agree on a name. We had the album in the can and a release date but no name, so I was watching TV and Star Trek was on. I liked this sound tpau, tpau, tpau plus she was a cool Vulcan bird. The boys liked it too, so that was that.

In June of 1987, T’Pau released their first single “Heart and Soul” which became a hit in the U.S. reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was certainly one of my favorite songs from that year and it was certainly different than anything else in pop music at the time. The overlapping lyrics of the rap, a powerful chorus and a softer melody along with a killer bass groove give the song layers and a truly unique sound. The single was included on the band’s multi-platinum debut album titled Bridge of Spies in the UK but renamed simply T’Pau in the U.S. Here is the original video for “Heart and Soul” by T’Pau…

Q: Your debut single, “Heart and Soul” was a huge success. You are credited with writing the song along with Ronnie Rogers. Please take us back to when you conceived and wrote that great song and tell us all that you remember. Is there any back story to its creation? What inspired it? How and when did you come up with the unique idea to record the overlapping lyrics like you did?

Carol: Ron had just bought a new keyboard with a built in sequencer, so he was just trying to get used to the gizmos in it and while messing around with the sequencer he started the “bum bum buh buh bum bum bum” of the bass riff. I started to sing a melody over it, the wafty vocal and came up with “more than an ocean keeps us apart”. The lyrics were about when I went on holiday with my parents and Ronnie couldn’t come. I missed him so much, but then I morphed the story into a fictitious one of not being loved back (which I was). The rap was the idea of Andy Piercy, our then producer. He said the gaps needed filling, so I started these syncopated sort of nonsense noises. I then turned those noises into words which took about a week to get right.

Q: When you recorded “Heart and Soul” did you have a feeling it was going to be something special? Could you have ever anticipated the incredible reaction this song would have? How did the song end up being used in a Pepe Jeans commercial and what impact do you feel that this exposure had on the popularity and success of the single?

Carol: Yes, I loved it! It was so different. But you know, it was released in the UK and stalled at number 98! We thought we were over before we began, but thankfully Pepe Jeans used it for a cool cinema ad campaign. I don’t know how Pepe got wind of it. America loved it, so we got a second chance and it was re-released [and ended up reaching #4 on the UK chart as well].

Q: What do you feel makes this song so special and loved by so many?

Carol: It’s unique still and has a killer chorus plus a universal message. We all want to be loved, don’t we?

Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings regarding “Heart and Soul” today over 20 years later?
Carol: I love “Heart and Soul” but get bored with “China in Your Hand” which was at #1 here in the UK for five weeks as well as other places around the world. My career has distilled down to that one song which can be frustrating sometimes.

Q: Speaking of “China in Your Hand”, it was a #1 in the UK but the single did not chart or receive radio airplay at all in the U.S. Did this surprise or frustrate you at the time? How do you explain how certain songs enjoy success in both the UK and U.S. markets, yet others can be hits in one without almost any attention in the other?

Carol: Yes, it was very disappointing. As it was told to us back then, with the U.S. radio format they didn’t like eclectic diverse songs. We were asked, “What are you? A white rap act? A rock band? A ballad band?” Whereas, here at home, they loved the different flavors of 'Bridge of Spies', our first album.

Q: Please discuss the circumstances surrounding the breakup of T’Pau in 1991. Then what made the time right to bring T’Pau back in 1998? What were your goals/intentions this time around?

Carol: It was over professionally, sales were down, we got dropped, Ron & I had fallen out with the band over money, crap management, the usual stuff. It’s an intense experience and hard to hold on to plus we took two years to come back with 'The Promise', our third album, which only went gold. 'Bridge of Spies' went quadruple platinum and 'Rage' the second album, had gone platinum. The world had changed. They wanted The Stone Roses and rave. We didn’t fit in. I decided in 1998, after meeting a new manger, to start work again after years of no confidence. We toured 'Red', my fourth album, and put it out on my label Gnatfish. I would’ve loved to have gotten the same level of success again but it didn’t happen although I did sell a lot of albums on the road. I was no longer bankrolled, so I couldn’t get the PR and TV coverage which you so need.

Q: I know you have more recently participated in several of the specialized '80s tours. What has your experience been touring with those other great bands who had such great success in the '80s?

Carol: It has been great fun. I am good pals with a lot of them and we have a real laugh. It has suited me well as I have two kids now, 12 and 8. When I started in 2001 with these concerts, Scarlett was 3 and then Dylan came along a year later. So it wasn’t too much of a strain on our young family plus I got to get back on those big arena stages and I quite liked the lack of pressure by just being part of a show instead of responsible for being the headline act. I am now however getting bored of being just wheeled out for 20 minutes and wheeled back in again. It’s frustrating as I am worth more than that as a singer, but it pays well so it’s hard to turn down and I have a family to look after.

Q: After 25 years in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?

Carol: That’s a big one. I haven’t been in the eye of the biz for a while. I have had to go cottage industry a long time ago and it seems to me you have to sort yourself out. I really wouldn’t know how to advise young emerging artists now. We just wrote and gigged and knocked on doors until someone listened. Then your label supported you (for a while!) There is no money now. Labels are crashing. I am confused about the future. I’m stumbling through it taking what work I can when the phone rings.

Q: Is there new music in the works from T’Pau? What inspires you to continue writing new music after all these years? Where do you feel that T’Pau fits in to the contemporary musical landscape?

Carol: Yes, I have ideas. I need to broaden my views a bit or it’s all just moon, June, spoon. I can be lazy, but I also feel that I have good strength as a singer and maybe some cool covers would be an idea. Now that my kids are older, I have more time so I MUST get my finger out of my arse and get working. I do find it very hard to sit and write though, afraid of failing. Then I hear some crap on the radio and think, “God, I can do better than that!”

Q: What else is Carol Decker up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Carol: Lots of regrets, as far as my career goes. A crippling lack of confidence has stopped me from battling my way back and, now at 53, it’s too late. But personally, I am very lucky. I have a wonderful family, my husband is gorgeous and a true rock in my life. Our kids are beautiful and family life is very busy. And there is my job as a chauffeur now of course! I’d love one more hit record before I fall apart, if I’m honest, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m probably a psychiatrist’s dream with my need for the applause, but I do feel that it was taken away from me as opposed to my leaving on my own terms, so it is always unfinished business.

I am so delighted that Carol took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. To find out lots more and keep up with everything she has going on, please be sure to visit the official T’Pau Central website. You can also follow her on Twitter as @CarolDecker. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Carol Decker especially for “Heart and Soul” and her T’Pau music and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us for a little while here as well.

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