Jaki Graham is back with a new album, although the Round and Around singer points out that she never went away. The West Midlands-based soul-pop star, the first British black female solo artist to have six consecutive Top 20 hits, has clocked up more than four decades in the music industry – without stopping.
“People don’t see you because you’re not on TV and they think you’ve retired,” says Graham, whose version of Could It Be I’m Falling In Love with David Grant reached No. 5 in the UK charts in 1985. “With this album launch I’m telling everybody ‘I’m still here, darling, and I hope you still feeling me’.”
She admits her first album since 2012 “has taken a while” – and not just because of her busy performance schedule. “I didn’t want to bring out something for the sake of keeping my name out there,” she says. “I wanted to bring out something that’s going to say something to people; I now have something to say.”
Described as “old school upgraded”, When A Woman Loves is released on 15 June. The album features all new material – with the exception of a cover of Bill Withers’ Use Me – each song having its own personal meaning for Graham.
One such track is The Song Inside Me, written by the American singer, friend and mentor, Michael McDonald, who Graham first met in 1986 when she joined him on stage in Birmingham to sing Patti LaBelle’s vocals in On My Own. For Graham, The Song Inside Me speaks of a time when her childhood sweetheart and now husband, Tony Ormsby, nearly died during heart surgery.
“Michael must have known what I was going through at the time with Tony being ill, trying to be strong because I still had to go out and do my shows while he was in the hospital,” she says. “I would get back in the early hours of the morning, go straight to the hospital and sit with him. It was a heavy time.”
Despite having something to say, Graham found that record companies did not want to listen to new material from an established artist and “just wanted a new reality TV star”.
“It was difficult to get a record company to take us seriously,” she says. “I was ready to hang up my hat and everybody said ‘no, people still want to hear from you’. It meant we had to do our own label but, with help, we’ve put this together ourselves.”
She is nervous about how the album will be received. “I am more nervous now than I was when I was younger,” she says. “I put it down to the expectations of the public – their expectations of what I can deliver.”
One such expectation is of her voice, which she acknowledges has changed over time. “As I’ve got older I’ve tried to be more sensible, although I was never one to overdo it by partying,” she says. “I tend to rest up as much as I can do after my shows, keep hydrated and not drink as much alcohol as I used to. I’m a lady of a certain age now and travelling takes it out of you. I try to stay sensible and eat well.”
In fact, Graham has always been grounded: even at the height of her fame in the Eighties, she was touring with her daughter Natalie in tow.
“People expect you to have nannies and housekeepers; we never did things like that,” she says. “If we had to go on the road, baby had to come with us. I needed for her to be around it all. I wanted her to see it because I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I was sharing this journey and making a memory for her as well as ourselves.”
She adds: “It kept us grounded; instead of partying, I did what I did and then I had to get back to do the lunchboxes for school.”
She admits needing to be pushed in her career. “Tony has been there from the beginning and he was the first one to push me,” she says of her one-time manager (Natalie has now taken over). “He’s the one who put me on this track: he was with me on day one when I didn’t have confidence in myself.”
Her fans give her “validation” but Graham doesn’t take them for granted. She says: “I don’t take it for granted that the people who come out to see me, know me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m introducing myself to you and I’m hoping that you’ll enjoy the songs and the voice. I’m trying to win people all the time, whether they know me or not.”
And, she adds, “As long as they still feeling me, I ain’t stopping for now.”