In the 1980s she rose to fame singing pop-soul songs while sporting a skyscraping beehive. More than three decades later Mari Wilson is still going strong. She spoke to Bronwyn Bidwell about her career.
Mari Wilson’s fans can take the credit for her latest album coming together. Not only did they keep asking Mari to make it, they funded it as well through crowd sourcing site Pledge Music.
The result is Pop Deluxe a selection of Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Cilla Black covers which have been given an electronica makeover thanks to Alastair Gavin (the keyboard player from Mari’s 1980s band the Wilsations).
“A lot of artists use Pledge Music these days,” Mari said. “Not just people starting out but established names that just don’t have record deals, as they are quite hard to come by. “I feel for young artists these days. There is very little artist development, if they don’t have a hit they are dropped. When I started an artist could have two or three albums without that kind of pressure.”
Mari has history with Dusty – back in 2000 she toured the UK playing the lead in Dusty the Musical. Ever since then fans have emailed and asked for Dusty songs.
“So eventually I decided to just do it,” she said. “But I didn’t want it to be some kind of tribute act, I wanted to put my own stamp on the music.”
But the Dusty phase is just one part of her varied career which started in Neasden, North London, where Mari grew up surrounded by music (and where she earnt the nickname Neasden Queen of Soul and later Nymphette of the Nail Varnish). When she left school she combined office jobs with working as a backing vocalist.
“But I always wanted to be the lead singer, I just kept working at it,” she said.
“Eventually I got a call from a studio saying there was a group with a song, but they had tried it with three different singers and it hadn’t really worked.”
She went along, the musical chemistry was right, and Mari Wilson and the Wilsations were born. It was the early 1980s and she made several appearances on Top of the Pops with a skyscraping beehive and her 12-piece band. The group were renowned for their camp staging – for one Top of the Pops performance she was surrounded by giant stacks of pink candy floss. She had six hit singles and spent her time mingling with New Romantic artists like Human League and Boy George.
Cry me a River – Mari Wilson on Top of the Pops
She said: “In those days there was a lot of humour. We loved to dress up and go to the Camden Palace on a Thursday night with people like the Thompson Twins, Culture Club and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
“My look just evolved. The hair just got bigger and bigger. I didn’t have a stylist, no one did. We all just developed our own style. If you look at a lot of female singers today with the exception of Lady Gaga they all look fairly similar.”
Mari and the band toured Europe in a sleeper bus. “The idea was that we could get straight on the bus after a gig and sleep, but of course no one did.
“Even though I wasn’t really looking after myself too much back then, I only lost my voice once. I went to a Harley Street clinic and the doctor gave me creosote sweets. They tasted liked somebody’s garden fence but they did the job.”
Mari and the band toured America but by 1985/86 she was keen to get out of her contract. “All we were doing were end of the pier gigs, I wanted more creativity,” she said. After 18 months of wrangling she was finally released.
Mari moved into jazz, learning her trade in Covent Garden wine bars. “Those jazz standards are hard to sing. But that is really how I became a singer. First of all jazz fans were quite cruel, watching with their arms folded thinking you’re a pop singer what can you do?”
She also took care of herself (as a type 1 diabetic she had to) and her voice.
“That means getting enough sleep, not drinking and not smoking,” she said.
After taking a career break when her daughter was young, she appeared on stage in the musicals Dusty, Sweet Charity, Taboo and the Chainsaw Manicure.
“So I kind of went full circle,” Mari said. “Dusty brought me back to my thing, which is soul/pop.”
Mari’s daughter is now following in her footsteps and is studying songwriting at university.
“I was daunted by the idea at first – it is so different these days, the competition is enormous. I mean did Springsteen study songwriting at university?”
So what advice does Mari have for newcomers to the industry? “Play live, even though I started in a different time it was playing live that taught me about performing. That’s the only way you are going to get any good. Practising at home is one thing, but it’s not the same as performing in front of an audience. Eventually all your hard work will pay off.”