What you always wanted

Simon Hale chats to the Queen of Neasden Soul, Mari Wilson.


Mari Wilson, who found fame in the 80s singing the pop soul sounds of the 60s, has been as busy as ever on the music scene.

Fresh from performing on a UK-wide tour with Heaven 17 and the British Electric Foundation, and after playing at three Rewind festivals and releasing a new album – all in the past six months, the 62-year-old is now bringing her take on many of the classic songs to the Midlands.

Best known for her 1982 top-ten hit Just What I Always Wanted, Mari will be singing covers from the likes of Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Cilla Black at Pizza Express Live in Birmingham.

“I’m not out to impersonate singers but rather to bring a fresh look, with a slightly electronic sound, to the songs that have influenced me all my life,” explained Mari, who will be joined at the new pop-up venue by Richard Cottle on keyboards and James Nesbitt on guitar.

The iconic songs including The Look of Love, Don’t Sleep in the Subway and Anyone Who Had a Heart – as well as her version of the Jackie Trent-sung theme to her favourite childhood TV series White Horses – are all featured on Pop Deluxe, her new album that Mari has her fans to thank for.

“The album was funded on the crowdsourcing site Pledge Music. Whether you’re starting out or well established, it’s the route to take nowadays if you don’t have a record deal.

“It’s so difficult nowadays for young artists trying to break into the music industry. You have to play live and hope to sell CDs at the performance but the market is down and there is so much competition. If you’re not an instant success with a label, they drop you. When I started out, the label would let you develop without putting you under pressure, even if that meant two or three unsuccessful albums.”

Mari grew up surrounded by music and only ever wanted to be a lead singer: “I wanted to get into the music industry so badly that I combined office work with working as a backing vocalist. Eventually I got a call from a studio with a band that had a song but couldn’t find the right singer. I went and we gelled. That was how Mari Wilson and the Wilsations were born in the early 1980s.”

Mari and her band went on to make appearances on Top of the Pops in a trademark glitz and glam style that on one occasion included being surrounded by bales of pink candy floss. It led to Mari being crowned the Neasden Queen of Soul, after the district of London where she grew up, and Miss Beehive of 1982 for her skyscraping hairstyle.

After European and US tours, Mari decided to take a more creative path in 1986 by moving into jazz: “I learnt my trade in London wine bars before getting runs at Ronnie Scott’s and The South Bank. I played at Ronnie Scott’s both in London and at its Birmingham venue where I used to do two-week runs in the 1990s and stay at the Copthorne Hotel.

“Going into jazz is the reason I can still perform so well today because the emphasis is on the performer rather than the product – and you are there just for the hell of singing.”

After a career break when her daughter was young, Mari toured the UK playing Dusty Springfield in Dusty the Musical, and also appeared in productions of Sweet Charity and The Chainsaw Manicure.

“I enjoyed the theatre but sticking to the script and having to always make the correct moves on stage was a bit frustrating for a live wire like me. There’s nothing quite like performing in a concert venue and chatting to the audience about whatever comes into you head.

“It’s just a pity that the music industry isn’t as much fun as it used to be when the likes of Adam Ant and Boy George were huge stars. We definitely need more entertainers.”

Mari Wilson will be performing her Pop Deluxe show at Pizza Express, Brindleyplace, Birmingham on December 9th. Tickets, priced at £20, are available by clicking on www.pizzaexpresslive.com