Rachel McFarlane Interview
by Steve Crabtree – @stevecrab
It’s not long until the Orchestra of Opera North gives Leeds another dose of The Symphonic Sounds of Back To Basics, and Rachel McFarlane will be returning to the stage after a formidable performance last year.
The voice of dancefloor anthems like ‘Lover’ and ‘Let The Music Lift You Up‘, I was lucky enough to speak to her ahead of the concert. And the ever cheerful Mancunian chatted to me about house, gospel… and I found out that house music might not be as heavenly for her as you probably think it is…
You’re known as one of the most powerful voices from the House Music era, but didn’t you start out as a gospel singer?
Yeah, I started out in the church. My parents were ministers, they’re still minsters so gospel music is a big part of my life, even now. I’ve always looked to it for inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Gospel was my introduction to music though. We weren’t even allowed to listen to secular music! That’s the devil’s music! So my first introduction was to Afro-American gospel. Choirs and such. And my first icon was Vanessa Bell Armstrong and singers like her. They really inspired me with the drama in their voices, and the range that they had. And I tried to emulate them really. And it’s funny, because coming to Leeds in a couple of weeks, the church that I grew up in had satellite churches all over. We used to come to Leeds a lot and sing, and at last year’s Back To Basics event there was a guy called Cleveland Freckleton who sang on stage with the choir. I was in the same choir as him when we were 12 or 13, so it was great to bump in to him and be on the stage with him in Millennium Square. Small world!
So how did the journey from gospel to dance music happen?
It felt like a difficult one, I won’t lie! I felt conflicted for years because there was the family in church on one side, and there was the dance community on the other side. But I look back and I feel so lucky because my gospel voice married so well with the house music scene. And so I was still able to be myself in a sense, but in the early days it was very, very difficult. It was my brother who introduced me to a producer in Manchester because they were having an argument and saying there were no singers in Manchester! So my brother said: “Well my sister can sing!” so I was brought in and I recorded a song for Family Foundation. And then after that word got round about me, people started talking about me and people were asking me to come and record with them. And again, I’m really lucky because people I know there are so many people who go out their to try and earn these opportunities, to fight and struggle and I really didn’t do that. It all came to me.
You’re from Manchester, and the club scene there – especially around that time – was pretty special. What do you remember most about it?
Well it was new to me, coming out of church. I didn’t realise that people, especially young people were meeting every single week! And I used to think people were really nice, they’d come up to me and hug me and say “I love you!”. I remember The Hacienda, The Boardwalk… I remember them all not as a clubber, I used to go along if I was singing. It was the community in clubs that I used to love – people dancing the night away all night long. They used to love the music.
And then you made the charts with Loveland in 1994 with ‘(Keep On) Shining’. What did that mean to you?
Well, I will say that it was a great opportunity. I did enjoy the ride at the time, it was good and it made me a house music name. That wasn’t what I set out to do though. I could do so much more and I was signed to a record label at the time but my own deal didn’t come to fruition, so it was frustrating for me in the long run. But you know, twenty-something years later I’m still singing these songs and the thing is that although most of the Loveland songs are covers, these are Rachel’s versions. It’s my spin on that 80s song, and I’m injecting myself and my musical taste in to it. For instance the intro to ‘I Need Somebody’ – well that was like church to me. And it’s still standing! So when people hear that song, they’re expecting my intro, and I love that.
Are you still recording and performing? What’s the Rachel McFarlane of 2019 up to?
Well in the first half of this year I had surgery on my eye so I’ve been taking care of that, but I’m also recording a gospel album that’s been on the back burner for years. It’s time to get it out there and celebrate my roots. I’m putting a lot of energy in to my website and social media for that and getting used to the new musical landscape! And for the next six months I’ll be writing new music for myself and for other artists. I’ve set up a music production company so I’m just going to be writing songs. I’ve got an opportunity to do the thing I love again and I want to grab it with both hands.
We’ve got the Symphonic Sounds of Back 2 Basics event in Millennium Square coming up at the end of July. You were there last year, so how was it for you guys on stage?
Well usually it’s me and a backing track onstage. But to have an orchestra and the phenomenal backing vocalists, a sound engineer and lighting – it’s a totally different thing. A totally different atmosphere and it moves away from the usual melody. And improvisation is in me so you go with the flow of what’s happening on the night, and last year was phenomenal. I loved it. They had great names too. I’d never met Robyn S before. I’d never met all these people I’d seen on vinyl and seemed so untouchable back in the day. I mean, they were American and were guarded by promoters, managers… you name it. So you couldn’t get close to them. But now you’re sitting down beside them, and you’ve got their email addresses and you can speak to them! So it was amazing. When it comes to things like this, I’m no different from a normal fan or person. I’m Mancunian, so I can’t be anything else! To be in their company was so good.
So I guess you’re glad you’ll be back for this one?
Yes, I’m really pleased, and what I love about it is that they always bring the original artists back to Leeds. People want the real deal, so it’s great to be a part of that! There’s Heather Small and Rowetta – another Manchester girl – and the crowd are great there too. When they want you, and you hear that hunger from the crowd that places a demand on me. That really triggers me, and propels me to do more on stage. So, what i’m trying to say is if it’s not great… it’s all your fault!
Rachel McFarlane will be pleasing the crowds at the The Syphonic Sounds of Back To Basics, part of Leeds City Council’s summer programme in Millennium Square. It comes to Leeds on 27th July with music revamped and arranged by Opera North’s 60-piece orchestra and vocals from the original artists.