English singer-songwriter Leo Sayer is one of those legendary names whose music has had a huge impact, but perhaps sits just short of a household name. We’re not being obtuse: Sayer himself admits his music’s cultural impact hasn’t put his name in lights in quite the way you might expect, and that musical backdrop – Sayer’s plethora of hits include the likes of ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ and ‘Thunder In My Heart’ – is substantial.
Now in his mid 70s, he still writes as a matter of course, most recently producing what would normally be seen as a musical faux pas, an album of reimagined Beatles tracks called ‘Northern Songs’. It works for him.
“In a way, a lot of it has been survival”, Sayer laughs. “I’d never have expected to last this long. There’s been peaks and troughs of bad management and going in and out of fashion. But if you really believe in what you’re doing and you’ve written some good songs, you’ll see those songs have a life of their own, and you end up supporting that life. You follow the pattern. Who would have thought legacy acts would last this long? The legacy dictates our life.”
“It can be frustrating,” he continues, looking back. “Artists go out of fashion, record companies drop you, and so on. I make my own records now and release them to the record company only when they’re finished, I don’t want them trying to dictate what I do. Often my songs are more popular than me, people often don’t know that it’s me that wrote stuff. But the songs have made my life.”
Sayer is also very ‘of the minute’ in some ways. “In 2005 I had a number one with a remix of ‘Thunder In My Heart’, he explains. “Armand Van Helden has done another mix of my work recently. The dance industry is great for rediscovering stuff. I signed off on it all, it went round all the DJs and on to radio and so on. Dance has this weird world of reinvention, it’s a generational thing, and that’s how it goes.”
“These things happen when you have a long career. I’m grateful for it happening but I have to say I don’t really understand the chopping up and remaking process. I’m playing with a dance mix of Orchard Road myself, and it does work, which you’d never think it would.”
As for that Beatles reworking process, that’s been a slow one. “I know Paul McCartney and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it, but I’m nervous about it,” Sayer says. “Ten years ago I was trying to find a way to work with it. It’s the same principle as my album ‘Selfie’, it’s just me and a computer, something I made totally on my own, using my own sense of musicality.”
“I came to the Beatles as a way of working the experiment. It started as four tracks and everyone told me I had to release them, so with nothing much to do during the pandemic, all this free time and my own studio meant I threw myself into it.”
“The record company ended up saying they’d release it against my wishes if I didn’t agree. A different take on the Beatles is a nice idea, I think. It’s bringing them up to date. The Beatles in their former glory are alive again through Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’, which still feels contemporary. It’s been fun, and for 50 years, it was nice to do something that wasn’t predicated on my songs, something out of the box.”